Keep Calm and Battle On, continued

“Gone 9.30,” said Janice as she unlocked the door to their room. “Guess a bath’s out of the question. Best not to piss off the dragon lady on night one. A wash will have to do.” Stripping off her shirt, she was vaguely aware of Mel’s sharp intake of breath. “C’mon Mel. We’re both girls here. No reason to be shy.”

Mel didn't respond. Instead, she watched in guilty fascination as Janice removed the rest of her clothes and began washing herself with a flannel. Mel was captivated by the other woman’s body. It was strong and muscular, but with an undeniably feminine softness. Her breasts were round and, to Mel’s eyes at least, perfectly formed. Mel noted, sadly, that Janice had clearly not come out unscathed from some of her expeditions, as a number of scars were visible. Not that they detracted from the vision in front of her. Janice was, Mel decided, the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. She continued to gaze raptly until, to her horror, Janice turned round and saw her doing so.

“Like what ya see, huh, sweetheart?” Janice grinned and reached for a towel.

Mel was struck dumb in horror. She cast desperately around for a reason why she had been staring lasciviously at her friend’s naked body. “Ah, Janice, I am so sorry! I didn't mean to stare. It was just your scar – I got a shock, you must have really hurt yourself.”

“Huh? Which one?” Janice finished towelling herself dry and, to Mel’s relief, slipped into her sleep shirt.

“Erm, the big one. On your hip.”

“Ah, yeah. That old thing. Took a bullet on the battlefield outside of Barcelona in ’36. Just a flesh wound. Healed up fine.”

Mel momentarily forgot her embarrassment in pure shock at this revelation. “Battlefield? Barcelona? What on Earth, Janice? You fought in the Spanish Civil War?”

“Questions, questions,” Janice chuckled as she climbed beneath the sheets. “Yeah, I joined a Republican militia shortly after hostilities broke out. There were quite a few women fighting at that time. Didn't fight for long though, hospitalised after a couple of months with this wound, and then I got word that my father was very sick and I had to go to him.”

“I didn't realise you were a communist, Janice,” Mel said warily.

“I'm not a communist Mel, and most of the people I fought with weren't either. They were just ordinary folk who wanted the best for their country. In the end, they were screwed over by both sides.” Janice turned onto her side. “I was on an excavation in Southern France, near the Pyrenees. It wasn't going anywhere, another pointless money pit my father had insisted we pursue because he believed we'd find evidence of Xena in Gaul. Anyway, one of the guys working on the dig was from Spain and he got me all fired up about the new government there and the hope for democracy in his country. When I heard about Franco’s coup I wanted to help, so I crossed the border and signed up with the first militia who'd have me.”

Mel was silent for a moment. She knew Janice had experienced more of life than she had, and it didn't surprise her that her friend had been in her fair share of sticky situations. But combat – well, yes that had taken her aback somewhat. “Did you kill anyone?” she asked in a small voice.

Janice sighed. “Yeah, I did, Mel. A few times.” She looked at her friend’s shocked face. “It was a war, Mel. Two armies shooting at each other. People die.”

“Does it bother you?” Mel knew she was playing with fire here. She couldn't bring herself to stop, though. It was like picking at a scab.

“I don't feel guilty, if that's what you're asking. I was a soldier in a war. That's what you do. To be honest, I don't even think about it that often. But – yeah. Things do change, after you've killed someone. You become… I dunno. Harder, maybe. More distant.” Janice rolled over again. “Yeah, so, avoid it if you can.” Time to change the subject. “Your turn at the washbasin. I'll try not to look.”



After an uninspiring breakfast of toasted grey bread spread with some sort of salty yeast paste – “Marmite”, Mrs Tyler had proudly announced it as – Mel and Janice had made good time up to the digsite. It was a beautiful sunny day and there was a gaggle of workers already waiting for them, apparently keen to meet the new bosses.

Janice introduced herself and Mel, giving a potted and largely fictional account of their academic careers to date. She ran through the usual safety briefing and stressed the need for great care to be taken around potentially fragile artifacts.

While Janice did her spiel, Mel observed the members of the team. In addition to Daniels, there were two boys and two girls from the local school – around 16 or 17, Mel estimated – a couple of guys in their 60s, a jolly-looking middle-aged woman, and a lanky youth whom Mel provisionally identified as Paul Holland. Everyone seemed very enthusiastic to be back on the dig and eagerly picked up their tools once Janice had finished her speech. Mel grabbed her own trowel and went to join them. She planned on finding out as much as she could about her new workmates.

The team broke for lunch at 12.30. Morale in the team was high, despite the absence of any finds that morning. The jolly woman, whom Mel had learned was called Elsie, had prepared a cauldron of vegetable soup to share. Mel helped herself to a bowl, and then made her way over to Janice, who was sitting alone on a rock some distance from the others, smoking. “Not eating, Janice?”

“Not hungry,” Janice snapped and took a swig from a hip flask, ignoring what she suspected was Mel’s look of disapproval. She turned to face her friend. “What are we doing here, Mel?”

“Er, excavating a potentially very important archeological site?”

“We’ve found nothing, Mel.”

“Oh my goodness, Janice Covington, we've been here for three hours! What on earth were you expecting? And when did you become such a brat?” Mel bit her tongue, thinking she'd gone too far.

But Janice just shrugged. Mel was right. She was being a brat, and she despised herself for it. “I'm sorry, Mel. This whole scene has got me on edge.” She looked around, but the rest of the team was tucking into their soup and seemed oblivious to the raised voices. Nonetheless Janice dropped her voice down to a whisper. “Mel, do you trust Bolton?”

Mel wondered what had brought this on. “I think so, Janice. He seems genuine. Very patriotic. He's very committed to the war effort.”

“He's committed to the war effort alright and I don't doubt his patriotism. What I'm not sure is the extent to which he considers you and me to be expendable in the fight for the ‘greater good’, as he sees it.” Janice warmed up to her theme. “He didn't tell us about the dagger. He didn't tell us that my dig team was a bunch of school kids and weirdos. What else hasn’t he told us?”

“You're getting paranoid, Janice. Maybe he didn't know about the dagger, or just didn't think it was important. And this team, okay so they're amateurs, but they seem like a nice bunch of people.”

“Yeah, well, keep an eye on them, Mel. Especially that Holland guy. He gives me the creeps.”


After her attack of nerves on the first day, Janice relaxed and quickly found herself back in the familiar routine of archeological expeditions. There were no major discoveries, but the team was excited to unearth more coins as well as some pottery shards.

In the absence of any texts to translate, Mel had elected to spend a few days in the town library archives, researching the history of the cult, as well as engaging with the locals to find out what they knew about its contemporary resurgence. Janice had missed having her around during the day, but acknowledged that grubbing around in the dirt with a trowel and a brush probably wasn't the best use of an ancient languages scholar’s time. Ah well, it's the weekend now. She can fill me in properly on what she's found so far.

Janice had just finished up at the digsite and was about to head back to town when she noticed a man in a blue uniform standing by the bike. “Great. A cop. Just what I need on a Friday night.” She gritted her teeth and mustered up the best smile she could manage. “Good evening, officer. Can I help you?”

“Are you Dr Janice Covington?”

“I am indeed, officer. Is there a problem?” Janice hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. She was always uncomfortable around police officers; and, it had to be said, there had been numerous times in her past when she'd had good reason to feel that way.

“Oh no, madam, not at all!” The policeman beamed at her. “I just wanted to see how the dig was coming along. I've been meaning to drop by all week, but I wasn't able to get away.”

Janice studied the policeman. He was about her age, she guessed, tall and with a nose that had clearly been broken at some stage. He could, Janice supposed, be considered handsome. “It’s up and running again, officer. Progress has been quite slow this week, but we’re getting there.” She smiled politely and moved to get to the bike.

“So, no interesting finds this week?” The policeman moved closer, blocking her path. Janice grimaced. The man was in her personal space and was beginning to make her feel uncomfortable. Her initial relief that she wasn't about to be arrested for running the bath water too late at night, or some other BS, made up rule in this godforsaken country, had quickly turned into irritation and now trepidation.

“We found some coins and a few bits of pottery, Officer – er-“ Janice craned her neck forward to see if the man had a name badge.

“Oh, so sorry, madam. I'm PC Morgan. But you can call me Stephen.” The officer continued to block Janice’s path. “I'm quite a history buff, see, and I've been taking a keen interest in the things that you eggheads have been digging up. I wondered if you and your assistant – Miss Pappas, is it – might be so kind as to spare me some time to tell me all about it?”

“She's not my assistant, PC Morgan. But sure, we’d love to tell ya all about it some time.” Janice was gradually edging past the large policeman. “Come up to the site, but during the day, yeah? Well, I gotta go. See ya!” Janice jumped on the motorcycle, which thankfully started first time. She waved as she floored the bike. She was pointing in the wrong direction, but at that moment all she wanted was to get out of there as soon as possible. She thought she heard Morgan shout something after her, but she couldn't make it out over the roar of the engine.


Janice was still feeling unsettled when she arrived back at the inn. She ran up the stairs to their room, where Mel was sitting at the desk poring over some papers and making notes in the margins of her journal. “You alright, Janice? How was your day?”

“Tell ya later. I'm gonna grab a bath before dinner.”

After another tasteless dinner in Mrs Tyler’s cramped dining room, the Americans retreated to a corner table in the snug bar. Janice sipped her beer and looked directly at Mel. “I had a visitor on site this evening. A police officer called Morgan. He freaked me out a bit.”

“Oh,” Mel paused as if trying to recall something. “PC Morgan? Yes, I was introduced to him the other day when he called into the library.” Mel giggled. “He's quite handsome, isn't he?”

Janice looked disgusted. “He's a creep, Mel. He turned up at the dig while I was alone and started asking all sortsa questions about what we’d been doing. He got in my face and was blocking me from getting to the bike. Luckily I made my escape while he was still yakking.”

Mel frowned. “I thought he seemed nice. He was probably just being friendly.”

“Yeah? So why didn't he mention he'd already met you?”

“Well, goodness, Janice, did you even give him the chance? It sounds like you drove off in the middle of a conversation!” Mel reached out to pat her friend’s hand. “You've got to stop being so paranoid, Jan. It's going to make you crazy.”

Janice sat back in her seat and considered this. On reflection, she thought, Morgan could have just been showing an innocent interest in her work. Perhaps he hadn't meant to stand between her and the bike. It wasn't like he made any attempt to stop her leaving once she'd reached it. She sighed. “Maybe I am going crazy, Mel.”

Mel shook her head. “It's been a long week. Let's try and relax tonight.” She leaned forward and said in a low voice, “I thought I could fill you in on where I've got to with my research.”

Janice looked around, but the snug was almost empty. The real action tonight seemed to be in the main bar, which was playing host to couple dozen soldiers from the local military camp. It seemed safe to talk. “Go ahead. What have you found so far?”

Mel got into her stride. “The earliest reference I could find to an actual cult in the area was from the fourteenth century. A local monk chronicled the effects of the Black Death on the surrounding villages, and one particular concern of his was that some of the local populace had abandoned the Church in favour of what he describes as ‘devil worship’. He doesn't elaborate on what this worship involves, but some of it apparently took place near standing stones in the area. He also states that the cult was reviving previous rituals which the Church had stamped out centuries earlier.

“The next reference was in 1632. A man and a woman were executed for witchcraft. They were accused of consorting with devils and there were claims of strange rituals in the woods featuring fire and chanting. Before being hanged, the woman cried out in an unfamiliar language. “Dayhoc, Dayhoc,” is how a diarist who happened to be present recorded it.

“But the cult really got going in the 1780s. A local landowner, Sir Francis Gainford, had apparently become fascinated with local folk tales about an ancient power or entity of some sort, and he attempted to revive the old rituals. Sir Francis was wealthy and charismatic, by all accounts, and he attracted lots of followers.”

Janice interjected. “There were a few rich idiots doing this sorta thing round about that time, weren't there? Hellfire Club and all that garbage?”

“That's right,” Mel agreed, “But most of them were just bored rich young men trying to scandalise their families. Gainford was different. He took the whole business very seriously, and so did his acolytes. Over the next couple of decades the cult grew large and became quite powerful locally. Even the Church became wary of speaking out against it.”

“What happened?” Janice was intrigued.

“Scandal happened. A young girl was lured away from one of the local villages. The newspaper reports are coy about the details, but it seems that there was an attempt to use her in some capacity at one of the rituals. She managed to get away and raise the alarm. Some of the cult members were arrested. Gainford himself left for the colonies, and as far as I can tell was never heard from again.

“There were a couple of attempts to revive the cult late last century, but without real success.”

“Wow. Okay,” Janice went to the bar to get another round. When she returned, she looked across at Mel expectantly. “So, next chapter? Has this cult returned today and if so why?”

“Ah.” Mel took a drink from her glass. “Well, finding out what's happening now is much harder than studying the past, that's for sure. People don't seem to want to talk to a stranger about any of this business. But,” her eyes twinkled slightly, “I don't give up that easily.”

Janice smiled and nodded in agreement.

“So, I've picked up a few hints here and there. The secret is not to ask too much directly. Just wait for them to tell you.

‘What I've learned is that the cult is indeed active still. Only now, it is portrayed very much as a sort of folk society which keeps alive harmless traditions and engages in charity work.

“The current leader is a local businessman, Harold Montague. He owns the grocery, the hardware store, and has interests in a number of other local businesses.” Mel dropped her voice a little. “I'm not one for gossip, but it seems he wasn't always well-liked. He refused to give even regular customers credit during the Depression. And he made a lot of money buying up bankrupted businesses and abandoned homes. Since the charity work, though, people seem to have forgiven him.”

“What about other members? Do we know how big this cult is?”

Mel shook her head. “I'm sorry, Janice. They seem secretive about membership. Although from the way people talk, I don't think it's a huge group. Maybe a dozen or so.”

Janice grinned. “Why the hell are you apologising, Mel? You've achieved a helluva lot more this week than I have, that's for certain. C’mon, let me buy ya another drink.”


Clambering into bed after a convivial evening in the snug, Janice noted that Mel’s eyes had taken on the slightly glazed expression she sometimes adopted after a drink or four. Janice lay back warily, because she had noted on previous occasions that such an expression was often accompanied by earnest conversation or difficult lines of questioning, and at this point all the archeologist really wanted was some some shut eye.

“Janice,” whispered Mel shortly after she'd put out the light. “Are you awake?”

“No,” grunted Janice.

“Haha, silly. I know you're tired. I was just wondering… well, I was just wondering…”

“Spit it out Mel. We don't have all night.”

“Have you ever had a boyfriend, Janice?”

Urgh. Here it comes. Janice lay quietly for a moment then spoke up, “I've had friends who are male, yes.”

“Well, but that's not what I meant,” whined Mel. “I meant –“

“I'm not a virgin, Mel, if that's what you're asking.”

There was a shocked silence from the other side of the bed that Janice found almost comical. “Honey, don't ask questions that you don't want to hear the answer to.”

The silence lasted for so long that Janice wondered whether her companion had fallen asleep. At long last though Mel piped up again. “Was it nice?”

Nice. What? Christ, this woman is something else. “It was okay, yeah. Anything else ya wanna know?”

“Oh, no, Janice. Well, except… didn't you want to marry him?”

“I've already told ya Mel, I'm not the marrying type. We had sex. It was fun. There wasn't anything more to it. Go to sleep.”

Mel murmured an apology of some description and turned to face away from Janice. Within a couple of minutes her breathing had become steady, signalling that she'd already fallen asleep.

Sleep felt a long way off for Janice. She stared at the ceiling. She had no desire to shock her friend with stories from her past. The truth was she'd had several lovers, male and female. Nothing serious, and nothing which had lasted beyond a couple of weeks.

Was “lover” even the right word? She'd hadn't felt love for any of them and sure as hell none of them had loved her. For the men, she had been a challenge – could they seduce tough “one of the guys” Janice Covington, and turn her into a simpering girly? Cos, you know, they'd say when they thought she wasn't listening, she's quite pretty under the khakis and macho bullcrap. Janice had no illusions as to what they were about, and each time she was happy to do the deed then dump them in the morning.

As for the two women Janice had slept with – well, the less said the better, really. Greece and Macedonia - small town girls wanting a roll in the hay with the strange foreign woman in men’s clothes before they settled down to marry the boy next door. Who was probably their second cousin.

Janice wasn't even sure why she had chosen to experiment with the fairer sex. She sighed inwardly. Male or female, she'd made no real connections with any of her previous conquests. In fact, she'd made no real connections with anyone. Before Mel, she admitted to herself, she hadn't really had friends. She'd had acquaintances and contacts and drinking buddies. But no one with whom she could share her hopes and fears.

Janice made a private vow to keep certain aspects of her past secret from Mel. Their friendship had assumed a frankly terrifying importance in her life. She had no intention of doing anything to jeopardise it.



Saturday morning and the women woke to bright sunlight streaming in from the window opposite their bed. It was forecast to be a beautiful day and Mel and Janice had every intention of making the most of it. The awkwardness of the previous night’s discussion forgotten, they washed and dressed quickly before heading downstairs for another of Mrs Tyler’s uninspiring breakfasts.

“What do you ladies have planned for today?” Mr Tyler asked amiably, layering honey onto thick slabs of grey bread. “Surely not back to the dig? All work and no play and all that…”

Mel shook her head as she smiled at him. “No work today, Mr Tyler. We’re going exploring on the bike.”

Mrs Tyler snorted but refrained from comment. Janice, unusually, managed to stop herself rising to the bait. “We might not be back for dinner, Mrs T. So don't mind us.”

An hour or so later and the Americans were heading out into the warm May sunshine. Both were looking forward to spending some time away from the town and the faint yet constant sense of disapproval that, thanks to Mrs Tyler, permeated the Black Lion. Firstly, however, they needed to check in with Bolton.

Janice started the bike and headed down a couple of side streets to where Mel had identified a slightly out of the way public telephone kiosk. The inn had a phone, but due to the looming presence of Mrs Tyler, neither of them felt comfortable using it.

Janice gave the Oxford number to the operator, and Bolton answered within two rings of the connection being made. He sounded distracted. “Oh, you two. At last. I thought you might have called earlier.”

“I didn't have all that much to report, Mr Bolton.” Janice filled him in on progress with the dig. She pondered whether to mention her encounter with PC Morgan, but in the end decided against it. In the cold light of day it sounded foolish.

Bolton didn't seem greatly impressed with Janice’s report; clearly he had been hoping for more significant finds. He claimed to know nothing of the dagger but agreed to check with the Ashmolean curator. Bolton seemed a little happier with the progress Mel had made, but his overall mood remained dour. “You two ladies need to make haste. News from Europe is grim. Holland is about to fall and France is in disarray. We don't know when the cult will strike and there's no time to lose.”

Janice was irritated at the telling off. “We've been following the papers, Mr Bolton,” she said – although in truth she'd been trying to avoid the neverending bad news from the Continent. She declined Bolton’s suggestion that they travel to Oxford to meet with him. “We've told ya all we know Mr Bolton. Soon as we get more news, we’ll tell you. Mel n’ me have got plans for today.”

It had been Mel’s suggestion that they take the opportunity to get away from Salisbury and away from the dig. She could see the effect that the mission was having on Janice, and she was desperate for her friend to have a day off from creepy locals and tales of demonic forces. She had suggested that they spend a day touring the area, and to her surprise Janice had readily agreed.

It had been a good plan, Mel thought to herself. Only a few miles out of the town and she could sense Janice becoming more calm. As the bike traversed the bumpy local roads, she gripped her hands around the smaller woman’s waist, and swore that she could actually feel the tension easing out of her muscles.

The English countryside was truly beautiful, thought Janice. She had slowed the bike to a steady 30mph to allow her and her passenger to take in the bucolic tranquility around them. A herd of brown and white cows chewed the cud contentedly in a field to their left. A scent of honeysuckle hung in the air. It was hard to believe this was a nation at war. Janice sighed, the reality of the conflict breaching through her thoughts. Were Nazi agents at work, even in this sleepy corner of the country? She frowned and shook her head. No. She wouldn't wreck the day with her fears and dark thoughts. Pushing them to the back of her mind, she turned towards a picturesque village.

Night had fallen and on a hill overlooking Salisbury, the two Americans lay side by side on a blue and white checked picnic blanket gazing up at the stars, clearly visible in the pitch black sky.

“The Big Dipper,” murmured Mel, pointing up at an indeterminate part of the night sky.

“Thought that one was a bear,” grunted Janice. She turned to her companion. “Woah! Bit a déjà vu there!”

“Me too.” Mel sighed contentedly and stretched her long frame out past the blanket’s edge. “Oh, it's been a wonderful day, Janice. Thanks so much for driving.”

“No problem.” It had, Janice reflected, been a good day. After wandering aimlessly but happily around a couple of picture-perfect villages, they had found a secluded spot under an oak tree near a stream to rest and eat. Mel had saved up their rations during the week which helped to supplement the ubiquitous grey bread with a little cheese and ham. With the addition of a few apples it made a fine spread, and it was all the better for being washed down with a bottle of rough French red from the Black Lion’s cellar.

After a couple of hours lounging by the banks of the stream, the friends had at Janice’s suggestion taken a trip to another set of standing stones at Avebury. Both had been fascinated by the ancient megaliths, which came without the odd familiar feeling at Stonehenge

They rounded off the day with fish and chips in a nearby village, and now here they were lying happily under the stars, an easy familiarity between them.

“Why Janice, maybe we should just camp up here. Forget that dreary old pub. The two of us, sleeping under the stars, wondering what adventures the next day will bring…”

The archeologist turned an amused face to her companion. “We don't even have a tent, Mel. Those English nights get pretty nippy.” Janice snorted to herself. Melinda the Southern belle wanting to rough it in the woods? Things you never thought you'd see.

“Well, we could build a campfire.” Mel looked a little put out.

“Heh. Maybe next time.” Janice paused. “Hey, Mel, you lost ya glasses?”

Mel propped herself up on her elbow and shook her head. “I didn't bring them. It's strange, but since that… incident… in the tomb, I've found I need them less and less.”

Hmm. That was strange, Janice thought. The episode had clearly affected them both and in unexpected ways. She glanced at her watch, conscious of Mrs Tyler’s curfew but reluctant to end the day quite yet. “Tell me something else about the scrolls, Mel.”

Mel paused before she spoke. “Well, I've been spending a bit of time on one particular scroll. The title translates roughly as ‘Mortal Beloved’. It details an episode early in the duo’s travels together, where Xena meets up with an old flame, a man called Marcus. It seems that Marcus had something of a violent or criminal past, but having reconnected with Xena he was considering changing his ways. Unfortunately he dies during Xena’s successful attempt to rescue a kidnapped girl. Gabrielle describes the funeral rites in considerable detail; I believe classical scholars will find this passage extremely valuable.

“The second part of the scroll deals with Xena’s visit to the underworld to redeem her former lover and features all sorts of fanciful detail involving battles with harpies and such. In the end, Hades agrees to allow Marcus into the Elysian Fields.”

Mel gave a little embarrassed laugh. “I think we can safely write off this second half as Gabrielle’s poetic licence…”

“You sure about that, Mel?” Janice pulled herself into a sitting position and pulled out a cheroot. “Because after Macedonia, I wouldn't be so quick to write off ancient deities. Not to mention this current business we've got ourselves into.” She smiled at her friend’s uncertain expression. “Ah, who knows? I just think we should keep an open mind.” She lit the cheroot. “Anyway, Xena and Marcus, huh? I guess this predated her and Gabby being an item?”

Mel’s face coloured, visible even in the poor light. “Um, well, yes.” She sat up and smoothed the fabric of her skirt. “It seems so. In fact… what’s interesting about the scroll is the way Gabrielle’s writing betrays her conflicted feelings about Xena’s relationship with Marcus. She is clearly trying to build up the romance, perhaps to something more significant than it was, probably to heighten dramatic tension and intensify the tragedy of Marcus’s death. At the same time, the tone of parts of the story… suggest sadness and even jealousy at Xena’s closeness to her former lover.”

“D’ya think Xena knew about her sidekick’s crush on her?” Janice was curious.

Mel shook her head. “Impossible to say for sure. We only have Gabrielle’s perspective. But at this stage she describes a stoic, often silent warrior, not someone who showed her emotions. If Xena had guessed the bard’s feelings for her, it seems unlikely that she would have divulged this.”

Janice pondered this. To her great surprise, the relationship between her supposed ancestor and the semi-mythical warrior woman was becoming one of the most interesting aspects of the scrolls. She wondered when the two had confessed their true feelings to each other and was about to ask Mel whether her translation work so far shed any light on this, when she suddenly realised the time. “Crap. It's later than I thought. C’mon, we’d better get back before the old bat locks us out and we do have to sleep under the stars.” Stubbing out her half-smoked cheroot, and vowing to keep the remainder for later, she swung her leg over the bike. Once Mel was safely aboard, they sped off back to Salisbury at a rather faster speed than was sensible.


Shortly before 10 the following morning, two strangers joined the congregation for the Sunday morning service at the Cathedral. The plans for the day had again been Mel’s idea, with Janice content to skip Mrs Tyler’s terrible breakfast in favour of another hour or two’s snooze. Mel however saw attendance at the sermon as an opportunity to make contacts within the local Church as well as an excellent people-watching opportunity, and managed to convince an initially reluctant Janice with relatively little difficulty.

Dressed in her skirt suit, Janice craned her neck for a better view of the building’s magnificent architecture. It was truly breathtaking, and almost made up for the loss of a morning spent napping.

Mel's eyes, on the other hand, were focused solely on the members of the congregation filing in to take their seats. Catching sight of one man, she elbowed her companion sharply in the ribs. “That's him.”

Janice turned to see a well-fed, moustachioed man of around 50, smartly dressed and displaying a rather ostentatious watch on a chain. He looked inordinately pleased with himself as he shook hands with fellow worshippers before taking up a seat in the pew across the aisle. So this is Harold Montague. She disliked him immediately.

Glancing around, Janice noticed a few other familiar faces, including PC Morgan and Daniels and Holland from the dig. Well, she thought to herself, this must be the place to come on Sundays. The choir was starting up, so she steeled herself for some preaching of a religion that she wasn't sure she believed in any more.

Just over an hour later, the vicar was concluding his sermon. Janice stifled a yawn. The service had been entirely unremarkable and she was already struggling to remember the main messages from the address. Some decent songs, though, she mused to herself. More singing, less talking please.

A hand clasping gently round her wrist brought her attention back to current events. “Let’s take a walk,” Mel murmured. She proceeded to lead Janice on a meandering tour of the Cathedral and its grounds, stopping every so often to admire a statue or painting. Eventually, she spotted a tall thin man in a dog collar, and headed casually in his direction. “Oh my,” she said loudly once they were in earshot, “This is so fine, Janice! I just wish we knew more about some of these treasures.”

The man in the dog collar smiled broadly and made his way over to them. “Forgive me ladies, but I couldn't help overhearing. I can probably answer any questions you might have about the Cathedral.” He held out his hand to Mel. “I'm Donald Brand, and I'm the Deacon here.”

“So nice to meet you Deacon,” gushed Mel. “I’m Melinda Pappas, and this is Dr Janice Covington.”

Brand frowned. “You're excavating that field outside of town.” His tone was almost accusatory. The initial friendliness had evaporated.

Interesting. Mel pulled her most innocent face. “Why yes, we are, Mr Brand. Is something the matter?”

Brand said nothing for a moment. “Ah, it's not your fault.” His expression softened. “It's just that… well. It's dredged up some things I think would be better buried.” He looked at Mel, who was continuing to sport a bemused face. Mind made up, he lowered his voice. “Walk with me. If anyone sees us they will think I'm giving you a tour.”

The deacon paused in front of an impressive stained glass window and gestured towards it. Mel and Janice pulled appropriately impressed faces. Brand looked around and then began speaking in a low voice. “None of this is your fault. But the discoveries in that field have somehow – emboldened – certain people in the area.

“I have no doubt that you have done your research and are aware of the history of this place. For centuries, we have been plagued by a cabal which worships an ancient evil. It ebbs and flows, but it never really goes away.

“There is considerable interest from some quarters in the findings from your excavation. There is a belief that it is significant in some way. Certain people…”

“The cult.” Janice announced. “Montague.”

Brand looked pained and made hushing noises. “Please be careful ladies. Walls have ears.”

“I was surprised,” Mel murmured conversationally, “to see Montague here at all. If he really worships some evil God, why would he be turning up for Sunday morning prayers at a cathedral?”

Brand made a disgusted noise. “Showing off. He knows he owns this town. No one will stand up to him. Even the clergy’s in his pocket.” He shook his head. “I'm the lone voice in the wilderness. Ignored by everyone.”

Janice sighed. This was useful information, but Brand’s self-pitying manner was starting to aggravate her. Sensing her companion was about to lose her temper, Mel decided to bring the discussion to a close. “Thank you so much, Deacon! You have a beautiful cathedral here and you have been so kind to tell us about it!” She spoke loudly for the benefit of any hidden eavesdroppers.

Brand smiled weakly and hurried away into a side room. The two women walked slowly out of the building and into bright sunlight. Janice lit a cheroot. “Montague’s the key. But how are we gonna dig any dirt on him? He's got the whole damn town bowing and scraping to him.” She groaned to herself. “We got an hour before lunch with the Tylers. Buy ya a beer?”

Mel nodded, and the two women ducked into the nearest pub.



The half term holiday was over, leaving the excavation team shorthanded, so Mel offered to accompany Janice to the digsite to help out for a few days. Janice had accepted with a tinge of guilt, knowing in her heart that Mel’s talents would be better put to use investigating the cult past and present. But the thought of a week stuck out in a muddy field alone dealing with Elsie’s forced bonhomie and Paul Holland’s faint creepiness had filled her with dread. Her heart had jumped at Mel’s offer. She hoped her eager acceptance hadn't sounded too desperate.

In any event it was another beautiful Spring day, and Janice sipped weak tea as she surveyed activity across the excavation. By late afternoon Daniels had unearthed two more Persian coins and was whistling tunelessly in the “office” whilst enthusiastically cataloguing his find. Janice turned away from the wooden building to watch the team grubbing away in the dirt. Her eyes drifted to Mel, who was wearing a long sleeved red blouse and one of the pairs of cotton pants she had purchased in Washington. She seemed to have dispensed with the spectacles entirely and her thick black tresses were tied back with a brightly patterned scarf. Janice thought briefly of a Gypsy fortune teller at a country fair. A sexy one, she mused to herself, before pushing that thought to the back of her mind.

As if she sensed Janice’s eyes on her, Mel looked up and gave her friend a truly stunning smile. To her shame Janice felt her cheeks colouring. She waved feebly and returned to the office to make mindless small talk about the coins with Daniels.

Their chat was interrupted by a shout of excitement, and Janice sprinted away from the office down the bank, vaulting into the dig area. Elsie was brushing dirt from an object poking out of the ground. The team clustered round as Janice reverently pulled the item from its resting place.

It was a metal figurine, approximately 18 inches high. Janice could not immediately identify the particular metal used, but it was solid and weighed heavily in her hands. The statue depicted a grotesque horned humanoid figure throwing its head back in anger or triumph – it was impossible to tell. A thick base was covered in ancient writings of some sort. To Janice at least, the object reeked of evil.

Initial shocked silence had given way to muted applause. Janice stood up and addressed the team. “Well done, everyone. This looks to be quite a find.” She smiled weakly. “Mel and I need to take a look at this, try and work out what we got here.” She fished in the pockets of her khakis and pulled out a couple of pound notes. “You guys deserve a night out. Here, get yourselves a few drinks on me.”

Whilst the team got ready to head into town, Janice walked up to the makeshift office to lock up. Turning the key she sensed someone nearby. She whirled round to find Holland standing a couple of feet from her. “Mr Holland? Can I help you?”

“I can take that to the bank. Lock it in the vaults for the night.” He moved closer. “Safer that way.”

Clamping the horrid artifact under her left arm, Janice felt inside her jacket for her revolver. She didn't want to use the gun, but something told her that Holland may not take no for an answer.

“Bank’s closed, Mr Holland.” A strong hand gripped his shoulder, and it was hard to know whether he or Janice was more surprised to see Mel standing behind him. “The team’s off to the pub. I think you'd better join them.”

Holland opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it. Shrugging himself free of Mel’s grip, he headed down to where his colleagues were gathering near Daniels’ old truck.

The Americans stood in silence for a few minutes until the dig team had dispersed. Eventually Janice turned to the taller woman. “Woah, Mel. That was something else. I didn't know you had it in you.”

Mel smirked and raised an eyebrow. “He's obviously easily intimidated. Let’s get back home so that I can take a look at this inscription.”


Janice paced around the attic bedroom, smoking furiously and occasionally giving voice to an incoherent curse. “Well c’mon, Mel! What's it say? You've been at this for hours now.”

Mel looked up from the desk and briefly surveyed the chaos around her. Janice’s khakis, boots and weapons were scattered around the floor. Papers and books were stacked up on the bed. There were two ashtrays in her line of sight, both filled with the smouldering remains of cheroots. The whisky that Janice had thought to pack was already half gone, drunk out of a chipped mug that had previously housed their toothbrushes. Mel took a deep breath. “This is going to take a while. Some of these symbols are difficult to decipher, and there's been some damage to the base. You need to calm down, Janice. Getting agitated won't speed things up.”

There was a loud crashing sound and to Mel’s surprise she saw that Janice had hurled the mug at the door, where it had shattered into countless fragments. “Goddamnit!” screamed Janice in frustration, before she slumped onto the bed and put her head in her hands.

There was a moment of silence while both women waited for Mrs Tyler to appear and start complaining about the noise. When nothing happened, Mel moved to sit on the bed and took her friend’s hand. “Dr Janice Covington. You've faced danger on four continents that I'm aware of. Nothing stands in your way! What is it about this stupid statue that's bothering you so much?”

Janice looked up at her companion. On one level she was embarrassed about how she was behaving. On another she was baffled as to how Mel could remain so calm with the vile object so close to them. “It's EVIL! Can't you feel it?”

Mel rubbed her temple. Janice’s extreme reaction to the artifact was troubling her and she had no idea how to calm the other woman down. “It's a little – disturbing, yes. I don't much like it. But it’s only a statue, Janice. It's a very important find.” When she saw Janice smiling weakly, she patted her friend on the hand and stood up. “Let me get back to the translation.”

“Yeah, okay,” muttered Janice. “I'd better clean this place up before we get kicked out.”

Mel worked through most of the night. Janice, true to her word, cleared up the mess in the room. After the mug incident she’d lain off the whisky, although she continued to chain smoke and pace around the small living space, occasionally peering out of the small window to check whether anyone was watching the inn.

Shortly after the first signs of dawn, there was a breakthrough. Mel gave a small sound of triumph and stood up from her chair. “That's it! I think I've got it.”

Janice abandoned her window vigil and hurried over to the desk. “Well? Whatcha got?”

Mel scrutinised her notes. “Well, it starts off with a supplication of sorts, our Lord Dahak, the One True God, we your humble servants, etc etc. It goes on in that vein for some time. But the really interesting bit comes after. Some of it was worn away, and there were a couple of unfamiliar symbols, which is why it took me so long. But from what I can tell, the inscription tells of a sacrifice of blood. One which involves a young innocent, and which will somehow bring Dahak’s power into the world.”

“Human sacrifice.” Janice nodded. “Has to be. It all makes sense. When the cult kidnapped that girl 150 years ago. They were going to sacrifice her.” She made a disgusted noise. “No wonder the thing feels so evil.”

Mel rested her hand on Janice’s shoulder. “I can't be 100% sure. Like I say, some of the symbols are unfamiliar. But… it does look like the most likely explanation.”

Janice wiped her palms, which were suddenly clammy, on her shirt. “Okay. No way this is going in any damn bank vault. And I'm not having it in our room for the rest of the week, either. I'm not gonna get much sleep with his ugly mug staring at us. Bolton needs to see this, right away.”

After some discussion, it was agreed that Mel would supervise the excavation while Janice rode to Oxford to show Bolton the disturbing find. With some difficulty, Mel persuaded her companion to stay for breakfast before heading out. “We want this to look as normal as possible,” she reasoned. “I'll tell the team you needed to do some research at the Bodleian Library.” Reluctantly, Janice had acquiesced. In her heart she knew Mel was right, but her desire to be rid of the artifact was overwhelming her rational thoughts. She was also keen to confront Bolton face to face. There was no doubt in her mind that he knew more than he had shared with them.


Janice reached St John’s College shortly before 10am. Parking the bike outside the lodge, she strode into the main quadrangle, ignoring the stares of gown-clad dons clearly alarmed to see the wild-looking woman in khakis and a leather jacket. She paused briefly before selecting one of the staircases off the quad and heading up a flight of stairs, taking the steps two at a time.

At the top of the staircase was an impressive oak panelled door. Janice flung it open without stopping to knock. Bolton was sitting at a large desk talking on an elaborate telephone that appeared to be finished in ivory. He looked up in surprise for a moment before holding up a hand to his visitor and returning to the call.

The apparently dismissive gesture enraged Janice, who stalked over to the desk and placed her hands on the the ink blotter next to the telephone. “We need to talk. Now,” she hissed at the man opposite her.

Bolton took the hint. “I'm very sorry Home Secretary. I'll call you back.” Replacing the handset in its cradle, he glowered at Janice. “Dr Covington. Would you care to explain the meaning of – “

“Meaning of what, Mr Bolton? Maybe you'd like to tell ME the meaning of THIS.” As she spoke Janice reached into the canvas bag around her shoulder and slammed the statue on the desk.

There was silence for a moment as Bolton studied the ugly object in front of him. His eyes narrowed. “What is this?”

Janice stared at him, but saw no sign of evasion or obfuscation in his eyes. She sighed. “We dug it up yesterday. It's some sort of depiction of an evil god, we think. Mel translated the writing around the base and believes it to describe the ritual needed to bring this god into the world. The ritual seems to involve human sacrifice.”

Bolton frowned and reached out his hand to touch the artifact. “Human sacrifice, you say. An evil god. Looks like the rumours were true after all. This cult is as dangerous as they say.”

“Mr Bolton.” To her annoyance, Janice could hear a hint of pleading enter her voice. “Would you please tell me what you know? It feels like we’re flying blind here.”

Bolton stood up and walked to the window. He spent a few moments looking out over the bustling street of St Giles before speaking. “Dr Covington. I swear that I know very little more than what I have already told you and Miss Pappas.” He sighed. “I have learned a little more in recent days, however.”

Janice looked at him expectantly.

“Firstly, the Ashmolean has no record of the receipt of any ceremonial dagger from the Wiltshire digsite. The inventory from that week’s delivery lists coins and some pottery shards. No mention of a dagger. Wherever it is, its’s not here.

“Secondly, one of our intelligence operatives has tracked a German agent to Salisbury. It seems he was to meet with a contact in a café there. Unfortunately, the agent managed to give our man the slip before he could be apprehended. We do not know whether the meeting went ahead. We do know, however, that the agent in question is a high ranking officer who would only have embarked on the mission if it was of utmost importance.”

Bolton moved to stand next to Janice and gingerly put his hand on her arm. “I need you to trust me, Dr Covington. Whatever is happening at your dig is of great significance to this country and perhaps the whole world. It is vital that you locate any artifacts of significance and that you manage to investigate the cult.”

Janice shook off his hand, but she did so gently. “Alright, Mr Bolton. We’ll keep on with this. But I have to warn you that I don't have a good feeling about any of it.” She gave him a grim smile. “I should let you get back to the Home Secretary.”

Bolton called out as she turned for the door. “What should I do with this, Dr Covington?”

“I don't care. Keep it away from me.” She jammed the fedora on her head as she exited the study and headed to the bike.


Back in the snug of the Black Lion that evening, Janice filled her friend in on the events of the day. Mel was especially troubled to learn of the German agent. “I wonder who he was meeting?”

“Who knows. The useless Limey spy lost track of him.” Janice drained her glass and looked for a refill, but the bar appeared unmanned. “What about you, Mel? Find out anything interesting today?”

“Not really. The digsite was pretty uneventful. Holland wasn't there, which was a blessing.” Mel thought for a second. “Well, there was a bit of gossip from Elsie. Apparently a few years ago Montague was heavily involved with the BUF.”

“The British Union of Fascists?! Goddamnit Mel, he must be the Nazi contact!” Janice looked smug. “Wait till we tell Bolton this.”

“Well,” Mel cautioned, “It was a few years ago, long before war broke out. Elsie seemed to think it was all in the past. Montague is a big patriot these days, or so he claims.”

“Huh.” Janice looked unconvinced. “I'm wiped. Let's have one more round then I'm gonna have an early night.”



Wednesday morning and the excavation was a hive of activity. Janice noted with some disappointment that Holland was back on site, but he kept away from her and from Mel. “Looks like ya frightened him off,” Janice grinned with satisfaction.

Mel smirked. “I do believe he deserved it!”

“I do believe that you're right.” Janice checked her watch and was about to signal for a tea break when she spotted in her peripheral vision a figure standing on an outcrop jutting from a nearby hill. As she watched the figure, she saw a flash of light and a gunshot rang out.

Acting on pure instinct, Janice grabbed Mel and bundled her to the ground, yelling “Everyone! Get down!”

Mel gasped in shock as she was pushed roughly to the ground. Janice had, she realised, thrown herself over her presumably in an attempt to shield her with her body. They lay there together for what felt like an eternity but which was in reality probably less than two minutes. “Are you alright, Janice?” she eventually managed to croak.

“Yeah. I'm good, I think.” Slowly, Janice raised her head. “Is everybody okay?”

A general noise indicating affirmatives. Daniels crept over towards the two women. “Dr Covington? Are you alright?”

Janice pulled herself into her knees. “I'm fine. There was a gunman…”

“Gunman? Are you sure?” Daniels was shaking his head. “It was probably just a shot from the firing range…”

“Jesus Christ man, I've been working here for ten days, I'm well aware that there's a goddamned firing range next door! I'm not talking about that. There was a gunman up there, on that hill.”

“We didn't see anything, Dr Covington…”

Janice let his voice trail off out of her earshot. She was already on her feet sprinting towards the hill in question. After a short while she realised to her surprise and delight that Mel was in pursuit, and was in fact gaining on her with her long legs. “Hey, Mel. Whatcha doin’? This could be dangerous.”

“Where you go, I go.”

Again with the déjà vu. Huh.

They reached the summit of the small hill, from where the outcrop was accessible via a narrow and rocky path. Breathing heavily, Janice began to make her way down it. She drew her revolver. “Stay behind me, Mel.”

The outcrop was empty. There was no sign of anyone having been there. No cigarette butts, no spent cartridges, no visible footprints. Janice looked around. How had he got away? Had there even been anyone there, or was her mind playing tricks again?

“Janice! Look here!” Mel’s voice roused her from her attack of self doubt.

“What is it?”

“A cave! It's hidden back here, under all these brambles. Ouch! Mind your arms on these.”

Janice walked over to where Mel was pointing. There was, indeed, an entrance to a cave, almost entirely obscured by thick and thorny vegetation. Janice pulled her hunting knife from its home on her calf and started hacking through the undergrowth. As she did it, she wondered why she was bothering to do so – the gunman couldn't be hiding inside. He would have been cut to ribbons even attempting it. Still, something told her to keep going, and a few minutes later the entrance was clear.

The cave didn't go back a long way, but visibility inside was poor nonetheless. Janice sparked up her lighter and walked gingerly inside, shielding the flame with her left hand. “Nothing here.”

“Wait.” Mel was crouched down in a corner. “Can you bring the light here? I think I've found something.”

Janice approached with the lighter, and they both gasped as something glittered between two rocks. “What on earth…” Mel’s long fingers worked behind the object and gently pulled it to the surface.

Both women were dumbstruck. A large, ornate box, apparently made of silver or some sort of precious metal. It was inlaid with pearls and semi-precious stones. A small lock sealed whatever was inside securely within it. “Oh my…” Mel whispered.

Janice was already kneeling on the floor. She took her knife and gently pressed the point into the locking mechanism. Within seconds the box had popped open, to reveal two scrolls made of familiar-looking parchment.

“No.” Janice breathed. “It can't be…”

With trembling hands, Mel unrolled the end of one of the scrolls and began to read. “I sing of Xena, a mighty Princess, forged in the heat of battle…”

Janice sank back down onto the ground. “Oh my God. How can this be… I can't believe it.” She turned to Mel. “Are they real? Or is this just some trick Bolton is playing on us to keep us here?”

Mel looked up at her friend. “I think they're genuine, Janice. They look the same as the ones back at Georgetown. The parchment, the writing… everything.”

“Wow. Just wow.” Janice had stood up and was resuming the pacing from the previous night. “We need to get these back to our room and start translating.”

“What about the dig…”

“Forget the dig. This is nothing to do with them. We didn't find the scrolls there. This is different.”

“We can't just run away from it, Janice. It will look odd.” Mel straightened up. “You hold onto the box and the scrolls. I'm going to go down to the team and tell them you've had a bit of a scare, and that we’re closing up for today.”

“Okay. Thanks, Mel.”

“Not a problem. Meet me at the bike in 20 minutes. I want to make sure everyone’s gone.”


Back at the Black Lion, it was hard for either woman to conceal their excitement. Fortunately, the handful of patrons enjoying a lunchtime drink barely registered their presence. Janice had draped her jacket over the box, and they were able to make it up to their room without incident.

Mel insisted on transcribing the scrolls before attempting any translation. “We must preserve the text,” she reasoned. “Just in case anything happens to the original.”

She was right, of course, Janice said to herself, but it was hard to restrain oneself from starting the translation. She tried to focus on copying Gabrielle’s precise strokes exactly. The text was densely packed and clearly extremely detailed. Looks like her ancestor was thorough, if nothing else. Janice felt an odd sense of pride as she continued with her detailed work. Yeah. Gabrielle was alright.

The two women were rudely awakened from their labours by a loud knocking at the door. “Miss Pappas! Miss Covington! There's a policeman here to see you.”

“Ah, shit,” Janice groaned. “What now?”

Mel stood up and walked towards the door. “Stay calm, Janice. Let me handle this.”

Janice opened her mouth to protest but thought better of it. Mel had been far more together than she had in recent days.

“We’ll be right there, Mrs Tyler. Did he say what he wanted?”

“He did not. Just that he needed to speak to you both.” Mrs Tyler sounded like she was spitting something out. “A copper at my door! I never thought I'd see the day. I'm telling you, if there's trouble you're both out of here. I don't care what the University pays me!”

Mel rolled her eyes at Janice and opened the door. Mrs Tyler was standing at the top of the stairs, glaring into the room. “He's waiting downstairs in the bar.”

“That's lovely, Mrs Tyler. We’ll come right away. Perhaps you would be so kind as to make us some tea…?”

Mrs Tyler snorted in disgust and stomped down the stairs. Janice did her best to stifle a laugh. “Nicely done.”

Mel winked at her friend and started down the staircase. “C’mon Janice. Let's just play it cool. We've done nothing wrong after all.”

They entered the deserted bar area to see PC Morgan sitting at one of the tables. Mel smiled flirtatiously while Janice gave a silent groan. She waited for her companion to begin greeting the officer before steadying herself to speak. “PC Morgan. How can we help you?”

“I've told you already, Dr Covington! Stephen, please.” The police officer smiled as a scowling Mrs Tyler arrived with a tray of teas and a minuscule jug of milk. He waited for the landlady to exit the bar before continuing. “We had a report of a gunman at the digsite. I thought you might want to make a statement.”

Janice steeled herself to speak but found that Mel was already in full flow. “Oh, PC Morgan – Stephen – we’re so very sorry! Janice thought she saw a flash on one of the hills above the excavation, and it just happened to coincide with a shot from the military firing range nearby. We went to investigate but it was a false alarm. Thank goodness,” she added, fluttering her eyelashes.

“I see.” Morgan looked uncertain. “Dr Covington? Do you have anything to add?”

Janice pulled herself out of her shocked stupor at Mel’s shameless flirting. “Er, no, officer. That's right. Exactly as Miss Pappas said.”

“But you packed up early and came home,” Morgan persisted. “It sounds like something spooked you.”

“Oh, Officer – I mean Stephen – you know how it can be.” Mel gave him a small smirk. “Sometimes you just need an excuse for an afternoon off. And Dr Covington and I have been working so hard…”

Morgan grinned. “I do indeed know how it can be, Miss Pappas! So tell me,” he leaned forward conspiratorially, “Have you ladies found anything interesting while you've been working so hard?”

Janice stiffened, but Mel was already on the case. “Why, we did find a very impressive statue the other day! But we couldn't figure out what the inscription on it said, so Janice has taken it to Oxford to be examined by some of the world’s leading experts in the field.”

Morgan looked disappointed, but seemed to accept what he was being told. “I only wish I'd seen it. Sounds like quite a find.” He stood up to leave. “Well, I'd better be getting back to my beat. I'm glad you ladies are alright.” He paused. “There's a dance on Saturday night at the city hall. Soldiers, locals… it should be fun. Why don't you ladies come along?”

“We’d be delighted, officer!” Mel almost squealed.

“Well, that's great! I'll see you both there then.” Morgan took Mel’s hand and kissed it gently. “Until then, Miss Pappas.” He nodded curtly at Janice. “Dr Covington.”

Janice stared at the policeman’s retreating form until she was satisfied he was well out of possible earshot. “What the HELL, Mel?”

“Ssh.” Mel smiled. “It worked, didn't it? And the dance will be a perfect opportunity to find out more about the people in this town, and maybe the cult.”

Janice rolled her eyes and banged on the bar. “Hey! Mr Tyler! Any chance of a coupla drinks in here?”



It turned out that the Saturday night dance was a major social event, and the whole town seemed to be buzzing with excitement over it. The couple of days leading up to it had been uneventful, with Janice supervising the dig while Mel stayed in the attic room, focused entirely on the new scrolls.

The time spent studying the find had proved worthwhile. By Saturday afternoon both documents had been fully transcribed and translation of the first scroll was proceeding at a brisk pace. It began with a description of a sea voyage by Xena and Gabrielle to Britannia. Once there, they had made contact with a female military leader Gabrielle named as Boadicea, who was fighting to repel a Roman invasion led by Julius Caesar. This dated the events to 55 – 54BC. It looked as though Harry Covington’s theory had been correct, although the mention of Boadicea in this context troubled both scholars. All other histories pointed to a woman called Boadicea – or Boudicca – leading a rebellion against Roman rule many years later, following the successful conquest of the British Isles a century or more afterwards.

As Mel was satisfied that the scroll was genuine, there were two possibilities – either that the established history of the period was entirely incorrect in its dating of the woman warrior Boadicea, or that her rebellious namesake had adopted the moniker of an earlier fighter who had successfully defended her lands from the invaders. On balance Mel preferred the second option. The absence of any reference to the earlier Boadicea in classical sources was unsurprising – history is written by the victors, after all, and the British tribes were mainly preliterate at this stage. Roman historians of the period were unlikely to have recorded the great Julius Caesar’s defeat to a barbarian woman – or women, if, as Mel suspected, it was to turn out that Xena was instrumental in the rout of the invading Romans.

Late on Friday there was a breakthrough with the translation work. The scroll confirmed what had been referred to in the Roman journal Bolton had shown them. Gabrielle, along with a holy man of some sort, had been captured by Caesar. Both prisoners were taken to a hill to be crucified in view of Xena and the army of Britons. In powerful prose, Gabrielle described the terror of being tied to the wooden cross and left to die slowly and painfully.

To the relief of both Mel and Janice, Gabrielle’s torture on the cross lasted only a few moments. Xena and a small band of volunteers had buried themselves in a pit beneath the hill, and as soon as the crosses were raised they burst out of the hiding place, scattering the shocked Roman troops, many of whom did not escape with their lives. Gabrielle and the holy man were quickly cut down, and Xena took pleasure in tearing up Caesar’s banner. Caesar himself had also suffered a minor injury, denting the image of invulnerability he liked to portray to his troops.
Both scholars had hoped for a detailed explanation of the tactics Xena and the Britons had used to defeat the most powerful military force in the ancient world. Unfortunately, by Saturday afternoon it was apparent that the scroll was rather light on this detail, with Gabrielle’s focus instead on the teachings of the holy man who had escaped the crucifixion with her. Janice’s suspicions were aroused by the presence of the man, but further investigation would have to wait as it was time for the two friends to get ready for the dance.

“Urgh,” Janice groaned, as her hairbrush snagged another tangle. “I hate these things. Hate dressing up.”

“Don’t be silly, Janice. You look wonderful.” Mel was dressed in a pale blue dress with a silver and sapphire necklace and matching earrings. Her hair was pinned up on her head in what might have been a rather severe style, but which somehow suited the dark Southerner.

Janice surveyed herself in the mirror. She did not, she supposed, look too dreadful. The green dress she’d bought in DC flattered her figure and complemented her eyes. She wore an unusual golden necklace she’d picked up in a Tunisian bazaar. Her hair, though… “I can't do anything with it. Never could.”

“Your hair’s fantastic, Janice. You should show it off.” Mel walked over to her friend and took the brush from her hand. “Let me try something.” She examined Janice’s tresses. “I'm going to put a couple of braids in. Make you look a little exotic. Wild.”

Janice shook her head. “Braids, Mel… I dunno. That's gonna look a little – Germanic. I'm not sure that's the greatest idea, in the current climate.”

“Have it your way. But let me pin it up, at least.”


The hall was only a short walk from the Black Lion. There was a faint chill in the air, so Janice had slipped on her leather jacket as they were leaving. Mel smiled at her friend’s somewhat incongruous appearance. At least she left the fedora behind, she thought to herself.

They stopped at the phone box to check in with Bolton. He seemed unimpressed with the revelation about Montague’s BUF affiliation. “Mosley attracted a lot of idiots a few years ago. The vast majority have abandoned all of that nonsense now.” On hearing Janice’s sigh, he relented. “I’ll have someone look into it. Any other news?”

The two women had already made a pact to keep the discovery of the scrolls to themselves for now. “Not really,” Janice said brightly. “We’re off to some big dance in town. Might learn some more about this damned cult.” She ignored Bolton’s expression of annoyance and hung up. “Waste of time.”

“Oh, come on, Janice. He's not so bad.” Mel linked arms with her friend, to Janice’s surprise. “Mr Tyler gave me a key for the side door. We don't have to be back for curfew. Let’s dance!”

The hall was already filling up when they got there. It had been hastily decorated with bunting and patriotic posters. Janice paid the token entry fee and hung up their coats in a small room which had been set aside for the purpose. On the stage, a dance band was playing a jazz tune that sounded vaguely familiar. A makeshift bar had been set up along one wall, and Janice wasted no time in heading over to it. “Get ya something Mel?”

“Gin and tonic please.” Mel surveyed the attendees. Paul Holland was sitting in a corner on his own, scowling into a pint of dark ale. Elsie, predictably, appeared to have volunteered for multiple jobs and was splitting her time between manning the entry desk, fussing over the coat storage room and adjusting crooked bunting. A couple of the sixth form students could be seen giggling at the side of the hall, enjoying illicit pints. There were a number of soldiers and airmen in uniform milling around looking for potential dance partners. No sign of Montague.

“Well, hello there beautiful ladies!” Stephen Morgan appeared from nowhere, just as Janice returned with the drinks. He stepped back and theatrically cast his eyes over the two friends. “Heavens! You look marvellous.” He kissed the back of Mel’s hand. “You too, Dr Covington. I've – ah – never seen you like this.”

“I clean up okay.” Janice grunted and took a long drink from her beer. Her antipathy towards Morgan was increasing. She suspected the feeling was mutual. “Haven't seen you like this, either.” She indicated his suit, which was mid-brown and looked surprisingly expensive.

“Aha! Yes, well, thought a copper’s outfit wasn't quite the right look for tonight. Besides,” he gestured at the sea of military uniforms in front of them, “I can't compete with these chaps.” He gave a little laugh, which to Janice’s ears sounded entirely fake. “My manners! Can I get you ladies a drink?”

“Just got them,” Janice responded shortly, holding up her beer and gesturing at Mel’s glass. “Thanks for the offer though.”

“Well then.” Morgan held his hand out to Mel, just as the band started up ‘In the Mood’. “May I have the honour of this dance?”

Mel batted her eyelashes coquettishly. “Oh, my.” She glanced at Janice, who indicated with an irritated wave of her hand that she should go ahead. “I'd love to, Mr Morgan – um, Stephen!”

Janice watched as a grinning Morgan led Mel over to the dance floor. Morgan was a fairly decent dancer, she thought, and Mel made up in enthusiasm what she lacked in technical ability. They looked good together – both tall, dark, handsome, well-dressed.

Urgh. Janice turned away and was pondering whether to return to the bar when an unfamiliar voice broke through her thoughts. “Um, Miss? Would you, erm, care for a cigarette?”

Janice looked up to see a sandy-haired man in a military uniform proffering a pack of cigarettes. “Oh, sure. Thanks.” She took one and then realised she’d left her lighter in her jacket pocket. “Damnit. Do you have…?”

The soldier looked grave as he pulled a lighter from a pocket. “Please. Miss. Allow me.” He smiled shyly. “My name’s Calum.”

“Janice.” She smiled at the soldier, whose accent sounded reassuringly and confusingly familiar. “Are you American?”

“Canadian, ma’am.”

Of course. Janice nodded and turned her eyes back to the dance floor, where Mel and Morgan continued to boogie. Mel seemed to have grown in confidence and now looked for all the world like a natural. The good looking couple attracted admiring looks from across the hall.

“Don't feel too bad.”

“What?” Janice looked with a flash of irritation to see that Calum was still standing there.

“I said don't feel too bad. You're sweet on that guy, aren't you? It's a shame, I know how it is. But she looks like a nice girl. Don't take it to heart.”

Ah, crap. Talk about putting two and two together to make five. Janice shook her head. “I'm not sweet on that guy, Calum. I barely know him, and what I do know I don't much like.”

Calum brightened. “Oh, forgive me. I thought – oh well… Can I buy you a drink?”

Two drinks and a few dances later, it was clear that Calum’s inhibitions were lowered. Flushed, he leaned forward to whisper in Janice’s ear. “I'm being shipped out overseas next week.”

It was obvious where this was going. His voice was heavy with longing, and Janice felt a pang of sympathy. Who knew when – or if – the young soldier would see his home again. Briefly, Janice considered the possibility. The man was attractive enough, and she'd had a pleasant time with him. In the past, she thought, an assignation of some sort might have followed. But now… Janice sighed. “I'm sorry, Calum. I'm not available.”

The soldier looked crushed. Janice felt equal parts sympathy and irritation. She had nothing to feel guilty about. She hadn't led him on. The drinking and dancing had been fun, but she'd studiously avoided flirting. She gave a warm smile and kissed him chastely on the cheek. “Be well, Calum from Canada. Stay safe.”

The soldier nodded and smiled back. “Thanks for a nice evening. I'd better be getting back to barracks.”

He wandered off. Janice breathed a sigh of relief and made her way over to the bar. “Gimme a Scotch. Straight up. Double.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mel approaching, with Morgan following a few steps behind.

“Janice! There you are! We didn't know where you'd got to.” Mel smiled at her friend.

“Really? Cos I was here all along.” It sounded petty. She didn't care.

Morgan reached the bar and ordered a couple of drinks. “Dr Covington! What happened to your gentleman friend?”

“He wasn't my ‘gentleman friend’. And he's gone back to barracks to prepare for being shipped out to a war zone.”

There was an awkward silence which was broken, eventually, by Mel. “Stephen was asking about the dig, Janice. I was telling him that you're the best person to talk to about it.”

Janice turned to the policeman. “Whaddya wanna know, Officer? And why are you so interested, anyways?” She ignored Mel’s sharp intake of breath at her rudeness.

Morgan looked hurt. “I've told you Dr Covington, I'm just interested in history and from what I've heard there have been some really unusual finds. It must be something special, after all you and Melinda have come a long way just to investigate it.”

Janice stiffened. She wondered how much Morgan knew. She decided to keep her answer factual. “There are some unusual aspects to the objects found so far, yes. They suggest that the presence of visitors from as far away as Persia. This was not known to be a common occurrence in Britain at the time, especially so far inland.”

Morgan nodded eagerly. “I've heard rumours of rare religious artifacts…?”

“And that's what they are. Rumours. We have not yet identified for certain the purpose of some of the items found.” Janice inclined her head towards the policeman. “Speaking of religion and rumours, Officer, we keep hearing stories about some sort of ancient cult operating in the town. Could you tell us anything about that?”

Morgan frowned. “Oh, Dr Covington. Have you been talking to that tiresome old deacon at the cathedral? The ‘cult’ is a folklore society that organises charitable and community events around town. It's about our history and heritage, not devil-worship or whatever nonsense he's spreading around this month.”

“Folklore and heritage, right. So not an organisation that dabbles in, say, human sacrifice?” To the side, Janice heard Mel gasp in horror. She was past caring.

Morgan drew himself up to his full height, which dwarfed Janice and topped even Mel by a couple of inches. “I’m not staying here to listen to this rubbish. Come, Melinda. Let us dance.”

Janice watched the two of them head back to the dance floor, just as the band started to play a slow number. Morgan’s hand was on Mel’s waist, pulling her closer towards him. Janice turned away. She felt as though her heart would break. Knocking back the remains of the Scotch, she headed quickly for the cloakroom. Pulling on her jacket, she headed out into the deserted streets, trying desperately to fight back the hot tears which were pricking her eyes. She reached for a cheroot to steady her nerves, only to find the packet was empty. “Goddamnit!”

She heard something. Footsteps, tapping on the cobbled street behind her. Speeding up, getting closer. She knew who it was before she turned. “It's alright, Mel. Go back to the dance.”

“Janice! Are you alright? What is wrong with you?”

“I said, go back. Your cop is waiting for you. Leave.” The words choked Janice. She hoped Mel hadn't heard the sob which had escaped. If she was to end the evening with even a shred of dignity intact, Janice had to leave now. She turned away from her friend and began to walk briskly in the direction of the Black Lion, only to feel Mel’s hand on her shoulder, pulling her back. “I said LEAVE!” Janice spun round to face the Southerner who grabbed the lapels of her leather jacket before leaning forward and kissing her.

Saying Janice was surprised would not do justice to her feelings at that moment. The kiss deepened and conscious thoughts retreated. It was soft and yet passionate; gentle and yet insistent. Janice found herself sinking. For that moment, her world consisted solely of Melinda Pappas. Her taste. Her feel. Her smell. A bond that was new and yet somehow ancient. Eternal. Nothing in Janice’s experience had prepared her for this.

After a time – she had no idea how long – Janice reluctantly broke her lips away. “Mel. What…?” She couldn't speak. Her face was wet with tears. She could see, even in the darkness, that Mel’s was as well. “I didn't… I don't…”

“Sshh.” Mel brushed her finger gently over her companion’s lips. “I love you, Janice Covington. I've loved you from the first moment I saw you. I just… I couldn't…”

Now it was Janice’s turn to utter a comforting hush. “Mel. I – I had no idea. I thought you and Morgan… Oh Christ… I was so… jealous, I suppose.” It was hard, but it felt good to put a name to her feelings. “I've thought about you every day since we met. I dream about you. I just couldn't allow myself to think you might feel the same way.”

Mel choked back a sob. “I've never had… feelings like this… for anyone. But a woman… I couldn't admit it to myself. After you left, and I was there on my own with Morgan… well. That's when I knew. I thought I'd lost you Janice. Oh God!” The tears began to flow again.

Janice leaned in and lay her head under Mel’s chin in what was an immediately comforting and strangely familiar position. “C’mon gorgeous. Let's head home.”

Hand in hand, they wandered the short distance to the inn. Janice marvelled at her companion’s strong, slender fingers. “Mrs Tyler’s gonna freak,” she mumbled.

“I've got the late key, don't forget. She won't hear a thing.”

Mel was right, and they made it back to their room without being spotted. Now inside the room, Janice felt suddenly awkward. What now. “Um, Mel –“

Another kiss cut her off. “No more ‘umming’. I want you, Dr Covington.”

Well, okay. So Mel was serious about this. Wow. Janice shrugged off her jacket and let it drop to the floor. Her friend had already kicked off her shoes and was fiddling at the back of her dress. “Hey. Let me get that.” Janice fumbled with the zip just as Mel started to pull at her clothing, and the two of them fell back on the bed in a tangle of limbs. Giggling, the two women set themselves to the task of undressing each other as quickly as possible.

Finally naked, Janice clambered onto Mel’s body, thinking to herself that she had not until now noticed how magnificent it was. She began slowly, gently nibbling Mel’s ear and covering her shoulder and neck in kisses, conscious of her new lover’s limited experience. To her surprise, Mel reacted immediately and fiercely, flipping Janice onto her back before sucking hungrily at her lips. Janice grabbed Mel’s butt and pulled her closer. She wanted to meld into the other woman. This wasn't like any of her other sexual encounters. This was urgent, primal. This was her destiny. It was like time had stopped. She felt truly alive for the first time, and Janice knew that whatever happened she was ruined for anyone else.

To be continued...


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