England, my England





1. Lords and Ladies

I'd gone down a storm at the Young Farmer's Disco.

I'd snogged everybody. I'd danced on the table showing my knickers. I'd had a strictly illegal tin can shooting competition round the back of the Cricket Pavilion with the Chief Constable. I'd snorted coke in the kitchen with the young wives of the local GPs and JPs. I'd ridden a bull. I'd promised that I would think about marriage (and the amalgamation of the Croft Estate with another hundred acres) at least twenty times.

It was all an incredible laugh.

Now I was getting a lift home with Jack Kite, the convenor of the local branch of the National Farmer's Union.

"Or No Fucking Use, as we like to call it," said Jack, trying to focus on the country lane speeding past at seventy miles per hour.

"Ha ha ha ha ha," I said, sticking my hand down the front of his trousers.

By the time that we got to the gates of the Croft Mansion the BMW was almost out of control. We knocked one of the huge gates off its hinges and then, with a window screen crazed from the impact, drove into the fountain, knocking the stone fish from its pedestal.

I'd never liked that fish much. We tumbled out of the car, helpless with laughter and stood kissing in the shallow water.

"Are you all right, Miss?" said Winston, appearing the main doorway with a hurricane lamp held high.

"I'm fine, thanks, Winston," I said, holding onto Jack's torso for support. "No harm done. Just youthful high spirits and high jinks."

"Very good, Miss," said Winston. He coughed discretely.

"What is it?" I said, disengaging my tongue from Jack.

"You have a visitor," said Winston. He held up the lamp to illuminate a Mercedes-Benz parked exactly parallel with one of the formal flowerbeds.

"Good to see that you've still got the energy for youthful high jinks," said a voice I vaguely recognised.

"Who's that?" I said unsteadily, shielding my eyes from a non-existent midnight sun.

It was Roger, 7th Earl of Farringdon.

*****


"Another cup of tea, milord?" said Winston.

"Actually, I think I'll join Ms. Croft. It's a shame to watch a lady drinking alone."

"I'm fine," I said, legs dangling over the edge of my armchair, bottle of Glenfiddick in my hand.

"Ice, milord?"

"Goodness me, no," said Roger. "Far too American. A splash of soda, perhaps."

We'd dispatched Jack Kite to be chauffeured home by Roger's driver in one of my cars.

"How's Lady Farringdon?" I asked. Roger had got fed up of waiting for me and had married something blue-blooded. It looked better in the City.

"Oh - Brenda's fine," said Roger. "Just got back from Antibes. Went there with her tennis coach."

"Are you two very much in love?"

Roger laughed. "Now don't be naughty, Lara," he said, fiddling with his ear lobe.

"And the boys?"

"They're settling in fine."

"How is the old Alma Mater?"

Roger sniffed. "They take girls in the sixth form now, apparently. Still got a good cricket eleven though."

"I see," I said, lighting my cigar. "So what drags you out here unannounced in the middle of the night?"

"Yes," said Roger. "Sorry about that. Sort of a whim."

"I hear that you have a mistress hereabouts. Did she chuck you out?"

"She doesn't seem to realise that a divorce is out of the question."

"Bad luck," I said. "Nothing worse than an uppity shag."

"Quite," said Roger. "May have to knock it on the head."

"What about the newspapers?"

Roger smiled. "A certain amount of roguishness is good for business," he said. "You know, Lara - that's one of the things I always liked about you."

"And what's that, Roger?"

"One can talk to you like a chap. No nonsense."

"Thank you," I said, blushing slightly. I'd had rather a lot to drink.

"So many gals. They only seem to live a shadow of a life. Not all there."

"It's the way that they're brought up," I said.

"Quite. Whereas you - completely off the rails."

"It's the way I like it."

Roger leaned forward and touched my hand. "I like it too. Still do. Never got over you ditching me."

I put my hand over his. "Sorry about that, old chap. I had the idea that you were deadly dull, if you must know the truth. I was very young. Silly."

Roger raised my fingers to his lips. "We're older now," he said. "Been around the block a few times."

"Quite," I said. "You've definitely improved."

"Don't you ever think that it's time to get married?"

I looked into the fireplace. "Some days," I said, trying to sound nonchalant.

"What you need is someone of independent means with the right blood," said Roger sardonically.

We looked at each other and started laughing. I felt a leap in my heart.

"Roger darling ..." I said, slightly unclearly. "I suppose a jolly good rogering is out of the question?"

*****


We provisionally arranged the wedding for six months time, although of course a lot depended on how arsey Brenda was going to be about the divorce.

This might strike you as rather sudden, but Roger and I had been lovers when we were young and even then I didn't dislike him. It felt kind of satisfying to behave like the grown-up that my parents had wanted me to be, especially since this time they weren't breathing down my neck. It had a pleasant irony about it that kept me smiling.

I went to see old Monsignor Lehninger at my local church but he wasn't very impressed.

"I don't remarry married men," he said, stroking his thurifer. Or do I mean thurible?

"But he's getting divorced," I said.

"Not in the eyes of the church."

"What about a blessing after a registry office wedding, then?"

Lehninger snorted. "What do you think I am," he said. "Some sort of beatnik?"

I steepled my fingers. "What about if I gave you a large sum of money for the church? Administered by you."

Lehninger looked at me. "I'll have to seek God's guidance through prayer," he said.

Well it seemed reasonable to expect that if he was that old-fashioned a churchman he'd approve of Indulgences.

Next on the problem list was Mother and Father.

I didn't really want Father to "give me away", as that fine old Medieval custom is described - I'd rather it was Lord Falsingham - but I had to give him the chance to refuse.

"Father!" I yelled into the phone. He was on a antiquated landline from Kenya.

"Lara," his voice crackled back at me.

"How are you?"

"Covered with insect bites," he said. It was the first time that we had spoken for five years. "What do you want? The local exchange is playing up."

"I'm getting married."

"Who to?" said Father. He was obviously saving his congratulations.

"Roger Farringdon."

"Good Lord! Well done."

"Are you coming?" I shouted.

"Is your mother?" said Father's voice.

"Yes - probably."

"Is she bringing one of her boyfriends?"

"How should I know?" I protested. "Does it matter?"

"I'll telegram you. The line's ..." said Father, before he was cut off. Why he couldn't use a mobile phone like a normal person I'd never understand. Maybe he enjoyed being isolated from the modern world.

Next - Mother. I rang her in Paris where she was living the life of a Wallace Simpson.

"Bonjour!" came her voice down the phone.

"Hello, Mother."

"Who's this?" she said.

"The Dalai Lama. Who do you think?"

"Lara! Darling! This is a ... surprise."

"Isn't it?" I said, evenly.

"We having spoken for ..." I could almost hear her scratching at her bottle blonde hair.

"Ages," I said. "I've got some news."

"You're not pregnant?"

"I'm getting married."

There was a moment's silence from the other end.

"Are you sure that's wise?" said Mother, eventually.

"To Roger Farringdon."

"Oh my God," said Mother. She put her hand over the receiver but I could hear her calling for an absinthe.

"I love him," I said, unconvincingly.

"That's nice," said Mother. "Has he lost all of his money or something? I thought he was already married."

"I want you to come to the wedding," I said. I'd always found it prudent to ignore at least half of what my mother said.

"Of course, darling. Just send me the details and I'll be there."

"Thank you, Mother. I'd like it to be done properly."

"Can I bring my friend?" she asked.

"Only if you want to upset Father."

"That's settled then," said Mother, cheerfully.

*****


Naturally I had to go and see my old friend and mentor Lord Falsingham. I hadn't been to visit him since the Madunai Island incident. I decided that it was time to face my fear and put the past behind me.

"Lara!" said Falsingham, coming forward to embrace me closely.

"Falsingham," I said, kissing him on the cheek. "You look well."

He was dressed, as ever, in one of his dark suits and he seemed sprightly. I hope that I'm as lively when I'm his age.

"Come and look at my new acquisition," he said, and led me down the steps to his dungeon.

I looked around the room with its racks and pincers, braziers and chains.

"Is that a new drinks cabinet?" I said.

"It is," said Falsingham, " but have a look at this." He pulled a cloth from a large man-shaped object.

"It's a mummy case," I said.

"Not any old mummy case," said Falsingham. He opened up the front to reveal an interior filled with vicious looking spikes. "It's a genuine Iron Maiden. I have a certificate to show that people were actually killed in it."

I must have looked pale, because he was suddenly very solicitous. He offered me a chair and a tot of brandy. I had to tell him about the time I'd been wrapped up for dead and shut in a very similar mummy case by the Djinn of Abdulaziz Al-Dorada.

"What a tale," he said, eventually. "Sounds as if the whole country was in danger."

"Luckily that sort of thing doesn't happen very often," I said. "Normally it's only abroad where it doesn't matter too much."

"Exactly," said Falsingham. "The world was foolish to give up on the British Empire." He rubbed his chin and looked thoughtful.

"I have some news," I said, hoping to chance the subject.

Naturally he was delighted.

As I was leaving I could see that same thoughtful expression in his eyes.

"Is everything all right, Falsingham?" I said.

"Of course," he said, producing a relaxed smile. "Your husband-to-be is a very lucky man."

I hugged him. "I'm sorry that it wasn't you," I whispered.

"Go and be happy," he said. "You've earned it."

*****


Black's Devonshire Directory of 1850 describes Farringdon as follows;

FARINGDON, or FARRINGDON, a small scattered village, 6 miles N. by NW. of Exton, has in its parish 1977A. 3R. 9P. of land, and 381 inhabitants, of whom 71 are in Clist Sackville, or Sackville tything, which is mostly in Sowton parish ... The manors of Faringdon and Bishop's Clist, now belong to John Gawain, Esq., of Duck's Court. Faringdon House or Castle, presently occupied by the 5th Earl, is a large stone building with a handsome front and moat, standing in a small park. There is a model farm consisting of 96A. 7R. 9P. The parish is bordered on the east by the Badbury hills, which separate it from the Otter valley. The Rev. Wm. Rous Ellicombe, General Ellicombe, J. Merlen, Esq., and several smaller owners have freehold estates here . . . . . The Church has a tower and one bell, and the living is a rectory, valued in K.B. at 9l.8s.1 1/2d., and in 1831 at 262 guineas. The Bishop of Exeter is patron, and the Rev. C.H. Collyns, D.D., is the incumbent, and has a handsome residence and about 60 acres of glebe ... There was a chapel near Duck's Court, dedicated to St. Grail, founded by Bishop Heahmund, and to which Bishop Stapledon annexed a hospital for twelve poor infirm men ...

And so on.

I don't usually get the Bentley out. Ever since Hitler and Henry Ford made the unfortunate decision to make the motorcar available to everyone, there had been no pleasure in driving through England. I was looking forward to the day when the oil runs out and only people like myself could afford to drive.

However. I knew that Roger had a fine selection of motorbikes and now that I was on the verge of being a respectable materfamilias, I decided that the Bentley set the right tone. There was the added advantage that it saved cramming Winston into a sidecar or leaving him at the mercy of the West Country train companies.

I'd seen Farringdon House (or Castle) many times before. I'd ridden to hounds there and I'd had an interesting experience in a haystack with one of the stable hands. The juxtaposition of the two events had made it rather difficult for me to sit on a horse with perfect equanimity, but I'd enjoyed myself anyway. Despite that, it was strange to view it from the point of view of a future chatelaine instead from that of a teenager.

"Darling!" said Roger, coming forward to meet me, flanked by a posse of grinning domestics. As he led me into the main hall there was an electronic crackling and then a blast of the "Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" from a sound system. The domestics around us and on the staircase started to clap and cackle.

I took a bow, blushing.

"The arrival of the Queen of Farringdon," said Roger, loudly.

My hormones must have been playing up, because instead of cringing I found myself smiling prettily at him. Love must blunt the critical faculties in order to prevent the human race from dying out. I just hoped that Roger didn't insist on playing "Zadoc the Priest" the next time I made him come.

In the privacy of the library two boys in public school uniform were standing looking at me with a sceptical expression. They were probably about fifteenish.

"I want you to meet my sons, Kevin and Peter," said Roger. "Come and say hello to Lara, chaps."

Kevin held out his hand to be shaken. "So you're the tart who's driven Mother out of the house," he said conversationally.

Roger turned beetroot.

I held up a mollifying hand. "That's quite all right," I said.

Kevin smiled. "Pleased to meet you."

Peter blushed as I took his hand. "I like you," he said. "You've got nice jugs."

"Thank you," I said.

Roger looked steely. "Lord knows where you two learned to talk like that," he said.

"Would you rather that we were sullen with your new mistress Father?" said Kevin.

"She's my fiancee, you ... bounder," said Roger.

"Not unless bigamy has been legalised," said Kevin, in a pleasant voice. "I just hope that she's not in the will."

"I'm more than independently wealthy," I said.

I wondered if I'd been as appallingly rude to my parents at his age and realised that I had been. I smiled to myself. Our sort is trained to be high-handed. It's a requirement for ruling the country, despite what liberals might say. Kevin would go far.

*****


The Farringdon Hunt consisted of forty and a half pairs of hounds and was established in 1836 by Devonshire cavalrymen after a boundary dispute with a neighbouring hunt country. It was far from reputable for the first few years of its existence, serving as a sort of gentleman's club featuring prostitutes and heavy drinking, but the intrusion of the railways and female riders to hounds had forced it to become a respectable part of the community. The end had come when a curate attached to the Bishop of Bath and Wells had been caught out in a three-in-a-bed sex scandal; the poor lad had been chastised privately and forced to become a bishop in the end. Personally I thought the whores and liquor sounded more fun, but you can't argue with tradition, even if it is only 150 years old.

The latest scandal had erupted when the townies had "discovered" the age old custom of looking after the local fox population so that there were always enough to hunt. For years parts of the county had been left uncleared to give the foxes somewhere to live in peace between hunts, and the earth stoppers had always left out a few chicken carcases in the lean times to keep the foxes healthy. Unfortunately some buffoon in the Lords had claimed that part of the point of the Hunt was to control fox numbers, foxes being a "pest". Talk about shooting oneself in the foot. Guardian readers must have creamed in their tie-dyed jeans over that one.

"Really darling," Roger was saying. "I'm not sure what Mr. Herne would say about the scarlet."

"I'll ask him," I said, coyly. "Red suits me."

"Anything suits you, darling, but scarlet is the prerogative of the Huntsman and the MFH."

"Oh bugger prerogative, Roger," I said, smiling. "What ever happened to droit de seigneur?"

"I don't think you mean that," said Roger, "much as I would enjoy deflowering every virgin bride in the demesne."

"What about if I was Huntsman?"

"You're not a man."

"That's a bit sexist."

"Darling," said Roger. "The point isn't whether I have the right to change whatever I like in my own Hunt. You'll be tolerating one day cricket next."

So I was stuck with a black jacket. I had, however, decided to keep up with the hounds.

The field met at 11.00 outside the house. I was on large black stallion called, with a blistering disregard for the proprieties, Sambo. I've nothing against shooting foreigners and stealing their cultural heritage, but name calling is a bit off. Sambo was a big bastard, too big for a lady, but fortunately they weren't forcing me to ride sidesaddle in a long skirt. He tried to bite me on the leg, so I twatted him with my crop.

"Stop behaving like a Shetland pony," I said to him. "Think of your pedigree."

Sambo snorted and stamped, but he took my point.

"Sherry, Madam?" asked one of the girls, holding up a tray.

"I'm not sure I ought to," I said to her with a smile. "I necked about a gallon of scotch after breakfast."

She giggled.

Pulling Sambo around I spotted Winston in the distance, installed in the passenger seat of Lord Falsingham's Hispanola-Sousa; he was wearing a deerstalker hat. He was going to be with the followers in their cars. He raised a hip-flask in deadpan salute. I waved - semi-retirement suited him, and he'd settled into Farringdon House well. Even his wind had calmed down under the influence of decent cooking.

Roger trotted over.

"You look smashing," he said, leaning sideways in his saddle to kiss my cheek. There was an "aah" from the spectators.

"And your arse looks nice in those jodhpurs my Lord," I said, sotto voce.

Roger hurrumphed and blushed slightly. "Good God, girl," he said. "If you're like this now what will you be like after the kill?"

"Absolutely gagging," I said.

"Mr. Herne," called Roger, giving my hand a squeeze. "Are we ready to go?"

"We'll head over and draw the covert, m'Lud," said Mr. Herne, touching his horn to his hat. "Whippers-in set off please," he called.

"No chopping the fox if we can help it this time," said Roger to Mr. Lyme, the MFH.

"Yes, my Lord," said Mr. Lyme with a cheery grin.

A little later, the field, myself among them, waiting to one side of the wood for the fox to break cover. I could hear the hounds and they were nearer. There's this theory that the first person to spot the fox breaking cover cries "Tally-Ho!" I think that the Victorians must have invented that one, because the noise that such a person usually makes is just a bloodthirsty wordless scream.

The fox broke and dashed away along a drainage ditch. The hounds were assembled, and given the scent. We were off.

*****


Ninety hounds is a lot of hounds and not easy to lose. I was charging up the side of the hill when I came to a high hedge.

"Come on, Sambo," I said, leaning over the horse's ear. "Let's show them what a real horse can do."

Sambo was a bit of a "head the ball" type of horse and he didn't hesitate, practically standing vertically on his hind legs before leaping upwards. I heard a muffled cheer from somewhere as we sped up the hill after the pack.

Foxes are supposed to be cunning, but I think that maybe that's another Victorian thing to make the hunting of them seem somewhat nobler. Actually a panic-stricken fox can be remarkably stupid. This particularly one could have doubled back into the wood or carried on running from hedgerow to hedgerow, but instead it shot over the edge of the hill onto a flat open area at the top.

"This isn't going to last long," I thought. "Let's hope there's another fox."

The upland looked more like the South Downs than anywhere else, with scars of chalk and what looked like an old straight track traversing from right to left. I saw the fox shooting across the short grass, completely exposed, with the leaders of the hounds not far behind. It didn�t swerve or waver, but kept as straight as a missile into the middle of the flat nothingness.

I was un-nerved. Maybe the fox had gone mad with terror and with just running pell-mell. I was ahead of the other riders by a stretch, and the MFH and the rest were slowly catching up with me. However, they were still too far back.

"Come on, boy," I said to Sambo, whacking his flanks with my boots, "or there'll be nothing left by the time we get there."

One minute there was the fox, the hounds and I, and then the chase suddenly stopped. The hounds were running backwards and forwards, baying in a confused melee. As I rode up it appeared that the fox had gone to ground.

"Mr. Herne," I said to the Huntsman as he rode up. "I thought you chaps would have stopped up all the earths last night."

"I thought we did," said Mr. Herne, pushing back his riding hat and scratching his brow.

"Lara!" said Roger, galloping up. "Fine bit of riding. Excellent."

"Thank you, darling," I said.

"It's gone down in here," said Mr. Lyme, shouldering his horse through the pack and pointing with his crop. "Shall I call up Mr. Russell and his terriers?" There was a sort of crack in the chalk leading to a subterranean bolthole. It didn't look as if a fox had dug it.

"I leave it to you and Mr. Herne," said Roger. "It'll give the followers a chance to catch up. Come on, darling. Let's wander off."

We made our way across the flat land, away from the noisy pack.

"Are there flint mines around here?" I asked. "Like Grime's Graves?"

"I've no idea darling," said Roger. "More your line of country. There are caves."

"Any strange names?"

Roger smiled. "Well. There's a quoit called Arthur's Seat. Big lump of stone dragged from God knows where and dumped not far from here. It's been dug around but there was nothing there."

"I have a feeling that we may not see that particularly fox again," I said.

At that moment our chat was interrupted by the sound of a pistol shot. Sambo reared up.

"What?" said Roger, steadying his horse.

There was the sound of a hunting horn being blown and some shouts. We cantered back towards the pack.

Mr. Lyme was at the centre of the pack, laying about with his crop. His horse was bucking and whinnying. As we approached a hound leapt up and knocked Mr. Lyme backwards.

Mr. Herne and another member of the hunt were at the edge of the pack, also having trouble. Mr. Herne, who has fired the shot, fired again. I could see the hounds biting at the neck and fetlocks of Mr. Herne's horse. The horse stumbled onto its knees and Mr. Herne was thrown. He was surrounded by dogs, and laid about him, yelling. They brought him down.

"Christ," said Roger.

I was distracted by a figure standing to one side. He was wearing a cloak and his hands were clasped in front of his shadowy face. He looked like a black man. Hunt sabs, I thought.

I looked at the pack and the pack looked at me.

"I wish I'd brought my Uzis," I said, in the second before they started after us.

*****


I'm afraid I'm rather selfish when it comes to my own life.

"Follow me," I yelled to Roger. I spurred Sambo back down the hill to where I knew the rest of the riders would be. With more targets, the hounds might split up. Besides, if I could find Winston and his car, I'd have access to artillery.

"Lara!" said Roger, grabbing Sambo's harness. "Can't do that. Too many people."

"That's the idea."

"Not very sporting," said Roger.

"What's sport got to do with it?"

"Trust me," said Roger, and started riding around the side of the hill.

I was tempted to let him go. I was certain that the pack would follow him. Then I remembered that I was supposed to love him. It seemed inelegant to leave my lover to his fate alone. I rode after him, the hounds on our heels.

Roger was riding towards a field bounded by an electric fence. I felt a nip at my left ankle. A hound had leapt up. I kicked it in the face.

Roger cleared the fence, closely followed by me. There was a cracking noise and some yelping as a few of the hounds got a jolt. It didn't really slow them down much.

The field was full of cows. I could see Roger's plan as we bore down on the herd. The cows took one look at the dogs and us and started to stampede.

Sambo didn't much like cows. He reared and complained, and the cows began to bellow as they thundered to the far side of the pasture.

A hound leapt up and latched its teeth into my shoulder. The weight pulled me sideways, and I desperately dug my feet into the stirrups, lashing out with my riding crop. The jacket was padded, but the teeth had got through into my skin with supercanine strength.

Sambo was circling, confused, with the hounds raking at his flanks. He reared up, and smashed two dogs with his hooves. He bit the neck of another, breaking it.

"Lara!" Roger was there. He pulled the dogs away, prizing open jaws and twisting heads.

He grabbed Sambo's reins and began to ride. Sambo bucked, but he bucked in roughly the right direction, the whites of his eyes showing and his mouth flecked with foam and blood.

The cows had broken down the fence and stumbled into a stream on the other side. Some were impaled with pieces of wood, and others had been trampled by their fellows. Any ordinary pack of dogs would have gone wild at the smell of blood and set to with vulpine ravenousness, but our pack was no to be distracted. They were after us.

I was dazed and not really in control of Sambo as we stumbled across the stream, but I could tell that something odd was going on.

Roger's horse put a leg into a rabbit hole and fell, leg broken. I took control of Sambo and scooped Roger up behind me just as the first hound flew at his face. The pack ignored the fallen horse.

"I'll steer," I shouted, "and you keep the buggers away from us."

"Right-o," said Roger, in a shaken voice.

I could see the B road not far away, and - to my satisfaction - the Hispanola-Sousa containing Lord Falsingham and Winston. Falshingham was driving whilst, in the back seat, Winston was cracking open a shotgun.

"Throw them our coats," I said, hanging on with my thighs with the reins in my teeth. The jacket was stiff and hard to remove.

Roger bundled them up and flung them to one side. The pack ignored the bait.

"They forget scent when they've got line of sight," said Roger.

"No they don't," I retorted. "There's something queer happening."

The lead hound leapt onto Sambo's haunches like a tiger. If it had had cat claws, it would have dug them in. Instead it hung from Roger's neck by its jaws, like a family dog bouncing up and down from a springy tree branch. Roger gurgled and began to tip backwards, trying to get his fingers around the animal's teeth. I poked it in the eye with my thumb, but it didn't let go.

There was a gunshot, and a hound wheeled and fell back. It's a good job that I dislike dogs. I've seen enough of them shot to rival the death rate at Battersea Dog's Home. Every one of my adventures leaves a pile of canine corpses about the place.

Then there was a burst of Uzi fire and I saw how near we were to the car. Some more hounds were cut down, but the rest advanced as blithely as English gentlemen in No Man's Land.

I took a risk and pulled Roger and myself off the horse. Sambo rode off, but no dog followed him. I was relieved that he, at least, was safe.

There was a rock. I removed the grinning hound from Roger's neck. I'll spare you the details. Roger found a fence post. The combination of modern and improved weapons finished off the rest of the pack.

"Are you all right, Miss?" called Winston, pulling open a five bar fence.

I looked down at my clothes. I was wearing red after all.

*****


Red didn't seem to have helped Mr. Herne or Mr. Lyme. They'd been torn to pieces. It was a pity that they didn't have the nervous system of the fox because then, presumably, they'd have felt much less.

I'd been tending Roger but the GP had thrown me out. Roger was in shock and needed rest, apparently. I felt for him. The Farringdon Hunt had ceased to be in one day, a little fragment of the order of things swept away by an unfortunate accident.

"But are we sure it was an accident?" said Falsingham, lifting his glass from Winston's salver. "Thanks, old chap."

"Thank you Winston," I said. "Have a tot yourself."

"I couldn't, Miss," said Winston, fiddling with the decanter stopper.

"You're on holiday, man," said Falsingham, patting a leather chair. "It was your sharp shooting that undoubtably saved Lord Farringdon."

"For which I shall always be grateful," I said, standing and placing a kiss on Winston's grizzled cheek. "As for so many other things."

Winston coughed in embarrassment. "Maybe just a small one, " he said, fetching a whiskey glass from the sideboard.

"So," I said. "Not an accident?"

"Those dogs were being ... guided," said Falsingham. "I suspect something occult."

I frowned. "I can understand something wanting to kill me," I said, "but why Roger?" I told them about the figure that I'd seen watching up just before the attack.

"Let's get the Land Rover," said Falsingham. "I have some of my books and so on with me."

"I have an Ordinance Survey map and a compass, "said Winston. "And Arthur Mee's guidebook to Devonshire."

"Capital," said Falsingham. "You shall be Mansel to my Chandos. Lara?"

"I'll unpack the Desert Eagle," I said. "If anything solid turns up, I'll make some holes in it."

*****


We still had quite lot of daylight left by the time that we returned to the hill. There was some police tape set up, and blood on the grass.

Falsingham got two bronze divining rods out of his leather bag, and a spirit lamp. He handed some chalk to Winston, they started to pore over the Ordinance Survey map.

I went to examine the hole where the fox had gone to ground. I touched the earth at the entrance, and shone my Maglight down into the crack in the chalk. The hole had formed extremely recently. The earth was still damp and the exposed grass roots had only just begun to shrivel.

The crack seemed to be deep. I dropped a pebble into it and did not hear it hit the bottom. If the fox had run in, it would have fallen.

I walked back to where Falsingham was pacing, arms out stretched. Every now and then his wrists twisted and the divining rods swung inwards. Winston made a chalk mark.

"We need an aerial photograph," I said.

"Patience, old girl," said Falsingham. "Why don't you sit down and let us get on? Smoke one of those filthy cigars of yours."

So I did, armed with Winston's guidebook.

Apparently Arthur's Seat was a "quoit". A "quoit" was defined as either a "dolmen" or the flat stone of a "dolmen". A "dolmen" was a megalithic tomb. In other words, Stone Age. Therefore it didn't seem very likely that Arthur's Seat was anything to do with Arthur. I yawned. So many things in the UK are named after Arthur. Arthur's Hill. Arthur's Stones. Arthur's Pond. Arthur's Tree. Arthur's Underpants. The tourist trade has been around every since Americans were invented. I dozed off. It had been a long day.

I awoke to Falsingham tickling my calf with a piece of straw.

"Wake up sleepy head," he said.

"Unhm," I said, wiping the drool from my chops.

"You look gorgeous when you're asleep," he said, lightly.

"That's because I dream of you," I replied.

He laughed and bowed faintly.

"So what have you found?" I said, accepting a plastic cup full of stout tea from Winston's thermos.

"There's an underground chamber," said Falsingham, "and until a few hours ago it was probably shielded by magic."

"Whooo!" I said, waggling my fingers and pulling a ghost face.

"Come and see."

They marked out quite a large area, with the chalk crack at one end. Within the boundary they'd outlined several rectangles about the size of building skips.

"And these are?" I asked, pointing at the rectangles.

"Not sure," said Falsingham. "Rocks? Foundations? Plague pits?"

"Victorian rubbish dumps?" I suggested.

I'd just noticed how the chalk crack had widened when there was an earth tremor, and a rectangular slab of rock appeared where the crack had been. There were steps leading down.

We stumbled backwards. There was the sound of hooves on rock and a squad of horsemen rode out from under the earth.

"Keep calm," said Falsingham, placing a hand on my shoulder. "No shooting."

They were dressed for the Dark Ages, but richly. One of them was carrying a banner with a large ChiRho symbol on it. He had draped the freshly skinned pelt of our fox over his helmet like a hood. I gaped at the banner. It was a labarum, a Christian battle flag. I gaped at the heavy cast iron stirrups and the short swords. The horsemen were armoured, whilst the horses wore decorated coats of heavy colourful material.

"Cataphractarii," I said to myself. I didn't really have the evidence but I knew that I was right.

"What?" said Falsingham, in a careful voice.

"Byzantine heavy cavalry," I said.

Of the last two riders emerging from the ground, I recognised one. It was the man who had watched the hunt. He was black, as I had first thought, perhaps a Syrian. With him was a figure of rank, obviously the squadron commander, judging from his cuirass and his slightly dandified clothing.

We stood perfectly still as these two trotted up to us.

"That man is some sort of adept," whispered Falsingham of the black watcher.

I decided to risk making a fool of myself. "Welcome to the estates of Lord Farringdon," I said in Greek. I actually called him "Count Farringdon." "I am Lady Croft." I bowed.

"And I am Lord Falsingham," said Falsingham, taking my cue. "I see that in your retinue you have a man of power."

The two riders looked at each other.

The commander broke into a tight smile. "I am Marcus Harmatius Ursus," he said, "I am appointed Comes and Dux Bellorum for this province. This is my advisor, Magister Meruleus. We mean no harm to nobilitates like yourselves. We are here again to help with the battle against the pirates."

Falsingham sucked in air through his nostrils. "Greetings, Commander," he said. "We need to have words with you concerning the events earlier today."

The group of horsemen stirred uneasily around us. There were a few rueful glances. Meruleus remained stony faced.

"Wait a minute," I said, raising a hand.

"Domina?" said Marcus Harmatius Ursus.

"Which pirates?"

The tension broke and men were laughing.

"Which pirates?" said Marcus Harmatius Ursus, with a look of disbelief. "I mean the Saxons, of course, my Lady."

There was a pause.

"The Saxon raiders are lost in the mists of history," said Falsingham, eventually. "I fear that there may have been a misunderstanding."

Marcus Harmatius Ursus cast a sharp look at Meruleus. "Maybe so, my Lords," he said to us, spreading his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "However the spell that held us slumbering beneath Mons Badonicus was strong. We were only to return in the time of Britannia's greatest need."

"If I may," said Meruleus. He had a striking voice. It was quiet but it had strange overtones.

"Please," said Falsingham.

"You are ruled by a Saxon Queen called Elizabeth?"

"Er - the family has German roots, but the Queen's consort is Greek," I said.

"You are no longer in communion with God's one true Church since your holy monasteries were destroyed by a Saxon king?"

"Henry Tudor was not a Saxon," I said, looking to Falsingham for help. "Was he?"

"The term Saxon is antiquated and no longer applicable," said Falsingham, firmly.

"This is a heretic country nonetheless, ruled by a heretical perversion of Christianity promulgated by a Saxon called Martin Luther?" said Meruleus.

I sighed. There is no more boring guest than an ideologue and it was clear that these boys had Saxons on the brain.

"We shall talk of this later in the house of my betrothed, Lord Farringdon," I said. "You are all welcome guests."

That cheered them up. Then Falsingham asked them the question that I already worked out the answer to.

"You mention Mons Badonicus," he said. "Have you heard of a king or of a great war leader called Arthur?"

Marcus Harmatius Ursus laughed, as did his men. Even Meruleus smiled.

"It was a joke, a nickname given to me by a Irish cleric," he said, jovially. "My family name, Ursus, means 'the bear' in Latin. The Celtic word for 'bear' sounds very much like 'Artor'. I am the Arthur that you've heard of ..."


2. St. Grail


We took the posse to Farringdon Court and settled them into the cottages next to the stables. The horses and the men were starving.

Later Arthur - everybody called him Arthur, even to his face - and Meruleus - everybody called him a number of things, the most polite of which was Merlyn, but only behind his back - were apologetic about the hunt. Arthur, Meruleus, Roger, Falsingham and I, as well as a cavalryman named John Basiliscus were seated in the dining room.

"Meruleus thought that we were under attack when that fox dropped into our chamber," said Arthur. "We were only half awake, and we could hear the baying of hounds. Meruleus mistook your English language for Saxon."

"Those men were friends of mine," said Roger, who had also taken Greek. His eyes were angry.

"Meruleus," said Arthur. "Apologise."

"I apologise, your Eminence," said Meruleus with a deep bow. "I shall, of course, pay you for the loss of your servants and hunting hounds."

Roger looked at him with suspicion. "What country do you come from, anyway?" he asked.

Meruleus smiled. "I am from Antioch," he said.

"Whilst I was born in the Theme of Opsikion, in the town of Pergamum," said Arthur.

"Where's that?" said Roger in English.

"Turkey," I said.

"What rubbish," said Roger. "Everybody knows that King Arthur was a Brit, not a Turk."

"King Arthur was a legend," said Falsingham. "This chap is Duke Arthur."

"Then this chap is an impostor," said Roger. "It takes more than a bit of white skin to make a King of England."

Falsingham smiled, whilst I kept a straight face. I was tempted to suggest that we ask Arthur which football team he preferred, Galatasaray or Leeds United, but I realised that I would be the only person in the room who would understand the reference.

"Look, darling," I said, "it sounds as if the hunt thing was a dreadful accident. We're all sad about the hounds and Mr. Lyme and Mr. Herne, but there's nothing to be done."

"But I've got the Coroner's Office and the R.S.P.C.A. onto me, sweetie," said Roger.

Falsingham cleared his throat. "Farringdon - you're On The Level, aren't you?"

"True," said Roger.

"Well, there you are," said Falsingham, looking around for the whiskey. "Why don't we introduce our guests to that excellent Celtic beverage, the Water of Life?"

I winced, inwardly. I didn't have a particularly happy history with the Masons. However - it seemed that they'd decided to let me marry Roger despite everything, no doubt thanks to quiet words being spoken in various ears. I was obviously less of a nuisance when I was within the establishment than when I wasn't.

*****


Over the next few days, we all got to know each other a little better. Arthur and Meruleus had ten followers with them, some of whom had recognisably Arthurian names - like Bediwere or Lucanus - and some of whom sounded like a Who's Who of the Roman sixth century - Julius Ambrosius, Julius Aegidius, Anicius Anthemius, Leo Tarasicodissimus, Anastasius Verinus and John Basiliscus.

Arthur was obviously used to recounting his personal history. His tone was a mixture of ruefulness, humour and pride.

"I was born between two lions," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. "That is, I was born before the death of the Bishop of Rome, Leo and after the crowning of the Emperor Leo." Looking it up, I deduced that he'd been born in about 460 AD. "My real parents were unknown to me but I was adopted into the family of Julius Flavius Victor Allectus, a partician who bred horses. I thought of his son, Cnaeus, as my brother." I could see how the names 'Allectus' and 'Cnaeus' could have become bastardised, through the Chinese whispers of the balladeers, to 'Ector' and 'Kai'. "I joined the Imperial cavalry," continued Arthur, "but I became involved with chariot racing." He became attached to the court of emperor Leo I in Constantinople, and very soon was by religion, a Monophysite and by political allegiance, a Green. It was then that he was re-adopted into the family of the Harmatii.

"Unfortunately, my patron was an adherent of the Emperor Basiliscus," said Arthur, with a wince. This mini-Emperor reigned for 20 months, and in that time Arthur's sponsor, Harmatius himself, made a complete dick of himself by poncing around in front of the crowds at the Hippodrome dressed up like Achilles. Since Harmatius was the Emperor's nephew and a magister militum, this was a bit like the Prime Minister parading around at Wembley wearing a gold-plated Superman suit whilst chanting "I've got considerably more money than you lot." Eventually Basiliscus resigned as Emperor, and the new Emperor had Harmatius assassinated on the grounds that Harmatius was (a) mad and (b) a complete arsehole. Arthur high-tailed it out of Constantinople with a few of his mates and didn't stop running until he reached Gaul. Fortunately he had taken most of his family's famous war-horses with him.

There they had come across a bizarre community of Romano-British expats living in the Loire valley around the town of Soissons. This collection of refugees, who resembled modern tax-exiles, had decided that living in Britain was too dangerous for good taste. Then - like many British expats abroad - they'd all gone a bit strange in the head, and decided that it was their God-given right to bring civilisation to the French. The result was Aegidius, self-styled "King of the Romans" and his son Syragius. Arthur and his band were absorbed into this sixth century version of the Mafiosi and spent the next six years bringing a dubious version of Roman law to "Little Britain". Unfortunately in 486 AD the ungrateful locals - lead by another local bully called Clovis, "King of the Cambrai" - overthrew the lot of them, and Arthur and his men and his horses, being unable to head east, fled from Brittany across the Channel to good old Blighty.

"Sometimes," said Arthur, "you make the best of things. I could have admitted that I was a penniless refugee of dubious parentage, who had foolishly decided to back two regimes of dubious legitimacy. Instead my companions and I decided to represent ourselves as a rescue party sent from civilisation."

The remnants of the province of Britain were under attack. The Saxon pirates had taken over large tracts of land and had even burned one of the supposedly impregnable walled Roman cities near Pevensey. Communications with the continent were severed. Nobody was bothering to pay taxes any more and there was no standing Roman army. As in Brittany, there were local warlords - "The King of Northumbria", "The King of Wales".

"We were well armed with big horses," said Arthur. "We were obviously gentlemen, and we had come more or less straight from Constantinople." Thus they had ridden straight to Dumnonia in the West Country and hired themselves out to Marcus Naso Leontius, "King of Devonshire", who had given Arthur the optimistic old title of "Dux Bellorum" or War Leader.

The rest, as they say, was history. Eventually Arthur and his men had broken the back of the Saxon advance at Mount Badon in about 500 A.D., and ensured a place for themselves in English folklore forever. The Roman way of life limped along for a few decades longer than had seemed possible, and then internecine squabbling had allowed the Saxons back in to complete what they had started.

*****


More interesting was the moment when Arthur said that his men needed to train. I perked up. If we'd been back at the Croft Mansion I could have given them the obstacle course to try out. Instead, we set up some stuff on one of the fallow fields at Farringdon Court.

I was inspired by the film "Spartacus". I had some melons stuck on sticks.

"May I try your sword?" I said to Arthur, trotting up to him on Sambo. "Or is it some sort of special sword? The stories talk about a sword called Excalibur."

"Oh that," said Arthur, cheerfully. "I did have a sword once, but Bediwere lost it in a pond."

"But it was called Excalibur?"

"It was an Arabic sword, cast made by an unusual technique that made it very strong and corrosion proof. When I bought it, the merchant in Syria described it as 'ex kalib', which means 'taken from a mould'. There was even a rumour that the sword was still embedded in the casting mould when I first got it, and that only I could remove it ..." Arthur laughed. "We lived in a time of rumours and legends. However ' please do borrow my latest sword. It's called 'Death to all Saxons'."

"How romantic," I said.

I spurred Sambo towards one of the melon posts, sword in my right hand. I gripped with my thighs and dug my feet into the stirrups as I approached, as Death to all Saxons was rather heavy. One swipe, and I sliced the melon neatly in two. I wheeled and did the same again with a second.

Arthur's men cheered. As I rode up to him, I wiped the melon juice carefully from the sword with the hem of my shirt.

"My Lord," I said, handing the sword to him hilt first, my face flushed.

"My Lady," said Arthur, taking the sword and kissing my knuckles. "It is a shame that you are betrothed."

"It's gallant of you to say so," I said.

Kevin and Peter came wondering up. They are already Arthur fans.

"Very Brunnhilde," said Kevin.

"Cool," said Peter, staring at my sweaty cleavage.

"I'd offer to esquire these boys of the Lord Farringdon, but they do not speak our language," said Arthur, ruffling Peter's hair. "They look as if they are a bit too used to soft living."

"Everything these days is done by machines and devices," I said. "Even war."

Arthur's smile faded a little. "So Meruleus tells me," he said. "He thinks that in order to survive in a land so full of magic that we shall need strong magic ourselves."

"Magic?" I asked.

"Your friend the Lord Falsingham can explain it more than I can," said Arthur. "He and Meruleus have hardly been apart these last few days."

*****


"So," I said, sipping my tea, "what do you think of Meruleus?"

"Fascinating," said Falsingham. "Very dangerous."

"Yes," I said. "In what way?"

"Do you remember when you came to tell me about you and Roger? We talked about England being in danger?"

"Vaguely."

"I was uneasy. There have been signs. Small things. I won't bore you with them."

I sighed. "Cigar?" I said, offering him the humidor. We lit up. "So presumably Meruleus thinks that they have been brought back to fulfil some mission, some destiny?"

"Indeed."

"When we first met them, they were very Saxon orientated. They don't like the Queen and they don't like the Church of England."

"I tried to convinced Meruleus that the present constitution has very little to do with Saxons," said Falsingham, "but he retorted that if that were true, then they wouldn't have been brought back."

"A bit of a circular argument," I said. "But does it matter? What are they going to do? Mount up and attack Buckingham Palace with their swords?"

"Well, that's the problem," said Falsingham. "And so that's where access to supernatural powers comes into it. Did I tell you about the Grail?"

I laughed. "No you didn't," I said, "but it had to fit in there somewhere, didn't it?"

Byzantium had been awash with relics. They had the True Cross on which Jesus died, found by Constantine the Great's mother on a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem. They had the Crown of Thorns, the Nails from the Crucifixion, the Sponge that Jesus drank vinegar from, the Spear that pierced his side, and the Plaque that named him "King of the Jews". They had Bread from the Last Supper, the bodies of all the Disciples, the Tears of the Virgin Mary, Veronica's Handkerchief, the Turin Shroud, the Thirty Pieces of Silver paid to Judas and the Oil that Mary Magdalene had used to anoint the feet of Jesus. They even had the rope that Judas hanged himself with, and the skull of the Donkey that Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem. It was only natural that they had the Cup that the Disciples had drunk wine from at the Last Supper - the Grail.

In a theocracy like Byzantium, where God ruled and the Emperor was God's representative on Earth, relics were political dynamite. Not only that, but they were priceless. A good relic could make you rich for life, or win your bid for power. Battles hinged on them. The economy of cities revolved around them.

Originally the Holy Grail had been housed in the Cathedral in Antioch, a much bejewelled and revered object. Then it had disappeared - an Aramaic merchant called Joseph had been implicated. Meruleus had made it his life work to recover the relic. His interest wasn't religious but occult. The Grail had contained the blood of Jesus - a powerful being. It was an object of power.

Arthur knew of the theft, but his interest was purely political. With the Grail he could raise an army and return to Constantinople. Maybe. When Arthur found himself heading westwards across Europe to escape his mistakes, he had assumed that it was only a coincidence that the Grail seemed to be heading in the same direction. However, soon after landing in Britain, Meruleus had told him that the Grail was on the island. Arthur had initiated a search for the precious relic, using the Christian faith of many of his adherents as the spur.

"Did they find it?"

"One of the searchers, a saintly young man nicknamed Perseus, claimed that he had seen the Grail at the site of an old Druid sanctuary in the marshes near Glastonbury. He had been poisoned there by person or persons unknown, and was suffering from fits and hallucinations. He died soon after returning to Arthur's camp and nobody was able to reproduce his journey."

"It's amazing how closely folktales can fit the facts," I said, non-commitally. I could tell that this was not the end of the story.

Falsingham smiled faintly and knocked the ash from the end of his cigar. "More tea?" he said.

"Yes please," I said. "Milk second this time, please."

Falsingham sat back, and ran his fingers through his hair. "What Meruleus doesn't know," he said, "is that the Masons have the Grail."

*****


I'd been after the Grail in the past. I wasn't particularly interested in its alleged magic or scared powers, but it had occurred to me that it might look nice on the mantlepiece in my study.

"Roger," I said, circling my knuckle on his sweaty chest. "Have you ever seen the Grail?"

Roger was still breathless. "Falsingham shouldn't have told you," he said.

"But have you seen it?" I nibbled his ear lobe.

"Yes," said Roger, his hands beginning to wander. He was a quick recoverer, for a man of his age. "And so will you, soon."

I sat up and looked him in the eye. "You're bringing it here?"

"Yes. Not my decision. We contacted the Duke of Kent."

"Is that safe?"

"Why shouldn't it be?" said Roger.

"But Arthur and Meruleus may have plans," I said.

"Sounds good to me," said Roger. "Now roll over and pass the K.Y."

Public school boys learn from an early age to butter their crumpet on both sides.

*****


Eventually Roger's divorce came through.

"I suppose that you're happy now?" said Kevin, with a bitter smile.

"I'm sorry about your mother," I said.

"It appears that she doesn't give a fuck about Peter and I," said Kevin. "She could have at least fought for custody."

"You'd rather live with your mother and her boyfriend than stay here?"

"No," said Kevin. "But she could have argued."

"The same happened to me," I said, trying to find some common ground.

Kevin went red. "Don't patronise me," he shouted. "You're not my mother and I don't give a shit about your life."

I bit my lip. "Don't you mean - 'matronise'?" I said.

Kevin slapped me across the cheek. "Bitch," he said, tears appearing in his eyes. "You're not half as funny as you think you are."

"Fair enough," I said. I recognised myself at the same age. I liked him, a lot. "How does Peter feel about me?"

Kevin barked an angry laugh. "He can't see past your tits," he said. "I think he wants to shag you."

"How very Oedipal," I said. "I'm not sure what your father would say."

"It's not fucking Oedipal because you're not his fucking mother."

"Then perhaps I could shag him after all," I said.

Kevin hit me again. "Leave us alone," he said. "The only family that you'll have after the wedding will be my father's knob in your mouth."

He stalked off.

*****


The good thing about being rich is that one doesn't have to lift a finger arranging one's own wedding. Even my wedding dress was being donated by Wayne Hemingway (he already knew my measurements) and the photographers were to be supplied by Hello! magazine.

"Now that you're going to be married, do you intend to settle down and give up adventuring?" asked the journalist from the Daily Telegraph. The editor was a family friend, and had published more pictures of me any other English newspaper. Only Elizabeth Hurley had been given as many cleavage shots.

"I thought I'd learn how to cook," I said, with a glossy smile. "It's time I graduated from burning baked bean hooch on a Primus stove."

"Look out Nigella Lawson," said the journalist.

"Quite," I said, "although I suspect she eats more desserts than I do."

"There's a rumour that Paramount are making a film based on your autobiography."

"I've negotiated a percentage. Apparently there'll even be some action figures."

"How lovely," said the journalist.

"I think that it's empowering for little girls to learn that if you can't get your own way with sex appeal then you can always shoot the bastards."

The journalist was scribbling rapidly - I knew how to give good copy.

"Finally - are you worried about the faked nude pictures of you that have appeared on the Internet?" he asked.

"Between you and me, they're not all fake," I said, sipping my tea.

Meanwhile, Winston was making sure that the Croft Mansion and Monsignor Lehninger's church were being done up like wedding cakes.

"We've ordered thirty thousand white silk banners, Ma'am," wheezed Winston.

"Knock yourself out," I said, giving him a hug.

"And we managed to borrow suits of armour for some of Arthur's men. I'm having a go at them with the Brasso and a stout cloth."

Of course, Arthur was my little secret. Not that the journalists would have believed in him at that stage. After all, there were already several strange hippy types wandering the country claiming to be King Arthur. One more was hardly news.

I put one hand on each of Winston's cheeks. "Thank you, Winston," I said, kissing him. "You're like a Dad to me."

"And you're like a daughter to me, Miss, if I may say so."

"If I could have you giving me away," I whispered in his ear, "I would. Promise you'll always stay with me, even in Farringdon Court."

"Whatever Madam wishes," said Winston.

*****


Father was on his way back from Kenya on a package boat, for some reason best known to himself.

"En route," his telegraph has said. "Hope to be with you in time."

"Why can't you catch a bloody plane like a normal human being?" I telegraphed back, but he'd already sailed from Alexandria.

And then, the bad news.

Winston came in with the post. He seemed sombre. "A message for you from the Foreign Office concerning Lord Croft, Ma'am," he said. He watched my face as I read.

Father's ship, the Ulysse, had been caught in a freak storm south of Malta. She had gone down, and there had been five survivors. Father was not among them.

After the initial shock, I was thoughtful. "He's not dead," I said, eventually. "I'd feel it."

Winston started to speak, but thought better of it.

"Darling, I'm so sorry," said Roger. "We'll postpone the wedding at once."

"No, honestly," I said. "Father is fine. He might not make it to the ceremony, but he'll get here in the end. He's probably trudging along the shore of North Africa to civilisation even as we speak."

And I wouldn't let them change my mind.

*****


To this day, it amazes me that I didn't foresee the problems that there would be between Arthur's men and the church, as represented by Monsignor Lehninger. One can know ever such a lot about history, but one doesn't always remember the mind set of the people involved. The squabbling between the modern churches over the interpretation of the Bible, for example, pales when compared to the "football hooligan" religious fervour of the average Byzantine.

The wedding itself went very smoothly, which was strange in itself. Falsingham stood in for my Father, escorting me down the isle in front of two small girls who managed the train of my dress. I didn't exactly have any female friends who could have been bridemaids.

I found myself thinking of people who had been my lovers. Too many of them were dead. The rest I hadn't invited. The idea was growing my head that my previous life had been unworthy. Maybe, I thought - my emotions were mixed - maybe I really will write that cookbook. Have babies. Tend the garden. Make Roger happy. That sort of stuff. I had everything needed to make a person happy. Health. Wealth. A place in the scheme of things. England, of course. My England.

Mother had rolled up with her boyfriend. She had visited me whilst I was being dressed.

"So proud, darling," she'd said, her face strangely open. "Or at least, I'm trying to be proud. I'm not a big fan of this marriage business, as you know, but this is about you, not me."

"Thank you, Mother," I said, and gave her a grave kiss on the cheek.

"I know we're strangers," she said, rubbing a handkerchief between her fingers, "and I know that when I leave we probably won't see each other much, but I am very proud. I hope that you're very happy. You look very beautiful in that dress."

"I have been reborn a virgin," I said with a sad smile.

"You must tell me if there are any grandchildren," said Mother. "I ... I'll see you in the church. And I promise to behave."

"You know about Father's ship?"

"Yes, my darling," she said. "I don't feel that it would be appropriate for me to say anything. Conventional expressions of sorrow might seem hypocritical coming from me."

We embraced awkwardly and I sniffled a little. Then she left.

Monsignor Lehninger's response to financial blackmail was to give a lulu of a sermon. Everybody enjoyed it. Roger was trying not to smirk. Kevin kept giving us meaningful looks. Mother looked distainful. Falsingham rubbed his chin. Arthur and his men remained expressionless, presumably because they hadn't picked up more than a few words of English. Maybe I should have been more surprised at their lack of surprise when the service wasn't conducted in Greek or Latin.

"When you first came to me to be married," Lehninger said, "I had some extreme doubts. I wondered if either of you had any idea of what Christian marriage involved. You're both utterly promiscuous, with not a shred of moral conscience, and at least one of you has made a botched job of one marriage. Neither of you are church goers, and you both seem to regard the rest of society as a playground to which you owe nothing. Your family mottos should both contain the word 'theft', and there doesn't seem to be one of the seven deadly sins - with the possible exception of sloth - that you don't commit on an almost daily basis. You should be grateful that there is a merciful God - whom neither of you seem to believe in - who might be prepared to be more merciful than I would be, come the dawning of Judgement Day. I only hope that there is some capacity for competent parenting hidden somewhere in your wretched union."

It was a cracker - I nearly applauded.

The other memorable thing was the hymn that Arthur and his men sang, with Arthur taking the solo part. He had a beautiful voice, as befitting one educated in the court of Constantinople, and the hymn sounded like a cross between plainchant and the call to prayer from an Islamic mullah.

"Alleluia", they sang. "Ampelon ex egipto metiras exemblas ethni ke kataphiteusas autin, odofisas emprosthen autis ke kataphiteusas ta rizas autis, ke epliros ati gin. Alleluia." It was most rousing.

They made a wonderful arch of swords for us to walk under as we left the church. There was a lot of confetti as we got into our carriage, which was pulled by a team including my favourite, Sambo, whom I'd shipped over specially for the occasion. Arthur and his men rode escort as we trotted back to the Croft Mansion.

The wedding cards were great.

"May you rot in hell with your fucking whore, you cheating bastard." That was Roger's ex-wife.

"We cannot attend your wedding. You have behaved abominably." That was Roger's parents.

"An honest woman at last. Welcome back within the pale." That was from the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office.

"Try not to get him killed." Unsigned and on a plain card, but obviously from my French friend Nikita.

"May God grant you many children." From the local branch of Mothercare.

"I hope that Madam and her new husband will be very happy. Yours sincerely, Winston Jeeves."

Soon the speeches were all over. Roger and I cut the cake and started the dancing. Everyone got very drunk and then, finally, the guests departed and we all went to bed.

"Happy, Mrs. Farringdon?"

"Ecstatic, darling, although I think I'll keep Croft."

And for a while he managed to help me to forgot that there was still no news of Father.

*****


I awoke in the middle of the night with a start. I found myself reaching under my pillow for my revolver, rattled by old memories before I was entirely awake. Roger was gone, and there was the sound of a horse galloping up the drive. I looked out of the window.

Some cloaked figures were standing in the forecourt of the Croft Estate, bearing lanterns mounted on staffs. A carriage was coming up the drive in the distance.

I opened the window. "What going on?" I called.

The figures turned to look up at me. There was Roger, Meruleus, Arthur, Winston and Falsingham.

"I'll come up and tell you in minute, darling," said Roger. "Or you can come down."

"Falsingham?"

"I'm as much in the dark as you, Lara," said Falsingham. "Meruleus told me that they were expecting something that I would find interesting."

I pulled on my tracksuit and boots, and went out, revolver tucked out of sight.

"Can I get you anything, Madam?" said Winston. He was looking sleepy in the lantern light.

"If we have to be out here at this godforsaken hour," I said to him sotto voce, "pop into the kitchen and make us both a Toddy with Glenmorangie and some demarera." I leant forward and whispered into his ear. "And make sure your shotgun and helmet are ready to hand somewhere."

"Very good, Madam," said Winston.

The carriage swept up in front of us.

"It will be as I promised all those years ago, old friend," said Meruleus in his accented Greek.

Arthur had a rapt expression on his face. "Destiny," he said. He grasped Roger's hands. "Our destiny, My Lord Farringdon."

"It's the Grail, isn't it?" I said to Falsingham, in English.

Falsingham turned to me with an expression of shock. "Surely not?" he said, taking a step backwards. "Do you know how dangerous that could be?"

"Maybe you'd better get out of here," I said. "Take that horrible new Aston Martin that the film company gave me. It's in the garage. Go and find Father."

Falsingham looked at me, his mouth twisted into a wince. "What about you?"

"My place is with Roger. I'll contact you later."

Falsingham kissed me on the forehead. Then he stepped back into the shadows and was gone.

A couple of men were carrying a box from the carriage into the hall way. Everyone was too busy to notice when, a couple of minutes later, the darkened Aston Martin sneaked silently past the edge of the hedge maze and drove away. I closed the front door softly behind us.

"Where are Lord Falsingham and your man servant?" asked Meruleus.

"I think Winston is in the kitchen," I said.

Meruleus smiled. "It doesn't matter any more," he said.

"What is he talking about?" I asked, going over to Roger and taking his arm.

"I think that Arthur is going to show us," said Roger, kissing me.

Arthur was opening the front of the box. As the light spilled into it I could see the Grail, a bejewelled Byzantine chalice held in a cage of gold. Arthur unlatched the cage. As he lifted the Grail into the light, everything changed.

The jewels began to shine and the gold began to glow. Roger and I found ourselves falling to our knees. Tears of inexpressible joy began to flow down my cheeks.

Arthur held the Grail on high, a plate-like halo shining around his head.

"Christus vincit," he said, but suddenly everybody could understand him as if he was speaking plain English.

"Hallelujah," we all cried in unison

"Let New Constantinople arise," said Meruleus. "Death to all heathens."

"Amen," we all cried.


3. Holy war


We soon had people volunteering from the region around the Croft Estate. For centuries they had been subjugated, in leige to a foreign power and a heretical religion. They embraced the chance to restore Roman civilisation at once. Even a light hidden under a bushell is still a light. Messages were sent to Farringdon Court telling the stall to come to us, since it was easier to plan a strike on the capital from my house.

Arthur's men had been training them for only a small time when, quite spontaneously, they raised Roger on their shields and proclaimed him King of England. I was his Queen and Arthur was his Dux Bellorum. Meruleus was our Beloved Councillor.

We turned the dining room in the Croft Mansion into a throne room, and addressed the new court.

"It is important to us that we start as we mean to go on," said King Roger.

"It is our sincerest wish that all signs of heresy be expunged from our realm," I said. I had taken to wearing a cassock and a whimple, as a sign of my new devoutness.

"We have a priest from the one true church on his way to us from London," said the King.

"When he arrives we will be remarried properly," I said, clasping my hands and bowing my head. "In the meantime, we intend to make reparations for our sin. We shall wear hair shirts, fast and refrain from carnal intercourse."

There was a cheer, and one or two of our army wiped a tear from their eyes.

"To horse!" said the King. "To the church of the heretics!"

We made a magnificent sight as we thundered across the countryside. I rode Sambo side saddle, swishing a sword above my head and crying out suitably rousing war cries. On my head I was wearing the tiara that mother had once ordered me, wrongly assuming that I would be coming at as a debuntante at the Palace one fine day. In my belt, in case of emergencies, I wore the Dagger of Xian. Back at the house, the Ark of the Covenant had been rescued from a packing case in the cellar and was being guarded by Meruleus and a small posse of our men. If anybody knew how to use the Ark as a weapon, it was Meruleus. The only other person, perhaps, was Falsingham - but he was lost to God for the time being.

They dragged Lehninger from his church and pushed him to his knees in front of us.

"Are you prepared to renounce your heresy and return to the Church of Constantinople?" asked Arthur after the situation had been explained.

Lehninger was afraid and he looked at us all if we were mad, but he was a brave man.

"I acknowledge the Pope and Roman Catholic Church," he said. "Stop this madness. We are supposed to be bringing the churches together through ecumencalism."

"Who on earth told you that?" asked the King. "The True Church - the Orthodox Church - will never be reunited with the Church that destroyed Constantinople with its Crusades and who abandoned the City to the infidel."

They made a bonfire of the church pews and threw Lehninger and his hymn books upon it. Fortunately he had fainted and never felt the flames. We all cheered and Roger and I kissed. We had never been so happy. We could feel the stern love of Christ Pantocrator burning in our breasts.

*****


Father Phocas arrived from London with a relic of St. Appollonia, and we had a proper Orthodox wedding under his guidance. He was overjoyed to hear of our plan to re-establish the Roman empire, and to retake Constatinople and Jerusalem from Islam.

"You will find a huge army of believers in Greece and Serbia and Russia who will flock to your aid," he said. "May God bless you."

"But first," said Arthur, "we must retake England, and then France."

"But what about the Americans?" asked Father Phocas.

""Even in that realm of Satan they despise and hate the Mahometans," said the King. "They have just elected a President who will not interfere with our plans."

"We have the support of International Freemasonary," added Arthur.

"There is a mosque and an Islam community in the nearby town," I observed. With hindsight, I regret that particular observation.

Soon afterwards, the police started to arrive. However a glimpse of the Grail and a phone call to the Chief Constable soon converted them all to our cause. Well, nearly all. There was a Jewish policeman called Constable Klein. They crucified him in the garden.

Later, we set fire to the mosque with the help of the enthusiastic townspeople, and strung the iman up from the nearest lampost. The Islamic families that we caught were offered the chance to convert to the true faith. Some of the young girls were raped, but we thought it better than they bear Christian children than more heathens. I believe both Kevin and Peter did their duty.

"We are avenged for 1453," said Father Phocas, blessing us all.

"Hallelujah," we cried.

I was lagging behind somewhat, admiring the flames rising from the ruins, when I felt a sharp thump in my neck. It was a tranquilliser dart. I remember falling from my horse, but that was all.


4. Three wise men


When I awoke, there was Father and Winston standing looking down at me.

"Father!" I said, struggling to rise. "You're alive. Thank Jesus."

"Thank a good old fashioned British Army compass," said Father mildly.

"Why am I tied to this bed?" I said. "Winston - untie me. What happened to you, anyway?"

"Madam is not well," said Winston. He should have looked embarrassed, but instead he looked uncharacteristically steely.

"I took Winston with me when I left," said Falsingham, who had been standing in the shadows.

The three of them stood looking at me.

"I'm relieved that I've found you," I said, eagerly. "You can join us."

"Who exactly is 'us'?" asked Falsingham.

"Of course - you've missed everything. Roger is King and we are going to win back England for Jesus."

"We saw what you'd done in the town," said Father. He trembled slightly. "I haven't seen anything so disgusting for a long time."

"I fought in the War, Madam," said Winston. "It was exactly the sort of thing that we were fighting against."

"I thought I'd plumbed the depths of my shame when it came to my daughter," said Father. "Sadly, I was wrong."

Tears flooded into my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. I pulled futilely at my bounds.

"Steady on, chaps," said Falsingham. "She's not in her right mind."

Father looked at me from under lowered eyelids. "And what exactly is her 'right mind', Eric?" he said.

Winston shuffled his feet. "Madam may have been eccentric in the past," he said, "but I've always believed her heart is in the right place."

"It seems to me," said Father, "that she's behaving exactly as she normally does. She's just transferred her allegiance from Mammon to God."

"That is unduly harsh, Henners," said Falsingham.

Apparently I was under a spell, they said.

"It's not a spell," I explained. "It's the Holy Spirit. It's come down upon us, by the medium of the Holy Grail. We can understand each other, whatever the language. We can speak in tongues."

"Nobody is denying that the Grail is powerful," said Falsingham, picking up the Dagger of Xian that he had removed from my belt. "Were you intending to use this?"

"If necessary I suppose," I said.

"The Bible approves of people using black magic?"

The Dagger of Xian, when plunged into the heart of a human, converts them into a giant, fire-breathing Chinese dragon. It had belonged to the First Emperor of China, and he had used it against his enemies in battle. I had "liberated" it from his tomb near Beijing.

I hung my head. "You're right," I said. "It should be destroyed."

"Maybe later," said Falsingham. "And what about the Ark?"

I had retrieved the Ark of the Covenant from a warehouse in Area 51, where it had been kept after being taken from the Nazis. I'd kept it around the house as a sort of sideboard for a while, and then banished it to my cellar with the rest of the unwanted archaeological treasure.

"The Ark is God's," I said. "It is intended to be used by His armies."

"I was afraid that you were going to say that," said Falsingham.

Father was fiddling with an old glass syringe fitted with an steel needle. "I have the scopolamine," he said.

"And I have Sir's amulet," said Winston. Falsingham did a nifty line in amulets.

Through the next few minutes I screamed a lot. I damned them all to Hell. However, soon my mind was free.

*****


I was only faintly ashamed at myself. I�ve seen possession before, and this was a possession, albeit on a vast scale.

"Fucking hell, " I said, rubbing my wrists. "I just hope that nobody videoed me."

"Madam is still wearing a wimple," said Winston.

"Christ," I said, tearing it from my head. "Has anybody got a cigarette?"

Father held out his cigarette case. "As for you," I said to him. "What was with all the abuse?" I embraced him. "I'm glad you made it."

Father relaxed a fraction, despite himself. "Well," he grumbled.

"I admit that I'm no angel, pater," I said, "but I don't deliberately persecute people."

"Scotch?" said Falsingham, holding out his hip flask. "Make sure you keep that amulet on."

"My hero," I said, taking a large swig, and blowing a smoke ring. "I don't suppose anybody packed some guns?"

"I took the liberty of taking Madam's backpack when I left," said Winston.

I winced. "Isn't it full of dirty knickers?"

"No, Madam," said Winston.


5. Devil's advocate


I knew that I was on the trail of the Army when I found three men impaled on spikes. They had hand-written signs around their necks - "Death to all homosexualists" and "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind". It's a messy way to die, and requires total belief from the executioners.

As I spend along on my newly-purchased Bultaco Sherco, I become aware of a flickering of light in the distance. It looked as if they had started using the Ark. I sped up a muddy rise and nearly collided with the police helicopter hidden behind it. There were two dead men inside, and it looked as if the engines had failed in midair. A dead helicopter is about as aerodynamic as a dead bumblebee. Further on, there were abandoned police vehicles. I was just wondering why they had been abandoned, when the motorcycle engine died below me. I tried to restart it with some violent stamping on the pedal but it was no use. The battery was dead. I got out my mobile phone to ring Falsingham, but that was dead too. Even my Breitling wristwatch had stopped. There was a feeling of static in the air. My hair stood on end, and I yelped as a spark from the handlebars nipped at my fingers. The wires on a nearby telegraph pole had been cut and there were dead starlings hanging from the bushes.

I got my kit together and started to jog towards the lights. There was nobody around and no more dead bodies. Topping a rise next to the shelter of a hedgerow, I caught my first sight of the Char valley and of the battle between Roger's army and the police. I got out my binoculars.

To the right, on the slopes of the Beranbury hillfort was a line of foot soldiers, flanked on one side by Arthur's cavalry and on the other by Roger and members of the Farringdon Hunt on horseback. On Arthur's side of the foot was Meruleus with the Ark, whilst on the other side, near his father, was Kevin, bearing the Grail. I hadn't even realised that Kevin could ride a horse.

I focused on the foot soldiers. They were local villagers and farm hands, but they were wearing makeshift armour. On one arm they carried giant shields shaped like curled playing cards, and they brandished various weapons, some having gardening implements and the rest, swords. A minority held shotguns. They were formed up in a phalanx, shields interlocked like the scales of a tortoiseshell, ready to advance.

I turned my attention to the police on the other side of the valley. In the centre was a group of riot squad men, wearing body armour and carrying large perspex Armadillo shields. To their right were a few police sharpshooters, lying flat in the grass, guns sighted on Roger's army, as well as a couple of men manning CS gas mortars. To their left was a squadron of mounted police.

I scanned around for the senior policeman in charge. I caught sight of him trying to get a megaphone to work, before throwing it disgustedly to the ground. It was my old friend the Chief Constable. I jogged down the hill, hands in plain sight, before being stopped by a couple of constables.

"This area is off limits, Miss," said one of them.

"I'm a friend of the Chief Constable," I said. "That's my husband over there."

"Lara," said the Chief Constable as I approached. "What's going on?"

"Roger has gone mad and has decided to lead an armed uprising to overthrow the government."

The Chief Constable scratched his head. "That's a bit bizarre, even by his standards," he said. "I'd try and talk to him, but none of our communications equipment seems to be working."

"That's the Ark of the Covenant over there," I said. "It's churning out a lot of electromagnetic energy."

"Is it now?" he said, without batting an eyelid. "How am I supposed to arrest them, then? With no vehicles, this is going to descend into a medieval brawl."

"I think that's the whole idea," I said. "They set it up so that they can fight on their own terms."

The Chief Constable sighed. "Thank God for the experience I picked up at Orgeave," he said.

"If I might make a suggestion," I said. "Let me go over there to grab the Grail."

"The what?"

"The Grail," I said. "The Holy Grail."

"Wonderful," said the Chief Constable. "I suppose you're responsible?"

"Just for once, no," I said. "At any rate, the Grail is exerting some sort of influence over those men, some sort of mass religious hysteria."

"What should I do to help?"

"Lend me a horse. Then - as I get going - blanket the right flank of their foot with tear gas, and get your foot squad to start an advance over the stream. If you have any smoke, lay that over their left flank. Hold back your cavalry and the snipers. If I go down, start shooting at the enemy horses. Wade in with the mounted police and lay out as many of the people on foot as you can. And warn your men that most of those people over there will strike to kill."

I got a couple of hand grenades out of my backpack, and put a couple of semi-automatic pistols in my thigh holders.

"Not particularly legal," remarked the Chief Constable.

"Thank goodness for free-thinkers, eh?" I said, stepping up into the saddle of the horse that they'd brought me. "Ready?"

But events were getting ahead of us. I saw Kevin spurring his horse down the slope at the side of their foot. Splashing into the shallow stream, he rode between the two armies, holding the Grail on high.

"Join us," I heard his reedy voice shouting. "Join the cause of righteousness. Those who die fighting with us are assured of an instant place in paradise, holy martyrs for Christ. Those who oppose us will roast in Hell forever."

The sun glinted on the Grail, and reflected light flickered over the faces of the riot police. I could see them shielding their eyes, and taking a couple of steps backwards. One or two dropped their riot shields and began to walk in zombie steps towards Roger's army.

"Shoot him!" I yelled at the snipers. "Shoot the boy on the horse."

"He's unarmed," said a sergeant. "We can't shoot him without a warning."

"He's only a boy," added one of the snipers.

"For God's sake shoot him, before you lose your foot."

"We can't do that, Ma'am."

I contemplated grabbing a sniper rifle from them, but I realised that I was wasting time. If I was going to stop Kevin, I needed to get closer. I spurred my horse down the hill.

*****


At least the Chief Constable was on the ball. I heard the thunk of the CS mortars and the slightly more hissy bang of the smoke grenade launchers behind me. One second the battlefield was as clear as a bell in the sunshine, and the next it erupted into a foggy hell. It was only then that I remembered that neither I nor the horse had gas masks.

She was a good police horse and she didn't flinch at the explosions. "Come on girl," I whispered in her ear, patting her neck. "Let's nip round the back of our troops and see if we can catch them napping."

We galloped around the back of the riot squad, who were milling around in confusion. The men who had obeyed the order to advance were being foiled by their bewitched colleagues in the front line. At least Kevin and the Grail were no longer visible.

As we rode from the police right flank to the left, we passed from smoke into tear gas. I held my breath and closed my eyes. I don't know how the horse coped. Maybe they'd trained her to hold her breath as well. Our side had donned gas masks, but I could hear the coughing from Roger's army. I rounded our left flank, and headed through the gap between our foot and our cavalry, straight towards the stream. Where was Kevin? I comforted myself with the thought that if I couldn't see him, then our side could no longer see the Grail.

I splashed across the stream just as something flew towards us. It was a steel spear. It embedded itself in the horse's side next to my leg. She fell. I managed to jump free and landed on my side with a splash of icy water. I stumbled up and over to where she lay. She kicked once, whinnied and then died.

"Bastards," I said under my breath, whiffs of tear gas making my eyes flood.

There was a thundering of hooves as a horseman drew up beside me in the fog. It was Kevin, the Grail tucked into the front of his coat.

I unholstered my guns.

"Strumpet," said Kevin. "She-whore of the Devil."

"There's no need for that kind of language."

Kevin unsheathed a sword. "Prepare to die," he said.

"Don't be ridiculous," I said, waving the guns at him.

However, it wasn't as easy as I thought to shoot him. I liked him. Before I'd finished registering this thought, Kevin had spurred his horse forward and clouted me on the right shoulder. I staggered to my knees and dropped one of my guns into the water.

"You little shit," I gasped. "Wait until I tell your father." My clothes began to stain with blood.

Kevin and his horse wheeled around for another blow, but he hesitated when he saw my remaining gun pointed straight at him.

"I don't want to have to kill you," I said. "Just give me the Grail."

Kevin snorted. "I'd rather die."

"This isn't a game, Kevin. You will die."

"So be it," said Kevin. "My soul is clear."

"Listen to yourself." I could hear a pleading tone in my voice. "Listen to yourself. How old are you? Surely you want to live."

"I'd rather have a few years on earth than an eternity of damnation," said Kevin. "Your reluctance to strike shows the doubt that will always lurk in the heart of an unbeliever. Evil can never look good straight in the eye."

"Kevin," I said. "Don't do this. I will kill you. Once you give me the Grail you'll see the sense of it all."

"I die a martyr for my Saviour," said Kevin and spurred his horse forward.

I squeezed the trigger for a split second and his head disintegrated. The horse reared, and his body fell into the stream. I retrieved the Grail. Some angry tears rolled down my cheeks. If there is any evil in the world, I reflected, then one of its forms is the indoctrination of children too young to know any better.

Then, for a moment, the smoke and the fog cleared. I was surrounded on all side by police and soldiers.

"Watch!" I shouted. "Watch this, all of you!"

Then was a strange lull in the fight and all eyes were on me.

I laid the Grail on a flat stepping stone in the centre of the stream, and raised another stone above my head. There was a gasp of horror from all around.

"Stop her, for the love of Jesus," I heard a voice say, but they were too late.

I began to hammer the Grail with my rock. The jewels began to fly away like popcorn, and the gold shone as brightly as freshly scooped butter. The cloisonne panelling crumbled into crumbs, and the chalice became two-dimensional, a smashed and warped thing, ugly and useless. Five or six good blows, and the Grail was destroyed. Two millennia of greed and yearning destroyed in an English field.

I held up the remains. "It's just a cup," I yelled. "Just a thing. No object, however precious, however significant, is worth even one life."

Looking back, I suppose I thought that would be the end of it. Grail destroyed, spell broken, problem solved, home for a stiff scotch before teatime, that sort of thing. I imagined that people would be a bit annoyed that I'd smacked the Holy Grail with a large rock, but at least they wouldn't be foaming at the mouth for Jesus.

Men from both sides rushed forward to disarm me. Roger, Meruleus and Arthur rode up. Meruleus was dressed up as some sort of priest, with a Syrian headdress and decorated robes covered with Aramaic script.

"You evil bitch," said Roger.

"You'll be contacting your divorce lawyer I suppose?" I said.

Arthur dismounted. He was weeping. He gathered up the remains of the Grail. "Ignoble," he said. "An ignoble end for the most sacred of relics."

"I'm going to have you burnt at the stake," said Roger.

"I thought that if I got rid of the Grail, you'd all come to your senses," I said.

"Foolish woman," said Meruleus. "The Grail did not control people's minds. It simply freed them to think for themselves."

"Damn right," said Roger.

"Really?" I said to him, in my snottiest voice.

Roger laughed. "Do you honestly think that I want an England full of foreigners and communists and queers and wogs?" he said. He wasn't talking to me any more; he was making a speech to the troops. "For years I've been held back by political correctness and the warped legacy of the 60's. Now, finally, at last, the Grail has set me free."

I tried to interrupt. "Do you mean to tell me that all this time you've been some sort of closet Nazi?"

"Isn't everybody, at heart?" said Roger with cold disdain. "Aren't you?"

"We misjudged you Lara," said Meruleus. "We thought that you shared the same contempt for the infidel races of the world as we do."

"You've shot enough of the bastards," said Roger. "Thought you were one of us."

I flinched inwardly. It's easy to make a person feel guilty when they are standing in a cold stream with a nasty shoulder wound. "I've never killed in the name of Jesus," I said.

"So what do you kill for?" said Meruleus, with a hint of amusement. "A more worthy cause? Please enlighten us."

I straightened my weary limbs and put my hands on my hips. "Why don't all you go fuck yourselves?" I said.

At that moment Roger caught sight of Kevin's body, and the blood drained from his face. He dismounted slowly and bent over the remains of his son. He gave a long, long look of hatred, so intense that I blushed. I found myself on the verge of trying to apologise.

Roger walked over to Arthur and raised him to his feet. "Lara is right," he said. "That Grail was just an object. The real Grail shines brightly in heaven."

"Let us finish this," said Arthur, dropping the pieces of gold into the water.

They both mounted up.

Roger raised his sword. "For God, England and St. George," he shouted, "kill them all."

"Christ will rule here," echoed Arthur. "Deus vult!"

"Deus vult!" shouted soldier and policeman alike in a unison roar. They all turned and began to walk back up the hill towards the Chief Constable and the remnants of his men. On the horizon I could see a horse and cart silhouetted. Three old men appeared to be struggling together, and I recognised them, even from that distance.

"Falsingham," I said under my breath. What were they fighting over? Surely this was no time for an argument.

"Take her up there, near the Ark," ordered Meruleus. "Tie her to a tree. We'll burn her during our victory feast. If she escapes then you'll take her place."

They began to drag me away.

"Oh, and Lara?" said Meruleus.

"It's Lady Croft to you, God boy."

Meruleus laughed. "Don't try and activate the Ark," he said. It consumes the unworthy who attempt to use it."

"Well - doh!" I replied.

*****


I had a bird's eye view of the end of the battle.

Roger's swollen army began to pulverise the remainder of the law and order posse. Arthur and the rest of the cavalry demonstrated to the mounted police the superiority of a sharpened lance over a long truncheon. The police snipers managed to get off a few shots before they were disembowelled by the mob. A few study men formed a shield wall around the Chief Constable but it was clear that there was only moments left.

My eye was caught again by Father, Falsingham and Winston. Winston was coming down the hill in a shambling run. Falsingham grabbed him by the shoulder and Winston felled him with an elegant left hook. Action had never been Falsingham's forte, but then neither was it Winston's. My jaw dropped.

Father ran up and I could see him remonstrating with Winston. Winston waved some sort of weapon at him, and Father backed off, palms upraised. Then, to my surprise, Winston reversed the dagger in his hands and stabbed it deeply into his own chest.

I suddenly got it. "Oh my God," I said. "Winston - no."

A semicircle of light mushroomed around Winston and flew outwards like a nuclear explosion. There was a roaring sound audible to me even at that distance, and the ground shook. The outward flying light hardened, and then there was the Dragon of Xian, roaring at the sky.

The Dragon clumped towards Roger's stunned army in that familiar pigeon-toed way, each step shaking the leaves from the trees, and setting off small landslides of earth. I could hear it drawing in its breath like a huge wheezy accordion, and the rasping of its glottis as it made the sparks to ignite its digestive gases. A huge roar of yellow flame engulfed the foot soldiers, followed by another, and another. Flaming figures ran about the hill side, colliding with each other. I could hear screams being cut off as men drew the scalding air into their lungs.

Arthur and his men formed into a squadron. Their horses were nearly uncontrollable, but the riders brought them under control with vicious stabbings and whippings. Arthur gave a war cry - I didn't hear what - and they all rode straight at the Dragon, lances raised. It was like bees attacking an alligator. Soon Arthur, Roger and all the rest were gone.

I saw Meruleus standing not far off from the carnage, armed raised. I imagined that I could hear him chanting something.

"Lara!"" I heard a voice shout. It was Father and Falsingham on horseback. My guards had run away and so they untied me.

"Why did you let him do it?" I shouted, pummelling Falsingham-s chest. "He's just an old man. Surely between the two of you ...?"

Falsingham let me batter myself into silence. "What happens when we take the Dagger out?" he asked, gently.

"He's dead," I said.

"Would it help if we called an ambulance?" said Father, his eyes reddened.

"It will have cut his heart in two," I said, weeping. I sat down in the mud.

Falsingham closed his eyes. He sighed deeply. "But what a heart," he said, at length.

"Here, here," said Father.

We watched as the Dragon engulfed Meruleus in flames. Meruleus seemed to stand up to it for much longer than should have been possible. Some piece of old magic struggling to the very last, no doubt




The End






NOTICE: The character "Lord Falsingham" is a creation of gifted Tomb Raider author "Dr. Amazing", and I've used him only with permission. Lord Falsingham can be found in his natural habitat in the "Swimsuit Trilogy" stories. The great picture at the beginning of the story is the work of Agnes Margrethe Heyer. It is an original work by her and she owns any copyright.

NOTICE: This story is a work of fiction. Lara Croft, her likeness, and the Tomb Raider games are all copyright of Core Design and EIDOS Interactive. There is no challenge to these copyrights intended by this story, as it is a non-sanctioned, unofficial work of my own.