Jack dropped by the old house once a fortnight before his work day officially started. He collected the rent and any mail that needed to be dealt with and usually had a bit of breakfast with Louise and Sian. It was a routine he almost looked forward to. They were a nice pair of ladies. They always joked about two lesbians entertaining a gay man. He joked back that he was bi and one of these days he’d surprise the both of them. But it WAS just a joke.
Even if they WERE up for it, that house was the last place he would be in the mood for it. There were too many bittersweet memories, even for him.
It had been a shock to him when he found out that Estelle had left the house and contents to him. A nice shock in one way. He was touched that she cared so much about him. But it was traumatic, too, going through all her personal possessions, crating them up and arranging for them to be put into one of the Torchwood lock up storage units. A few small things he had kept. A locket he had given to her when they were young and in love and even the war had just been a backdrop to their own story; photographs, the heartbreaking letter he had written to her when he had to leave…
Most of the furniture he left in the house. He had contemplated selling it, but found he couldn’t bear that. Instead he put it up for lease and having vetted several couples found Louise and Sian to be the best tenants he could get.
They were a quiet couple. Louise was a lawyer and Sian a law student. They weren’t into wild parties, and they liked cats, so old Moses adapted to their presence fairly well.
And they liked Jack. They thought he was the grandson of the original owner and still a bit upset about his gran’s death, and they were kind to him. People weren’t often kind to Jack. Like Estelle’s old cat, he didn’t often LET people be kind to him. Louise and Sian were the rare exceptions in both cases.
“You look tired,” Louise told him as he sat with them at the kitchen table and ate bacon and eggs and sipped very good coffee. “Have you been working hard?”
“Just a bit,” he answered. He smiled. Actually, he reckoned three hours last night was the longest unbroken rest he’d had all week. It had been Weevil Season. Dozens more than usual roaming the streets, and those they had in the cells were restless. Ianto had come up with a theory that they were preparing to migrate, like birds flying south for the winter and this was them gathering ready to do that, waiting for a crack in the space time continuum that they could slip through. Possibly they had some kind of instinct that told them when it was happening.
Gwen said they all sounded like she felt coming up to her period. Weevils with PMT! Funnily enough the only one who hadn’t laughed about that was Owen, who said there might be something in that. He took blood samples to try to look for hormone irregularities. Gwen said if he discovered a reliable drug that took the misery out of monthlies she’d love him forever.
THAT made Owen laugh.
Anyway, it had been a long, miserable week, up to their eyes with fractious Weevils. But he couldn’t explain that to Louise.
“I’ll make some more coffee,” she said and took his cup. He looked through the mail. He had switched his own postal deliveries to this address instead of a box number at the post office, and there were the usual bank and credit card statements, some junk mail, a few bits of private correspondence from the very few friends he had that didn’t use email.
There was a postcard from Dublin with the words ‘Wish You Were Here’ and signed ‘D’ that made him smile. He got those from time to time - whenever ‘D’ happened to be on Earth and in the 21st century. It was nice to know he was alive and well. It was nice to know he was thinking of him. He never had a return address. Sooner or later their paths would cross again. But Jack knew that ‘D’ would choose the time and the place.
There was always a bit of mail for Estelle. Even a year later her name was still on some mailing lists, and there would be glossy leaflets and newsletters and all sorts of rubbish, and just occasionally somebody who didn’t know she was dead who he would have to write back to.
There was a package addressed to her. It was a box about four inches long and three inches wide, an inch and a half deep. It had been posted in Dorset three days ago.
He opened it slowly and carefully. It might be nothing. It might be something important. It might be something dangerous.
It was something small. A lot of small somethings nestled in polystyrene packing. They were silvery, and they looked like….
One of them flew up out of the box, tiny wings making a buzzing noise like a housefly. He clamped the lid down and grabbed a heavy ornament from the sideboard to hold it down, just in case, and lunged towards the escapee. He missed. It buzzed angrily and zoomed towards Sian as she brought his coffee. She squealed as the thing rose up towards her face. Then she screamed in pain as her cheek was slashed as if by tiny knives. Jack reached again and this time he managed to close his hand around the tiny buzzing demon.
“Owww!” he yelled as he felt his palm stabbed and slashed painfully. Blood poured from his fist as he squeezed hard. Louise turned around and around, unsure which one of them needed her help most. Sian was crying and holding her face and Jack was in acute distress. She watched in horror as he kept his hand closed and stumbled towards the black leaded solid fuel kitchen range that had been Estelle’s pride and joy. With his free hand he lifted the lid over the hot fire and plunged his fist in before opening it and letting the malevolent fly drop onto the coals. There was a hissing noise, and Jack was almost sure, something like a very faint scream before it was consumed.
“Are you…” Louise grabbed his wrist as he lifted his hand out and slapped the lid back down. “Oh, my God! You’re burnt.”
He WAS burnt. He was also bleeding. He let Louise bring him back to the table. She ran to the cupboard and found a first aid kit. She cleaned Sian’s face and pressed an antiseptic lint cloth against her injured cheek before she gave her full attention to Jack’s injury.
The back of his hand was blistered and red from the fire. She bathed the burns in cold water and applied antiseptic then turned it over and looked at his palm. She cleaned away the congealing blood and gasped in amazement.
In the middle of his palm was a hole, nearly an inch round, only a few millimetres short of going all the way through. When he held it up diffused light shone through the blistered flesh of the back of the hand.
“It was trying to break free,” he said. “Cutting through my flesh to get away.”
“What the hell WAS it?” Louise asked as she attended to his wounds. “And WHY did somebody send it to your gran?”
“I’d like to know the answers to BOTH those questions myself,” he answered reaching with his free hand for his mobile phone.
Owen and Gwen came straight away, dragging cases of Torchwood equipment with them. Owen immediately went into doctor mode and examined Sian first, confirming that the dozens of cuts to her face, though deep, would heal in a day or two and wouldn’t leave any scars. Jack’s injuries would take a little longer, but none of the nerves of the hand had been damaged and he wouldn’t be permanently incapacitated.
“Good job I’m ambidextrous,” he said as Owen fixed his arm into a sling. He had a grin on his face that made the word ambidextrous sound like something dirty. Everyone laughed. It relieved the tension that hung in the air. Louise and Sian especially were in shock. They didn’t expect to be attacked in their own home by homicidal houseflies.
Or whatever they were.
Gwen examined the packaging from around the box.
“There’s a note here,” she said and handed it to Jack. It was one of those notelets that folded and sealed with gummed edges. Ambidextrous or not he looked at it blankly and tried to work out how to open it with one hand. Gwen took it back without a word and slit the edge before returning it.
“Dear Estelle,” he read. “Sorry we haven’t kept in touch. You know how it is. Nobody has time to write letters these days. Anyway, knowing your interest in ‘little folk’ we thought these might pique your curiosity. Or if you can’t make anything of them, maybe show them to that friend of yours, the handsome Captain Jack that you told us about last time you were down here.
Donald and Freda.”
At the top of the page was one of those little stick on printed labels with “Donald and Freda Tolley, Durdle View Cottage, Lulworth, Dorset, BH33 5RX.”
“Amateurs” he murmured. “Just like Estelle was. A wonderful, fantastic, gifted woman, but an AMATEUR.”
“And she was killed because of it,” Gwen said in a quiet voice that only Jack could hear. “Somebody should warn them. They might be in danger.”
“Somebody should tell them Estelle is dead,” Jack answered. It wasn’t the most important thing, and he knew he was being over-sentimental and a bit amateur himself in thinking of that. But Estelle was a chink in his mental armour. She always would be. Every time he thought of her he lost a little of the cool poise he presented to the outside world.
“Well, I’m sure we can find their phone number,” Gwen suggested. “Even if they’re unlisted, Torchwood can find phone numbers. It’ll take Tosh five minutes.”
“No,” he answered. “They were friends of hers. She even told them about me. They must have been good friends if she mentioned me. I don’t want to tell them by telephone. I’ll drive down.”
“I’ll drive you,” Gwen said firmly, touching the wrist of his injured hand and reminding him of his temporary incapacity. “I’ll ring Rhys and let him know he has to get his own dinner.” She thought about how far away Dorset was and revised her estimate. “Maybe his breakfast, too.”
“I’ll get this back to the hub and examine these closely,” Owen said, picking up the box and sealing it into a metal container. “See if I can work out what they are.”
“Some kind of insect, isn’t it?” Louise asked. “It looked like an insect. But I never saw one do that before. Sian’s face looks like she’s been through a thorn hedge and Jack’s hand… WHAT sort of insect does that?”
“We’ll find out,” Owen promised as he packed everything away, anxious to get back to the Hub and fire up his microscope.
“We’ll be going, too,” Jack said, standing awkwardly as he remembered again that he couldn’t use his right hand. He managed to put his arm around Louise’s shoulder and hugged her, and then Sian. “I’m sorry you were hurt.”
“Wasn’t your fault, sweetie,” Louise assured him. “You’re still the best landlord we’ve ever had, and I’ll do you breakfast any time.”
“Are you all right?” Gwen asked as she manoeuvred the SUV onto the M4 Severn Crossing. “Your hand… is it bad?”
“Bloody awful,” he admitted. “Or am I supposed to be manly and pretend I don’t notice how much it hurts?”
“Not in front of me, you don’t have to,” she answered. “I don’t really go for the macho thing. If you’re hurting, say so.”
“It bloody hurts,” he said.
“Funny though,” she continued when they were across the Severn and officially in England. “When you ‘die’ bullet holes disappear and you’re all right again. But if you’re just wounded, it takes the same time it does for everyone else.”
“Buggered if it makes sense to me,” he replied with a hollow laugh. He pulled the letter out of his pocket and read it again. Not many clues there. Except somebody who knew that Estelle was interested in fairies had sent her something very small and potentially deadly that definitely wasn’t a fairy, not even by his own less sugar coated definition of them.
He couldn’t imagine that people called Donald and Freda did that deliberately. He just instinctively knew that Donald and Freda were going to turn out to be elderly people just like Estelle. Still alert and sturdily healthy and with time on their hands since they retired to indulge in fossil hunting on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, or potholing, or rambling around the hills with pacamacs and rucksacks and matching Aran sweaters.
If any alien being had catalogued the Human race, people like Estelle, people like Donald and Freda, would be categorised as ‘harmless’.
Then he ticked himself off for pre-judging them. If there was one thing he hated it was categories. He hated being pigeonholed himself. He hated all those judgements based on how he looked, how he walked, how he spoke, who he liked to have sex with.
It was a two and a half hour drive. It would have been longer if they weren’t in the SUV with an alien gadget installed that made red lights turn green. They were about halfway when Jack’s mobile rang. He hit the button on the hands free set.
“Owen… you have something for us?”
“Sure do,” he answered. “Pull down the computer screen. I want to show you…”
Gwen found a lay-by and stopped the SUV before leaning over to help Jack pull down a screen and slide a keyboard into position in front of him. Owen appeared on screen and waved towards his state of the art electronic microscope.
“First thing, they aren’t dead, they’re dormant. Which you probably guessed. They react to light. That’s why you had the little bugger that did the damage at Estelle’s place.” He turned the camera towards a big glass jar that was full of the shining, buzzing creatures. There was a light directed onto it which seemed to agitate them even more. “And here’s what they look like under the microscope. I had to skewer this one through the torso to get it to keep still.”
Jack and Gwen stared at the picture on screen. It was a recording of Owen’s experiment. They saw first the creature magnified several hundred times. And that in itself was incredible.
Jack had assumed it was some sort of insect. Curled up in hibernation in the box it had looked like a silvery beetle and when it was flying it was like a bumble bee or a very big house fly.
Under the microscope it looked like a medieval knight in full suit of armour, complete with an assortment of edged weapons and a set of silvery metal wings on the back.
“WHAT!” Gwen exclaimed. “Medieval fairies? You have to be joking.”
“That’s what I said, too,” Owen answered. “But look.”
On the recording Owen was using two very tiny instruments, tiny, tiny scalpels, to cut through the armour.
“It really IS metal,” Owen continued his commentary. “But it’s not armour like you imagine, put on as a suit. It’s actually an exo-skin grown onto creature. Look.”
He peeled back the armour-skin to reveal an inner skin so thin and translucent that they could see the flesh and muscle tissue and veins of the creature.
It was humanoid, in the sense that it had two arms, two legs, a torso and a head. The head was beaked and the eyes were huge, bulging.
“The ‘swords’ aren’t swords, by the way. They’re talons, growing out of the hands. They’re bloody sharp, though. I nearly sliced the top of my finger off handling it.”
“So what the bloody hell are they?” Jack demanded.
“Alien?” Gwen queried.
“Alien?” Owen considered that. “They must be. Because what else are they? Jack says there’s no such thing as fairies.”
“There isn’t,” Jack insisted.
“You know every time you say that a fairy drops dead,” Gwen told him. Jack didn’t laugh. For him fairies weren’t funny.
“There’s no such thing as fairies the way people THINK they are. The ones that killed Estelle are demons from the dawn of time. THESE, whatever they are, one of them attacked an innocent woman and took a chunk out of me. Imagine a whole swarm of them with grown in swords flailing. They could take the flesh off a man in a few minutes.”
“What do you want me to do with these ones?” Owen asked.
“Keep an eye on them,” he answered. “Whatever you do don’t let them get out of that jar. I’ll call you later after I’ve talked to Mr and Mrs Tolley.”
“Ok, boss,” Owen answered and saluted cheekily in his usual way before cutting the communication.
“Well!” Gwen said. And she didn’t say anything more. There wasn’t MUCH more she could say. Neither could Jack. She started the SUV again and they continued on their journey without saying very much.
They reached Lulworth just before midday and found the cottage a little way along the coast road, with a view of the Durdle Door - a perfect natural arch in the rocky peninsular that pushed out into the bay.
A man who could only be Donald opened the door, and Jack’s conscience was salved. He was exactly the archetype he had expected. In his mid seventies, grey hair and beard, dressed in an Aran cable knit jumper and hard-wearing twill trousers. A hatstand in the hall beyond the door contained an assortment of walking sticks with ornamental heads.
Jack identified himself and Gwen as friends of Estelle’s and quietly and solemnly asked to talk to him and his wife. Jack felt Gwen reach and hold his good hand as they stepped inside the cottage. He understood the reason for the gesture. They both knew about breaking this sort of bad news. She had done it as a police officer. He had done it as an army officer in several different wars, including some not fought on Earth. It was a difficult job.
He stood in the dainty cottage drawing room and looked at Donald and Freda sitting on the sofa together. He somehow found the right words and managed to hold back his tears as he said them.
Donald and Freda held back their own tears, perhaps because of some old fashioned idea about not being emotional in front of strangers. Freda stood after a while and approached Jack. She took his left hand in hers and held it tightly.
“She was obviously very dear to you,” Freda said. “Thank you for making the effort to come and see us in person.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am,” he said, swallowing hard and composing himself a little more professionally. “I needed to see you anyway. About the package you sent to Estelle…”
“It’s nearly lunchtime,” Freda told him. “Let’s eat first and then we’ll talk about that later.” And she went to set the table for four and made herself busy in the kitchen. Jack realised it was her way of coping with the bad news.
“Your hand needs looking at,” Gwen told Jack. She asked Donald if he had a first aid kit and he fetched it. Gwen gently unwound the used bandage and cleaned and redressed his hand and cleaned away the mess before Freda called them to the table.
Jack REALLY needed to talk to them about the creatures in the package they sent to Cardiff. But they wanted to talk about Estelle. And although the other matter was more urgent, and although he thought he DIDN’T want to talk about Estelle, he did find it a pleasant diversion. Donald and Freda had known her since the 1950s, when Donald’s father had been a farm labourer on Freda’s father’s farm. Freda’s mother, aided by Donald’s mother had run the farmhouse as a bed and breakfast hotel while the men did the farming. Estelle had been a regular visitor, staying for several weeks every summer and the Easter and bank holiday weekends. She had been a favourite with the children, always bringing them treats.
“Her sweetheart was lost in the war,” Freda said. “And she never married. But she would have loved children of her own, I think.”
“Yes,” Jack agreed, trying not to remember too keenly that he WAS that lost wartime sweetheart, trying not to imagine what it would have been like IF things had been different. If he had been able to stay with her, grow old with her, as Freda and Donald had grown up and grown old together.
Fate was a cruel bitch, as he had often commented.
“Estelle taught us about fairies,” Freda continued. “She ALWAYS believed in them. A grown up who believed in fairies was such a fun thing for us. She told us always to be open minded and to believe anything was possible.”
“Absolutely,” Jack agreed once more. “That was Estelle all the way.” They hadn’t asked too many questions about HOW she died. At their age, and given that Estelle was already a young woman when they were children, there was no need to ask. He was glad of that. He didn’t want to have to tell them that that the fairies they all believed in killed her.
They toasted Estelle’s memory in chilled home made lemonade and in the lull afterwards Gwen slipped off to the bathroom.
“She’s a lovely woman,” Freda said about her when she was out of earshot. “You’re not married yet? Or is the wearing of wedding rings an old-fashioned idea for you young people?”
“We’re not married,” Jack answered with a wry smile. “Gwen is…”
“She’s devoted to you. The way she looked after your hand, put the sugar in your tea, cut up your food for you. I bet you don’t let her fuss over you, usually. You’re the independent sort who does for himself. But she’s in her element now, giving you the old-fashioned Tender Loving Care.”
Jack’s smile widened. Apart from the detail that he and Gwen weren’t a couple, it was about right. Gwen was a natural wife and mother. If she had been born in Estelle’s era, she wouldn’t even have thought of a career. She’d have found a steady man and had three or four kids. She’d have spent the war taking in evacuees and smothering them with TLC. And she’d have been the happiest woman in the world. Instead, she was born when the career gene was agitated and women felt they had to do more with their lives. So she had been a police officer, and a good one at that. Then a Torchwood agent, and a FANTASTIC one. But in truth she was a wife and a mum and she found ways of being those things while still being a career woman. Giving him TLC while he was hurt and a little vulnerable was one of those ways.
He let them think what was, after all, a harmless lie.
Gwen came back from the toilet and Jack straightened up in his chair and moved the conversation onto a more serious note. Where, he asked, did they find the creatures they sent to Estelle.
“We found them in one of the bronze age barrows on Hambury Hill,” Donald said. “Archaeology is my thing, you know. Taught it at Bournemouth University before I retired. The barrows are my pet project, being right up there in plain sight of the cottage. Everyone at the university said there was nothing new of interest, but I always had an idea there was more. And I was right. We found the way into a cavern beneath the barrow, deep in the hill. Absolutely incredible, it was. And those creatures were down there. They glittered like diamonds in the torchlight. Millions of them…”
“Millions!” Jack’ voice was sharp and it cut Donald off mid-sentence.
“Millions,” Freda continued. “You should have seen it. Oh, Jack, I thought of Estelle straight away. I thought how delighted she would be. A fairy grotto! We collected samples, and when we looked at them closely, with a magnifying glass, they were AMAZING. We put some of them in a box, with lots of packaging, and sent them to her. We thought… real fairies. Just like she always talked about. Only… we didn’t know… Oh, she would have loved to see them. It’s so unfair.”
“They’re not fairies.” Jack’s voice had an edge to it now. “Or if they ARE fairies, they’re not good ones like she believed in. You’re lucky you got out of there alive. Just ONE of them nearly bored through my hand.” He waved his bandaged hand in proof. “Do you have more of them in the house?”
“We did,” Freda said. “We put them in a bottle garden. I thought they would look pretty flying around among the plants, in the sunshine. But they all died.”
“All except the samples we sent to Estelle….” Donald added.
“They died?” Jack was puzzled. “Just like that?”
“I wondered if the plants were poisonous to them,” Freda said. “Or something like that. I was very sorry about it. They ARE such pretty things.”
“Pretty demons,” Jack retorted. “Freda, you’re just like Estelle. She couldn’t see bad in ‘pretty’ things, either.”
“But, Jack!” Gwen was still thinking about the ‘millions’.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Come on, we’re going to look at this cavern.”
He stood awkwardly. He kept forgetting that he didn’t have the use of one hand. And he knew he was hardly in a fit state to go clambering around subterranean passages and caverns. But between a deeply ingrained stubborn streak and a foreboding of what might be happening within that hill he was determined not to be slowed down or hampered in any way. He could walk at least. And he walked out of the cottage to the SUV. He opened the back and pulled out four sets of night sight goggles. If they were going up against creatures that reacted to light then he wasn’t going to give them any encouragement.
He turned and set off up the hill. Gwen followed him, getting quickly left behind as he strode ahead. Behind her Donald and Freda walked briskly with silver-headed walking sticks to balance them as they negotiated the rough ground off the tourist trail.
Donald had been busy around the barrow. He’d managed to make it look like an official dig. There was a chain link fence with a padlocked gate and warning signs saying “keep out, danger of falling” here and there and an official looking notice with Bournemouth University’s Archeology Department logo on it. That was almost certainly a fib, since Donald was retired from the university. But it made it look the business to the casual observer.
He wasn’t too worried about the fence just now, though. His attention was drawn by a plaintive whimper that came from somewhere nearby. He cast around and then ran towards the sound.
From a distance Hambury Hill looked like a smooth, grassed over hump. Close up, of course, that was not true. Like any stretch of uncultivated upland the ground was rutted and pitted with hollows and rises that tripped up unwary ramblers and which were almost impossible to see until you were right on top of them.
He was right on top of this one before he saw the dead sheep and the sheepdog beside it. The sheep was only recognisable AS a sheep because there was some bloody remnants of wool hanging on the carcass. It had been stripped of meat by what Jack KNEW had to be hundreds, thousands of tiny sword like talons.
Beside it, the sheep dog was injured, too. It had cuts all over its body, blood matting the fur. Its nose and mouth were cut. Its tongue was bleeding.
“You fought them, didn’t you, girl,” Jack said as he knelt and stroked the dog. “You did your duty, protecting the lost sheep. Good girl.”
The dog responded to his voice with a slightly less plaintive whimper. Jack continued to stroke it as Gwen and the Tolleys caught up with him. Gwen gave an anguished cry and immediately shook off her jacket and wrapped it around the sheepdog.
“It’s Bess, Bill Atwood’s dog,” Donald said. “His sheep graze up here. He’ll be missing her by now.”
“Take her,” Jack said. “Get her down the hill and get her to the local vet. She’s going to need some taking care of, but she’s a brave dog who stood her ground. You can tell Mr Atwood that. And tell the vet I’ll settle his bill later.”
Gwen was surprised. She never took Jack as a dog lover. But he was adamant that Bess should be given the best of care and that her owner was made aware that his dog did her duty in the face of a very unusual predator. As Donald lifted the dog, wrapping Gwen’s coat tight around her he was concerned that she wasn’t hurt any further.
“She fought back,” he repeated as Donald set off down the hill. He looked at something he had found snagged in the dog’s fur next to a cut and ragged ear. It was one of the creatures, curled up again like it was in the dormant state. Except he was quite certain this one was dead. He peered at it closely. So did Gwen.
“It looks as if it exploded,” she said as she found a ball point pen and a nail file in her shoulder bag and used them to uncurl the tiny body. It was by no means as sophisticated an operation as Owen did under a microscope with precision instruments, but she managed it. And they could see, even with the naked eye, that the torso seemed to have burst open. Blood and tissue were exposed and the creature WAS, definitely, dead.
“Couldn’t have been the dog,” Jack said. “But these things have a vulnerability. That’s useful to know.”
Then Freda screamed. Jack turned and ran. He noted that she was inside the chain link fence. But she hadn’t unlocked the gate. She had gone in through a gap where somebody had cut through the fence. Jack got himself caught up in it momentarily, having only one hand free to push back the jagged edge but once through he sprinted to where Freda was standing, by the entrance to the dig. And he saw at once what had made her scream.
“Any idea who he was?” Jack asked as he knelt and looked cursorily at the body of a man in shreds of jeans and sweater. It was a pertinent question since the face was completely obliterated. The eyes, nose, mouth, all of the soft parts of the features were gone. So was most of the flesh on the neck. The arms were stripped to the bone, too, and the clothes were slashed to pieces as the murderous creatures tried to get through to the choice meat of the abdomen.
For that was obviously what they were after. The sheep, this man, they were food sources for hungry creatures who had been dormant for who knows how long.
“I think it might be Dick Budden,” Freda managed to say after Gwen persuaded her to take a couple of deep breaths and calm down. “He’s a bit of a petty thief. Been done twice for red diesel laundering, a bit of breaking and entering. Oh, dear.”
“Oh dear?” Jack looked up and managed to smile at such a refined exclamation in the circumstances.
“Dick was in the Castle Inn Saturday night. We were there with Donald’s friends from the university. They stayed over in the B&B. Of course, we talked about the dig. Dick must have got the idea there was something worth stealing…”
Jack looked back at the fence and its sign warning people to keep out. To somebody like Dick Budden, it was as good as putting a neon sign on it saying “Steal Me!” If Donald and his friends from the university had just put a couple of boards over the entrance to the dig and covered it with some sods of grass nobody would have been any the wiser. The fence was just asking for trouble.
He shook his head and tried not to think the horrible thought that this was all Donald and Freda’s fault. They never intended for people, or animals, either, to be hurt. They never meant for Sian to be hurt back in Cardiff, or him. They were just indulging that curiosity that humans could never help indulging, the yearning to know more about the world around them.
Well meaning amateurs!
“I think he found something to steal,” Gwen said. She pointed to a drawstring bag lying underneath the dead man. Jack nodded and gingerly she pushed the body aside and pulled out the bag. There was something inside. Something metal. Gwen pulled it out.
It was an oval shaped shield, made from bronze, Gwen guessed. But instead of a heraldic device, this one had words engraved on it. They were sharp still, even though it must have been very, very old.
“Fifth century,” Jack said. “It’s Latin – Ancient Roman. There’s a date. Julian calendar 452. That’s 413AD by the Gregorian. As for the rest….”
Gwen held the shield up. It still caught the sunlight and he winced at the glare in his eyes before she apologised and turned it a different angle. He read the words and went through a half a dozen different emotions before he was done.
“Let’s look at this bloody cavern,” Jack said, turning to the open entrance to the barrow between two large stones with another one across the top to form a crude door. Inside, it WAS dark. He put on the night sight goggles. Behind him Gwen and Freda did the same. The tunnel within curved and went down steeply. He put out his good arm to steady himself against the wall. He was surprised to touch metal every so often and noticed that shields not unlike the one Dick Budden had stolen were fixed to the wall. They were all slightly tarnished, but Jack thought they would reflect light, all the same.
“This was under here all the time?” Jack asked Freda. “Nobody excavated it before?”
“They excavated from the other side. But not as far down as this. Just above where we are is the bronze age passage tomb where they found a hoard of bronze coins at the beginning of the 20th century. After that everyone thought there was nothing new to be found, and they lost interest. But Donald thought there was something more. He found this other entrance and the tunnel leading far, far deeper than anyone went before. Those shields on the walls. They’re not bronze age. They’re later. He believed that they were there for a reason. And he guessed what reason.”
“What?” Jack asked.
“Light capturing,” Gwen suddenly said. “They did it in the pyramids in Egypt. They had shiny circles of metal that they used to capture the sun and focus it into the pyramid. They used one at the entrance and that reflected onto the next one, and the next, and it could light up the inside as bright as anything.”
Jack wondered how Gwen knew these things.
“Because coppers do night shifts sometimes,” she answered the unasked question. “So I’d be at home sleeping in the day time. And if I couldn’t sleep I’d watch the history channel on Freeview. There was a whole week of programmes about Egypt.”
“What Donald didn’t work out was how Romans knew about a trick the Egyptians knew,” Freda said.
“It wasn’t Romans,” Jack answered. “It was somebody who was around in 413AD who knew about this stuff. Anyway, I presume THIS is where Donald went that nobody else did?” He was looking at a rough hole cut into a sealed off wall directly opposite another of the bronze ‘mirrors’. He climbed through carefully and followed the steeper, narrower passage, noting more of the bronzes on the walls. “This was behind the wall? It just carries on down?”
“Donald found it using equipment from the university that measures the density of the ground to detect where it might have been disturbed. When he found a complete void… Anyway, it’s not very far now. You’ll be surprised.”
“This must be where the bronze Dick Budden had came from,” Gwen noted as she saw a place where something had been pulled away from the wall recently. “It’s the biggest one. The others are smaller. He obviously figured that was the most valuable one.”
Jack nodded and moved along carefully. He had a sense of a bigger space not very far away and he was not surprised when the tunnel opened up into a huge natural cavern in the hill.
He couldn’t see the creatures with the night sight. He briefly turned on a torch and shone it around. And as Freda had said, the tiny metallic bodies reflected in the light. They looked like thousands upon thousands of diamonds encrusting the walls, floor and ceiling. He was stepping on them, and they cracked beneath his feet with a horrible sound and sensation, a little like walking on seashells on a beach.
There was a buzzing as the light began to wake the creatures. He snapped off the torch again and turned back to the tunnel.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
He took the rear this time as Gwen and Freda went up the passages ahead of him. It seemed a long way to the entrance to the barrow. He was glad to come out, blinking in the sunshine that he felt he hadn’t seen for so long.
He was surprised to see Owen standing there as he emerged.
“How the bloody hell did you get here?” he asked.
“I drove, obviously,” he answered. “I figured you might need some on the spot help.”
“You could be right,” Jack answered. “You’ve seen the victim there?”
“Very nasty,” he said. “They did similar things to a couple of rats I tried putting in with them. Before I discovered a couple of interesting things.”
“Such as what?” Jack asked.
“LIGHT wakes them up. But direct SUNLIGHT kills them,” Owen answered. “I was experimenting with different kinds of light, different intensities. I tried UV light and infra-red, and then I tried simulated sunlight. And they started exploding. Killed them stone dead.”
“It was cloudy for the last few days,” Freda pointed out. “This is the first bright, sunny day since last week. So…”
“Dick there went down with a torch. Some of the creatures followed him up, followed his torchlight?” Gwen said slowly, working it out. “They killed him, killed the sheep, attacked Bess? Maybe early this morning when the sun wasn’t strong. But once it got brighter they died?”
“Yes,” Jack said slowly. He reached and picked up the shield.
“What DOES it say?” Gwen asked. “I don’t read Latin.”
“I know ‘nunc est bibendum’,” Owen said.
“That means ‘now is the time to drink’,” Jack explained to Gwen and Freda. “And it’s not helpful right now.” He read the text again then recited it easily.
“In this Julian Year of 452, I, being a man of learning and a visitor to this place, and finding here the race of flesh eating creatures called Vabatheth preying upon the population, caused them to be entombed here in the lower chamber of the barrow. Here they remain in a perpetual state of dormancy, because to annihilate any race, even the lowest, is anathema to me and I refused to do so. But on your life and the life of your kin, do not disturb this chamber. If roused from dormancy the Vabatheth must destroy or be themselves destroyed, for their hunger will be insatiable.
If destroyed they must be, then
Bring Light To The Dark Place.
“Medicus?” Owen looked brighter. “Ok, that’s two bits of Latin I know. Medicus is doctor. As in Medicus Owen Harper.”
“Another bloody well meaning amateur,” Jack said cryptically. “Though a smarter one than most.”
“A doctor wrote that message on the shield?” Freda queried. “Why?”
“To tell anyone in the future who might open the cavern up, what to do to prevent the Vabatheth from decimating the population. He wouldn’t kill them himself. Because he doesn’t believe in killing. But he knew there would come a time when somebody else might HAVE to. Course it WOULD be ME!”
“Yes, but…” Owen pointed out. “He didn’t say how to kill them.”
“Yes, he did,” Jack answered. “Bring Light To The Dark Place.” He turned the shield towards the sun and then angled it into the tunnel. The reflected light caught the bronze directly opposite on the tunnel wall, and that in turn reflected off one further in. the tunnel filled with light.
“Won’t work though,” Gwen pointed out. “Because that one belongs on the wall by the entrance to the lowercave.”
“Yes,” Jack said. “I know. We need to organise this. Team effort. Gwen, nip back down to the cottage. There’s a big mirror in the hallway there. Bring it up. Freda, you don’t mind, do you?”
Freda didn’t mind. Jack turned to Owen and pointed to the body of the former Dick Budden.
“Bring him,” he said. “We’ll leave him down there and close up the cavern again. If anyone looks down there again in the future his body should have decomposed enough to look like a potholing accident. Meanwhile, since he’s a bit of a loser anyway, people will just think he’s gone to be a loser somewhere else.”
It wasn’t a pleasant job for Owen, though he had seen worse. He lifted the already rather ripe body and followed Jack back down through the passages. They left the unfortunate Budden in the Vabatheth cave and then Jack retreated as far as the place where the shield was supposed to hang on the wall.
“You get back up there and tell Gwen to be ready with the mirror.”
“It takes a good few minutes to kill them,” Owen told him. “You’re just going to stand there? They’ll eat you alive.”
“They can try,” Jack answered. “Don’t worry about me. Get back up there. I’ll catch up with you when it’s done.”
Owen obeyed reluctantly. Jack felt strangely lonely as his footsteps faded away. Lonely and claustrophobic in the dark.
Then it wasn’t dark. He saw the light coming towards him. He held up the shield in front of his chest and the sunlight bounced off it and reflected into the cavern. The light spread and filled the cavern, making it as bright as day. And with the light came a gestalt buzzing of thousands of Vabatheth stirring from their dormancy. A buzzing that grew louder and came closer. He closed his eyes and stood his ground and prepared for it to hurt.
And it DID hurt as his body was enveloped in a cloud of voracious miniature killers with knives for hands. He felt his exposed face and hands slashed painfully. His clothes were ripped to reach the flesh on the rest of his body. He wanted to curl up and protect himself but he had to hold onto the shield until the creatures inside the cavern had been destroyed.
He knew when it started to happen. He heard their screams. Millions of tiny screams. You might not hear one, but all of them at once filled the air with a terrible sound.
Then there was another sound. A sort of popping, like making popcorn in a copper pan, only meaty and visceral. It was happening around him as the creatures attacking him exploded and died, and it was happening in the chamber, too. The popcorn image stuck in his mind as he stood his ground, feeling sore and bleeding from dozens of deep slashes to his body. Like making popcorn he had to wait until every last one of the creatures had popped. He had to keep the sunlight shining into the cavern until it was over.
“It’s over,” said a voice next to him and he felt Owen’s hands reaching to steady him. He felt Gwen taking the shield from his numb, blood-slicked hand before the two of them helped him to walk back up the darkened passage to the real sunlight outside. He made it that far before he collapsed from the combined loss of blood, all over pain, and sheer exhaustion.
He woke a few hours later. He was lying on his stomach and he was naked under the bedsheets. His wounds were treated and the worst bandaged but he still hurt a lot.
“Why am I lying like this?” he asked as he turned his head and saw Gwen sitting by the bed.
“Because you had a lot of really deep cuts and gouges on the fleshy parts of your… er… backside,” she answered, blushing rather interestingly. “Owen said you need at least a night’s bed rest before I drive you back to Cardiff. Freda and Donald were happy to put you up. Owen sealed the cavern. Though it looks like all the Vabatheth are dead anyway.”
“Yeah.” Jack winced as he tried to move and realised his butt really was in a sorry state. So was the rest of him. “Can you pass me my mobile phone. I need to text somebody.”
It wasn’t easy typing a text message one handed while lying on his stomach, but it wasn’t a message he wanted to dictate, even to Gwen.
“I had to kill the Vabatheth,” was the message he sent to a mobile number he wasn’t even sure worked any more. A few minutes later he got the “message sent” response and then a few minutes after that he received a reply text.
“I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
Jack read the response and nodded.
“So am I,” he murmured.