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Authors: Graham Joyce

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BOOK: Dark Sister
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FOURTEEN

After
three days, and against his better judgment, Alex got a dig
going on the spot
indicated by his wife. Truth be told, he had more helpers than he could
usefully employ, and he set three volunteers on the task to keep them from
under his feet. They roped off a square and set to work.

On the second day, Alex was as surprised as
anyone when things started to turn up.

At first they hit what was a
Norman wall forming part of the castle's foundations. These remains predated
the main castle by a few hundred years, but were in no way remarkable. The
medieval castle builders had simply capitalized on what was, after all, a prime
defensive site. The volunteers were instructed to cut a section along the
Norman wall and below it.

What was extraordinary was the unearthing of artefacts
below the wall's remains: artefacts some five hundred years more recent than
the building of the wall. Of the several explanations for this, Alex favoured
slippage of land. The "Maggie dig," as he came to call it, was after
all adjacent to a hollow in the grass, and successive generations of coal
mining immediately below the site had caused considerable subsidence over the
years. But he later dismissed this and theorized that the new finds were some
kind of intrusion on the site.

Apart from shards of pottery and glass, the first
artefact to show up was a rusted dagger. It was ceremonial rather than martial,
with a long blade and a cumbersome, wrought handle. The knob of the handle was
a grinning gargoyle head, with half-folded wings projecting back. The implement
was cast in a rough bronze material and studded with three tiny red stones,
something like fire-garnet. It had no place among the debris of a Norman wall.

Then its twin turned up not three feet
from the first. Alex temporarily abandoned the main venture and flung himself
into the Maggie dig. He personally turned up half a tin plate and a few coins
which were easy to date as sixteenth century.

Maggie crowed. "You should have listened to me in
the first place." She glowed with pride: with deep, private satisfaction,
and with secret vindication.

"A lucky guess."
Alex laughed. "There's stuff littered all over that mound. How could you
have known?"

"Instinct.
Don't knock
it. I just had this tremendous feeling about it."

Instinct?
Maggie didn't know
what to call it. But she accepted it as a gift from her recent
handfasting
ritual. She didn't want to compromise the gift
with too many questions. It was an important confirmation that powers were
aggregating to her.

"Well, I'm going to throw a
couple more people into it tomorrow. See if there's anything worthwhile."

Alex was always easier to be with when his work was
going well. And for that Maggie secretly thanked her
handfasting
oils {even at that moment drawing down the moon's soft rays). It was a
circuitous means of recapturing affection, certainly, but she didn't mind how
it worked. Alex wouldn't admit it, but he was grateful to Maggie for giving him
a diversion from his otherwise unproductive dig.

He kissed her hand before getting up from the table,
and she thought again of her jars of oil standing on the bedroom windowsill.
Maggie felt she had learned something about the extraordinary lightness, and
indirection, of magic.

 

"So it was a ritual knife?" Anita
Suzman
was fascinated. Alex and Maggie had asked the
Suzmans
over to dinner. Alex had been regaling them with
accounts of the dig—the principal dig—and had broken off to tell them about his
most recent discovery.

They all got down from the table and sat round the
roaring fire. Alex shrugged. "Certainly looks like that to me. But for
what kind of ritual, who can say?"

"What made you break off from the main dig?"
Bill said, stroking Anita's arm.

Alex irritated Maggie by leaning back in his chair,
thrusting his hands in his pockets and modelling an expression of sagacity.
"There were impressions in the earth around that spot.
Looked
like it had been interfered with at some time, but not enough to be
obvious."

"Was it what you people call a hunch?" said
Anita. Maggie noticed how she couldn't take her eyes off Alex. Alex looked sheepish.

"More wine for anyone?" said Maggie.

"Actually, I'll have to come clean. It was Maggie
who told us where to dig."

Anita and Bill's attentions swept to Maggie like the
minute hand on a civic clock. "I can't explain it," she told them.

"Maggie's gone a bit fey lately."

"Fey?" Bill look puzzled.

"
Oooh
," Anita
said, a teasing
note
. "Perhaps she is a witch
after all." Maggie wondered what she meant by "after all." She
glanced over at Alex.

The wine had reddened Bill's cheeks. His eyelids
sagged. "Eye of toad," he said vapidly.
"Wing
of bat."

Maggie challenged him a little sharply. "What is
eye of toad?"

"Eh?"

"I thought so. All those things like eye of toad
are code names for different plants and herbs. Eye of toad is camomile. Bloody
fingers are foxgloves. Beggar's buttons are just burdock. That's all. No big
mystery.
Except to the ignorant."

"Consider
yourself
told," Anita said.

"I do," said Bill.

"Our kitchen's like
a
herbalist's grotto these days," Alex offered glumly. No one said
anything.
"An alchemist's chamber."

Maggie got up. "I'll go and wash the
dishes."

Anita followed her into the kitchen. She insisted on
helping while the men swilled the last of the wine and chortled like schoolboys.

"I'd like to know something about herbs,"
she said.

"Oh." Maggie shrugged. "I don't know
that much about it myself."

Anita flapped a tea towel and looked annoyed.

After the
Suzmans
had gone
home, Maggie went upstairs and waited for Alex. It was after midnight of the
seventh evening of the blending of the
handfasting
oils. The moon outside the window was strong and bright. She held one of the
jars up to her eye, and the moonlight became a starburst in the opaque glass.
Silver light ran from the bottle like drops of mercury.

"Yes," she breathed. "It might."

She poured the oil from this jar
into a second. Then she took the empty one and hid it in her secret chest.
After undressing in the moon's soft light, she anointed herself with some of
the newly blended oil. She sniffed at the perfume still glistening on her skin;
a deep, sensual draught. It thrummed her nerves and her muscles were treated to
an involuntary spasm.

It affected her. She felt strong.

"What are you doing in the
dark?" Alex said as he came into the bedroom.

"Don't put the light on."

He was slightly tipsy. The wine had
made him perspire, and he smelled good. It was an attractive manly odour she
thought she'd ceased to appreciate through familiarity. He stood against the
bed, fumbling with the buttons on his shirt.

Maggie flung herself on him.

Alex gasped, bouncing against the
mattress with Maggie astride him. She tore the shirt off his back, buttons
bulleting across the room. Alex strangled a protest as she rained bites and
kisses on him, pinning him by his arms. A strange noise was coming from her throat.
It made him want to laugh. Giggling, he tried to throw her off, but she was
amazingly strong. She was gulping loudly between biting and kissing and sucking
at his neck and shoulders. Pinning his chest with one hand, she tore at his
trousers with the other, scratching him with her sharp fingernails.

Then he was completely naked and
she was stretched over him. It was as if someone had thrown open the door to a
white-hot furnace. There was a roaring in his ears. Maggie was drenched in
perspiration and some incredibly strong scent. Her moist skin glittered in the
moonlight. Still a strange rasping came from her throat as she licked and
kissed and sucked the length of his body, scalp to toe, her tongue rough like a
cat's. It seemed to him she had momentarily lost awareness of
who
and where they were.

He was massively aroused by the
fury and ardour of her attack. He tried to turn her over, to turn her on her
knees so he could penetrate her from behind, but he couldn't find the strength
to shift her.

"Maggie," he said.
"Maggie!"

She slipped his cock inside her
mouth and sucked until it hurt, drawing her sharp nails from his shoulders down
to his feet. Energy crackled from her like a discharge of electricity. She
settled herself with a shimmy, and he felt the furnace heat of her as she
lowered herself onto him, flinging her head back as his full length went inside
her. She convulsed at the penetration, her breasts shivering in the liquid
light, nipples erect to the moon. There was an overpowering odour of sex and sweat
and scent, and a moment when Alex thought he was going to pass out. She pressed
her hands on him, cooling him with her fingers. She stretched herself across
him and the contact of her nipples and her skin made him hallucinate briefly,
seeing and feeling her as eels of warm light.

"What are you doing to
me!
"

She went on until he was exhausted,
exhausted and sore. No one had ever performed on him like that. He lay back on
the bed, panting, with Maggie still sitting astride him,
herself
panting, finished, the sweat gleaming on her back and on her flanks, drops of
perspiration pearling the moonlight. Her face was in shadow, but her teeth were
white and sharp. The whites of her eyes glittered with lunar light, flashing
in the dark. She looked frightening, like a goddess, or a demon.

"Now," she said when
she'd recovered. "How long have you been fucking Anita?"

 

 

 

FIFTEEN

Alex
denied it. He told Maggie she was insane. What could she
say?
That the
trees told her? That the wind in the bushes had whispered in her ear one day
when she was naked in the woods? That she knew the trees sometimes lied in
order to help, but that this time she believed them? She had no evidence with
which to confront him, and nothing at all to go on other than her instincts.

But she was determined to find out.

"You
be
careful," said Ash. "You just be careful." He dropped the catch
on the shop door to make sure Sam didn't find his way out onto the catwalk. He
could live without a repetition of recent events.

"I've spent all my life being careful. That's the trouble."

"But you're getting into a dangerous
game here. This isn't like making an herbal pillow."

"That's why I'm asking you to help me."

Ash looked hard at her. She looked pale.
Her copper hair was drawn back fiercely into a Scandinavian plait; her blue
eyes were damp. "This is not an under-the-counter sale you're talking
about. I don't even stock these things. They're poisons."

"Listen to this." She read from the diary.
"All
questions will be answered and all matters settled. Take care to gather only on
the moons as I have said and make the banishments which A. assures will keep us
from the harm of demons. Honour
Hecate
, she says, and
she will love you for her own; abuse her and she will imperil your soul. And
all this
can I testify. All questions will be answered and
all matters settled, but that you fly.'"
She put down the diary. Sam
was hanging from her arm, looking into Ash's eyes. "But you see it, don't
you?
This
flying ointment.
It's an aid
to clairvoyance, isn't it? That's what they mean by flying! That's all it ever
meant!"

"I know all that, Maggie, but what
I'm telling you is the ingredients are all highly toxic, deadly even. I mean that's
what all that stuff about
Hecate
is saying: Watch
out, she'll kill you!"

"Not to those who treat her with
respect." Maggie was urgent. Ash had never seen her so animated.
"And anyway.
You've done it yourself.
Once or twice."

He was shocked. "How do you know that?"

She narrowed her eyes at him; a strange,
seductive gesture. "The trees told me."

He looked away, his cheeks burning.
Her intuition was strong, -and it was correct. He had experimented with the flying
ointment, and had singed his wings. But what made him blush was something
else. If her intuition about him was so strong, then she would also have
guessed his instincts toward her.

"Fly with me, Ash."

He turned his back on her, busying
himself, aligning jars on shelves. He couldn't look her in the eye.

"You could show me how, Ash."

 

Alex went back to his dig and tried to shut the events of the previous
night out of his mind. The discovery of the ritual daggers had been reported
locally, producing a trickle of extra visitors to the site. The presence of
these spectators only irritated him further. He marched along the specially
erected boardwalks in his heavy, muddied Wellingtons, saying, "Excuse
me," yet all but bundling the visitors out of his way.

He was conscious of the scratches and the bruises and the bites Maggie
had imprinted on his body. She'd acted like a wildcat; he'd never before seen
her like that. She'd been possessed by uncanny strength. Plus there was her
insistence about Anita. He'd denied it a dozen times, but she was implacable.
For the first time in their marriage she'd done something that made him
slightly afraid of her. No, that was untrue. There had always been something in
her to make him a little afraid.
A reckless streak.
A promiscuous
gap in her integrity that he felt would one day be used to take her away from
him. It was a demon-worm that had always gnawed at him over the years, despite
his best efforts to deny its existence.

Some of the things she'd done to him last night made him marvel. It
occurred to him she might have been taking lessons from someone else.

 

 

"No," said Ash, "I can't
help you."

"Then I'll do it myself." Maggie
tapped on the diary. "I've got all the information I need."

"It's dangerous. Leave it alone."

"That's why I asked you to help
me."

"I'm not going to. Don't ask me
again."

"Come on, Sam." Maggie slipped
the diary into her bag and got up to go. She tried to open the door, but
couldn't manage to release the catch. Ash had to open it for her.

"Wait. If you're serious about it,
let me make a suggestion." He rushed back to the counter and took out his
address book, copying something onto a scrap of paper. "Do you know the
village of Church Haddon? There's someone there you might go and see.
Old Liz.
She's a strange soul but don't let her frighten
you. At least she won't let you come to any harm. Just see what she's got to
say, first- Please."

Maggie shrugged and put the address in her
coat pocket. Ash watched her dragging Sam along the catwalk to the stairs, and
felt sad.

 

 

 

BOOK: Dark Sister
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