Summary: After returning from Macedonia, Mel and Janice are recruited by British Intelligence for a mission in wartime England
This is my first fanfic. I hope you enjoy it! Feedback gratefully received firstname.lastname@example.org
Ownership – I don't own Xena, Gabrielle, Mel, Janice or the other familiar names. They belong to RenPic and Universal. I receive no monetary gain - this story is just for fun
Sex – nothing very explicit, but I believe Xena and Gabrielle and their 20th century counterparts had romantic feelings for each other. If this offends you, look elsewhere!
Violence – yes, nothing more than you'd see in the show
Historical setting – the story is set in May/June 1940. Most of continental Europe has fallen to Nazi Germany. Churchill has recently taken over as British PM. The USA is yet to enter the war. In this timeline, the discovery of the Xena Scrolls took place early in 1940 and the chakram was removed intact from the Tomb of Ares.
Dr Janice Covington looked out on the deepening twilight outside her window. In the distance she could hear the sounds of student revelry from the bars of Georgetown. Starting early tonight, she smiled to herself before turning from the window to survey her living room.
The room, along with the rest of the small house which represented her inheritance from her father, and indeed her only asset, looked tired and in need of some serious TLC. Janice had stopped the maid some months ago on the grounds that she was rarely at home and in any case it was a luxury she couldn't really afford. Looking at the clutter and dust around her however, Janice found herself rueing that decision.
The students’ shouting had retreated and the silence in the house was becoming oppressive. Janice sighed and made her way to the sideboard, where a bottle of cheap Scotch stood on a battered pewter tray. She poured herself a large measure and flopped down on the overstuffed armchair. There was a packet of cheroots on the nearby table and Janice absently mindedly lit one before losing herself in her thoughts.
It had been six weeks since their return from Macedonia. After the bizarre events in the tomb, the journey home had been uneventful, if somewhat tedious. Alert to the risks of journeying with precious antiquities, especially in wartime, Janice had called in a few favours from old friends who she knew could assist in crossing borders with minimal difficulty, and she and Mel Pappas had ultimately travelled back to the States without incident via neutral Lisbon.
On arrival in the US, Mel had immediately hurried back to South Carolina, citing “family business” to attend to. She left the scrolls with Janice, promising to return to DC to work on the translation.
Privately, Janice doubted Mel’s resolve. The events in Macedonia had left the shy Southerner badly shaken, and Janice suspected that once back in the bosom of her wealthy family, Mel would revert to her old life of safe and genteel tedium.
The thought of never seeing Mel again had left Janice feeling unaccountably bereft. The strength of the feeling of loss had disturbed her. The two women had, after all, only known each other for a very short time and they had little in common beyond a shared inexplicable experience and some daddy issues. Nonetheless the feeling was real and Janice was at a loss as to how to explain it.
Mel had been true to her word however and two weeks ago she had shown up at Georgetown brimming with enthusiasm about the translation project. Since then, however, she had spent most of her time ensconced in the libraries with the University’s Assistant Professor of Ancient Languages, James Livingstone. With the exception of a couple of rushed lunches, Janice had barely seen her companion.
Although she would never admit it, Janice had felt a crushing disappointment at this apparent rejection. This disappointment was mixed with a stranger feeling, one of jealousy at the amount of time Mel was spending with the handsome Livingstone. For a moment Janice entertained a wild fantasy of storming into Livingstone’s study and demanding she join the translation sessions.
Janice sighed again and drained her whisky. She was being irrational, she knew it. Mel’s knowledge of ancient scripts far surpassed hers and her trying to muscle in on the translations would add little value. It also risked pissing off Livingstone and his fellow dons and the reality was that, even if she sensed she was often looked down on, the Classics and Ancient History Faculty had been good to her over the years; providing her with study space and access to libraries, hiring her to give the occasional series of lectures; putting her in touch with wealthy but dim students who were willing to pay for tutoring; the list went on. Without the University’s patronage Janice would have been unable to finance her relentless search for the scrolls; well, at least not without a little smuggling of and trading in antiquities, something she had largely steered away from since she obtained her doctorate.
Pull yourself together, Covington, she told herself before heading back to the sideboard to refresh her drink.
Melinda Pappas’s shoes clicked surprisingly loudly as she walked briskly down the side street leading away from the campus. She walked more purposefully than she felt but she knew if she dwelled on these feelings her resolve was likely to falter and she would end up back at the small but cosy room the Faculty had arranged for her.
Mel had done her best to hide her disappointment at the offer of accommodation. Not that she hadn't appreciated the kindness, but she had harboured a secret hope that she might stay with Janice in her house just off campus. No such suggestion had been forthcoming, however, and so she smiled sweetly and accepted the key to her new lodgings. No doubt she would have plenty of time to see Janice in the coming weeks.
But the long hours spent poring over the scrolls had taken their toll, and Assistant Professor Livingstone had wasted no time in arranging evening events, dinners and meet the Faculty drinks parties in the evenings. To Mel’s disappointment, Janice never seemed to be invited to any of these events and she got the distinct impression that the unconventional Dr Covington was seen as something of an embarrassment. A wild card who was worth keeping on retainer on the off chance that she found something significant during one of her madcap expeditions, but not someone you'd invite for canapés in the Dean’s apartments.
Mel felt a surge of anger at the thought of Janice being dismissed in this way by a bunch of pompous old men. How dare they, she muttered to herself. The young archeologist had already achieved more than these dinosaurs had managed in entire careers. So what if she was a bit rough around the edges and didn't always dress the way that was expected of her? She had more passion for her subject than a whole faculty full of stuffed shirts. And a whole lot more charisma too, Mel reminded herself with a smile.
Indeed, it was thoughts of Janice that sustained Mel throughout the seemingly interminable month in South Carolina. It seemed that her adventure in Europe had scandalised the family and her mother made it very clear that no future excursions of this nature would be tolerated. It was, instead, time for her to settle down, ideally with Clarence Abnett, scion of a local farming dynasty. Clarence had recently graduated business school and was ready to take himself a wife. “You're not getting any younger, Melinda!” had been her mother’s mantra for the entire visit.
Mel had allowed herself to attend three events at which Clarence was in attendance. At each she had felt more and more repulsed until matters came to a head with an incident at a party thrown by her mother. An inebriated Clarence had become increasingly boorish and unpleasant, finally losing his temper completely, swearing at a server and throwing a glass at her. Mel realised at that point she had had enough. She slapped his face in front of an appalled yet fascinated audience before retreating to her room and packing a small valise.
She took the train to Washington early next morning. She didn't even wait to hear her mother’s objections and threats to cut her out of the family inheritance. Mel Pappas senior had left his daughter a small bequest; not a fortune by any means but enough to keep her comfortable until she secured a suitable academic position. Georgetown had already offered her work translating the scrolls and Mel was confident that the significance of the find would soon be widely recognised, and the offers would come flooding in.
Plus, she said to herself as she settled into her seat for the long journey, I did promise Janice didn't I? It was a shame that the urgency of her departure had not left her time to write in advance.
Janice had just settled down with her second Scotch when she became aware of a noise outside the house. Footsteps. Coming closer. There's someone on the property.
Carefully, Janice set down her glass and reached across the table for her revolver. She always kept it close to hand. She'd been in enough hairy situations to know that it truly was Samuel Colt, and not God, who made men and women equal.
Who could it be? Janice never had visitors, especially at night. Since the events in the tomb she’d felt increasingly on edge, and on a couple of occasions she had sensed someone following her. She glanced over at a canvas bag in the corner. Could someone have found out about the circular weapon, the salvage of which she had missed out of her official report?
Then again, there was that gambling debt from 1938 that she'd never quite paid off. Perhaps Gino really had made good on his threats to send the heavies after her. Janice snorted. “Always thought you were a phoney, Gino. Guess I'm about to find out, huh?” Grasping the gun tightly in her right hand, she crept towards the front door only to see to her horror that the handle was already turning. “Musta forgot to lock it” she muttered to herself in disgust.
Nothing else for it now. As the door opened Janice leapt in front of the opening and pointed her revolver at it, yelling “Get your goddamn hands in the air!” in her best scary voice…
…only to be confronted by a wide-eyed Mel Pappas, dutifully raising her hands in abject terror.
Janice was almost as shocked as her visitor. She lowered her revolver and sighed. “Don't teach ya to knock south of the Mason Dixon, huh, Scarlett O’Hara?”
It came out harsher than she'd intended, and Janice immediately regretted her words when she saw the tears welling up in Mel’s eyes. “Ah, look, I'm sorry. You just gave me a fright that's all. There's been so much weird stuff happening lately and, well, I don't get too many visitors. Why don't you come in?”
Mel nodded and made her way into the tiny parlour. She looked around as she did so, taking in the floor to ceiling shelves stuffed with old books and obscure periodicals, the map of Europe and Asia covered with pins, and the canvas bag she suspected contained the mysterious weapon.
“Siddown, siddown” Janice muttered, sweeping a bunch of papers off an armchair that had seen better days.
Mel perched on the edge of the cushions. “I am so sorry Janice. I rang the bell but there was no answer. I could see a light on and thought you must be home. I just thought-“
Janice cut her off with a wave of her hand. “Nah, don't apologise sweetheart. That damn bell. Yet another thing I need to get fixed.” She ran her hands through her hair. “Can I get you a drink, Mel?”
“Why thank you! May I have an iced tea?” Mel tried not to stare at Janice, who was dressed in a man’s button down shirt which reached almost to her knees and not much else.
Janice snorted with laughter. “This look like an iced tea kinda place, darlin’? I got some Scotch here. Or I could get ya a coffee I guess…” her voice trailed off. The room suddenly seemed gloomy, and she felt ashamed of the shabbiness around her. She made a decision. “You had dinner yet Mel?”
Mel shook her head. Janice nodded. “Me neither. There's a great little place round the corner. How about I get dressed and you and me can have a proper catch up, huh?”
Mel’s eyes shone. Things were definitely looking up.
Janice pushed open the door to the small pub. She was interrupted by a large man who emerged from behind the bar and threw his arms around her dramatically.
“Ah, Miss Covington, how wonderful to see you! And who is this vision of loveliness you bring with you?” The large man was surprisingly graceful as he slipped behind Janice to take Mel’s hand and kiss it gently. Mel giggled girlishly.
“It’s Dr Covington, Tony and she's with me so get your paws off her.” Janice spoke roughly, but there was affection in her tone. “We’re just here for a quiet drink and a bite to eat, get it?”
Tony smirked and retreated behind the bar. “Sure thing, Doc. Just let me know when you're ready to order, yeah?”
“Well, we’ll have a couple of beers to start with,” Janice called out as she slid into a wood panelled booth on the far side of the pub. “Make ‘em large ones”.
She looked at Mel, who was gazing thoughtfully across the bar. “Places like this always have the best food, yeah?” No answer. “Dime for your thoughts, Melinda?”
Mel shook herself. “Um, sorry. I was miles away.” Hmm, she thought to herself, miles away thinking how nice it was to hear Janice say I was with her. I know she didn't mean it like that, but still…
“So, whaddya wanna eat Mel? There's not a great deal of choice if I'm honest. The burgers are good.”
Mel squinted at the board next to the bar, unable to make it out in the poor light. “Burgers sound wonderful,” she smiled at her companion.
“Great.” At that moment the beers arrived and Janice took the opportunity to order two burgers with the works. She took a sip from her beer then touched her glass to Mel’s. “To adventure and discovery,” she said, unsure where that came from.
It sounded stupid even as she said it and Janice winced in embarrassment – but to her surprise Mel smiled and repeated the toast. Ah well, Janice thought to herself, perhaps I haven't put her off future expeditions after all. She took a long pull from her beer and adopted her serious face to look at Mel. “So, Mel Pappas, what brought you to my door this fine evening?”
Mel sipped her beer before answering. “Well, I thought… um… well, it would just be nice for us to catch up, you know? Also,” she added hastily, “I could update you on our progress in translating the scrolls.”
Janice nodded. “Yeah, they've been kinda keeping me in the dark about the whole thing. Although, one of Livingstone’s flunkies did tell me they're pretty convinced the scrolls are authentic.”
Mel indicated her assent. “That’s right. The parchment is consistent with what we know was used in the Eastern Mediterranean area from the 2nd century BC onwards. The script itself is a dialect of Ancient Greek that would have been spoken in the Thrace and Chalcidice areas during the late classical period. We don't know any contemporary scholars who would know enough to be able to pull off a hoax like this… Well, maybe my daddy, Lord rest his soul, but even then…”
Janice whistled through her teeth and took another swig from her beer. “So, it's the real deal huh?”
“Looks like it.”
“Huh.” Janice sat back. If only Harry had lived to see his theories vindicated. She shook her head. “So, whadda we know so far?”
Mel folded her hands and considered how best to answer that question. “There are 11 scrolls. The author is named as Gabrielle of Poteidaia. They chronicle her travels with a female warrior called Xena over an 18 month period, probably during the 2nd or 1st centuries BC. Gabrielle clearly had considerable literary talent but her use of local dialect, rather than Classical Greek, and an idiosyncratic style indicates that she had little or no formal training.” Mel paused to clear her throat and take a drink from her beer glass. “As well chronicling specific battles and political intrigues she and Xena were involved in, Gabrielle describes the day to day lives of the people of the region; economic activity, religious belief, cultural life etc.”
At that moment Tony arrived with the burgers. Janice nodded her acknowledgement and gestured for another round of drinks. She took a bite of her dinner and smiled at Mel. “Go on.”
Mel eyed the greasy behemoth on the plate in front of her. She took her knife and fork and began cutting it into manageable bites. “Gabrielle also discusses her own development under Xena’s tutelage. She never boasts about this and in fact she's often quite self-deprecating. Nevertheless it's clear that by the end of the period covered by the scrolls, Gabrielle had become a warrior in her own right – albeit one who fought with a staff so as to incapacitate, rather than kill. It's fascinating, really.”
Janice took a gulp of her second beer, obscurely pleased that this woman who might be her ancestor had actually been something more than an irritating tagalong. “Anything else?”
Mel looked down at her plate in embarrassment. She felt her cheeks reddening. “Well, Janice, you have to understand that we’re still working on the translation. There's a long way to go. Some of the words are unfamiliar…”
“In a few of the scrolls Gabrielle discusses her growing attraction towards Xena. This attraction – seemed to have been mutual. It looks as though… Ah…” Mel took another drink to steady herself. “Well, it looks as though they may have become lovers. Oh I'm so sorry Janice! I know how long you've admired Xena and then we learn that she was, oh…”
Janice burst out laughing. “So she liked girls as well as boys? So what?” She looked across the table at Mel’s shocked face. “C’mon, Mel, you know how it was in Ancient Greece! The Spartans, Sappho, Lesbos… Those guys and gals weren't as uptight as we are these days!”
Mel considered this. Janice was of course correct about the sexual proclivities of the Ancient Greeks. Maybe she was just being uptight. She looked down at the remains of her burger. She had to admit there was something refreshing about Janice’s “anything goes” attitude. “Anyway,” she continued, “As I said the scrolls cover only a relatively short period. The work you've done on this in the past – well the work you and your daddy did – do you have any idea how long Xena’s career might have been?”
Hmm. Tricky question. Janice sighed. “It's kinda hard to say. There are references in sources around the world to a Greek warrior woman with preternatural strength and skill. Some of the sources mention a blonde female companion…” Janice’s voice tailed off. Now she thought about it, she remembered that some of those sources described the blonde’s prowess on the battlefield as being equal to that of her dark companion. How had she missed this? Huh. She turned her attention back to Mel. “Thing is, a lot of the references haven't been authenticated and the whole thing is controversial. My father was always on about them and people thought he was nuts. If they are genuine, though, then it looks as though Xena was active for a couple of decades at least – some of that time with Gabrielle, some of it not. It also looks as though they travelled extensively – to Northern Europe and even to Asia.”
Mel absorbed this. “So, there's more scrolls to be found then?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“When do we start?”
A third round of beers and both women were feeling pleasantly mellow. Janice was thrilled that Mel was as keen as she was to continue their quest for the scrolls – although, Janice cautioned, this might have to wait while Europe was convulsed by war. The discussion had moved on from their supposed ancestors to the present day.
“So if Europe’s not an option at the moment, what will you do next?”
Janice fished a pack of cheroots out of her jacket pocket, selected one and lit it. She took a deep draw before answering. “I'm not sure. I've been offered a gig south of the border, excavating some Aztec ruins. I dunno. Might be okay.”
“You'd rather be looking for the scrolls, though?”
“I would, but I just don't think that's an option at the moment.”
They lapsed into companionable silence. Janice pondered to herself how much was was enjoying the evening. Mel was surprisingly easy to talk to. It was, she mused, very different to the long drinking sessions and poker games she was used to. She'd like to spend more time with the Southerner, but she was going crazy hanging around on the fringes of academe, looked down upon by the old fools at the Faculty. She had to get out in the field. Would Mel come with her?
“How old are you, Janice?” Mel said unexpectedly. “Oh, forgive me, that was so rude-“
“Don't be silly, Mel. I don't mind you asking at all. I'm 26. Why do you ask?”
“Don't you ever worry about, you know…” Mel’s face was screwed up with anxiety. “Being left on the shelf?”
“What? Oh God, no. Do I look like the marrying type to you?”
Mel gazed at her, unsure what to say next.
“What's this about, Mel?”
A tear leaked out of Mel’s left eye. “My momma… She told me I was gonna be left on the shelf… An old maid…”
“Goddamnit woman, what are you talking about? You're a goddess! You could have any man you wanted. How old are you anyway?”
Mel sniffed. “I'm 24 Janice! My two younger sisters are already married and I-“
“Jeez Mel, would you listen to yourself? I thought you wanted to have adventures and a career of your own? There's plenty of time for settling down. Now, come on. I think we should get you home.”
As they stepped out of the bar Janice glanced at her watch. Hmm, it was later than she thought. She looked at Mel, who was clearly a little tipsy. “Hey Mel. I don't think you should be walking home alone at this time of night. Why don't you stay over at mine? I've got a spare room that never gets used…”
Mel readily agreed and the two women turned towards the Covington residence, Janice gently steering her friend in the right direction. “How are the digs on campus anyway?”
“I… well… it’s very kind of the Faculty to arrange for them for me, but um…”
“Lemme guess,” Janice turned the key, “They suck, huh? And Livingstone’s always hanging around?”
“Um, well. Yes.”
“Tell ya what. If your night here isn't too uncomfortable, why not just stay here with me? It's only a 10 minute walk to the campus but it gives you a break from all those academic asses. And I never stay here too long. Itchy feet, ya know. So you'd have the place to yourself.”
Mel nodded happily. “I think I'd like that.”
“Great. Well, you can start moving your stuff in tomorrow. I've giving a seminar at Jefferson Ladies’ College at 2. But I'm around after that if you need any help.”
“I didn't bring very much with me, I can probably manage. But thank you.”
Janice awoke to light streaming into her bedroom and just the faintest ghost of a hangover. “Gettin’ soft in your old age, Covington,” she mumbled to herself before heading to the tiny bathroom.
Suitably refreshed, she wandered down the steep and narrow staircase in search of coffee. There was a note on the kitchen bench.
I had an early meeting at the Faculty this morning and didn't want to wake you. Thank you so much for your kind hospitality last night. I can't wait to move into your spare room!
See you tonight
PS I forgot to say earlier, but Assistant Professor Livingstone is trying to arrange a meeting with both of us. He didn't say what it was about
Janice grunted. “Kind hospitality, huh? I guess that's one way to describe threatening a girl with a pistol. I guess Southerners really are that polite.” She put the coffee on and began searching for something for breakfast. “Hmm. All out of eggs, bread is stale…” she shook her head and checked the clock above the stove. Plenty of time to grab a late breakfast at her favourite diner and be at Jefferson in time for the seminar. Mind made up, she emptied the coffee pot into the sink and headed out the door.
The diner was more than half empty. Janice selected a table beside the window and unfolded her copy of the Washington Post. “Urgh.”
“Hey there Dr Janice! You say something?”
“Ah, hey there Marcia.” Janice sat back to allow the waitress to pour her coffee. “Nah, it's just the War. Nazi bastards running riot across Europe, seems like no one can withstand them… Hmm, well at least Churchill’s in charge in England now. I guess that's something.”
Marcia cocked her head. “What's that hon? I'm not following it, I've given up reading the newspapers. Never any good news. Anyway,” she brightened. “Can I get our favourite archeologist some breakfast?”
Janice nodded. “Bacon, sausage, eggs over easy. Toast on the side.”
“You got it hon.” Marcia returned her pencil to its resting place behind her left ear. “That's a real pretty outfit you got on, Doc.”
Janice looked down at her navy pencil skirt and lemon blouse combo. “Thanks Marcia. I'm teaching at Jefferson this afternoon. Gotta look the part. You know how those rich broads are. Conservative don't cut it! Don't wanna frighten the horses.”
Marcia snorted and sashayed over to the serving counter.
Janice surveyed the room. A gaggle of perfectly coiffed, smartly dressed, obviously well-heeled young women sat in front of her, all clutching notebooks and gazing expectantly. “So…” She began. “This week I'm covering for Mr Davis who is, unfortunately, indisposed.” Not for the first time, she added silently. Matthew Davis was a raving alcoholic who missed at least four weeks every semester, either on an epic bender or recovering from one. The college frequently called on Janice to cover, and in fairness they paid her handsomely for doing so. She had, however, been warned by the college dean to avoid “confusing the young ladies” with her iconoclastic theories. Well fair enough. Stick to the syllabus, Covington, Janice told herself.
“So, today we’re going to be discussing the significance of the Battle of Salamis,” Janice continued. “I trust everyone has had a chance to study chapter 8?”
75 minutes later and the seminar was winding down, when a door at the back of the room opened and Mel slipped in. To her surprise, Janice involuntarily broke into a wide smile, which she did her best to cover up by clearing her throat. “In conclusion, in considering Salamis, don’t ignore the contribution of Artemisia. Who was, after all,” here Janice allowed a mischievous grin to cross her face, “not the only female warrior from the classical period. Thank you ladies. Mr Davis will hopefully have recovered to take next week’s class.”
The students filed out and Mel hurried to the front of the classroom. “Oh Janice, I'm so sorry to bother you at work! But he said it couldn't wait and I didn't know what else to do.”
“No problem Mel, but what are you talking about? What's going on?”
Mel leaned forward and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, even though there was no one else in the room. “Livingstone! You know he wanted to meet us…”
“Ah Jeez, Mel, is that it? That pompous ass can wait! I'm not at his damn beck and call.”
If Mel was shocked by the blonde woman’s language she didn't show it. “I really think this is important, Janice,” she said quietly. “I don't know what it is… But I know it's important. I can feel it.”
Janice sighed and bit back another smart-aleck reply. “Ah, hell, I've got nothing else planned this afternoon. Let's walk over there together. I can help ya pack when the meeting’s over.”
Mel smiled and clasped her hands together in oblivious pleasure at such a potentially difficult task being accomplished with relatively little resistance. Janice picked up her papers and the two women walked out into the late Spring sunshine.
“Do you like teaching, Janice?” inquired Mel as they turned away from Jefferson towards the main university campus.
Janice considered this. “I like educating, sure. I like having the chance to discuss history and mythology with intelligent people. But I find it frustrating teaching those girls. Some of them have great minds. But most of them are just spending four years here, at great expense, in the hope of meeting an eligible bachelor from Georgetown or one of the other schools round here. They'll get married at 22 and become perfect little wives, never giving another thought to Salamis, or Thermopylae, or the impact of the classical world on the way we live today.” She sighed. “It pisses me off, if I'm honest.”
Mel shook her head. “Those girls reminded me of me.”
“Ah, come on now Mel! That's not what I meant!”
“No, I know. But if that's what you're brought up to expect, it's hard to break out of it. I was lucky, in a way. My daddy always wanted me to study ancient languages. After he passed, when I saw the correspondence between him and your daddy, and then heard you were in Macedonia… well it just seemed too good to be true really.”
“Well there ya go. Look how that turned out. A groundbreaking discovery. Can't see any of those dames doing that.”
The two women walked in silence for a few moments as the Faculty building loomed up ahead of them. “You must have been a real prodigy, Janice,” Mel said suddenly.
“Only 26 and you've been a doctor for at least 3 years.”
Ah. Yes. How to explain it? The crazy adolescence she'd experienced? Janice paused, collecting her thoughts. “You gotta understand, Mel, I've been living and breathing this stuff day in day out since I was 12 years old. After Mom left” – urgh, why did it still feel so hard to say that? – “After Mom left, it was just me and my Dad. He couldn't stay at home for long. He dragged me around Europe, from dig to dig. I didn't have much option but to take an interest. So, yeah, I finished my undergrad degree a couple of years early, then the PhD kinda followed straight after. Pretty much all of it via correspondence course. My doctoral thesis was a bit of a gamble though. I thought they might think it was too out there even for Harry Covington’s daughter. Luckily, my supervisor was supportive.”
“Amazons of the Steppes: Lost Tribes of the Ancient World,” said Mel unexpectedly. She smiled shyly at Janice’s shocked face. “I called up a copy from the University library in SC. I thought it was fascinating.”
Well, well, well. Janice whistled to herself. There was clearly a lot of surprises when it came to Mel Pappas Jr.
“Come in, ladies.” A harassed-looking Assistant Professor Livingstone opened the door of his study and ushered his guests inside. “I am sorry for the short notice, but this really couldn't wait.” He gestured towards a chair by the side of the large oak desk, where sat a grim-faced man who appeared to be in his mid-50s. “This is Edward Bolton. He's an – associate of mine… based at the British embassy. Edward – this is Dr Janice Covington – archeologist of note - and this is Miss Melinda Pappas, who is working with me on a translation project.”
Bolton nodded at the two women. “Dr Covington. Miss Pappas.”
Mel and Janice exchanged looks. “It's lovely to meet you Mr Bolton,” said Mel in her most charming Southern drawl. “But what in the name of goodness might a busy diplomat want with a pair of classical scholars?”
"Not sure I appreciate being summoned, either,” grumbled Janice. “We’re not naughty kids being summoned to the headmaster’s office, ya know?”
Bolton took a deep breath. “I am sorry for the cloak and dagger nature of all of this. It's not how I normally like to do business.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “But there's a war on, and there's not always time to obey the usual social niceties.” Both Janice and Livingstone took a smoke from the proffered packet. Mel demurred politely.
There was a knock at the door and one of the Faculty secretaries entered with a tray of coffees and pastries. Livingstone nodded his thanks and the room remained silent for a few seconds before he cleared his throat. “Coffee, anyone?”
Bolton shook his head. “Do you have anything stronger, James? I think we're going to need it.”
Livingstone turned round in his chair and opened a cupboard behind the desk. A bottle of whiskey and four tumblers emerged. “You're right. Coffee isn't going to cut it today.” He began pouring measures very slowly and with exaggerated care.
“Fellas.” Janice said with some irritation. “Any chance of finding out what this is all about any time soon?”
“Alright,” said Bolton briskly. “Let’s put our cards on the table. I know that both of you ladies returned from an expedition to Macedonia some weeks ago.
“Whilst in Macedonia, you explored an ancient tomb and made what you believe to be a significant discovery. A cache of ancient writings of some description.”
Janice nodded. “The Xena scrolls, yes. Well, some of them anyway.”
Bolton leaned forward. “Whilst in the tomb, did you encounter anything… unusual? Any… strange experiences?”
Mel stiffened. How could he know? She'd read Janice’s expedition report. Professional, matter of fact, really quite dry if she was honest. It did, of course, leave out a number of significant events. In fact, there was no mention at all of Nazis with machine guns or reanimated Greek gods. Or, for that matter, possession by a long dead ancestor. On the journey back from Lisbon the two women had made a pact to keep the expedition weirdness to themselves. It would never be believed. The scrolls were a major discovery. They could change myth into history. History into myth. Bizarre tales of re-awakened ancient evils would turn their triumph into a joke and the two of them into a laughing stock.
Janice broke the silence. “You been talkin’ to that clown Kleinman? He's a fantasist. Crazy ideas about all sortsa things. You should read my report, Mr Bolton. It's all in there.”
Bolton fixed the blonde with a stare. “I have no idea who ‘Kleinman’ is, Dr Covington. And I have read your report.” He paused. “Your decision to seal the dig site struck me as… curious.”
“I explained all this in the report.” Janice was irritated again. “The site wasn't safe. There had been an earlier fatality. The tomb was booby trapped. It was my judgement that we had extracted everything of value from the site. It was a danger to the locals…”
“Dr Covington.” Bolton placed his hands on the desk. “I believe that you and Miss Pappas experienced something inexplicable in that tomb. You don’t want to tell me what it was, and that's fine. One question though. Did you by any chance come across a chap named Smythe?”
Janice nodded. “Yeah. One of your countrymen. Selling out to the Nazis. Pig.” She went to spit, then considered her surroundings and thought better of it.
“I thought he might have crossed your path. Our man in Skopje had been tracking him, but lost the trail near your digsite. In any event, he seems to have vanished.”
A silence descended on the room, broken eventually by Janice. “Good riddance, if you ask me.”
Bolton smiled for the first time. “I agree with you, Dr Covington. But my concern – and the concern of the British Government – is that this business won't end with Smythe.”
Mel spoke up. “I'm afraid I'm not following you, Mr Bolton.”
The British man lit another cigarette. “Strange folk, the Nazis. So proud of their technology and modernity on the one hand. Steeped in ancient superstitions on the other.” He leaned back in his chair. “There are various senior bods in the Nazi upper echelons who are obsessed with the occult and with ancient myths and legends. They scour the world looking for artifacts and supernatural beings that they believe might give them an edge in this war. Help bring about the 1000 year Reich.
“We’ve had intelligence that Nazi agents are at this very time searching for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. Berlin already has possession of an item they claim to be the Spear of Destiny. There have been attempts to locate long-lost shrines in China and Tibet.
“So, whatever Smythe was looking for at your excavation, it wasn't some dusty old scrolls. Now the site is sealed, I suppose whatever you found there won't cause us any difficulties. But there will be other sites. Other dangers.” Seemingly exhausted by his exposition, Bolton slumped back in his chair.
Mel spoke up again. “Pardon me, Mr Bolton, but do you truly believe that there are occult powers which could win the war for Germany?”
Bolton propped his head up with one hand. “Two years ago, I would have found the whole idea laughable. Now…” his voice trailed off. “I have seen things I still can't explain. And if there's even a chance that such powers could fall into the hands of our enemies, I think we have an obligation to stop such a thing happening.”
Janice gave an affirmative sounding grunt. “You got no argument from me, Mister. But I'm still not clear what you're asking of Mel n’ me.”
Bolton reached into a briefcase which neither woman had noticed, but which must have been by his feet the whole time.
"Late last year in England, there was a surprise discovery by a farmer ploughing one of his fields.” He took a paper from the briefcase and handed it to Janice. It was a photograph of an elaborate looking necklace. “Further investigation revealed more items. It appears that there was a small settlement there in the pre-Roman period. Whoever the inhabitants were, they appeared to be wealthy. You'll note, Dr Covington, that this necklace is not Celtic in style. Or Roman, for that matter.”
Janice had noted this. Her eyes narrowed. “Okay, Mr Bolton, I'm interested. Keep going.”
Bolton fished another document out of the case. “I think Miss Pappas might like to take a look at this one.” He handed to Mel.
Janice craned her neck to look at the paper. It was a photograph of a slate tablet, covered in writings of some sort in an unfamiliar alphabet. “What is that? Sanskrit?”
“Old Persian.” Mel had removed her glasses and was staring in fascination at the photograph. “What on Earth would this be doing in pre-Roman Britain?”
“Very good, Miss Pappas, and in answer to your question, we’re not sure ourselves. Can you translate any of it?”
Mel squinted at the picture. “Well… my Old Persian is a little rusty, and the reproduction here is a tiny bit fuzzy around the edges. But from what I can see…” Mel paused to collect her thoughts. “It's a description of a temple, or place of worship of some sort. Then a reference to a single deity. One god. A god who will sweep the other pantheons away and rule in their place?”
“One god?” asked Janice. “Hmm, early for monotheism in Britain, but could be some sort of Mithraic cult perhaps?”
“Decent theory Dr Covington, but we don't believe this to refer to Mithras-worship.” Bolton took a deep breath. “You ever hear of something called Dahak?”
Dahak. Huh. The name sounded oddly familiar but Janice couldn't place the reference. It felt troubling for some reason. She glanced at Mel who had an unreadable expression on her face. “I’m not sure if I have, Mr Bolton.”
“No. Well. Not surprising.” Bolton paused as if gathering his thoughts. “Dahak is, apparently, an evil entity of some description. An entity with immense power, but power that can only be exercised in our world if he is given some sort of mystical conduit to enter it. Well, at least that's what his followers believe,” Bolton hastily added.
“Near to where these finds were located, there are rumours of some sort of cult or secret society. A cult of Dahak. We believe that this group may be in contact with, or even have as members, enemy agents.
“Dr Covington, we would like you to travel to England to lead the dig team. And Miss Pappas, we hope you will accompany Dr Covington to assist with translating any further texts which may be found. Whilst there,” here Bolton grimaced and looked a little awkward, “We would like you to try to infiltrate the cult.”
For a moment no one said anything. Janice was vaguely aware her jaw had dropped. For once, she was lost for words.
“Great Britain is at war, ladies. Money is tight. However, should you accept this mission, I have agreement to offer you a generous payment. In addition, should you locate any items that are unrelated to the Dahak cult – coins, jewellery, weapons – feel free to dispose of them as you see fit.” Bolton looked meaningfully at Janice. “We’ll look the other way if you decide to fence the gear, Dr Covington.”
“Hey!” shouted Mel, unexpectedly. “That's no way to talk about Janice! How dare-“
Janice held up her hand. “You can't blame him Mel. My reputation – and that of my father – precedes me.” She stared at Bolton. “Ya know. I've done some shady things in my past. I won't deny it. But there's a lot more to the Covingtons than grave robbing. I'm not sure I like your insinuation, Mister.”
Bolton had the good grace to look faintly embarrassed. He reached into his briefcase a third time. “Very well, Dr Covington. Your motives are not wholly mercenary. I understand that now. But if the prospect of riches doesn't excite you, perhaps this will.”
Another piece of paper, this time a Latin text. “This is a transcription of a Roman commander’s journal, located a couple of years ago during the excavation of a ruined fort near the South Coast of England.”
Mel and Janice simultaneously translated the words in their heads.
The barbarians continue their attacks on our camp. They are relentless. It seems their resolve has been fortified by the arrival of a Greek warrior woman. As well as a fearsome fighter in her own right, the woman is a military tactician of great talent. I fear we are lost, but Caesar has told us to take heart. He has a plan. He has captured the Greek woman’s lover, a bard who travels with her and to whom she is devoted. Tomorrow he will have her crucified. He is confident that the warrior, maddened with grief, will cease to function as an effective commander and Britannia will be ours for the taking.
Mel looked at Janice in horror. “Oh no. Poor Gabrielle.”
Janice’s face betrayed no emotion. “Okay, Mr Bolton. I'm in.”
“We’re in,” corrected Mel. She looked across at Livingstone who had opened his mouth to protest. “Assistant Professor, the scrolls will still be there when I return. And I don't think this can wait.” She gave him a small smile. “I've taken copies anyway. I'll work on them while I'm in England. We can exchange letters and share our progress.”
Livingstone gave a resigned shrug and went back to his whiskey.
Bolton snapped his briefcase shut and stood. “Great Britain is in your debt, ladies. There's no time to lose. We leave two days from now. I must warn you, things are tough at home. We have rationing. Stock up on supplies over here. It's slim pickings back in Blighty.” He turned and grasped Janice’s hand then did the same to Mel. “An embassy car will collect you from Dr Covington’s residence at 11am Thursday and take you to the airfield.”
“Airfield?” Mel gasped. “We’re going by plane?”
“I'm afraid so ladies. We don't have time to take the scenic route. Be ready to leave Thursday morning.”
After a brief stop at Mel’s lodgings to collect her belongings, the two women found themselves back at Tony’s pub for another evening of burgers and beers. They hadn't spoken much since leaving Livingstone’s study, both desperately trying to process Bolton’s unexpected revelations.
“Wow,” Janice muttered finally, shortly after Tony had delivered the second round of beers. “That was… somethin’ else.”
“Well, you did say you were looking to get out on a dig again,” reasoned Mel. “And this sounds more interesting than that Aztec business.”
Janice had to agree. It sounded fascinating. “Not sure about the evil cult infiltration thing, though, Mel.” She leaned forward. “Look, are you sure about this? It could be dangerous.” Her face softened. “I worry about you, Mel.”
“And how much do you think I would worry about you? Out there in England on your own, a war on…” Mel was aware of how strange this sounded. On one level, she and Janice barely knew each other and yet they were speaking to each other like best friends, sisters… sweethearts. Hmm. Odd. “Anyway,” she said, brightly, “You need me, Janice! Who’s going to translate all those obscure ancient texts you dig up if I'm not with you?”
Janice relaxed. Okay, so Mel did really want to come with her. An extraordinary feeling of relief flooded through her. This was good. Having someone who genuinely cares for you is good. A strange feeling for Janice, but a welcome one.
"Um, Janice?” Mel’s voice broke through her thoughts. “Did you know Xena had been to Britannia?”
Janice shook her head. "Not really. One of my father’s pet theories was that Xena had helped repel the Roman invasion in 54BC. Based on some – dubious – sources, he believed there was some sort of bad blood between her and Julius Caesar.
“I never took the theory particularly seriously, to be honest. There was no real evidence for travel to Britannia, and my father did tend to shoehorn Xena into every significant historical event of the period. Guess he was onto something after all.”
Mel bit her lip. “And what about Gabrielle?”
Janice hesitated. “I don't know, Mel. The precise dates that she and Xena lived aren't clear, are they? But there's no mention of a trip to Britannia in the Macedonian scrolls. So… I suppose this could have been her last adventure.” It was a horrible thought. Janice pictured her ancestor, dying a hideous death in a foreign land. It was unbearable.
“Xena wouldn't have let her die,” said Mel decisively.
“Mel, you can't say that for certain. She had been captured by Caesar. There would have been centuries of Roman troops guarding her… Maybe a whole legion…”
“Doesn't matter.” Mel was adamant. “Xena would have found a way to save her.”
“You can't know that.”
“Trust me. I know.”
Mel was in the process of carrying out yet another “final” check of her luggage. She ran through her checklist once again. “Let me just…”
“C’mon Mel,” Janice called from the kitchen. “I reckon you've got everything now.”
“It doesn't hurt to be thorough,” huffed Mel.
Janice rolled her eyes. The banter between them was relaxed, easy. It felt like they'd known each other all their lives. Perhaps they had, in some other lifetime. Janice pondered that thought. She'd always been a sceptic when it came to the supernatural. But since Macedonia… well, she thought, a lot of things had changed.
In any event, she'd had a surprising amount of fun the previous day. Surprising, given how much she usually hated shopping. At her insistence Mel had purchased two pairs of pants made of sturdy yet soft cotton. “You're not gonna be much use on a dig in that mauve suit,” Janice had reasoned and Mel had acquiesced with surprisingly little fuss. As a quid pro quo, she'd demanded Janice buy a forest green dress, which she said complemented her eyes. Janice had been happy to comply. She'd liked the dress too, but in truth she would have bought any garment which pleased Mel to such an extent.
Some underwear, stockings and toiletries finished off the day’s shopping and the duo had decided to end their trip with a visit to an upmarket restaurant. The maitre d had frowned at Janice’s slacks but Mel’s winning smile must have charmed him because they found themselves seated at one of the best tables in the house. Two delicious meals and a bottle of French champagne later, Janice was helping Mel into a cab. “I've had a wonderful evening Janice!” she'd gushed, and Janice felt as though her heart would burst with delight.
Ahem. Well, that's what champagne does to you, though Janice. Makes you giddy and silly. Still, a fun day.
Janice ran through her own mental checklist. Three pairs of khakis. Half a dozen shirts. A spare pair of boots. A skirt suit and the new dress, in case they got to go some place nice. A large bottle of Scotch. Cash in various currencies. A box of ammunition. Her bullwhip. Oh, and the mysterious circular weapon. She didn't really know why, but something was telling her to bring it with them.
Mel entered the room to see Janice strapping a large hunting knife to her calf. “Is that really necessary, Janice?”
“I always take it on expeditions, Mel. Ya just never know.” She rolled her pants leg back down and shrugged on her leather jacket. The revolver, she tucked into an inside pocket. The doctor completed the classic Covington look with her battered fedora. “Okay Mel, it's time. Let's roll.” She hoisted her kitbag over her shoulder, and walked out to the waiting car.
Bolton was waiting for them when they reached the airfield. He led them across the tarmac to a large transport plane. “It's going to be a long and not terribly comfortable journey, ladies. But it's the quickest means to get there, and as you know time is of the essence.”
“I've never been on a plane before,” squeaked Mel. “My, this is exciting!”
Janice grimaced. She'd been on planes before. She'd even had a go at flying one – a drinking buddy’s Cessna, as a means of relaxing after a particularly intense poker game. However these machines, built for higher altitudes and longer distances, were another matter. She vaguely recalled reading something about their safety record, and thinking that it didn't seem all that good.
Ah well. No sense in worrying about that now, she thought, as the engines started up.
As the plane levelled out, Bolton pulled a card folder from his briefcase. “Some background information for you, ladies. I suggest you take time to read it all in detail – though that might be easier when we’re back on solid ground.”
Janice felt her ears pop. The drone of the engines was enervating, and her stomach was rebelling slightly. She needed a distraction. “Wanna give us the highlights, Mr Bolton?”
He nodded. “The digsite is in the English county of Wiltshire, a couple of miles from Stonehenge. We believe that there may be some connection between the Dahak cult and the stones.”
Mel frowned. “I always thought that Stonehenge was a Druidic place of worship for the Ancient Britons? What does some evil Persian god have to with it?”
Bolton shrugged. “Miss Pappas, I'm no ancient historian. I can't pretend to understand the ins and outs of it all. That's the reason we've hired you and Dr Covington.” He sighed. “The Roman commander’s journal that I told you about references an evil temple to the north west. It's possible that the cult appropriated an existing place of worship. We just don't know.”
The businesslike tone returned. “You will be based in Salisbury. It's the nearest town to the site. We have arranged lodgings for you in an inn called the Black Lion. Your cover story is that you are American academics on sabbatical at Oxford University. Dr Covington has been brought in to lead the excavation due to the ill health of the original archeologist.”
“Is he really ill?” Mel asked.
“No. We became aware of a – liaison – between him and one of his students. On reflection, he decided he'd rather keep his marriage intact and step away from this particular assignment.”
Mel and Janice exchanged looks. So, Bolton and his colleagues weren't above a little blackmail. Hmm. Needs must, perhaps, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth.
After what felt like an interminable journey, with stops for refuelling in Nova Scotia and the West coast of Northern Ireland, the plane finally touched down at RAF Brize Norton. Janice bolted for the door as soon as the engines had cut out. Mel followed her out onto the tarmac, with Bolton bringing up the rear.
"Our first port of call is Oxford,” said Bolton. “Your cover needs to be convincing, just in case anyone does any checking up. Somerville College has agreed to put you both on its staff for as long as is necessary. You'll have rooms there, and access to the Bodleian Library for any research you might need to do. I'll be based just across the road, at St John’s College. You will be able to reach me there at any time. I have my own private telephone line there. The number is in your folder. Memorise it. I'd like you to check in at least weekly.” Bolton paused before adding, quietly, “If for any reason you can't speak openly… just pretend I'm Janice’s uncle. If I hear that I'll know there's a problem and I'll do what I can to help you.”
They had reached a small parking lot outside of the airfield. “I'm guessing you know how to drive, Dr Covington?” When Janice nodded, he gestured at the handful of vehicles there. “Go ahead and pick one. They're all government issue.”
Janice wandered across the parking lot, glancing without much enthusiasm at the cars and trucks waiting there. At the end of the row she noticed a large motorcycle. Her eyebrows twitched and she turned to look at her fellow American. “What you reckon, Mel?” she grinned, and was rewarded by a mischievous smile in return.
Bolton threw his hands up in mock frustration. “All yours, Dr Covington. If you're certain.”
“Oh, I'm certain.” Janice secured their bags to the back of the bike. It looked a little precarious but on further inspection she felt confident in its stability. “Climb on behind me Mel. Mr Bolton – please lead on to Oxford. We’ll be following you.”
The rooms at Somerville were basic, but clean and comfortable, and both Mel and Janice awoke late but refreshed and ready for the next stage of their English adventure. After a tasteless, rationed breakfast in the refectory, they headed out of the college.
Bolton was waiting for them in the lodge. “Dr Covington. Miss Pappas. Are you all set? I should have mentioned yesterday – your folder contains ration cards for you both, as well as a supply of coupons for petrol. There should be enough to last you for a few weeks. Salisbury is about 90 minutes away - there's a map…”
“In the folder.” Mel finished the sentence for him.
"We're good,” said Janice. “We got it, Mr Bolton. Don't you worry! We’ll get these Nazi demon worshippers for you!”
Mel giggled as she climbed on the bike behind her companion. “Goodbye, Mr Bolton. We’ll be in touch soon.”
Watching the huge bike disappear down the road in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes, Bolton wondered whether he'd made a huge mistake. Ah well, he told himself. James did say she was idiosyncratic. But that she's the best bet for a crazy assignment like this.
The ride to Salisbury was exhilarating. The bike handled well and was capable of higher speeds than Janice had expected. There was virtually no other traffic on the road and both women enjoyed the feeling of freedom, the sun on their faces and the wind in their hair. There was something else as well… a nagging familiarity of riding through the countryside, one behind the other like this. Something was different though. Were they the wrong way round?
Weird, though Janice. Where did that thought come from? They passed a sign – Salisbury, 5 miles. Janice made a decision. They would take a detour on the way to check out the digsite before heading into town to find their lodgings.
The site was a short distance from the road and easily identifiable from a set of small orange flags marking the boundaries of the excavation. Within the flags, the earth had been dug up so that the excavation area was about five feet lower than the ground surrounding it. There were a couple of tarpaulins covering part of the site and someone had dug a set of steps into the bank of the far side of the site.
Hmm, though Janice. Looks professional enough. Guess someone knows what they're doing. She was about to jump down to look under the tarpaulins when she heard someone calling. She turned to see a grey haired man hurrying towards them from a wooden structure behind the excavation area.
“Dr Covington?” The man gasped. He was red faced and quite out of breath. “We weren't expecting you until tomorrow!”
“We were just on our way to Salisbury, and thought we might as well check out the site, Mr – um…”
“Daniels. William Daniels.” The man reached out his hand. “I've been keeping an eye on the site while work has been suspended.”
“Good to meet you, Mr Daniels. I'm Janice Covington and this is Melinda Pappas. We’re from Oxford University.”
“Well,” Daniels beamed at the two Americans. “It's wonderful that you're both here. Everyone is keen to restart work. It's such a shame that Dr Anderson fell ill so suddenly.”
Janice cleared her throat. “It was, yeah.” She didn't look at Mel. “Seeing as we’re here Mr Daniels, would you mind showing us around?”
Daniels readily agreed, leading the women up to the wooden structure. It was a one storey building, perhaps 18 by 12 feet in size. It had a pitched roof and a single, lockable door, which Daniels opened to reveal a room with a desk, small table and three wooden chairs. A handful of old-fashioned gas lamps were scattered around. Janice nodded approvingly. “Better than a tent,” she acknowledged.
“We started off with an old army tent,” Daniels explained. “But it wasn't much fun in the English winter. I’m a carpenter by trade, and so…”
“You built this all yourself?” Janice was impressed.
“Well, not quite. I had some help from a couple of the youngsters on the dig.”
As the others talked, Mel’s eyes were drawn to a corner of the room which was half covered by a torn curtain. Poking out from behind this curtain was the corner of a bed. “Oh Mr Daniels,” she exclaimed. “Are you living here?”
Daniels looked embarrassed. “Now look. It's not how it looks. I'm not some sort of tramp! I have my own place in town. However…” he sighed. “I have been sleeping here most nights lately.”
Both Mel and Janice looked quizzically at him.
“The site…” Daniels seemed to struggle to find the right words. “The site attracts some strange people. I don't like them. I don't know what they want. If they know there’s someone here, they tend to stay away.” He walked towards a portable stove, where a kettle of hot water was bubbling away. “Have some tea. I'll do my best to fill you in on where we are.”
Five minutes later, all three were sat at the table sipping tea. Janice was flicking through a leather bound notebook in which all of the finds to date had been catalogued in a spidery hand. There was the necklace, of course, and the slate with Persian writing on it. Other items included a variety of coins minted in Greece, Rome and Egypt as well as Persia; a silver ring; some pieces of leather, most of which were rotted away beyond recognition; animal bones; and a dagger with an elaborate handle. Janice was particularly interested in this item and the description given next to it: “v well preserved. Possible ceremonial use??” She wondered why Bolton hadn't mentioned it. Perhaps it just hadn't occurred to him. “Did you see this dagger, Mr Daniels?”
“Oh yes! It was quite a find. Everyone was very excited about it. It was just before Dr Anderson got sick.”
Hmm. “What happens to all of the things that you find?”
Daniels looked puzzled. He clearly assumed she knew already. “Um, well, they're stored in the bank vault until your research assistant collects them on Friday afternoons. I believe he then takes them to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for proper cataloging and study. Or, at least that's what happened with Dr Anderson. Do you want us to do something differently, Dr Covington?”
Ah. A research assistant. Damn. Janice cursed silently. Guess I should have read the stuff in that wretched folder before coming here. You're going to have to do better than this, Covington, if you want to keep up this cover story. “No, no. That all sounds great, Mr Daniels. It's all good.”
Mel intervened to change the subject. “What can you tell us about the dig team, Mr Daniels?”
“Well, it's a small team, Miss Pappas. It was difficult, I think, for Dr Anderson to put together at all. All the able-bodied lads and lasses are serving their country in one capacity or another. So there's a couple of old farts like me – begging your pardon miss, but that's what they call us – and some students from the local grammar school. Most of them can only come for a couple of hours after school, mind you. Although,” he mused, “ I think it's half term this week. So you might see more of them.”
“Is that it?” Janice was beginning to feel disheartened. It was likely to be a struggle to manage a team like this. Not for the first time, she wondered whether Bolton had been selective in what he'd told them.
“Well, not quite, Dr Covington. We do have a younger gentleman who is with us for two full days a week. Paul Holland. He’s a clerk at the bank in town, but his boss is big on local history and gives him a couple of days leave a week to help us out. He's very engaged with it all.”
“He wasn't conscripted?” Janice asked curiously.
“No, he failed the medical. Flat feet, apparently.”
A loud gunshot rang out and Janice almost spilt her tea. Mel looked up in alarm. “What was that?”
“Oh, it's nothing to worry about ladies. There’s an army camp just across the way from here. They're always having training exercises. Well, they've got something to train for now of course. Anyway, they don’t bother us, and you get used to the noise after a while.”
Janice stood up. Daniels had been helpful, and she felt she could trust him, but she really wanted to speak to Mel privately about what they'd learned so far. “Thank you very much for your hospitality, Mr Daniels,” she said as he followed them to the door. “We should let you get back to your afternoon. Is there anything else we should be aware of?”
Daniels reddened. “Ah, well, I suppose I ought to let you ladies know where the latrines are.” Leaving the hut, he pointed towards a wooden outhouse just visible behind a hedge. “There you go. It's quite private. And hygienic. There's a pit underneath that's pretty deep.”
Mel wrinkled her nose in distaste. Spotting this, Janice laughed uproariously. “Unavoidable fact of life on a dig, honey! Trust me, I've seen much worse facilities.” She thanked Daniels again before heading for the bike. “See ya tomorrow!”
Janice still didn't feel ready to head for Salisbury. “Wanna check out the stones, Mel?” Hearing something which vaguely sounded like Mel’s affirmative, she gunned the bike and headed towards the ancient monument.
Mel couldn't help feeling that Stonehenge felt a bit underwhelming close up. Of course, the wandering livestock and seemingly endless sheep poo that covered the grass around the monument might be a factor. She looked over at Janice, who was walking slowly between the stones, an odd expression on her face. “What is it, Janice?”
“I dunno.” The blonde paused to touch one particular obelisk. “It feels kinda familiar, but not, if that makes any sense.”
“Mmm.” Mel made her way to a flat stone and sat down, motioning Janice to come and join her. “This place… it is a bit strange, Janice. But it doesn't feel evil, as such. I think I know what you mean about the familiarity, though.”
Janice sat down and removed her hat before running her fingers through her hair. “Are we going crazy, Mel?” Seeing Mel’s puzzled expression, she tried to articulate her thoughts more clearly. “Ya know, a couple of months ago I was just an archeologist looking for evidence to back up my father’s theories. Okay, some of those theories were a bit out there, but – “ she gestured at the stones. “Ultimately, it was proving the reality of a legendary figure who'd for whatever reason been forgotten by history, ya know? But since then there's been all this craziness about gods and monsters and magic…” Janice drummed the fingers of her left hand against the stone. “Whaddya think really happened in that tomb, Mel?”
It was the first time they'd discussed it in these terms. Mel breathed deeply. The truth was she didn't know. The bearded man who'd claimed to be Ares, God of War, had seemed real enough, and whatever powers he had had made short work of Smythe and his henchman. On the other hand, the whole episode made no rational sense whatsoever. Perhaps it had all been a shared hallucination. She, Janice and Jack Kleinman overcome with toxic fumes, maybe. But then there was the scrolls, and the circular weapon, and, most dramatically from Mel’s perspective, the exhilarating surge of strength and confidence as her ancestor’s soul took hold of her. “I can't explain any of it,” she said quietly, “And I don't understand who – or what – ‘Ares’ was. But I know what I felt. Xena was there, a part of me. So yes. It was real.”
Janice blew out air from her mouth, unhappily. “I think I'm out of my depth, Mel.” It felt painful to say it.
To her surprise, Mel reached over and squeezed her hand. “I don't think so Janice. I think you're going to knock this one out of the park!”
Janice laughed to hear Mel use such a colloquialism. “WE’re gonna knock this one out of the park,” she corrected gently.
It was past 5pm when they finally rolled into Salisbury. The Black Lion was easy to find from the comprehensive directions in the folder, and as they parked up outside Janice remarked on how quiet everything seemed. “What day is it, Mel?”
“Why, it's Sunday of course.”
“Ah, hell I lost track of the days cos of that goddamn flight.”
Mel clambered off the bike and brushed herself down. “I’m famished, Janice. I hope they've got some decent food here.”
Unlikely, Janice thought to herself. British cuisine combined with rationing made for uninspiring chow. Still, you never know. She picked up her kitbag and attempted to push open the door. From the outside at least, the pub looked traditional, welcoming and charming.
“Bar’s closed,” came a muffled voice from inside. Well, thought Janice, appearances can be deceptive.
“Pardon us, sir, but we’re not here for a drink. We have a reservation here.” Mel had stepped in front of her companion and was oozing her trademark Southern charm.
“Oh, right, yes. Miss Pappas and Miss Covington, isn't it?” The door opened and a smiling middle aged man with a spectacular beard ushered them inside.
“Dr Covington,” grumbled Janice, more to herself than the bearded man, who she assumed was the landlord.
The man was now positively beaming at Mel. “I’m John Tyler. I'm the landlord here. Let me call for my wife. She deals with the rooms. Mind you, we don't have many,” he commented, pointlessly, as he gestured for the Americans to take a seat in the empty pub.
A door behind the bar opened and a sour-faced woman entered. The two women assumed she must be Mrs Tyler, and the assumption was proved correct when her husband gave her a kiss on the cheek before introducing their new guests.
“You're late.” Mrs Tyler scowled at Mel and Janice. “I was expecting you hours ago.”
“We slept late, Mrs Tyler. The journey from the States was very tiring. And then we had some business to take care of. We’re very sorry if we put you to any trouble.” Mel’s charm seemed less effective than it had been on the landlord.
Mrs Tyler said nothing. She eyed Janice’s attire with barely concealed disdain. Finally, she spoke. “That your motorcycle out there?”
“It sure is,” said Janice proudly. “Ain't she a beauty?”
“It's not a typical vehicle for ladies,” sniffed Mrs Tyler.
“Well, in case ya haven’t noticed, doll, I'm not your typical lady.” Janice spoke cheerfully, ignoring Mel’s sighing behind her.
“I don't know,” huffed Mrs Tyler. “The gentleman from the university said we were getting nice ladies from one of the ladies’ colleges. He didn't say anything about trousers and motorcycles.”
Janice was starting to see red. “Now just wait one second you – “
Fortunately, Mr Tyler intervened before she could finish her sentence. “Now, come on dear. These ladies have come all the way from America to excavate old Patrick’s field. It could be very important to the town. And the university has paid a month up front, Evelyn. Come now and show our guests to their room.”
Mrs Tyler opened her mouth to argue then clearly thought better of it. “Follow me, then,” she said charmlessly before heading towards a staircase hidden away to the right of the bar.
“Bar opens at 7, ladies,” Mr Tyler called after them.
Mel and Janice followed their hostess up three flights of stairs, arriving at a wooden door coated in peeling white paint which Mrs Tyler was unlocking. “Well, this is it! Hurry up, I don't have all day.”
Janice surveyed the room. It had seen better days but was homely enough. There was a desk, a washbasin and ample wardrobe space. The original wooden rafters gave the place some character. One aspect that surprised her slightly, however, was that the room contained only one bed – a double with an attractive patchwork quilt, one edge against a wall. “Looks like we’re bunking up, honey,” she laughed, bumping Mel with her shoulder.
“It's the only room we had available for the full period,” Mrs Tyler spat out. “If it doesn’t suit, feel free to find another hotel.”
“Oh no, Mrs Tyler, it's lovely,” Mel assured her. “I'm sure we’re going to be very comfortable here.”
Mrs Tyler grunted. “Bathroom’s down the hall. No baths after 9pm. Dinner’s at 7.30 sharp. If you're not there, you don't eat. Except Sunday, of course. Lunch is at 2. I don't do a dinner Sunday nights,” she paused, and to Janice’s surprise, the sight of Mel’s grief stricken face seemed to melt the old battleaxe’s heart. “Well, under the circumstances… I think there's some bread and Spam in the kitchen. I'll have it sent up.”
The brief moment of détente over, Mrs Tyler returned to her previous theme. “Breakfast’s at 7am sharp. No male visitors. Curfew is when the bar closes… 11pm except Sundays when it's 10.30. Laundry is done every Friday. Oh, and if the air raid sirens go head for the cellar.”
Seemingly finished for now at least, Mrs Tyler pulled two sets of keys from her apron pocket and handed one each to Mel and Janice. “I don't want any trouble, ladies. This is a respectable establishment.”
“We got it, Mrs T. There'll be no trouble from us.”
Mrs Tyler made a dismissive noise and left the room. Mel stuck her tongue out at her retreating form.
“Wow.” Janice shook her head. “Welcome to England, huh?”
The two Americans sat in silence for a few minutes, until there was a knock at the door. It was a young girl holding the promised tray of kitchen scraps. Janice gave her a couple of pennies and sent her on her way. “So. I guess this is Spam.” The pink translucent meat made her gag initially, although paired with the bread it wasn't too dreadful. Still. “Can't see this catching on,” muttered Janice, wiping her mouth.
“So, what now?” asked Mel.
Janice looked at her watch. “Bar opens at 7, he said. Let's unpack and head down there. I'm not sure there's much else to do in this godforsaken place but get drunk.”
At 7.05 precisely, Mel and Janice sat in the “snug” of the Black Lion. It had been recommended to them by Mr Tyler as more suitable for ladies than the saloon bar and it was, in fairness, pretty comfortable. It was also pretty empty.
Janice took a sip of her ale. “Gah! Even the beer’s terrible here! No wonder it isn't rationed.”
“I was looking at the folder while you were unpacking,” said Mel. “Apparently the government took a deliberate decision not to ration beer, restaurant meals or fish and chips. They keep morale up you see.”
“Can't imagine this bilge keeping anyone’s morale up,” grumbled Janice. “It's not even chilled.” She looked across at Mel. “I'm fed up with England already. Tell me something about the scrolls.”
Mel thought for a moment. “Well, we’ve really only completed the translation on one of them. It seems to be the first. It's titled ‘Sins of the Past’ – although I'm not entirely happy with that translation. It implies a Judaeo-Christian value system that simply wouldn't have been meaningful to a pagan like Gabrielle.”
Janice nodded, fascinated.
“Anyway, the scroll describes her first meeting with Xena. It seems that Gabrielle and some others from her village had been attacked by slavers. Xena fought them off and shortly afterwards Gabrielle abandoned her family to travel with her.
“It's clear from the scroll that Xena had previously done some bad things. Gabrielle doesn't elaborate and it’s possible she doesn't know herself at this point. However, whatever it was was serious enough for Xena to contemplate suicide and for Xena’s mother to reject her daughter and leave her to be beaten to death by a mob.
“Gabrielle intervenes and somehow manages to talk the mob into dispersing. Xena takes her with her, reluctantly. Later Xena returns to her home town to defeat a warlord and she and her mother reconcile.”
“That's pretty heavy stuff.” Janice lit a cheroot and inhaled deeply. “And then what? X & G ride off into the sunset?”
“Sort of.” Mel still felt slightly uncomfortable discussing the Grecian duo’s relationship. “Xena is apparently unsure about taking Gabrielle with her, but goes along with it. It's clear that Gabrielle is thrilled with this development.”
“I’ll bet.” Janice drained her beer. “You know, this stuff could grow on me. Fancy another?”
To be continued...
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