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Authors: Barbara Erskine

Daughters of Fire

BOOK: Daughters of Fire
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BARBARA ERSKINE
 
Daughters
of Fire
 
 

 

For Diz, who started the hare.

 
 

The lamps now glitter down the street;

Faintly sound the falling feet;

And the blue even slowly falls

About the garden trees and walls.

 

Now in the falling of the gloom

The red fire paints the empty room:

And warmly on the roof it looks,

And flickers on the backs of books.

 

Armies march by tower and spire

Of cities blazing, in the fire;

Till as I gaze with staring eyes,

The armies fade, the lustre dies.

 

Then once again the glow returns;

Again the phantom city burns;

And down the red-hot valley, lo!

The phantom armies marching go!

 

Blinking embers, tell me true,

Where are those armies marching to,

And what the burning city is

That crumbles in your furnaces!

 

‘Armies in the Fire’
A Child’s Garden of Verses

Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

‘The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones …’

Julius Caesar

William Shakespeare

 
 
 

She had demanded initiation. Without it she could not be queen.

And now she was afraid. For the first time in her life she was really afraid.

Not of the ancestors amongst whose bones she sat in the dark, but of the others, the shadows, the voices, the faces from the future. Those, she had not expected.

As the last remnant of light disappeared she had crouched quite still, the only sound in the silence beyond the settling of the stones and earth with which they had blocked the entrance tunnel behind her, the thudding of her heart. She had imagined she would hear the Druid priests’ footsteps as they withdrew, perhaps their whispered voices dying away in the distance, but there was nothing save an awareness of the weight of rocks and soil over her head and of the presence of the bones somewhere near her feet. Cautiously she stretched out her hands, feeling around her in the darkness. As her fingers at last met those of the woman with whom she shared the grave there was no sound but the rattle of dried bones.

Taking a deep breath she sat down, her back against the wall of limestone, and closed her eyes, waiting for something to happen. What. She didn’t know.

Outside, the moors grew dark. There was no guard outside the living grave. There was no need. No one sane would stray there by day or night. It was the place of the ancestors. A place of the gods. When she was released, if she was alive and in her right mind, she would be an initiate. A member of the élite. A woman who could mediate the gods and rule the people. A woman fit to be queen. If she was dead her bones would join those around her and her spirit would roam the fells until it was called to the place of rest beyond the western seas, the land of the ever young, and thence once more to the world of men to live again.

At first the voices were indistinct - a mumbling out of the darkness
. She clenched her fists in terror, straining her ears to make out the words. Slowly the meaning came and with the meaning, pictures. She saw men with war chariots forming up on the edge of the hills, their eyes cruel, their hard bodies cased in armour; she saw women weeping. She saw swords and fire and blood. She saw the landscape change - from forest to heather moor and back to forest again. She saw men plough the land, their ploughs pulled and pushed by men, and then pulled by oxen, then horses, and then strange chariots which smoked above their huge wheels. She saw flocks of gulls following the furrows age after age through famine and plenty; through war and peace. She saw her people live. She saw her people die. She saw them laugh and she saw them weep. And one voice above all others came to her clearly out of the shadows. It called her name, Cartimandua, Sleek Pony, with an accent strange to her ears. She shook her head, trying to see more clearly in the swirling mists and a woman’s face swam into focus. A woman who held out her hands. Who stretched out across aeons to touch her mind. Who wanted to know who she was and what she had done. A woman who had chosen her above all others as a lesson and a story.

The tomb was growing colder. Outside, the sun was sinking into a bank of cloud. Soon it would be dark. She shivered suddenly and the mind that had reached out to touch hers drew back.

‘Where are you?’ Carta called out. ‘Wait. Are you one of the gods?’

There was no reply.

Somewhere near her feet she heard something rustle and click amongst the bones and she gritted her teeth against a scream. For the first time she wondered if anyone would come back to release her, or would they leave her here to lie amongst the dead whilst another took up the mantle of leadership?

Another, more fitted for the role because he was a man.

 
I
 

 

‘Have you any idea of what you have done to this department?’ Professor Hugh Graham threw the magazine down on the desk in front of him. It was folded open at an article entitled,‘Cartimandua, the First British Queen?’ ‘You’ve made us a laughing stock! And me! You’ve made me a laughing stock in the academic community.’ He spoke with the soft lilt of the Scottish Borders, usually scarcely noticeable but now emphasised by his anger.

Behind him the sun, shining in through the office window which looked out onto Edinburgh’s George Square, backlit his thick, unruly pepper-and-salt hair and cast the planes of his weather-beaten face into relief. ‘I don’t think you and I can go on working together, Viv. Not when you clearly hold my views in such low esteem.’

‘Rubbish!’ Viv Lloyd Rees was thirty-five years old, five foot four, slightly plump and had short fiery red hair which had been cut to stand out in a hedgehog frame around her face, emphasising her bright green eyes. In spite of the Welsh name her accent was cut-glass English, another fact that irritated intensely the nationalist that resided deep in the professor’s soul.

‘Are you telling me that suddenly no one is allowed to have their own opinions in this place?’ she went on furiously. ‘For goodness’ sake, Hugh! We study Celtic history. We are not a think tank for some politburo!’

‘No.’ He leaned forward, his hands braced on the shambles of papers and open books which lay strewn across the desk behind his computer monitor. Somewhere under there, presumably, lurked a
keyboard and mouse. ‘No, you are correct. We study. We examine facts. We spell them out -’

‘That’s all I’ve done, Hugh. I’ve spelled out some facts. Interpreted them …’

‘Your own interpretation, not mine.’

The atmosphere crackled between them.

‘Mine, as you say. It is my article, Hugh. Not yours.’

‘Fictional twaddle!’

‘No, Hugh. Not fictional.’ Her temper was rising to match his. ‘Intuitive interpretation.’

But there was more than that, wasn’t there, if she was honest. He was right.

‘Intuitive!’ He spat out the word with utter disdain. ‘Need I say more! And your book. Your much vaunted - hyped - book. Do I assume it will be along these same lines?’ He gestured at the supplement lying on his desk.

‘Obviously. Haven’t you been sent a copy to review yet?’ She met his eye in a direct challenge.

She had fought it. She had fought it so hard, that strange voice in her head, the voice she had conjured from her research. The voice that had wanted her to write the book, and now wanted her to write a play. The voice she could not tell anyone about. But its promptings had been too subtle, its information too specific to pretend it wasn’t there. She hadn’t managed to catch the information, to keep it out of the book, the book which was going to be published in exactly four weeks’ time on 14th July. She had tried to sieve the facts, separate the known from the unknown. She had failed.

She waited miserably to see what he would say next, as she did so staring fixedly at the small box lying in a ray of sunlight in his in-tray. She did not want to meet his eye.

There was a long silence as Hugh tried, visibly, to calm himself. In his early fifties, of middle height and with deep-set, slightly slanted hazel eyes, he was a strikingly handsome man. Today he was also formidable as he glared at the woman who stood before him on the layered threadbare rugs which carpeted the floor of his small, overcrowded, first-floor study.

‘Your by-line here,’ he went on at last, ignoring her question,‘ ‘‘Viv Lloyd Rees of the Department of Pan-Celtic History and Culture at the University of Edinburgh’’,’ - the last dozen words, normally abbreviated to DPCHC by its members and students, were
heavily emphasised - ‘I trust that will not be appearing on this famous book of yours. I am withdrawing the funding for your research facilities. And your post here will not be renewed at the end of the year.’

Viv stared at him. ‘You can’t do that!’ She was paralysed with shock.

‘I am sure I can find a way.’ He folded his arms. ‘This department prides itself in scholarship, not guesswork. There is no room here for fantasists.’ Leaning forward, he picked up the
Sunday Times
magazine by one corner and tossed it across the desk towards her. ‘You may as well take this. I shall not be looking at it again.’ He refolded his arms and sat watching her from beneath frowning sandy brows.

The knowledge that he was right in many of his criticisms, and that she was already in an agony of guilt about them, made her angrier than ever.

She had been overjoyed when he had asked her to come back to Edinburgh to work with him and accepted the lectureship and research post with eager optimism. It was a chance to put the past behind her, to start again and forward her career under the guidance of the man she most respected in their field.

The past was in Dublin. His name was Andrew Brennan and for four years she and he had had a passionate affair, an affair which she, in her perhaps deliberate naïveté, had assumed would lead if not to marriage, at least to a live-in relationship once he had obtained the divorce which he promised was only a matter of time. It never happened. Of course it never happened; had never even been on the cards. When she finally brought herself to accept the fact, she had broken it off and written to Hugh in response to a rumour that a lectureship might be coming up in his department. He had invited her to join him and she had bought a tiny flat in the Old Town with a monstrously large mortgage and put Andrew and his protestations behind her with sufficient alacrity for her to wonder just how much she had really loved him. Even so, at the beginning it was hard in many ways. Harder than she expected. She had friends in Edinburgh from her student days but the gap in her life was huge. She missed Andrew’s close companionship, his unquestioned lien on her spare time, and it was this newly raw loneliness which led her to see more of Hugh Graham and his wife than perhaps she should.

Alison Graham became one of her closest friends. They confided in one another; she told Alison about Andrew; she told her about her sadness after her brother David, like their father a respected consultant paediatrician, had emigrated to Australia with his wife and their baby and she told her about her sense of utter bewildered loss after her parents had followed them five years later to Perth. Alison and Hugh had been there for her. They had supported her. They had all seen a great deal of one another and gradually she had begun to suspect that she was falling in love with Hugh. She drew back. Nothing would persuade her to threaten her friends’ marriage. She went to see them less often and avoided Hugh where possible. Puzzled and hurt by her sudden rejection without suspecting its reason, Hugh had become angry. Then unbelievably, heart-breakingly, Alison had died.

His anger had not abated after she had gone, far from it, and his easy friendship with Viv had deteriorated into something like enmity in their professional relationship. She found that he had an unbearable, overweening ego. He refused to acknowledge that the study of history had changed its emphasis; that maybe scholasticism should nowadays allow itself a more popular, approachable face, and above all he refused to admit that anyone else could be good at it! The man who had been the youngest, most ambitious professor ever to head the department appeared to have sunk into staid orthodoxy.

He was returning her gaze steadily, studying her as though she were some kind of strange specimen he had found in a bell jar in a laboratory. Every line of his face was set with disapproval. The look stung.

Taking a deep breath she launched back into the fray. ‘You are calling me a fantasist!’ Her voice was shaking suddenly. ‘May I remind you that you are the one who gave me a first-class honours degree,
Professor
.’ She emphasised the word sarcastically. ‘You thought my standard of work good then. You helped me get into Aberystwyth to get my Masters and then my doctorate from the University of Wales. You underwrote my application to go to Dublin and you helped me to get the position at UCLA. Then you,
you
,’ she repeated,‘offered me a research grant and a lectureship here! You encouraged me to write the book!’

‘And you were an excellent student. Otherwise I would never have offered you the job in my department.’ He shrugged. ‘And
you were a first-class historian when you first came back here. My friendship and my trust in you has obviously gone to your head. In your anxiety to gain recognition and self-publicity you have lost touch with reality. So you are no more use to me. I suggest you go and write romances somewhere where your claims to all this inside knowledge of Iron Age life can do no harm and leave the writing of serious history to those of us who know how to do it!’

Staring at him as he sat there Viv felt, for a moment, as she was surely supposed to, like a naughty school girl who had been caught cheating and knew it, and had then been called up before the head. She drew in a shaky breath to ward off the hurt, trying to keep her voice steady. ‘So that’s what this is all about. At last!’ She was deliberately disingenuous. ‘You’re writing a book as well! Why didn’t you tell me? Oh, I was supposed to guess, was I, that that is what you are doing?’

‘Indeed you should, as this period is my speciality.’ He threw himself back in his seat. ‘It would have been a fairly easy assumption to make.’ She was wearing a baggy magenta sweater and tracksuit bottoms. Just looking at her gave the professor a headache. Especially when she was angry.

‘And you’re writing about Cartimandua in spite of the fact that it was no secret that she is my subject!’ Viv narrowed her eyes.

He shrugged. He did not mention the fact that his book was as yet barely more than a few files of notes, an outline and a chapter or two, and that it was unlikely that anyone at all beyond his editor at the university press knew about it as yet. ‘No,’ his tone was disdainful,‘as it happens I am not writing about Cartimandua. She would hardly merit a serious study. Whatever you claim, not enough is known about her. No, my book will be - is - a treatise on the British opposition to the Roman invasion with Venutios as its central figure.’

‘Cartimandua’s husband.’

‘Indeed.’

She took a deep breath, trying to retrieve the situation. ‘But surely that doesn’t matter? There is room for both books.’ She eyed him with a quizzical lift of the left eyebrow. ‘And whatever you think of my article,’ she glanced at the magazine lying on his desk, ‘I can assure you that mine is a serious study.’ That at least was true. More or less. She paused, looking at him thoughtfully. ‘Can
it be that you are afraid my sales will so eclipse yours that you will be embarrassed? Surely the great Professor Hugh Graham wouldn’t worry about that?’

‘No, strangely, I do not fear that.’ He gave a grim smile. ‘My book will be published by the university press. Yours, I understand, is being produced by a commercial publisher. That means you are bound to sell more copies than I do, I am sure. To an ignorant public who are not concerned with intellectual probity. No, I have given you my reason for my objections. Your research and writing are not of the standard I expect and require from someone in my department. Now, if you would excuse me, I have work to do.’

‘I’m sure you do.’ Viv tried and failed to keep the irony out of her voice. ‘I won’t keep you.’ She turned to the door, still shaking with anger. Then she paused. God! She had completely forgotten why she had come to see him in the first place. Turning back, she forced herself to smile. ‘Before I go, I need to ask you a favour.’ Not an auspicious moment, but it was the purpose for which she had walked so unsuspectingly into the lion’s den twenty minutes before. ‘I wanted to ask you if I may borrow the Cartimandua Pin before you return it to the museum.’ It had been a while before she had realised that was what was lying there in its box, in his in-tray. ‘You won’t grudge me that, at least. I am appearing on
History Discussion Night
on Channel 4 next month and I would like to show it when I talk about my book. It would interest the viewers to see a piece of jewellery contemporary with the period.’

Hugh folded his arms. ‘Impossible.’ It was an instant response. Unconsidered. Automatic.

‘Why?’ She held her temper in check with an effort.

‘I’ve given an undertaking to the museum not to let it out of my sight.’

‘But it’s your property. You only loaned it to them in the first place. And it’s already been out of your sight!’

‘Exactly. It is a priceless artefact so I do not propose to lose track of it again.’ He bristled. The pin had been presented to his archaeologist father by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in the 1950s after the excavation of the fortifications at Stanwick.

‘So priceless in fact that rather than keep it in the department safe, you’ve chucked it in your in-tray next to your stapler.’ Gesturing towards it, Viv took a deep breath. ‘I’d take better care of it than that, Hugh! After all, I’m not contemplating melting it down.’
She reached over and picked up the transparent Perspex box in which the enamelled pin nestled in its protective packing.

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