Before she opened her eyes, Alison was aware of the smell. This was Paternoster Farm all over again. The air was thick with a dank stench of earth and animal, as if something were slowly rotting in the room. The place was unnaturally warm. And she was not alone. Close by was the sound of breathing, quiet, controlled and rapid.
She waited until she was fully conscious, fully aware of herself and only then, eyes darting in the half darkness of the place, began to scream. The sound died almost on the instant. She had struggled and it was useless. Something bound her to a small, hard chair. Her hands, tied tightly at the wrist, sat on her lap. In front of her, mimicking her every move, was an image from a nightmare: a face, stricken with terror, head covered in flowers, buttercup and rose, lily and heather, woven carefully through her hair.
Alison looked at herself in the mirror and felt her sanity briefly desert her until the pain and the anger forced it to return. Bella was seated by her side on a low stool, looking at her through the mirror too, although they could have been no more than a foot or two apart.
“She said to make you pretty. Not that you’re not already. They said you should look like you was made of flowers. Like the Queen of the May’s supposed to.”
They were in an ancient caravan, somewhere deep inside the wood she guessed, close to what remained of Paternoster Farm. She was wearing something foreign, a tight shift, decorated in a lurid floral print. Bella caught her staring at it. “One of mine. Sorry. They said you had to wear something bright, and I didn’t know what to do. Didn’t let that dirty old bugger Tyler undress you, mind. That would have been a bad thing.”
“Bella.” It was hard to think through the entire range of possibilities. They each kept tripping over one another. “What the hell’s going on here? Let me go, please. I don’t find this amusing.”
“Oh shit.” Out of the blue Bella buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.
“I don’t want no part of it, Ali,” she blubbered. “You do believe that, don’t you? It’s old Ma Tyler. She’s hopping mad. She says you killed old Harry. You betrayed Miles for someone out of the village. It’s you that made everything turn bad, going after her like that. And it’s that time. They got to burn someone, ain’t they?”
The maze of possibilities suddenly narrowed to a single certainty. Alison almost found the process, the elimination of the detritus from her mind, comforting. “Bella. Listen to me. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Just untie me. We’ll both go home and forget this ever happened. Nothing will come of it, trust me. Tomorrow we go back to living like we always did.”
“Can’t do that,” she said and picked up a pair of long, narrow scissors to snip at an errant rose that hung down over Alison’s neck. “She’d kill me if I did. And that’s not all. She’s got the village scared up the same way. God knows what she’d do.”
“Bella! You cannot let this happen!”
There was a sound from behind them. A thin draught of fresh air came in through an opening door. Bella cast a terrified glance in its direction and then, very carefully, slipped the pair of scissors into the pocket of the shift, felt Alison’s arm, pressed it against the handle to make sure she knew it was there.
“Can’t do nothing, missus,” she murmured, then retreated.
There was the smell of sweat and the sound of a heavy body. Marjorie Tyler’s vast form hove into view, a triumphant smile on her face. Alison looked into her eyes. They seemed heavy, dead. There was the flowery smell of gin about her.
“My,” she said, her voice a touch slurry. “We do look lovely. You can get going, Bella. Go warm your hands on the fire. We’ll be along soon.”
Alison felt the heat of fury rise inside her. “Piss off, Marjorie. You don’t imagine, for one moment, you can really do this, do you?”
Anger, bright and vivid, flared in Marjorie Tyler’s eyes. “This is my village. I can do what the hell I like.”
Alison wanted to say something more, wanted to taunt her. But this seemed a juvenile gesture. And something else too. She was afraid. Scared in an entirely new way, quite different to the terror she had known inside Paternoster Farm or the dreamy, unreal nightmare of Mitch Blamire, impersonating his brother, pouring some dread concoction down her throat to rid the world of Justin’s child.
“Cat got your tongue?” Marjorie crowed.
John Tyler came up on Alison’s other side carrying a small black medical bag. He opened it, reached in and came out with a syringe and an ampoule. “No need for unpleasantness, Marjorie. This is unusual enough as it is. A resident indeed.”
He stared at her with a piercing gaze. “You look lovely,” he said.
“No.” He seemed cross. “You never did listen. You never even tried to understand.”
“The story. The allegory. I told you. In the Mabinogion. The lord of winter, betrayed by his wife so she could sleep with the lord of summer. Light and dark. Heat and cold. And you. Blodeuwedd she was called in the story. It means she was made of flowers. But she might have been Guinevere too. It’s the same old story.”
The tale did ring some infuriating bell in her head. “And I’m her?”
Tyler looked as if he were trying to understand this himself. “Sometimes I think life is just a myth, running around itself, cycling through the centuries. One more Blodeuwedd. One more Guinevere, betraying Arthur for Lancelot. And, in a sense, Miles won in the end, didn’t he? In spite of the treachery. Not that I’m being judgmental about that.”
Perhaps there was some ancient, atavistic triangle between the three of them. In Beulah anything was possible. “So what happened to her?” Alison asked, desperately trying to delay the needle. “The woman made of flowers?”
Tyler’s gloomy face looked a little dreamy. Maybe they were both on the chemicals. “She was turned into an owl, of course. Shunned by the creatures of the day. Better fate than Guinevere, of course. Poor cow was despatched to a nunnery.”
Alison looked at John Tyler and wondered how Marjorie had subverted him. What force had put him under her spell? “John,” she said. “You know this is ridiculous. You know Justin and his pals are sniffing around here. You can’t think for one moment they won’t find out.”
Marjorie roared with laughter. “Coppers? Justin? The cavalry coming across the hill? Oh, Alison. You can be so bloody stupid sometimes. We’re our own people here. This is our realm.”
“Justin will see to it…”
Marjorie leaned into her face so closely that she could smell the gin on her breath. “Well you won’t have to worry about that now, will you? Not when you’re coming back as an owl? Or dust, more like.”
“Marjorie,” John Tyler said primly. “This is not appropriate. We are not common murderers. We do not take pleasure in this.”
She cast him a viciously withering look. “Oh shut up. I take my pleasure where I want. As do we all. She had her chances. If she’d listened, if she’d been obedient, we could all be getting along swimmingly by now. Miles and her in the big house. Us running the show. Some hapless tramp old Mitch picked up in her place instead.”
“This is not about vengeance…” Tyler continued, and plunged the needle deep into the ampoule.
“Put that away!” Marjorie barked at him.
She reached over Alison, grabbed the syringe from his hands and threw it back in the bag. “I said, put it away.”
Tyler looked shocked, offended. “We don’t want a repeat of all that trouble last year. It’ll make it easier if she’s drugged for the straw man. We don’t need to be unnecessarily cruel. No-one’s ever suggested that. Not in all the years…”
“Cruel?” Marjorie stared contemptuously at him. “Do you think they did it like this a hundred years ago? Five hundred? It’s all these modern measures that are our undoing. We stick to the ritual, pure and true.”
Tyler blinked rapidly, trying to come to terms with this. Alison saw her opportunity. “John,” she said, “you have to stop this. Now. She’s mad. You know that better than any of us.”
Marjorie pushed her hard in the chest. The chair toppled backwards. Alison fell painfully to the floor. From there she could see what happened so clearly. Marjorie’s vast bulk moved swiftly across the room, her trunk-like arms came up, one of them clutching a long, shining knife. She held it tightly to John Tyler’s throat. He looked utterly terrified.
“Do we argue, boy?” Marjorie hissed. “Do we dare?”
He shook his head.
“Good. No drugs. No straw. We go back to the old days. We give them a night to remember. And after that Beulah’s ours again, for as long as we like.”
Then Marjorie’s gigantic hand came down, wrenched Alison to her feet, and untied the rope that bound her to the chair.
“You can walk, all right,” Marjorie said. “You probably think you can run, too. But where to, Mrs Fenway? You think of that? You start bolting and you get this…” The shining knife rose and threatened Alison’s throat. “And my, I’d like that.”
She said nothing, trying to think, then stared at her with an odd expression. “Good girl that Bella, eh?”
Marjorie reached down, into the pocket of the shift and extracted the scissors, held them triumphantly in front of Alison’s face. “Giving you ideas, was she? Thinking maybe you’d get away?”
The silver knife flashed. Stunned, Alison watched the blade sever the rope at her wrists. Marjorie unwound it as a single length, then grabbed her by the hair and tied the rope around her neck like a noose.
She tugged once on the end then led her out into the night. The air was heavy and close. There was the smell of burning wood, the crackling of fires from the forest. And above them all the low, guttural growl of thunder.
(c) David Hewson 2012