The Hearne Inheritance

 

 
A ‘Captain Scarlet’ story for Halloween

 

By Marion Woods

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Captain Scarlet looked up suspiciously from his hospital bed as the door opened, and gave a relieved, welcoming smile.  Captain Blue’s fair brows rose in an amused twitch as he smiled in response.

“Hi, Adam; God, am I pleased to see a friendly face,” Scarlet began, as Blue deposited the bundle he was carrying on the bed and turned to drag the chair from against the wall to the bedside.

“I only went to get some lunch; it’s less than two hours since I was here, and you’ve been occupied,” Blue protested, nodding towards the empty tray on the bedside table.

“Yes, but the moment you went Fawn was in here like a ferret down a rabbit hole; draining whole armfuls of blood and prodding me about.  He’s promised that later he’s going to give me a whole body scan – again.”

“Aww: you poor little sod,” Blue teased in his best ‘English’ accent.

Scarlet chuckled.  “By George, I think he’s got it!  Repeat after me: ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain’…”

“Go take a hike.”

“Gladly – just tell Fawn I’m off, will you?”  Scarlet reached for the bundle of papers.  “What’s this you’ve brought me?  I hope it’s not bills?  I’m still far too weak to pay bills.”

“No, I weeded them out,” Blue assured him jovially.

“You’re learning.  Hmm, this looks interesting. My mother’s writing, but not her usual stationery…I’d say it’s one that’s been pinched from my father’s office… tut-tut… petty pilfering amongst the landed gentry – what is the world coming to?”  He slid his finger under the flap and ripped the envelope open.  “Hmm,” he mused as another envelope fell out on the bed.  He opened the accompanying letter and scanned it.  “Well, well… whatever next?”

“I couldn’t begin to imagine.”

Scarlet looked up and grinned. “My mother sends you her ‘best’.  She says: tell Adam we hope to see him soon.”

Blue grinned.  “That’s nice.  When you speak to her, send my ‘best’ in return, will you?  Sadly, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to visit any time soon though; Ochre was telling me he’s finally arranged to take his leave.  He’s going on a safari in Kenya – I just hope he doesn’t scare the game.”

“Will do,” Scarlet replied distractedly.  He was examining the other envelope carefully.  With a twitch of his dark brows, he opened it and drew out the paper within. After he’d read it, he glanced across at Blue. “Flipping heck…”

“Language -” Blue warned him playfully.

“This is from my Great-Aunt Rosemary’s second husband – Kenneth McKirk.”

“Nice to hear from close relatives, isn’t it?”

“Not only nice – but downright unusual; I mean my mother doesn’t even exchange Christmas cards with him – and my mother sends Christmas cards to most of the population.   The McKirk connection is the …er… skeleton in the Blake family cupboard – well, the most recent skeleton, shall we say?    Great-Aunt Rosemary was my grandfather’s youngest sister and something of a wild child.  She became an artist – of sorts - living a very Bohemian life in London.  Nevertheless, she eventually married a rich, widowed stockbroker – much older than her - and they lived the life of Riley for a few years.  When her husband pegged out – worn out by the debauchery, according to my grandfather – she scandalised everyone by having an affair with Orlando Hearne, the painter.  They set up a hippy-type commune and encouraged other artists and – according to the family legends – hangers-on and talentless drones.”

“My grandfather bought some of his works – they turned out to be a very good investment,” Blue volunteered, adding suddenly,   “Wait a minute – your Great-Aunt wouldn’t be the celebrated beauty Rosie Wraysby, would she?  The woman Hearne left his wife and kids for?  One of my grandfather’s paintings is an extremely erotic nude of Rosie Wraysby…” he concluded with raised eyebrows as he recalled the painting in question, which even his broad-minded mother declined to have hung in their house. 

Scarlet grimaced. “Yes, that’s her.  Posing for Hearne was only one of the many things she did that upset ‘The Family’ big-time. When Hearne died, leaving her all his paintings, there was a court case over the will –”

“I read about that,” Blue said, grinning. “She offered to strip off in court to prove that she was the model used for the paintings, didn’t she?”

“She did,” Scarlet groaned.  “Luckily the judge said it wasn’t necessary – he could recognise her face well enough.”

Blue gave a peal of laughter.  “I bet that went down well in Winchester.”

“Not so’s you notice, I expect.  Anyway, she lay low for a while after that and then she surprised everyone by marrying Kenneth McKirk – a man decades her junior - and decamped to the wilds of Scotland where they raised stone-age sheep – or something – until she died; presumably of boredom.”

 “I guess she wanted something a little less exciting to do after cramming so much into her life already,” Blue commented wryly.  “So, does Great-Uncle Kenny say what he wants with you?” he added.

“Basically, he wants to give me the once over.  He says he feels his life is drawing to its conclusion and he wants to meet me, as my great-aunt’s nearest living relative, to see if I am worthy of receiving the Hearne inheritance on his death.”

“But you aren’t her nearest relative,” Blue reasoned.  “If she had no kids, it’d be your mother – or one of her sisters.”

“McKirk explains that: he wants to jump as many generations as possible to avoid unnecessary death duties.”

“A sound business principle,” Blue agreed.

“Are you sure you have no Scottish blood, Adam?  After all, making you part with your money can be a real job at times…”

“Ha-de-ha-ha.”

“Anyway, it seems Great-Uncle Ken wrote to me, care of my parents, to make the offer and he explained his intentions to them in a covering letter. Mum says I should go; she says Auntie Rosemary had millions from her first husband and that McKirk is noted for being ‘thrifty’ – so he can’t have spent it all.  And, besides, the Hearne paintings must be worth – what she quaintly calls - ‘a bob or two’. She says if I go – well-turned out and on my best behaviour – I should cop the lot.”

“I do not believe your mother said that.”

“Well, no, but that’s what she means.”

“So, are you going to go?”

“Filial duty suggests I should.  Besides, if I promise to take a week or so off, Fawn might be persuaded to let me out of here tomorrow.  I can pop and see the Aged Parents, whiz up to Glen Wheres’it, charm Great-Uncle Ken, and still be back in Winchester before Halloween for the last few days of my leave.”

Blue tutted.  “You wouldn’t be trying to avoid Halloween on Cloudbase, by any chance, would you?”

“It may have escaped your notice, Blue-Boy, but every Halloween I’ve spent on Cloudbase has been a disaster.”  Scarlet frowned at his friend. “I’ll be as far away from trouble as I can be with my parents.”

“Sure, but the one we had away from here wasn’t a glowing success, either,” Blue reminded him.

“True, but I’d stake my mother to triumph against the forces of darkness any day.”

Blue gave a chuckle.  “Yeah – I’d pity the demon that attempted to get past Mrs Metcalfe. Despite that, do you want some company?”

“No – besides, with Ochre away, you’ll be needed here.”

“How about Dianne?  I meant she could go with you.  She might swing it in your favour; what curmudgeonly old skinflint could resist giving his millions to Dianne?”

“True, she’s a charmer, all right. But, Great-Uncle Ken says I should only come for a day or two and alone, as he’s not in the best of health and tires easily.  He’s obviously not extending the hand of welcome too far.”

“Oh well – I hope you enjoy yourself, but I rather doubt you will.  Still, I guess a little hob-nobbing with aged relatives is a small price to play for the largest collection of Orlando Hearne paintings still known to exist.  That ‘bob or two’ your mom referred to would probably pay to re-roof Longwood Abbey in several layers of gold leaf.   Mind you, I think I’d rather risk playing trick or treat with the Angels – especially as Ochre’s not gonna be here to set up his booby-traps, this year.”

“Sure he isn’t planning one already?  Maybe he’s just pretending that he’s going to be watching the wildlife in Kenya and he’ll be lurking – waiting to spring out and scare you all rigid?” Scarlet said with a devilish twinkle in his eyes.

“Oh, come on!  Even Rick wouldn’t go that far – would he?”

Scarlet grinned.  “If anyone would, he would.”

Blue sighed.  “You know, I’m gonna make sure I put him on that plane myself – just in case.”

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Paul Metcalfe drove through the wild, border countryside in high spirits. 

He’d stopped for an agreeable lunch in a country hostelry and imbibed plenty of the excellent local fare and beer.  It was one of the ‘perks’ of being a retrometabolised ex-Mysteron agent; he could drink alcohol until the cows came home without getting the slightest bit tipsy – at least, not for very long.  Now, he was on the last leg of his journey from Winchester and he was bracing himself to behave in a sober and respectful manner to his great-uncle.  His mother had filled him chock-full with instructions before he left home and he could tell that she was rather hoping he would come home with the news that they were to inherit the ill-gotten gains of Auntie Rosemary.  Longwood Abbey had been the family home for centuries and – despite it being a terrible drain on the family’s resources – they would never consider selling it.  He knew that his mother was worried about parts of the roof and that she wanted him to inherit a house in a good condition, so presumably she’d already spent a decent proportion of their prospective windfall in her imagination. 

He checked the GPS and turned off the main road along what swiftly became a winding lane that was barely more than a single track wide. Over the brow of the next hill he saw that the rolling countryside grew noticeably more bleak.  The lane followed the course of a deep, swift-flowing stream, its water dark from the peaty soil. 

Of course, it’s ‘Douglas’ Country around here, Paul mused. From the Celtic dubh glas – black water, if I’m not mistaken – very apt. The Debateable Land – home to the fearsome border rievers and the interminable tit-for-tat hostility between the Scots and the English. We spent a summer holiday doing the battlefields when I was about 11: Dad was passionate about visiting them all and we went to Falkirk, Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn, Otterburn, Floddon… then Mum got fed up and insisted we go to Edinburgh ‘for some culture’.   I bet some of my ancestors fought around here often enough…  I’m sure glad we have peace on the border now.

 

The road veered off over a narrow stone bridge and in the distance, rising out of the low, undulating landscape, he could see a wooded hillside.  The trees were stunted and all leaning in the direction of the prevailing winds, but their stark branches looked healthy enough, and they grew thicker towards the brow of the hill.  That was dominated by a remarkable structure.  It was a square, stone-built pele tower, built for defence and not comfort, although perched on top of its bulk was a small domestic structure, like a child’s drawing of a house, with a pitched roof and chimneys.  It reminded Paul of the pictures he’d seen of ‘Noah’s Ark’ in the books of his childhood.

“Castle McKirk, I presume,” Paul muttered to himself.  It was intriguing to wonder what his great aunt – a dedicated City Girl – had made of this remote location, but then - he reminded himself - the place wasn’t that far off the beaten track and the whole area was scattered with villages; in fact, the main towns – Selkirk and Hawick – weren’t that far as the crow flies, but the area was so desolate and the road system so inadequate that it wasn’t an easy place to get to.  Presumably the peaty moor that was a feature of the area wasn’t suitable for decent, modern roads.   “Maybe Adam was right and Auntie Rosemary had had enough of the bright lights, and wanted some solitude after Hearne died?” he asked the luggage on the passenger seat. 

Paul felt some of his earlier enthusiasm for the project wane; the castle was going to be cold – that was a sure-fire certainty. He was pleased to remember his mother’s instance that he packed several warm jumpers: he’d need them, probably all at once.

He stopped the car and clambered out to open the five-bar gate that blocked access to the castle grounds. The only sound he could hear was the rising wind in the leafless branches of the trees and the distant baaing of sheep.  The gate was a heavy wooden one and it had a library of notices tacked to it:  ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ ‘Keep out – Private Property’  ‘Shut The Gate after you’ and, somewhat bizarrely, ‘Beware of The Sheep’.  He propped it open and drove into the grounds, stopping again to make sure he fastened the gate securely once he was through.

“Can’t have dangerous sheep wandering about the countryside, savaging the locals,” he said wryly into the oppressive silence.

The road to the castle dwindled to a rough track, and he feared for the suspension on his car as he bounced along over the ruts.  The trees grew right to the edge of the track and in the rising wind they almost seemed to be trying to bar his way. 

He arrived at the castle and parked on the small forecourt that fronted the solid walls and metal-banded wooden door.   It was getting dark already and there was a drizzle of rain in the wind as he walked over to look for a bell.  All there was was a heavy brass knocker and so he thudded it against the door a few times, hearing the rolling echo as the noise flowed through the building.

 There was a long delay until, some way above him, a narrow window opened and a head popped out.

“Who are yer?  What do y’ want?  This is private property,” it shouted.

Paul drew a deep breath and shouted back, “Mr Kenneth McKirk?  It’s me – Paul Metcalfe.  You invited me to visit you, sir.”

“Away wi’ye – is it yoursel’, Paul?  Why din’ you say so? Bide – I’ll be down directly.”

Paul went and lifted his suitcase out of the car, locking it and walking to wait by the door.  To his surprise, a smaller door in the side of the thick stone walls opened and a stooping figure stepped out.

“Through here, laddie.  I don’t open the big door these days.”

Paul stooped and entered the ground floor of the castle.  It was an unfurnished, stone-floored open space, full of packing boxes of provisions – food stuffs and household needs - with a staircase in one corner.

“Away up wi’ye,” McKirk said, locking the door behind him.  “I don’t use this room.”

Obediently, Paul climbed the narrow, spiral, stone staircase and emerged into another stone-floored room.  This was at the level of the window he’d seen his uncle’s head emerge at and this room was furnished with a functional wooden table and chairs as well as an ancient oak dresser, with plates and pans on it. 

The kitchen, Paul thought, cheered by the prospect of a cup of tea.

His uncle wheezed in after him and slammed a wooden door closed.  “Need to keep the heat in, laddie,” he cautioned. 

“I’m sure it must get rather cold in here over the winter,” Paul remarked, laying his suitcase close to the table.  The stove was probably the fore-runner of the Aga at home – but this one wasn’t radiating the heat the way the other did.

“Aye, that it does.  I was about to make myself some bit o’ supper.  I daresay you’ve eaten already?”

“I had lunch,” Paul admitted.

“Then you’ll no be wanting much else,” McKirk said with certainty.

“No,” Paul agreed reluctantly, “but a cup of tea would be welcome.”

“Sit yourself down, laddie.  I’ll make yer some tea.”

With a smile, Paul edged onto one of the hard, wooden seats and watched his uncle shuffle about making the tea.  What was finally placed before him in a substantial earthenware mug was the colour of warm milk.  Paul sipped it and grimaced.  The Americans on Cloudbase make stronger tea than this…

“Get it down you, laddie.  It’ll keep you warm.”

Paul sipped again.  “My parents were surprised – and delighted – to get your letter, Uncle,” he began.

McKirk was nibbling a chunk of bread and cheese and he merely nodded. Finally he replied, “Your mam was a soncie lass; I recall the photograph o’ the wedding.  I recall one of you too – as a wee bairn.  You’ve grown.”

“Most ‘wee bairns’ do,” Paul answered. 

McKirk wheezed rather alarmingly; eventually Paul realised it was laughter.

“You’ve a flash o’ your late auntie’s wit, laddie.”

“I never met my Great-Aunt Rosemary; I wish I had.  She sounds a fascinating woman.”

“Aye, she was.  As fine an Englishwoman as ever drew breath.”

Paul smiled at the tribute – wondering if it was meant to be as qualified as it sounded.  “You live alone here, now?” he asked.

“Aye,  but, as I told you, I’m not as young as I used to be and I’ve a mind to make sure that Rosie’s goods and chattels go to a worthy home.”  He eyed Paul sternly.  “She was much affronted at some of your family’s treatment of her – but that was before your time and I don’t hold you responsible for that.”

“Thank you, Uncle.  I’m not sure I know all there is to know about what happened within the family.  I do know the behaviour of certain of the Blakes - and the Metcalfes, come to that - has not always been above reproach, but I would hope those days are past.”

“There’s rotten fruit in every barrel, laddie.”

“How true, Uncle. Tell me, how did you meet Aunt Rosemary?”

“She originally came up here with that fellow, Hearne, as he wanted to paint about the place. They stayed at the local inn in the village beyond the Kirk when first they came and gradually they became permanent residents, renting a wee cottage o’ mine further up the brae.  When Hearne died, she dinna like staying there alone, so she moved back to the local inn, for a time.  I lived here with my mother then and it was she who asked Rosemary if she might stay in the upper rooms here – they had gotten to know each other socially over the years, you see?  Mother knew that Rosemary wanted to stay where she’d been so happy, but she did not feel comfortable staying in the inn – well, its not the place for a woman on her own, laddie – so she took up my mother’s offer and moved in for a visit – to see if she liked it.  Her visit lengthened until we were married some months afterwards.”

“How very romantic,” Paul said, feeling it was expected that he comment.  Poor Aunt Rosie had obviously been on a serious rebound when she accepted McKirk.

“I don’t ken about romance, laddie.  Your aunt was a fine looking woman, fer her age, and well set up.  She liked it here and I was willing to let her stay. I think she was as happy here as she’d have been anywhere.”

Paul finished the tea and sent up a sympathetic prayer for the shade of Rosemary Blake Wraysby McKirk.  What a comedown from being the toast of Bohemian London and a muse to one of the greatest painters around. 

“Now, tell me about yerself, laddie.  I’ve heard you are a soldier – like yer father?  It’s pleasing that the family traditions have been kept up.  Your aunt was a great one for traditions.  Mind you, I’m thinking you are the last in the direct line of your father’s family; am I right?”

“I am a soldier, yes.  I trained with the WAAF and was appointed a colonel.  I… I am on secondment at the moment, to the World Government.”

“Aye; the Metcalfes are a warlike family and no mistaking.  Yer aunt told me that she’d grown up with the Metcalfes who lived in a big house nearby.  She was friendly with Laetitia Metcalfe – the only artistic amongst them, she said – and she told me that Laetitia’s sisters had entered the military, like their brother.  It struck her as odd that they should do so.   But then Rosemary was often out of kilter with her own family. She did not get on with her only brother – yer Granddaddy, that’d’ve been, him as ye were named for – but I do believe she was fond of your grandmother, and your mother too, she was proud to hear of her marriage to your father and followed his career for her niece’s sake.   Blood is thicker than any dispute in any family, laddie; and, it is for that reason I have a mind to make sure her inheritance goes back to the Blakes – through the Metcalfe family.  She’d have wanted it.”

“You are very generous, Uncle.”

“Pah, they’re no but some daubs by that painter she took up with – Hearne.  Not my thing at all.  I like a picture that’s pleasing to gaze at.”

Paul hesitated and then said, “Uncle, are you really expecting me to believe you have no notion of the value of these ‘daubs’?  Hearne’s work is highly valued these days.”

“I know, laddie.  But I couldn’t part wi’them anyway.  They were yer aunt’s.”

Paul gave a warm smile; presumably, for all his eccentricities and bluster, McKirk had cared for his English wife. “I can promise you they’d be appreciated.”

“Aye – no doubt.”  McKirk drew in a deep breath and added, “Ye’ll have no arguments with staying here for a few nights then, laddie?  Letting me get to know yer?”

“I had come with the intention of staying a few nights, as you mentioned in your invitation and I am entirely at your convenience, Uncle.”

“That’s fine.”

McKirk finished his meagre tea in silence and washed up the dishes in a trickle of hot water from the enormous kettle.  Then he opened a cupboard and produced a small oil-filled lamp.

“You’ll need this, laddie. I don’t keep the electric on much.  If you want to wash, you can have what’s left in the kettle.  I’ll get you a basin.”  Paul’s expression must have spoken volumes as McKirk started wheezing with amusement again.  “I see you’re thinking this is a poor way to be going on?  I imagine you have all the lights blazing at home all the day and night.  Well, I don’t do that here.  The mains supply is precarious and I although I have a generator in the cellar; I don’t fire it up more than I have to.  I’m not made of money and the oil’s expensive.   Besides, you’ll keep warmer in your bed.”

“Bed?  But it’s only 8.30, Uncle.”

“Please yourself, laddie. I shall be away myself shortly.”

 “I wouldn’t want to disrupt your routine, but may I at least watch the television for a few hours, please?  I’ll keep it quiet.”

“I’ve no television for you to watch.  Read a book – it’s better for you.”

“Very well, I’ll have to. I’d prefer to sit up and read, though.  If you show me to my room, I’ll unpack and sit for a time before I go to bed.”

“You’d be wise to go to bed now, laddie, for the generator stops at nine and once the stove’s out there’s no heat in the place.  Come on up, I’ll show you the room.  Did you want some warm water?” Paul shook his head. “Then follow me.”

McKirk led the way up the spiral staircase to the next level. Here there was a drawing room, with an empty fireplace and a few somewhat dilapidated armchairs; around the walls were half-empty bookshelves and cupboards.  Above this was the little ‘domestic’ level – as Paul had christened the eccentric house-shaped feature that topped the building - with three doors leading off a central landing. McKirk opened one and ushered Paul into it.  The only furniture in there was an ancient single bed, a table and a solid wooden wardrobe. In one corner was a recess covered by a worn curtain.  The stone floor had a rug on it next to the bed but the rest was exposed.  Paul slung his suitcase on the bed and saw a cloud of dust rise from the coverlet. 

“There’s a bonny view in the morning,” McKirk said, going to the curtain-less window.  The dawn comes up over there and you’ll get the early light.”

“Splendid, I’m an early riser,” Paul said trying to sound enthusiastic.

“Aye, that’s as well. Breakfast is at 6.30.”           

“Where’s the bathroom?” Paul asked. “I didn’t see one on the way up.”

“Downstairs on the level you came in at.”

“That’s the only one?”

“Indeed, but there’s the garderobe in the corner – it goes down to the cesspit across the hillside. You’ll cope.”

 Paul eyed the alcove in dismay. “Do you mean to tell me there is no proper toilet here?”

“Laddie, this place has functioned for centuries without one.  It’ll last the few nights you’re here.”

“It’s just that I can’t imagine my aunt living like this!”

“She got used to it,” McKirk said reprovingly. 

“Obviously.  Well, goodnight, Uncle.”

“Goodnight.  Sleep well, Paul.”

 

Once McKirk was gone, Paul opened his suitcase and slipped on two extra jumpers.  His retrometabolism meant that he was usually immune to all but the extremes of temperature, but the stone walls were cold and the room felt damp.  Matters were not helped by the draught that was whistling through the inadequate curtain that separated him from the repulsive ‘garderobe’; he was profoundly grateful he hadn’t been invited to stay in the height of summer.    He rummaged down the side of the case and found the bottle of whisky he’d bought for his father from a specialist malt shop in one of the small towns he’d passed through, opened it and swigged a mouthful – reckoning his need was the greater.  He gazed out of the narrow window and saw only an intense blackness.

Sighing, he surveyed his surroundings with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, then set about making the best of it with his usual thoroughness.  He stripped the bed, shook the bedding and remade it.  He fished out a second pair of socks and clambered into bed with his clothes on. He thought he should let his mother know he had arrived safely, as he knew she would be worrying quite as much as she’d be interested to hear his first impressions of the place and of his great-uncle. He smiled at the thought of how he could tease her about having sent him to the ‘frozen north’ and reached for his mobile phone, pressing the quick dial number for home. A frown knit his brows – the thing wouldn’t work; the register showed that there was insufficient signal – even here, high above the ground.  Presumably this place was one of the black spots that still dotted the country.  He tutted, disappointed, and switched it off; if he couldn’t get a signal tomorrow, he might try Cloudbase – Spectrum’s powerful communication systems could overcome most poor terrestrial signals.  Adam or Dianne would let his mother know he was all right, if he asked them.

 Hugging the whisky to his chest, he snuggled under the blankets trying to keep warm and get some sleep, but the long hours wore interminably away into the rich blackness of the night before he finally slept. 

 

Chapter Three

 

Paul woke as the murky dawn broke over the distant hills.   He clambered from the bed, bleary-eyed and unshaven.  Shivering, he put his shoes on, grabbed his towel and sponge bag and made his way downstairs, searching with increasing urgency for the bathroom.  As he passed through the kitchen, McKirk bade him a cheery good morning and told him to hurry or his porridge would get cold.  When Paul finally found the basic bathroom, he decided that not even a gallery full of works of art was worth this.   He washed and shaved in the cold water, then raced back upstairs to dress in his warmest clothes before making his way back to the kitchen for breakfast.

The breakfast porridge still lay on his stomach like a layer of molten cement when Uncle Kenneth suggested a brisk walk around the small estate.  Wrapped up in several of his jumpers, and a waterproof jacket, Paul marched beside the old man, finding rather to his surprise that McKirk set a brisk pace. The old man was obviously not as frail as he’d cared to make out yesterday.  He led the way down to the five-bar gate and pointed out the view back towards the main road.

“It’s all McKirk land from here to the village beyond the next brae,” he explained. 

“I drove passed it yesterday – it has an interesting looking church,” Paul replied.  “I thought I might take a look at it later.  Is it the local church for your family, Uncle?   Is my aunt’s grave there?”

“No; we’re non-conformists – we dinna bother with the bricks and mortar of the established church, laddie.  You can go and take a look, if you want to – you might meet the new pastor, if ye go by.  A city-trained man, all books and learning, with no real feeling for the souls in his flock.  I dinna like him – nor he me.”  He wheezed his dry laugh.   “He came here once – but he dinna come here ony mair.”

Paul glanced at him, and catching his eye, McKirk winked and set off again at a sprightly pace.  This time they stopped on the northern side of the compound, and once more McKirk pointed out the extent of the land.  There was another tiny village nestling amongst the rolling hills, but before Paul could respond to his uncle’s explanation, they were off again, and this continued until they had boxed the compass and he’d admired the land to the north, south, east and west of the castle. 

On the western side, his interest was captured by an impressive standing circle of stones some distance away on the brow of a mound of heath land.  The murky weather made a clear glimpse of it difficult and McKirk had brushed aside his questions about the monument and started to lead the way back to the castle. 

Reluctantly, Paul trailed after him, wondering what was expected of him now, and whether he would be allowed the time to explore the remote wilderness that surrounded them.

“Ye’ll be wanting to make yerself useful, laddie,” his uncle said with conviction as they approached the castle by way of a jumbled store of branches and timber that cluttered an area obviously used as a small wood-yard.  They were at the rear of the castle, and there seemed to be another storey built into the side of the hill, that lay below that of the basement Paul had entered through yesterday.  His uncle explained that these were all storerooms and included the home of the rarely-used generator.   Paul guessed what was coming next.

 “In yon cellar, you’ll find an axe and a saw; you can chop this wood for the fires whilst I make us a meal of some soup.”  McKirk’s expression was amused as he glanced at the irritated look on Paul’s face.  “It’ll make sure you’re nice and warm and give you an appetite,” he said jovially as he left Paul to it.

 

Paul had to admit that actually the physical nature of the work was somehow soothing.  He hadn’t really slept well last night – his retrometabolism meant that he needed little sleep on the whole.  Now, if he could physically exhaust himself, he might find the tedious hours between their farcically early bedtime and tomorrow’s dose of breakfast ‘concrete’, less eternal.

He chopped and sawed at the timber, the pile of logs beside him growing more impressive by the hour.  Finally his uncle called him in and gave him a chunk of greyish-brown granary bread and a bowl of ‘nourishing soup’.   Surprisingly, it was tasty, and Paul finished the bowl and drank the weak tea with an appetite spiked by his exertions.

“Mebbe, you’d like to see the paintings your aunt kept?” McKirk asked as he wiped his mouth on a handkerchief.

“That would be interesting.  I have seen the Hearnes in the galleries in London, of course, and a friend of mine is fortunate enough to own one or two – well, his family does.  He was a good painter, I’ve always thought, although towards the end some of his subject matter got a little wild – not to say downright weird.  I’ve seen the picture in the Tate Modern – I’m sure you know the one, it gets printed in magazines and so forth often enough – it’s supposed to be of an ancient ritual, according to the notice beside it, anyway. The setting reminds me of these landscapes; do you know if it was painted here?”

“Aye, I’ve seen that one.  Hearne painted it when he was here, but he wasn’a content with it; said it didn’a capture the spirit o’ the place – or some such blether.   He and your aunt were awful keen on such things – the sense of a place and the true nature of the people there.  Hearne was quite a student of ancient ways and beliefs – yer aunt too, in her way.  They grew disillusioned with Cornwall – all those weekenders and tourists ‘clouded the aura of the land’, they said.  They closed that commune of theirs and came north – seeking the true spirit of these islands.”

 “These Islands?  Oh - you mean the British Isles… Well, this is a very atmospheric place, Uncle.  There must have been people living here for millennia. I can see how it might attract a sensitive soul.”

McKirk cast a perceptive glance at him.  “Do you now?  Well, that’s fer the good, laddie.  Come, let’s see these daubs.”

They went back up to the level with the bookcases and cupboards, and McKirk drew out a large iron key from the pocket of his worn cardigan to open one of them.  He switched on the dim overhead light and drew out a large canvas, wrapped in cloth.  He carried it to the small table and laid it down, drawing back the material so that Paul might see it clearly.

Paul stared at the painting in surprise and awe. It was a complex scene of the desolate hillside below the castle, with the trees in new, vibrant green leaf and blossom.  From one corner came a procession of young women, decked in flowers and leading a woman on a horse, weaving down the hillside. There was no mistaking the rider – the dark-haired, vibrant beauty of his great-aunt shone from the painting.  Her head was crowned with a garland of flowers and her long, black hair hung loose over her breasts. Her shimmering-white gown was so long it almost reached the ground as she perched side-saddle on the dappled-grey horse.   He was no expert, but the picture had to rank with anything of Hearne’s he’d ever seen before.

Whilst he examined it, McKirk had fetched another, smaller canvas.  Unwrapped, it proved to be another local landscape, from the other side of the castle looking towards the stone circle Paul had glimpsed.  The setting sun touched the monoliths with gold as it sank behind distant, purple-hued hills.  As McKirk produced more canvases it became apparent that many of them showed similarly themed works, some more abstract in their concept than others and Paul wondered why Hearne had become obsessed with this one theme in his later years.  There were a few, more conventional pictures, abstracts and landscapes, but these lacked the inspirational quality of the ‘pagan’ pictures; and were what Adam would no doubt have described as ‘painting by numbers’ – his habitual description of anything half-hearted.

Finally McKirk drew out the last canvas – it was a miniature, no bigger than a standard hardback book.  It was totally different in style from the others, with an immediacy that took Paul’s breath away – it was if every ounce of Hearne’s considerable talent has been poured into the image.  It was almost certainly the companion piece to the most famous Hearne painting – the one he’d had seen in the Tate Modern - and it showed a woman – Aunt Rosie, again – reclining against the trunk of a contorted tree like a modern day dryad. Her only covering was a boa of mossy foliage that twined around her hips and breasts and her eyes seemed to stare out of the canvas with a look of imperious omniscience – as if they had seen all, and knew all that was and would ever be.  The pearlescent blue moonlight filtered through the young leaves, patterning her bright flesh with a subtle mottling.  The twisted branches and gnarled bark took on the form of a grotesque face

This was the only picture that bore a title next to Hearne’s distinctive signature.  ‘Rosemary, the Priestess of the Eternal Hern,” Paul read aloud, staring at the face of his relative in open-mouthed awe.

“It’s a wonder yer aunt never caught cold,” McKirk said prosaically, looking over his shoulder at the picture of his late wife.  “But she was a hearty woman.”

“Did she pose for this?”

“Aye, that’s Rosie – Hearne never captured a better likeness of her.   That’s the old Hern Oak away in the ancient wood beyond the circle. They both set a great store by that old tree.”

“You mean this was done from life?” Paul asked.  “She looks too young for them to have been painted after she and Hearne moved here.”

“And you call yourself a romantic, laddie?  Have you never learned that to her true-hearted lover a woman never ages?  I daresay that to Orlando Hearne, Rosemary was always the young woman he’d first seen in London.”

Paul gave an embarrassed grimace.  “Well, allowing for artistic license, I suppose that’s true, Uncle.  He must have loved her very much,” he added thoughtfully.

“He always said he would die for her; and he did – in his way.  You’ll have heard how he was found, one morning out in the countryside, his easel at his feet, an unfinished painting on it?  The doctors said it was a stroke – and that’s as mebbe – but Rosemary believed he had died for her.”

“Why?  I mean it’s an odd notion for her to have acquired.”

“He’d been told he was suffering with a bad heart condition – he hadna much longer to live.  He painted like a madman for months afterwards – saying he would leave her a legacy to keep her through her life.  It pleased your aunt to believe he had done just that.”

“Well, I think it is rather gruesome, Uncle.  I can’t be as much of a romantic as you think.”

“No – the Metcalfes were always a dull folk.”

“We prefer to think of it as a good grounding of common sense,” Paul said a little tartly.

Whisht – I dinna mean to upset you, laddie.  I sense in you an uncommon strand of perception.”

“What happened to the unfinished picture?”

“Yer aunt burnt it.  When Hearne’s family in London demanded his body be returned to them for ‘Christian’ burial, and we couldn’t stop that – your aunt decreed that to honour his spirit, a bonfire be built every year and a moiety of his art sent to him beyond the veil.”

She burnt his pictures?”

“Every year since his death one of them has been committed to the flames,” McKirk confirmed.

“Good Lord, that’s terrible!  I mean – these are works of art, Uncle.  They should be placed where everyone can see and enjoy them.”

“Hearne painted them for your aunt – they were not meant for everyone.”

“My aunt has been dead for many years now, Uncle; I hope you didn’t continue this practice?”

McKirk started to stack the paintings back in the cupboard.  “You’ll hope wrong then.  It was what Rose wanted.”

Paul was astonished.  “Then why show them to me?  Why say you will give them to me – that she wanted me to have them?”

“Because it is what she wanted; she often told me – for the hundredth anniversary of Hearne’s birth, there was to be a celebration of his life and the remaining paintings were to go with her brother’s grandson – in token of the son she miscarried when she was first with Hearne.  She didn’a specify which o’ the grandsons it was to be – beyond that he should prove worthy - but I have chosen you, laddie, knowing she was fonder of your mother than her other nieces, and seeing that you’ve made a fine start in your chosen profession.  She always had her reasons for doing what she did – and this is the hundredth year - so in accordance with Rosemary’s instructions, I’m doing what she wanted.  I have spent years researching into the ways these things were done, and as part of the celebration of Hearne’s centenary and your aunt’s life, you shall have the paintings.”

Paul expressed his sincere thanks and added, “It really would be criminal to destroy anymore of these pictures, Uncle – whether I have them or not.”

“Mebbe you’re right, laddie; mebbe you’re right,” McKirk said thoughtfully as he stared at the beautiful portrait of his late wife, wrapping it carefully and placing it safe and sound on a shelf before he locked the cupboard again. “I shall think on it.”

 

Later that afternoon McKirk took Paul on a walk across to the stone circle he’d seen from the castle grounds on their previous circuit.  It lay part way between the fenced grounds of the castle and a dense wood that covered the ridge between the valleys.   The ground around the circle was rough moorland and rather boggy underfoot, which made it heavy going, but such was the extent and state of preservation of the monument that Paul thought it worth the effort.

He was surprised at how complete the ancient shrine still was.  Thirteen stones of varying sizes were positioned to form a wide circle, and within its boundaries, smaller stones formed a second ring and a tall, monolith of whitish stone, some fifteen feet in height, stood in isolation in the centre.  Some of the taller outer stones seemed to have been deliberately positioned so that they inclined towards the central monolith.   Paul was familiar with Stonehenge, on the broad Salisbury Plain, as well as the complex earthworks at Avebury, and he’d visited several other Neolithic sites around the country at one time or another, but he’d never seen or heard of this one before and he marvelled that it remained unknown to the tourist trade – such was the grandeur and complexity of it.   These stones were far more graceful than the lumbering giants of Stonehenge and they had never been designed to carry a capstone.  Their isolation and the sweeping, barren landscape, which had probably not changed in millennia, set them off to advantage.  In addition, Stonehenge was all too often swamped with tourists and it was impossible to approach the stones.  Here he was free to wander through the circles, touching the ancient stones with a reverence born of awe for the dedication of the ancients who had raised it.

His uncle watched him, although he did not seem too pleased when Paul produced his camera and took pictures from vantage points about the monument. He called him to view the site from different angles, pacing round the circumference, with Paul in his wake, as he told him what was known about the place and the original builders. 

Finally, as he led the way around the construction once more, he said, “Yer no superstitious, are ye, laddie?”

“Not unduly,” Paul replied, striding after his sprightly host.  “Is there some superstition connected with this circle?”

“They say yer shouldna walk widdershins around it.”

“Widdershins?” Paul dragged his memory.  “Anti-clockwise…” He grimaced - they were striding ‘widdershins’ for the third time round the circle.  He stopped as some vague premonition of danger swept through him.  He shrugged it off with a sceptical grimace.  “I thought that only applied to churches, Uncle.”

McKirk’s wheezy laugh came back to him on the breeze as he completed the third circuit.  “Are you sayin’ this monument is not a religious site, laddie?”

“Well, no, I mean it must have been once.”  Paul sighed and strode after his uncle, “But it’s obviously been here for millennia…”

“Then is it not even more sacred than yon Kirk in the village?”

Paul gave a wry grin. “Maybe – if it was still in use.”

 “As you say, Paul.  As you say.” McKirk nodded and strode back towards the castle, leaving Paul to make his own way back.

 When he finally strode back into the kitchen, Paul found, to his surprise that McKirk had made tea and he produced a plate of newly-baked scones, with jam and cream.  He piled some of the logs Paul had spent the morning sawing, onto the ancient stove and they sat in relative warmth and comfort, sharing the special treat and talking.

“Tell me about yerself, Paul.  I daresay a good-looking man, like you, has seen plenty of excitement in his life?”

Paul considered his experiences in Spectrum and silently agreed that he had indeed seen plenty of excitement; however, from the phrasing of the question he surmised that his uncle was speaking of a more romantic strand of excitement and he shrugged, not willing to commit himself. “Well, it’s not as if I’ve had much chance – moving about in the WAAF as I have been since I joined.  You don’t get too long in any one place.”

“Just like a sailor, wi’ a lady in every port, eh?” He gave a cackling laugh.  “Oh, I’m no as dry as you imagine, laddie – I can appreciate a fine bodied woman, wi’ the best of ye.”

“I don’t doubt it, Uncle, and I have to agree that … well, I’ve had a few exciting encounters, in the past.”

“And now?  You sound as if some one woman has ye tamed, at last.”

“Tamed?  Oh, well – not so you’d notice!  I mean – well, there is one young lady – but it’s all very unofficial.”

McKirk nodded.  “You’ll have to bring her to see me – if I’d have known I would have asked her here now.”

“Oh, I doubt she’d have been able to come – she’s a busy woman.”

“Not too busy for a little romance though?”

Paul found himself blushing as his uncle’s wheezing laugh echoed around the room. 

“Is she bonny?”

“Very.”

“Fair or dark?”

“A redhead – fair-skinned and blue-eyed.”

“Ah – fiery lovers, redheads.” McKirk poured himself another mug of tea. “Mind you, all cats are grey in the dark, as we say.”

“Not this one – Dianne is special.”

“There’s always one who is special.  I’m glad you’ve found her, laddie.  Many men go through their lives and never do.  Cleave to her – come what may.”

“I intend to – if she’ll have me,” Paul confessed.

“What’s not to like?  You have your health; you’re a good-looking man, from a good family – well-to-do in the general way of things.  She could do far worse.”

“I’d like to think so, Uncle – but; well, my job’s a dangerous one and I’m reluctant to ask her to share the dangers or the anxiety.”

“Treat her too carefully, Paul, and she’ll abscond with the first bounder she encounters who treats her like dirt – harken to me.  They can be irrational creatures – however dainty they are.”

“Maybe… but I don’t think she would do that.” He placed his mug back on the table and reached into his wallet, handing his uncle a small snapshot he had there.  “That’s Dianne with her best friend, Karen, and her boyfriend, Adam, who’s my best friend, as it happens.  It was taken this summer when we all went on a little visit to Winchester.   I meant to give it to my mother – but I forgot.”

“Now that is a pretty woman, laddie – you are a lucky man.”

Paul reached over to recover his picture, feeling a trifle absurdly that somehow McKirk’s examination of it and his comments were an affront to Dianne.  His uncle was turning out to be disconcertingly difficult to read, veering, as he did, from warm and jocular to coldly indifferent in a trice.

He tucked the photo away.

“A man’s blessed indeed if he has good friends,” McKirk commented.  “You’re close to yours, you say?”

“Some of them.” Paul hesitated: on becoming a Spectrum agent he had been obliged to let many of his former friendships slide, but now he felt little in the way of sadness about his lost friends.  He heard about them from his mother often enough and very few of them had ever been as close to him as the friends he now had in Spectrum. 

Since his first death and Mysteronisation, his closest - and at one point he had truly believed, his only – friend had been Captain Blue; the slightly older, slightly taller, slightly broader American, with the fairness of his Scandinavian ancestors, a formidable intellect and the patience of a saint,  who had become his partner.  Blue had stood by him through the traumas and hardships that followed the events at the London Car-Vu.

They’d hit it off from the very early days of Spectrum, but Blue had proven to be the friend of a lifetime when he had steered Captain Scarlet back to a semblance of normality, and helped Paul Metcalfe come to terms with his new self and his remarkable abilities. It was probably as much due to Blue and Symphony’s encouraging assertion that he should declare his feelings, that he had finally brought himself to believe that Dianne might feel about him as he did for her.

His uncle was still waiting for a reply so he tried to explain.  “I owe my life to Adam and we’ve become very close.  There is a group of us who work together, but he and I are partners.  I can’t imagine working with anyone else now.”

“Like two of the three musketeers, eh?  All for one and one for all?”

“Something like that,” Paul conceded with a deprecating chuckle.

“So, you are a man who can win friends and keep them; that’s good.  A loyal friend in your own right – that’s good. You impress me, laddie – as you would have done your aunt.”

“Thank you, Uncle,” Paul murmured.  He felt it was expected that he say something.

Still thinking about his wife, McKirk continued, “She was a woman who could attract and keep the love, loyalty and trust of others. A marvellous woman.” He rubbed the end of his nose as if overcome with a sudden sweep of emotion.   Then he looked up and said, “I have a mind to do something to celebrate her centenary.  I thought to maybe hold a gathering of the locals that remember her – and there are a good few still.  You’d do me the honour of staying for it – I hope?”

“Well, I do have to get back to work for the start of next week, and I’ve promised my parents I’d see them before I go back, but I’ll accept your kind offer, if it is at all possible.”

“Good!  I shall see about it with haste.”  McKirk chuckled.  “We’ve not had a party for many a year…”

If ever, Paul thought to himself.

 

Given that he wasn’t going to be leaving as soon as he’d expected, Paul planned to warn his mother and he took his mobile phone down towards the village, hoping for a better signal, but without any success.  As he pushed open the door to the small local shop and post office and walked in, he was acutely aware that the conversation stopped the moment he crossed the threshold, and that the eyes of the three women in the place were trained on him with speculative interest as he asked, politely, if he could use their phone.  His request was refused, courteously enough, and he was directed towards the only public house in the village.

Having bought himself a pint, he made his request to the landlord, who agreed and pushed an old-fashioned sound-only landline phone across.   Paul punched in the numbers and waited as the phone at the other end rang.

“Hello?” His mother’s voice sounded distant and strange over the old connection.

“Mum, it’s me – I’m spending another day or two here –“

“Hello?”

“Mum, can you hear me?  Mum?”

In the distance he could hear the rumble of his father’s voice and his mother replying: “No-one – wrong number I expect.”  The line went dead.

Damn and blast, Paul thought.  He handed the phone back and left more than enough money to pay for the call.  He drank the beer and walked out into the early autumnal twilight.  He strode back to his car and drove towards the castle, stopping at the gate and getting out to try his mobile once more. 

He rang the restricted access Cloudbase number, but the static blast that almost shattered his eardrums told him that he was out of the range of even the base’s powerful receptors.  He frowned and tried again. This time he rang the secure line to Spectrum London – their boosters should pick up the weak signal well enough.

Spectrum: London; how may I be of assistance?”  Even this contact sounded distant and there was still interference over the line. 

“I’d like to speak to Captain Blue on Cloudbase – reference 11372,” Paul almost shouted to make sure he was heard.

Please hold the line….”

He tapped his fingers against the roof of his car as the silence continued.  He wondered if he’d lost the connection and called, ‘Hello?’ several times.

“I am sorry, sir, that is not possible.” The voice sounded pre-occupied. 

“But I gave you the personal code number –“

“Captain Blue is not on Cloudbase at this present time.”

“Then I’d like to leave a message –“

  “Please try again later, caller.”

The line went dead. 

Paul Metcalfe swore.  “I will be making sure the colonel gets a report about your inefficient, abrupt public manner,” he snarled at the phone in his hand. 

He got back in the car and hurriedly drove back to the shop.  He bought a much-faded postcard of the castle and addressed it to his mother.

Staying here with Uncle K for another couple of days, he wrote, to celebrate Aunt Rosie’s 100th birthday - unless pneumonia sets in beforehand and I am rushed to the local hospital. The things I do for you. Love Paul.   P.S. – you were quite right about needing the jumpers. 

He bought a stamp and handed his card to the assistant with a smile.  She stared blankly at him and he left with a feeling that strangers were not liked in the village.

 By the time he got back to the castle, his uncle was preparing their meagre supper of bread and cheese, and shortly after that they trooped upstairs to the bedrooms for the night.

This time Paul wasn’t prepared to simply curl up in the bed with his whisky bottle.  He read for a while by the light of the small oil-lamp and then wandered over to stargaze out of the window.    He tried his phone again several times – because he wasn’t immune to the vague human belief that things will improve if you just ignore the problem for long enough.  It still wouldn’t work, so, exhausted with the sheer boredom, he clambered into bed and counted sheep – ancient, curly-horned, scrawny Iron Age sheep such as roamed the grounds of the castle and which, his uncle had assured him, had delighted his auntie in her last years.  He pulled the rough, woollen blanket around his shoulders – it seemed his aunt had knitted the thing herself from the wool of her own sheep – it certainly smelt like it - and Uncle Ken had given it to him as a gift for his mother.   He supposed the reek would wear off in a decade or two…or maybe it would do for the dog’s basket…it was certainly warm though…

Paul dozed off and through the mist of an uneasy slumber he saw figures moving about the room, two or three of them, dressed in long robes, with their hair loose around their shoulders – their faces covered with cloths that only exposed their eyes.  Women – they were women - and his uncle – he struggled to open his eyes and banish the vision, but his eyelids wouldn’t obey him, nor would his arms and legs.  He felt weightless and drifted above the warmth of the bed, the cold making him shiver as the visions sank into the yawning void of a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

Chapter Four

 

It was a weak shaft of light that struck his eyes that finally woke Paul.  He blinked, shaking his head, bewildered at the sensation of … a hangover?  He could remember what hangovers felt like – although it had been years since he’d suffered one – and this was as near to a hangover as he’d felt since  - well - since the Car-Vu.

Consciousness flooded back into his mind with that memory and he straightened up, opening his eyes.

He was in a small stone-walled room, slumped against the icy-cold floor – the cold was seeping into him, numbing sensation in his back, shoulders and legs.  He sat up and realised he was shackled, hands and feet, with iron chains that were nailed into the floor and wall behind him.  The window was above his head, a narrow archers’-slit through which the enervated sunshine flowed in a golden band. 

“How the hell did I get here?” he asked himself aloud, just to see if his voice would work.  He cleared his throat.  Across the room he could see the woollen blanket his uncle had given him, lying in a heap by the small wooden door.

He sniffed and detected the scent of chloroform.

He shouted and struggled with the chains – even though he felt sure it was pointless – little sound would penetrate walls this thick.  Finally, weary, and angry beyond belief, he made himself as comfortable as possible and waited.

 

The sunlight had vanished from the narrow window before Paul heard the bolts on the door being drawn back.

He barely raised his head from its resting place on his arms, as he sat with his elbows on his knees.  He saw his uncle walk in, and the feet of a second person.  He glanced up and saw a woman. She was slender and dark-haired, with the kind of face that does not reveal the age of the individual.  She seemed to be trembling slightly, as though she was cold, despite being warmly dressed in a plain, woollen grey dress, belted at the waist and reaching mid-calf to the tops of her brown, leather boots.   She showed no surprise at seeing him.

“You’re awake, laddie?  I brought you some food,” McKirk said, placing a bowl of the soup Paul had enjoyed yesterday on the floor beside him. Paul struck out with his foot, sending the bowl spinning across the room and the soup spraying over the walls.

“Foolish!” McKirk snapped, but more sorrowful than angry.

“What makes you think I would eat it?” Paul snarled.  “Stop this madness and undo these chains.  If you wanted shot of me you only had to say so.”

“I dinna want you to go – in fact – you’ll never leave,” McKirk replied cryptically.

Paul ignored him and asked the woman, “Who’re you? Which government do you represent?  Bereznik?”

Whisht!  We represent no government.  This is the Priestess – show some respect,” McKirk ordered.

“Priestess?  Stop playing games – what do you want?  You must be aware that I am trained to withstand interrogation.  Name, rank, serial number and that’s your lot.”

“He is warlike.  He will do very well.” The woman ignored Paul and spoke to McKirk; her voice had a lilting cadence not present in his uncle’s harsher Lowland accent.

“I thought as much.  It will be a fitting tribute for the centenary, too.”

“You have done well, Kenneth.  Let the preparations commence, so that tomorrow we may perform the complete ritual.”  She turned and walked out of the room without another glance at Paul.

“What ritual?  What is she talking about?  Uncle?  What’s going on?”

“Relax, Paul.  You canna stop it, so don’t fret about it.”

“Stop what?”

“The Samhuinn ritual; it has been performed here for millennia – generations of people have worshipped at the circle for the solar festivals and they still do.  Tomorrow is Samhuinn - which you call All Saints’ - when we all make blood sacrifices so that the earth may be reborn in the spring and give of its bounty.”  McKirk rolled back his sleeves to show a forearm criss-crossed with old scars. 

“Blood sacrifices?” Suspicion flooded Paul’s mind. “And you mean that you intend to use me?” Although a natural primordial fear gripped him it was followed by the thought that they’d get a surprise if they harmed him.  His retrometabolism would mean that they’d have trouble sacrificing his blood at all – when he cut himself shaving, the nicks healed almost immediately.

There was a shadow of some unknown emotion on McKirk’s face as he looked at the young man and said, “Here in this valley the cult of the Mother Goddess and her cohort, Hern the Hunter, has survived for millennia.  It was that drew Orlando Hearne and his paramour to this place. We have lived and worshipped in the old ways through the centuries, avoiding our Christian neighbours – who would have slaughtered us with less compassion than we have for our sacrificial sheep! Your aunt and Hearne had become imbued with the spirit of the Mother whilst they lived in Cornwall, and they learned through the underground networks of silent communities across these Islands, that here is where the cult is strongest.  The Mother drew them to us.  They arrived here one year at Samhuinn – which is one of our most important rituals when our blood is shed to feed the Mother through the winter, that she may be reborn in the spring.  They participated in the ritual, they were accepted into our community – they became leaders of our people.   It is the blood sacrifice that ensures the continuity of the seasons - it mingles with the humours of Nature: earth, air, water and fire; strengthening the power and the virility of The Hunter and ensuring the next harvest.  Each year we sacrifice the finest of the rams and feast and make merry ahead of the cold winter. Each year one of the young men is chosen to be the warrior – the conduit and the bond between the Gods, and the people – his blood is strewn on the earth.  One year I was that chosen one; now I am an elder, watching others serve the Mother.  Once in a generation a warrior is sacrificed.   Naturally, it is considered an honour –“

“Not by me, it isn’t!”

Tcha!   We’re supposed to live in a multicultural, multi-faith society, and we’re following the religion of our ancestors - your ancestors too, Paul Metcalfe.”

“This is twenty-first century Britain - not some crazy, blood-thirsty, pre-Christian society.  I don’t believe that for a minute – you’d never get away with it ‘for millennia’, for a start.  There are laws and police forces to prevent it.”

Anger flushed McKirk’s pale face. “Aye – laws – and we have been persecuted through the ages by the church and the state for our beliefs.  Yet, they would burn ‘heretics’ – people who dared to express doubts or spoke anything that differed from the given ‘truth’ – in the name of their God.  They persecuted our women as witches – tortured and abused them.  Tell me that was fair, Paul Metcalfe!  We are all determined that this year – the centenary of the birth of the priest responsible for our renaissance and resurgence – is the year we shall perform the full ceremony, and it is fitting that the sacrifice is of the blood of his chosen priestess.”

 “You mean my aunt, don’t you?  I don’t understand; how could she be responsible for a ‘renaissance’ in this ritual? She was born in Winchester, raised in the Anglican Church and – okay, she might have been a wild child in her time – but I can’t see her advocating human sacrifice!”

“You know nothing about her – your family threw her out, turned their backs on her!”

“I rather thought she did that herself – she left home of her own volition.”

“She was a free spirit, she needed the space to experience life, and that wasn’t to be found in suffocating confines of Winchester!”

“Well, I wouldn’t argue with that,” Paul muttered.  He’d felt stifled at times in his youth; not by his parents who were broad-minded and tolerant people, but by the restrictions of school and social class, the expectations of ‘the county’ and the weight of history.  He’d had no qualms about following the family tradition into a military life, but he’d drawn the line at attending a British military training academy and had opted for West Point and the chance to break free of some of the trammels of tradition.

McKirk continued, “Orlando Hearne encouraged Rose to explore the underlying faith in her nature, through the wider truths of so-called Paganism.  Hearne had hankered to follow a more primordial faith for many years; in Rosemary he found a kindred spirit.  He convinced her to marry Wraysby and they used his money to try to set up a community of the chosen in Cornwall.  When they came north, it was because the forces of the divine had brought them to us and they were accepted into our community  – Hearne himself, an echo of our master –  The Hunter – and Rosemary, the true child of nature, at one with Mother Earth – the ideal Priestess to lead us through our ancient rituals.”

“That’s as maybe – and I don’t doubt it – but how does that lead to my involvement being ‘fitting’?”

“You are a son of her family – her brother’s grandson, the son of her favourite niece and a soldier to boot - it’s a most fitting offering.  In addition you are an outsider – no one will miss you.  You never arrived here, Paul.  You were never seen. Although I expected you to visit, you disappeared on the way north.”

“This is preposterous; I won’t have anything to do with it. Let me go.”

“Struggle all you like, laddie, no one can hear you and there’s no way out of here. You might as well be comfortable until the ceremony starts; we are not monsters, we don’t mean to ill-treat you…”

“Then let me go – unfasten these chains.”

“We’re reasonable people, Paul – not idiots.”  McKirk watched him struggle for a few moments and then, as if the whole conversation had never happened, he asked, “Do you want something to eat?”

Astonished, Paul hesitated, his first reaction being a curt refusal –  but he knew that not to eat something now might well have repercussions later, slowing or delaying his ability to heal; besides he was hungry. “I suppose I might as well,” he sighed. “I’m not going to talk you out of this, am I?”

McKirk shook his head.  “It is easier if the participant is willing.”

“I am not willing – I will never be willing, Uncle, and if I can find a way to stop this travesty, I will.”

McKirk left him, returning some minutes later with another bowl of the soup and a chunk of bread.  Paul ate it, all the time considering his situation. These ‘pagans’ were obviously determined to carry out their crazy ritual and the ‘blood letting’ didn’t sound pleasant, but it was difficult to determine what it entailed.  He couldn’t bring himself to believe that here – albeit in a remote part of the British Isles – there were people who contemplated killing someone as a votive offering in some kooky religion.  Okay, he knew there were serious ‘Neo-Pagans’ and Wiccans, but he was damned sure they didn’t go around blood-letting.  His uncle had said they were reasonable people – and of course that depended on what your benchmark for ‘reasonable’ was – but it did little to suggest they would stop short of deliberate murder.  His biggest worry – beyond the immediate pain of whatever they had planned – was that the secret of his retrometabolism would be revealed. 

He put the empty bowl down and sighed.  I wish I’d been able to speak to Blue.  I’m assuming my postcard to mum never left the post office… she’ll be expecting me home today…I hate to think of her worrying…

He felt drowsy and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to get as comfortable as he could on the hard floor.

 

She was there – she was real - her caring, loving hands soothing the cramps and aches in his shoulders.  He smiled up at her. ‘Dianne,’ he murmured.  She didn’t speak; her fingers traced the line of his cheek, brushing the unruly lock of hair away from his eye and back over his forehead.  Her fingers touched his lips, following the contours of his mouth with tenderness. 

Gently, with infinite care, she unbuttoned his shirt, sliding her warm hands over his cold flesh, brushing against the nipples, sending shivers through him that had nothing to do with the cold.  She pushed him so that he slid to the floor where a sheepskin rug had mysteriously appeared, and straddled him.  Her long, red hair hung down on either sides of his face, curtaining the world from his view.  She kissed him, slipping her tongue between his partly open lips, entwining with him in a sensual dance.

Her hands unzipped the denim jeans he wore and pressed against his eager body, even as she kissed him.  He reached for her, the chink of the chains barely registering in the hot, confused dream that occupied his mind.  He cupped her breast, floating on a tide of desire, as she settled herself onto him, her long green gown spreading over them both and spilling onto the floor.   She moved languidly until passion and the powerful compulsion of nature took its course and he reached a climax, throwing his head back and gasping with the pulse of the eternal life-force.

 

He opened his eyes – startled by the erotic nature of his dream – to see a woman - an unknown woman - above him: she was nothing like Dianne, and yet she was smiling as she too returned from the miasma of the fantasy.  His dream shattered.  He pushed her away – angry, betrayed, and guilt-ridden by his own complicity in the act.

Kenneth McKirk stepped into his view and helped the young woman to her feet, at the same time removing the long red-haired wig from her head, revealing her to be the black-haired, dark-eyed woman he’d seen earlier. Two more women stepped forward to enclose her in a heavy cloak and escort her from the room.

Bewildered, enraged and disgusted, Paul heaved himself upright and adjusted his clothing, struggling to make sense of that had happened. He stared into his uncle’s face.  “Who the hell was that?” he demanded, feeling his face flame with embarrassment as the truth of his situation began to seep into his mind.

“The Priestess – as the Mother couples with The Hunter, so should the Priestess with the Warrior.” He sounded very matter-of-fact about the whole business.

“I… I wouldn’t have – I mean – I didn’t…” Paul’s hand supported his head as waves of pain and hazy light swam before his eyes.  He felt a growing thirst at the surge of retrometabolism kicking in. 

“I know,” McKirk explained complacently.  “There were powerful hallucinogenic herbs in the soup.  As you are not one of the chosen people, we knew you would not willingly complete all the pre-ceremonial rituals – especially after you’d told me about your ladylove.  So, a little deception was necessary.  You have walked the boundaries of the land, circled the stones three times, widdershins and coupled with the Priestess, so you are now initiated into the cabal and all is ready for the main ceremony tomorrow.” 

Paul launched himself at his uncle, catching the old man by surprise and pushing him against the wall.  “This has gone far enough – what you’ve done is tantamount to rape! Let me go – now!”

McKirk’s eyes looked beyond the face of the angry young man but before Paul could react, he was struck on the back of the head by an unseen person, and fell, dazed, to the ground. 

His uncle glared down at him.  “I rejoice in the stamina you show, laddie – that soup would have kept many a man down for hours longer.  You will make a fine offering.”

They walked out and the door slammed shut, leaving Paul curled on the floor, fighting the effects of the blow and the drugs. 

 

 Paul was perfectly recovered and seething with resentful anger, by the time anyone came into the cell again.  He was prepared to make an attempt to get out, to attack and damn the consequences, but when the door opened and the young woman walked in – he was taken aback.

She was now dressed in a white robe, the fabric of which seemed to be shot through with silver threads, there was an ornate silver belt at her waist and a circlet of silver on her black hair.   She smiled at him as she approached.

“You are well?” she asked in the soft lilting accent of the Isles.

“No thanks to you and the other nutters you have here.”

“Such bad manners ill-become you,” she said mildly.  “I would hope you were reconciled to your fate, before we start the ceremony.”

“Well, I am not reconciled.  I am livid and once I’m away from here you’d better start preparing your defence case – because I’ll have every police force in the land out after you.”

She smiled again a little sorrowfully and crouched down to his level.  “You won’t be leaving here, so such threats are pointless.” She sighed.  “I suppose McKirk hasn’t told you all that will happen?”

“He’s told me about some blood-letting ritual and that I am to replace the usual sheep – whether I like it or not.”

She tipped her head sideways and pursed her lips.  “I thought as much. The full ceremony is rather more than that – it is rarely attempted.  Your aunt was the last Priestess to preside over one. It was the year after she and Hearne joined the community.  A young man from their Cornish community came to stay with them and he was the warrior that year.  The ritual binds the Priestess to the people forever.  She was a remarkable woman, your aunt.  I was privileged to know her.  As a child I was sent from my home to study with her and when she became too frail to continue, she invited me back here and handed her authority to me.  This will be the first complete Samhuinn ritual I have presided over and it will bind me to this community.  I will probably never see another one.  It is a ritual I am honoured to observe.”

Paul snorted angrily.  “Like you were honoured to rape me earlier?”

“You weren’t trying very hard to stop me,” she commented.

“I’d been drugged – did they tell you that?”

“Of course.  It was necessary.  Your uncle told me about the woman – the red-head - and your attachment to her.  We did not wish to hurt you, and so it was decided to make you more compliant.  Normally, the chosen warriors are members of the community, and they are willing to complete the rituals.”

“This happens every year?” He stared at her.

“Yes, of course. It is part of the calendar of the days.”

“That must be nice for you,” he jibed.

“Don’t be so childish.” She stood and walked away from him.  “It is my duty – so I perform it.  Don’t you do things you would rather not, because you are obliged to?”

“I don’t even know your name –“

“You don’t need to.  You will never see me again.”

“After the ceremony, you mean?”

“Exactly.”

“Is that because I’ll be dead?”

She smiled.  “You will have rejoined The Mother.”

“I’ll be dead.” He dropped his head to his knees and sighed.

“Think of it as rebirth to a life-everlasting.”

“I’ve already got one of them,” he muttered to himself.

“Pardon?  Look, I am sorry you cannot see the significance of your sacrifice, but I am not entirely callous.  I can offer you these.”  She held out two small bottles.  “The one with the white label is a sedative – to help you sleep until tonight.  The red label is hemlock – quite deadly.  I will give you the white label now and – should you ask – the red label can be yours tomorrow.  I will give it to you during the ceremony.”

“No thank you.  If I’m going to die, I want you to have my murder on your conscience; I won’t make it easier for you by giving you the option of believing I chose to commit suicide.”

“I will feel no guilt.”

He stared straight into her dark eyes and said, “I don’t believe you.”

She turned on her heels and marched out without another word, but he had seen the tell-tale flame of culpability in her face. 

He dropped his head to his knees again and wondered what the hell he was going to do. 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

Paul refused to eat any more of the food he was offered, fearing it would again be drugged, and he wanted his wits about him tonight. He was sure there would be an opportunity to escape and he was psyched up to take it.   When they came to fetch him, the three burly young men were dressed in robes – plain, grey and coarsely woven – presumably from the wool of the ‘sacred’ sheep.  His uncle followed them in; he was dressed far more ostentatiously in Druidical finery of a white robe with a medieval-style hat on his head – Paul thought it looked like a pile of washing perched atop the grey hair, but he noted with interest the hanging ‘liripipe’ and marked it as a potential weapon, should the chance arise to strangle McKirk. 

Paul stared at them all with hostility, watching for his chance to break free of their custody and sprint away.  His car keys had been taken - along with his watch and every other personal item – but he knew his stamina was good enough to allow him to outrun almost any other man, and given time enough to lay an ambush, he was confident he was the match of these three.  

To his dismay they did not remove his chains, but unlocked them from the wall and floor and used them to drag him to his feet.  He saw that McKirk had a sickle hanging from the belt of his costume and he made a dart to grab it, but the old man stepped away and the youngsters leapt forward to restrain him.

“Watch him,” McKirk snapped.  “He’s strong and he’s wily.  He must not be allowed to escape.  We’ve come too far and everything is ready – if you fail the Priestess now, it will be you who take his place tonight.”

The men muttered apologetic acknowledgments of this threat and Paul was aware of their tightening grip on his restraints.  He dug his heels in and they had to drag him from the room and up the narrow spiral stairs to the ground floor.  There he found several other groups of people waiting – similarly robed to his uncle. 

A group of several middle-aged and elderly men surrounded him, sizing him up like a bull at market.  Paul recognised the landlord of the local pub and several faces he’d seen in the bar.  He struggled to control his anger; he was sure he’d have one chance to get away and he couldn’t risk moving too soon and wasting it.

When the men moved away, a group of three women moved in and began to undress him – his minders holding him firmly as his shoes and jeans were removed.  A white robe was dropped over his head and fastened with a leather belt around his waist.  His arms were stretched out by the tugging on the chains and the garment laced at the sides to form rudimentary sleeves.   With a somewhat coy smile, the youngest of the women removed his underwear. 

Barefoot, it was harder to resist the dragging of his minders across the rough stone flags and Paul’s feet were bleeding long before they had managed to get him out of the castle and started towards the valley with the standing stones.  Through the wooded grounds he struggled and fought against his implacable captors, but inexorably they processed towards the ceremonial site.  Paul glimpsed flaming torches away through the trees and heard a rhythmic drumming. 

As they reached the gated fence he glanced up from the pathway to a sight that took his breath away.   A huge, partially eclipsed, autumnal moon was rising over the wooded ridge of the valley, making the standing stones glow with an unearthly light.  

There was no sign of the torches or the drummers and he wondered again what was going on.  He’d assumed the ‘ceremony’ was to be held amidst the stones.

Then one of the men in the procession intoned: “See, Hern is amongst us!”

Every head looked to the left and Paul’s turned too.  

Lit by the flickering light of many torches, a team of men, stripped to the waist, was towing a flat wooden platform on which stood an immense figure of a man, made from the living branches of trees and bracken.  The drumming was coming from the procession that accompanied this edifice and in the shimmering moonlight Paul caught sight of the Priestess riding on a dappled-grey horse beside the grotesque representation of her ‘lover’. 

Sweat broke out on Paul’s brow and he struggled all the more fiercely as the awful truth presented itself.  He had anticipated some ceremony with knives and blood-letting until he died, but this – this was a wicker man and he knew what happened to them.  Dead or alive, he was going to be incarcerated in that green prison and burned.

He had faced death many times – suffered unimaginable pain more times than he cared to remember.  He had given himself to save the lives of his colleagues and his friends – to complete a mission, to defeat the Mysterons.  But the one thing that had the power to shake his courage was fire.  Buried deep within his consciousness was the partial memory of that first death – the death that had led to his being retrometabolised by the alien enemies of the Earth.  It had been a car crash – and he retained a lurid recollection of the excruciating pain of his injuries and the fearful stink of the burning rubber underlain with the smell of scorched flesh and the fearful realisation that the nightmarish stench was not only from the body of his dead comrade – Captain Brown – but also from himself.  He’d crawled away inch by agonising inch, his skin, in places, hanging from his bones as the flames licked hungrily at him.  He’d prayed for death – couldn’t imagine how he’d ever manage to draw a breath again into lungs that had blistered with the heat – and then he’d seen the tall, dour figure of Captain Black and reached for him, begging for help.  Black had turned away and he had surrendered to the pain and the fear of death. 

Beyond that his memory would not go, even though he had been told what had happened next by his Spectrum colleagues.  He’d even seen the badly burned body that had been his in the morgue on Cloudbase; had attended the final cremation of that charred body and scattered the ashes in the countryside around his beloved home. But until now he‘d never had to face the possibility of another death by fire and he wondered with fearful uncertainty if - by some perverse twist of fate – the gift he had been given by that first fire might not be burnt away in the furnace of the next one.  Whatever the outcome, he admitted to himself that it was the death he feared most.

He struggled violently, managing to surprise his captors enough to break their hold.  He sprinted away, but was brought up sharp by the chains that pulled him to the ground. He scrabbled to regain his feet, his breath coming in short gasps.  The men surrounded him; he felt someone’s foot impact with enough force to crack a rib as they subdued him.   They dragged him upright and hauled him across to the hill and the approaching wicker man.

 

The Hern procession had reached a level part of the moor close to the circle stones and the drumming stopped. The people moved to surround the monument, the light from the flickering torches emphasising the rugged angles and the dark shadows within the rough surfaces of the stones.

The drumming recommenced – faster, like a quickening heartbeat – designed to heighten the senses and boost the adrenalin-fuelled emotions.

Paul was dragged towards the stones, past the ominous statue, its component branches rustling in the fitful breeze as he went by.

The Priestess, wearing her white gown and silver jewellery, was standing by the central monolith, female attendants around her.  Some of the older men flanked them, sickles drawn as if in a perverted honour guard for the approaching victim.

Paul was slung at the feet of the Priestess and she leant down towards him.  “The hemlock?” she asked in an almost patronising whisper. “I presume it seems like a much better idea now?”

Well aware that his dread was visible, Paul still found the courage to throw back his head and cry into the night:

‘This is murder- nothing less!  I give no consent – I share no beliefs – I damn you all –“

At a gesture from the Priestess, the drumming increased in tempo and volume, drowning his words.

Her face a mask of anger, the Priestess stood upright and extended a hand towards her nearest attendant, who gave her a small silver sickle.  She raised her arm and slashed at Paul’s cheek, paring the skin to the bone.  Blood flowed in a copious stream, turning the white robe scarlet.  Although he had flinched at the suddenness of the gesture, Paul did not cry out.  He could feel his heart thumping in his chest, and his growing thirst indicated that his retrometabolism was already at work on the wound.  Concern swamped him: he could only speculate what effect discovery of his invulnerability would have on the ‘congregation’.  He felt sure it would not be in his favour – these people were psyched up to commit murder – they would be an angry, ungovernable mob if that expectation was not met.

He sprang to his feet and, in his determination to goad them into a quick conclusion,  grabbed the sickle from the astonished woman’s hand, returning the blow, so that a ribbon of her blood flowed staining her silver-white robe in a chilling echo of his own.

A howl of angry protest went up from the watchers at this sacrilege.  The men closest leapt to defend the Priestess and slashed at Paul with their own sickles, drawing blood from his arms and hands as he sought to protect himself.  Overwhelmed by sheer numbers, he dropped his sickle and they grabbed him, dragging him towards the wicker man.

Two men clambered up ladders laid against the statue and opened a hitherto unsuspected door within the upper torso.  The congregation chanted ‘Hern, Hern’ as Paul was hoisted up the ladders by the chains on his wrists, flailing about him dangerously, trying to get his gaolers to drop the chains that held him, without regard for the wounds he had or the fact that he had dislocated one shoulder in the struggle.

He was thrown inside the small cage and the door was slammed and locked with a chain and padlock, even as he threw himself against it, dislodging branches, so that he could see through the bars at the crowd milling about below him.

Men hurriedly carried faggots of twigs and bundles of kindling to stack around the legs of the wicker man.  Paul scrabbled with the lock, tearing his fingernails as he fought to break the fastening.  He was not aware that he was sobbing, being conscious only of the growing thirst and the ‘pins and needles’ sensations of his body as minor wounds healed themselves.  Even in the depths of his fear part of his mind remained coldly logical and almost relished the anticipated vengeance when he walked, unharmed, from the ashes of his tomb.

The Priestess had come to the base of the structure, carrying a lighted torch.  She applied it to the bonfire and the chanting rose to a crescendo, drowning Paul’s scream of ‘Murderess’ as the flames, fanned by the wind, caught and crackled into life.

 In his prison Paul could already smell the smoke as it meandered its way through the branches and into the timber cage. He backed into the centre and stared at his feet, steadying his rapid breathing and forcing himself to calm down. Decades of military training kicked in and he knew his best hope was to look methodically around him, searching for any weakness he might exploit in an escape, so when he raised his head once more he was in full control of himself again.  His eyes widened in bemused surprise as he saw, fastened around the bars that formed the walls and ceiling, the entire collection of the Hearne paintings his uncle had shown him.  McKirk was keeping his promise to his late wife, all right, and sending Paul to her long dead lover ‘beyond the veil’ with the remaining paintings in a million-pound bonfire.    He realised that, with the exception of the kindling and the timber that made his cage, the whole of the structure was made of living wood and it would burn slowly.   Already it was starting to smoulder and the thickening smoke was rising through the packed legs into the torso.  He coughed; fighting to remain calm, he began once more to try to force the lock. 

Outside, the people were circling the burning effigy, waving their torches and chanting ‘Hern’ and other less recognisable words – which were presumably of significance to them.  The wind gusted across the field, catching the flames and spreading them higher.  The wall of the cage began to burn; flames licked at the fresh wood and sparks caught the canvases and took hold.

Desperation made Paul scream: a roar of frustrated anger – of loss – and of helplessness.  Howls rose from the crowd as he spun round to thrust his hands out between the bars, already seeing in his imagination the peeling flesh of the car crash and the charred remains of his original body.  Whatever he felt now, he knew it would have been felt by the first Paul Metcalfe – the human Paul – who had known it was his death he faced – irrevocable and eternal - at least, he had the hope he would be revenged on these inhuman souls. 

A spark caught at the hem of his robe and he beat it out with his bleeding hands, backing away from the flames.  Once the timbers had burnt through he’d drop into the belly of the giant, to roast amidst the intense heat of the fire.  He prayed the smoke would kill him before then.  He brushed sweat from his brow, noting his cheek had healed.   He groaned. An already slow death might well be prolonged by his retrometabolism, fighting against all odds to repair the damage.  

He sank down, crouching in the corner nearest the door, shielding his face from the smoke and the hungry flames. 

Unwilling to give his tormenters the satisfaction of seeing him fight his destiny any longer, he prepared to die. 

 

Chapter Six

 

The first explosion alarmed the crowd, and screaming, the women and children scattered away from the bonfire.  The men sprang to defend the Priestess, many of them producing guns from beneath their robes and forming a protective ring around her.  Experience over the centuries had testified to the enmity of their neighbours – and every man at the ceremony was armed and ready to use force to defend his friends and family.

The second scattered everyone – the senior druids hurried to lead the Priestess to safety as the other men – now aware they were up against far more than hand weaponry – raced after their families, most of who were fleeing towards the castle, seeking safety in the ancient walls.

Emerging from the dense blackness of the wood, the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle, headlights blazing, raced across the boggy field and drove straight into the fiercely burning effigy of the wicker man.  The impact broke the statue at the knees, which had already been weakened by the flames - and sent the figure toppling face first onto the ground in an eruption of sparks, which danced upwards into the night in a golden shower, and were swept away by the wind. 

Screeching to a halt, the SPV reversed over the bulk of the ruin, breaking the frame into pieces.  Then it swung away to come to a halt on the ground between the wicker man and the circle.   There was a whine of the motor as one door swung open and a man in a pale blue tunic and helmet steered a hover-pack out of the vehicle before the seat had descended to the ground. 

Captain Blue hovered above the flames, peering through the smoke, calling out a name.  He swooped low and kicked at fallen timbers and mounds of smouldering foliage, until he saw a burst of flame against a white background when he kicked at one substantial pile.  He saw the outline of a broken body and landed, to drag the smouldering debris away.   Realising that Paul’s clothes were on fire, Blue threw himself over the body, trusting to his fire-resistant tunic to smother the flames.  Then he dragged the insentient body upright, draped the arms over the supports of the hover-pack and unsteadily took off again, heading back to the SPV.   The heavy door slid closed behind them and slowly the great mechanical leviathan turned and, after a hesitant start gaining traction in the mud, sped up the hill, crashing through the castle grounds, through the straggling lines of the frightened and astonished ‘congregation’ and over the hill towards the distant lights of the nearest town.

 

The hidden location for the SPV was the barn of a farm some distance from the castle, and amongst the other Spectrum equipment stored there were field operation medical supplies.  Captain Blue and Captain Ochre made Captain Scarlet comfortable on a gurney and assessed the scope of his injuries.  Both were horrified at the extent and severity of his burns, Blue confessing this was beyond even his enhanced, Fawn-trained, first-aid skills.  Ochre fetched some coffee from the terrestrial agent in the farmhouse and they debated their next move while they drank it.

“Whatever the consequences, we should get him back to Cloudbase,” Ochre recommended with a thoughtful shake of his head.  “He’s in a real bad way, Blue.”  He had offered to accompany his friend on the rescue mission when he’d bumped into the preoccupied Captain Blue on his way to the hangar bay, with the intention of blagging his way off Cloudbase in an SPJ without official sanction.  As Ochre had pointed out – Blue was a novice when it came to circumventing the stringent restrictions regarding personal use of Spectrum equipment, whereas he was an expert.   When Blue had thought to ask why Ochre wasn’t on safari in Kenya, the irrepressible mid-westerner had grinned hugely and winked, causing his more staid companion to roll his eyes in exasperation – but he’d accepted the offer with thanks, nevertheless.

Blue bit his lip.  “He’s breathing again – that’s something.  He wasn’t when I got him out of that monstrosity.” He looked up and gave Ochre a shaky smile.  “I had my doubts for a minute or two back there, Rick. But - I’m happy to say - once again Captain Scarlet has confounded expectations and revived.”

“What the hell was going on?” Ochre asked.  “I mean what had he done to upset those people so much?  He’s only been here – what? - three days? That must be a record even for Paul.”

“Only he’s gonna be able to tell us that.”

“And you don’t want to hypothesise in advance of the known facts?” Ochre’s eyebrows rose in scepticism.

“I’ve told you all I know, Ochre: there was an entry in my message log that someone using Scarlet’s code had tried to call me while I was in Mogadishu, then, not long after Grey and I got back, Mrs Metcalfe called on the personnel secure line.  She’d had a call from the British police to say that Paul’s car had been found burnt out and abandoned near Carlisle.   She hadn’t heard from him since he left Winchester to visit his uncle, and he was due back home yesterday because he’d decided to spend Halloween at home this year. She wanted to know if we knew where he was; not surprisingly, she thought he might have been recalled to duty suddenly, or that there might be any one of another dozen reasons why he wasn’t back in Winchester.  Now, I don’t know how come his car ended up wrecked in Carlisle – but Spectrum’s records showed Scarlet was still off duty and had not been recalled. So, I got Spectrum London to pinpoint the origin of the abortive call and it was in the Borders region.  Therefore, it seemed sensible to start here and work our way back.  It was pure chance we arrived when we did.  Honest,” he added in the face of Ochre’s suspicion.

“Fair enough – I’ll believe that Scarlet’s just a born-lucky chap, but I still say we should call a medical helijet - he badly needs medical attention.”

Blue nodded his head and had already opened his mouth to reply when he was interrupted.

“No, he doesn’t,” Scarlet croaked, opening his eyes and grimacing with pain.

“Paul!” Blue grinned down at his partner. He was genuinely relieved and slightly surprised at the speed with which his friend had recovered.  “Thirsty?” He offered the patient a beaker of water and helped the badly burned hands hold it to the blistered lips.  “We’re going to take you straight back to Cloudbase,” he assured Scarlet.  “We have a helijet and we can get to the SPJ in about twenty minutes,” he added. 

Scarlet shook his head slightly and managed to croak, “No; I want to go back to the castle.”

“Paul, you’re in no condition to go anywhere,” Blue insisted.

“I have some unfinished business; I’m going back to the castle.”

“Is that wise?” Ochre asked.

“Not in the slightest,” Scarlet responded with a ghost of a smile, “but I’ve never let that stop me before.”

“So they say,” Ochre snorted and then asked, “What happened back there?”

“Get me into the SPV and I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Will you be fit?”

“Fit enough. You know, sometimes I swear this body’s got a mind of its own.”  He straightened his arms out on either side of his body, flexing his powerful shoulder muscles and gasping slightly as the new skin stretched to accommodate his movement.  “It seems my retrometabolism’s working double quick.  Adam, give me a hand, please.” He extended his hand towards his friend for assistance in getting off the gurney.

“Are you sure about this?” Blue questioned, his expression one of concern. He recognised the stubborn set to his friend’s face and the spark of determination in his sapphire-blue eyes only too well and knew arguing was futile, but he wasn’t going to let Scarlet take risks without giving it some thought.  He grasped Scarlet’s hand in a gentle grip, wary of the suppurating blisters and burns.  Scarlet’s hand clutched his with much of its normal strength as he slithered off the gurney, wincing slightly when his bare feet hit the floor. He pulled the medical supply blanket around his nakedness, grimacing at the feel of it against his sensitive skin.

“Look – this isn’t Spectrum business – this is family.  I’m grateful for your timely assistance and all that, but I’m still on leave and I can do what I like; you guys don’t have to come with me –“

“Oh, sure – like we’d just let you stagger off, nursing your third degree burns, while we have a shot or two of the local whisky…” Ochre interrupted indignantly.

“- but I’d appreciate it if you would,” Scarlet finished, causing the mid-westerner to flush, “because I don’t have my car…” he concluded with a wry grin.

“It’s a burnt-out wreck in Carlisle,” Blue informed him as he cleared away the medical supplies in readiness to leave.

They’ve trashed my car?  That’s not cricket – I haven’t even finished paying for it yet!  Right, it’s not just family now, it’s personal! Get me back there as soon as possible and, with luck, by the time we arrive, I’ll be able to wear the spare auxiliary uniform from the SPV…” 

“Is he always like this?” Ochre asked with a wry grin at Blue.

“No,” Blue said, “usually he’s far worse…”  Ochre sniggered.  “Come on, Paul, if you’re determined to go, we might as well get on with it - then maybe we’ll get back to base before anyone even notices we walked off with the SPJ…”

You pinched an SPJ?”  Paul’s scorched eyebrows shot upwards.  “I suggest you base your defence on the fact that you were obviously possessed by insubordinate Halloween spirits…”

“He’s getting better by the minute…” Ochre commented ruefully as they helped the invalid into the SPV.  

 

Ochre drove the SPV across country towards the castle at a furious speed.  As they approached the isolated settlement, Blue pointed out the ominous glow on the horizon.

“Maybe that wicker man set the moor alight?”  he suggested thoughtfully.

“Could be,” Scarlet agreed, “but it was pretty soggy underfoot – on the other hand it is largely peat…” He was dressed in the charcoal auxiliary uniform and his eyebrows and hair had grown back, so that his face looked far more like his usual self.   Patches of his skin were still the baby-pink of recently healed wounds, but even that was slowly fading back to his habitual pallor. 

“Looks too high up to be the wicker man bonfire,” Ochre remarked as he negotiated a peaty stream and revved the powerful machine up the gentle incline towards their destination.

“What do you propose to do when we get there?” Blue asked Scarlet.  “I mean, it’ll largely be their word against yours – you won’t look like any kind of victim for much longer.”

“I don’t know - exactly.  Maybe I’ll just put the fear of God into them – any god! - but I can’t leave them thinking they’ve got away with it.  They might try this madness with some other poor soul – and I don’t care how much they protest it is a religious ceremony and the participants are willing to die for their beliefs - it can’t be allowed to continue.  McKirk and his friends are all completely barmy.”

They were making good progress over the rough terrain and suddenly the source of the glowing light became all too apparent.   Castle McKirk was on fire.

 As the SPV ploughed towards the building, knocking down trees in its haste, Blue and Scarlet hastily donned the hover packs in the hope of being able to help anyone trapped by the fire. 

As the doors slid open and the seats started to descend, a horrifying sound reached them - the screams and shouts of people in fear and pain.   It quickly became obvious that the fire was in the base of the castle tower, where McKirk had stored his provisions.   Smoke was billowing out from beneath the massive wooden door suggesting that within the enclosed space of the castle basement, the flames were raging. 

“There’s people trapped in there!” Blue shouted to Ochre.  “Blast the walls apart – we have to get them out!”

Scarlet was already hovering towards the building, heading for the smaller door.  He landed and tried to force it open, but it was securely bolted from the inside.

He glanced up at Blue’s urgent shouts and saw his partner beckoning him to move away.  Ochre had lined the SPV up and was obviously taking careful aim.  Scarlet fired the hover pack and shot up and away from the base of the building.  As he reached the first floor level, he glanced towards the narrow window and saw the face of his uncle staring out.

McKirk’s astonishment at seeing the man he believed to be dead was apparent in the split second before he yanked the window open and fired both barrels of his shotgun at the apparition.

“Away wi’ ye – ye spawn of demons!” he raged.  

Scarlet managed to dodge the bullets by the skin of his teeth and he swooped down to try to grapple with McKirk. The window embrasure was too narrow for him to climb through with the cumbersome hover pack on, but he grabbed his uncle’s arms as McKirk tried to thrust his reloaded shotgun through to fire again, and yanked the gun from him, dropping it to the ground.  McKirk struggled free and hastened back into the kitchen in search of another weapon. 

Scarlet saw the Priestess tied to one of the heavy wooden chairs, her eyes wild with fear as she begged him to save her.   Scrambling onto the narrow window ledge, Scarlet unfastened the hover pack and, with some difficulty, slithered in through the gap.

Back on the ground Ochre yelled to Blue over the cap mics, “What the frigging hell is he doing?  I have to fire now or those people are gonners, Blue!”

Captain Blue’s brows were lowered over his eyes as he said, “Fire when ready, Captain!  Scarlet will have to take care of himself…”

 

Paul quickly overpowered his uncle and disarmed him.  He shoved the old man onto one of the wooden chairs with considerable force, winding him.

“You?” the Priestess gasped as it became clear who her rescuer was.  “You’re dead!”

“Not quite, despite you giving it your best shot,” Paul replied sardonically.  “Now, my colleagues outside are going to fire at the castle, to open a way out of the cellar.  I suspect this whole building might come down when they do – I don’t suppose you’d care to risk jumping out of the window?”

“Ye’ll both die!” McKirk shouted, lurching towards Paul with a heavy carving knife in his hands.  “The sacrifice was defiled – we must appease the Mother and the Hunter! – everyone must die!”

Grimacing as the blade sliced into his arm, Paul subdued the old man again, and this time knocked him out cold with a left hook to the jaw.  “I don’t have time to play nicely, Uncle,” he muttered.  He finished untying the Priestess and glanced at her pale face.  “We’re running out of time,” he started to say but his words were drowned out by the explosion of the SPV rocket blasting into the solid stone walls of the pele tower.  The impact rocked the building, and both of them were thrown to the floor.  A second impact sent flames and smoke shooting up the funnels created by the narrow stone stairs. There was no way down out of the building.

“Come on,” Paul yelled, dragging her to her feet and towards the next flight of stairs.  “If we get to the roof, maybe Blue can airlift us off…”

“Who are you – and these people?” she gasped as he pulled her after him.

“Spectrum,” he snapped.  “You chose the wrong sacrificial victim – and take it from me – you’ll never have the chance to get it right a second time.”

“What about McKirk?” she asked stubbornly resisting the yanks on her arm, and turning to look back at the unconscious man.

Paul’s expression hardened.  “Let him save himself.  He set that fire, didn’t he?”

The woman nodded.  “He told people they would be safe in the castle – he said the Christians had come for us – that they would slaughter us for our beliefs.  Then, when everyone was inside, he locked the doors – he must’ve thrown a burning torch into the store-rooms beneath the basement before then – but it was some time before we smelt the smoke and realised what he’d done.  No one could get out and there was no way to fight the fire!  He said it was fitting we go to our gods purified by the flames.  He made me come up here – he said we’d become one with the eternal Mother and her priestess.”  She brushed a hand over her face and added.  “I think he’s quite mad.”

“Then he can have his wish, for all I care.  I have neither the time, the strength nor the inclination to do anything about him.”  He glanced at her.  “You I might just be able to save – if you do as I tell you.”

She nodded her head and followed his lead to the staircase.

The ascent was difficult; the structure had been dangerously weakened and anything less substantial would undoubtedly have collapsed already.  Paul mentally thanked the builders of the castle for having been so determined that no marauders would ever take their stronghold.  They reached the second level and saw the books strewn around the floor and the cupboards burst open by the impact. The Priestess dropped Paul’s hand and stooped to pick something up from the debris. He dragged her away up the stairs to the domestic level, just as the flames reached the second floor and started to devour the paper. 

Pausing a moment to orientate himself, Paul opened the door to his uncle’s room, which faced the direction of the courtyard where he knew the SPV was parked.  The room was dominated by a large four-poster bed that must have been constructed in the room.  Next to it was a plain camping bed, the blankets neatly folded at the foot.  Puzzled, Paul paused to stare at the big bed and gasped.  Behind him the Priestess, panting at the exertion of their race upstairs let out a cry of surprise and fear.

Propped up against a bank of pillows sat the figure of a woman.

She had long, matted, grey hair and her skin was shrunken beneath the large orbits of her dark eyes, which stared into the room in an expression of fearful despair.  Arthritic hands grasped at the sheet, the nails so long they curved back towards the palms.  It took a moment for Paul to realise she’d been dead for some time.

“Great-Aunt Rosemary,” Paul’s voice was no louder than a breath.  “God in heaven, did he do this to you?”

 “She was ill for some time, and then he told us she’d died - about six or seven years ago - and that he’d buried her in the confines of the circle,” the Priestess explained.  “People were angry that they’d no chance to pay their last respects to her – she was greatly admired as a kind and caring woman.”

“I doubt she’s been dead that long – but it’s certainly been awhile.”  Paul wrinkled his nose against the musty smell of death and strode to the window, tearing the draught-proofing from around it and wrenching it open. “In fact, he buried her in a living tomb and presumably, hatched this crazy scheme to burn me and the remaining pictures as some sort of memorial to her.”

 “How much he must have loved her,” she said, “even in death.”

Paul shook his head at such a warped vision of the meaning of love.

The windows at this level, although small by modern standards, were large enough to allow a relatively easy passage, and he encouraged the priestess to clamber through onto the flat-ledge that ran around the domestic level.  Once she had edged out, he pulled a coverlet from the four-poster and climbed out after her. 

Down in the courtyard he could see Blue and Ochre busily airlifting the injured through the gaping hole in the cellar wall, to a safe point beyond the SPV.  There were already about dozen or so people, men, women and children, huddled together, shocked and frightened.  Some must have been fit enough to scramble through unaided and he could see a few of the men helping more from the inferno. 

He started to shout, waving the blanket to attract attention.  When that failed he dropped the blanket and it was Ochre who, seeing it falling, glanced up and saw Paul waving from the roof.  He grabbed Blue’s arm and pointed upwards.  After depositing their passengers, both officers rose upwards towards the roof to rescue their colleague.

As Blue reached out to sweep the Priestess into his arms, she dropped the small item she’d been clutching and thinking it might be important, Ochre picked it up, stowing it beneath his uniform tunic before he settled Paul on the support arms of his hover-pack and headed down, away from the tower.

Once Scarlet and the Priestess were safely down, close to the SPV, Blue and Ochre set off again once more to see if they could help anyone else from the basement.   The men, who’d been assisting people out of the basement, ran away, shouting that it was no good any longer as a rushing sound, followed by a bright flare of light as a plume of flame took hold of the second floor. Blue glanced up and saw McKirk’s face at the open window; he was cursing the world in general and shaking his fist in the direction of the muted glow of the approaching dawn.  Despite the risks, Blue spiralled upwards towards the old man in the hopes of being able to affect a rescue, only to be met with a stream of crude invective and both barrels of a shotgun.  Blue swooped away, skilfully manoeuvring the hover pack out of immediate range of the old man’s enmity and both bullets went wide.   He watched in increasing horror as McKirk’s druidical robes caught alight and he struggled to extinguish them, beating them with his bare hands until he went down in a ball of flame, his claw-like hands finally stretching in supplication towards the man who could have saved him.  Blue had heard McKirk cursing before he fell, and then an ear-splitting cry of ‘Rosemary’ reached him, followed by screams of tormented agony as the flames took hold, until all sound stopped abruptly. 

Appalled by what he had witnessed, Blue turned away, shaking his head sadly, and started back to continue the task of airlifting survivors.  He was still some feet from the ground, when there was an explosion from the cellars on the other side of the castle as the stores of paraffin and heating oil were finally breached by the flames. The blast wave blew him off course, but he managed to regain control and came to land unsteadily some way from the survivors.  Scarlet and Ochre hastened to his side, anxious to assure themselves that he’d not been hurt.

They’d not reached him when a second explosion rocked the building and a large part of one wall crumpled in on itself.  The building slid gracefully sideways, and tottered uncertainly for some moments, until a final explosion pushed it too far and it collapsed down the hillside.  Huge stones were thrown into the air and everyone scattered out of the danger zone as they rained down around the courtyard, one of them striking the SPV with a dull clang.  

It was then that Scarlet became aware that the survivors had surrounded the Priestess, some seeking comfort and reassurance from their spiritual leader, but a fair few aggressively demanding retribution for the deaths of their friends and families and their own hurts.

Paul moved towards them, shouting to be heard.  “Leave her alone! There has been enough killing.”

“She lied to us – she cheated us!” one of the men shouted.

“That’s as maybe and you can sort that out amongst yourselves later.  Right now, you’d better decide on your own story about what the hell was going on here.  Spectrum alerted the emergency services and if you care to look over there, you’ll see the headlights of the approaching ambulances and police cars.  You could still all find yourselves facing charges of being accessories to an attempted murder charge, unless you agree on your defence.”

“Are you going to press charges?” the Priestess asked.

He ran his fingers through his dark hair and shrugged. “I was going to,” he admitted, his gaze raking over the grimy and exhausted crowd.  “I wanted to see every man-jack of you punished for what you tried to do to me.  However, I think – and trust - you have all learned your lesson from that hell-hole? Keep your religious beliefs within civilised boundaries in future and I won’t take further action.”

“You are a remarkable man, Paul Metcalfe,” the Priestess said respectfully. “We all owe you and your friends a great debt of gratitude.”

“Tell it to the marines,” he snapped.  “I never want to set eyes on any one of you – ever again.”

“What will you tell the police?” asked a man Paul recognised as the landlord of the pub.

“Nothing, we’re leaving. You can tell them what you like – but remember, Spectrum will know what you say to them and if your lies go too far, I will report everyone here.  And I have two Spectrum officers as witness of what you tried to do to me – remember that!”

Blue and Ochre had joined him during this discussion and Ochre said, “If it was me, you wouldn’t be getting off so lightly – believe me.”

 Scarlet smiled at hearing the tenor of the policeman Ochre had been in his friend’s pronouncement.  Then he turned to his colleagues.  “We’d better go,” he said, adding quietly so only they could hear, “unless you have any way of explaining to the rozzers why I ain’t dead yet…”

“Good point,” Ochre agreed.  “Shall I drive?”

“After the way you drove here? Not on your life,” Blue commented and the pair of them almost raced each other back to the SPV, Scarlet close behind them.

The survivors watched as the great, metal vehicle did a three point turn and raced off down the hill, away from the approaching fleet of emergency vehicles.  They all glanced at each other and turned with some trepidation to face the judgement of their peers.

 

 

Epilogue.

 

The General and Mrs Metcalfe greeted their son and his friends with a smile as they disembarked from the Spectrum helijet in the field behind their house.   She wrinkled her nose at the scent of smoke on their clothes and banished them all to the bathrooms to shower while she made them something to eat. 

Then she and her husband listened to Paul’s story - or at least, the edited highlights he deemed suitable for their ears – of what had happened on his visit to his great-uncle, with great concern.  Sitting next to her son on the sofa, Mrs Metcalfe stroked his arm, while General Metcalfe formally thanked Blue and Ochre for rescuing Paul from such mad goings-on.

In the embarrassed silence that followed the general’s speech, Captain Ochre produced the item he’d rescued from the Priestess and presented it to Mrs Metcalfe with a rather gallant bow.

She looked at it for a while and then laid it on the coffee table for them all to see.

It was the picture of Great-Aunt Rosemary in the Hern Oak. 

“Well,” she said, “I suppose it’s yours now, Paul.  I certainly don’t see anyone disputing your right to it.  We have McKirk’s letter.”

“I don’t want it,” Paul said.  “Every time I look at it, I’ll see the wizened corpse of poor Aunt Rosemary.”

“You could always sell it,” Ochre suggested, practically.

“We could, I suppose?” Mrs Metcalfe glanced hopefully at her husband.

“I don’t know, my dear.  We’d have to establish legal ownership, wouldn’t we?”

“Finders keepers?”  Ochre smiled at his hosts.

“That’d make it yours,” Mrs Metcalfe pointed out with a smile.

Ochre shook his dark head.  “I just picked it up – I didn’t find it.”

Blue shifted in his seat. He had picked up the canvas and was studying it in the glow of the standard lamp behind the armchair he was in.

Paul glanced at him.  “You have an idea?” he said.  “One, I’d guess that might not be legal in the precise view of the law?”

“Well, I wouldn’t advocate doing anything criminal,” Blue said hastily. Everyone readily acknowledged that. “But, well, it seems to me the picture ought to be Paul’s and if he doesn’t want it – I know who would buy it from you. Without asking too many questions, I mean.”

“It wouldn’t be Mr J.S. Svenson of Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, by any chance?”  Paul suggested, with an amused smile on his face.

Blue coloured faintly.  “Well, no – I meant me, actually.”

“You?” The general was astounded.

“It was just a thought,” Blue added in a mutter as the shocked silence continued.

“Do you really want it, Blue-boy?” Paul asked, somewhat surprised.  He wasn’t going to let Adam do anything stupid from some misguided sense of wanting to help.

 “I would like it; I think it’s a marvellous picture,” Blue explained. “I’d be surprised if Hearne ever painted a better.  The brushwork is superb…and the colours…” he trailed into silence and flushed again.

 “He can give you a couple of hundred now and the rest over forever, if you’re interested,” Ochre teased. 

“What’s the picture worth anyway?” Paul asked Blue with an air of supreme indifference.

“Well, the last Hearne of this quality that came to auction made just over $2 million,” Blue admitted. “But this ought to do even better.”

“And you can afford that?” It was Ochre’s turn to look surprised.

“I could finance it, yes.” Blue gave Ochre a rather condescending glance; obviously the jibes about his personal finances had struck a nerve.

Paul stretched and lounged back on the sofa; his blue eyes met his mother’s in conspiratorial understanding.  Suddenly he sat upright and announced,   “I’m not going to sell the picture to you, Adam; but I will give it to you.”

“You’re joking,” Blue exclaimed.  “You said you wanted the Hearne pictures to pay for the new roof here – you can’t just give something like this away – especially as it is all that was left!”

Paul held up his hand to stem the flow of his friend’s protests.  “The way I see it, we’re all agreed the picture is mine to do with as I wish, and as far as I’m concerned, your friendship’s priceless – so I reckon I’ll still owe you.”

Blue put the picture down as if the frame burnt his hands and looked long and hard at his friend, seeking to read the truth in his expression.  Unperturbed, Paul returned the gaze. Blue turned to look at the Metcalfes.  Mrs Metcalfe was smiling with quiet pride at her son, although the general looked a little bemused by the sudden turn of events.

Suddenly Blue turned to Mrs Metcalfe and caught her attention, “What will the re-roofing here cost?” he asked her.

After a moment’s hesitation, Mrs Metcalfe named a substantial figure, which nevertheless was far lower than Blue’s estimation of the picture’s price.  “That would be to do it properly,” she added, in the face of her son’s unspoken protest.

“The picture is worth far more than that,” Blue asserted.

“Not to me it isn’t,” Paul interjected, looking crossly at his mother – he had a shrewd idea what was coming.

Blue ignored him. “I will only accept it if you will let me do something for you – for all of you?  Let me pay for the new roof…”

The elder Metcalfes spoke with one voice.   “No –“

“Certainly not –“

 “Then I’m afraid I must decline the gift,” Blue said obdurately.

“Adam, it’s very generous of you to offer and we do appreciate the gesture – but Paul gave you the painting, dear.  You’re not obliged to do anything,” Mrs Metcalfe said.

“And how else will you finance a new roof if you don’t sell this picture?” Blue asked pointedly, his resolve overcoming his good manners.  The Metcalfes made no reply. 

“You’re a bully, Svenson,” Paul said eventually with wry grimace.  He recalled the frail body he’d seen in the four-poster at the castle and compared it with the vibrantly beautiful woman in the painting.  “I really don’t like the thought of Auntie Rose hanging in a gallery for the world to gawp at, nor being gloated over in the possession of an unknown someone.”   His deep blue eyes met Adam’s pale ones.  “If I agree to your blackmail over the roof, will you take her and look after her?”

“I will and I will never sell her.”

“Very well then; Mum, get the contractors in before Adam changes his mind…” Paul grinned.

“What a shocking victory of sentiment over business acumen,” Ochre commented with a grin.

“Oh, and Adam,  if you’re feeling like you’ve made a good deal, maybe you ought to pay Rick a finder’s fee,” Paul said with a chuckle.  “After all, if he hadn’t picked it up – the Hearne Inheritance would have consisted of nothing but a spectacular collection of bruises for me and the prospect of facing the colonel’s wrath for you, when you try to explain why you took the SPJ and left Cloudbase without permission.”

He threw back his handsome head and gave peal after peal of laughter at the woeful expressions on his friends’ faces. 

 

 

 

The Hearne Inheritance - The End 

 

 

Author’s Notes:

 

This story is pure hokum – and I’m quite sure it’s a false representation of Pagan beliefs and rituals.  I had fun with it though.

My thanks go, as always, to my beta-reader, Hazel Köhler, who tolerates my ineptitude with as much patience as Blue shows for his partner’s impetuosity.   Thanks as well to Caroline Smith, for much more than I can explain here, but particularly – in this instance - for the reassuring confirmation that my attempt at colloquial Scottish ‘wasn’a that bad’.  Also as ever, my thanks to Chris Bishop: for her encouragement, insight and her final pronouncement that she ‘quite liked ‘Hearne’’.  I couldn’t ask for more.

The characters from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons™ belong to the business conglomerate Carlton International.  They were initially the creations of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson – to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for the many years of enjoyment their work has given me. 

 

I hope you enjoyed reading it – and I wish you a very Happy Halloween.

 

Marion Woods

September 2006 

 

 

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