The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Bamworth Legacy - Episode 12

Saturday 21 June, 9.00am

Pushing away covers that have become too hot despite the earliness of the hour, Benedict Riggs stretches his arms, and yawns. He rises and dresses swiftly.

"Got to get out today." Muttering, he fastens his shoelaces. "Got to get out today... got to get out before they arrive... poor, poor Eric... perhaps we're all just chess pieces for them... perhaps this was all just a part of their game..."

The others are abruptly roused from sleep as Riggs jogs down the corridor, knocking on the bedroom door of each and singing to them through the crack of the hinge. Knock, knock. "Time to get up everybody!" Knock, bang. "They'll be here soon!" Bang, bang. "Time to get up!" Bang. "Time to get up!" Bang. Bang.

From the square outside come a sequence of other bangs and clangs, a patter like drums and the thick, felty thud of a speaker system back-beat.

The group assembles for breakfast a quarter of an hour later in low spirits. It is evident to the more perceptive members of the group that the Norses are taking pains to converse with them as little as possible. Culver's eyes are concealed behind his Raybans, and he betrays every symptom of a crushing hangover.

"Well, that was a complete shambles last night, was it not?" the Professor remarks coolly, voicing the general sentiment.

"Yeah, would someone care to explain to me just what the hell happened back there?" Side-step's face is reddened as much with irritation as with the heat. "How is it that when I left the Bamworth place everything was going smoothly according to plan, but when I arrive back it's like Billy Smarts fucking Circus out there, complete with the Old Bill up my arse?"

Darius, whose hiding place near to the library had offered the best vantage point for observing the unanticipated events, gives an account of Eric Drayes' interruption of the burglary attempt, and his flight with one of the Bamworth books.

Culver grimaces as he recounts his own misadventure. "Christ knows how the bastard managed to switch the glasses back again. I was watching out for that." Gingerly rubbing his temples, he glances up at Riggs, and manages a smile. "Your way was certainly more direct, Benedict. Next time, though, just ask, eh? I don't appreciate having my pocket picked." He casts his gaze about the group. "So how are we going to salvage the situation? Security round the Bamworth place will be tighter than a duck's arse now." The possibility of another attempt to burgle the Bamworth library is discussed, and rejected.

"We may have lost the library," continues Culver, "but it's our duty as SITU operatives to stick around and find out what's been going on. Besides, I have a feeling things are still up in the air - there's that book, for a start." He enlarges upon his theory that the stolen volume is the item which Harriet wishes to send away from Middlechase, and finds that Darius and John Henry have come to a similar conclusion.

"It seems that young Eric has got everyone on the back foot." Professor Twitchin pensively rolls a cigarette. "We may think we are getting nowhere, but the 'powers of darkness' or whoever these nutters are have seemingly lost both their sacrificial victim and their precious papers.

"Personally, and speaking from a professional, scientific perspective, I think the entire lot of them are barmy... and so are we for getting involved so deeply in this. The only thing for us to do now is to try to get to the lad before they do, get the papers, ensure that he is safe and get out of this god-forsaken village and back to civilisation as fast as possible. More marmalade anyone? Another aspirin, Matt?"

The suggestion that the day should be spent hunting for Eric Drayes meets with universal assent. Dr Culver suggests that if the stolen book were recovered, a deal might be struck with Harriet, whereby the SITU agents would receive numerous items from the library in exchange for taking the offending journal far from Middlechase.

"We should give it one final crack of the whip and then get the hell out of this funny farm, regardless of the outcome," opines Side-step. "The one piece of good fortune is that our getaway vehicle is safely back in its hide."

After Culver has enjoyed a quiet conference with Henry, and the party's possessions have been packed, the group prepare to depart the guest house. The square is already full of people. A girl with an ivy-leaf tattoo across one cheek forces leaflets advertising "Duskmaster's Alternative Clothing" into the hands of each man as he leaves the guest house. One man seated at the base of the monument is reading Gaelic poetry and has collected a small crowd.

Mike Ashford, collecting up the empty bottles of "Midsummer Brew" that litter the square, glances up at the SITU agents, and immediately looks away again, face stony.

The primary school has been thrown open to the public, posters directing the stream of visitors to the hall, where the children's "Midsummer paintings" are on display. Eric's huge, phantasmagoric picture is not in evidence. Margaret Hurst is also absent.

The little house next to the school seems to be unoccupied. After pressing the doorbell some five or six times without receiving a response, the Professor gives a curt knock, and watches the door swing open before him. Evidently, it has been left carelessly on the latch. Accompanied by John Henry, Twitchin enters. Both observe a message on the doorstep cancelling the milk.

A swift search is enough to establish that the house is empty. On the kitchen table, a large number of papers have been arranged into neat piles, clearly labelled. Most appear to be official documents, correspondence or accounts relating to the school. On the kitchen sideboard, a skin has formed over the cold cocoa dregs in two mugs.

In the back room, the paintings by Eric Drayes have been removed from the wall. The parrot cage is empty, but for a few small breast-feathers, and an abandoned cuttlefish that shows like bone through the wood-shavings on the cage floor.

At the western cross-roads, the group divides. Matt Culver, Benedict Riggs and John Henry take the road west out of the village in the direction of Margaret Hurst's barn, while Darius McGregor, Side-step and Professor Twitchin turn south, following the route towards the Drayes residence.

"Professor, how do you fancy trying out that new video camera of yours?" Side-step shields his eyes, and smiles across at his older companion. "I have an idea. We know that Mike Drayes has an axe to grind with the Bamworths, so maybe he can be persuaded to give us a little help." As they approach the farmhouse, Side-step explains that he hopes to learn from Drayes of some place from which any impending ritual might be filmed unobserved, thus hopefully providing the SITU agents with enough blackmail material to ensure the cooperation of the participants.

Joanna opens the door in response to their knock, gives the group a somewhat frightened glance, and begins to shut it again. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid my husband's not feeling very..." The door leaps from her hand and swings wide, as she is shouldered backwards into the hall by her husband.

"Come in. I'm sick of taking orders." Following Drayes' curt beckon, Twitchin, Side-step and Darius are shown into the living room.

"You looking for Eric?" Drayes sags into a chair, without relaxing his hostile gaze upon his visitors. He feels for the whisky bottle on the floor. "Everyone's looking for Eric. Five lots of people I've had here today, asking after him. All at once I'm the social centre of the sodding universe. I dunno where he is either, OK? That all you wanted to ask?"

Without preamble, Side-step mentions Drayes' evident animosity towards the Bamworths, and suggests that revenge could be achieved by giving the "Orgus agents" a chance to film the approaching Midsummer ceremony. Drayes' eyes narrow as the ritual is mentioned, and then he subsides into a grim laugh.

"No flies on you. But filming the ritual won't do you a bit of good. Gerald Bamworth's a cunning bastard. Hide it in plain sight, he said. You can see the ritual in the square at noon, along with two hundred tourists and gushing parents. It's the kids' play. That's the ceremony. Tell the truth, don't know why we bother poncing about with the secrecy thing any more. No one gives a damn if you're a Wiccan nowadays.

"You're right, though. It's not enough me just sitting here... I ought to... ought to... do something..."

Before the group leaves the house, Darius feigns a need to visit the bathroom, and exploits this opportunity to cast a glance into several rooms. Eric's room he finds with little difficulty.

The bed shows no sign of recent occupancy. Several drawers are half open. A few stranded spots of blu-tak hint at where posters have been pulled down from the wall.

On the Professor's suggestion, the threesome then seek out the clearing by the pond, where Riggs and Side-step had previously seen Eric Drayes with his friends. As they approach the glade, youthful voices are audible, interrupted by the occasional splash, like that of a casually flung pebble.

"Ssh! Quick! It's them!" Running feet. The SITU agents turn a corner, and find the glade empty. Muffled notes of shrill hilarity mingle with the leaf-music, as if the trees were laughing. On the pond a paper boat is bobbing.

Meanwhile, Culver, Riggs and Henry make their way across the fields. The wind is warm and intermittent, like the careful breaths of a stalking beast. The glare of the sun is oppressive, and the leaves gleam like knives.

Travelling ahead of the others, Riggs scouts out the area, and finds the barn unoccupied. The door is easily levered open, and the three conduct a search of the building.

Near the door, John Henry stumbles upon a small satchel which contains some black clothes in Eric's size, some black gym trainers, a box of oil paints, a sketch pad, and a brown, leather wallet. The latter holds some forty pounds, and a credit card in the name of Joanna Drayes. Beside the bag lie two "Reservoir Dogs" posters, rolled into tubes for easy carrying. This pile of possessions is not hidden, but rather stacked by the door, as if in anticipation of recovery at a later point.

The ritual paraphernalia still lie under the floorboards where Riggs had previously discovered them.

"If there's a ritual involved," remarks Culver, "I'd guess it'll happen at midday in Margaret Hurst's farm, or maybe in the nearby woods." Leaving the barn, the SITU agents begin to scour the surrounding fields and thickets, pushing through waist-high purple loose-strife and meadow sweet.

In one place, the ripped and ravaged body of a badger splays across the path, its tiny teeth visible in an eternal snarl. Over its body the flies fizz and scramble, a fury of emerald beads.

The golden fields crackle like a griddle where the investigators' feet crush sticks and stems. From here, Middlechase is a mutter, the main road an insect whine. There is a hot and terrible stillness.

Pausing upon the path, Riggs looks in vain for the clearing where he had seen the tree from his dream. As his eye scans for the break in the hedge, he suppresses a queasy sense that even the ambient birdsong is subtly discordant.

Back in the village, the six operatives meet up to compare the discoveries of the morning. It is decided that the Professor should surreptitiously film the Midsummer play performed by the children, but that the search for Eric through the village environs should continue. It is also resolved that periodic visits should be made to Margaret Hurst's barn, in the hope that the boy might return there to recover his belongings.

The Star is now filled to bursting, and Janet Lewis' lemonade stall is all but crowded from sight. Six children squat at the base of the monument, stray drops from their ice lollies staining their white linen robes. Bea Friar is crouched beside them like a small, floral hillock, grimacing benignly and offering them muffins.

A little before noon, the number of miniature druids double, stragglers dragged in by parents, and bundled into white robes. After the last six-year-old has been prised into her costume, the play begins, and the hubbub of the crowd sinks into a sentimental hush.

Most of the children stand rigidly about the square, arms raised to simulate the branches of a tree, leaves of brown crepe paper gripped in tiny fists. At their centre, one of the taller girls sits motionless and mute. A skinny boy, evidently enjoying his role, weaves among them at a run, puffing his cheeks and making "whoosh" noises. At the passing of this personified "wind," the other children drop their leaves. The seated girl bows her head.

The "wind" passes among the "trees" once again, this time tossing handfuls of white confetti into the air. The seated girl reaches behind her and produces a bundle, which she cradles in such a way as to indicate that it is a child.

A dark girl with a green belt walks along the ranks of the "trees" carrying a basket, from which they pull out handfuls of new, green, paper leaves, presumably to indicate new spring growth. Two boys approach the seated girl and raise her gently, leading her to the effigy of the Midsummer Lord, where a veil is put over her head, and a ring put upon her finger. The children manage a rather artificial cheer.

While the audience are still applauding, the children form a circle around the seated effigy and its new bride, and a boy with the blue, sequinned belt slowly walks about inside of the ring, raising a plastic sword at each of the four points of the compass in turn. This act he repeats, holding in turn the Midsummer Lord's foil scythe, a smoking censer and a bronze cup.

"Is there harmony in the north?" he enquires, then, upon receiving assent from that part of the circle, he proceeds. "Is there harmony in the east? Is there harmony in the south? Is there harmony in the west?"

Glancing about them, the SITU agents realise that many of the locals have entered the square and mingled with the throng of visitors. Silently mouthing the ritual words as the children speak them, Gerald Bamworth, Howard O'Keefe, the Willises, Mark Ashford, Simon Farrel and numerous others can be seen standing unobtrusively amid the oblivious crowd, forming a loose circle of their own about the central figure of the Midsummer Lord.

In a far corner of the square, a blond man cradling an old-fashioned lute in his lap has started to sing.

"I'm the horned god, through the wild woods I roam, Cucernunnos, Pan and I'm Herne..."

As the other operatives spread out to search the village, the professor makes his way to the public pay-phone. His first call is to the Fraud Department of the Thames Valley Police.

"Yes, I would like to suggest that you investigate the milking of the Middlechase Cooperative by the Bamworth family to buy a library at their own auction. Buying tractors may be within the scope of their articles of association, but purchasing musty old tomes, I would suggest, is not." He hangs up without leaving his name, and makes a similar, anonymous call to the local tax authorities.

The Professor then makes a credit card booking to arrange for a second hired car to be delivered within an hour. His fourth telephone call is to the Blackwell's Science Bookshop. Unable to resist the appeal of the titles he had seen on display the day before, the Professor reserves two or three... or four.

As he scans the crowd, Darius' attention is drawn by the slight figure of a teenager with vivid, coppery-red hair. He calls out Eric's name and the boy starts to turn, but before the face can become visible, the crowd blocks the journalist's view.

As Darius attempts to pursue, he collides with a tall man dressed in white druidic robes, not unlike those worn by the children in the play. The man smiles wolfishly, exposing canines that have been capped with metallic points. A contact lens in his left eye tints his iris the colour of verdigris, and transforms his pupil into a sprawling, disconcerting star.

Apologising, Darius disentangles himself from this individual, but can see no trace of the boy he had glimpsed.

Culver struggles through the crowd, the remains of his hangover still manifesting in a twinge behind the eyes, helped little by the midday glare.

As the day progresses, he is becoming increasingly aware that the Middlechase locals seem to be deliberately avoiding all of the "Orgus agents." At the Star Culver finds it impossible to buy a drink - Ashford steadfastly refuses to acknowledge his presence and persists in serving other guests.

Near the petrol station, John Henry sees many young people seated on or about the bench, swigging Hooch and smoking. The faces of many are heavily painted with blue spirals, in mock-Celtic fashion, and it is hard to identify them, but none react when Eric's name is called.

As the sun declines, the festival becomes more animated. Dizzied by the sun, the smell of a horoscope-related incense and a cacophony of didgeridoos, tom-toms, electric flutes, lutes, harps, and pipes, the investigators are confronted with image after vivid image, like a sequence from a magic lantern, a sequence that seems after time to blur into one giddying swirl, like that conveyed by the paintings of Eric Drayes.

A sylph-like girl runs through the crowd, flourishing a branch strung with silver bells. Side-step thinks that he recognises her as Mary Sexton.

With difficulty, the SITU agents find one another as dusk begins to fall. It is agreed to return to the barn for one last sojourn before abandoning the village altogether.

As they cross the fields, the group become aware that, although the heat has intensified, a dull skin of cloud is forming across the sky. When the swollen, lemon-yellow moon creeps above the tree-line, it is almost immediately veiled by the new cloud-bank.

A glance through the window of the barn reveals that Eric's possessions are still resting by the door, awaiting their owner. Side-step moves off to recover the Landrover from its hiding place, and brings it to a point nearer the barn. All six agents secrete themselves in the vicinity, to wait.

Through breaches in the cloud, the agents are able to watch the moon ascend, paling as it rises, from yellow, to creamy gold, to white.

As midnight approaches, a soft roar of thunder sounds from above, and the air tingles as if with imminent rain. A sudden wind rises, and the six listeners start as it carries to them the falling cadence of a voice. Only a strand of unconnected vowels reach their ears, sung out as if in an incantation.

The voice is silent, and the moon once again becomes obscured. Great wings are suddenly slicing the wind in the darkness, and all present feel an acute sense of personal danger, a temptation to flee. With an intuition as acute as pain, Riggs almost feels the scaly brush of feathers near his face, the sharpness of the claws inches from the balls of his eyes. The knife is in his hand, is thrusting upwards. He feels it impact. The next moment the moon breaks free, and Riggs can see a grey bird twitching at his feet, blackening the clay path with its blood.

From one of the nearby thickets sounds an unearthly scream.

The others watch Riggs sprint in the direction of the cry, and see him run through a hedge where there is apparently no gap to allow his passage. While Side-step runs off to retrieve the Landrover, the others attempt to follow Riggs, and discover a concealed breach in the foliage.

Forced to abandon John Henry, who has become entangled in the bracken, Culver, Darius and Twitchin struggle after Riggs, who has easily outdistanced them. The voice has once again begun speaking.

"Danu... Lady Danu, Lady of the Moon, of the restless sea and verdant earth... Thou art the Great Mother who giveth birth, and none shall escape from thy power... Aid me in freeing the daughters that are thy servants, the daughters that are thyself..."

The clearing is small, and mistily lit by the dim moon. A great tree stands in its centre, its bark black as tar. From a rope attached to one of its lower boughs, a boy hangs suspended by his ankles, his hands bound behind his back. Symbols have been cut into his upper arms, and from them blood runs down over his shoulders and neck. His eyes are closed, and his limbs tremble, as if he were suffering some sort of fit. Beneath him, on the ground, lies a sheaf of fluttering papers.

Beside him stands Margaret in her white linen robe, one hand clasping her side, as if clamping a wound, the other gripping a white-handled knife.

"...with the blood of this child I wash away the words that bind us, the pledge of his ancestress..."

Some ten yards from Margaret, Riggs is visible, curled into a foetal ball.

The old schoolmistress raises her eyes and sees the other interlopers, but does not break off her chant.

"...with the blood of this child I invite the Goddess to come in vengeance upon this place..."

Out of breath, Culver, Darius and Twitchin thrash a path through the colourless corn, but the distance between them and the tree with the spinning, bloodied child does not seem to diminish. As their feet hook on hidden roots, all three are haunted by an eerie image of dead, white fingers reaching through the earth to grab at them.

Margaret raises her knife towards the throat of Eric Drayes.

Suddenly there is a great, groaning crash of splintering wood and abused foliage, and the glade is caught in a livid, white light that does not come from the moon. Staring into the headlights of the Landrover, Margaret drops her knife, stoops for it, hesitates, and then snatches the top sheet from the bundle of papers, and flees across the field at a rapid, shambling, lop-sided run.

As her hunched form recedes among the trees, the three agents struggling through the corn seem suddenly to find their second breath, and sprint to aid of Eric Drayes. Darius scales the tree to cut the rope that suspends him, and between them they gently lower the boy to the ground. After a few minutes, his spasms cease, and his breathing becomes more even.

Side-step curses as he swerves among the trees. Somehow, despite the speed of his vehicle, the white shape of the old woman seems always on the verge of disappearing into the distance. As he accelerates, a thick sheet of rain suddenly strikes his windscreen with thunderous force, obscuring his vision. He presses for the windscreen wipers. Nothing happens.

The windscreen is opaque. Even as Side-step attempts to brake, a dark shape lurches towards his bonnet with incredible speed. With a jolt that seems to shake every joint in his body, he is thrown forward, his forehead impacting with the steering wheel. Blackness swallows him.

Jogging back to the main road in search of help, John Henry hears a screech of brakes, and a resounding bang. Following the sound, he finds a young woman standing beside her car, biting her knuckles in horror.

"Oh God... I didn't see her. Well I did, but she was coming so fast I thought it was a deer or something. I tried to swerve..." She starts to cry.

The journalist stoops by the body of the old woman in white, but it is barely necessary to feel her pulse. The sheet of parchment gripped in her long, tawny hand is already half-deluged in the dark pool that is spreading about her fallen form.

"... and I Jessica Bamworth do solemnly offer up my pledge and covenant that I and the women of Middelchasse and all those who follow us shall give due obeisance unto the men of the said..."

So much John Henry reads before even this fragment is lost and obliterated by blood and rain.

When the conscious members of the party succeed in regrouping, it becomes obvious that an ambulance will be needed for both Eric and Side-step, who has received a severe blow to the head after colliding his Landrover with a tree. Riggs recovers from his trance after a short period, but can remember nothing after his entry into the clearing, barring a dim impression of a prolonged conversation with a great, black bird that had the face of a woman.

They return to the village to find the square in a state of chaos. A large number of police cars, ambulances and fire engines are attempting to manoeuvre a way through the reluctant and increasingly mutinous crowd, whose members seem to suspect an attempt to curtail the festival. The Professor looks wistfully at his hired car across a scene of near riot.

The real reason for the fire engines and ambulances, at least, can by established by a gaze to the north. There the cloud bank is tinged with a darkening brown, like that of smoke. The reddish gleam that occasionally makes itself visible through the trees appears to shine from the site of the Bamworth estate.

The quickest, and indeed the only means of vacating the village soon becomes obvious. Eric and Side-step are carried to one of the ambulances attempting to enter the square from the eastern road. At first the driver insists that he must proceed to the Bamworth Estate as ordered, and offers to call another ambulance for these two wounded. With a mixture of bullying and rationality, Henry talks him into taking the entire group back to a hospital himself.

That night is spent at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. By dawn, Side-step is conscious, and the doctors are satisfied that his injuries are slight. Eric's condition is judged more serious, and he has shown little sign of coming round.

"Excuse me, you're friends of Steve Anderson, aren't you?" A nurse pauses by their seats in the waiting room, clipboard in hand. "Are any of you Dr Culver or Professor Twitchin? Ah, there's a phone call for you, then."

"I was afraid I'd lost you all." Matt Culver recognises Harriet Bamworth's voice on the other end of the line. "Julie Osmond saw you all getting into an ambulance - I've been phoning around the local hospitals. I was thinking that, in a couple of days, you might want to drop by and pick up your Landrover. Oh, and a couple of other things..."

The following Monday, the six SITU agents park in the courtyard of what had once been the Bamworth Estate. The front wall is scarred and blackened, and through the blown out windows it is possible to glimpse the rubble of tumbled walls.

"...coooeeee..." A figure in white is poised on one of the broken cornices. It teeters giddily then waves at the group. "...come round here, you can climb up..." The figure beckons, then disappears beyond the rubble with a laugh that is unmistakably that of Mary Sexton.

On the south-west side of the great house, the walls have indeed crumbled in such a way as to allow ascent. Gingerly picking their way across the rubble, the SITU agents are confronted by a curious scene.

Amid the wreckage, a white patio table has been erected, and assorted chairs dragged from the rubble and positioned around it. Harriet Bamworth rises as they approach, and shakes each man by the hand. She is wearing a simple, grey dress and her hair is tied back in a fashion that makes her seem old for her years.

"Thank you all for coming. I'm sorry I can't make you more comfortable, but as you can see, my poor house is quite gutted."

"Tragic, isn't it?" Mary Sexton adds cheerfully.

"Oh, utterly," assents Joanna Drayes. "Chocolate hobnob, anyone? Shall I be mother?" She reaches for the teapot.

"Do sit down." Harriet gestures towards free chairs. "I'm so glad you could come. I'd have felt awful about things if I hadn't had a chance to thank you for all your help." Three boxes of papers are handed to the SITU agents. "I'm afraid that's all that's left of the Bamworth library, but it's yours. We managed to save the Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, at least, though the binding's a little singed. Oh, and we thought you might like this. It's a fifteenth century piece." From one hand she dangles a silver chain, from which is suspended a miniature. "I hope your coven finds them useful."

The miniature depicts a woman in a white dress with green hair, engaged in dancing with a tall man in golden armour. Two stag-like antlers extend from his helm. Glancing at the picture, Harriet gives a wry smile.

"That's the way it was always meant to be, equal partners in the same dance, not a fight, not a tyranny of one over the other. But in Middlechase the whole thing was unbalanced from the start.

"Do you remember the portrait of Jessica Bamworth in the gallery? She started the Middlechase coven soon after she came here as Peter's bride. Then, in order to cement it further, she took it into her head to make a magical pledge that would not only bind her to obey her husband and adult son, but would also bind all the women of Middlechase and their successors to obedience of their menfolk. Well, it was the sixteenth century, maybe it didn't sound like such a big deal then.

"I won't try and explain to you what it feels like, to be absolutely incapable of following your own will, because it happens to clash with the wishes of someone who, perhaps, you dislike or despise..." The familiar triple crease appears in Harriet's forehead. "Before I came of age, I only knew that something, somehow, was interfering with my mind. I thought I was going mad. At least when I became a coven priest I knew what was going on, however frustrating that knowledge was.

"It was Margaret who traced the problem back to the journals. The original pledge had been written on the inside cover of Matthew Bamworth's journal, and to sustain the effect of the spell, each succeeding member of the male line has owned a special journal, on the inside cover of which the pledge had been copied out.

"The auction was Margaret's idea, to get the books out of the village, and hopefully remove the curse. I guess we thought, if we attract enough buyers, Gerald won't be able to bribe or intimidate all of them. And I committed myself to the auction in any way I could, legally, financially, through magical oaths, so that if Gerald commanded me to cancel it I would be unable to obey. You remember, Professor, I told you once that it was too late to call off the auction.

"I'm sorry I didn't share this with you before. I wanted to trust you, I thought I could trust you, but..." She shrugs, expressively. "Margaret was convinced that you were working for Gerald, and I just wasn't sure. You see, Gerald knew that the Pledge was rooted in the library, but he didn't know in which books. If I'd told spies of his about the journals, he'd have stolen them before you could breathe. And after I started to suspect that you were members of another coven, I had to wonder - was I handing over the Pledge so that the Middlechase women could be enslaved by a different group of men?

"Anyway, after the auction, Margaret and I had a little... disagreement, and she started playing a lone hand. By then I'd more or less staked everything upon trusting you, but dear cousin Gerry was clinging to me like a second skin, and I had no chance for a real talk with any of you.

"Margaret came to me with an idea about removing the curse through extinction of the Bamworth male line. Well, I don't think I need to go into details." Harriet puts an arm around Joanna. "I vetoed it. Well, even aside from the obvious objection, I pointed out that any aspect unleashed upon the village by a blood sacrifice would be dark, very dark. I don't think she cared, though. I don't think she even cared that, according to the rule of three times three, she would almost certainly be sacrificing herself as well.

"I'm sorry about that farce at the Midsummer Party. I didn't know that Margaret had persuaded Eric to break into the library the same night, and I had no idea that Gerald had turned on the burglar alarm wired to the library window.

"Anyway, pretty much everyone spent most of the day scouring the countryside in a mad race to find Eric. Which is probably why there was no one here to stop Mr Drayes when he rolled up that evening in his van with fourteen cans of petrol. When the police got here, he was just sitting on the lawn over there, and watching the house burn.

"If we'd known that burning the library would break the spell, I'd have torched the old place years ago. The Pledge is dissolved. We all felt the change as the house burned.

"Oh, and you might be interested to know that my cousin seems to have gone missing. Some official bodies started to look into the accounts of the Middlechase Cooperative, and Gerry vanished next morning. Never mind, they'll find him - and Daddy won't be there to bail him out the way he did last time he played around with forged cheques.

"You'll find your Landrover in Mr Farrel's barn - I had it moved there, since the police seemed to be looking for it.

"Well, I thought you deserved an explanation of some sort. I really would like to keep up some sort of contact with your coven. But, in the short term, you might want to avoid Middlechase. Light aspect or no, the local Goddess has been unleashed after half a millennium of slavery. Things are likely to be a little uncomfortable around here for anyone with a Y-chromosome..."


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