/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Mortuus Virgo

Kevin Ashman

Kevin Ashman

Mortuus Virgo

Chapter 1

Rome 54 AD

Rubria was playing with her dolly the day the soldiers came for her, completely oblivious to the muffled voices outside that would take her away for ever.

She had been a very good girl. The bed was made, the wooden rocking horse that had been so lovingly crafted by the estate carpenter was pushed into the corner, and even her clothes were stacked neatly on the shelves. She looked at her pretty dresses, not quite sure why she couldn’t take them all but mummy said she had to wear the white one, even though the pink one with the ribbons was her favourite.

‘Is it time, Maria?’ she asked, her fingers playing nervously with her dolly’s hair.

‘Not yet, sweetheart,’ answered the servant, trying her best to hold back the tears that were building up like a dammed river behind her eyes.

‘Don’t be sad, Maria,’ said Rubria, ‘Mummy said that I am going somewhere nice and am going to be a very important person.’

‘Oh, you are, Miss,’ answered Maria, reaching out to take the child’s hands in hers, ‘You are going to have such a wonderful life. Kings will seek audience with you, the people of Rome will bow their heads as you pass by and even the Emperor himself will seek your council.’

‘But I don’t know anything,’ said Rubria innocently.

Maria wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her Peplos.

‘That is why you are going, Miss,’ she said, ‘You are going to learn great and wondrous secrets, things that poor old Maria couldn’t even dream of.’

‘Will I be rich?’

‘Richer than you or I can ever imagine, with more money than you could spend in a lifetime. A hundred lifetimes, even.’

‘Do you think they will let me have a puppy?’

‘I’m not so sure about a puppy,’ said Maria, ‘You will be far too busy for that.’ She looked nervously over the girl’s shoulder towards the closed door that would open any second now.

‘Anyway,’ continued Rubria, ‘I will ask daddy for one on my next birthday. I expect I will be back by then and he always said I could have a puppy when I am nine.’

‘Oh, Miss,’ sobbed Maria as the dam finally burst and the tears came. She pulled the girl into her arms to hug her tightly, as, though she was only a slave, she had been Rubria’s nursemaid since the girl’s birth and had built up a bond as close as any mother could ever enjoy. For eight years she had spent every day pandering to the little girl’s every whim. She tucked her in at night and was the first person the child saw when she opened her beautiful blue eyes in the morning. Maria even slept in a small room next door so to be at her bedside in a moment should the night demons come. But all that that was about to end. A delegation had arrived from Rome the previous night and an entourage the like of which she had never seen before now lined up outside, waiting to take her precious little girl away from her.

Amy, another servant of the household, had described them from the window when they had arrived at dusk. First there were forty horsemen carrying Pilae, the iron tipped lances resting snugly in the tubular leather pouches attached to the left sides of their saddles. A Gladius hung from their belts on the right side, the ornamental hilts far more extravagant than the swords carried by the legions on active service, and every helmet was adorned with a plume of scarlet horse hair sweeping front to back along the crest. Their bronze Lorica Segmentata, the ceremonial armour, glistened regally in the fading sun as they reined in their mounts. for these were the Praetorian Guard, the legion posted permanently within the limits of Rome and tasked to protect the person of the Emperor and the officials of the city. Though despised by the regular legions of the army, they had total control of the eternal city and their commanders had the ear of the Emperor himself.

Behind them rode another man, advanced in years and dressed in a white ceremonial toga. Though Maria or Amy didn’t know the man’s role he had an air of authority about him and the Centurion in charge of the guard addressed him as sir. He was accompanied by a covered wagon pulled by a team of four horses and driven by two black slaves. Finally, the rear was brought up by another forty riders, completing the Century of cavalry sent for this one little girl.

Maria had not been interested; she had just sat at Rubria’s bedside watching the girl sleeping, a slight smile playing about the child’s mouth as she dreamed the dreams of children. Maria had not slept a single minute the night through as she gazed at the little girl she would never see again.

But that had been last night and finally, the day she had been dreading for weeks had arrived. The representative in the white robes had joined the Master and Mistress to break his fast, having spent the night in the guest suite and the soldiers were being given hot cereal from the Master’s kitchens by the cooks. They had bunked down in the stables with their horses and had spent the first hour this morning wiping the dust from their armour before parading in front of the villa. It was certainly an impressive sight, eighty fully armoured Praetorian Guard lined up in silence waiting for the ceremony to begin. The cart had been reversed against the veranda and the tail was lowered, enabling anyone to see within. The inside was lined with silks and the floor was covered with the finest cow’s hides. At the far end was an ornate chair draped in luxurious animal furs and at either side of the cart, to everyone’s surprise sat two old women dressed in white, their faces covered with fine veils. A knock came on the bedroom door and Maria let out a half gasp, even though it had been expected. Amy put her head around the door.

‘It’s time!’ she said simply and withdrew out of sight.

Rubria jumped of the bed and held her hand out to Maria with a sweet smile.

‘Come on, Maria,’ she said, ‘Let’s go.’

The servant knelt down in front of her.

‘You look after yourself, Miss,’ she said through her tears, fussing with the girls ribbons, ‘Don’t you forget me mind and one day, when you are all grown up and if I have earned my freedom, perhaps I’ll come by and ask for your blessing.’

‘Well, I don’t know what that is, Maria,’ said Rubria solemnly, ‘But if I’ve got any you can have one.’

The servant smiled and hugged the girl one last time and, after wiping her eyes, led her out into the Atrium of the villa.

‘Here she is,’ said her father holding out his arms and dropping to one knee. Rubria ran forward into his embrace and he swept her up into his arms. It was not often she got to see her father as he was a very important person in Rome, though she wasn’t sure what he actually done. Something to do with a Senate, whatever that was. Rubria’s mother took the child from her husband’s arms and kissed her gently on her cheek.

‘Are you ready, my dear?’ she asked and received a shy nod in return.

Maria bit her lip. She couldn’t understand how could anyone give up their daughter so easily but it was more than her life was worth to criticise the mistress. The whole family were there dressed in their finest attire, the Master and the Mistress, their two sons and their teenage daughter. Rubria was the youngest and smiled at her siblings, not quite sure of the enormity of the proceedings that were unfolding. All around the Atrium stood the servants of the household and all waited with baited breath to see the final moment that would bestow honour untold upon this household. Rubria looked at the kindly old man dressed in white and smiled as she recognised him. He was the nice old man who had picked her as his favourite when they had visited the place with the pretty ladies a few weeks ago.

The old man smiled at the child and nodded to her mother. She placed her daughter on the floor and she stood between her parents holding a hand of each. Silence fell and the old man stepped forward. His smile dropped and he pointed at Rubria.

Rubria Antonius of the house of Gaius Paulo Antonius,’ he announced formally, ‘I take you to be a Vestal Priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal Priestess to perform on behalf of the Roman people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal on the best terms.

Rubria’s smile faded slightly and she glanced over to Maria for reassurance. The servant held her both hands over her mouth to stop any sound escaping and nodded in encouragement, her tears flowing down her face.

‘Is it time now?’ she asked.

‘It is,’ answered Maria.

Rubria turned to the old man.

‘Can I take dolly?’ she asked innocently.

The man knelt down to face her at her level.

‘The time for such things is over Rubria,’ he said gently, ‘There is much to learn and the Goddess awaits.’ He gazed into her piercing blue eyes. At the presentation there had been twelve beautiful girls but it had been these eyes that had swung his decision. He had never seen such a piercing blue.

Rubria walked over to Maria and offered her the doll.

‘Will you look after dolly for me?’ she asked.

Maria nodded, and took the child’s beloved toy, unable to speak, and, as Rubria walked into the back of the cart, the servant burst into heart wrenching sobs and ran from the Atrium. The old man turned to the family to say his goodbyes.

‘Look after her,’ said her father.

‘We will,’ he said, ‘You may visit her in the outer chambers in one year, but until then we request that you stay away. It will be easier on her.’ The old man handed over a leather pouch containing promissory notes for a hundred thousand Denarii. Though it was supposed to be compensation for the loss of a daughter, everyone present knew that the honour and social standing of the family would be greatly enhanced by the selection of one of their daughters and much greater riches would surely follow.

Outside the sound of the cart tailgate being closed focused their attention and all left the Atrium to stand on the veranda. Paulus put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and watched the old man get on his horse. The whole century of Praetorian Guard saluted as one and wheeled left, awaiting the order to leave the estate. The old man, otherwise known as the Pontifex Maximus, high priest of the Temple of Vesta gave the order to proceed, and, without further ado, the whole procession started their journey back to Rome. At their centre rolled the cart containing its very precious cargo as Rubria, eight years old and daughter of nobility, pure of body and mind set out on the first day of her life as a Vestal Virgin.

Chapter 2

London 2010

‘Good night, India,’ came a voice, interrupting the librarian as she finished scanning the last of the bar codes on the returned books.

‘Goodnight, Mrs Thomas,’ she said looking up, ‘Find anything interesting?’

‘I did, actually,’ came the reply from the portly woman as she paused by the door, ‘This internet thing is quite good once you get going. I’ve just found out my great, great grandfather was a jewel thief.’

‘A jewel thief, how exciting,’ laughed India, ‘I wonder if he left any of his ill gotten gains hidden under your patio.’

‘No such luck,’ said the woman, ‘Anyway, I’ve turned the computer off, save you the trouble.’

‘Thanks for that,’ said India, ‘See you next week?’

‘You will, goodnight.’ The woman left the library and India checked the clock on the wall. Quarter to seven! Thirty more minutes and she could go home. She looked around the room. The last of the ancestry group had gone home and there were only three users left, two teenage boys sat giggling at a corner PC and a lone man who was browsing the history section between the aisles. She returned to the bar code reader but was interrupted once more when the man coughed gently to attract her attention.

‘Oh!’ she said, standing up suddenly, ‘You startled me.’

The man had approached without her noticing and stood in front of the counter.

‘Sorry,’ he smiled, ‘You seemed to be somewhere else there for a while.’

‘I wish,’ she laughed, ‘Bahamas would be nice, I could do with a holiday.’

‘Me too,’ said the man, ‘Weather’s been awful.’

‘That’s Britain for you, how can I help?’

‘I was wondering if you could help me identify a coin,’ he asked.

‘What sort of coin?’ responded India, her interest suddenly rising.

‘Well, it’s a necklace really but the pendant is definitely a coin. I’ve searched the internet but can’t find anything quite like it.’

‘Do you have it with you?’ she asked.

He looked around the library but the only two other users were too engrossed in whatever illicit site they had managed to access past the council’s fire wall. He reached into his inner jacket pocket to retrieve a neatly folded paper towel and placed it on the counter.

‘May I?’ she asked and, after unwrapping the package, lifted the necklace up to the light, her experienced eyes taking in the detail as it revolved slowly.

The first thing she noticed was the chain and the coin were of two different eras. The chain was fairly contemporary, probably Silver and no more than ten or twenty years old. The coin itself, however, was of a completely different age altogether, and, if she wasn’t mistaken, bore the image of Phillip the Second of Macedonia.

‘Interesting,’ she said, ‘Is it yours?’

‘Well, I found it, but I’m not sure what the legal position is with treasure trove. What do you think?’

India didn’t know how to let him down gently. She was known within numismatic circles as a bit of an expert and was often approached by amateur collectors hoping she would make their dreams come true and confirm the rusty farthing they had found in some farmer’s field was one off Roman coin worth a fortune.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Jones,’ he said a bit too quickly, ‘Mr Jones.’

‘Well, Mr Jones,’ said India, ‘I recognise the image but it doesn’t seem to be any coinage I recognise so I can’t really put a value on it.’

‘I’m not worried about value,’ he answered, ‘More the history, if you know what I mean. Is there anything you can tell me about its provenance?’

She glanced at the clock on the wall. Five to seven.

‘Well, we are about to close,’ she said, ‘But I am a bit of an enthusiast when it comes to coins and I have a whole bookshelf full of reference books at home. I’ll bring them in tomorrow and see what I can find out. Why don’t you leave it with me and come back then? I should be able to tell you more about it.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘It’ll be a pleasure,’ she said, ‘I’ll put it in the safe.’ She paused. ‘Oh I am so sorry, how presumptuous of me, I don’t even know you and I’m asking you to part with something.’

‘It’s okay, Miss Sommers,’ he laughed, ‘If I can’t trust the local librarian who can I trust?’

‘How do you know my name?’ she asked, a slight frown forming on her brow.

‘Oh, didn’t I say?’ he asked, ‘I posted a picture of the coin on the web page of the local numismatic society asking for any information.’

‘And were they any help?’

‘No, not really, though several recommended I came to you. Sorry, I should have said.’

‘No problem. I suppose I should be flattered really, anyway, I promise I won’t run away with your necklace.’

‘I trust you,’ he said, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow night about six’. He pointed at the two lads nudging each other at the PC. ‘Do you need any help?’

‘No, they’re harmless enough,’ she said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘Goodnight,’ he said and left the library. A few minutes later, the doors opened again and the two lads were ushered out into the night, disappointed that their first foray into murky websites had just been cut abruptly short by the librarian.

‘Banned for a week!’ shouted India as they ran laughing into the darkness. She smiled as she locked the library doors behind them and turned the PC’s off before finishing off tidying the shelves. She placed the necklace in the safe and set the burglar alarm before running quickly through the drizzle with a magazine held over her head.

India was looking forward to getting home. A quick stop at the local supermarket for a bottle of red and a microwave lasagne and she would be set for the night. She rounded the car to access the driver’s door, her concentration focussed on finding her keys somewhere at the bottom of her bag and almost went flying when she tripped over something on the car park floor.

‘Oh my god!’ she gasped staring at the body at her feet. Within a few seconds she came to her senses and dropped to her knees to try to help.

‘Hello,’ she said, ‘Are you okay?’

The man groaned and turned slightly, forcing himself onto his side. Despite the state of his severely smashed face which had been the subject of a terrible beating, she recognised him as the man she had been talking to only half an hour or so earlier, Mr Jones. Her hand frantically searched for the phone she knew was in her coat pocket and she dialled 999, her eyes never leaving the injured man.

‘Hello, yes, ambulance please, there’s a man who needs help, I think he has been stabbed!’

A few minutes later having given all the details to the emergency services, she knelt in the rain trying to reassure the injured man lying in the growing pool of his own diluted blood. Her coat was now over him in a feeble attempt to keep him warm.

‘Don’t worry, Mr Jones,’ she said gently, her voice quivering in fright, ‘There’s an ambulance on the way.’

His hand crawled forward through the blood to touch her leg her leg and she heard him mumble something unintelligible.

‘Shhh!’ she said, ‘Try to keep your strength, they wont be long.’

Coin,’ he said again through his smashed teeth.

She looked down at the face with the terrible injuries.

‘Coin?’ she asked, ‘Oh, your coin, don’t you worry about that, I’ll keep it safe until you get better.’

Listen!’ he hissed suddenly, using the last of his strength, ‘Too late…….. Important…… the coin…… be careful……’

‘Careful,’ she saidWhat do you mean careful? Who did this to you?’

It was three hours later when the policewoman left India’s flat. The librarian was wrapped in her dressing gown and lay on the sofa, her eyes red and swollen after all the crying. She had scrubbed the blood from her body and put her clothes in the bin. No matter how much she washed them, she knew she could never wear them again, not after they had been soaked with the blood of a dead man.

India sipped on her coffee, regretting not having any wine in the flat. After they had taken the body away, the questions had started, first in the back of the police car and then back at her place. There was not much to tell really, she had simply found the body and called the police. She had told them about his visit to the library and the request to research the mysterious necklace but as the policewoman said, it was probably a coincidence and he was most likely the victim of a particularly vicious mugging. Nevertheless, they would call around the library tomorrow to pick it up just in case it was valuable and may be the motive for the mugging. After they had left, she had stood for almost ten minutes under a scalding shower, desperate to wash away the remains of the night.

At last it was quiet and as she sipped her coffee she contemplated the last few hours. The strange Mr Jones, the necklace, the murder, it all seemed so surreal, like something from a cheap gangster film, but what made it even more strange was the fact that he had used the last of his strength to warn her of some unknown danger, and that danger seemed linked to the coin he had left at the library. She crossed the room to her bookshelf and drew out a book on ancient coins to see if there was anything about it in one of her many reference books, but, before settling down, went to the kitchen to see if there was anything stronger to drink. It was going to be a long night.

The ringing was incessant. Over and over again it screeched, reaching deep into her mind forcing her up from the depths of sleep her body desperately craved. For a few seconds she struggled to remember why she was on the sofa, covered with nothing more than her dressing gown. The discovery channel was droning some obscure programme in the corner, the telly left on from last night and the whole of the flat was lit up like Blackpool promenade. Her memories came flooding back as she sat up, holding her head in her hands. The half bottle of vodka she had found at the back of the fridge had seemed like a good idea at the time, but boy did she regret it now. She searched for her phone between the cushions before finally finding it under the sofa and looked at the screen. Jenny Work, it said. India groaned. Why on Earth would the library manager be ringing at six thirty in the morning? She focussed on the green button and cleared her throat in an attempt to sound half human.

‘Hello, Jen,’ she said, ‘What’s the matter?’

‘India,’ called the voice, ‘Thank God, where are you?’

‘At home,’ she answered, ‘Why, where did you think I was?’

‘Oh, India, You took so long to answer I thought…’

Jen!’ interrupted India, ‘Get to the point. It’s stupid o’clock, I’ve had a shit night and I need to go to bed, now what’s the matter?’

‘India, I need you to come in to work, right now.’

‘Now, but why, what’s the problem?’

‘It’s the Library,’ said Jen, ‘It’s on fire!’

Despite the urgency of Jen’s call, there was no way she could meet people in the state she was in so she showered quickly and put a bit of slap on. She stared at the gaunt face in the mirror.

‘It’ll have to do,’ she groaned at herself, shocked at the image and picked up her car keys from the hall table. After a moments pause, she replaced the keys and picked up her mobile to call a taxi. The last thing she needed now was to lose her license.

An hour after she had received Jenny’s call, India stood in the drizzling rain surrounded by police officers. Two fire engines were packing up while the crew of a third were throwing out still smouldering books out of one of the library’s windows to the roadway below. The whole scene was shimmering in blue flashing lights and occasional early bird joggers were being moved on by the police. She spotted Jenny standing under an umbrella talking to a female police officer and walked over to join them.

‘Jen, what’s happened?’ she asked, interrupting the conversation.

‘India,’ said Jenny spinning around, ‘I’m so glad you’re safe. For a while there we thought you may be still in there.’ She indicated the smouldering shell of the library.

‘No, I’ve been home all night,’ she said, ‘Had quite an evening of my own, as constable Deeley can testify.’ She smiled at the police woman. ‘Hello again.’

‘Hello, Miss Sommers,’ she said, ‘We meet again.’

‘We do, how come you’re still working?’

‘Oh you know, short staffed, government cuts, that sort of thing.

‘You know each other?’ interrupted Jenny.

‘Constable Deeley was the one who interviewed me last night,’ said India.

‘Last night! Why, what happened last night?’

‘Sorry Jenny, you haven’t heard have you, there was a man stabbed in the car park. I was the one who found him.’

‘Oh my God,’ said Jenny, ‘Is he…?’

India nodded, confirming the unfinished question.

‘How awful,’ she gasped, ‘Are you Okay?’

‘Been better, but anyway, what happened here?’

‘Don’t know much, but the firemen are making the building safe as we speak. Apparently they managed to contain the worst, but there is still a lot of damage.

‘How did you find out?’

‘On call,’ said Jenny, ‘Emergency key holder, though why they asked me to come out, I don’t know. By the time I got here they had broken the doors down anyway. I feel like a bit of a spare part to be honest, been here for bloody hours.’

‘Then why don’t you go and get some rest?’ asked India, ‘I’ll take over.’

‘Oh there’s no need for that,’ said Jenny, ‘That’s not why I called you.’

‘Why then?’

She pointed at a man in plain clothes stood next to a land rover speaking into a mobile phone.

‘He asked me to.’

Constable Deeley led them over to the car.

‘Have to go!’ said the man into the phone, looking up as they approached, ‘Speak later.’ He snapped down his clamshell mobile and turned to speak to the women.

‘Miss Sommers, I presume?’ he asked.

‘Please, call me India,’ she answered and held out her hand.

‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I’m Detective Inspector Walker, Brandon Walker.’ He turned to the police officer. ‘That’ll be all,’ he said, ‘Could you ensure Mrs Evans gets home safe? There’s nothing more she can do here now.’

Jenny looked a bit disappointed she wasn’t going to be included in the conversation but gave India a hug of encouragement.

‘Give me a ring later, honey,’ she said.

‘Will do,’ said India and watched Jenny being led away. She turned to the detective. ‘What’s this about then? I hope you don’t think I have anything to with this?’

‘First things first,’ he answered, ‘I need a coffee.’ He opened the car door. ‘Coming?’

She stared at him for a while before answering cautiously.

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘But this had better be good, I’ve got the mother of all hangovers and after the night I’ve had, I would rather be in bed.’

‘Thanks for the offer,’ he smiled, ‘But a coffee will be fine.’

‘Very funny,’ she said, ‘You know what I meant.’

‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘Couldn’t resist. Anyway, all will be revealed in good time. Jump in, I know a lovely little coffee shop not far from here.’

‘And it will be open this time of the morning will it?’

‘Trust me,’ he said and, flashing a disarming smile, opened the land rover door.

India lifted the lid on her coffee and blew it gently as the detective tucked into his sausage and egg Mc Muffin.

‘Think they would have learned their lesson about that,’ he said between bites.


‘Mc Donald’s.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘The temperature of their coffee,’ he said, ‘That woman in America got hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation when she spilt one of their coffees in her lap.’

‘I thought that was an urban myth.’

‘Nope, it’s true. She spent seven days in hospital, as I recall.’ Silence fell again as he finished his roll. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said, finally wiping the sides of his mouth with his paper napkin, ‘Long night.’

‘What’s this about?’ asked India, ‘Why have you brought me here?’

He took a sip of his own coffee and sat back in his chair, staring at the pretty librarian.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll get straight to the point.’

‘About bloody time,’ she murmured.

‘Basically India,’ he said, ignoring her remark, ‘I need your help.’

‘With what?’

‘In solving a mystery and in the process, perhaps finding the killer of that man you found last night.’

‘I don’t understand,’ she said, ‘How on Earth can I help? You’re the policeman, I am just a librarian.’

‘You are, but a very special one. I understand you are also a history lecturer and a numismatist to boot.’

‘Part time lecturer,’ she corrected, ‘And coin collecting is only a hobby. There are far better experts in both fields than me. Whatever this is about you would be better off going to them.’

‘I agree,’ he said, ‘But you are intrinsically linked to this whole situation. The guy who died, the necklace, the burning of the library, they all have one thing in common, you! If I didn’t know better you could almost be a suspect.’ He paused, taking another sip as he let the implication sink in. She looked shocked.

‘Anyway,’ he continued before she could say anything, ‘I have spent most of the night researching the experts in coins and ancient history but your name keeps coming up and you have certain strengths in both fields. It makes total sense to use someone who can call on both disciplines.’

‘I don’t understand,’ she said, ‘How can anything I know be of any help?’

‘Before I go on India,’ he said, ‘I need to know you are with us on this. If you agree to help then there is no going back. I have no idea where this investigation may lead but there may be danger involved, and there is a faint possibility you could be hurt.’

‘Hurt!’ she said, cutting him short, ‘Now just you wait a minute here. This is the twenty first century not a fifties film. How can the police recruit someone they know nothing about to do their dirty work for them? You know nothing about me. I have a job, a family, and as for getting hurt, excuse me but even if this weird offer has any substance, as a responsible organisation I think you will find you have certain responsibilities. What about duty of care, what about risk assessments, what about health and fucking safety?’

He smiled at her outburst, amused at the cursing coming from such a pretty face, and took another sip of his coffee.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘Let me put it like this. First of all I think you have been wrapped in that little cocoon of yours for far too long. As for knowing nothing about you, your name is India Sommers. You live on your own in flat nine, Station Road. You are twenty six years old and have been a librarian for four years after getting degrees in history and English at Aberystwyth University. Your hobby is coin collecting and you lecture part time in ancient history in your local college. Do you wish me to go on?’

‘Please do,’ she said astonished.

‘You are single and your last relationship with a man called Nigel ended four months ago due to infidelity, his not yours. You drive a Renault Clio, your parents live in Swindon and your cat is called Winston. When you were nine you were taken down the local police station by your father to get a bollocking when you were caught nicking sweets from the local shop. Your favourite colour’s red and your hair is dyed. Would you like me to bring up your sexual preferences?’

‘Okay stop,’ she hissed, looking around in embarrassment. She leaned forward across the table, ‘How do you know all this?’

‘Police database,’ he said, ‘Think of it as big brother’s version of Google!’

She sat back, trying unsuccessfully to stare him out.

‘Okay,’ she said eventually, ‘And if I agree to do this, what about my job?’

‘You just say the word and you will be on unpaid leave from the council with immediate effect.’


‘Yes, they will be told you have gone on holiday for a few weeks while the library is being refurbished. Fewer questions that way, but don’t worry, you will be adequately reimbursed by us.’

‘How adequately?’

‘Twice your current salary plus expenses.’

‘And when it is over?’

‘Your job will be there waiting.’

She finished the coffee and stared at the legend around the rim. ‘Danger, very hot liquid’ it said, stating the bloody obvious.

‘That reminds me,’ she said, ‘One more thing. About the safety aspect, you never said anything about how dangerous it may be.’

‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘Difficult to say really but as far as the good old Health and Safety Executive goes, do you want the official view or my own?’

‘If I am to be working with you I suppose I should have yours.’

‘In that case,’ he said, ‘It’s simple. Fuck em!’

Her eyes widened in shock. Everything about him screamed danger but despite her misgivings it sounded too exciting an opportunity to miss. He was right; she had been in the library far too long.

‘Okay Detective Walker,’ she said finally, ‘I think I am going to regret this, but you have a deal,’

‘Good!’ he said, ‘And please, call me Brandon.’

‘Am I allowed to say anything to my parents about this?’ she asked.

‘I’d rather you didn’t, why?’

‘Oh, you know, it would be quite a shock to find out their daughter is working for the police.’

‘Police?’ he said, ‘Who said anything about working for the police?’

He turned to leave the building, leaving India staring open mouthed behind him.

Chapter 3

Rome 64 BC

Rubria knelt at her bedside, her hands held tightly together in prayer as she had been taught since a child. She prayed earnestly, full of love and ultimate servitude to the Goddess Vesta, thanking her for her glory and the continued bounty of life. She had been up since first bell and had since knelt in prayer for two hours, the reed mat the only acknowledgement to the wear on her knees.

Her cell was basic but spotlessly clean. The rough stone walls were a stark contrast to the marble slabs of the Temple proper and the only furniture was a simple bed covered with a rough linen sheet and a three legged stool. A tiny arched window pierced the thick walls high above her head, too high to be reached by any acolyte tempted to peer out at the city of sin, but necessary for the passage of fresh air to the tiny cell.

All too soon, second bell sounded and she raised herself from her knees to face the day. She knew that outside the walls of the Temple, the profile of the city would be looming out of the darkness once more as the miracle of the sun hinted at its imminent rebirth from the hell of night. She turned around and faced the doorway, not quite sure if the shivering was from the pre-dawn temperatures or the apprehension about what lay before her. She forgave herself the emotion of relief as the day she had waited so long for, finally arrived.

Ten long years she had waited. Ten years since she had been taken from her family and brought to the Temple of Vesta to serve the Goddess. At first it had been very hard and she had missed her family so much it hurt. Every day she had asked when she was going home, receiving only kindly smiles from her tutors in return. She even tried to run away once but had been caught no further that the gateway peering into the dirty city that lay beyond. That had been an important milestone for Rubria, as far from being angry; the kindly teacher had sat besides her for a long time giving her comfort and support.

That had been the first time the needs of the people had been explained to her. How the majority of the poor misguided masses needed their help and prayers to help them on their journey through the torture of life to the ultimate gates of heaven. How the starving and the destitute, the diseased, sick and the lonely, all needed their help and how Rubria, along with selected others had been chosen by Vesta to serve, her and by doing so, help the needy. Soon, the memories eased and one glorious night she had been stood in her cell staring up at the dark sky through the window when the Goddess blessed her with a vision.

The shooting star, the first she had ever seen had blazed across the heavens, radiating its fleeting glory into her cell for the briefest of moments and filling her with wonder at the bounty of the Goddess. From that moment on everything changed. The lessons became easier, the mantra’s made more sense and she embraced the glory of the Goddess with all her heart

Not that she had forgotten her family, she often thought of them though these days with fondness and gratitude for allowing her to serve the Goddess. Once a year on the anniversary of her arrival, her mother would visit her in the outer Temple, suitably attired and saying the sort of things you would expect from a mother, but despite looking forward to her visit each time, it was always a relief to get back to her cell when the visit was over.

Now the time was fast approaching when all she had learned over the last ten years would come to fruition. Today was her birth, her first step into the real service of the Goddess. From now she would take part in the ceremonies expected as a Priestess of Vesta. For the first time in ten years, she would be able to step outside the walls of the Temple, albeit always in the presence of an armed unit of Praetorian Guard, but outside nonetheless. As one of only six Priestesses she would be in great demand across the city and since the retreat of one of the older Sisters into her last ten years as a teacher, the pressures on the other five had been immense as they waited for her replacement to be nominated.

Rubria realised she had been very lucky. There were six other acolytes ready to take the next step forward but she had been selected by the high Priestess as the most ready and had lain prone for two days before the image of the Goddess, giving thanks for her selection. She stared at the open doorway holding her breath as the footsteps approached until, at last the Pontifex Maximus stood before her.

‘You are summoned, Acolyte!’ intoned the familiar voice formally. Rubria took a pace forward……and slammed the door in his face!

‘Get thee from my vision, temptation,’ she cried out, ‘I reject you!’

As expected, a minute later the door was flung open once more and six Sisters who had already served their times as Priestesses, filed into the room and took their place in a circle around her. She dropped to her knees, and bending her head forward, allowed her long golden tresses to hang low to the floor. Another person entered the room and stopped before Rubria.

‘Do you discard all worldly possessions acolyte?’ asked the High Priestess gently.

‘I do,’ she answered meekly.

‘Do you surrender to the service of the great mother, blessed Virgin of the house of Vesta?’

‘With all my heart.’

‘Will you repel the hand of man in deed and thought, even unto death?’

‘I will!’

‘And will you nurture the flames of our mother’s untouched womb, forsaking all other god’s.’

‘Until the day I die.’

‘Then make the choice, Acolyte. Leave the world of the ignorant and embrace the heart of the enlightened.’

The high Priestess gathered Rubria’s hair and bunched it together, holding it high. Another Priestess holding a silken cushion stepped forward and gave her a pair shears. The gathered Sisters said a mutual prayer, and as she prayed with her eyes tightly shut, Rubria’s hair fell to the floor beneath her. When the last of the golden locks had been cut she waited patiently as the stubble was shaved from her scalp. Fragrant oils were smoothed over her skin and she was helped up to face her fellow priestesses. A Palla of purest white silk, the mantle that would be the only type of clothing she would wear for the next ten years was draped over her shoulders and wrapped around her body before the surplus was draped down her left side. A white lace Infula was placed gently over her head and the headdress hung down over her shoulders to be fastened to the Palla over her left breast with a Suffibulum, a broach of pure gold.

When they had finished, the high Priestess handed Rubria the cushion, this time laden with her old clothing and topped with her shorn golden locks. They left her alone in the cell for a few minutes, a beautiful vision in white, until once again the voice of the Pontifex Maximus boomed out.

‘Acolyte, you are summoned!’

This time, after taking a deep breath, Rubria stepped forward and left the cell, carrying the remnants of her old life before her and walked towards the roaring flames of the fires of Vesta.

Chapter 4

London 2010

‘What do you mean, not working for the police?’ asked India, half trotting to keep up with Brandon as they walked through the morning light to the car, ‘You said you were a Detective Inspector.’

‘I lied.’


He turned and spoke over the bonnet.

‘I bent the truth,’ he said, ‘I am working with the police, not for the police.’

‘Now you’re not making any sense,’ she said, opening her door, ‘You were with the police by the library, that constable brought me to you.’

‘Ah yes, Wendy. She’s the one who tipped me off about you and the necklace.’

‘Is that legal?’

‘Well it’s not very professional but in my game, it pays to have a lot of, shall we say, inside contacts.’

‘And what exactly is your game?’

‘I suppose you could call it private investigation,’ he said, ‘But a bit more complicated. You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Try me.’

‘Look,’ he said, ‘On occasion, shit happens! Usually our great police force can sort it out but occasionally, something happens that is beyond their means and they call in certain agencies that have the skills to delve deeper.’

‘Like MI5 you mean?’

‘No, not really, they are too engrossed in national security.’


‘Pen pushers!’

‘SAS then, they can do anything.’

‘Hairy arsed soldiers with no subtlety,’ he said dismissively, ‘That leaves people like me. Someone who can use the infrastructure of the government to find out things that certain people would rather keep out of the public eye, who by the way, are happy to pay handsomely for our services.

‘And these investigations, I suppose they are out of the ordinary?’

‘Usually, and quite often impossible to solve. Think of this assignment as mission impossible,’ he smiled,’ And I’m your Tom Cruise.’

‘Oh for God’s sake,’ she mumbled and climbed in to the car.

Two hours later India was back outside the library sat in the Land Rover. The fire brigade had long gone and a couple of council workers were putting up some temporary fencing. They had stopped off at her flat for he to pack a small case, and, after leaving a message on her mothers phone to look after the cat, had rejoined Brandon in his car. Within half an hour, she found herself outside the library once more.

‘So what now?’ she asked.

‘Right!’ he said, ‘First of all we need that necklace; you said it’s in the safe right?’

‘Yes, I put it there myself.’

‘Do you keep much money in the safe?’

‘No, why?’

‘If you did then the chances are the council would have had it removed. If it’s used for small change then it’s probably still in there.’

‘And you want me to get it.’

‘That’s the plan.’

‘What about him?’ she asked pointing at the lone police officer standing guard on the steps, waiting for a locksmith to arrive.

‘Leave him to me!’

‘You’re not going to kill him are you?’

‘Nothing quite so dramatic, I’m afraid, I was thinking more of using this.’ He flashed his warrant card.

‘Oh!’ She said. A few minutes later they stood in the foyer of the library, having been allowed through the broken front door by the police officer.

‘The office is over here,’ she said, wading through the wet aftermath of the blaze. ‘Looks like the fire brigade caused more damage than the actual fire.’

‘Where’s the safe?’ he asked.

‘Under Jenny’s desk, this one over here,’ she said crouching down, ‘Shit!’

‘What’s the matter?’

‘She looked up from her position on the floor.

‘Someone’s beaten us to it.’

He stooped down and saw the door wrenched open, the guilty crowbar still lying on the floor.

‘What sort of stupid safe is that?’ he asked angrily.

‘The sort needed for a petty cash tin and a purchase card,’ she said, ‘It’s a library not a bloody bank.’

‘Point taken!’ he said, standing up, ‘This necklace, you had a close look at it right?’

‘Briefly, but I don’t know what all the fuss is about, it was worthless, and certainly not worth dying for.’

‘You sure?’



‘Look,’ she answered. ‘This is all very exciting, but can we do this somewhere else? We have conned our way into a crime scene that stinks like a bonfire, close to where someone was murdered. I am not exactly comfortable here.’

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘We’ll go to my place.’

‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea,’ she said.

‘Why not?’

‘Well for one I only just met you,’ she said, ‘For all I know you could be a mad axe murderer and luring me back to your lair.’

‘It’s hardly a lair,’ he laughed, ‘Why don’t you reserve judgement? It’s about ten minutes away.’

‘Probably a slick bachelor pad full of Ikea furniture and Barry White albums,’ she mumbled.

It was nearer twenty minutes when they stood outside Brandon’s home. The car had been parked in the double garage next to the jet-ski and they had both crunched across the Cotswold gravel driveway to stand in front of the cottage.

‘You have got to be fucking joking!’ she said, staring in awe at the chocolate box scene before her. The cottage was made of white painted stone, with deep set leaded windows framed by swathes of climbing ivy. The sweeping roof was thatched and a heavy oak door sat snugly inside a porch covered with the obligatory roses.

‘I’m in the wrong job,’ she mumbled.

‘Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche really,’ he said, ‘Not really my scene but Mrs Walker loves it!’

She span around.

‘Mrs Walker?’

‘Yes, come on I can hear her out the back, let me introduce you.’ He strode off around the side of the beautiful house, passing rows of carefully manicured flower pots. After a second, India ran after him and grabbed his arm.

‘Wait a minute,’ she hissed, ‘You never said you were married, What’s your wife going to think about you bringing another woman home first thing in the morning?’

‘Ask her yourself,’ he said, ‘But do me a favour, could you curb the language a bit?’

Language’ she said in astonishment, ‘I’ll show you fuc….’

‘Ahem!’ interrupted a voice and she spun around to face the person obviously standing behind her. The woman stood before her in a heavy duffel coat and green Wellington boots, holding a bucket half full of chicken feed.

‘Hello dear,’ she said sweetly, ‘Nice to meet you, my name is Agnes, Brandon’s mother!’

India and Agnes sat in the farmhouse kitchen drinking coffee as if they had known each other for years. Brandon had disappeared into the depths of the cottage.

So!’ said Agnes, ‘It’s not often he brings a lady home, what’s the occasion, I don’t suppose there is any good news on the horizon is there?’

India paused for a moment before realising what she meant.

‘Oh no,’ she gasped, ‘Nothing like that, Mrs Walker, we are not….. I mean…… Brandon and I are work colleagues.’

‘Oh I see,’ said the woman, ‘Never mind, early days yet.’

‘Mother!’ said Brandon coming back into the kitchen, ‘Leave her alone, this is strictly business.’ He turned to India ‘Anyway, let’s show you your room. We can both catch up on some sleep and then get down to business.’

‘My room?’ queried India

‘Yes, dear,’ said Agnes, ‘You will be using Brandon’s room. Don’t worry I’ve already made it up. There’s clean bedding and I have run you a nice bath.’

‘I don’t understand, how did you know I was coming?’

‘Oh Brandon sent me an e mail a few hours ago,’ she said holding up a touch screen phone, ‘He is good like that.’

India glared at Brandon.

‘Yes he is, isn’t he?’ she said sarcastically, ‘And where will Brandon be sleeping exactly?’ she asked, not letting go of his stare.

‘Don’t you worry about him,’ said Agnes, standing up and finishing the last of her coffee, ‘He will have the couch in his den!’

India stood in the doorway feeling a little awkward. She had slept for six hours and made her way downstairs in a fresh pair of jeans and a baggy T shirt. Brandon was already up reading a newspaper at the kitchen table.

‘Hi there,’ he said looking up, ‘You look better, come on through. Hungry?’

‘Famished,’ she said.

‘Mom,’ he shouted, ‘India’s awake, could you bring us something to eat.’

‘Will do,’ came a distant response

‘Do it yourself you lazy git,’ hissed India.

‘It’s okay,’ he laughed, ‘She loves it really, come on, we’ll go through to the den.’ He stood up to lead India through a side door. To her surprise it opened immediately onto a staircase leading downward.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked, ‘The bat cave?’

‘Something like that,’ he said and pushed open the door at the bottom.

India stared in shock, she was not quite sure what to expect but she hadn’t expected this. The room was how she had imagined the private offices in gentlemen’s clubs or the houses of parliament might look. The ceiling was oak panelled and the walls were completely covered with bookcases containing thousands of hard backed reference books. Subtle wall lights emitted a gentle glow and there was a log fire crackling in a hearth. The furniture consisted of two deep red leather winged armchairs and against a wall was the most comfortable looking battered leather settee she had ever seen. A glass coffee table supported by metal dragon lay in the centre and the only nod to technology was a laptop on a desk underneath a stained glass window. As the only source of natural light India realised it must have been just above ground level outside. The smell of polish hung in the air and the whole thing felt warm, comfortable and stank of money.

‘This is your den?’ she asked.

‘That’s what my mother calls it,’ he said, ‘I like to think of it as my office.’

‘Some office.’

‘Yes, I suppose it is really. After my father died I bought this cottage for mum and had the cellar done out. More to stay out of her way than anything else.’

‘How did he die?’ she asked.

‘Big C,’ he said, ‘Had a bad time of it. Anyway, make yourself comfortable, we have work to do.’

Sandwiches!’ called Agnes and she pushed the door open with her foot, her hands occupied with the tray containing the afternoon treats. After fussing for a while she left them alone and shut the door.

Brandon poured the tea while India took a bite of a ham and cucumber sandwich. Finally, she sat back and putting the crust on the table, put one teaspoon of sugar in her cup.

‘So Detective Inspector Walker,’ she said as she stirred her tea slowly, ‘Let’s start again, this time from the beginning. What is all this about?’

‘Do you watch the news, Miss Sommers?’ asked Brandon, sipping his tea.

‘Of course.’

‘Did you see the story about the dead girl found a couple of weeks ago in Victoria station London?’

‘I remember seeing something about it. Found in a toilet, as I recall.’

‘That’s right, fifteen years old, and do you remember what was the cause of death?’


‘No, not drugs, but you wouldn’t know anyway. The details weren’t released to the media for the truth was too horrible for the sensitivities of the great British public. She wasn’t found in the toilet either, she was found deep in the underground complex, in a side tunnel.’

‘But the news said…’

‘Forget the news India.’ he said, ‘The news tells us what the government wants us to know. The truth is she was found by a maintenance team locked in a side room far down one of the disused tunnels and she was naked.’

‘Sexual assault?’ guessed India.

‘No. She had been beaten. whipped repeatedly by a nylon cane across her legs buttocks and back until the skin hung from her back in shreds.’

‘Oh my God,’ said India, ‘That poor girl. She must have died in agony.’

‘Not quite,’ he said, ‘There was evidence that she lived for a while after her beating. There were a few crisp packets and an empty bottle of water in there with her. It seems she had been left there in the dark and eventually died of starvation.’

‘That’s terrible,’ said India quietly, ‘Do you know who she was?’

‘Yes, her name was Diane Thomas, no one of great importance. Fifteen years old from Reading. Abducted from her home a few months ago and hasn’t been seen since until her body was found.’

‘And is that why you are here, to find her killer?’

‘Not exactly, we know the killer. He was a rail worker from Hammersmith called Bennett. He used to help feed the homeless part time around Victoria Station.’

‘So you know the victim, you’ve got the murderer, why are you involved?’

‘We need the motive.’

‘Can’t you ask him?’

‘He’s dead, killed himself with some sort of poison as the police broke down the door to his flat.’


‘Yeah, I know. It’s all a bit too Agatha Christie for me as well, but that’s what happened.’

‘So how am I involved?’

‘Well we interviewed all the other workers obviously but as far as they were concerned he was perfectly normal, but there was one thing about him that a few people noticed. He always wore a particular necklace. Seems like he was a bit paranoid about losing it as well, said it belonged to his mother but when we found him it was missing. We searched his flat top to bottom but there was no sign of it, apparently he had been the victim of a burglary the week before and we think it was stolen then.’

‘And you think it was the same necklace that Mr Jones brought in to the library.’

‘We do, though at the time we failed to realize its significance.’

‘How can you be sure it’s the same one?’

‘Your Mr Jones posted a picture of it on the net last week.’

‘That’s right, he did. I remember him telling me, but I still don’t understand the importance of one coin. What possible relevance could it have?’

Brandon took a deep breath.

‘What I am about to tell you stays in this room,’ he said. ‘Last Friday, a young girl was abducted from a local hotel. Okay, you may say that this sort of thing happens sometimes but this was different. First of all the girl was a daughter of a very important person and before you ask, I can’t tell you. Secondly, there is a blanket ban on any news being released about the abduction. Again, I don’t know why but the father must have some serious clout. He has instructed a total news blackout. Thirdly, and most importantly, we have a picture of the abductor.’

He opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out a picture, passing it over the table.

‘It just so happened, a secretary was monitoring the CCTV when the girl was taken and zoomed in with the camera. Take a look.’

She stared at the black and white image of a man wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses, holding his hand against a struggling young girl’s mouth.

‘Can’t tell much,’ she said, ‘Most of his features are covered.’

‘Forget his features,’ he said, ‘Look at his hand.’

She looked again at the hand over the mouth. On the middle finger he wore a ring made from a coin, and staring back at her was the face of Phillip the Second of Macedonia.

Chapter 5

Rome 64 AD

Sister Rubria, as she was now known, sat staring in to the flames with love and respect. This was one of her duties as a Priestess of the Goddess, to oversee the fire for half a day, every three days, sharing the work with the five other priestesses. Despite the long hours and the strange one legged stool designed especially to stop the watchers falling asleep during their vigil, it was a task that Rubria embraced with all her heart. The fire represented the very soul of the Goddess and was the central hearth of the empire of Rome. Though the inner Temple was sacrosanct and denied to any person not of the order, a second fire in an iron pot was taken each morning to the entrance of the Forum. Every morning, there was a line of children waiting outside the gates for the fire of Vesta to arrive so they could ignite the kindling in their own clay pots before taking take it back to their homes.

During the vigil, food and water were denied to any Priestess watching over the flames and a request to be relieved for any personal need would result in a severe admonishing by the Pontifex Maximus and a week of enforced solitude, praying to the Goddess Vesta for forgiveness for falling to the demands of the flesh.

The fire itself was contained within a granite hollow in the floor of the Temple and was fed constantly by logs brought into the city from the imperial forests to the west of the Apennine Mountains. Rubria’s duty was to ensure the flames were fed from the stockpile contained in the six alcoves around the circular walls of the Temple and honour the Goddess with the suitable prayers on the stroke of every hour. It was a duty of love and one she cherished with all her heart.

Rubria rose from her knees at the culmination of the twelfth prayer and checked the fire’s strength. She retrieved the soft broom and started to gently sweep the marble floor surrounding the hearth. Though there was never any mess other than the occasional fall of ash, the act ensured the Temple was always as pure as the Goddess herself and was a ceremony that reached back over a thousand years to when the original flame was in a much more humble setting. She knew that at the sound of the bell a fellow Sister would enter the Temple to take her place and she would be able to continue with her other duties.

Today was a special day for Rubria. She had been inaugurated as a Priestess six weeks earlier and had since spent most of the time in prayer and carrying out her duties to the Goddess but today would be different. For the first time she was being taken out of the Forum grounds and up the nearby Palatine hill to the Domus Transitoria, the home of the Emperor. It was intended that she would be presented to Nero himself though no one quite knew if he would be there or not, nevertheless, Rubria briefly experienced the sin of excitement as she hurried back to her rooms on the upper level of the balcony surrounding the Forum.

As usual her servants had prepared the sunken bath with hot scented water and fresh clothes lay folded on her bed. Her room was a far cry from the rough cell she had occupied during her time as an Acolyte and the sumptuous surroundings reflected her elevated position in the spiritual life of the city. Colourful tapestries adorned three of the walls and thick carpets from the east protected her feet from the chill of the marble floors. A huge Lectus dominated the room, its Dias making it so high that the bed had to be accessed by a small set of wooden steps and the entire sleeping area was draped with swathes of white silk, making a sanctuary of purity where the Priestess could rest. Against one wall was an ornate couch with carved arms at both ends where she could sit and entertain visitors. A table with a washing bowl stood in a corner and finally, in the middle of the one unadorned wall was the most important thing in the whole room, a niche containing a candle to the Goddess. This was her own shrine where she prayed daily, reasserting her devotion and begging forgiveness for her transgressions.

Rubria undid her broach and handed her veil to the one servant left in the room before stepping fully clothed into the sunken bath and kneeling in the cleansing hot water. The servant followed her in and helped Rubria remove her clothing.

‘You may do my hair now, Antonia,’ said Rubria eventually.

The servant poured soap on Rubria’s re-growing hair and worked it into the scalp. Antonia had been appointed Rubria’s personal servant and though born a Roman citizen, had surrendered the rights to serve the Priestesses as had many young girls. When she had finished she poured fresh jugs of hot water to clear the soap and walked out of the bath to obtain the woollen wrap. She averted her eyes as Rubria walked out of the bath and held open the towel to await her mistress.

‘Thank you, Antonia,’ said Rubria as the servant wrapped the robe around here, ‘You may leave.’

The servant dropped to her knees and closed her eyes, her hands held together in prayer as Rubria turned to give her blessing. It was the only payment sought or given and she finally left the room, refreshed in the blessing of the Goddess. Rubria dressed herself in the crisp white robes and, after a prayer at the shrine, left her room to descend to the courtyard below.

‘Are you ready, Rubria?’ asked the High Priestess gently as she approached the awaiting litter.

‘Yes, Mother,’ she answered.

‘Then take her word forth,’ she said and opened the litter doors.

As Rubria bent to enter the sumptuous litter, the High Priestess touched her on the arm. Rubria stopped and looked at her mentor, seeing a slight look of concern on her face.

‘Be careful, Rubria,’ she said.

‘Careful mother?' answered Rubria, 'I

‘Oh, it’s probably nothing but……..just be careful.’

‘I will,’ she said and climbed in to the litter.

Eight slaves were allowed through the gates to take their places bearing the poles of the litter and a Contubernium of Praetorian Guard accompanied them, six at the front and four at the rear. Though a ten man Contubernium was usually commanded by a Decurion, due to the importance of the occupant, it was accompanied by a young Centurion, resplendent in his gleaming bronze ceremonial armour. The High Priestess approached the Centurion.

‘Hail, Dragus,’ she said.

‘Ave, Holy Mother,’ he smiled, ‘A great occasion today.’ The Centurion had been appointed protector of the Virgins by his Legate and would fulfil his role for a full year. He had already served for six months and had built up a mutual trust with the high priestess.

‘It is but…..’

‘But what?’ he asked.

She indicated for him to follow her away from the litter and spoke quietly.

‘What is his mood today?’ she said eventually.

‘Holy Mother, I am not privy to the inner circles of the Emperor,’ he said, ‘Though I have to admit there are concerns amongst the guard.’


‘He alienates the Senate and there are rumblings about his focus.’


‘I have to be careful, Mother,’ he said, ‘There are ears everywhere.’

‘You have the word of the Goddess herself, Centurion,’ she said ‘Your council will be withheld.’

‘I hear tell he descends into madness,’ he said eventually, ‘The bordellos and taverns resound with his songs whilst his legions want for direction.’

‘Does not the Senate take him to task?’

‘He sees himself above the whims of the Senate and revels in debauchery of the worst kind.’

‘I hear his tastes grow even more deviant.’

‘His preferences degenerate and I would not hurt you ears with description,’ he said.

‘I have heard as much,’ she answered, ‘And my concern grows.’

‘We have to go, Holy Mother,’ said Dragus, ‘The Emperor awaits.’ He dropped to one knee and the high Priestess gave him her blessing. He got to his feet but as he turned away the high Priestess called out once more.

‘Dragus!’ she said,

He turned and looked back.

‘Watch over her,’ she said indicating the litter, ‘She has the aura of the Goddess about her.’

The movement of the litter was quite relaxing to Rubria as it rocked on the shoulders of the slaves. The drapes were drawn back at her request for quite apart from the pleasure it would give those she passed to catch sight of one of the priestesses, to be truthful she was just as interested in them. She had never walked the streets of the city and at eighteen was still relatively unwise in the ways of the world.

Before the small procession marched a Lecter, the personal bodyguard that had been afforded her by the Senate for her visit to the Emperor. In one hand he carried a staff to indicate his authority and strike any coming too close while in the other he carried an axe, a reminder he had the power of execution in the service of the state. The Contubernium marched before and behind the litter and the Centurion brought up the rear so he could see any threat.

‘A Virgin approaches,’ came a cry and Rubria peered forward to see a commotion in the street as several of the populace rushed to get a better view.

‘Clear the path!’ shouted the Lecter, ‘Make way for Vesta.’

Bless me, priestess!’ called a woman and ran towards the litter.

A soldier broke ranks and pushed her back.

‘Control them!’ called the Centurion, ‘Keep the way clear.’

They soon cleared the streets and within ten minutes the litter had been put down in the grounds of the Domus Transitoria. Rubria waited until the slaves and the guard had withdrawn before she got out of the litter. Before her stood the Lecter, his staff resting on the floor and axe hanging at his side. The Centurion still sat astride his horse.

‘From here you will proceed alone,’ said the Lecter, ‘Go through the doors and proceed past the royal pools to the double doors at the far end. The Emperor awaits.’

‘Thank you,’ she said gently and looked up to thank the Centurion. What she saw took her aback.

The soldier was staring at her with an intensity that was frightening.

‘Centurion, are you okay?’ she asked.

Dragus snapped back to reality. For a moment he had been swept away in the glory of her beauty. Her face, her piercing blue eyes, even her very demeanour took his very breath away. Never had he seen a vision such as this and he realised why the Holy Mother recognised such promise in her.

‘I am fine, Holy Sister,’ he said,’ I will wait at the gate for your return and will escort you back to the temple.’

‘Thank you,’ she said and held the stare of the handsome soldier for a few more seconds than was proper, before lowering her eyes. She turned and walked through the gates, her silk wrap flowing behind her.

Dragus watched her go, confused, annoyed and frightened at the feelings coursing through his blood. He was on fire, his skin tingled and he breathed as hard as if he had run a race. This was all wrong! The girl was a Priestess and beyond the reach of any mortal man but never had he felt such as this. Surely it was a test sent from Vesta herself.

Rubria walked towards the inner doors, past a line of fountains feeding a beautiful pool. For the first few paces she considered the reaction of the guard but quickly put it out of her mind as she concentrated on the audience she was about to undertake. Nero had ruled as Emperor for ten years and the first five had been kind and prosperous with the aid of his mother, Aggripinna but as he had grown more confident and took more control of his own fate, he had seen her as a threat rather than an ally and arranged her murder five years earlier. Despite this, Rubria held her head high for no-one was beyond the reach of the Goddess and perhaps she, Rubria, could reach out to the kindness within.

Chapter 6

London 2010

‘So, who is he?’ asked Brandon.

‘Unless I am mistaken,’ answered India, ‘It is Phillip the Second of Macedonia.’

‘Means nothing to me, who was he some sort of Roman god?’

‘No, not a God,’ she said, ‘Not even Roman.’

‘History wasn’t one of my strong points in school,’ he said, ‘More interested in rugby, women and cider.’

‘It figures,’ she said.

‘So who was this Phillip?’

‘Phillip the Second was the king of Macedonia in the fourth century BC and father of Alexander the Great,’ she said, ‘Surely you must have heard of Alexander. He conquered most of the known world at the time including Persia, Egypt and Syria. Died at the age of thirty two having only ruled for thirteen years and is reckoned to be one of the best military leaders of all time.’

‘Heard of him,’ said Brandon, ‘But what about his father, this Phillip guy?’

‘He was a great leader as well but not on the scale of his son.’

‘So what is the link here?'

‘Don’t know,’ said India, ‘Though I am almost certain the necklace is fake.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Well, from what I can recall the reverse should have some sort of Macedonian God or date or similar. The one stolen from the library had neither.’

‘What did it have?’

‘That’s just it, I have seen it before but can’t recall where. What we need is the necklace so we can compare it to the records.’

‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘That is not possible. The thief has long gone so that avenue is closed. Would there be any in the museums?’

‘I doubt it,’ she answered, ‘There would be coins of Phillip but I would bet they are Macedonian coins with normal Macedonian images. There wouldn’t be anything like this.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because it is a modern coin, minted no more than a few hundred years ago, Sixteenth Century is my best guess.’

‘And you’re sure about this?’

‘When you have seen as many coins as I have and spent half your life dating them you tend to get a hunch about these things.’

‘Okay, assuming your right, what else can you tell me?’

‘That’s about it,’ she said, ‘Without the actual necklace to analyse there is nothing else. Oh.’ She said suddenly, her mind racing. ‘Hang on, it’s bloody obvious.’

‘What is?’

‘Why didn’t I think of it before?’ she crossed the room to his laptop and switched it on.

‘You online here?’

‘Yes why?’

‘What’s your password?’

‘Manchester United, one word!’

She gave him a derisive look and logged on.

‘You think you can find a picture on the internet?’

‘No, don’t have to. I know where I can find the image of the exact necklace.’


‘Hammersmith Numismatic Society,’ she said, ‘My Mr Jones, as you so often refer to him, kindly posted a picture on there asking for information a few days ago. She hit the return key and spun the screen around to face him with a flourish. Her face dropped as she saw he was holding up a print out of the exact screen shot displayed on the computer.

‘You already had a picture all along,’ she said in astonishment.

‘Sorry India,’ he said, ‘I had to make sure you were straight.’

‘What do you mean?'

‘I had to make sure you are not in on this, whatever this is.’

‘You bastard,’ she said.

‘Had to be done,’ he answered, ‘Easiest way was to see if you was holding back any relevant information.’

‘Well,’ she said eventually, ‘Do I pass?’

‘You do.’

She snatched the picture from his hands and returned to the coffee table.

In that case,’ she said, ‘Get me a magnifying glass,’ and after a moment’s pause added, ‘And another cup of tea.’

— -

‘First of all,’ she said poring over the picture, ‘The front of the coin is exactly as I thought; the face is definitely Phillip the Second of Macedonia and dates after 354BC.’

‘How can you tell?’

‘His face is very distinctive,’ she said ‘It looks like most images of him that are recorded at the time. The long straight nose is a family trait and the laurel wreath sitting around his head is typical of his image. In itself this is not enough but most coins of the time depict their king’s facing right, this one faces left.’


‘In 354 BC Phillip attacked Methone in the Aegean sea. During the battle an arrow smashed into his face and he suffered a lot of damage, including the loss of his right eye. Since that date any coinage depicted the left side of his face. His good side, so to speak.’

‘What about the script?’ he asked and spelt out the letters surrounding the head, ‘M…Y…R…T…A…L…E’

‘That is quite strange,’ she said, ‘As the coin postdates the battle, the name is out of sync.’

‘Why who is it?’

‘It is the name of his wife,’ she said ‘But it is all wrong. When he married her in 357 BC her name was indeed Myrtale but when Phillip’s horse won in the Olympic games a year later, she changed her name to Olympias in honour of the victory.’

‘Perhaps she still used it or he preferred it,’ said Brandon.

‘I wouldn’t have thought so, going back to an old name was seen as unlucky, and anyway, Alexander was born in the same year and it would have been an insult to him. No, this is one of the reasons I think this is a fake, the coin was minted by a different culture who perhaps got their names or dates wrong.’

‘Okay,’ said Phillip, ’What about the other side?’

She didn’t bother using the magnifying glass for this one, just picked up the sheet.

‘This is something altogether different,’ she said ‘And is wrong, wrong, wrong.’


‘Wrong country, wrong period, wrong culture.’

He looked at the picture on the coin. To him it looked like a crude attempt at a matchstick man, the type often drawn by young children in their first attempts at drawing. A large round head sat on two vertical thick lines depicting the body and legs, whilst the arms were held tight against the sides.

‘Go on.’

‘Where do I start?’ she asked, ‘This image is a symbol recognised by many different cultures across the world. It refers to an ideology shared by thousands of religions from Christianity to Catholicism and ranges from the dawn of time right up to modern day. It is Pagan in origin and represents the universe itself or more recently, an actual person or should I say, Deity.’

‘Who is it?’ he asked, ‘Do I know him?’

‘Not him, her. The image is called the Tyet’ she explained, ‘The original meaning is unknown though it probably undertook different variances throughout time. In particular it is associated with one of the greatest female deities of all time. Her name was Aset, and she lived about nine thousand years ago in the area now known as the Black Sea.’

‘I’ve never heard of her,’ he said.

‘I expect you have,’ she answered ‘But the more recent incarnation. You see, this design, the Tyet is also known as the Blood of Isis.

‘Isis, wasn’t she an Egyptian queen?’

‘Not quite, more a Goddess though she was based on a real person.’

‘And is there a link between Phillip and Isis?’

‘Not at all, there is almost a seven thousand year gap between them.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Nope, except, as I said, this coin seems to be no more than a few hundred years old. That would explain the mistakes but why anyone in the middle ages wanted to represent these ancient characters is beyond me. Actually, come to think of it, most of what we know now only came to light in the last hundred years or so. People in the middle ages would have known virtually nothing about ancient history.’

‘So we are no further forward then.’

‘No, sorry.’

‘Sod this,’ he said, ‘Come on I need some air.’ He stood up and led the way towards the door.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Victoria Station,’ he said, ‘Let’s see if there’s anything the police missed there.’

An hour later Brandon and India left the station managers office and descended a private staircase into a maintenance tunnel. They stood before a metal door as the manager fumbled with a set of keys.

‘It’s here somewhere,’ he said, ‘After the incident we had this door specially installed. Staff have to sign for the key now, here we go,’ He pulled the door towards him and stood to one side, ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you detective?’

‘No, we will be fine thanks.’

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘The tunnel is about two hundred yards on your left and the linesman’s room is a further one hundred yards along. You can’t miss it; there is still police tape over the door.’

‘It’s still sealed?’

‘Yes, you are the first people down there since the incident. You’ll need this.’ He retrieved another key off the ring, ‘And these.’ He picked up two torches from a side table and handed them over along with high visibility vests and safety helmets. ‘The side tunnel has no electricity,’ he explained.

‘Thanks,’ said Brandon, ‘We’ll probably be no longer than an hour.’

‘If you’re not back by then,’ said the manager, ‘We’ll send someone to get you. Don’t worry, you can’t get lost, the tunnels are blocked at the other end, have been since the forties.


‘Wrong ground type,’ said the manager, ‘The engineers discovered a fault at the time and they had to be abandoned.’

They thanked the manager and started down the dimly lit tunnel carrying the torches. As soon as the door shut behind them Brandon discarded the jackets and helmets.

‘You really don’t like health and safety, do you?’ laughed India.

‘It’s the bloody principle,’ stated Brandon in frustration, ‘If they were there for us to pick up, then I would probably have used them, I just don’t like people telling me how to look after myself.’

Within a few minutes the entrance to the side tunnel loomed darkly on their left and they turned on their torches, the beams cutting through the darkness as they made their way to the linesman’s room. Suddenly Brandon stopped and held his hand up.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked India.

‘It’s open,’ he said and India aimed her torch past him onto the door sticking out into the passage.

‘I thought he said it was sealed?’

‘He did,’ he said, examining the door. Reaching across the full width was n industrial hasp, hinged at the end to drop over the looped staple fixed to the frame. A heavy duty padlock lay on the floor, one end of the shaft forced from the body. ‘It’s been forced,’ he said and entered the room closely followed by India.

They shone their torches around the small room. There was a mess table, a wooden locker and two benches. A crowbar lay in the dirt floor, obviously left by the person who had forced the door. A dozen or so cables fed trough the wall at head level and terminated in a large distribution cupboard, the doors hanging off the hinges.

‘What are we looking for?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I just need to get a feel for the place, to see where that poor girl spent the last days of her life.’

‘How old are you Brandon?’ asked India, as she examined her side of the room.

‘Thirty, why?

‘Aren’t you a bit young to be wearing Brut?’


‘My father used Brut; I thought you would be more of a Paco Rabhan sort of guy.’

‘What are you on about?’ he asked.

‘Your aftershave,’ she said, ‘I recognise the smell.’

He spun around and stared at her, blinding her with the beam of his torch.

‘Oy,’ she said, ‘Get your light out of my eyes.’

‘What did you say?’

‘Your light…’

‘No, about the aftershave!’

‘Oh for God’s sake, there’s no drama here, you’ve just used a bit too much that’s all.’

‘India,’ he said,’ I’m not wearing any.’

A noise outside made them both spin around, but before they could do anything else, the door slammed shut into its frame. Brandon lunged for the door in vain.

‘What’s happened?’ shouted India, ‘Who’s there?’

‘Someone’s closed the hasp,’ said Brandon, ‘They must have dropped something through the staple, probably the shaft of the broken padlock.’

India banged on the door.

‘Let us out,’ she shouted, ‘Hello, whoever you are, open this door right now.’

‘You’re wasting your time,’ said Brandon, ‘Calm down.’

‘What do you mean calm down? Some creep has locked us in.’

‘I know, and do you think that just by shouting at him is going to change his mind. Anyway, he’s probably long gone.’

‘No, problem,’ said India, ‘The station manager said he would send someone for us in an hour and we’ve been gone half of that already. All we have to do is wait for him and we will be okay, right?’

‘Right,’ said Brandon, ‘May as well make ourselves comfortable. He pulled up the two benches and they sat opposite each other across the table. ‘Turn off your torch. We need to conserve our batteries.’

‘Who do you think it was?’ asked India eventually.

‘No way of telling. Obviously someone who doesn’t want us snooping around.’

‘Do you think it was the killer?’

‘No, Like I said, we know who that was and he is dead.’

‘Hang on,’ said India and fished out her mobile phone. ‘Shit, no signal,’

‘What did you expect you’re about a hundred feet underground?’

‘Well it works on the tube.’

‘Signal amplifiers,’ he said simply and silence fell again.

‘While we are waiting,’ said Brandon eventually, ‘Fill me in on this Isis character.’

‘I am not sure I want to,’ she said

‘Why not?’

‘We’re in the dark, locked in an underground room where a girl was murdered. Not a good place to discuss a long dead Egyptian Goddess.’

‘Not afraid of some long dead spirits are you?’ he laughed.

‘I know, it’s stupid, it just feels a bit, I don’t know, spooky I suppose.’

‘Humour me,’ he said, ‘None of this makes any sense. We may as well make the most of the situation. Fill me in on everything. Go back to the very beginning. Leave nothing out.’

‘Okay she sighed, ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’

His smile at her sarcasm was lost in the darkness.

‘It all began,’ she said about ten thousand years ago!’

Chapter 7

Rome 64 AD

The giant doors swung inwards opened by a pair of female slaves of eastern descent. They were bare breasted and wore simple wraps of pure white linen around their waists that fell to halfway down their thighs. Rubria ignored the impropriety and walked gracefully into the Emperor’s audience chamber. She had decided that nothing she saw today would get a reaction from her. At the end of the day, he was her Emperor and who was she to judge his actions?

She looked around in wonder. The Temple of Vesta was very ornate but this was something else altogether. First of all the room was enormous and was entirely clad in sheets of white marble ingrained with sweeping veins of colour. The floors were slabs of black marble interspersed with mosaics of exquisite design ranging from gladiatorial contests to feasts of the gods. Ornamental fountains sprayed coloured water from hidden spouts to disappear once more under suitably displaced marble sinks. Other pools of water rippled lazily and she was astonished to see multi coloured fish swimming within, something she could not have even imagined. More slaves were located throughout the room and watched in interest as the Priestess walked towards the empty throne. As she approached an official walked forward and stood in front of her, stopping her in her tracks.

‘Wait here!’ he said and disappeared into an ante chamber.

She stood for an hour, absolutely still in the sumptuous room, accepting the aches in her legs as a blessing from the Virgin. The monotony was briefly broken for a few minutes as she stared in astonishment when a white stallion walked lazily into the room, bedecked with jewels and flowers. No-one seemed to take any notice and the horse eventually disappeared though a side door. Finally a figure draped in a purple silk toga strode into the room accompanied by half a dozen officials. He made his way to the throne and sat answering questions with an air of boredom. Rubria stood up straight and awaited instruction. Eventually the Emperor spotted the Priestess and held up his hand to silence his entourage.

‘Be-gone!’ he said eventually and his staff duly disappeared into the depths of the building. He lounged back on his throne, staring across the marble at the Priestess fifty paces away.

‘Who are you, spirit lady?’ he called out.

‘I am Rubria, lord,’ she answered, ‘Humble Priestess of the Temple of Vesta.’

She lowered herself gracefully down spreading her gown out as she went and leaned forward, her head low and her arms outstretched with palms flat on the floor.

He left his throne to walk slowly towards her.

‘A Vestal Virgin,’ he said eventually, ‘How wonderful. Tell me something Virgin,’ he said, ‘Have you seen my horse?’

‘I believe he walked through this glorious hall not ten minutes since, Sire. ’

‘Ah, good,’ he said, ‘It’s almost time for his bath.’

Rubria didn’t flinch at the strange conversation, remaining prostrate at his feet.

‘You may arise,’ he said eventually.

Rubria stood but kept her gaze lowered.

‘Do you know me, Virgin?’ he asked.

‘Sire, you are Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, our glorious Emperor.’

‘Correct!’ he shouted, making her jump, ‘Look at me.’

Nero’s intake of breath was audible as the sight of her eyes caught him by surprise. He took a step forward staring into her gaze, astonished at the colour and the depth. Rubria breathed shallowly in order not to take in too much of his wine laden breath.

‘Are you a demon?’ he asked.

‘No Sire, I am a humble servant of the Goddess, keeper of the hearth and protector of the secrets.’

‘I have to admit,’ he said, ‘You are by far the prettiest of them. How old are you?’

‘Eighteen Sire.’

‘More wine!’ he shouted suddenly,’ making her jump again and a slave ran forward with a silver tankard. He took a deep draught and held it to be refilled from the waiting amphora.

‘Wine, Virgin?’ he asked.

‘No thank you, Sire, I am fine.’

‘Nonsense,’ he said, ‘Come with me.’ He turned and made his way back to throne followed by Rubria and dropped onto the soft cushions.

‘Bring the Priestess a glass.’ he ordered and within a minute a beautiful goblet filled with a scarlet liquid was brought by the same slave. An ornately carved chair, albeit far smaller than the overpowering throne, was carried out for Rubria to sit on. She sipped from the delicate glass, waiting for Nero to speak. Duly he obliged.

‘What do you know about politics, Virgin?’ he asked.

‘Very little, Sire. ’

‘You know what a Senate is?’

‘Of course, Sire, the political body that acts in the interests of every citizen, guided of course by your own glorious hand.’

‘By my hand,’ he scoffed, ‘A jest indeed, Virgin, a generation ago perhaps but these days they steer their own course.’

‘Perhaps so, sire but their actions can never detract from the good that has arisen from your great guidance.’

‘My guidance? And what would someone who has spent more than half their life locked in a tiny cell know about such things?’

‘It is true many of the ways of the world are strange to me but I am aware that your rule brought happiness to the downtrodden until…’

‘Until what?’ he asked.

‘Forgive me, sire but I think perhaps you may have become distracted.’

He looked at her in astonishment.

‘You are free indeed with your tongue Virgin,’ he said, ‘Take care you do not raise my ire.’

She looked deep into his eyes.

‘Sire, your majesty is undoubted, your glory is without question and everyone in the city whispers your name in awe. But do not the words of those nearest to you ring hollow? Do you not crave words of truth from someone who has nothing to gain from agreeing with your every sentence?’

‘Continue!’ he said intrigued.

‘Sire, I am nothing more than a servant to the Goddess. I hold no political ambition and have nothing to gain by pandering to your every word. If I offend then I can only apologise but the path I have chosen is one of truth.’

He stared at her for a long time before tilting his head back and roaring with laughter.

‘By the gods, Virgin he laughed, your impudence astounds me. I grace you with an audience and within minutes you criticise my rule with tangled words of hidden meaning.’

She smiled at him while he wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes.

‘I like you’ Virgin,’ he said eventually, ‘For the first time in an age my ears detect no ulterior motive and your candour refreshes me, I would hear more.’

Her eyes closed briefly as she nodded her head in acceptance.

‘So, Virgin,’ he said, ‘Now the level between has been agreed I would seek your view on a political situation that irks me.’

‘If the Goddess has blessed me with the knowledge sire then I will convey my view with truth and candour.’

Nero stood up and walked around Rubria with his hands behind his back.

‘Bearing in mind your extraordinary person and henceforth privileged position, I shall accept no less. Therefore, Rubria, Priestess of Vesta, ask your Goddess this,’ He turned to look back at her, his head tilted to one side, ‘Should I make my horse a Senator?’

Several hours later the High Priestess and Rubria sat in an antechamber of the Vestal Temple partaking of their evening meal. The citrus fruit segments were the perfect antidote for the rich slabs of meat and Garum sauce they had just finished and though the meal was delicious Rubria was still getting used to the higher quality of life she enjoyed as a Priestess than an Acolyte.

‘So how did it go?’ asked the Priestess eventually.

Rubria took a deep breath.

‘To be honest, Holy Mother, I am not quite sure what to say. The conversation ranged from the ordinary to the ridiculous.’

‘Do you think he has lost his mind?’

‘Oh no. I think that despite the bizarre nature of some of his edicts he knows exactly what he wants and what he is doing. He harbours a deep distrust of the Senate and sees them as an obstacle that must be overcome in order to achieve his plans.’

‘And did he expand on those plans?’

‘No, Mother.’

‘He did not mention anything about his proposed golden palace.’

‘Not really, except to say he had plans for Rome that would eclipse all other rulers that have gone before him, kings and Emperors.’

‘But you think you can gain his trust?’

‘I believe I have started on the road but have a long way to go.’

‘Let’s hope so, the state of mind he is in who knows what fate lies in store for our order. Does he want to see you again?’

‘Yes, Mother, on the morrow.’

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘You will be excused your vigil at the flames but be careful, let us not forget this is the man who took the life of his own mother when he saw no more use for her.’

‘The Goddess will protect me,’ said Rubria.

The high Priestess smiled.

‘You may retire,’ she said and Rubria stood to leave.

‘Oh, one more thing, Rubria,’ she said, ‘Did he mention the Palladia?’

‘No, Mother, said Rubria, ‘I believe that at the moment, the secrets are safe!’

Chapter 8

London 2010

‘First of all,’ said India, ‘I need you to understand the great changes that were going on across the world at the time. As you probably know, the Earth has undergone many ice ages throughout her history and undoubtedly will again. These ice ages are interspersed with warmer interglacial periods that are themselves divided by interstadial periods of cold and warmth lasting a few years to several thousand. You could say that the planet is in one of these interstadial periods right now and the next ice age is just around the corner, geologically speaking. Ten thousand years ago we were still in the closing throes of a particularly long ice age. The planet had been gripped by the cold for over a hundred thousand years but at last the climate got warmer.’

‘The world was covered in ice?’ asked Brandon

‘No not the world, that’s a common misconception. The ice at the poles was much thicker, along with most of the northern hemisphere but from the Alps southwards, the weather was much milder and this was where humanity retreated to avoid the cold. However, even here there would have been glaciers in the mountains.’

‘What has all this to do with Isis?’

‘I’ll get to that, bear with me, this is important. Around that time humanity was spread far and wide throughout the area. Evidence is coming to light of many different cultures that were fairly advanced, especially in the east. Archaeologists have found pottery, arrows and even burials from that age suggesting a level of civilisation and trade. It seems it was a hunter gatherer society and smaller tribes would have been in abundance throughout the warmer continents. The rainforests were wider spread and even the Sahara was green with trees and scrubland covering the whole area. But though there was an abundance of people there seemed to be little, if any cohesion between smaller groups. At the time a particular fertile area would have been the black sea valley, a huge, natural basin covering over 169,000 square miles, almost twice the size of Great Britain today. It would have been fertile, had a warm climate with good hunting and plenty of fresh drinking water from the lake, an ideal location for human habitation.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Brandon, ‘The Black Sea is salt water. I know, I’ve been there on holiday.’

‘Your right,’ she said ‘It is, but it wasn’t always so. Anyway, this land was probably populated with thousands of individual tribes and clans, all living independent of each other, and though there was plenty of trading going on, you could say the time was right for someone with a vision to exploit the situation.’


‘No not Isis, she came a couple of thousand years later, this person was called Assur.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Fair point,’ said India, ‘We can’t be sure but there are many fables and stories passed down through many cultures that hint at his existence. For now, let’s just accept that Assur was a real person sometime after the end of the ice age. Anyway, according to Pagan beliefs Assur saw an opportunity to bind the many different groups together in one great tribe around the lake. Legend has it; he coordinated the sharing of resources, leading the indigenous people away from their reliance on hunter gathering and into agriculture. History shows us right across the world that once a civilisation accepts and masters farming, whether livestock or crops then with the support of a suitable climate, that society flourishes. Well this was perfect timing for Assur. The landscape was ideal; the lands fertile, the climate warm and a steady rainfall ensured the growing conditions were perfect. No one knows where he came from but we can imagine he was of eastern descent due to the knowledge he possessed.’

‘Why?’ interrupted Brandon.

‘The far east was far further advanced than the middle east and had been farming for heaven knows how long, but wherever he came from, he had the secret of agriculture with him. Well, you can imagine, all of a sudden word must have spread like wildfire throughout the populace that there was a tribe near the lake that never went hungry without any need to hunt. It must have sounded like heaven and tribes flooded to join him. He must have been quite a charismatic man but with luck and climate on his side, he managed to spread the word and quickly became a great leader. The story goes that he had a brother called Set and one day while he was out on a journey in the desert, in a fit of jealousy Set murdered him and took his place as leader but though he was gone, his legacy was solid and over hundreds of years the Black Sea basin was cleared to become a fertile haven of agricultural excellence. Society flourished and Assur became legendary as a God, the father of civilisation.’

‘Interesting,’ said Brandon, ‘I had no idea. How come this isn’t taught in schools?’

‘Don’t forget, until recently the creation theory was the only authorised version of history and this would have been seen as heresy, besides, a lot of this is still only theory but Middle East archaeology is one of the hottest areas of discovery at the moment with new findings happening on an almost daily basis.’

‘So how is this relevant to us then?’ he asked.

‘Well, this is where it takes an interesting turn,’ she said, ‘Assur was long dead and it would seem that for thousands of years the area thrived and was at peace as everyone farmed and traded. However, like most eras, times changed and there appears to have been an extended period of conflict between the tribes surrounding the lake. No doubt leaders rose and fell with none making much of an impact until one day; perhaps thousands of years after the death of Assur, a woman arrived on the scene. She was apparently a very clever woman and was known as twice wise. Her name was Aset or Isis to you and me.’

‘And I suppose she bonded them back together?’ suggested Brandon.

‘Not at first as though the mother figure was revered in most civilisations she was still a woman and any self respecting male leader couldn’t allow any woman to just walk in and take control. He would simply challenge her to a duel and take her role no matter how wise she may be.’

‘So what happened?’

‘Well, that’s where her genius shines through. There was no way she could win a fight so she had to win the people’s support by other means. In addition there was another problem, she was pregnant so needed an ally, someone who would demand instant respect from all the warring tribes and she knew exactly who to call on.’



‘But he was dead.’

‘That’s right, and by now he was known as a God amongst the peoples of the basin but she needed his influence and the respect that the people held for him so what she did was she made an astonishing claim. She claimed that she had searched the land, found the individual parts of his body and resurrected him. Not only this, she also claimed she was still a Virgin and that the God Assur had fathered her baby.’

‘And they bought it?’

‘Well, let’s not forget this was a mystical time when people believed in gods, demons and magic, all that sort of mumbo jumbo.’

‘It seems some things never change,’ he murmured.

‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘Whatever the reason the people believed her and she became the epitome of the mother figure and the good times returned once more to the area. She gave birth to Horus, a son and he was proclaimed a saviour who would save the world. Her name was revered across the area and the population flourished.’

‘Wait a minute,’ said Brandon, ‘This is an awful lot of information for something that has no evidence.’

‘Oh the evidence is there if you look hard enough,’ she said, ‘In the legends and the stories that abound throughout the world. Just take the story of Assur. The whole area of the Middle East is touched by his legacy. Modern day Syria is named after him. The lands centred on Iraq were once called Mesopotamia which in itself covered the area once known as Assyria, a derivation of Assur. There were cities called Assur, Gods named Assur, everywhere you turn the name is riddled throughout ancient history but I accept that rumour and hearsay alone not enough. However, when you apply the same rational to Isis, there is evidence aplenty.’


‘Written on in the tombs, temples and pyramids of Egypt for a start,’ she said. ‘Her name and symbols are referred to throughout the Egyptian Empire from its earliest days to modern day Pagan cults. She had temples built to her throughout history including Rome, Greece, Turkey, you name a place and she has probably been worshipped there in some way shape or form. Even Christianity has been touched by her.’


‘The Virgin Mary.’

‘Oh for heaven’s sake,’ he said.

‘You can believe me or not, the choice is yours but if you look at the image of Isis nursing her infant, she usually has the orb of the sun depicted behind her. Look at the famous pictures of the Madonna and child and she has a radiant halo behind her head. Put them together and they are almost exactly the same, yet Isis lived thousands of years before Mary of Nazareth. I’m not saying that Mary never existed, just that those who chronicled the events hundreds of years later may have been influenced by the stories of Isis. Remember, this was the era in which they were living their everyday lives. Paganism was everywhere and every role in life had a different God to pray to. Is it any wonder that they were influenced by what they knew, but that’s not all, think about it, Virgin birth, fathered by a God, or in Mary’s case, God. Gives birth to a saviour who will save the Earth, Who am I talking about, Mary, Isis, both, or are the stories basically based on the same versions of history altered by peoples perception over hundreds of years. Even the bad guy Set has a modern day equivalent in Satan!’

‘Fascinating,’ said Brandon, ‘But I’m not sure I buy it.’

‘No matter,’ said India, ‘We're getting ahead of ourselves, let’s go back a few steps. Forget about the Christianity similarities; let’s go back to the times of Isis and Assur. At least you can accept there is reasonable evidence that they existed, yes?’

‘Okay I’ll run with it.’

‘Good, as I said Isis was very successful and the area flourished. She became bigger than Assur ever was and over the centuries was deified as the Goddess of purity and fertility, a reference to the success of the harvest and the Virgin conception of her child. But as great as she was, her name was known only to those in the valley of the Black Sea.’

‘But you said the cult was huge.’

‘It was, but to these people the Black Sea basin was the centre of their universe. Let’s not forget this area was more than twice the size of modern day Britain and proportionately was probably the most advanced and populated areas of that time. There would have been hundreds of thousands of people living around the lake. Remember, this was before the pyramids of Egypt were built, before Rome existed and even the islands of Greece were still inhabited by hunter gatherers. The Mediterranean Sea was much lower, as indeed were all the sea levels as a lot of water was being held encapsulated in the ice caps of the north. The people of Isis were probably one of the most advanced peoples of the world at this time and had things worked out differently would have become the epicentre of a great civilisation.’

‘Would have? Why what happened, a war of some sort?’

‘No on the contrary, though there was a disaster, the majority would have survived but they just moved out of the area.’


‘The great flood.’

A silence fell in the darkened room before Brandon finally spoke.

‘Please don’t tell me you mean Noah’s flood.’

‘I do!’

‘Oh this is getting ridiculous,’ he said and stood up, switching on his torch.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

‘Getting out of here,’ he said, ‘Before these torches run out.’

‘I thought we had agreed we would wait for the manager.’ she said.

‘It’s been over an hour,’ he said, ‘If anyone was coming they would be here by now.’

‘Surely he wouldn’t just leave us down here, that would be stupid.’

‘Unless he was the one who locked us in!’


‘Think about it,’ he said, ‘There’s only one way into these tunnels and that’s through his office. Only he knows we are here so who else can it be?’

‘What are you going to do,’ she asked picking up her own torch.

‘Those cables,’ he said, pointing at the old electricity supplies piercing the walls, ‘They must lead somewhere, pass me that crowbar.’ He climbed on a chair and started to hit at the rotten wood with the tool. The sixty year old wooden panel broke easily and within a few minutes he had made a hole wide enough for him to peer through. ‘There’s another panel a few yards along,’ he said and made the hole in the panel as wide as he could. Eventually it was big enough to crawl through and he jumped down off the chair. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I’ll help you up.’

‘I’m not going in there,’ she said.

‘You have to,’ he replied, ‘You are smaller than me, I’ll never fit through.’

‘I can’t’ she said, ‘I suffer from claustrophobia. This room is bad enough but at least I had you here with me. It looks like that hole is barely big enough for me to crawl through. I can’t do it.’

‘It’s only a few yards, India,’ he said, ‘Drop into the next room and come and open the door from the outside. It’s probably our only chance.’

‘I can’t,’ she said again.

‘India, you can,’ he said, ‘I’ll help you up and you go in feet first on your back. Just keep your eyes closed. Two minutes max and it will be over. I will be only a few feet away at all times.’

‘I don’t have an option do I?’ she asked.

Brandon just smiled grimly.

‘We could wait for help to arrive.’ he said, ‘But somehow I think that could be quite a while, if ever.’

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘I’ll do it.’

‘That’s my girl,’ he said and dragged the table across to below the cables. ‘Come on, Ill help you up.’

She climbed in the hole feet first and wriggled until only her head and shoulders still remained in the room.

‘Good girl,’ said Brandon, ‘Keep going until your feet touch the board on the other side and kick it as hard as you can, it should give way easy enough. When it does, turn over and lower yourself into the room.’

‘Here goes,’ she said and wriggled into the tunnel. ‘Keep that light on,’ she called as she went and Brandon shone the torch into the conduit behind her. Within a few minutes he heard the sound of banging and a sudden shout of ‘Yes’ as the board fell away.

‘It’s gone,’ she shouted, ‘I m just going to drop down.’

‘Be careful,’ he called and watched as she disappeared from view.

A second later she called again.

‘I’m in,’ came her muffled voice, ‘Just looking for the door, just a second there’s someone….Oh my God’ she screamed, ‘Brandon……Help me!’

Her terrified scream chilled him to the bone.

‘India!’ he shouted, ‘What’s the matter, India, answer me, are you okay?’

Apart from her crying there was no answer and Brandon looked around frantically for the crowbar. He laid the torch on the table and started to smash at the door with little success. He looked around again and picked up the solid bench, hardly managing its weight. Swinging it back he smashed it against the hinge side of the door and had the satisfaction of seeing it move. Straining every muscle he hit the door over and over again until at last the door frame fixings gave way and the whole doorway fell outwards in a cloud of dust. Brandon climbed through and taking his torch, made his way the few yards to the next door coughing as he went. The door was also locked but this time he could see it was a very old padlock and probably hadn’t been opened in years. He returned to the linesman’s room for the crowbar and a minute later, after smashing the lock off the second door, ran in to the darkened room. His torch cut through the darkness and he immediately saw India sat in the corner, still crying and shaking in terror.

‘India,’ he said grabbing her by her arms, ‘India, it’s me Brandon what’s the matter.’

She looked at him, realising who he was and threw her arms around him sobbing.

‘Okay India,’ he said, ‘you’re safe now, the darkness must have got to you quite bad.’

‘No she sobbed, ‘Look…there!

He turned his head and pointed the torch in the direction she was staring and his blood ran cold.

Leaning against the wall was a primitive crucifix, and tied to the cross was the rotting remains of a young girl!

Brandon stared in disbelief at the heart stopping horror in front of him. The girl seemed to be less than ten years old and by the state of the corpse and lack of smell must have been there for months if not years. The rotting fabric hanging from her skeletal frame had once been a white nightdress of some sort but the thick dust layer had transformed it into a morose dirty grey.

A spider, annoyed by the sudden intrusion of light, scuttled from the web suspended between her nailed wrist and her head, seeking the safety of her straw like hair.

‘Oh my God,’ he whispered and walked over to inspect the body more closely.

‘Brandon, get me out of here,’ said India quietly.

‘Wait a minute,’ he said and shone the torch slowly over the whole body. The skin was stretched tight over the skeleton and her head hung down onto her chest. He used the torch to raise the head up, swallowing hard as he saw the empty sockets of her eyes.

‘Brandon, for Christ’s sake, lets get out of here,’ said India, unaware of the ironic reference of the link to the cross.

Brandon leaned closer and using his other hand, broke through the cobwebs to get a better look at something underneath.

‘Brandon, I need to get out of here, now?’ she said looking nervously over his shoulder at the dead girl.

He fumbled with something before answering.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘Let’s go.’ He led her from the room and they made their way back as quickly as possible to the entrance to the station. A few minutes later they reached the door and Brandon was pleasantly surprised to find it slightly ajar.

‘Wait here,’ he said.


‘If this guy locked us in that room he is probably the one responsible for those poor girl's deaths. Who knows how he will react when he knows we are alive?’ He picked up a broken piece of wood and wielding it like a club, pushed the door slowly open, his eyes squinting in the bright light of the workroom within. India waited outside in the maintenance tunnel shining her torch around her nervously as she waited. A few moments later she jumped as she heard him call her name. ‘India,’ he shouted, ‘Come here, quickly.’

She ran in and found him crouched over the body of the station Master laying in a pool of blood.

‘Oh my God,’ she said, ‘Not another one?’

‘He’s still alive,’ said Brandon, ‘Find a phone and call an ambulance, this is getting ridiculous!’

An hour later an ambulance disappeared into the shiny distance of the wet London road, its blue light reflecting in the shop windows as it went. India sat in the back of a police car watching as teams of white clad technicians carrying their bags and briefcases made their way through the police cordon towards the admin area. Crowds of people had gathered around the end of the street curious as to the cause of the commotion. Brandon stood talking to someone in a long black coat and after a few minutes, shook his hand and joined India in the back of the car. A police constable got in and started the engine.

‘Where are we going?’ asked India.

‘Home,’ said Brandon.

‘But why?’ she asked, ‘Surely they want statements from us.’

‘It’s been sorted,’ he said ‘They’ll have to wait. We need to get to get you home, get a good nights rest and start again in the morning. There’s a serial killer on the loose and we have work to do.’

Though she started to ask questions Brandon was strangely unforthcoming during the ride back to his house, spending most of the time on calls or sending e mails from his mobile. They stopped briefly to pick up a curry on the way, the smell making her mouth water and within forty five minutes she was sat facing Brandon across the wooden farmhouse table, her empty plate testament to how hungry she had been. She pushed a half empty lager can away from her to nestle between the empty foil takeaway containers.

‘I know it's traditional to drink lager with curry,’ she said, ‘But could I have a nice cup of tea?’

‘Aren’t you tired?’ he asked.

‘You have got to be kidding,’ she said, ‘You think I could sleep after the last four hours.’

‘Fair point,’ he said, ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘So what happens now?’ she asked.

‘We need to take stock,’ he said ‘And analyse what we know.’

‘We don’t have anything as far as I can see,’ she said, staring in frustration as he opened and closed several cupboard doors, ‘For heaven’s sake what are you looking for?’


‘Teapot, who makes tea in a teapot?’

‘Trust me,’ he said and ten minutes later she was watching with fascination as he poured the tea through a strainer.

‘You’re a strange family,’ she said as he poured the tea, ‘Your mother carries a touch screen phone, yet you make tea with leaves.’

‘Fashion is fleeting,’ he said ‘But class is eternal. Some things just can’t be bettered, now, get your laughing gear around that.’ He passed over the tea and she sipped cautiously. ‘Nice?’

‘Okay, I suppose,’ she acknowledged.

‘Right, I know it’s been a tough day but I’ve gone over and over this and nothing makes sense. The police investigations are getting nowhere and the only thing that all the deaths have in common is this.’ He placed something on the table.

She picked up the necklace and looked at the familiar profile spinning slowly before her.

‘The Macedonian necklace,’ she said, ‘Or at least a copy, where did you get it from?’

‘The girl on the cross,’ he answered

She looked at him in horror.

‘You stole it from a dead body?’

‘It’s the only thing we have to go on,’ he said, ‘It was necessary.’

She stared at the coin, turning it over and over in her hand, searching for anything new.

‘Doesn’t help much,’ she said, ‘It’s exactly the same as the picture we saw earlier,’ and passed the coin over to Brandon.

Brandon held the coin in one hand while sipping his tea. Suddenly he stared closer at the coin, with his cup halfway to his mouth.

‘Hang on,’ he said, ‘Pass me that magnifying glass, there’s writing on the edge of the coin.’


‘Just get a pen,’ he said ‘And write this down. The first letter is U, then U again, the next letter is worn, I can’t make it out, then there’s a space followed by U again, the next is worn, then R and G. The next one is O. I think the next one is M,’ he continued, ‘Then O and R and the last one is missing.’

India wrote the letters down on the back of an envelope.

‘What have we got?’ he asked.

She held out the envelope for him to see. UU_ _U_RGO_MO_

‘Mean anything?’ he asked.

‘Looks like Latin,’ she mumbled, Possibly an anagram.

‘Let me see,’ he said and took the envelope from her. For the next few minutes they tried the letters in different orders without any success until eventually Brandon sat back and stared at her.

‘Hang on,’ he said, ‘How stupid are we? We are looking to solve a problem that isn’t there. It’s not an anagram, the letters are in the right order; we have just started in the wrong place. Some letters may be missing but others depict spaces, let me see them again. There is a distinct gap between the O and the M but it’s not a missing letter, it’s the end of a word. Move the last three letters to the front.’

India made the changes. Already it made more sense. MOR_ UU_ _U_RGO Brandon pored over the letters trying different letters with no luck.

‘T, S and I,’ said India quietly.

‘What?’ he asked looking up.’

‘The missing letters,’ she repeated, They are T and S and I.’

‘But there are four letters missing, not three.’

‘No, we have assumed the two centre gaps are both missing letters. We were wrong. One of them is a space, there are actually two words.’

He looked at the paper again and filled in the blanks.

‘Mortuus Uirgo,’ he read aloud.

‘The last U is actually a V,’ she said, ‘In Roman lettering the two are often depicted the same.’

‘Mortuus Virgo,’ he suggested.

‘Mortuus Virgo,’ confirmed India.

He turned to look at her, surprised at the look of concern at her face.

‘You know what it means, don’t you?’

She nodded grimly.

‘What is it?’

‘Dead Virgins,’ she said, ‘It means the Dead virgins!’

Chapter 9

Rome 64 AD

Over the next few weeks, Rubria was summoned to Nero’s presence more and more, and, as time went on, his trust in her grew. She often left the palace confused at his random outbursts but overall she started to get a feel for the way the Emperor’s mind worked. Every night she sat with the high Priestess, relaying every detail of what had passed between them. Though she knew the Priestess was looking for something specific, she was never told what. Finally Rubria decided to broach the subject.

‘Holy Mother,’ she said, ‘Forgive me but if I knew what concerns you, perhaps my visits would be more fruitful.’

‘Sweet child,’ said the High Priestess holding her hand, ‘Your innocence is your best defence. If I explained my concerns, then I fear your honesty would be your downfall and Nero would see through you. This would put you in danger. All I can say, is our task is given from the Senate themselves and they fear Nero plans some grand gesture that may harm not only the city but the sanctity of our very temple.’

Rubria gasped and held her hand over her mouth.

‘Your role is simply to gain his trust,’ continued the High Priestess, ‘And if you hear of anything that gives you concern, then relay it back to me. In the meantime, if you need to get a message to me, then you can trust the Centurion posted as your guard. He and his family are devotees of the Goddess and can be trusted completely.’

Rubria retired to the Atrium and slept fitfully as she fretted about any harm coming to the Temple of Vesta. First bell hadn’t even rung when she was awoken by the Sister on vigil.

‘Rubria, the Emperor has summoned you,’ she said gently.

She rose immediately and after bathing and praying at her shrine made her way to the courtyard where an escort was waiting. She recognised the Centurion on duty.

‘Hello again,’ she said, ‘An unwelcome hour, it has to be said.’

‘That it is, Priestess,’ he said, ‘Please, come this way, your litter awaits.’ They walked to the gates and once again, as had happened many times in the last few weeks, they made their way up the Palatine hill.

Dragus walked alongside her carriage.

‘Are you warm enough, Priestess?’ he asked.

‘I am fine, thank you,’ she answered and, after considering the Holy Mother’s words carefully, done something she would not have dared with any other man except the Emperor. She engaged him in conversation.

‘I’m sorry your rest have been disturbed,’ she said, ‘It is a strange business we find ourselves on.’

‘It is no burden, Priestess,’ he answered, ‘I am here to serve.’

‘How old are you?’ she asked.


‘It’s just that you seem so young to be a Centurion.’

‘I am thirty years old,’ he said ‘And have been promoted through the ranks.’

‘Have you seen active service?’

‘Indeed, I have only just returned from the battlefields of Britannia not three years since.’

‘Britannia,’ she said in admiration, ‘I have heard tell it is a place of evil and sorcery. Is it true they eat their children?’

‘I cannot say I ever witnessed the practise,’ he laughed, ‘But it is true they are indeed a strange people.’

‘So how are you back here?’

‘I suffered an injury at the final battle with their warrior queen Boudica.’

‘And they sent you back.’

‘For political purposes,’ he said, ‘I saved a Legate during the battle and was brought back to receive the freedom of Rome.’

‘Was it exciting?’ she asked, ‘You know, fighting the Britons.’

For a moment he was quiet as he walked besides her litter.

‘Horrible, yes. Frightening and brutal, absolutely, but exciting no. Tens of thousands were slain. Children, old people, animals, all slaughtered with no quarter. Their towns were burned to the ground and whole tribes were wiped from the face of the earth.’

‘Is it a strange place?’

‘It is cold, it is wet and yes, I suppose it is strange but it is also a beautiful land. The ground is fertile and its forests abound with deer and boar. The waters run clear and sweet and the breeze is refreshing on the tired face. But more than this, it is a spiritual place. The very air whispers its secrets and it is said that though the lands are full of spirits, it is also a place of gods. The mist often lies like a heavy blanket and they worship in places that were old when Rome was still a village.’

Chapter 10

London 2010

‘Dead Virgins,’ said Brandon again, ‘Does it mean anything to you?’

‘I had forgotten,’ answered India.

‘Forgotten what?’

‘The man in the car park, Mr Jones, they were the last words he said. I couldn’t quite make them out then, but now it seems so obvious. He said Mortuus Virgo.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘I don’t know, perhaps it is a reference to the dead girls.’

‘I don’t think so,’ he said, ‘He could have said it in English but he used Latin, why use a dead language? None of this makes sense, two tortured girls, another missing, a technician who kills himself and a murdered man in a car park. The only thing they have in common is a link to this.’ He pushed the coin back into the middle of the table. ‘We are missing something here India but everything comes back to the coin. Are you sure there is nothing more you can tell me about its history.’

‘Only what I’ve said so far,’ she said.

‘Then tell me the rest of your story, perhaps there is something in the past that can help.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Start where you left off, the Noah thing. It may be desperate but it seems to me that this is the only clue we have to go on at the moment, no matter how obscure.’

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘But I don’t know where this is going.’ She took a deep breath before continuing. ‘Okay, just to review, the Black Sea Basin was an enormous fertile valley containing a fresh water lake surrounded by a prosperous people. Isis was long dead but her memory had become almost a religion and they were thriving.’

‘Yes, yes you’ve covered this already what about Noah?’

She glared at his impatience before continuing.

‘What you have to remember, is the world was emerging from the greater Dryas period.’ She picked up on the unspoken question written all over his face. ‘Sorry,’ she explained, The Greater Dryas was the name we call last Ice age. Anyway, for tens of thousands of years sea levels had been far, far lower than they are now. Climatic conditions meant that much of the water evaporating from the seas was being deposited over the poles as snow and the ice sheets were miles thick in places locking in much of the water. The fresh water lake in the Black Sea basin was hundreds of feet lower than the Mediterranean but it didn’t matter as there was a natural dam of land over twenty miles wide keeping them apart. As the climate warmed up the ice started to melt and the sea levels started to rise until eventually over a period of time the Mediterranean along with the Aegean and subsequently the sea of Marmara must have reached the same level as the land dividing it from the basin.’ She paused to sip her tea.

‘And?’ asked Brandon.

‘What happened next is historical fact,’ she continued, ‘Though we don’t know the actual details. The sea of Marmara overflowed into the Black sea, flooding the basin and forming the saltwater sea as we know it now.’

‘What, just like that?’

‘You have to remember, Brandon, the climate must have been all over the place. Who knows what factor was the final straw. All we can do is imagine the series of events. There was probably already a valley running most of the way between the Marmara and the Black sea basin where the Bosphorus now stands. All it needed was a catastrophic event of some sort to open the way for the sea to make the breach.’

‘Like an Earthquake?’ he asked.

‘Possibly, the area lies near a fault and suffers badly from earthquakes but more probably it was a deluge of rain.’

‘You reckon a rainstorm can wash away that amount of land.’

‘Don’t underestimate the power of water Brandon,’ she said, A couple of years ago, one night of rain caused a village to be washed away not far from here in Cornwall. Every year millions of square miles of the Amazon forest are flooded by the river. For heaven’s sake look at what has just happened in Pakistan. Areas bigger than Great Britain lay under several feet of water for months, causing thousands of deaths and affecting tens of millions. Rain is one of the most devastating yet underestimated forces of nature on the planet. All it would have taken is for a downfall of rain to wash away just a small amount of soil to start a leak and the natural pressures of the sea would do the rest. Imagine a small trickle, turning into a rivulet and then a river, each second the water washing more and more soil away until it eventually became a self feeding monster and the weight of the immense sea unstoppable. As it found its way to the Black Sea basin it would have turned into a huge waterfall, pouring into the valley below. Scientists reckon that at its peak it would have been a torrent over ten times the size of Niagara as it is today. The noise would have been heard over a hundred miles away and the population of the Basin must have been in awe at the sudden emergence of this waterfall from nowhere.’

‘And this actually happened?’

‘It did, approximately seven thousand years ago. Scientists have proved the Black sea was once a freshwater lake and the Bosphorus was formed by the breakdown of land between Asia and Africa. Now assuming that this coincided with a prolonged rainstorm, all of a sudden the great flood referred to in the Bible, which by the way, was written almost three thousand years later, takes on a certain familiarity wouldn’t you say?’

‘Forty days and forty nights,’ suggested Brandon, quoting the Biblical reference.

‘Exactly,’ answered India, ‘The thing is, this was a disaster of huge proportions. Don’t forget hundreds of thousands if not millions of people would have relied on the lake for food and water and all of a sudden, over a period of only a few weeks this resource would have been taken from them. The level of the lake would have risen hundreds of feet flooding tens of thousands of square miles of land, wiping out crops and villages almost overnight. The seawater would have overwhelmed the lake and as the salinity rose, every living thing within its fresh waters would have died. Every fish, mussel, shrimp, plant; everything would have died within days. Food would have been wiped out and drinking water disappeared for anyone not living near a stream. Who knows how many shore based animals would have died as well as humans, possibly tens of thousands dead and rotting throughout the whole basin. The smell must have been horrendous and disease would have been rife.’

‘I suppose there must have been some who managed to save themselves on boats,’ suggested Brandon.

‘No doubt, and throw in a prolonged period of rain and some animals and you have the basis of the Noah story. It’s not for me to debate the origins of the bible stories but allowing for exaggeration over the millennia it is very possible.’

‘So did everyone die?’

‘No on the contrary, it would seem that by far the majority survived but they were dispersed by the flood. We don’t think many went East as there were already other established societies that way and wouldn’t have looked kindly on a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The climate was far colder to the North and modern day Turkey was already populated so many migrated westward into the Aegean and Mediterranean, forming new societies and taking their beliefs with them.’


‘Yes. The most obvious manifestation of this was on the southern shores where they settled in what is now known as Egypt. Over the next few thousand years they flourished along the banks of the Nile and the great Egyptian society arose. As the climate warmed up the scrublands of Egypt died out leaving more and more desert and isolating the Nile from the bigger societies of the East. Egypt became more polarised and their pantheon of Gods became based around the legends of those original peoples from the black sea. Assur became Osiris and Aset became Isis.’

‘And you think the link is there?’

‘No actually I don’t. I think the link, if indeed there is one, lies in the history of the people who spread out throughout the Aegean, populating the islands and shores of Asia Minor, Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece. Though the continuation of the cult of Isis wasn’t as strong as it became in Egypt it was still there beneath the surface. Female goddesses are rife throughout all the ancient cultures and most can be traced in one way or another back to one mother figure.’

‘Did anyone worship Isis?’

‘Not as such, though smaller pockets of dedicated followers carried on the practise in isolated places.’


‘Well the most famous was on the island of Samothrace but……,’ She stopped and stared at him, ‘Shit,’ she said quietly

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

‘The Samothrace mysteries,’ she said,’ That’s our link, I can’t believe I missed it.

The obvious question was halfway to his lips when he saw the slightest movement of her eyes widening in horror as she changed her focus to over and beyond his shoulder. For the next few seconds everything seemed to move in slow motion to Brandon. The horror on India’s face, the forming of the words on her lips as she screamed and the echoing thunder of the gunshot outside the window as he leaned backwards and twisted to one side. The action saved his life as the bullet meant for the back of his head scorched its red hot passage across the flesh of his forehead to ricochet of the stone kitchen wall. He threw his self to the floor and rolled under the ledge of the window cutting off any direct line of sight between himself and the would-be assassin.

‘India, are you okay?’ he shouted.

‘Over here,’ she answered.

He looked towards the open door of the walk in pantry where she had crawled.

‘Stay there,’ he said, ‘Don’t come out till I say so.’ He crawled to the corner of the kitchen and opened one of the cupboards to withdraw a red lidded casserole dish. Frantically discarding the lid he reached inside and withdrew a 9mm semi automatic pistol, pulling back on the slide to load the chamber. He glanced towards the pantry and met the gaze of India who was at in the shadows. ‘India,’ he said, I need you to do something for me.’

‘You’ve got a gun,’ she said half in fear, half in astonishment.

‘I’ll explain later,’ he said, ‘But for now just do as I say, there isn’t much time.’ He outlined the task but when he saw the hesitation on her face spoke calmly. ‘We have to do this India,’ he said, ‘I can’t do it from here.’

‘Okay,’ she answered, ‘Go for it.’

‘On the count of three,’ he said, ‘One, two, three!’

As he shouted the last number he spun onto his knees and, pointing his gun over the worktop, fired six shots through the window. At the same time India burst from the pantry and crouching low, ran to the kitchen door to slam it into the ancient oak frame. She turned the giant key and dropped to the floor again, crawling as fast as she could to join Brandon below the window.

‘What now?’ she gasped.

‘That’s bought us a few minutes,’ he said and pointed at the chest of drawers. ‘Open the bottom one and look under the tray. Pass me what you find.’

Doing as she was told, she lifted the moulded cutlery tray and looked underneath

‘This is nuts,’ she said as she withdrew two Luger magazines and a box of ammunition.

‘Pass them here,’ said Brandon, and flicking the lever on the side of the pistol grip, dropped the half empty released magazine into his lap.

‘Who are you?’ she asked, watching as he handled the weapon with obvious familiarity.

‘No time,’ he said,’ I’ll explain later. Now, in a moment I am going out of here through the door. I want you to open it and as soon as I am gone, lock the door behind me. Whoever it is has probably left but I need to make sure.’

‘And what do I do while you’re gone?’

‘Go down into my study, this is the only entrance. Lock the door behind you, you will be safe there. I wont be long I promise.’ He loaded the full magazine into the handle of the pistol and made his way to the door.

‘Ready?’ he asked and receiving a silent nod in return, reached up to turn the key. Without any further hesitation he opened the door and crouching low, ran out into the night.

India locked the door and crawled across to the entrance to the stairwell down to the study. A few minutes later she was in the familiar surroundings, the door locked safely behind her. She looked around the room, not quite knowing what to do next. Eventually her eyes fell on an antique globe and, realizing its purpose opened it up to retrieve a bottle of vodka. She poured herself a drink and sat in one of the red chairs to wait for Brandon.

The glass was finally empty when she heard a noise up in the kitchen and with relief, ran up the stairs to open the door for Brandon, her brain registering a familiar but disturbing smell as she ran. She reached for the key but as her fingers made contact, she cried out in pain as the searing heat burnt into the nerve endings. It took a few seconds for the implications to sink in and dropping to her knees she peered through the keyhole into the kitchen, only to have her worst fears confirmed. The other side of the door was a wall of flames and suddenly she recognised the smell. It was petrol.

India stepped back and looked in horror as wisps of smoke started to creep through the door frame. There was no way she could go through the kitchen and she turned to run back down the stairs. She searched frantically for any other way out but realised quickly that Brandon had been right, there was no other way. She was trapped!

‘Phone,’ she said to herself and frantically searched her pockets for her mobile before realising it was missing, and probably lay on the floor of the kitchen where she had fallen. Smoke was beginning to crawl its way across the ceiling and she dragged the chair to underneath the stained glass window. Reaching up she started to bang her fists against the glass.

‘Brandon, help,’ she screamed, ‘Someone please, get me out of here!’ Over and over again she hit the glass without success as the underneath of the poisonous cloud rolled across the ceiling. As the choking wisps started to enter her lungs the world in front of her eyes exploded as the stained glass window smashed in towards her and a pair of hands reached down through the smoke to grab her arms.

‘I’ve got you!’ roared Brandon’s voice, ‘Come on India you need to help me here, push yourself up.’

Choking on the black smoke, she stood on the back of the chair and levered herself upwards. Within a few seconds she lay alongside Brandon on the gravel path, both coughing violently as the clouds of black smoke escaped from the broken basement window. Brandon got up and threw her his phone.

‘Phone the fire Brigade,’ he said.

‘Who’s that?’ she said sombrely, staring at the prone body of a man lying on the gravel.

‘That’s our attacker.’

‘You killed him!’

‘I had to,’ he said simply, ‘It was him or us. You phone the fire brigade, I’m going to find Agnes.’

India watched him disappear into the darkness before returning her gaze to the dead man.

Ten minutes later Brandon returned with Agnes. She was wrapped in her housecoat and carried her dog under one arm.

‘Agnes, thank God your okay,’ said India.

‘The rest of the house is unaffected,’ said Brandon, ‘It seems it was a Molotov thrown through the kitchen window.’


‘Petrol bomb,’ he explained, ‘As long as the fire brigade are on the way we should be able to save the building. Kitchen and study have probably had it but the walls are solid stone and over three feet thick.’

‘What about him?’ she said pointing at the body.

‘He’ll be dealt with,’ he answered, ‘There are people on the way.’

‘What people?’

‘Enough talking,’ interrupted Agnes, ‘You had better get out of here.’

India shot a look at Brandon.

‘Why?’ she asked.

‘You have to tell her Brandon,’ said Agnes after a pause, ‘She’s part of this now, tell her everything.’

‘Tell me what?’ asked India, her voice rising, ‘For Christ’s sake Brandon what the fuck is going on?’

Brandon grabbed her arm.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I admit I haven’t levelled with you India, but it was for your own safety I promise.’

‘Well it hasn’t fucking worked has it?’ she shouted, ‘I’ve never been in so much danger. Just tell me what’s happening.’

‘I will, I promise, but not now, there’s no time. We have to get out of here before the police arrive.’

India crossed her arms in a gesture of defiance.

‘Not until you tell me who you are?’ she said.

‘India!’ he shouted, ‘Come on we have to go.’

She stared at him without moving. Brandon stared back at her, each as stubborn as each other.

‘SAS!’ said Agnes suddenly, breaking the deadlock, His name is Brandon and he is a serving SAS intelligence officer. There, it’s out. Now, both of you get out of here before it’s too late.’

‘Happy now?’ he asked

‘Not really,’ answered India, ‘I still want to know what this is all about.’

‘And you will.’

‘No more secrets.’

‘None, I will tell you everything I know.’


‘On the plane.’

‘What plane, where are we going?’

‘Samothrace,’ he said before adding ‘Wherever that is.’

‘Samothrace, but how? You haven’t had time to get any tickets.

‘Leave that to Agnes, now, let’s get out of here, please!’

India looked between both Brandon and Agnes and took a step forward towards Brandon. Before he could react she slapped him across the face.

‘You lie to me one more time Brandon Walker, or whatever your name is and I will walk away from this and make a beeline for the Sunday tabloids, I swear.’

‘No more lies,’ he confirmed, rubbing his cheek. ‘I will tell you everything on the plane.’

‘Okay then,’ she said eventually, ‘What are we waiting for?’

Agnes threw Brandon the keys to the land rover and watched them race across the drive to the garage.

‘Can you stop in an overnight Tesco’s on the way?’ asked India as soon as they were in the car.

‘Tesco’s?’ he asked as he gunned the engine, ‘Why?’

‘I left my suitcase in that house,’ she said, ‘If you think I am going all the way to the Med in the clothes I am standing in you’ve got another thing coming.’

‘Oh right,’ he said,’ I’m sure we can pick up a little something on the way.’

‘Don’t get cocky Brandon,’ she said, ‘This is just for starters. When we get to the Med I expect a whole new wardrobe’

‘Lucky I’ve got a company credit card then,’ he mumbled.

‘Credit card?’ she answered, ‘By the time I am finished, you will need a whole fucking pack of them. Now let’s get out of here.’

A few hours later India finished sorting out her make up in front of the toilet mirror and pulled the tag off the new blouse she had just donned in the cubicle. She placed her old clothes in the new travel case alongside the other new purchases before returning to the waiting area of the Airport. Brandon was waiting for her clutching a fan of tickets.

‘We’re in luck,’ he said, ‘There’s a British Airways flight in a couple of hours. Agnes booked us a couple of seats to Rome and a connecting flight to Athens in the morning. From there, we’re on our own.’

‘She’s very good,’ admitted India.

‘The best,’ said Brandon.

‘I still don’t understand why you want to go to Samothrace,’ said India, ‘Most of the information is available online. What do you expect to gain by travelling all the way out there?’

He reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a wallet.

‘This belonged to the guy back at the house,’ he said and pulled out the contents.

‘You make a habit of robbing the dead don’t you?’ she stated.

He didn’t answer but continued to empty the wallet.

‘Couple of hundred quid in sterling,’ he said, ‘Couple of credit cards and this,’ he handed over a pink plastic card, ‘A European driving license issued in Greece.’

‘Peter Venezelos,’ she read, ‘Doesn’t mean anything though, Greece is a big country.

‘Well, it’s all we’ve got,’ he said, ‘Investigations will carry on here but in the meantime we will go out to this Samothrace place and ask some questions about this guy. Perhaps the local police can shed some light on him.’

‘There’s something else,’ said India, ‘When you went looking for Agnes I went over to look at the body.’


‘Call it morbid curiosity,’ she said, ‘After all, It’s not often someone tries to murder me. Anyway, I noticed he was wearing a ring.’

‘Phillip of Macedonia again?’

‘No, this was quite different, the genuine article. Made in Greece about a thousand or so years ago.’

‘What was on it?’

‘See for yourself,’ she said and placed the gold ring on the table.

‘Now who’s stealing from the dead?’

‘I’ve got a good teacher,’ she answered.

Brandon examined the golden ring. It was obviously very old and the engraving very faint.

‘A chariot?’ he suggested, ‘Being driven by an angel.’

‘Almost right,’ answered India, ‘It is indeed a chariot but the person driving it is not an angel, she is known as Nike.’

‘Like the trainers?’

‘Ha ha,’ she said sarcastically, ‘Nike was an ancient Greek Goddess that personified victory.’

‘I’ve never heard of her.’

‘You see her quite often I would have thought.’


‘Ever watched the Olympics?’


‘She is on the reverse of every gold medal since the 1920’s.’

‘Can’t say I’ve ever studied one up close.’

‘What about the world cup then?’

‘What about it.?’

‘The Jules Rimmet trophy is based on a representation of Nike.’

His brow raised slightly in acknowledgement.

‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘The most famous image is a marble statue which was found in the 1860’s and now resides in the Louvre museum in Paris. The head is missing but the statue is breathtaking nonetheless.’

‘Why is she relevant to us?’ he asked.

‘Where do you think the statue was found?’ she asked and waited as realisation dawned on his face.

‘Don’t tell me he,’ said, ‘Samothrace!’

She nodded silently to confirm his assumption.

‘So Mr whatever your name is,’ she said, ‘We’ve got a couple of hours to kill. Why don’t we go through to the lounge, get a nice cup of coffee and you can tell me everything about this mess.’

Fifteen minutes later they both sat in a quiet corner of the flight lounge each nursing a hot coffee.

‘First of all,’ he said, ‘My name is indeed Brandon and Agnes is my mother. I am a serving officer in the intelligence arm of the Special Air Service but would appreciate it if you kept that fact kept to yourself.’

‘I understand,’ she said.

‘Right, all this started when the first girl was found in Victoria station. At first it was a simple murder case and was being investigated by the police. We weren’t involved at that stage and ordinarily wouldn’t have been called on. However all that changed when the second girl was kidnapped from outside the hotel.’


‘Because the girl is the niece of the Prime Minister!’

‘What?’ she gasped in astonishment, ‘How can that be? Where was her security, Where were you lot?’

‘We don’t protect extended family members unless there is a specific threat,’ he said, ‘It seems that the family had come to London on a shopping trip and that little girl, Camille, wandered off in Oxford street. That’s when she was snatched.’

‘But nothing’s been on the TV, surely it would have been all over the news?’

‘Like I said, news blackout.’

‘But why, has there been a ransom demand?’

‘No, and there won’t be one. Take a look at these two pictures.’

She examined the two passport size photographs he placed on the table.

‘It’s the same girl,’ she said.

‘That’s just it,’ he said, ‘They’re not. The one on the left is indeed Camille, the one on the right is a girl called Sharon, a young girl who lives in care close to the hotel. We think she is the one that was targeted but Camille was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whoever they are, they’ve got the wrong girl.’

‘But why don’t the police just release a statement?’ she asked, ‘Wouldn’t the kidnappers just release her?’

‘Think about it,’ he said, ‘At the moment they think they have just got some homeless kid. As soon as they realise it is the Prime ministers niece her life could be in danger.’

‘But surely she is in danger anyway?’

‘Perhaps so, but this way we hope we have bought her some extra time.’

‘We, she asked, and who exactly are we?’

‘Everyone and his dog,’ said Brandon, ‘There are hundreds on this case but it seems she has just disappeared off the face of the Earth. None of our contacts in the underworld can shed any light. We’ve pulled in every pimp and pervert across London but no one knows anything. The only leads we have are those coins, but the fact that someone tried to kill us to stop us getting further means that we are onto something.’

‘So why are we travelling second class on a public flight?’ she asked, ‘Surely on a task this big you have all sorts of resources to call on.’

‘We do, but we want to keep a low profile. Be the ‘grey man’ as we say in the service. If we ran about commandeering all sorts of things we would attract unwanted attention. Not so much from the kidnappers but from the journalists and we can’t afford that. That’s why I whisked you away from Victoria when we found the crucified girl. The paparazzi wouldn’t have been far behind the ambulance and the same at the house. All it would take is one over zealous journalist and the kidnappers would have been tipped off, hence the blackout.’

‘What about the two dead girls, do you think they are linked to this kidnapping?’

‘Hard to say. The only link is the coin but that is what I am going to find out.’

‘Is there anything else?’ she asked.

‘Nope, that’s it,’ he said, ‘You now know as much as me.’

‘Wow,’ she said quietly, ‘This is completely and utterly mad.’

‘Right we need to get serious now India. Four people are dead that we know of, another is in a coma and a child’s life is at risk. From now on in I need your full attention and cooperation. You need to tell me anything that you may know, relevant or not. If there is any link in this direction I need your expertise to guide me.’

‘Understood,’ she said.

He looked up at the digital display.

‘An hour to go. So, now it’s your turn, I want you to go through this whole Samothrace thing. I need to know exactly what we are getting into.’

Chapter 11

Rome 64 AD

Rubria was sat at the sacred hearth when she was unexpectedly summoned to the Emperor’s palace for the last time. She went out to the courtyard where the High Priestess was waiting. Dragus and the high Priestess were talking in hushed whispers and were obviously agitated over something.

‘Holy Mother,’ she said as she approached, ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Child,’ she said, ‘Calm yourself. Nero has summoned you to his presence and Dragus worries for your person.’

‘Dragus it is nice to see you again,’ said Rubria, ‘Your posting here ended six months ago, how come we are honoured by your presence?’

‘My comrade has been dispatched on duties elsewhere this evening and Nero saw fit to send me instead,’ he explained.

‘Tell me, what news is so concerning that it warrants lowering the Holy Mother’s brow with worry?’

‘Sister Rubria,’ said Dragus, ‘The Emperor is agitated and lashes out against all around him. I only ask that perhaps you don’t attend until his mood calms.’

‘How can I deny my Emperor?’

‘You could say you were ill.’

‘Dragus,’ interrupted the High Priestess, ‘Ours is a service of truth. There are issues here that you don’t understand. Rubria represents Vesta herself and enjoys her protection. If I thought there was any risk to her safety I would not let her go and gladly suffer the consequences.’

‘Holy Mother,’ said Dragus, ‘I understand but something vexes him. There are things afoot that he keeps to himself. I think something terrible is about to happen and don’t want any of you at risk. Even the Senate fear for their safety.’

‘Dragus,’ she said gently as her hand rested gently on his arm, ‘Fret not. I enjoy the Emperor’s trust and over the past year have become his confidante. Yes, his mood swings wildly and I have seen him lash out on several occasions but never has he given me cause to worry about my safety. On the contrary, I believe my presence inspires a calming effect on his troubled mind. If my Emperor needs me then I am duty bound to comply. His majesty is second only to the Great Goddess. Give me a moment, I would cleanse myself and return shortly.’

The Centurion nodded in reluctant acceptance and watched her glide across the courtyard to disappear into the atrium.

‘I hope you know what your doing, Holy Mother,’ he said, ‘Nero’s excesses knows no limits.’

‘I have no choice, Dragus,’ said the High Priestess, ‘The very Temple is at risk. At least this way we may have some advance warning.’ She stared at him for a long while. ‘Dragus, we are honoured by your concern but when you gaze upon Sister Rubria I see a look in your eyes that extends beyond the love of the Goddess.’

Dragus looked down in shame.

‘You are truly wise, Mother,’ he said, ‘It is true that I am entranced by Rubria’s beauty and elegance, but I assure you I respect the Goddess and all who serve her. My intentions are honourable and I seek only to ensure her safety.’

‘I know,’ said the high Priestess kindly ‘And your patronage is greatly welcomed, but beware the tendrils of lust, Dragus. This is an affection that can never be returned.’

‘I am aware of this Holy Mother,’ he said, ‘And accept that this is a lifetime’s burden that I have to bear.’

‘The Goddess will support you, Dragus,’ she said, ‘Will you join with me in a glass of warm wine while we wait?’

Forty five minutes later, Rubria’s litter once again rested inside the outer courtyard of the Emperor’s palace. She stood for a moment straightening out her attire before walking towards the doors. Dragus caught up with her and walked at her side.

‘If you feel threatened at any time, Rubria, you must leave immediately. Do not hesitate or take any chances. I will be waiting outside these doors for you.’

‘I don’t know how long I will be.’

‘It matters not. I will be here.’

She stopped and took his hand in hers, setting his pulse racing as she pierced his soul with her gaze.

‘I am touched, Dragus,’ she said, ‘But worry not for my safety, the Goddess is with me.’

‘I hope you are right, Rubria,’ he said and watched her disappear for the second time that night.

Rubria knew at once something was wrong. The whole atmosphere of the palace was different and as she walked through its marble halls, the lack of servants was disturbing. She made her way through the audience chamber and into the corridor that led to the Emperor’s private quarters. Eventually she stood before the double doors flanked by two Praetorian Guards.

‘I am Rubria of the Temple of Vesta,’ she said.

‘You are expected,’ responded one of the guards and opened the door. She walked into Nero’s reception area and waited for the doors to close behind her. As soon as they slammed shut she made her way nervously towards his quarters. Suddenly a female slave burst out through a door and ran past her sobbing as she went. Her clothes were torn and her face bloody.

‘Wait!’ shouted Rubria, suddenly self conscious that she had raised her voice to someone less fortunate than herself.

The girl collapsed to the floor and waited for the admonition that would surely follow. Rubria approached and squatted next to her, gently brushing the girl’s hair back revealing her bruised face. ‘Please,’ she added quietly, ‘You seem to be hurt, let me help you.’

The girl looked up nervously, surprised yet dubious at the sound of a kind voice in a world of harshness.

‘Are you a Goddess,’ she murmured staring into Rubria’s beautiful face.

‘No,’ smiled Rubria, ‘Though I do indeed serve one. I too am a servant, though the Mistress I serve is Vesta.’

‘You are a Holy Virgin?’ gasped the girl in astonishment

‘I am!’ confirmed Rubria, ‘And I need to bathe your injuries.’

The girl threw her arms around the priestess.

‘Mistress, Holy Virgin of the great Goddess,’ she pleaded, ‘Please honour me with your blessing.’

Rubria glanced around. She knew that the blessing of slaves was frowned upon in the higher levels of Roman society.

‘What is your name, child?’ she asked.

‘I am known as Rose, Mistress,’ she said and altered her position to kneel in front of the Priestess, clasping her hands together in the universal gesture of prayer.

Rubria made the dedication to Vesta and marked the sign of the Goddess on the slave’s forehead. Suddenly a voice echoed across the chamber causing Rubria to jump back in fright.

Priestess!’ roared Nero from a balcony, ‘What insult is this? You dishonour me in my own household.’

The slave scrambled to her feet and ran from the chamber in terror while Rubria gathered her wits and prostrated herself before the Emperor.

‘Imperial Majesty,’ she intoned, ‘Forgive me my impudence, I seek only to spread peace and harmony throughout your household.’

‘I decide when there will be peace and harmony,’ he raged, ‘And today is not such a day.

Rubria stood and looked up at her Emperor. He was draped in his Imperial purple robes and wore a golden laurel wreath on his head, albeit tilted to one side. In one hand he clutched an amphora of wine and in the other, he brandished a cane.

‘Guard,’ he shouted, ‘Bring that slave to my quarters.’ He slammed the cane down onto the marble balustrade with a force that made Rubria flinch, ‘She will learn that no-one denies the whim of the Emperor.’

‘If I can be so bold, Your Majesty, it would seem you are a little vexed today,’ ventured Rubria.

‘Hold your council, Priestess,’ he shouted, ‘I am in no mood for your oiled tongue. You will meet me in my chambers immediately and bring a fresh Amphora with you.’ He disappeared out of sight and Rubria made her way to the door that led to his private quarters.

A few minutes she stood before the drapes to his bed chamber, alongside a pair of slaves.

‘Enter!’ roared a voice and one slave pulled back a curtain while the other handed her the obligatory container of wine.

She walked into the inner chamber and stared at the dishevelled figure of the Emperor sat on his couch, staring at the floor.

‘You are late,’ he snarled.

‘I came as soon as I could, Sire,’ she said.

‘Not soon enough!’ he snapped, ‘Am I not your Emperor? All tasks should be cast aside to meet my demands.’

‘My apologies Sire,’ she said and approached the couch, stopping to collect a stool on the way. She placed herself before him, waiting for him to look up. Eventually he met her gaze.

‘Your eyes pierce me like an assassin’s blade Priestess,’ he said.

‘You have said as much on many occasions, Sire,’ she said.

‘Yet still I catch my breath every time you attend.’

‘If my appearance offends then I can only apologise.’

‘Cut the false modesty, Priestess,’ he snapped, ‘You know your gaze is like a drug to me.’ He stood up and walked slowly around the room, expanding on his comparison, ‘Intoxicating to partake,’ he said as he passed besides her, ‘Poisonous in its effect,’ he continued from somewhere behind.

She tensed at the silence that followed before jumping suddenly as his head suddenly appeared on her shoulder.

‘Yet addictive in the memory.’ He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, absorbing her intoxicating scent.

Rubria stood up nervously and took a few paces away from him.

‘Priestess,’ he said, throwing his arms wide, ‘It is I, your glorious Emperor. Surely you do not fear me?’

‘I only worry for you Sire,’ she said nervously, ‘I have not seen you like this before.’

‘Like what Priestess?’ he asked, ‘Intoxicated?’ Lyrical?’ he paused and leaned forward as he sneered, ‘Scary?’

‘All three, Sire,’ she said.

He stared at her again before seeming to come back to his senses.

‘Fear not, Priestess,’ he sighed, ‘My reasons for summoning you here are entirely honourable.’

‘I did not fear otherwise,’ Sire.

‘Good, so I guess you want to know why you are here?’

‘I’m sure you will tell me in your own time, Sire.’

‘You’re right, I will, but suffice to say tonight you will witness history being made. An event of such devastation, it will elevate me to the ranks of Romulus himself, paving my way to the gates of the Pantheon.’

‘You intrigue me, Sire,’ she said, ‘What act can have such consequences?’

‘All in good time, Priestess,’ he smiled, ‘First of all,’ he walked to a cabinet and retrieved something before spinning around with a flourish, ‘I will entertain you!’

She stared at the Lyre in his hand. The tales of Nero frequenting the taverns of Rome dressed in plain clothing, regaling the masses with song and verse were manifold, but living the life she did meant she was sheltered from such things. He hesitated, scrutinising her reaction.

‘This concerns you?’ he queried.

Her face broke into a beautiful smile.

‘On the contrary, Sire,’ she said, ‘I think it is a delightful idea.’

‘Good,’ he said, his smile matching hers, ‘In that case, you may sit on my couch and relax for you are in the presence of a genius.’

Deep in the poorest part of the city a group of figures stood silently in the gloom of a side alley, waiting for instruction. Each was dressed in the manner of a servant and an iron cooking pot lay at their feet. Eventually a seventh figure entered the alleyway and addressed the group.

‘The wind has risen,’ he said, ‘’And blows in the right direction.’

‘At last,’ said one, ‘Three nights I have stayed from the whorehouse. The girls must think I am dead.’ A ripple of laughter was silenced by the leader.

‘Enough,' said the leader, ‘This is serious business. There are piles of rubbish everywhere, make these your targets. The vigils are under instruction to delay their response. Ensure your identity is not revealed and if someone does see through your disguise,’ He pulled his cape to one side revealing his Gladius, ‘Ensure it is the last thing they see!’

A murmur of mirth again rippled around the group.

‘Okay,’ said the disguised officer, ‘Let’s get it done and I will see you back in the barracks before dawn.’

They each picked up an unlit torch from the floor and in turn, placed its oil soaked head into the fire pot. Within a few minutes, seven Praetorian Guard were running through the maze of streets, setting light to anything that would burn. Fanned by the warm night breeze, the flames quickly took hold and soon the fires reached the point of no return. Rome was ablaze.

Rubria clapped her hands in delight, an enchanted grin on her face. The Emperor had just finished another song, this one witty and extolling the virtues of his horse.

‘Wonderful Sire,’ she laughed, ‘Though I’m not sure the Senate would appreciate the implied similarities.’

‘I’m glad you like it,’ said Nero, ‘There are those who would doubt my unarguable talent.’

‘Then they have not experienced it, Sire,’ she said, ‘You are truly gifted.’

Though Nero was indeed skilled, Rubria was worried about his descent into drunkenness and played to his vanity in an effort to better his mood. He had been singing and reciting for over two hours, breaking only to eat and attend to his toilet. Rubria had picked on some fruit and sipped on watered wine, more to appease the Emperor rather than any need but she was getting tired and longed to be gone. She was wondering how to broach the subject of her leaving when the situation took a fateful turn. Outside in the distance someone screamed.

‘Ah, I believe the time is approaching,’ said Nero, ‘Come with me.’ He led Rubria from the room and made his way through the corridors of the palace and up several stairwells. Eventually they reached a round room at the top of a tower. Nero stopped before a pair of drapes and turned to face Rubria.

‘Oh, Priestess,’ he said, ‘How privileged are you to witness what now unfolds.’

Rubria waited patiently until he finally called her forward. She shuddered involuntarily as he placed his arm around her shoulder and led her out to the balcony. What she saw took her breath away. The city sprawled out before her like an embroidered blanket but though she had seen the vista before, this time it was different. The darkness was illuminated by scores of fires across the suburbs, each seemingly competing for size as the breeze fed their hunger. Even as she watched, she could see more and more fires starting and as they did, the screams of those affected became audible.

‘By the gods,’ she gasped eventually, ‘The city is ablaze.’

‘That it is,’ answered Nero, moving behind her and placing his hands on her shoulders, ‘The city is being cleansed of the accumulated filth of generations to make way for a place of greatness, a place where an Emperor can reside alongside the Gods and become immortal.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Rubria, ‘Who would do such a thing.’

‘Those who see clearly my greatness and would hasten my path to the Pantheon.’

‘But why,’ she asked, unable to take her eyes from the catastrophe unfolding below.

‘To scourge the city of what has been and make way for what will be. Across the hills to your front, the places that are presently occupied by the hovels of the poor will be replaced by magnificent gardens and marble palaces of unimaginable opulence. At its centre will be a building the like Rome has never seen before. A palace fit for a God, adorned with gold and bejewelled in stones from across the empire. The words greatest artisans will be brought to Rome to decorate the walls with friezes and mosaics of such breathtaking beauty that scholars and kings will travel from the corners of the earth to weep at their beauty.

‘But I don’t understand, Sire,’ she said, ‘Surely the palace in which you reside is glory enough for one man.nougA

‘Any ordinary man perhaps, but a God? No,’ he said, ‘And besides, how could I expect any woman worthy enough to rein alongside me to settle for anything else?

‘Alongside you, Sire?’ she asked, ‘I don’t understand, are you saying you have plans to marry?’

‘Oh yes, Rubria,’ he said, ‘Plans indeed. Look again to your front and imagine the sweeping hills covered with lush vegetation, interspersed with fountains and streams. Fish will dart in its pools and tiny deer will gambol through the manicured gardens. Bird song will be the only sound to disturb the peace and the tastiest of fruits will make the trees groan under their weight. Oh yes, Priestess, I have plans, and when all this is done you will understand why it was necessary.’

‘But what about people’s homes?’ she asked, ‘Where will they all go?’

‘It concerns me not,’ said the Emperor, ‘They are my subjects and would willingly give up their very lives for my benefit. What matters a few mud bricks and wooden doors? There is room enough on the outskirts for new buildings or even outside the city walls. No, the centre of Rome should reflect the greatness of my glory, or should I say, Our glory?’

Rubria’s heart missed a beat and her stomach turned as she realised what he had just said.

‘Our glory, Sire?’ I don’t understand.

‘You and me, Rubria,’ he said, ‘Ruling the world together. A living God alongside the most beautiful woman in the empire. I did it for you, Rubria, all this will be yours. A life of untold privilege and power the like that has never been seen before. All you have to do is consent to be my bride.’

Rubria felt sick. All of a sudden everything made sense. All the times she had been summoned to the palace to the exclusion of all other priestesses, all the compliments he had paid, and all gifts he had lavished upon her, all were simply a means to an end. While she thought he had favoured her for her honesty and council he had only one thing in his mind and that was to entice her into a union that was impossible.

‘Sire,’ she said, still staring over the city, ‘I am flattered but surely you can see this is impossible.’

‘I see no such thing, Rubria he said.’

‘But I am a Priestess of the Temple of Vesta, and am promised to her service. I cannot entertain the company of a man for many years yet. Perhaps when I leave her service it may be possible.’

‘An ordinary man perhaps,’ he said, ‘But I am your Emperor and such trivialities worry me not. When I am immortalised I will swat aside your Goddess’s little whims as I would a fly. I am Nero, and there has never been any such as I.’

‘But Sire,’ she said, breaking free and turning to face him, ‘Surely you understand, this is not a burden imposed on me but a calling I embrace completely.’

‘That will soon pass, Priestess,’ he said, ‘When you sample the glory of my power and the pleasure of my bed, all such thoughts will be like memories in the wind.’

‘Sire,’ she pleaded, ‘Please cast these thoughts aside. I can never forsake the Goddess. This can never happen.’

Nero’s face changed slightly as her words sunk in.

‘You misunderstand, Priestess,’ he said, ‘This is not an option, but a decree. You will be my bride and you will do so willingly or else suffer the consequences.’

Rubria was breathing fast now, close to tears as she realised there was no way out of this.

‘Sire,’ she said eventually, ‘My calling permeates my very soul, and though I recognise your glory, the needs of my Goddess will always come first. I beg of you to turn off this path for I cannot join you. I will always be here for you as confidante and friend, but, whatever the consequences, I cannot consent to be your bride.’

Nero stared at the girl before walking towards the door and Rubria breathed a sigh of relief, believing he was going to leave.

‘I will not lie to you, Priestess, he said as he pushed the wooden bar across to lock the door, ‘I am bitterly disappointed. Ours was to be the most glorious wedding ever seen in the history of Rome.’ He turned around and faced her. ‘You could have had everything Rubria, and if you had only seen the sense of being my bride, I was willing to wait before partaking of your particular pleasures. Our wedding night was to be magical, romantic, sensual and gentle as I introduced your pure body to the pleasures of the flesh.’

Rubria was scared now, as Nero circled her like a cat circling its prey.

‘But you have taken that option away now, Priestess,’ he said, ‘You have spoilt it for yourself. However, all is not lost, for I will still have my vision. My grounds will be planted and my palace will be built, and though there will no longer be a wedding night to look forward to, there is an upside.’

She stared at him in fright as his voice lowered, menacingly.

‘Sire?’ she said, her eyes transferring the unspoken question.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘At least I won’t have to wait for the wedding night before enjoying your hidden treasures. In fact, everything suddenly seems much better. Why wait and share when I can have it all right now.’

‘Sire, surely you don’t mean…’

‘Oh but I do,’ said Nero. ‘You had your chance, Priestess. I asked nicely but it seems you don’t understand nice so now we’ll do it the other way.’

‘Sire, please, no…’

Nero lurched forward and grabbed Rubria by the throat, sneering his wine laden breath in her face as he forced her back against the marble wall.

‘Enjoy your last few minutes as a Priestess, Rubria,’ he snarled, ‘For your role as a Vestal Virgin is about to come to a painful and bloody end.’

He forced the terrified teenager to the floor, and, as the reflections of the fires sweeping Rome reflected off the marble walls, Nero Augusta, Emperor of Rome raped Rubria, Priestess of the Temple of Vesta.

Chapter 12

London 2010

‘First of all,’ said India, ’You have to realise, that the time period we are talking about covers thousands of years, and, for much of that time, nothing is documented. All we can go on are the stories handed down through the ages, until they were written down around the times of Homer in Greek history.

‘So everything you tell me could be rubbish,’ said Brandon bluntly.

‘Well, not rubbish, exactly, as many different historians wrote similar accounts. It is just that sometimes the details contradict each other. For instance, though the Roman and Grecian pantheons were based on the same gods….’

‘Pantheon?’ interrupted Brandon.

‘Sorry,’ said India, ‘I forgot I was dealing with a heathen. A pantheon is the collective name for a group of gods, and, though they were based on the same ones, their names were different. Zeus was Jupiter, Poseidon was Neptune, and Aphrodite was Venus etc. Many of the legends were the same though details were different.’

‘Coincidence?’ asked Brandon.

‘Possibly,’ said India, ‘But some of the detail is so fantastic it has to share the same source.’

‘Such as?’

‘Okay, I’ll give you an example. In Greek history Athena was born from her father’s forehead, Zeus, while in Roman history, Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods, gave birth to Minerva in the same fashion.’

‘Who came first?’ asked Brandon, ‘Romans or Greeks.’

‘Greeks,’ said India.

‘So perhaps the Romans just copied the Greeks?’

‘That is possible,’ said India, ‘But it proves my point. The only written history we can rely on is from those two eras and there is often a grey area where they overlap. If you speak to a dozen different historians, you’ll get a dozen different points of view. What we have to do, is see through the maze of detail and identify the common references.’

‘And you are the person who can do this, I assume?’

‘It’s my passion,’ said India. ‘I have no interest in establishing the absolute accuracy of detail as I believe we will never know the exact truth. All I am interested in is establishing the provenance of the cult of the great mother. However, to do this I am forced to read every fact and fable, no matter how fantastic, and, by default, I have become a bit of an expert.’

‘Okay,’ said Brandon, ‘I’m convinced. You are hereby designated official historian. Now, what can you tell me about Samothrace?’

‘Like I’ve already explained,’ said India, ‘The cult of Isis was spreading westward throughout the Mediterranean, and, over the course of time, became absorbed into local history in many different guises. In Crete she became Athena, In Greece Artemis, and In Rome, Vesta. I could go on, but suffice to say, there are countless goddesses linked to the great mother, and, as the cult of Isis spread through the Aegean, it was inevitable that many of the thousands of islands were populated, and, due to their isolation, the memories remained relatively undiluted. It seems that over time, the last stronghold of her memory was the island of Samothrace.’

‘Is there any evidence?’ asked Brandon.

‘Well, if you accept that Athena and Isis actually refer to the same deity, then yes.


‘It is a bit complicated due to the countless versions available.’

‘Give me the streamlined one.’

‘Okay, but don’t forget, that no matter how fantastic it may sound, the historians of the time passionately believed in the accuracy of the stories. In most versions, Athena was the daughter of Zeus and lived with the Gods on Mount Olympus. She and her Sister, Pallas were play fighting one day when Zeus intervened to avoid injury.’

‘Health and Safety?’ sneered Brandon sarcastically. India ignored him

‘Anyway, it backfired. Pallus was distracted and Athena dealt her a fatal blow. She was devastated, and created an idol in her honour, a wooden statue, three cubits high.

‘Cubits?’ interrupted Brandon.

‘About four feet,’ sighed India. ‘The statue was of Pallus, and Athena set it up as a shrine in her honour. Obviously Zeus was devastated at losing a daughter and for Millennia, mourns the death of Pallus.’

‘Is this relevant?’ asked Brandon.

‘If you want the whole picture, you need to know the background,’ snapped India.

‘Okay, calm down.’ said Brandon.

India glared at him,

‘Legend has it that Zeus seduces Electra, one of seven Sisters known as the Pleiades and she falls pregnant, but when she pays tribute at the shrine of Pallas, Zeus is enraged that the statue has been soiled by the hands of an un-pure woman.’

‘Un-pure,’ said Brandon, ‘How?’

‘She was pregnant,’ said India, ‘Virginity was highly prized by the ancients.’

‘Seems to be a recurring theme,’ said Brandon.

‘Zeus cast the idol from Olympus,’ continued India, ‘And Electra returned to her birthplace on Samothrace, to build a new Temple, placing the statue of Pallas at its heart. Eventually Elektra gives birth to a son, Dardanus, and a few years later has another son, Iasion, again fathered by Zeus. The stories say that Zeus favours Iasion and teaches him the great mysteries of the pantheon, and Iasion starts a cult dedicated to the gods. People travel from all over the known world to this little known island to join the cult. The initiation rights became known as the Samothrace mysteries.

‘Is that where Phillip comes in?’ asked Brandon.

‘Oh no, he came thousands of years later,’ said India. ‘Anyway, when Iasion falls under the hooves of his horses during a chariot race and is killed, his brother, Dardanus is overcome with grief and leaves Samothrace, taking the statue of Pallus with him. He forms a new kingdom called Dardania, at the foot of Mount Ida in modern day turkey.’

‘Hence the name Dardanelles, I suppose,’ said Brandon.

‘You’re learning fast,’ said India. ‘His city thrived for three generations, until eventually, on his death bed, he summons his grandson, Illius. He told him to form a new city on the lower plains of Dardania and to place at its heart the statue of Pallus. He said that Zeus had visited him in a dream and had told him that the city would become the greatest ever seen, and, as long as the statue stayed at its heart, it would never fall to any enemy.’

‘And did he?’

‘He did, and the vision from Zeus was correct. It became one of the most famous cities of all time.’

‘What was it called?’

‘He named it after himself, and called it Illium.’

‘Never heard of it,’ said Brandon.

‘Perhaps you know it by the name of his father,’ said India, ‘His name was Tros.’

‘Troy,’ said Brandon immediately, ‘The city was called Troy.’

A call came over the tannoy, calling them to the plane.

‘We’ll continue this on board,’ said Brandon and they made their way to the gate. The conversation didn’t resume as they found themselves sharing a row of seats with a particularly friendly old lady, who insisted on talking to India for most of the flight. Finally they arrived in Rome and after they had cleared customs, they went out to find a taxi.

‘There they are,’ said India, and started to make her way over to the rank of white cabs.

‘Wait,’ said Brandon, ‘It’s all sorted.’ He walked towards the bus stop, and a battered old fiat pulled up before him.

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘This is our ride.’

She paused before getting in the back of the car and looked at the typical dark haired Italian behind the wheel.

‘Did you get my message?’ asked Brandon from the passenger seat as soon as they pulled off.

‘I did,’ said the driver, in a welsh accent, causing India to stare at him in amazement, ‘The package is in the glove compartment.’

Brandon retrieved a padded envelope, and took out a pistol and a thick bundle of fifty euro notes.

‘Any news on transport,’ asked Brandon.

‘Early morning flight to Athens,’ he said, ‘There’ll be a boat waiting for you the other end. Got you a safe house for tonight. The address is on the envelope.’

‘Great,’ said Brandon, putting the gun into his jacket pocket. ‘How’s business?’

‘Good,’ said the driver, ‘I’ll be sorry to leave.’

‘Always said you had all the easy jobs,’ said Brandon.

‘The summit ends in a couple of days,’ said the driver, ‘I’ve been told my next posting is out in the sticks.’

‘Good,’ said Brandon, ‘About bloody time you earned your rations’. He peered out of the window. ‘Could you drop us off here Jonesy?’ he asked suddenly.

‘Why here?’

‘The lady needs some bikinis.’ he said and the driver smiled at India in the rear view mirror. India threw him a sarcastic smile as he pulled over to the pavement.

‘I’ll take your bags to the house,’ said Jonesy, ‘Make sure you’re at the port by ten tomorrow morning. There’ll be a boat waiting.’

‘Will do,’ said Brandon, ‘See you soon.’

‘Take it easy,’ said the driver and drove off leaving them outside a shopping precinct.

Brandon peeled off twenty notes from the bundle and gave them to India.

‘I’ll be in that cafe,’ he said, ‘You go and get yourself some clothes.’

‘Do you need anything?’ she asked.

‘You could get me some shreddies,’ he said.

‘Shreddies?’ she asked with a sigh of impatience.

‘You know, underwear.’

‘Right. What about clothes?’

‘Already sorted,’ said Brandon, ‘The mob will have had some sent over already.’

‘The mob?’

‘India,’ said Brandon, ‘Stop asking questions and go and spend some money. I’ll have a dozen pairs of Calvins, the rest is yours, now, go and have fun. I’ll see you back here in two hours.’

‘Okay, keep your hair on,’ she said, ‘I was only asking. You secret squirrels can be so touchy.’ She turned around and stomped into the nearest shop doorway.

Brandon waited for a moment and watched in amusement as she pulled fruitlessly on the locked door handle. She took a deep breath and turned around to walk past him without making eye contact.

‘Don’t say a word,’ she snarled as she passed.

The following morning they returned to the airport and boarded a small plane to Athens. A few hours later they were stood on the quayside of the docks. India was reading a timetable on a chalkboard, written in Italian, Greek and English.

‘Next ferry is at one,’ she said. ‘Seems like we’ve got a bit of a wait.’

‘No we haven’t,’ said Brandon, ‘There’s our boat.’

She looked across and groaned as a battered fishing boat chugged alongside the harbour wall.

‘Don’t you guys ever travel in style?’ she asked.

‘Told you,’ he said, ‘Grey man.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ she sighed, ‘Whatever!’ She lifted her holdall and walked down to the jetty, closely followed by Brandon with his rucksack.

‘It stinks,’ said India as she stepped off the boarding plank. ‘Why can’t we take one of those?’ She pointed at one of the several cruise liners moored in the dock, preparing to disgorge their tourists into the city.

‘This will do fine,’ he answered and passed the bags to the boat’s captain. As soon as they were in, the boat chugged out of the harbour and into the blue waters of the Aegean Sea. India and Brandon sat at the rear of the boat in the shade of a makeshift tarpaulin shelter.

The Captain came back towards them with a couple of cans of coke.

‘Make yourself comfortable,’ he said in broken English, ‘The journey will take about three hours. Stay out of the sun.’ He turned and returned to the cabin.

They made small talk for an hour or so until the subject returned to Samothrace.

‘So, what do you expect to find on this island?’ asked India.

‘Don’t know,’ said Brandon, ‘But all the clues we have, point there. Sometimes the best way to get relevant information is to visit the scene itself. You saw that for yourself in Victoria.’

‘I suppose so,’ she said.

‘So, tell me about Troy,’ said Brandon, ‘If it was invincible, why doesn’t it exist today?’

‘Well,’ said India, warming to her favourite subject, ‘It was built about two and a half thousand BC and lasted until Greece sacked the city about twelve hundred BC.’

‘This, I know about,’ said Brandon. ‘The Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the gates of Troy. But inside, it contained armed Greek warriors, correct?’

‘That’s right,’ she said, ‘They waited until the city was asleep, and, after dropping from the wooden horse, opened the gates of the city from the inside, letting the Greek army in. What few people realise, is that several days earlier, Diomedes, a Greek warrior, crept into the city and stole the palladium. Don’t forget, the legend was, that as long as the Palladium was in the city, then it could not fall. With the theft of the Palladium, the city was vulnerable.’

‘Just because of a wooden statue?’

‘They believed in these things,’ said India. ‘Anyway, whatever the reason, the city fell a few days later and almost everyone was slaughtered. Some escaped but to all intents and purposes the city was wiped out. After a ten year siege, it was a great victory for the Greeks.’

‘Ten years? It wasn’t that long in the film!’

‘Don’t take the piss Brandon,’ she said, ‘These were real people and real events. Not a vehicle for Brad Pitt’s career, gorgeous as he is.’

‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘Anyway, that’s all very interesting. What about Samothrace?’

‘The records are a bit hazy there,’ she said, ‘It seems the cult of the great mother on Samothrace continued to grow from strength to strength. Over the centuries it became a great place of worship and many famous people visited there to become initiated, and that’s where Phillip the Second of Macedonia met his bride to be in 356BC.’

‘Hence the link,’ said Brandon.

‘Hence the link,’ confirmed India. ‘Not much, I know, but a historical fact linking Samothrace with our murderer.’

‘Well,’ said Brandon, ‘We’ll be there soon enough, I’m going to get some kip.’ He lay down on the deck and tilted his sun hat over his eyes. Let me know when we arrive.’

‘Yes, sir,’ murmured India sarcastically and dipped into her bag to pull out the tourist guide to Samothrace she had picked up in Athens. Two and a half hours later she shook Brandon’s shoulders.

‘Brandon, wake up,’ she said, ‘You have got to see this.’

Brandon got up and sat on the bench alongside India, gazing at the amazing sight of the island rising majestically out of the blue Aegean sea. The volcanic shape dominated the horizon and even from this distance they could see it was lush with green vegetation. Halfway up, it carved through a white halo of mist, formed by its own microclimate and the whole place screamed mystery across the water.

‘Truly a place of the god’s,’ whispered India in awe.

‘More like Jurassic fucking park,’ answered Brandon and ducked to avoid the half hearted slap from his colleague.

Chapter 13

Rome 64 AD

The fires had been burning across Rome for two days and Rubria was still locked in the tower with Nero. The Emperor’s mood swung from lyrical to savage as he alternately serenaded Rubria with his lyre or violently raped her, depending on his mood. Her face was swollen from the beatings and the once pristine white robes were grubby and bloodstained. Her hair was unkempt and her face dirty from the long dried tears. She lay curled into a ball in the corner, her hands tied tightly around a heavy table leg.

‘Beautiful,’ said Nero staring out at the flames raging across Rome, ‘Won’t be long Priestess, and the rebuilding can begin. A new era of magnificence, the likes of which has never seen. It could have all been yours, Rubria. Why did you have to spoil it all?’

Rubria didn’t answer.

‘It matters not,’ said Nero. ‘There are countless who will gladly consent to be my Empress. I have my choice of women or boys, married or chaste.’ He glanced sideways at her ominously, ‘Willing or not!’

‘Please,’ she whispered, ‘Let me go. You have had your way; please allow me to return to the temple.’

‘Back to the Temple?’ he laughed, ‘Why? You know as well as I that you have no future there. The Priestesses must all be Virgins. As soon as the Pontifex maximus find out you have lain with a man, your only future lies beneath the paviers of the Campus Sceleratus.’

‘You raped me,’ she said, ‘They will understand.’

‘And who do you think they will believe,’ asked Nero. ‘A mere girl, who has been pestering me for months or their glorious Emperor. Sorry, Rubria, your future has become somewhat limited, and, to be honest…’ He grabbed her chin in his hand and forced her head up to look at him. ‘It’s not even as if you were any good.’

A knock came on the door and Nero answered without looking up.

‘Go away, I am busy.’

‘Sire,’ came a voice, ‘You are needed, there is a problem.’

‘What problem?’

‘The fire is getting out of control. It threatens the Palatine.’

Nero looked up in concern.

‘The palace?’ he asked.

‘Yes, Sire, the Vigils are fighting the flames as we speak.’

Nero walked over to the door and withdrew the bolt.

‘How has this happened,’ he asked.

‘The wind changed, Sire, the whole hill is threatened, Caligula’s palace, the Domus, even the Forum is at risk.’

Nero glanced at Rubria.

‘What about the Temple of Vesta?’ he asked, ‘Does it lie in the fire’s path?’

‘No Sire, it would seem the Temple is safe.’

‘Hmm,’ said Nero, ‘I am not sure that is a fair situation. Why do our humble citizens suffer yet the sisterhood escapes the fire? Look at the situation again, soldier,’ he said, ‘Next time you report it would be better for you if I heard the Temple had burnt to the ground. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Sire,’ said the soldier.

‘Good. Make sure you do. Now, gather the men and concentrate on saving the palaces.’

‘Yes, Sire,’ said the Centurion and Rubria heard him running back through the marble hallway.

‘Oh dear,’ said Nero, sitting back down next to her and peeling an apple with his knife, ‘It would seem that even if I were to let you go, there is nowhere for you to go. Or at least, there soon won’t be. However, that is irrelevant. You see, Rubria, unfortunately, I can’t let you leave here alive. Even though I am destined to be a God, there are some who would frown on your seduction, and, whilst I do not answer to them, it is an irritation I could do without. So, in a few hours, while I am becoming the saviour of the city and spend untold fortunes on saving my people, you, my dear Priestess, will be having a meeting with an assassins blade.’ He stood up to leave. ‘Listen to that, Rubria,’ he said, indicating the noise from the city below. ‘The sound of my people, begging for my help, and who am I to deny them. Goodbye, Priestess, Don’t bother screaming, no one can hear you up here. But worry not, you won’t be alone for long. The next person you see, will also be the last.’ He paused before finally adding. ‘When you greet your Goddess, Rubria, give her my love.’ He turned and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Rubria stared after him in horror, struggling to make sense of the last few minutes. It was not the fact that she was to be killed that worried her but the fact that the Temple was at risk. Her imagination worked overtime as she imagined her fellow Priestesses, unaware of the danger they were about to face. She had to warn them and started to struggle against her bonds.

For half an hour she pulled and strained against the bindings on her wrists, even chewing on them to try to bite through. Finally, realising that she was fighting a losing battle, she realised she had no other option, and, though Nero had said it would be futile, she started to scream for help.

For an age no one came and finally her cries became weaker as her strength failed, until she fell silent once more. The sounds of the panic in the streets filtered into her room, and Rubria realised her life had come crashing down around her. Her chastity had been torn from her in a brutal assault by the Emperor, the Priestesses of Vesta were in danger, and more than that, the holy relics of the Temple were at risk. She sobbed quietly as she contemplated the tragedy that was befalling Rome.

A noise from the door made her look up, and she gasped, as she realised that it was being unlocked. She stared as it eased inward, expecting to see the looming figure of the executioner, come to deal Nero’s judgement. It had only opened a few inches when a tiny hand gripped the edge, pushing it further in and a tiny feminine face peered nervously into the room.

‘Hello,’ she said, ‘Miss, are you in here?’

Rubria caught her breath as she recognised the slave girl she had blessed a few days earlier.

‘Rose?’ she asked, ‘Is that you?’

‘Oh, Miss,’ said the girl as she noticed her in the gloom, ‘What has he done to you?’

‘Rose, quick, come here. You have to get me out of here, there is little time.’

The slave ran to Rubria’s side and struggled with her bonds.

‘Quickly,’ insisted Rubria

‘They are too tight, Miss,’ she said, ‘I will get a knife.’ She ran from the room and Rubria waited in fear.

Eventually she heard footsteps approaching once more but her initial relief was cut short as she realised the footsteps were slower, heavier, and more considered. The door flung open and Rubria looked into the face of a giant black man dressed in a white toga.

‘Who are you?’ she asked nervously.

‘You know who I am,’ sneered the man.

‘The executioner,’ she said simply.

He nodded and walked slowly towards her, drawing a blade from a sheath beneath his robes.

‘Wait,’ she said, ‘You don’t have to do this.’

‘Oh but I do,’ he said, ‘My Master has decreed it.’

‘But, you don’t understand,’ she said desperately, ‘I can make it worth your while. If you release me I can get you money.’

‘I have no need of money lady, ‘My Master ensures I want for nothing.’

‘Please, you have to listen,’ she said, as he drew near, ‘There is more at stake here than just my life. The Temple of Vesta is at risk.’

He stared at her, unmoved.

‘Your Gods hold no sway over my life lady, and my Gods forsook me a long time ago. Nothing you say will change your fate. The only question is, do I enjoy your body before my blade cuts your undoubtedly beautiful neck?’

Rubria’s eyes welled with tears.

‘Please,' she begged, 'I care not for myself. Have your way if you must, but please, you must release me. I have to get to the temple.’

The executioner grinned an evil smile.

‘Enough talk,’ he said, ‘This is what is going to happen. First, of all I will cut those robes from your back, the better to see this beautiful body I have heard so much about. Then I will show you what you have been missing all these years as a Virgin. Your death is inevitable, lady, but the manner of dying is in your hands. Respond warmly and I promise your death will be painless and quick. If you are cold, then you will die in a way you cannot even imagine. Trust me, lady; I know a thousand ways to kill you.’

‘No,’ she gasped, ‘Please, don’t do this.’

‘Too late, lady,’ he said, ‘Your fate is sealed.’ He took a step towards her but stopped suddenly in confusion, looking down at the point of the blade protruding from his chest. A large red stain spread rapidly on his white tunic and he turned slowly to stare at Rose who was backing away from him in fear.

‘You,’ he gasped and took a step towards her, the hilt of a Gladius sticking out of his back.

Rose backed up against a wall and cringed in fear as the executioner staggered towards her. Halfway across the room he dropped the knife and fell to his knees.

‘You bitch,’ he said, ‘I will kill you for this,’ and crawled across the floor, his strength failing. Less than a metre away he fell onto his face coughing up blood onto the shining marble floor. Rose edged past him, and, placing her foot on his back, withdrew the Gladius. She placed the point of the sword on the back of his neck.

‘This is for every girl that’s ever suffered beneath your stinking body, Lembus,’ she said and thrust the blade down to sever his spine.

Rubria closed her eyes in disgust as the man died beneath the blade.

Rose stood above him, breathing hard. Eventually she regained her senses and turned towards Rubria, sword in hand. She ran forward and using the blade, started to saw the binds around her wrists.

‘Don’t worry, Miss,’ she said, ‘I’ll get you out of here.’

‘Who was he?’ asked Rubria.

‘His name was Lembus,’ said Rose, ‘He used to be a slave but won freedom and the trust of the emperor many years ago.’


‘He and some other slaves were paid to assassinate the emperor by one of his enemies, but he betrayed his comrades and told Nero of the plan. The plotters were crucified and Lembus was given a role within the palace as slave overseer. He also became Nero’s chief executioner, and held sway over many of the household staff. He raped freely, and, if any resisted, they conveniently disappeared.’

The corded rope fell apart from the attentions of the blade and Rubria stood up, rubbing her wrists to improve the circulation.

‘Are you okay, Miss?’ asked Rose.

‘Worry not for me, Rose, there are those who are in greater danger. Come on, there is little time.’

‘Wait,' said Rose, ‘We can’t go through the palace.’

‘Why not?’

‘Nero surrounds himself with loyal guards and they would stop you leaving. It is no secret that you are here and he has been boasting amongst his bodyguards about, well, you know, what he has been doing to you. If they see you attempting to leave you would be held until his return.’

‘Is there another way?’ asked Rubria.

‘Yes,’ said Rose after a moment’s thought, ‘Though it is beneath someone as holy as you.’

‘My holiness has long gone, Rose, I just need to get out of here before it is too late.’

‘Then come with me,’ said Rose, ‘I will get you back to your Temple. She led Rubria out of the cell and down a side passage. At each doorway or junction in a passage she signalled Rubria to wait until the coast was clear before hurrying on into the lower levels where the servants and slaves were quartered. Finally they ended up in an empty room, lined on each side with a wooden topped stone bench. Along each wooden seat were several round holes.

‘This is it, Miss,’ said Rose.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Rubria, ‘This is a latrine, there is no way out.’

‘There are many ways out of the palace, Miss, but all will be guarded by Nero’s personal guard. There is only one exit that is not manned, and that is here.’


‘Through the sewers,’ said Rose.

Rubria’s face dropped as she realised the implications.

‘Is there no other way?’ she asked.

‘No, Miss. The palace is heavily guarded and you would be caught in minutes. This sewer leads under the palace walls and to the base of the Palatine.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Rubria, ‘If this is such a good escape route, surely it would be guarded against the escape of slaves.’

Rose looked at her in silence.

‘Sorry, Rose, I didn’t mean…’

‘It’s okay, Miss,’ she replied, ‘I know what I am, and you are right. It would seem that this is indeed a good escape route. But most slaves see no need to run from the palace. It is warm, we are fed, and apart from the attentions of some of the soldiers and the overseer, it is relatively good life. Tens of thousands of slaves across Rome have it far worse than us, and anyway, even if we escaped, where would we run to. As soon as the alarm was raised we would be caught before we reached the city walls. It has been attempted, but all have been caught and are crucified in front of the rest. We are forced to watch until the victim breathes their last breath and sometimes that takes days. No, overall, the fate of those who stay is like heaven compared to the alternative.’

‘So why are you helping me?’ asked Rubria. ‘Surely if you are found out, your fate also lies on the cross.’

‘As a little girl back in my homeland, my mother used to take me to the Temple of the Goddess to worship,’ answered Rose, ‘But my father ran up huge debts and had to sell me into slavery to pay his way. I was brought here and grew up with only this as a reminder of my family.’ She pulled out a necklace from beneath her tunic and held up a tiny wooden carving.

‘You are a worshiper?’ said Rubria.

‘Yes, Miss, and as I got older and realised the Vestal Temple lay at the foot of the palace, I became the perfect servant in order to gain favour. Soon I was being allowed out on errands and whenever possible, I would seek blessing at the gates of the Temple. So you see, I could not stand by and watch a Priestess die at the hands of a monster. I only wish I could have come sooner.’

‘Oh, Rose,’ said Rubria, ‘You have done more than enough. I will take the tunnels you speak of, no matter how despicable. You must come with me and seek the protection of the temple.’

‘I can’t do that, Miss,’ said Rose sullenly.

‘Why not?’

Rose hesitated.

‘The Phasma,’ she said eventually.

‘Phasma?’ queried Rubria.

‘It is said the tunnels are haunted, Miss,’ said the slave, ‘And I know I am probably very stupid but I can’t help what I believe. The spirits of many people walk the tunnels and I would rather die myself than meet them in the darkness. Besides, I need to do something out here.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Rubria, ‘Why don’t you just come with me? I will look after you, Rose, and when we get out of here the Order of Vesta will ensure you are given a good life.’

‘I would gladly come, Miss, she said, but at the end of the sewer is an iron grill blocking the path. It is locked from the outside. I can leave the palace without raising suspicion and will open it for you to pass.’

‘Do you have the key?’ asked Rubria.

‘No, but I know where to get it.’


‘On Lembus’s belt!’

Rubria stared at the slave girl in horror.

‘Rose, you can’t go back up there,’ she said, ‘His body may have already been found.’

‘I have no choice,’ she said. ‘It did not occur to me to get the key at the time. The only thing is, if you go into the sewers, and I am caught, then you will be stuck down there with no chance of escape.’

‘It is a chance I have to take,’ said Rubria. ‘I will go through the sewer and welcome it as a penance for my sins. If it is the Great Mother’s will that I die in filth then I will go to my death knowing I have failed her.’

‘But you are not sinful,’ said Rose, ‘You are a Vestal Virgin, the very essence of purity.’

‘Not any more, Rose,’ said Rubria. ‘Perhaps my sin is of self importance and vanity. Perhaps it was I who led our Emperor on. If it was not for the safety of my fellow Sisters, then I would gladly have met Lembus’s blade with head held high.’

‘Don’t say that, Miss. You are not responsible for the lusts of men.’

‘We shall see, Rose,’ said Rubria, ‘It is in the hands of the Goddess. Now, where is this tunnel?’

Rose pulled the rug away and revealed a trapdoor beneath. They both pulled on the recessed metal ring and the trapdoor rose, lifting with it the stench of the filth beneath. Rubria raised her finger to beneath her nose while Rose turned her head away to take a clean breath. Below them, the maintenance shaft dropped away into a stone lined tunnel leading from the latrine. The flow of water at the bottom was evidence of the importance of the sewer and it was obviously fed by a water supply somewhere upstream as a means of flushing away the filth.

‘Okay,’ said Rubria eventually, ‘No point in waiting any longer.’ She sat on the edge and lowered herself into the tunnel. The ceiling was a few inches above her head and made from concrete lintels and she could reach both walls of baked clay bricks if she outstretched her arms. Rubria stood ankle deep in slow moving sewage as Rose risked the stench to lean into the opening above.

‘Follow the flow downstream, Miss,’ she said. ‘I will make all haste to meet you the other end.’

‘Thank you, Rose,’ said Rubria.

‘May the Gods be with you, Miss,’ said Rose and lowered the trapdoor to seal the sewer.

Rubria heard the rug being drawn over the access trap and stood for a few moments in abject fear as she tried to summon the courage to move. The blackness was absolute and she couldn’t see as far as a hand in front of her face. Finally she took a single step forwards, followed by a nervous second. Her outstretched hand dragged against one wall, a slim comfort in the total darkness, and soon she was walking as fast as she dared, without the risk of slipping on the slime and disgusting mess beneath her feet.

Soon she felt the floor of the sewer start to slope downwards and Rubria realised that it must be starting to descend towards the base of the hill. The sound of the trickling water became louder and she realised it must be flowing over an obstacle of some sort. Treading carefully she tested the ground before her with her feet, and was soon rewarded with the first potential hazard. Instead of solid ground, her foot dangled in space and she carefully lowered it down until it again met the sewer floor. It was obviously the first of many steps down to the base of the hill. Over and over again she took a step downwards until she lost all track of how many steps she had taken.

Suddenly a breath of fresh air wafted past he nostrils and her head lifted automatically to gulp in the welcome relief from the stench of the sewer. For a moment she thought she was at her journey’s end but was soon disappointed to see a small circle of light far above her head at the top of a narrow air shaft designed to release the build up of gases. Rubria stood for a long time beneath the shaft, gulping in the air and gazing longingly at the inaccessible light above. For an age she couldn’t bring herself to continue her journey and she sat on pile of collapsed masonry, staring upwards and crying quietly in despair.

Suddenly something ran over her foot and she screamed in fright as the biggest rat she had ever seen was momentarily caught in the circle of light shining down from above. She caught her breath and continued her journey down the subterranean stairway.

Rubria lost all track of time but eventually realised that something was changing. The sound of trickling water had always been with her but now it was getting louder the further she walked. Finally it had become quite loud indeed and Rubria realised it sounded like a waterfall.

‘Oh no,’ she groaned as she realised the implications and though the tunnel was still in total darkness she soon realised her worst fears when she couldn’t find the next step down with her feet.

The steady flow of water that had accompanied her for the last hour or so, now fell from beneath her into a pool below. She had no way of knowing how far below the pool was, or how deep it was. Rubria stopped in despair. She didn’t want to take the last step into the unknown as she had no idea what awaited her below but it was pointless going back as there was no way out that way. She removed one sandal, and, holding it over the edge, dropped it into the darkness, counting as it fell.

‘One, Two, Thr…’ She heard a splash above the sound of the falling water and repeated the exercise with the other sandal.

One, Two, Thr…’ Splash! There it was again. There was no other option, and Rubria realised she had to go on. Already filthy, she sat on the edge of the drop, dangling her legs into the darkness.

‘Holy Mother protect me,’ she prayed and pushed herself forward into the unknown.

Chapter 14

Samothrace 2010

India and Brandon walked from the quay side and up onto the main road running through the island’s one port, Kariamiotisa. Behind them, rows of blue fishing boats bobbed on the swell in the manmade harbour. They waited for the light traffic to pass before crossing and made their way towards the rows of red tiled houses. Brandon consulted a sketched diagram he had been given by the Captain before leading the way up a side street. He stopped before a small tavern with a couple of wooden benches outside.

‘Looks like this is the place,’ he said and knocked on the door before entering the cool darkness within. ‘Hello,’ he called, ‘Anyone home?’

‘Hello,’ came the answer from a rear room, ‘Just a second.’

They waited patiently and eventually an elderly lady came out, wiping her flour covered hands in her apron.

‘Hello,’ she smiled, ‘English yes?’

‘Yes,’ said Brandon, ‘We have been given your name by Helios. He said you can give us a room for a couple of nights.’

‘Helios? Yes, such a good boy.’ She looked at India, and smiled. ‘Honeymoons, yes?’

Before India could answer, Brandon answered for her.

‘Yes,’ he said quickly, ‘We are very much in love.’ He put his arm around India as if to prove the point.

‘Aaah,’ said the woman, ‘Very goods, I am Agatha and this is my homes. I will put you up in the best room I have overlooking the seas. She turned to India. ‘Veryromantics,’ she said.

‘Thank you,’ smiled India, but as soon as Agatha turned away, she kicked Brandon in the ankle.

‘Is this all your luggages?’ asked Agatha.

‘Yes,’ answered Brandon, ‘It was all very last minute, you understand.’

‘Aaah, young loves,’ said Agatha. ‘I was in loves once, with two brothers from Athens.’

India glanced at Brandon and hid a smile.

‘Come with me and I will show you to your room.’ They followed her up a narrow stone staircase onto a gloomy landing. Agatha opened a door and they filed into a surprisingly spacious and clean bedroom.

‘Lovely views, yes?’ Asked Agatha.

‘Beautiful,’ agreed India, looking out of the window.

Agatha sat on the bed and bounced up and down, making it squeak loudly.

‘Very strong springs,’ she said proudly, ‘Very new, only ten years old. The shower is downstairs and hot water is only available in the morninks. Toilet rolls is here,’ she said, opening a side cupboard. The first one is free. Extra rolls are one euro each. You are happy. Yes?’

‘This will do fine,’ said Brandon, pulling out his wallet, ‘How much do we owe you?’

‘Thirty Euros every night,’ she said, ‘Very cheaps.’

He counted out a hundred and fifty.

‘Five nights should do it,’ he said, ‘Is that okay?’

This is good,’ she said, putting the notes down the neckline of her blouse. She turned to India. ‘Five nights,’ she said with a wink, ‘Much luvvinks, yes?’

India bit her tongue and just smiled

‘Aaah,’ she said, ‘Very romantics. I will leave you in peaces.’ Agatha left the room and India closed the door gently before spinning around with fire in her eyes.

‘Honeymoon,’ she snarled, ‘What on earth made you say that? Why can’t I have my own room?’

‘Calm down,’ said Brandon, ‘I have my reasons.’

‘If you think I am sleeping with you then you are sadly mistaken, mister,’ she said, folding her arms in defiance.

‘India,’ interrupted Brandon, ‘Shut up for a minute and just listen. Don’t forget the killer was from around here and we don’t know anything about him yet. Until we know it is safe, I would rather we stay very close.’

‘Oh,’ said India, ‘Of course, sorry, I didn’t think.’

‘No you didn’t. Don’t worry, you can have the bed, I will sleep on the floor. Anyway, what makes you so sure I would want to sleep with you?’

India’s shock was almost comical as her anger found a new target.

‘Why? What’s wrong with me?’ she snapped.

‘Nothing,’ said Brandon, ‘It’s just… I mean… Oh forget it. I can’t win this argument. Look, I don’t know about you, but I just want a shower and a change of clothes.’

Hot water is only available in the morninks,’ said India, mimicking the woman’s accent to break the tension.

‘Ah, yes,’ answered Brandon, ‘I forgot.’ Suddenly he picked up his rucksack and delved into the contents.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

‘I’ve got an idea,’ he answered and suddenly stood up holding a pair of Speedo’s.

‘Who needs a shower?’ he asked, ‘When you’ve got the beautiful Aegean on your doorstep. Come on, grab those designer bikinis you fleeced me for, and we will have a bit of a break before the work starts.’

Several hours later they sat outside a tavern, each sipping on a glass of ouzo, watching a spectacular sunset.

‘I have never seen anything so beautiful,’ said India, ‘No wonder they based the Temple of the Gods on this island.’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ said Brandon, ‘The same sunset is probably being watched by millions of other people across the med.’

‘Oh shut up, Brandon,’ said India, ‘Where’s your romance?’

He raised one eyebrow and stared silently over his glass as he sipped his ouzo.

‘You know what I mean,’ said India, ‘Anyway, what is the plan now we are here?’

‘Well, answered, Brandon, ‘The dead man’s license has been traced to somewhere along the coast called Therma. I’ve booked us on a sightseeing trip tomorrow and we’ll visit some of his known haunts. See if we can pick up any information.’

‘When are we going to Paleopolis?’

‘Paleopolis?’ asked Brandon.

‘The Temple of the gods,’ she said. We can’t come all the way to Samothrace and not go to the ruins.’

‘We’ll see,’ said Brandon, ‘Let’s not forget our purpose here. There’s still a little girl missing.’

India nodded sombrely.

‘Do you think she’s okay?’

‘Who knows?’ said Brandon, ‘Everything possible is being done to find her but she seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. None of the known threats have any knowledge at all. Drug rings, prostitution rackets, even terrorist groups, all have been checked out but nothing.’

‘They could be lying,’ she said.

‘Possible, but we have a network of contacts throughout every known organisation. Either this is a new group or the result of some fanatic acting on his own.’

‘So why aren’t there more of you out here,’ asked India.

‘The main enquiry is going on back home. This is just a wild card, so to speak. We don’t hold much hope of finding anything but we obviously have to cover every angle.’

‘So what have your people found out about the dead man?’ asked India.

‘Not much. We know his name is Peter Venezelos, and his driving license is registered in Therma but apart from that, there’s not much to know. This island is very isolated and he doesn’t appear on any database we can find. In my experience the civil servants in these sort of places are pretty slow in computerising their records. Given time, I’m sure we could dig up all sorts of facts but that’s the one thing we haven’t got, time!’ He called the waiter and ordered more drinks.

‘So, what else can you tell me about this island?’

‘Not much,’ said India, ‘After the death of Elektra the Temple of the Gods went from strength to strength and lasted thousands of years, right up until it was torn down by the Byzantines in the fourth century.’

‘So that’s a dead end as far as the investigation goes then,’ said Brandon.

‘Possibly, though don’t forget, for all those thousands of years previous to that, it was a fundamental part of life to most people across this part of the world.’

They talked long into the night and eventually made their way back to the taverna in the early hours of the morning, slightly worse for wear. They spent an awkward ten minutes getting changed and organising the sleeping arrangements before India curled up on the squeaky bed under a sheet, and Brandon lay on the floor on a makeshift mattress made from two spare blankets they had found on top of the wardrobe.

‘You okay?’ asked India in the darkness.

‘Trust me,’ he said, ‘I’ve slept in a lot worse places than this.’

‘Good night then,’ she said, and closed her eyes, falling asleep within minutes.

— -

The following morning saw them both on a small bus heading along the coast road towards the town named for the natural warm springs that was its main attraction. The bus was filled with tourists, all keen to see more of the island and India could hear a range of languages including Greek, German and British. At the back, were a group of gossiping old women carrying baskets of various farm produce, and the noise of the chickens within some, competed with the bleats of a goat, perched on the shelf of the rear window.

They eventually arrived and India and Brandon got off to follow the tourists into the village. They spent an hour wandering around the market before eventually moving up into the side streets, finally finding the one named on Brandon’s slip of paper. They made their way into the cafe near the end of the row of whitewashed houses. Despite the language differences, they managed to order some coffees and they spent an hour making small talk as they took in the environment around them. They ordered a light lunch and struck up a conversation with a waitress who spoke English and Brandon eventually eased the conversation around to Peter Venezelos, explaining that he had met him on a previous holiday and would like to say hello.

‘Peter has been away for a long time,’ answered the waitress, ‘He left over a year ago, but I know not where.’

‘Does he live around here,’ he asked, ‘Perhaps I could pop in and say hello to his parents. It would be good to see them again.’

The girl paused.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said,’ I don’t understand. His parents have been dead for many years. He and his brother were brought up by Mama Christou. Where did you say you met him?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Brandon, realising he had made a faux pas,’ I must be mistaken. Perhaps I will catch up with him next time.’ He placed some money on the bar and led the way out of the cafe and away from the street. The girl watched them leave curiously before reaching for the handset of an ancient landline on the bar. Outside, India and Brandon crossed the square.

‘That was awkward,’ said India.

‘Schoolboy error,’ said Brandon. ‘I assumed too much too quickly. Still, at least we’ve got a name.’


‘Mama Christou,’ he said, ‘Sounds like a name most people will know in a place like this.’ He was right. Within a few minutes they had directions to Mama Christou’s house and had found out she was now a frail old woman with failing eyesight. Brandon bought a bunch of flowers and they made their way to an old part of the village. India knocked on the door and a young woman answered.

‘Hello,’ said India, ‘Do you speak English?’

‘A little,’ said the woman.

‘We are looking for Mama Christou. Peter Venezelos said she lived here.’

The woman’s eyes widened.

‘You are a friend of Peter?’ she asked, ‘Have you seen him?

‘Yes,’ said Brandon, ‘He is in England. We have become friends over the last few months and when I told him I was coming here on holiday. He asked me to pop in and give Mama Christou some flowers.’

‘Not like him,’ said the woman, ‘Still, you had better come in.’

They entered a darkened room and immediately they could see an old woman sat in a battered chair with a shawl wrapped around her knees. The young woman pulled up two chairs from the table and placed them facing the old woman.

‘Mama,’ she said in English, ‘We have visitors, friends of Peter. They have come to pay their respects to you.’

The old woman peered at them through thick glasses.

‘Friends of Peter,’ she said. ‘Which ones. Better not be Aetosh. Not welcome here, bringing their trouble all the time. Tell them to go.’

‘No, mama,’ said the young woman, ‘They are not Aetosh, they are English. Nice people. Look they have brought you flowers.’

‘English!’ she said. ‘What are English doing in my home?’

Brandon stepped forward.

‘Peter said to pop in and say hello,’ she said. ‘We haven’t known him long but he said you brought him up.’

‘I did,’ said the woman, ‘And look how he repays me. No job, no grandchildren, and left us without any food in the cupboard. I should have known. Spent most of his time riding his moped with the rest of the hooligans. Waster, that boy is, Nothing more than a scoundrel.’ She leaned back and closed her eyes, mumbling something incoherently under her breath.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the younger woman. She gets a bit upset these days. Times are hard you see.’

‘No matter,’ said Brandon. ‘Perhaps we shouldn’t have come.’ They stood up to leave but as they left, he paused and pulled out a pile of Euros from his wallet before placing them on the table.

‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I don’t understand.’

‘I forgot to say,’ said Brandon. ‘Peter told me to give you this. It’s not much but it will help a little.’

‘It’s not charity is it?’ asked the woman. ‘Mama would never accept charity.’

‘No, certainly not,’ he lied, ‘Peter asked me to bring it to you.’

‘You sure?’ she asked.

‘Positive,’ interrupted India, backing up his story. ‘I was there.’

‘In that case, I will take it,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’

‘One more thing,’ said Brandon. ‘Who are the Aetosh, Mama refers to?’

‘Oh, take no notice,’ she said, ‘Just some silly gang Peter used to run with a long time ago. Anyway, how is Peter? I am surprised he ended up in England. He was always very patriotic and had no time for foreign people.’

‘Yes, I noticed that,’ said Brandon avoiding the question. ‘Anyway, we had better go. We don’t want to impose.’

‘When you go back, tell him to call the Mama,’ said the woman, ‘She misses him, really.’

‘We will,’ said Brandon and they made their way back down the hill in silence, both fully aware that the young man in question was laying on a marble slab in a London mortuary, Brandon’s bullet probably still lodged in the back of his skull.

‘What do you think?’ asked India. ‘Any help?’

‘I don’t know but the mention of a gang is a new development. Perhaps we can find out something about these Aetosh. The problem is we don’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves. A couple of foreigners asking random questions about a local gang is bound to stand out.’

India stopped walking for a second before grabbing his arm and leading him back towards the bus station.

‘Where are we going?’ he asked.

‘Back to Kamariotissa,’ she said, ‘You want someone who likes to talk and I know just the person.’

Two hours later Brandon was sat in the cool dining area of the guest house waiting for the roast goat they had ordered for lunch. India was in the kitchen with Agatha and he could hear occasional bursts of laughter as the English librarian and the Greek hostess shared some unheard joke. Eventually the two women emerged and placed three bowls on the table along with three plates and some cutlery. The bowls contained strips of roast goat in gravy, boiled potatoes and bread. Agatha busied herself sharing out the food.

‘Agatha is joining us,’ announced India. ‘Isn’t that nice?’

‘Wonderful,’ agreed Brandon, falsely. ‘You can tell us all about this wonderful island of yours’

Agatha beamed with happiness, delighted at the attention. Throughout lunch she described the island and the lifestyle of the locals, interspersed with liberal accounts of sexual innuendo and rumour. India in particular took a shine to the woman and eventually took the lead in moving the subject nearer their purpose.

‘What about crime?’ she said between mouthfuls of food. ‘I suppose everywhere has their share of hooligans.’

‘Not much,’ said Agatha, ‘Though Stefan Pelapollis’s wife did push his lover off a cliff when she found out they were having affairs.’

‘When was that?’ asked Brandon.

‘Forty four years ago,’ said Agatha.

‘What about gangs?’ asked India. ‘I read somewhere there is a gang called the Aetosh.’

‘Used to be,’ said Agatha, wiping some gravy from her chin. ‘Silly bunch of young men who thought they could get independence from Greece.’

‘What does Aetosh mean?’ asked India.

Agatha screwed her eyes in thought.

‘How do you say in English? Ah yes, Eagle, I think, named after a stone up in the castle.’

‘Stone?’ asked Brandon

‘Yes. In Chora there is a castle that used to protect the village.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Very common peoples in Chora,’ she said. ‘All womens is sleeping with all mens. Disgusting!’

‘What is this stone?’ asked Brandon, trying to drag Agatha back from her favourite subject.

‘It is nothing,’ she said, ‘Just an ancient stone with the picture of an Eagle on it. It was the emblem of the Gatilusi family who ruled this island many hundreds of years ago. The Aetosh named themselves after the emblem and campaigned for independence for Samothrace. Of course, it never happened and they broke up many years ago.’

The rest of lunch was taken up by small talk and Agatha’s constant forays into the sexual exploits of her neighbours and guests. It seemed that she had an anecdote for almost everyone in the village. Eventually they finished their lunch and made their excuses to go up to their room.

‘Afternoon luvvinks,’ said Agatha as India passed. Verynice!’

They made their way upstairs and locked the door behind them.

‘That woman is unbelievable,’ laughed India. ‘Have you ever met anyone who is so obsessed with sex?’

‘She needs a good man,’ said Brandon.

‘I’m not so sure,’ said India, ‘By the sound of it, she has been through half the men on the island and is targeting the other half.’

‘I hope I’m not on the hit list,’ laughed Brandon.

‘After our little conversation in the kitchen,’ said India, ‘I don’t think you need worry about that scenario happening.’

‘Why? What did you say?’ asked Brandon with a look of concern.

India pinched one of Brandon’s cheeks

‘Aaah bless,’ she said, ‘Don’t let it worry your tiny little mind. Anyway, what do you think about these Aetosh then?’

‘Don’t know if it’s worth pursuing,’ said Brandon, ’But at this moment in time it’s all we’ve got. I tell you what, we’ll have a little siesta and this evening we’ll take a trip up to Chora. Have a look at this eagle thing in case we need to recognise it in the future.’

‘You have a siesta,’ said India, ‘I’m not tired. I think I’ll have a walk around the village. See if I can find a tourist information centre.’

‘Okay,’ said Brandon, ‘But be careful.’

‘Stop worrying, granddad,’ joked India, ‘You have your forty winks. Us youngsters will be fine.’ She held up an unused bikini. ‘I might even catch some rays while I am out there.’

‘I mean it, India,’ said Brandon. ‘Stay in the public areas.’

‘I will,’ she promised and left the room to get changed in the shower.

Two hours later, Brandon had had a cold shower and changed into a pair of shorts and T shirt. He packed his camera in his day sack along with a couple of bottles of water and made his way out of the tavern. On the way he called India on his mobile. By the time he reached the waterfront road, he had called her half a dozen times, each time the call going straight to answer phone. Finally, he heard the phone connect and spoke rapidly into the phone.

‘India,’ he said, ‘Thank fuck for that. Why didn’t you answer?’

‘Shut up!’ said a male voice on the other end, ‘And just listen. Miss Sommers is with us. She is safe and will remain so. However, we wish to speak to you. In five minutes a car will pull up outside your accommodation. You will get in the car with no pack or package of any type whatsoever. Do as we say, and you will both be unharmed. If, at anytime we suspect you offer any threat to any of our people, then your stay on Samothrace will be, shall we say, of a permanent nature. Do I make myself clear?’

‘You say we are safe,’ said Brandon, looking around frantically, ‘How do I know you are telling the truth?’

‘You don’t,’ said the man. ‘You have four minutes.’ The phone went dead.

Shit!’ cursed Brandon, and ran back towards the tavern.

Chapter 15

Rome 64 AD

Rubria staggered to her feet, having dropped twice her own height into a pool of filthy water no more than four feet deep. She staggered and fell again as one ankle gave way and a searing pain shot up her leg. Her head dipped below the water and her mouth filled with filth as she cried out in pain. Over and over again she tried to stand, each time falling back under until her outstretched arm found a solid wall and she leaned against the slimy surface, sobbing in the darkness. Her head and shoulders were above the water line but the foul stench made it almost impossible to breath. After a few moments, she realised the water was moving gently in one direction so she started to limp slowly along the wall edge, following the flow of sewage, and, within a few minutes she realised the darkness was easing and she could actually see the surface of the water. Something gently bumped against her head and she lashed out in fright, expecting to feel the soft body of a rat but her hand hit something hard. Before she could identify what it was, it floated away into the gloom and she stayed rigid in fright as she gathered her strength.

She moved further forward, eager to reach the source of the light but the way was soon obstructed by something below the water line. She pushed it away with her foot but it only went so far due it being tethered to the wall by a chain. Her hand reached down and grasped what she thought was some sort of spear haft, but what she pulled to the surface finally sent her over the edge. Held in her own hand was the rotting remains of a human arm.

Rubria screamed and span away, only to bump into a floating corpse and suddenly she realised the many shapes now visible in the gloom were the rotting remains of human bodies. Over and over again she screamed and forced her way through the filth towards the light, sobbing as she pushed the remains out of her way. Finally, she fell against an iron grill set into the wall, and grasped two of the bars as she gulped in the fresh air.

‘Please,’ she whimpered, ‘Somebody help me.’

‘It’s okay, Miss,’ said a familiar voice. ‘I am here.’

Centurion Dragus was in the barracks, when the alarm came. He and his men were taking a meal and some hard earned rest after two full days fighting fires around the city.

Stand to!’ came the shout, echoing through the corridors of the barracks. ‘Everyone to their posts.’

‘Fuck,’ said Dragus and stood up, leaving the stew where it was but grabbing some of the rolls from the centre of the table as he went. All around him, legionaries were grabbing their equipment and strapping on their sword belts.

Optio!’ he shouted, ‘Get the rest of the Century and form up outside. I’ll find out what is going on.’ He ran out and met Septimus, the duty Centurion in charge of the palace guard. ‘What’s the situation?’ asked Dragus.

‘The overseer has been found dead in the Emperor’s quarters,’ said Septimus. ‘Killed with a Gladius.’

‘Another slave?’ suggested Dragus.

‘Possibly,’ said Septimus, ‘But it’s more likely Nero’s pet Priestess wielded the blade. The overseer was found in her cell and she is missing.’

‘Wait,’ interrupted Dragus. ‘Who has disappeared? What the fuck are you talking about?’

‘You know,’ said Septimus, ‘The Vestal Virgin Nero has been screwing for the past three days.’ He looked at Dragus’s blank face. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t know,’ said Septimus, ‘It’s been the talk of the palace.’

‘I’ve been on patrol to Ostia for the last week,’ he said, ‘And the last two days I have been fighting fires in the city.’

‘It matters not,’ said Septimus. ‘All you need to know is the bitch has killed the slave overseer and fled the palace with an accomplice. How they did that, I don’t know as all exits are guarded, but that’s where we come in. Take your men down to the Temple and see if she fled there. We will search the palace grounds. They can’t have gone far.’

‘What was her name?’ asked Dragus, already dreading the answer.

‘Who do you think?’ said Septimus, ‘The prettiest one, Rubria. Say what you want about our glorious Emperor, but you can’t fault his taste in women.’ He pushed past Dragus and joined his own unit to organise the response.

Dragus stared at the wall for a few moments gathering his thoughts before doing the same. He ran outside as the last of his men were lining up.

‘Optio,’ he shouted, ‘I am going down the Palatine. When the men are ready, follow me down, form a cordon around the Forum and wait for my orders. No one goes in until I say so. Do you understand?’

‘Yes sir,’ answered his second in command, and re-entered the barracks to organise the century.

Dragus jogged across the barrack square and towards the Palace gates.

Rubria sat in a side alley, shivering in the darkness, Rose was busy ferrying water back and fore from a drinking fountain in one of the many squares in the city. She kneeled alongside Rubria, sponging the filth from her face and hair.

‘Miss, you’re shivering,’ she said, ‘We have to get you moving. I have a friend who serves a landlord near here, she will give us shelter.’

‘No,’ said Rubria, ‘But you are right, we cannot stay here. I have to get to the Temple. Can you lend me your cape?’

‘But, miss…’

‘I promise I will replace it, Rose,’ she said.

‘It’s not that, Miss,’ said the slave, ‘My cape is yours, but surely you are too holy for a rag such as this.’

Rubria grabbed the girl’s hand.

‘If I am captured then I cannot warn the sisters. Your cape will ensure I am not recognised. I promise I will have it replaced.’

‘I care not about the cape, Miss,’ said Rose. ‘I will do anything in my power to serve the Great Mother. You are welcome to the last thread of clothing on my back if it helps.

Rubria smiled.

‘There will be no need for that, Rose,’ she said, ‘Just lend me the cape and go back to the palace before you’re missed.’

‘I’m coming with you,’ said the girl.

‘Don’t be silly, Rose,’ answered Rubria, ‘There is no need for you to get involved, No one knows about the overseer except you and me, If I am caught, I swear I will take our secret to the grave. With all this confusion about the fires and with the blessing of the Goddess, you may just get back without anyone even noticing you have even been away.’

‘It’s too late for that, Miss,’ said Rose, glumly.

‘Why? What’s happened?’

‘I was seen removing the keys from the overseer’s body,’ she said. ‘The girl enjoyed his favour and when she saw me crouched over him swore she would report me to the guard. I couldn’t let her do that.’

‘Rose, you didn’t…’

‘Oh, she’s not hurt, Miss. Well, not much, though I have locked her in the cell. I don’t know how long it will be before she comes around but with her mouth it will be only minutes before she summons the guard. So you see, I cannot go back, and I have nowhere to go. If I can come with you, at least my last few hours of this life will be in the service of the Goddess. Please don’t deny me this.’

Rubria stared at Rose for a long time before answering.

‘Rose, by the time this night is over I will probably be dead. At the very least I will be in custody and facing death at the hands of Nero. If you are caught in my company then you will face the same fate. You should take advantage of the fires and head for the outskirts of the city. If you can get outside the walls unnoticed they may think you perished in the fires. Take this chance, slim as it is, and try to gain your freedom. With the help of the Goddess you may just get lucky and escape this life of servitude.’

‘I appreciate your concern, Miss,’ she said, ‘But I want this more than anything. All my life I have been worshipping the Goddess secretly. This is my chance to openly embrace her glory. I have a chance to serve her and those who serve her, and, if I should die in the process than I would die the happiest person in the world. I knew there was a reason why the Goddess saw fit to make me live a life as a slave. This is it, Miss. This is my fate.’

‘If I smelled any sweeter, I would embrace you,’ said Rubria.

Rose stepped forward and threw her arms around the priestess.

‘I smell nothing, Miss,’ she said, ‘All my senses are blinded by your holiness.’ They embraced for a few seconds before disengaging.

‘Okay,’ said Rubria. ‘We have to go. It’s just as well you are coming for I have no idea where we are.’

‘No problem,’ said Rose. ‘Just follow me. Oh, one more thing, Miss,’ she said lifting the hood over Rubria’s head. ‘When you walk, could you crouch a bit? Try not to look so regal’.

Rubria bent over and walked up and down a few paces.

‘Like this?’ she asked.

Rose’s hand flew to her mouth and stifled a giggle.

‘I suppose so,’ she said. ‘Just stay in the shadows and hope all prying eyes are focussed on the fires.’

Rubria smiled and the two made their way out of the side alley, a murdering slave leading a Priestess smelling of sewage on a journey that would probably end in both their deaths.

The streets were more crowded the nearer they got to the Forum and human chains passed water buckets from hand to hand as they fought in vain to fight the fires. The sounds of shouting filled the air as people searched for their loved ones, and tempers became frayed in the confusion. Squads of soldiers tried to calm the situation though were often the brunt of the anger due to their reluctance to get involved in the fire fighting. Rubria kept her head down and followed Rose through the throng towards the Temple. They stopped in a dark corner to catch their breath, coughing the smoke from their lungs.

‘How far now?’ asked Rubria.

‘Five minutes,’ said Rose, ‘The maintenance shaft in the sewer was on the opposite side of the Palatine. We have had to come the long way around to avoid the patrols going back and fore to the Palace. Miss, can I ask you a question?’

‘Of course,’ said Rubria.

‘Why are you risking your life going back to the Temple?' Even if you are successful, there can be no future for you there. If what you say is correct, then the Pontifex Maximus will have no option but to denounce you. Whether he forced you or not, just the fact that the Emperor had sex with you, condemns you to a horrible death. The Senate will always support the Emperor, whether they believe him or not.’

‘Do you believe me?’ asked Rubria.

Rose hesitated.

‘It is not my place to judge,’ Miss,’ she said. You are a Priestess of the great mother, and, as far as I am concerned, no matter what he has done to you, you will always be of Vesta.’

‘And that,’ said Rubria, ‘Is exactly why I am going back. When he was doing those things to me I thought only of the Great Mother. When I was down amongst the Phasmas, her spirit outshone those of the dead. My fate was sealed in the tower of the palace, but the aura of Vesta remained, sustaining me so I could carry out one more task. The Pontifex Maximus may reject me. The people may doubt my purity. Even my Sisters can forsake me. But not the Great Mother. No matter what happens, Vesta will always be there. Even to the end.’

Suddenly, a woman’s voice rang out above the noise of the crowd.

Mother help us,’ it screamed, ‘The Temple is on fire!’

The two young women ran through the smoke filled streets and within minutes, stood amongst a huge crowd before the Forum. Rubria forced her way to the front and could see flames through the shutters of one of the rooms at the far end of the courtyard. Two of the Eunuch guards stood at the entrance, fidgeting nervously.

Where are the Priestesses?’ shouted Rubria.

‘Still in there. I think,’ answered one of the guards.

‘Why aren’t you helping them?’ she screamed, ‘Somebody, in the name of all that is holy, we have to help!

For hundreds of years, access to the Vestal Temple had been denied to the common man on pain of death, and, despite the urgency of the situation, the risk of being condemned to death was too deeply ingrained into the psyche of the people. No one moved.

They may be trapped!’ screamed Rose.

‘Who are we to interfere with the will of the Gods?’ asked the eunuch.

‘It is not the Gods who have caused this,’ snarled Rubria, ‘But the hand of a madman.’

Rubria indicated for Rose to step to one side so they could talk without being heard.

‘How on earth did it start in there?’ asked Rose, ‘There are no flames anywhere near.’

‘I think I know,’ said Rubria, ‘I’ll explain later. I have to get in there, Rose, and I need you to do something.’

‘Anything,’ she answered.

‘I need to get passed the guards,’ she said, ‘Do you have any ideas?’

‘Leave it to me,’ she said,’ Just be ready.’ They returned to the archway and made their way to the front of the growing crowd.

‘Ready?’ asked Rose.

‘Yes,’ said Rubria.

Without another word, Rose ran forward and drove her shoulder into one of the guard’s midriffs, driving him to the floor. Immediately, the second guard ran over to grab her, and, in the confusion, Rubria ran through the smoke filled courtyard and into the Temple.

The smoke filled her lungs and she tried to call out but her attempts only ended up in coughing fits. She looked around frantically, desperate to find any sign of her fellow priestesses. Up on the surrounding balcony she could see all the doors to the cells swinging outwards, the glow of flames visible even from the floor below and Rubria feared the worst. Suddenly her eyes returned to the one cell that was not open. In fact, the door was wedged closed by a table leaning against it. Rubria ran up the stairs and towards the cell.

Hello!’ she screamed, over the noise of the flames, Is there anyone in there?’

‘Rubria?’ came a muffled reply, ‘Is that you?’

Rubria grabbed the table leg and heaved with all her strength until it moved slightly. She pushed again, until, finally the table fell away and the door sprang open. Over twenty people came stumbling out of the cells, including several terrified young girls. The high Priestess was amongst them. She threw her arms around Rubria.

‘Oh thank the gods,’ she said, ‘Where have you been?’

‘I’ll tell you later,’ said Rubria, ‘We have to get the Sisters out of here.’ The two of them ushered the Priestesses along the balcony and down the stairs. They managed to cross the courtyard towards the archway. The chief Priestess stopped short gathering her breath.

‘You go on,’ she said, ‘There is something I must do.’

‘What?’ asked Rubria. ‘All the Sisters are safe.’

‘The treasures!’ said the high Priestess, ‘I can’t stand by and watch the artefacts of the great mother destroyed.’

‘But it is too late,’ shouted Rubria, ‘The flames are out of control.’

‘My life has been dedicated to the Goddess,’ said the head Priestess, ‘She has given me my whole reason for living. I cannot forsake her now.’

Rubria stared at her.

‘You are right,’ she said. ‘I am ashamed.’ She reached out and took the hand of the high Priestess before adding, ‘We will go together.’

Despite the pleading of everyone around them, they turned around and ran back into the temple.

Flames were roaring from the windows on the upper levels of the Temple and forcing their way out between the red clay tiles of the roof. People shielded their faces from the heat as they peered into the inferno for any sign of the two Priestesses. Suddenly a figure forced himself to the front of the crowd.

‘What’s happened?’ he shouted above the noise.

‘Two of our Sisters ran back in to save the treasures,’ said a coughing Priestess.

‘Who? asked Dragus, ‘Who went back in?’

‘The High Priestess and Rubria,’ she said.

‘How long ago?’ he demanded.

‘No more than a few moments,’ she said.

He looked around and focussed on a bystander holding a redundant bucket of water, his mind racing furiously.

‘Give me that,’ he said and started to remove his cloak.

‘It’s no good,’ said the onlooker, ‘This is the last. One bucket won’t make any difference to that lot.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said the Centurion, ‘I won’t be wasting it on the flames.’ He shoved the cape into the bucket until most of the water had been soaked up into the fabric, and poured what was left over his head. He wrapped the cape around him, and after taking a few deep breaths, held one edge to cover his face before running through the smoke and into the courtyard.

Chapter 16

Samothrace 2010

Half an hour after the phone call, Brandon was ushered through a weather worn door and up a side stairwell. When the car had arrived back at his hotel, he had been thoroughly searched and bundled into the back seat of a small car. Two moody, but casually dressed men sat with him in the back, one either side of him and they had driven for half an hour before pulling up outside a shabby looking hotel somewhere in the mountains. One of them knocked on a door, and, after a few moments, a voice called out for them to enter.

‘Mr Walker,’ said a man, sat at a side table, ‘Come on in.’ He stood up and shook Brandon’s hand. ‘I am a representative from the ministry of citizen protection.’

‘Hello,’ said Brandon, warily, ‘Why am I here and where is India?’

‘She is fine,’ said the official, ‘But all in good time. Please, take a seat.’

Brandon sat down, and looked around the room. It was typical of any three star hotel anywhere in the world. Typical, that is, except for the armed bodyguard standing just inside the doorway, blocking any escape route.

‘Mr Walker,’ said the official, ‘I will get straight to the point. I understand you have been asking questions about a certain individual by the name of Venezelos.’

Brandon thought furiously. If this man was indeed an official then the chances were that he had access to governmental resources and probably already knew a lot about him. However, If he was some sort of criminal, he may just be lying to extract information. He decided not to risk it and stuck to their cover story.

‘That’s right,’ he said, ‘Peter Venezelos. Don’t know him that well but we met in England and he asked me to call in on his mother.’

‘Where exactly did you meet him?’ asked the official.

‘In some pub near Victoria Station,’ lied Brandon before adding, ‘I’m sorry, who exactly are you and why am I here?’

‘You are here, because I too am interested in Mr Venezelos, and, as a representative of the law, I expect you to answer all my questions accurately,’ said the officer, his voice taking on a harder edge.

‘I don’t know what this is all about,’ said Brandon, ‘We are simply a couple of tourists who have been asked to deliver some flowers. If we have done anything wrong…’

‘Mr Walker,’ interrupted the man, ‘We are both professionals and I don’t want to waste time playing silly games. Let’s just get straight to the point. We know you are a serving British officer and strongly suspect you of being in the SAS.’

Brandon was horrified, but tried to keep up the pretence.

‘This is absurd,’ he said, I’m leaving. He stood up and turned to the door, only to see the guard’s hand reach to an inside jacket pocket, indicating a weapon.

‘Sit down,’ said the guard menacingly.

Brandon calculated his chances but realised he could not cross the room before the guard could draw his gun. He turned and sat back down.

‘Thank you,’ said the official, ‘No need for any unpleasantness, perhaps these may help.’ He threw a handful of photographs on the table, all of Brandon in various places in England. One in particular was obviously taken from a moving vehicle and showed him walking into a camp carrying a large blue holdall. Behind him was a sign that clearly said ‘Stirling Lines.’

‘Now, can we stop this pretence?’ he asked.’ I care not whether you are in the SAS or the boy scouts. All I want to know is information about Peter Venezelos. I am not asking you to betray your country or give away any military secrets. All I want to know are two things. One, is he alive? And two, where is he now?’

Brandon realised he was compromised and assessed the situation. He was unarmed in a locked room with a man with a gun. His training kicked in and he assessed the situation carefully. What the man was asking would be common knowledge soon enough so there was no need to put his life, or the life of India at risk by holding out. If this man didn’t know where Peter Venezelos was, he probably wasn’t aware that he was dead. This was an opportunity to increase his chances by giving some truth to his story without revealing too much information.

‘Okay,’ said Brandon. ‘I admit I am a serving British officer but in the army training corps, not the SAS. I was in Hereford teaching Morse code.’

The man shrugged.

‘We won’t pursue that,’ he said. ‘It is not important.’

‘If I tell you what I know,’ said Brandon, ‘How do I know you will let us go?’

‘We are not animals, Mr Walker,’ he said.’ Greece is a civilised country, and was so, long before your little island had even learned how to clothe themselves. We are a member of the European Union and share a common purpose. What we don’t do, is allow foreigners into our country on a mission to kill one of our citizens.’

‘Kill?’ gasped Brandon. You have got this all wrong. What on earth makes you think I am an assassin?’

‘Why else would you carry a gun?’ asked the man simply.

‘Wow,’ said Brandon, ‘You’ve certainly done your homework. Okay, I will tell you what I know.’ He paused to gather his thoughts. The gun is for my own protection. The man you speak of tried to kill me back in England. I caught him trying to break into my house. He escaped but dropped his wallet. We traced it here and I am just here to see if I can find anything out.’

‘And have you?’

‘Not really, it seems he was a member of some gang long ago, but, apart from that we have found out nothing.’

‘And the girl?’

‘She has nothing to do with this. She is just a friend. I asked her along to avoid suspicion.’

The man glanced at the guard at the door who nodded almost imperceptibly.

‘Okay,’ said the Greek man, ‘This all fits with what we know. What about his brother?’

‘I know nothing about a brother.’

The officer stared for a while before continuing.

‘I tell you what, Mr Walker,’ he said, ‘Despite the rocky start, I believe you are telling me the truth. To prove our credentials I will return the compliment and share with you what I know. Peter Venezelos has a twin brother called Jason. They are citizens of Samothrace and were small time drug dealers. When we arrested them they agreed to take part in a sting to catch the main dealers and we set them up with a hundred thousand dollars to bait the trap. Unfortunately, the temptation was too great and they fled Greece with the money. Naturally we want them, and the money back. They were last seen in Rome, so you can imagine, when somebody arrived asking questions, we were naturally very interested.’

‘But why would he try to kill me?’ asked Brandon, exploring this new information.

‘I don’t know, perhaps he just panicked when you caught him breaking into your house.’

‘Possibly,’ said Brandon. ‘Still, I had no idea this was a police investigation and apologise for any concern we may have caused.’

‘No problem,’ said the officer. ‘I am glad we sorted out the misunderstanding. He stood up and held out a business card. ‘If you do find anything out, please give me a call.’

‘I will, said Brandon taking the card. ‘Can I go now?’

‘Of course, but one more thing, Mr Walker, What do you know about the Palladium?’

Brandon maintained a blank face and shrugged his shoulders.

‘Big concert hall in the middle of London. Why do you ask?’

The Greek man smiled.

‘No matter,’ he said, ‘You may leave.’

‘What about India?’ asked Brandon.

‘She is already back at your hotel, packing,’ he answered.

‘Packing, why?’

‘I have booked you on a flight out of Athens tomorrow afternoon,’ he said. ‘The ferry leaves Samothrace at eight am and your flight to London is at four. As pleasant as this has been, we still cannot allow an armed man with a grudge to wander the streets of Samothrace. I am sure you understand. Enjoy your last night in Greece Mr Walker, goodbye.’

The guard opened the door and Brandon left quickly, constantly looking over his shoulder as he tried to find a taxi.

‘What do you think?’ asked the guard back in the hotel room.

‘Two things,’ answered the officer. ‘One is that he is definitely SAS and the second is he knows more than he is letting on. Give him space but have him followed. He may yet tell us what we want to know.’

‘Yes sir,’ said the thug and left the room.

‘Brandon, thank god!’ said India when he finally returned to the room. She walked forward to embrace him but he brushed past her and went to the window, pulling the curtain aside to peer into the street.

‘What’s the matter?’ she asked.

‘Have you finished packing?’ he asked.

‘Not yet,’ she said, but why the rush? That policeman said we can go tomorrow.’

‘He was no more policeman than I am,’ said Brandon. ‘All that bullshit about drugs was bollocks. There’s something else going on here. I don’t know what it is yet, but there is no way I am going to sit back and wait for things to happen.’

‘What’s brought this on?’ she asked, ‘He seemed really nice.’

Brandon started to put the few things he had into his rucksack.

‘First of all he knew who I was and what I do. Secondly, he has an entourage of armed thugs surrounding him. And thirdly, did you catch his name?’

‘I don’t think so,’ she said, ‘Why.’

He threw the business card the officer had given him on the table. India picked it up and read the name.

‘Gatilusi,’ she read.

‘Ring any bells?’ asked Brandon.

She stared at him, her mind turning over as she searched her memory.

‘Hang on,’ she said, ‘Weren’t they the family that Agatha told us about? The one’s who ran this island for a couple of hundred years.’

‘That’s right, he said, The last great ruling family until they were ousted by the Ottomans.’

‘The family Peter Venezelos’s gang were named after?’

‘Yup! and they used the family’s eagle as an emblem.’

‘Aetosh,’ she said.

‘Aetosh,’ he confirmed.

‘May be a coincidence?’ she ventured.

‘Too many links to be a coincidence,’ he answered. ‘The guy who tried to kill us was in a gang called the Aetosh. Now we get warned off by someone who is probably a descendant of the original family.’

‘So where are we going?’

‘I don’t know yet, I just want to get away from here. I don’t trust him. He reckons Peter Venezelos is some small time drug dealer but I’m not so sure.’

India got up to get herself a glass of water.

‘What else did he say?’ she asked over her shoulder.

‘Not much,’ said Brandon, ‘Though he did ask me a strange question. He wanted to know about the London Palladium, of all things.’

The sound of a breaking glass came from behind him and he span around. India was staring at him, the remains of the glass lying at her feet.

‘What did you say?’ she asked.

‘About the drugs?’ he asked

‘No. The Palladium, what did he ask you?’

‘Not much really, just asked what I knew about the London Palladium.’

‘Did he say London Palladium?’ she asked. ‘Think carefully Brandon, What were his exact words? Did he actually say London?

‘Do you know what?’ said Brandon, I don’t think he did. He just said, What do you know about the Palladium? Why, is it important?’

‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘It all makes sense. It’s not the London Palladium,’ he was asking about, but probably the most sought after artefact in the modern world. The statue of Pallas Athena!’

India cleaned up the mess and they sat on the settee as she explained.

‘If you recall,’ said India, ‘I told you the story of the statue of Pallas being taken to Samothrace by Electra, and ultimately ending up in Troy.’

‘Yes, but what has that to do with the Palladium?’

‘That’s just it,’ she said, ‘The statue is the Palladium. During it’s time in Troy, the statue became known as the Palladium and for over a thousand years, it was said that as long as the Palladium stayed at it’s heart, the city would never fall. Obviously it became famous across the region, and, throughout history many cities across the world adopted their own versions of the Palladium. Even the American constitution has been called the Palladium of America. The London Palladium is just a building named after the most important icon any city could ever have. Very clever thinking by whomever thought up the name, don’t you think?’

‘Wait a minute,’ said Brandon, ‘You said the statue of Pallus is the Palladium. Don’t you mean was?’

‘I know exactly what I said, Brandon,’ said India, ‘I said is, because many scholars believe it is still in existence. Rumours abound right across the world of archaeology that it still survives, even after thousands of years. ‘

‘How on earth can they be so sure?’ he asked. ‘Surely it would have rotted by now.’

‘Not necessarily,’ said India, ‘It depends on what it is made of. Some wood is as hard as iron. Ebony, Teak, Lignum Vitae, the list is endless. If the statue was made from any of these and it was kept out of the weather it could last indefinitely. Archaeologists have found artefacts made of wood, hundreds of thousands of years old.’

‘I thought it was stolen from Troy before the city fell.’

‘It was, and for a long time no-one knew where it was, but, around eight hundred BC, it reappeared in Rome, around about the time the city was starting to make a name for itself. Stories vary about who brought it there and we will probably never know but the fact is, like Troy, Rome was built around the Palladium.’

‘Where is it now?’

‘Well, that’s the thing. History says it stayed there until Emperor Constantine buried it under the tower in Constantinople. But why would Gatilusi be interested in that?’

‘Hang on,’ said Brandon. ‘Let’s take a step back here, I think we’re missing something obvious. The one link throughout all this seems to be the statue, right?’

‘The Palladium,’ corrected India

‘Okay, the Palladium. It appears way back in the beginning of Greek history, it gets taken to Samothrace, then Troy, only to disappear but reappear in Rome a few hundred years later. It disappears again in the third century AD, taken by an emperor who was the founder of the Byzantine empire.’

‘Well, he wasn’t exactly the founder,’ said India, ‘The Byzantine empire was just another name for the eastern provinces, though he did rename Byzantium the new capital of Rome.’

‘Okay,’ said Brandon, ’But here we are, seventeen hundred years later, and the descendant of the last ruling family of a Byzantine castle, is linked with a murderer, who, in turn, may be linked with the Palladium.’ He paused. ‘It’s all very confusing but I’m sure it’s all here. We just need to make some sense of it.’

‘Wait a minute,’ said India. The Gatilusi family were the last great ruling family on Samothrace, right? Imagine if, over the years, their descendants harbour an ancestral grudge and still see themselves as the rightful rulers of the island. The only way they could ever gain any semblance of control is through the political system.’

‘What are you saying?’ asked Brandon.

‘Think about it. There’s no way Samothrace would ever gain independence but if there was a groundswell of support and enough political pressure, they could at least press for a local governorship.’

‘That would take some doing.’

‘I agree, but with enough support and patriotism, Greece would be morally obliged to give it some sort of self governorship. Devolution seems to be the way of the world at the moment. It seems that the subject has already been brought into the spotlight by the Aetosh.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Brandon, ‘But according to Agatha, they just organised some demonstrations to return the island’s removed artefacts back to where they belong.’

‘Exactly,’ said India, ‘The Palladium is intrinsically linked with Samothrace and became known as the one artefact that could make a city or state stand alone, both militarily and politically. If the Gatilusi family managed to bring it back to the island, the news would have swept around the world like wildfire. The publicity would have been priceless and their claim to the governorship would have been given huge credence in any subsequent election process.’

‘But all this is so secretive. Surely all they needed to do was go to the press.’

‘Not necessarily,’ said India, ‘It’s probably in the hands of an illegal collector otherwise its location would be common knowledge.’

‘If that’s the case,’ said Brandon, ‘There’s no way that anyone would voluntarily give it up, it would probably have to be taken forcibly.’

‘By the Gatilusi?’ asked India.

‘No,’ said Brandon, ‘They would need to keep their hands clean and probably bankrolled the Venezelos brothers to get the Palladium back.’

‘But they got greedy and done a runner with the money,’ said India. ‘Makes sense I suppose but why would one of the brothers be in Britain?’

‘I have no idea,’ said Brandon, ‘But with Peter Venezelos dead, the only way to find that out is to try and trace the second brother. Gatilusi did mention they were last seen in Rome, so if we just find out where they went, perhaps we could retrace their steps.’

‘I think I know exactly where they went,’ said India quietly.

‘You do, where?’

‘The place where the Palladium was kept for over a thousand years,’ she said, ‘The Temple of the Vestal Virgins.’

Chapter 17

Rome 64 AD

Dragus ran through the smoke filled courtyard towards the inner Temple. All around him flames were spewing out of the doorways and windows as the curtains and soft furnishings fed the inferno.

‘Rubria,’ he shouted, ‘Where are you?’

As no man had ever been privileged to enter the inner Temple he had never seen the layout with his own eyes though had heard the stories about what lay within. He recognised the central alter and glanced at the ironic sight of the small sacred fire still burning at its heart, whilst all around the building was ablaze.

Rubria!’ he shouted again, and stumbled through the Temple. The hole in the dome of the roof, designed for the lighter smoke of the sacred fire meant that some of the thicker black smoke escaped but the sheer volume caused by the burning fabrics meant that the room was quickly filling up with poisonous fumes.

‘Dragus,’ came a cry, ‘Help me.’

He spotted an archway at the rear of the Temple and ran towards it. Inside was a small, but ornate circular room with several niches built into the marble walls, each containing a wicker basket. To one side Dragus saw Rubria sat on the floor, cradling the head of the collapsed high Priestess in her lap. The old woman was completely motionless and her head was covered in blood.

‘What happened?’ he asked crouching down besides Rubria.

‘She fell!’ sobbed Rubria, ‘And hit her head on the pedestal.’ Dragus looked at the pedestal at the centre of the room. The tell tale sign of blood lay along the edge and on the floor at the base of the plinth. On top of the pedestal stood a jet black wooden statue that he knew, could only be the image of Pallus Athena. The Palladium!

‘She was trying to save the treasures,’ cried Rubria, ‘And fell trying to retrieve the image of the Goddess herself. Oh Dragus, What did she do to earn the mothers scorn? She was the most holy person I have ever met.’

Dragus looked at the entrance where the smoke from the outer Temple had started to roll across the ceiling of the treasure room.

‘Rubria,’ he said. ‘There is nothing we can do, she has gone. Come on, we have to get out of here.’

‘Why?’ she asked. ‘There is nothing left. My Sisters are safe and I have no future here. Leave me to travel to the Great Mother. My life is done.’

‘No,’ shouted Dragus. ‘Come with me, we may still make it. Once this fire is out they can rebuild the Temple. It has burned before but always arises out of the ashes. It will do so again.’

‘It may well do so, Dragus,’ she said, ‘But I will not be part of it. Nero has seen to that.’

‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

She looked up at him and wiped the tears from her eyes.

‘Do you want me to spell it out, Dragus?’ she sobbed, ‘Do you want to hear every sordid detail of how our glorious Emperor tore away the very innocence that makes a Vestal Virgin? He raped me, Dragus. What you see before you is no longer a Holy Priestess, pledged to serve the Goddess but nothing more than a mere woman, soiled and used by a madman. You see, Dragus, I cannot go with you. Either way lies death. At least in here I will end my days alongside the Goddess I love.’

Dragus glanced at the smoke now billowing into the room and realised he had little time. He grabbed her by the shoulders.

‘Now you listen to me, Priestess,’ he said. ‘I care not for what that bastard did, and I don’t know where your future lies. What I do know is that it does not end here. Do you think she would want this?’ he said pointing at the dead Priestess. ‘She fought to the end but fell short. You still have a chance and can carry out what she failed to do. Take this chance to save yourself and honour her name in the process.

Rubria looked up at him with doubt in her eyes.

‘But the treasures,’ she said, ‘She wanted to make sure they were safe. If I go with you, we have to take them with us.’

Dragus looked at the baskets in the alcoves.

‘There are too many,’ he said, ‘But I don’t think the flames will reach into the alcoves. There is nothing else in here to burn but we will die from the smoke if we don’t move.’

‘What about the Palladium?’ she asked, ‘It is made from wood and if the flames come it will burn. We cannot allow that to happen.’

‘Okay,’ said Dragus, ‘We will take the statue with us but we have to go now.’

Rubria looked fondly at the high Priestess and removed her own headdress to make it into a pillow for the dead woman’s head.

‘Forgive me, mother,’ she said and kissed her forehead gently.

‘Come on,’ said Dragus grabbing her arm, and led her out of the room, coughing the smoke from his lungs as he went. His left hand held Rubria’s arm, while his right, dragged the statue of Pallus Athena.

Outside the Forum, the sound of running soldiers echoed down the cobbled streets and a full Century of Praetorian guard appeared out of the darkness.

‘Make way!’ shouted the Optio in charge, and led the squad through the gathered throng to the gates of the Forum. Within minutes he had organised the civilians into a human chain from the nearest working faucet in the next square. Bucket after bucket of water was thrown on the nearest flames until they managed to get access to the courtyard.

‘First five contubernia,’ shouted the Optio, ‘Get into the Temple and find Dragus, the rest of us, let’s get this fucking fire out!’ Fifty men ran into the courtyard and they spread out to find their Centurion. Twenty minutes later the Optio kicked aside the smouldering remains of the wooden gates and led the rest of the Century into the compound to join their comrades. He spotted one of the Decurions and called him over for an update.

‘Any news?'

‘No, sir,’ came the answer. ‘There’s a body of some old crone in the inner Temple but apart from that, nothing.’

‘Impossible,’ said the Optio. ‘He has to be here somewhere. Check again.’

‘Yes sir,’ said the Decurion and turned to continue the search.

The sound of confusion came from behind him and an armed guard came through the gates, along with a Tribune, an officer from the palace.

‘What are you doing?’ he barked.

‘Putting the fire out, sir,’ answered the Optio, springing to attention.

‘On who’s orders?’

‘Nobody, sir, but Centurion Dragus is in here somewhere. We are trying to find him as we speak.’

‘Forget him,’ said the tribune. ‘Gather your men and return to the barracks.’

‘But sir…’

‘But nothing, just do as I say.’ He turned to his own squad. ‘You men, retrieve the treasures and take them to Nero’s quarters. He will look after them until the Temple can be restored.’ He turned back to the Optio.

‘You’ve had your orders, soldier. What are you waiting for?’

‘Nothing sir,’ said the Optio and turned to gather his men.

Dragus moved his cape from over his face and took a much needed breath. He moved his cramped position and kicked open the door of the store cupboard. Outside, in the slave quarters, the smoke had cleared though still stank of the fire.

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘They’ve gone.’ He crawled out and stood up to stretch his legs. He had been in the tiny wine store for several hours, holding Rubria in his arms as they waited to either be burnt to death or choke on the stinking smoke. At one point he had covered their heads with his cape and prayed to Vesta when it had seemed impossible they were going to survive.

Rubria stayed where she was, her head held in her hands.

‘Why didn’t you call them?’ she asked quietly, referring to the soldiers they had heard in the room, hours earlier.

‘You know why,’ he said

‘Do I?’

‘If what you say is true, and I have no reason to disbelieve you, you would have been taken straight back into the custody of Nero. After that there would have been only one outcome.’

She looked up

‘Don’t you think I knew that before I came here?’ she asked. ‘I was well aware that I was signing my own death warrant but was willing to pay the price. I have done what I came to do. The treasures are safe, and the Sisters are all alive.’ She stopped suddenly and looked down in grief. ‘Well, most of them.’

‘You did what you could, Rubria,’ said Dragus.

‘It was not enough,’ she answered.

‘No matter,’ said Dragus, looking around the room. ‘What is this place?’

‘Servant’s quarters for the Pontifex Maximus.’

‘Is there a clothing store?’

‘I think so,’ she said, ‘Why?’

‘You are getting out of here.’

‘But there is nowhere to go.’

‘I will think of something,’ he said. ‘I am not going to stand back watch that maniac bury you alive.’

‘You are wasting your time,’ said Rubria, ‘I have spent most of my life in Vesta’s service. I wouldn’t last five minutes out on the streets.’

‘I know,’ he said, ‘That’s why I am coming with you.’

‘You, but you can’t,’ she said, ‘You are a Centurion in the Praetorian Guard. That would be desertion. You would be executed.’

‘It’s too late for that,’ he said, the die is cast. Whatever happens, our fates are sealed if we stay here, but first things first, we need to change our clothes.’


‘How far do you think we would get like this?’ he asked.

Rubria looked at her filthy robes and then at his grubby armour.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ she said, ‘But there will only be slave tunics down here.’

‘Perfect,’ he said, ‘Come on, we have to get moving before they return.’

‘What about this,’ she asked, turning her gaze to the Palladium standing in the corner of the cupboard.

‘Leave it,’ he said. ‘The fire seems to be out, your task is complete.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘The Temple is a ruin and there is no sign of the sisters. If we leave it here who knows what will become of it? We have to take it with us.’

‘Rubria, it will be hard enough to stay alive, If we take this with us it will be impossible.’

‘I don’t care,’ she said, ‘I am not leaving it here for some passing thief. Either it comes with us or I stay here to make sure it reaches the hands of the Sisters.’

Dragus stared at Rubria for an age before realising she was deadly serious. Finally he picked up the Palladium and wrapped it in his cape.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘Have it your way, but can we get a move on? They could be back at any time.’

Rubria stood up and searched the store cupboards before finally returning with a couple of greying togas.

‘Best I can do,’ she said and they turned their backs to each other to get changed.

Finally they stood before each other, both dressed as servants. Dragus threw their old clothes in the wine store and shut the door.

‘May buy us some time,’ he said, ‘Now, how do we get out of here?’

‘Can’t we just walk out?’ she asked.

‘Can’t risk it,’ he said, ‘There may still be soldiers out there. It doesn’t matter how we are dressed, they won’t be expecting anyone to be walking out of here.’

‘No, I mean through the servant’s door,’ she said.

‘There’s another entrance?’ he asked.

‘Of course,’ she said, ‘It’s not common knowledge but how do you think the servants carry the supplies in? We couldn’t have them soiling the Forum with their dirty feet now, could we?’ she asked ironically.

‘Right,’ he said, picking up his sword from the floor, ‘Let’s go.’ He placed the palladium under his other arm and followed Rubria out of the slave’s quarters and into dark streets of Rome.

The madness of the night continued as they slipped unnoticed into the crowds. Groups of citizens ran this way and that, panicking as they tried to save what precious few possessions they may have from the unrelenting flames. Soldiers joined peasants and freemen stood alongside slaves as human chains passed leather buckets from hand to hand. They barged their way through the throng, trying to find a way out of the confusion, but everywhere they went seemed to be affected by the fires sweeping across the eternal city. A soldier appeared out of the smoke, leading a group of slaves to some unknown destination. He grabbed Dragus by the arm.

‘You two,’ he ordered, ‘Come with me.’

‘We can’t,’ said Rubria, ‘We have to be somewhere else.’

‘I don’t care where you have to be,’ he said, ‘This is more important.’

Dragus kept his head turned slightly away, but despite this, a look of recognition crept into the soldier’s face.

‘Do I know you?’ he asked.

‘No,’ said Dragus, ‘Like the lady said, we have to go. Now let us pass.’

‘Yes I do,’ said the soldier, ‘I have seen you in the barracks. You are a legionary, but why are you dressed like a slave?’ Suddenly the soldier’s eyes widened in shock.

‘Centurion, Dragus,’ he exclaimed, ‘I don’t understand. I was told you were dead. Perished in the Temple of Vesta along with…’ He stopped and stared back and fore between Dragus and Rubria before taking a step backwards.

‘Look, I don’t know what’s going on here,’ he said, ‘But I think you should come with me.’

‘Decurion,’ said Dragus. ‘There are things happening here you don’t understand. Now let us pass.’

‘I can’t do that, sir,’ said the soldier.

‘Yes you can,’ said Dragus, his tone lowering menacingly. ‘I still outrank you. Now step aside before this goes too far.’

The soldier went to draw his sword but before it had cleared the sheath, Dragus threw himself forward and tackled him to the ground. Although both soldiers had undergone similar training, only one had undergone any active service and there was only one possible outcome. All the stomach churning terror and self preserving battle rage he had experienced back on the killing fields of Britannia washed over him like a waterfall. Within seconds Dragus had overpowered the soldier and smashed his opponent’s head, over and over again onto the cobbled floor. Only the fact that the soldier was wearing a helmet prevented his head from being caved in.

Stop it!’ screamed Rubria, grabbing the back of his tunic, ‘You’re killing him.’

Dragus came back to his senses and let the man’s head go.

‘Shit,’ he murmured, ‘I’m sorry, I thought…’ He stepped back and Rubria crouched down besides the unconscious soldier.

‘He is still breathing,’ she said, ‘But needs a Medicus.’

Dragus turned to the group of slaves who had witnessed the scene in horror.

‘You there,’ he said, pointing at the nearest man, ‘Go and get help.’

Now!’ he screamed when the man didn’t move immediately. He turned to Rubria. ‘Priestess,’ he said. ‘Leave him. We have to get out of here.’

‘We can’t leave him,’ she said, ‘He is bleeding.’

‘He will be okay,’ said Dragus, ‘I have seen many such injuries on the battlefield. He will have a headache he will remember for the rest of his life, but he will live.’


‘Trust me,’ he said, ‘But we have to get out of here. As soon as he is able, he will tell the garrison we are alive and a search will be instigated. We have to make use of every minute.’

‘Okay,’ she said standing up. ‘If you’re sure. Which way?’

‘I just realised where we are,’ he said, ‘We need to go down here.’ He pointed down a side street.

‘Why, what’s down there?’

‘The river Tiber,’ he said. ‘It’s our only hope.’

Chapter Eighteen

Rome 2010

Once again, India and Brandon were in the safe house in Rome. Helios had picked them up from Samothrace in the middle of the night in his fishing boat, and they had sailed to Rome over a period of two days, hugging the coastlines of the Greek islands to avoid any searches that may be underway. Finally they had arrived in Civitavecchia, and, after rewarding Helios handsomely with a wad of notes, Brandon had flagged down a taxi and they had made their way to the safe house.

‘Who exactly is he?’ asked India in the taxi.



‘Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,’ murmured Brandon, gazing out of the window.

‘Ah, Grey man syndrome,’ she said.

‘Something like that,’ he said and remained silent for the rest of the trip.

— -

They were each given their own room, and, after taking a long hot shower, India eventually joined Brandon down in the lounge, refreshed and ready to eat. Shirley, the landlady was an English woman who had married an Italian many years previously and had a surprise up her sleeve.

‘Hello luvvie,’ she said when India entered the room, ‘You look nice. Sit down and I’ll bring you a drink. What would you like?’

‘Oh, I don’t know really,’ said India, feeling a bit awkward. It wasn’t as if this was a hotel or guest house, this was someone’s home.

‘I tell you what,’ said Shirley, ‘While you’re having a think, I’ll make us all a nice cup of tea, shall I?’

‘Oh, tea would be wonderful,’ said India with a smile, ‘I didn’t like to ask.’

‘You can ask me anything you want, luvvie,’ said Shirley.’ It may have been twenty years since his lordship swept me off my feet and brought me here, but I still think you can’t beat a good old cup of British char.’

‘Lovely,’ said Brandon and Stella left to make the tea.

‘Feel better?’ asked India

‘What do you mean?’ asked Brandon, ‘I’m fine.’

‘You were a bit moody in the car,’ she said, ‘I just thought there may be something wrong, that’s all.’

‘No, nothing wrong,’said Brandon, ‘Just thoughtful.’

‘Penny for them,’ said India with a smile.

‘All this historic stuff,’ said Brandon. ‘It’s all very interesting and all that, but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast and all the time that little girl back home is in danger.’

‘I thought we were doing well,’ said India. ‘We’ve managed to trace one of the suspects this far. Isn’t that good?’

‘In a sense, yes,’ said Brandon ‘But don’t forget, everything we have uncovered so far is just conjecture. We have nothing that actually ties him to England and have found nothing yet that may link him to the girls. All we have is the dead guy from the library and this Peter Venezelos who tried to burn down the house. There are so many different parts to this puzzle yet nothing seems to fit.’

The door opened and Stella brought in the tea.

‘Dinner won’t be long,’ she said, ‘Roast beef and Yorkshires do you?’ The delight on both people’s faces was priceless and she returned to the kitchen to finish the meal.

‘A good old roast,’ said Brandon, ‘Better than all that foreign muck.’

‘Behave,’ said India, ‘When in Rome and all that.’

‘Anyway,’ said Brandon, ‘Tell me about this Vestal Temple. How is it linked to this Palladium thing?’

India sipped her tea and sat back to explain.

‘Like I said,’ said India, ‘The statue of Pallas Athena finally ended up in Rome, hundreds of years after its disappearance from Troy. Stories vary how it got there, but when it did, it was placed in the care of the Vestal Virgins.’

‘And who were they, exactly?’

‘They were extraordinary women who dedicated their lives to the worship of the Goddess Vesta, or as we now know, the Great Mother. They originated sometime around the formation of Rome and there were never more than half a dozen at any one time.’

‘What did they do?’ asked Brandon.

‘Nothing much really, they cared for the sacred fire at the heart of Rome, a symbolic flame that represented the hearth as a central point of any family. They also took part in religious rituals throughout the year and looked after various important documents and treasures of the government.’

‘Like the Palladium?’

‘Yes, but that was just one of many. Some we will never know as they were guarded jealously but we know they also looked after important papers of state.’

‘But why did they have to be Virgins?’

‘The tradition stemmed from thousands of years earlier when the young girls of the villages used to be left behind to tend the fires when the rest of the villagers went out to hunt and forage. Due to their age they were obviously virgins, and, over time, virginity became synonymous with tending the sacred fires. Eventually it became almost a cult and the Vestal Virgins became a very powerful entity within Rome. They were feted by many and had the power of reprieve over criminals sentenced to death. They were salaried and in a very patriarchal society were allowed to own property and develop business interests of their own. Those who saw out their thirty years ended up very wealthy and powerful women.’

‘What do you mean, thirty years?’

‘Oh it wasn’t a lifetime sentence,’ said India, ‘They were selected between the age of six and ten and had to serve at least thirty years in the Goddess’s service, ten as a trainee, ten as an actual Priestess and ten as a tutor. After that they were free to leave the order and marry if they so desired. Mind you, so privileged was the position that most stayed within the order.’

‘And during those thirty years, they had to stay chaste?’

‘Yes, and that’s the flip side. Their virginity was seen as a symbol of their divinity and a sign of their devotion to Rome. Once they had lost that link the penalty was brutal.’

‘Don’t tell me they were killed,’ said Brandon.

‘That’s exactly what happened,’ said India. ‘In the beginning they were simply flogged to death or strangled, but, as time went on, society demanded that no-one could take the life of a Vestal Virgin so they came up with a cruel alternative. Anyone found guilty of losing their virginity, whether by choice or by rape, were sentenced to a horrific fate. They would be carried through the streets of Rome on a litter in front of the whole population. The crowds would remain deathly silent as they witnessed the soiled Priestesses make her way to the streets of Campus Sceleratus where a subterranean tomb had been prepared. She would then be forced to climb down a ladder, and, in the room would be a candle, a bed, some water and food. Once down there, the room would be sealed and covered with the soil and slabs of the road above. The crowd would disperse and the city returned to its business.’

‘How long would she be down there?’

‘That’s just it. That’s where she stayed and her name never mentioned again.’

‘What, forever?’


‘But I thought you said they couldn’t kill a priestess.’

‘Well, in their own way they thought that they weren’t killing her. She had food, light, water and comfort. As far as they were concerned when they left her she was alive and what happened after that was of no concern to them.’

‘That’s stupid.’

‘But true,’ said India.

‘How many were killed like that?’ asked Brandon.

‘The figures vary but probably not more than a dozen or so.’

‘Wow,’ said Brandon. ‘That’s brutal.’

‘A severe price to pay for love,’ said India.

‘Or lust,’ said Brandon.

‘Don’t be such a philistine,’ said India. ‘I’m sure that any that may have succumbed to their desires would have done so only because they had fallen in love.’

‘Yeah, right,’ said Brandon sarcastically. ‘Anyway, where is this Temple?’

‘Near the foot of the Palatine hill,’ she said, ‘Or what’s left of it. There are substantial ruins there and apparently you can still see the base of the Dias that once held the Palladium.’

‘And you think that’s where Venezelos would have gone?’

‘As good a guess as any,’ she said.’ It was the last place the Palladium was known to be, and had been for hundreds of years. If you are going to try and learn about its whereabouts you may as well start there.’

‘And you think that is what these boys were after.’

‘If they believed it existed, I have no doubt. It would be the greatest find since Tutankhamen’s tomb. Not only would it be a political coup for Samothrace but would make anyone finding it, instant millionaires.’

‘So that’s where we’ll go first, then.’ said Brandon.

‘May as well,’ said India. ‘I can’t wait, I’ve always wanted to see the buildings around the Palatine.’

‘Roast beef first,’ said Brandon, ‘Sightseeing later.’ As if on cue Stella’s voice rang out from the kitchen.

‘Dinner’s ready,’ she called. ‘Come and get it.’

They both stood up and walked into the dining room to enjoy a British feast in an Italian home.

Early the following morning they took a taxi to the ancient city and made their way to the area of the palatine. As the car drove off they stood in awe looking up at the ruins. Crowds were gathering and touts were already trying to rope in the tourists to their respective tours. Brandon looked around and settled on one younger man who sat to one side rolling a cigarette.

‘This way,’ he said and walked over to the Italian.

‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’ he asked.

The man glanced up briefly but returned his attention to the cigarette.

‘Tours over there,’ he said, ‘Fifty Euro’s, best tours in Roma.’

‘I don’t want a tour,’ interrupted Brandon.

‘Then I can’t help you,’ said the Italian, reaching into his inner pocket for a lighter.

Brandon held out two fifty Euro notes in front of the man’s eyes. The Italian paused and drew a lungful of smoke, before blowing it out slowly.

‘What do you want?’ he asked.

‘I want a personal tour of the Palatine,’ he said. ‘Just us two and a local expert. Someone who knows the history of this place inside out and can tell us things that may not be in the official guide books.’

‘Like what?’


‘I know of someone,’ he said. ‘Used to work for the museum and was the best guide around here for years. Got fired for selling something he found in the undergrowth.’

‘Sounds good,’ said Brandon, ‘Where can we find him?’

‘You don’t,’ said the man, ‘I do!’ He took the hundred Euros’ from Brandon’s hand. ‘One hour he said. We will meet you back here.’

Brandon grabbed the man’s wrist.

‘Make sure you do,’ he said ‘And if he is good, there is another five hundred each for both of you.’

The guy took another drag of his cigarette and blew the smoke over Brandon’s head, before pulling his hand from the man’s grip.

‘Don’t worry, English,’ he said, ‘For five hundred I will bring the Pope himself.’

‘One hour,’ said Brandon and they watched the man walk away.

‘What was all that about?’ asked India.

‘Sometimes you have to dig deeper beneath the surface to get to anything of quality,’ said Brandon. ‘Anything the tour guides have to say we can probably find out on the internet. What we want is someone who grew up around here.’

‘Do you think he will come back?’ she asked

‘He will come back,’ said Brandon, holding out another note. ‘Be a love and get us a coke,’

India snatched the note with a snarl, but as she walked towards the ice cream stand, a slight smile played around her mouth.

An hour later they were sat on a bench in the shade of a dried olive tree. Finally the Italian reappeared with a reluctant looking old man.

‘Is this him?’ asked Brandon.

‘This is Louigi,’ said the younger man.

Brandon held out his hand.

‘Hello, Louigi,’ he said, ‘I’m Brandon and this is India.’

‘Ciao,’ said Louigi and shook Brandon’s hand.

‘I hear you were the best guide on the Palatine,’ said Brandon.

‘Still am,’ said Louigi, ‘These others are just amateurs selling their stories to the tourists that pay the best money.’

‘Surely, they’re not all bad,’ said Brandon.

‘Not all, but most. So, English, what do you want to know?’

Brandon looked at India.

‘I think this is where you step in,’ he said.

‘Hello, Louigi,’ she said. ‘We want to know about the history of the Palatine and in particular, the Temple of Vesta.’

‘Ah, the Vestals,’ said Louigi, ‘Well, Miss India, this is your lucky day. The history of the Sisters is my particular favourite. Come with me.’ He turned and walked back the way he had come.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Brandon, ‘I may be no expert but isn’t the Forum that way?’ He pointed up the hill towards the main ruins.

The old man stopped and turned around.

‘If you want to be a sheep, join the flock,’ he said, ‘My story lies this way.’ He turned and led them down a cobbled side road away from the growing crowds.

Ten minutes later they ducked under a wire perimeter fence and walked across a rough piece of ground.

‘Where are we going?’ asked Brandon.

Louigi didn’t answer but continued up a small grassy rise. He stopped and waited for the others to catch him up. They stood alongside each other gazing at the whole of the Palatine hill rising before them, magnificent in its splendour.

‘Wow!’ said India, ‘That is beautiful.’

Louigi sat down on the grass and patted the ground beside him.

‘Come,’ he said, ‘Sit.’

Brandon looked at India and shrugged his shoulders before sitting to the left of Louigi. India sat to his right.

‘Look before you,’ said Louigi sweeping his hand across the vista to their front.’ Tell me what you see.’

‘Um, buildings,’ said Brandon, ‘Ruins of a city. Some trees, a couple of column things and tourists, lots of tourists.’

Louigi gave him a look bordering on contempt before turning his attention to India.

‘And you, Lady India?’ He asked, ‘What do you see?’

India held his gaze for a moment before turning her gaze back to the city.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘That building complex over there is the arch of Septimus Severus. I think that one over there is the Temple of Julius Caesar. I can see the Temple of Vesta and of course the Forum Romanum.’

Louigi nodded appreciatively.

‘I can see you have some knowledge,’ he said. ‘You have learned from lessons in school and from books in your libraries. This is all very well but you need to look past the bricks and mortar. Look past the photographic images and let your soul see what I see.’

‘And what is that?’ asked Brandon.

Louigi took a deep breath and half closed his eyes.

‘Oh, the sights are truly wonderful,’ he said. ‘Not archaeology or sightseers but a living breathing city. Imagine these buildings glistening in the sunlight, soaring skyward in the morning sun, the colours vibrant and powerful. The main street running through the centre of the Forum, flanked by a row of stunning marble Colonnades stretching as far as the city walls in the distance. The street is full of people bustling back and fore, going about their business. Slaves in simple tunics carrying their Master’s wares to the markets or pulling hand carts piled high with bales of cloth and amphorae of wine. Ladies dressed in swathes of beautiful coloured cloth making their way to buy the day’s food, and the business men in their Toga’s heading to the Forum for a day’s debate on the politics of the day. And then there’s the smells,’ he continued, ‘Can you imagine? Hundreds of ovens in this area alone, making the bread for the city. Roasting hops from the breweries. Stalls piled high with fish from the Mediterranean and spices from the eastern borders of the empire.’

‘You see, English, when I walk these streets I breathe the history. Rome is more than just a tourist attraction. She is, and always has been a living breathing entity. Millions of people visit every year yet only a tiny proportion care about her history. Her traumatic birth, her violent youth and glorious adulthood, yet, though she is old, she has not yet died. Yes she is changing but these ruins in front of you are nothing but an outfit she is discarding in favour of a more modern image.’

‘Such is my city, English. So ask your questions and I will tell you my stories. But complain not if my answers do not match the history books. My tales are from the mouth of my grandmother and a hundred grandmothers before her.’ He stopped and lit a cigarette, breathing in the smoke deeply as he looked over the city he so obviously loved.

A short silence followed before India spoke.

‘You are obviously very passionate about your home, Louigi,’ she said, ‘But we were wondering whether you could let us know anything about the Vestal Virgins.’

‘Aaah, the Sisters,’ he said, ‘The most purest and misunderstood citizens of Rome. Well, I suppose you already know the basics. The recruitment process, the training and their lifetime of devotion to the Goddess Vesta. Over the millennia, their purity and devotion became the focus for poets and writers alike and legends have arisen around them. The very mention of their name conjures up stories of drama and beauty. Some true, many false but all passionate.’

‘It must have been a very holy existence,’ said India.

‘And boring,’ said Brandon.

‘Oh don’t believe everything you have heard,’ said Louigi. ‘Yes, most of them were chaste but don’t forget, they were recruited between the age of six and ten, and were closely guarded over the next ten years while they were trained. This meant that when they were finally allowed out into the wider world they would have been in their late teens and early twenties. An age when their hormones would have been rampant. In a city where sex and debauchery were not only freely available but celebrated, they would have been exposed to temptation all around. Many fell foul of their own desires and broke the vows of chastity.’

‘Hang on,’ said Brandon, turning to India, ‘I thought you said that anyone caught having sex were buried alive.’

‘Oh many were,’ interrupted Louigi, Throughout Rome’s history, twenty two Vestals were found guilty of breaking their chastity. Eighteen of those were buried alive.

‘What about the other four?’ asked Brandon

‘Two killed themselves, one was forced to marry the madman Emperor Heliogabalus, but there is no record of what happened to the last one, apart from the fact she was murdered by Nero.’

‘Really?’ asked India

‘Absolutely!’ said Louigi. ‘Though many historians say that Nero married the Vestal Rubria in 64 AD, the fact is he raped her and then got rid of her body.’

‘How do you know?’ asked Brandon.

‘We know Rubria was a particularly beautiful woman with long blonde hair and beautiful blue eyes. We also know Nero wanted her for his wife, for it is recorded in the diaries of Suetonius Tranquillus, the Roman historian who lived at the time. He also recorded the rape, and we can only guess, that the reason he raped her was that she rejected him. That was probably the worst thing she could have done for as we know, nobody ever said no to Nero.’

‘How did he kill her?’

‘Well, we don’t know for certain but out of all the Vestals her fate is the only one not recorded but everyone agrees that after raping her Nero probably murdered her.’

‘I didn’t know,’ said India.

‘Their history is filled with anomalies,’ said Louigi.’ Let’s not forget the order lasted over fourteen hundred years and during that time thousands of girls would have worn the stola of Vesta. By implication it is obvious some would have fallen by the wayside. Some were tempted by the flesh, some were indeed executed. There are even stories of some betraying Rome to her enemies.’

‘How?’ asked Brandon

‘Well, they were often used as go-betweens during times of tension as they were seen as incorruptible. Unfortunately that wasn’t always the case. On one occasion a Priestess called Tarpeia was sent as an ambassador to the besieging Sabine army but sold out in return for what she thought would be a fortune in gold. Unfortunately the Sabine king tricked her and he had her crushed beneath the shields of his army. When the battle was over, he had her body thrown from a cliff on the Capitoline hill.’

‘The Tarpeian Rock?’ said India.

‘It subsequently became known as that,’ said Louigi, ‘And was a place of execution for traitors for hundreds of years after that.’

For the next hour, Louigi regaled Brandon and India about the lives and deaths of the people of Rome. The triumphs, disasters, achievements and tragedies. In particular he recounted the stories of the Vestals and their roles in the daily life of Rome. India was transfixed and sat in silence as she listened to Louigi bringing history to life, but Brandon was getting impatient. Eventually he took advantage of a break in the conversation.

‘What about the Temple of Vesta?’ he said, ‘I understand they contained the treasures of Rome.’

‘Aaah the treasures,’ said Louigi, ‘Always the treasures. As soon as the word is mentioned the tourists eyes light up with images of Gold and Silver, But Rome’s true treasures were not of reformed elements but of history and tradition. You see, just as we look back on Rome’s past, they looked back on the stories of their ancestors, and the greatest of these became central to their view of the world. Where we hope for gold, the Romans gathered documents. Where we imagine Silver, they revered artefacts. Such were the true treasures of the Temple, English, parchments from long dead empires, statues from annihilated cities, stories from kings and confessions from Emperors. These are real treasures, and I would gladly give my life for one day alone with such things, but alas fate decreed they would be lost forever.’

‘But were they, Louigi?’ asked Brandon, ‘Is it possible that any may have survived to the present day?’

‘Probably not,’ said the Italian, ‘Though some people think that history may have been altered to hide mistakes.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You already know what I mean,’ said Louigi, ‘Your line of questioning tells me you probably seek the Palladium. Personally I think you waste your time. Many have already taken this path, both scholars and treasure hunters, with no luck.’

‘Humour us,’ said Brandon, somewhat bluntly, ‘What do you mean altered history?’

‘There is an emerging school of thought,’ said Louigi, ‘That the Palladium exists and is in the hands of a private collector.’

‘But how can that be?’ asked India, ‘Everyone knows the Palladium was taken to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine. It is buried beneath the Constantine tower with all the other treasures.’

‘But was it?’ said Louigi, ‘For centuries, that is what has been believed, but, as more and more evidence is revealed, some historians believe that the statue taken by Emperor Constantine was a fake and the real one actually disappeared hundreds of years earlier, during the rein of Nero.’

‘Why?’ asked India.

‘Because the last time anyone actually saw it, was just before the great fire in 64 AD. After that, it was withdrawn from view for safe keeping. Apparently it was kept in a wicker basket and never seen by anyone except the Vestal Priestesses. However, it is now thought that either it was burnt in the fire or was stolen in the confusion. Apart from the shame that would have brought on the order, imagine the effect on the population if it was known that the image of their protector had been destroyed.’

‘There would have been widespread panic,’ said India.

‘Exactly,’ said Louigi, ‘It has been suggested that it was withdrawn from view, simply because it was missing. After the devastation of the fire, Nero could not risk the backlash from the people and would have needed a cover story while a copy was made. Eventually it was placed on display again, but what we don’t know is, was it the original or a fake? We will never know for sure.’

‘So was the Temple destroyed in the fire?’ asked Brandon

‘Oh yes,’ said Louigi. ‘It was destroyed several times over the centuries, either by fire or by her enemies but it was always rebuilt.’

‘So do you have any idea where the Palladium may be now?’ asked India.


‘Even if you knew, you wouldn’t tell us, would you?’ asked Brandon.

‘Not really,’ said Louigi.

‘Can’t say I blame you,’ said Brandon. He stood up and stretched his legs, walking around the nearby ancient rubble.

‘So what happened to the Vestals themselves?’ asked India.

‘They carried on for a few hundred years after the fire but not even they could hold back the tide of Christianity sweeping the known world. They were finally disbanded by Emperor Gratian in 382 AD and the last Vestal Priestess died twelve years later.’

‘So that’s it then,’ said Brandon coming back to the group. ‘The Palladium disappeared and all the Vestals eventually died out, carrying their secrets with them forever.’

‘Well, not entirely true,’ said Louigi, ‘The Vestals in Rome died out but the cult continued in temples around Europe for a few hundred years after that.’

‘There were Vestals elsewhere?’ asked Rubria in surprise.

‘Oh yes,’ answered Louigi.’ The Goddess’s influence reached right across Europe, even as far as your England.’

‘What?’ said Brandon spinning round in shock.

‘Didn’t you know?’ asked Louigi, ‘The cult was established in England for hundreds of years.’

Brandon stared at India.

‘I didn’t know,’ she said quietly. She turned back to Louigi. ‘Where was it centred?’

‘I don’t know much about your England,’ he said ‘But I do know it was near London and was built not long after General Paullinus wiped out the armies of Boudica. It would have caused quite a stir in Rome as Britannia had only just been conquered and was still a hotbed of violence.’

‘That’s amazing.’ said India

‘I wouldn’t get too carried away,’ said Louigi, ‘There were hundreds of similar temples throughout the empire.’

Brandon looked at his watch.

‘Look, thanks very much,’ said Brandon, ‘You have been a great help but we have to be somewhere else in an hour.’

India looked at him quizzically but stood up anyway. Louigi rolled another cigarette as Brandon counted out two rolls of Euros. He gave the first to the younger Italian before holding out the second roll to Louigi. The man moved his hand to accept the money but moved his hand suddenly and grabbed Brandon’s wrist. Brandon tried to pull his hand away but the old man’s grip was like iron.

‘What do you think your doing?’ he asked.

‘Who are you?’ snarled the man.

‘What?’ asked Brandon, perplexed.

‘You have been lying to me.’

‘What are you on about?’ snapped Brandon.

‘The ring,’ growled the man. ‘You wear the ring of Nike.’

Brandon looked down at the ring India had taken from the body of Peter Venezelos back in England.

‘I bought it,’ he lied and yanked his hand free.

‘You are a liar, English,’ said Louigi. ‘There are only a few of these rings in existence and the owners would protect them with their lives.’

‘Why, what do you know about the owners?’

Louigi stared at him and took a step backwards.

‘I don’t know who you are, English,’ he said, ‘But I want no more to do with you. Now go.’

‘Now wait a minute,’ started Brandon and took a step forward.

The younger Italian stepped forward and aimed a previously concealed gun at Brandon’s head.

‘You heard him,’ English he said. ‘You have what you came for; now leave before it is too late for all of us.’

‘This is stupid,’ said Brandon. ‘Why are you so scared?’

You are the stupid one, English,’ he said, ‘Now go, before I do something we will both regret.’

‘Okay, said Brandon, ‘Calm down. We are going.’

‘Not just from here,’ said Louigi, ‘You must leave Rome before someone else sees the ring.’

Brandon and India walked slowly backwards to the path before turning and hurrying down to the road. Brandon waved down a taxi and they sat in silence, stunned at the close shave they had just experienced.

‘What was that all about?’ asked Brandon eventually in disbelief.

India turned and looked at him. He expected to see a look of horror on her face but was surprised to see a slight smile playing about her lips.

‘India,’ he said, ‘Are you alright. You’ve been quiet for ages.’

‘Oh I’m alright,’ she said, ‘In fact, better than alright. I’ve think I’ve just worked out where the Palladium is!’

‘You have?’ he stated in shock, ‘Where?’

‘Littlewick Green,’ she said with a smirk. ‘Come, on, we need to book a flight. I’ll explain as we go.’

Chapter Nineteen

Rome 64 AD

Rubria and Dragus followed the riverbank downstream as fast as they could. Behind them the population fought to save their city from the flames and the two fugitives passed many human chains passing water from the Tiber to some nearby burning street. Occasionally they heard the metallic rhythm of running soldiers as squads ran to unknown tasks in the darkness. Dragus knew that it was only a matter of time before one or more of those squads were given the task of finding them.

‘Dragus, please, I can’t go on much further,’ pleaded Rubria.

‘We can’t afford to slow down, Rubria,’ said Dragus, ‘As soon as they find that Decurion they will send squads after us. We have to get out of the city.’

Rubria collapsed to the floor and her head hung low.

‘I can’t, Dragus,’ she said. ‘I have no more strength.’

Dragus looked down at her and for the first time realised how exhausted and bedraggled she looked. Her once white dress was torn and filthy. Her beautiful hair was bedraggled and she smelled of a mixture of sewage and smoke. He placed his hand under her chin and lifted her tear stained face up to look into her eyes. Once again he was transfixed by their piercing beauty and for a second, forgot where and who he was.

‘Dragus?’ she said eventually.

The Centurion blinked and snapped back to reality.

‘Sorry, Priestess,’ he mumbled. It was obvious she couldn’t go much further yet they had to get outside the city walls. If they could just do that they may have a slim chance. He looked around, searching for inspiration and spotted a fishing boat on the opposite bank. The river was in full flood due to heavy rain in the Apennine mountains two hundred miles upstream, and, though every Roman soldier learned to swim during their training, he knew there was no way he would get across the torrent.

‘Priestess, listen to me,’ he said, thinking furiously, ‘I want you to wait for me here. Sit back in the shadows and I will come for you as soon as possible. Do you think you can do that for me?’

She nodded weakly.

‘I’ve had enough, Dragus,’ she said, ‘Just let them come. I have nothing left.’

Dragus wiped the tears from her face on the sleeve of his tunic.

‘Almost there, Priestess,’ he said, ‘Do this one last thing for me and you will be able to rest as long you want, I promise. Don’t talk to anyone, I will be as quick as I can.’

‘I will wait until dawn, Dragus,’ she said. ‘If you are not there, I will hand myself in to the Praetorian.’

‘You won’t have to do that, Priestess,’ he said, ‘I will be back.’

Dragus watched her limp into a nearby doorway before making his way back upstream. He knew that half a mile away there was one of the ten bridges that crossed the Tiber and he ran as fast as he could through the crowds. Within ten minutes he had reached the bridge and joined a group of slaves fleeing the flames on the west bank. The whole thing went better than expected and he soon reached the boat he had seen on the opposite bank of the river. He undid the rope, and, after pushing the boat into the flow, rowed strongly into the fierce current. Within seconds the boat caught the flow and picked up speed as it sped downstream. He pulled fiercely on the oars, driving his craft across the river, using the strength of the current to help propel him towards the other side. Suddenly he stopped rowing as he spotted a squad of ten men searching the riverbank downstream.

‘Search everywhere,’ he heard someone shout, ‘They can’t have gone far.’

‘Shit,’ cursed Dragus and shipped his oars. He ducked down and peered over the edge as the boat span passed the soldiers in the gloom. He peered frantically downstream, desperate to spot Rubria. For a second he thought he had missed her but suddenly she appeared out of the gloom, sat back against a wall, cradling her revered package in her arms.

‘Priestess,’ he called, ‘Over here.’

She looked up and he picked up one oar to try and drive the boat closer.

‘Quick,’ he shouted, ‘The guards are close.’

He tried driving closer but the current was too strong. Rubria started to run alongside the boat but it stayed tantalizingly out of reach as Dragus fought the current.

‘It’s no good,’ cried Rubria, ‘I can’t reach you.’

The boat passed her by and Dragus stared at the fear in her eyes as he passed. He looked around frantically hoping for an answer. Suddenly he realised that the river bent to the right and the current would naturally drive the small boat into the bank, but that was a hundred metres away.

‘Keep running,’ he shouted, ‘I will wait for you down stream.’ Within seconds he saw the river bend and a few seconds later the boat bumped against the bank. He jumped out and searched for an anchorage point. The bank was empty except for a small frightened boy.

‘You,’ he shouted, ‘Come here, Now!’

The youngster walked forward nervously.

‘Hold this,’ ordered Dragus, giving him the rope, ‘I will be a few minutes and when I return, you will have the blessing of a Goddess. If you let go, you will be cursed and be haunted by Phasmas for the rest of your life. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, sir,’ gasped the boy in fear.

‘Good,’ said Dragus and ran up the riverbank. Immediately he could see Rubria stumbling towards him but in the distance he could see the squad of soldiers getting closer. He ran up to her and she fell into his arms, sobbing.

‘Come on,’ he said, looking over her shoulder, ‘A few more yards and we will be safe.’

Suddenly a voice called out from the squad.

‘There they are, further down the bank.’

‘Shit,’ said Dragus and started to run down the bank, half dragging Rubria with him. As fast as they went, the squad was three times as fast, hampered only by the weight of their armour. They turned the bend and Dragus was relieved to see the boat was still there. The boy’s eyes widened with fear when he saw the pursuing soldiers, and he dropped the rope before skulking away into the shadows.

Rubria stumbled and fell forward, hitting her head on the floor. Dragus stopped and scooped her up in his arms, sprinting as fast as he could before the boat drifted away.

The Statue,’ screamed Rubria as Dragus placed her in the boat.

Dragus looked back up the bank. He could just make out the red fabric that wrapped the statue fifty metres away where she had dropped it.

Please,’ begged Rubria, ‘Nero will destroy it.’

With no time to think, Dragus climbed back out onto the bank. He pushed the boat out into the slower flow of the river bend and ran back towards the approaching soldiers. Even though he was an experienced veteran of many battles, Dragus knew he could not better ten armed legionaries. It was all down to speed. He reached the wrapped Palladium, and picked it up before sprinting back downstream. The boat was moving faster now, and, as Dragus drew close, he threw the Palladium across the water to land in the craft with a satisfying thud. He stooped to grab the rope trailing across the bank but lost his footing and sprawled forward into the dirt. He jumped up, momentarily stunned and looked at the soldiers, only metres away. The boat was now out of reach and picking up speed. There was nothing else he could do, so, without wasting any more time he dived headlong into the river and swam strongly towards the boat.

The squad stopped in frustration, but, just as Dragus heaved himself over the edge of the boat, the Decurion in charge of the pursuing squad drew his Pugio from his belt and sent it spinning across the water.

Dragus caught his breath and grabbed an oar to help steer the boat, but, as he placed the oar into the water, he stopped suddenly, a look of shock and pain on his face.

‘Dragus, what’s the matter?’ asked Rubria, but then screamed in horror as the Centurion fell forward, the hilt of the knife sticking out of his back.

As the squad watched, the boat picked up speed and span out of control down the swollen river, disappearing into the darkness, faster than a man could run.

Rubria tried to help the wounded Centurion but the random movement of the boat meant she struggled to maintain her balance. She crawled to his side as he struggled to get to his knees.

‘Oh, Dragus, keep still,’ she cried and placed her arms around him.

‘Get me one of the oars,’ he gasped, pointing down the boat.

‘You can’t row,’ she said, ‘You are hurt.’

‘No need to row,’ he said, ‘Just pass me one.’

Rubria did as she was asked and dragged it to where Dragus was crouched. With her help he fed it over the stern, and, when most of it was in the water, he pointed to the rope now lying near the seat.

‘Get the rope,’ he said, ‘We need to tie it down.

Together they tied the oar in place, and, within a few moments, the boat straightened out, aided by the occasional swipe of the makeshift rudder. As soon as they had left the danger area, Rubria turned her attention to Dragus, who was obviously in excruciating pain.

‘Oh Dragus,’ she said, ‘Are you okay?’

‘We have to get this blade out of me,’ he said,’ I can’t move through the pain.’

‘But if we do, you could bleed to death,’ she said, ‘We need a Medicus.’

‘I have had such wounds before,’ he said, ‘And seen far worse. I don’t believe it has pierced any major organs but we can’t wait. We have to get it out. Make some bandage and do as I say.’

Rubria tore strips of material from her tunic and placed them on the seat.

‘Make them into pads,’ he said, ‘And listen very carefully. There is a danger I may lose consciousness so you have to know what to do. When you remove the knife, there will be blood, lots of blood. It is important that you stem the flow. As soon as the knife is withdrawn, place the first pad over the wound and press hard. The pressure should stop the flow. If it doesn’t, place a second pad on top but do not remove the first. Do you understand?’

‘What if that doesn’t work?’ asked Rubria

‘Then place more on top and press hard until the bleeding stops.’

‘And if it doesn’t?’ she asked.

‘Then I will die!’ he said simply. ‘If that happens, tip my body over the side into the river. I will not be able to help you further but at least you may be safer. The Praetorian are looking for two people not a single woman. You must get to shore and lose yourself in the suburbs.’

‘You won’t die, Dragus,’ she said, ‘I won’t let you.’

He smiled weakly.

‘Now, we must do it,’ he said, ‘I can’t stand this pain much longer.’

She nodded grimly and manoeuvred to a position where she could take a grip of the knife’s hilt.

‘Ready?’ she asked.

‘Do it!’ he said, and screamed out in pain as she slid the razor sharp knife from its bloody, sheath.

For what seemed like several minutes Rubria fought to stem the flow of blood with her makeshift bandages. Dragus passed out and by the time she had stopped the bleeding, she wasn’t sure if he was unconscious or dead. When she finally realised he was still breathing, albeit faintly, she made him as comfortable as possible with his head in her lap and steered the boat downstream into the unknown. It had been a long night.

Dragus opened his eyes slowly, struggling to remember where he was. He felt someone wipe his brow and he turned his head to see who was holding the sponge. The haze cleared and he saw the piercing eyes of Rubria gazing down at him.

‘Hello,’ she smiled, ‘Welcome back.’

Dragus tried to respond but was only successful in emitting a throaty rasp and broke down into a throaty coughing fit.

‘Hang on,’ said Rubria, ‘I’ll get you a drink.’

She disappeared from view and Dragus felt himself being lifted into a seated position by unseen hands. The Priestess returned and offered a clay beaker of clean water to his lips. He tried to drink but the flow was controlled by Rubria.

‘Slowly,’ she said, allowing him a sip at a time.

‘Where am I?’ he asked eventually, his voice a lot clearer now he had slaked his thirst.

‘We are safe, Dragus,’ she said, ‘We are in the house of a friend. You have been ill with the fever but have fought it off. For a while we thought you would die.’

‘We?’ asked Dragus, ‘Who else is here?’

The face of an unknown woman appeared before him.

‘Hello,’ she said nervously, ‘My name is Rose.’

‘Rose helped me back in Nero’s palace,’ explained Rubria, ‘She saw us make our escape from the Praetorian and followed us downstream. Just as well, really for the boat snagged on a fallen tree and I did not know what to do.’

‘Where are we now?’ asked Dragus.

‘We are in the port of Ostia,’ said Rose, ‘I have a friend who lives here and we are in the cellar of her master.’

‘Does he know?’

‘No sir,’ answered Rose, ‘He is away on business.’

‘What happened to me?’ asked Dragus.

‘Don’t you remember?’ asked Rubria, ‘After you came around you were okay for a while but then the fever caught and we thought you would die.’

‘It was the wound,’ said Rose. ‘It became infected and needed cleaning out with hot water. Luckily we caught it in time and I think the worse is over.’

‘Are you a Medicus?’ asked Dragus.

‘No, sir, but there was a slave in the palace who was training to be one and he used me to practise on.’

‘Lucky for me he did,’ murmured Dragus.’ So, what happens know?’

‘We can’t stay here,’ said Rose, ‘My friend’s Master returns tomorrow and she can’t risk him finding out.’

Dragus sat up and winced at the pain in his back.

‘Steady,’ said Rubria, ‘The wound is clean but we don’t want to start the bleeding again.’

‘How long have I been here?’ asked Dragus.

‘Three days,’ said Rubria.

‘Three days?’ gasped Dragus, ‘I can’t believe we haven’t been found.’

‘All units are fighting the fires,’ said Rubria, ‘I don’t think they can spare the men.’

‘That won’t last long,’ winced Dragus, ‘They don’t look kindly on the desertion of one of their own. It won’t be long before they instigate a search in every town from Rome to Ostia. We have to get out of here.’

‘I agree,’ said Rubria, ‘And suitable arrangements have already been put in place.’

‘What arrangements?’

‘Rose has arranged passage out of here.’

‘Where to?’

‘I don’t know, but there is a ship that leaves in the morning and Rose has arranged for us to be on it.’ As if on cue, a loud knocking echoed around the cellar and Rose opened the door to a weak chinned man wrapped in a quilted cape.

‘I am Stellus,’ he said, ‘And I understand you seek passage from Rome.’

‘We do,’ said Rose, ‘Come in.’ The man entered the gloomy room and walked over to the recumbent Centurion.

‘Is this the cargo?’ he asked, glancing between Rubria and Dragus.

‘What do you mean, Cargo? gasped Dragus lifting himself up onto one elbow

‘Yes,’ interrupted Rose, ‘Can you help us or not?’

‘I can, but it will cost you.’

‘We can pay,’ said Rose. Stellus walked around her and stared down at Dragus.

‘Who is he?’ he asked.

‘You don’t need to know,’ said Dragus, instantly weary of the man.

‘On the contrary,’ said Stellus, ‘If I am going to hide two fugitives on my boat, the very least I require is to know who it is I am hiding.’

‘You listen here,’ snarled Dragus, but before he could continue Rose grabbed the arm of Stellus and led him to a corner. A whispered conversation took place and a leather purse changed hands. Stellus stared again over to Dragus lying on the makeshift bed.

‘I will return within the hour with two of my crew,’ he said, ‘They will take you to my ship. You will stay in the hold with the rats until we leave the Mare Nostrum. Until then I want the both of you well away from prying eyes.’

‘You mean the three of us,’ said Rubria.

Stellus laughed briefly, tossing the purse up and down in his hand.

‘Three of you,’ he sneered, ‘This pittance is hardly enough to cover you two. No, the slave stays. Take it or leave it.’

‘Agreed,’ said Rose before Rubria could answer and led Stellus from the building. When she returned Rubria was waiting for her.

‘Rose, I can’t let you do this,’ she said, ‘That was your money. I won’t let you stay here. I will stay, you accompany Dragus on the ship.’

‘Forgive me, mistress,’ said Rose, ‘But that is not an option. You have been groomed to live in luxury and would be caught within hours. I, on the other hand will disappear into the city and live amongst the rest of the slaves. I have a much better chance than you.’

‘I cannot do this,’ said Rubria, ‘I appreciate what it is your doing but I will not leave you here. You must go, I will stay.’

‘Do you think for one second that either Dragus or I will leave you behind?’ said Rose, ‘I would rather die first.’

‘But Rose…’

‘But nothing, Miss,’ said Rose, ‘You have to go to ensure the Palladium is nurtured until such time it can be returned to its rightful place, and when that time comes, I will be waiting. Don’t worry about me Miss, I will be fine.’ Rubria stared at the artefact for a moment before looking back at Rose. ‘If you argue, Miss,’ continued Rose, I will disappear until your ship has sailed. At least allow me to stay at your side until we say goodbye.’

Rubria threw her arms around Rose and hugged her tightly.

‘The Holy Mother will bless you, Rose,’ she whispered through her tears, ‘One day we will return and you will be honoured in her temple.’

‘Come,’ said Rose, disengaging herself from the Priestess’s embrace, ‘’We have to prepare him for travel.’ They turned towards Dragus and Rubria bathed his brow while Rose retrieved his clothes.

‘You can’t trust that man,’ said Dragus weakly.

‘We have no choice,’ said Rubria, ‘It is the only ship due to leave Ostia in the next few days. Everything is arranged.’

‘But we have no money,’ said Dragus, ‘How can we pay the fare?’

‘Rose had a purse,’ said Rubria, ‘I hesitate to ask where she got it from.’

‘Perhaps it is better we don’t know,’ said Dragus and laid back to sleep.

An hour later, Dragus was being carried on a makeshift stretcher up the gangplank by two of the ship Master’s men. Rubria and Rose stood together on the quayside saying their goodbyes when a shout rang out across the dock.


Both women looked across at the approaching figure of Stellus. He stormed up to them and faced Rose.

‘The price has changed,’ he said, ‘I want more.’

‘What?’ gasped Rose, ‘There is no more.’

‘Then you are going nowhere,’ snarled Stellus, ‘The word on the dock is that there is a runaway Priestess somewhere in Ostia and a deserter legionary. Now I may not be the most intelligent of men but I am not stupid. If you want these two out of here, then I want more money.’

‘I told you there is no more,’ said Rose, ‘I have given you everything I have.’

He turned to his crew.

‘Get them off my ship,’ he ordered.

‘Wait!’ interrupted Rubria, ‘How much do you want?’

‘Ten times as much,’ he said.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ snapped Rose.

Rubria stared at the captain.

‘If we pay the full fare, we will have full passage?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘And better accommodation?’

Stellus’s eyes narrowed.

‘It can be arranged,’ he said.

‘And you will include all our food and water?’

‘Look,’ said Stellus, ‘You are wasting my time. Do you have the money or not?’

Rubria glanced over at Dragus before reaching inside her tunic and withdrawing a necklace.

‘I have this,’ she said.

At the end of a golden chain was a beautiful pendant consisting of a polished sapphire in a Lapis-lazuli setting.

Stellus’s eyes widened and he stepped forward to examine the necklace closely.

‘It is the necklace of Vesta,’ she said, turning her head away slightly to avoid his breath. ‘There were only six such necklaces ever made and is over a thousand years old. You get us to your destination safely and this is yours. Any noble would gladly pay a fortune to own this necklace. You could live a life of luxury for the rest of your life.’

He raised his hand to feel the pendant but Rubria stepped back and replaced the necklace inside her tunic.

‘Do we have a deal?’ she asked.

‘You will give me the necklace?’ he asked.

‘I will.’

‘How do I know you will keep your word?’ he asked.

‘I am a Priestess of Vesta,’ she said, ‘My word will be honoured.’

‘I believe you,’ he said eventually, ‘We have a deal.’ He turned to his crew. ‘Take them below,’ he said, ‘Put them in my quarters.’

‘One more thing,’ said Rubria

He turned back.

‘What is it?’

‘There will be three of us,’ she said, ‘The girl comes too.’

Rose’s head span around and she gasped in disbelief, hardly able to contain herself.

‘You push your luck, Priestess,’ said the ship’s captain, but his eyes stared at the place she had hidden the necklace. ‘Okay, it is done. All three will travel but that is all. I will give no more.’

It is enough,’ said Rubria, ‘Except for one more detail.’

‘What now?’

‘I want to know where we are going.’

‘Oh that,’ he said, ‘Somewhere a lot colder than this. Dress up warm, Priestess, we are going to Britannia.’

Chapter Twenty

England 2010

Sister Bernice knelt silently at the feet of the small statue of the Virgin Mary, the only ornament in her cell, deep in prayer to the Holy Mother. Eventually, a tiny bell tinkled down the passages of the convent and she crossed herself before getting to her feet and brushed the creases from her gown. There was no dust as the floor of the cell was kept spotlessly clean from the twice daily scrubbing she gave it, a chore that she embraced fully as an honour and a privilege in the name of the mother.

She left her cell and closed the door quietly, as did the rest of the Sisters in her row. She stood patiently in the candlelit corridor and waited in silence until the distant bell tinkled once more before turning left to follow the other Sisters as they headed to the dining hall.

The routine was familiar and she carried it out without thinking, as she had done for the last twenty years. There were five other Nuns in front of her, all dressed in black, like herself, except for the Senior Sister at the front who’s robes were a sharply contrasting light grey. Sister Bernice knew that three similar columns of devotees made their way from different wings of the convent, each led in total silence by their own Senior Sister. They descended a stone stairwell and through another dimly lit corridor until they entered the great hall and took their places behind their nominated space at the long dining tables.

Bernice remained alone in the doorway, singled out for a special part in tonight’s ceremony. Her heart beat a bit faster, as, though she had done this many times before, it was always a privilege to represent the others in the ceremony.

The hall stretched out in front of her and was lined along both sides with the long wooden tables. At the far end, a further table was decked in a white cloth and laid out with religious artefacts, behind which, the six, grey robed Senior Sisters were taking their places. Behind them the far wall was dominated by an ornate carved wooden wall, the centre of which was a carved life-size image of the Virgin Mary set back into a shallow alcove.

None of this registered with Bernice though, as it was exactly the same as every other night since she had joined as an acolyte over twenty years ago and besides, the focus of her attention lay on the lone figure kneeling in the centre of the hall, dressed in a rough Hessian gown and staring down into a wooden bowl before her.

As soon as the room had settled, Bernice walked slowly towards the sad figure and stopped before her. As she had done dozens of times before over the years, she slipped off her self made leather slippers and held up one foot.

The kneeling person took the offered foot, and, using the soft cloth in the bowl, bathed it gently in the warm water. She repeated the task on the other foot and wiped them both dry in a soft towel before looking up at Sister Bernice for approval. Bernice looked down into the aged face of the Mother Superior and smiled her happiness before turning her back and making her way back to her seat. She knew that behind her, all eyes would be on the old lady as she struggled to her feet. Despite her age, nobody would be allowed to help if she struggled, as any failure to complete the ceremony would be the natural sign for a succession process to be instigated. Despite their rank, every Mother Superior in the order’s history had carried out the same ritual of cleansing the feet of the humble before each meal, until such time as they could not finish the task and a successor was appointed.

Bernice reached her seat and was relieved to see that the aged Mother Superior had managed to get to her feet and had taken her place at the head of the table. Everyone knew that the Mother Superior’s health was failing rapidly and it was only a matter of time before she would fail in her task.

Ritual over, the Mother Superior led the room in a prayer of thanks giving before taking her seat, closely followed by the rest of the room. Immediately a door opened and a line of young girls carried tureens of soup and platters of home made bread to the Nuns to start their meal. Mealtimes were one of the few times in a day when the devotees were allowed to talk to each other and Bernice turned to the colleague alongside her.

‘Sister Suzanna,’ she said, ‘It’s good to see you up and about again. ‘You are well, I hope.’

‘Much better, Sister Bernice,’ she answered, ‘No more than a heavy cold, I understand.’

‘You do yourself an injustice,’ said Sister Bernice, ‘I hear you were very ill’.

‘Poppycock,’ said her friend, ‘Anyway, you shouldn’t listen to idle gossip, and you know what the Mother Superior says.’

‘Gossip is for the idle of mind,’ they both said in unison with a smile.

All around the room the devotees of the order of Santa Rosa, ate their meal in an air of serenity, the sound of their conversation a mere murmur in the vastness of the hall. At the head table the six Senior Sisters ate in silence as they oversaw the meal.

‘I fear for the Mother Superior,’ said Suzanna, ’Her legs grow weaker by the day. She should step aside and spend her remaining days in retreat.’

‘I know what you mean,’ said Bernice, ‘Though I would be sad to see her leave. She has been my mentor since the day I knocked on the door of this convent.’

‘When she does leave, who do you think will have the calling to wear the veil?’ They looked up at the six Senior Sisters, each of which were well over sixty years of age, and all eligible for the senior post.

‘Who knows?’ said Bernice, ‘Whoever is chosen I am sure Santa Rosa will guide her.’

‘It is said that your name has been mentioned as a Senior Sister,’ continued Suzanna.

‘Now who’s gossiping?’ said Bernice with a smile.

They continued their meal in quiet chit chat before the familiar bell rang indicating the end of the meal. All the Nuns left the room to return to their cells before evening prayers. As usual the Senior Sisters stayed behind in the hall and the sound of a key being turned being indicated the door was locked from the inside. The rituals of the Senior Sisters were for the higher order only, and the rest of the Nuns were totally unaware of what went on behind the giant oaken doors.

Within hours, only the sound of scrabbling mice could be heard in the corridors of the ancient convent as the occupants rested during the meagre six hours before first bell would ring again. Outside the fruit bushes in the walled vegetable gardens, so carefully tendered by Maximillian the gardener, swayed in unison with the mulberry trees of the Sister’s private cemetery. Bats flitted between the belfry and the crags of a nearby cliff face, chasing the myriads of insects rising from the surrounding woodlands. Like most nights, the nearby crags protected the ancient convent from the worst of the weather and apart from the usual sounds of the local wildlife, the night was very quiet, as could be expected in the isolated outpost of solitude.

But tonight was different. Tonight there was a different sound disturbing the darkness. Regular intakes of breath from an animal bigger than the usual deer or badger that roamed the surrounding woodland were interrupted by the occasional snap of dried twigs, both betraying the alien sound of carefully placed human footsteps drawing closer to the walls of the convent of the blessed virgin.

Mother Superior Theresa made her way slowly through the passages, her ageing bones aching in the damp and cold passages. As usual she had managed a few hours sleep but it was all she needed these days. She knew that her allotted span on this earth was coming to an end, and truth be told, when the time came she would welcome it with open arms. Every cell of her being was tired and she longed for the eternal sleep that beckoned enticingly in the not too distant future. But first she had to ensure the secrets of the convent were in safe hands. The appointment of her successor would be straightforward enough as any of the six Senior Sisters could step up to the role. The problem was, whoever was given the ultimate post would leave a vacancy in the ranks of the Senior Sisters and she wasn’t sure who, if any of the normal Sisters were ready to take the huge step up that the role of Senior Sister demanded. Every candidate had been discussed in depth on many occasions and the time was approaching when the final vote would be made and it was at that time that the order was in the most danger, for if the nominated candidate shied away from her responsibilities, the very order itself would be at risk of collapsing. Mother Superior Theresa had overseen the appointment of all six Senior Sisters in her time as head of the order, and all had gone without a hitch. In fact there had been no refusal recorded for over three hundred years. However the senior order were all growing old and it was possible that there would need to be several more elections in the very near future.

Suddenly she stopped dead in her tracks, sure she had heard something in the darkness. This normally would not be unusual in this old creaking place, but this was different. It sounded like a cough, a man’s cough!

‘Maximillian,’ she called, ‘Is that you?’ She knew the gardener should be in his cottage in the grounds at this time of the morning, but who else could it be?

‘Maximillian?’ she said again, ‘It’s awful late. Is there a problem?’

A figure stepped out of the shadows.

‘No problem, Sister,’ said an unfamiliar voice, and before she could react the figure lashed out and knocked the old lady to the floor, sending her into a world of darkness.

India and Brandon walked down a small street running through the village India had mentioned in Rome. They had arrived back a day earlier on a flight from Italy and Brandon had allowed them a few hours rest in a motel to catch up on the lost sleep. It seemed to India that she had slept only a few minutes before he was knocking on her door. After a quick shower they had driven from London towards Maidenhead, finally parking their hire car in a lay-by before walking into the village of Littlewick Green. The shops were closed as it was a Sunday so they made their way to the village pub.

‘When we get there say nothing about the missing girl,’ said Brandon.

‘Why not?’ asked India, ‘These people probably know nothing anyway. All we want is some guidance.’

‘It’s still classified, and besides, don’t forget the dead Greek’s brother is still at large and if he is on the same trail as us, he probably came this way. The last thing we want to do is raise the interest of any newspapers. Don’t forget there is still a child’s life at risk here.’

‘Haven’t they made any headway with that?’ asked India.

‘Nothing!’ said Brandon. ‘I checked in this morning. She seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. We have the only lead it seems though how it links with the Palladium, I don’t know.’

‘Perhaps whoever has abducted her hopes to hold her to ransom, with the artefact as payment.’

‘Possible,’ he said ‘But unlikely. The best thing we can do is continue with our investigations. There are enough other people looking for the girl, anyway, here we are.’

They walked into the typical English country pub and approached the bar.

‘Good afternoon,’ said the landlord.

‘Good afternoon,’ answered Brandon. ‘Pint of smooth please and…’ He looked at India quizzically.

‘Oh, Coke,’ please,’ she said, before adding, ‘Are you still serving hot food?’

‘We are,’ said the landlord, ‘Sunday lunch, Beef, Pork or Chicken,?5.99’

‘I’ll have Beef, please,’ said India.

‘And you sir?’ asked the barman.

‘I’ll have the same, cheers.’

‘No problem,’ said the barman, ‘You sit yourselves down and I’ll bring them over as soon as their ready.’

They made their way over to a window seat, sipping their drinks while taking in the scene around them. The bar was a cliche of an English pub. Large fire place, leaded windows and low beams exuded character while polished brass platters and horseshoes covered most of the available dark oak panels.

‘Nice place,’ said Brandon, ‘Anyway, why don’t you remind me what makes you think the trail leads here.’

‘Like I said,’ said India, ‘One of my main sources when researching any historical story or artefact is local rumour. A while ago, I was dating a music student who was studying Ivor Novello, a famous Welsh composer who made his home in this village.’

‘What has Ivor Novello got to do with this?’

‘Nothing, but while I was with the musician, we came here for a weekend. We came to this pub one night and got talking to locals. After a few drinks the conversation turned to the village’s history and one of the strongest stories was the tale of the white lady.’


‘A ghost!’ said India, ‘Said to have walked the village for thousands of years.’

‘Bullshit!’ said Brandon.

‘That may be so,’ said India, ‘But the fact is, it is deeply embedded part of this village’s memories, and, in my experience, in these old parish villages where old wives tales and folklore comes into play, there’s no smoke without fire.’

‘And where’s the link?’ asked Brandon.

‘Well, though I didn’t take much notice at the time, the one thing I do recall is that they reckon she is the ghost of a Vestal Virgin. It seemed a bit strange at the time but I thought no more about it. It was only when that Italian guy mentioned the possibility of there being a Vestal Temple in England it came back to me.’

‘What came back to you?’

‘There is a round Temple on a hill a few miles from here and archaeologists believe it is a Vestal Temple from the first century AD.’

‘But what makes you think this is linked to the Palladium?’ he asked.

‘Think about it,’ she said, ‘We traced the palladium to Rome and the care of the Vestals in 64 AD. At about that time, it disappeared and was last seen in the care of Rubria, the Priestess who was raped by Nero. She had the wealth, the education and the reason to flee Rome, and if she was as dedicated as all the other Vestals, would have tried to save whatever artefacts she could from the fire.’

‘Coincidence!’ said Brandon, she could have gone anywhere.

‘She could have,’ agreed India, ‘But consider everything else we know. Fact one, scholars believe the palladium was never burnt and is not beneath the Constantine Tower. It is now thought it was spirited away during the fire and left the country.’

‘Okay,’ said Brandon.

‘Fact two,’ continued India, ‘At the same time a Vestal Virgin with a grudge against Nero, disappeared from history forever. Not long after, a Temple to Vesta was built in England. Don’t forget, transport between Rome and Britain was common at that time as it was just after the Boudican wars and Rome was busy trying to dominate the island.’

‘I still don’t buy it,’ said Brandon.

‘Well look at the other factors,’ said India, ‘The people in this village believe there is a ghost of a Vestal Virgin haunting these streets. Now this may be poppycock but the story is hundreds of years old, if not thousands. Don’t forget in the past, our ancestors believed absolutely in the presence of ghosts. To them it was a fact of life. For something like that to survive the dark ages, and throughout all the subsequent historical periods and various religious upheavals it must have been a very strong story, don’t you think?’

‘Perhaps, but how do you know it is our Virgin?’

‘I don’t, but the timeline fits perfect and besides, our man from Samothrace seems to have come to the same conclusions and he is much more closely involved than you or I.’

‘Okay, so let’s assume you are right and this Rubria came here, why have you brought us to this village, shouldn’t we be going to this Temple?’

‘We can’t,’ said India, ‘It’s not there any more.’

‘What do you mean, not there?’

‘Well, it used to be on a place called Weycock hill a couple of miles away, but over the years the locals, like in many cultures, stripped it bare for building materials. Most was used in the construction of the local church a couple of hundred years ago.’

‘Perhaps the Palladium is buried on the Temple site,’ said Brandon,

‘I doubt it,’ said India, ‘It has been excavated twice that I know of. No, if there was anything there then it was long gone before the archaeologists even got their trowels out.’

‘And you think the villagers know where it is?’ asked Brandon.

‘Not consciously,’ said India, ‘But I am very interested in the stories and fables of the village. There are grains of truth to be had in most ghost stories. There may be a lead there.’

‘So where do we start?’ asked Brandon.

‘Churches are usually goldmines of information,’ said India, ‘I think we should start there.’

‘So why did you bring me in here,’ asked Brandon looking around the pub, ‘Where’s the link here?’

‘No link,’ said India, nodding towards the approaching barman, ‘But in the rush this morning, I didn’t have time for breakfast and I think better on a full stomach.’ She beamed a disarming smile at Brandon who stared back at her in amusement.

‘What are you waiting for?’ she asked, ‘Pay the man.’

Sister Bernice poured cold water from the chipped enamel jug into the bowl and washed her face in the candle light. Though she did not own a watch, she knew that it was approaching four am and the bell for morning prayers would sound soon enough. She sat back on her bunk, and waited patiently.

Half an hour passed and the bell did not come. Bernice approached the door and peered out through the opening into the passage. She hesitated, as though the doors were not locked, it was forbidden to leave their rooms except at the sound of the bells. Still, this was very strange. In twenty years of service she had never known any time where the first call to prayers had been missed.

Peering out into the corridor, Bernice could see that several other Sisters had also left their rooms and were gathered in the hallway.

‘Sister Bernice,’ said one, ‘Do you know what is happening?’

‘No I’m afraid not,’ she said, ‘But wait here, I will see if I can find out.’

‘But you will be punished if you leave the wing without a Senior,’ said her colleague.

‘And deservedly so,’ said Bernice, ‘But I have to find out in case there is any emergency. I fear for the Mother Superior’s health and I have some medical training. They may need me.’

‘Surely they would have called for you.’

‘Perhaps so, but I will check nevertheless.’ She moved down the corridor, watched by the eleven Nuns behind her and paused before turning the ancient bronze knob and easing the creaking door outwards. She held her candle up higher and called out into the corridor.

‘Hello, Sister Agnes, are you there?’ When no answer came she continued down the corridor towards the great hall. Just before she reached the double doors she heard the mumbling sound of voices in hushed yet strained conversation and as she turned the corner she almost bumped into two of the Seniors. Both looked very worried.

‘Sister Agnes,’ she said, ‘Is everything okay?’

‘Bernice, what are you doing here?’ came the answer, ‘You know it is forbidden to leave your cell without being summoned.’

‘I know, Sister,’ said Bernice, ‘But I was worried. We all were.’

‘Don’t fret, Bernice,’ said the second Nun. ‘Everything is fine. Go back to your corridor and await instructions.’

‘Wait!’ said Sister Agnes before turning to her colleague. ‘It may be beneficial to allow Bernice to help,’ she said, ‘After all, she is the preferred choice to join us in the inner order when the time comes and we need all the help we can get.’

‘I am happy to help in any way I can,’ said Bernice.

Agnes’s colleague nodded her approval.

‘Explain what she needs to know,’ she said ‘But no more.’

Sister Agnes smiled and approached Bernice, lowering her voice so not to be overheard.

‘It’s the Mother Superior,’ she started,

‘Is she alright?’ interrupted Bernice in concern.

‘Well, that’s just it, we don’t know. She has disappeared.’

‘How?’ asked Bernice.

‘All we know is that her room is empty and she is nowhere to be found. We have checked all the usual places but there is no sign of her. The others are checking the other wings as we speak.’

‘Shouldn’t we ask the rest of the order to help?’ asked Bernice,’ Surely the more eyes the better.’

No!’ snapped Sister Adele sharply, ‘They will stay in their cells, until told otherwise. There is too much at stake here.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Bernice.

‘All in good time, Sister,’ said Agnes, ‘Now, if you can just check the upper corridors and report back to the great hall when you have finished, that would be a great help.’

‘Of course!’ said Bernice and brushed past to start her task.

For the next twenty minutes she checked every room, cupboard, and cubby hole in case the elderly lady had collapsed, but all to no avail. Finally she entered the last tiny corridor at the top of the convent but could see that the short corridor led only to a tiny leaded window. Though the passage was obviously empty, she paused and stared at the window. Light flickered across its surface and at four thirty am there should be no light. She approached the window and peered through its dusty glass.

At first she could not make out the detail of the scene in the cemetery below, except that someone had started a fire but as her eyes become focussed the horror of what she saw caused her to scream out in terror.

Within minutes two Seniors came running along the corridor and found Bernice sat against the wall of the corridor, sobbing uncontrollably. She pointed at the window and Sister Agnes looked out at the scene that had so terrified Bernice.

Two floors below, she could see the smouldering remains of a fire against the walls of an ancient mausoleum in the middle of the cemetery. Resting against the wall of the tomb was a large makeshift crucifix and fixed to the cross was the still burning body of the Mother Superior.

Agnes’s hand flew to her mouth and nose to block the stench of burning flesh. A movement near the cross caught her eye and she saw a man stood a few yards away from the fire, half hidden in the darkness, swathed in a hooded cloak staring up at her. Sister Agnes fell back against the wall in shock.

‘Holy Mother protect us,’ she intoned.

‘What is it?’ asked Sister Adele.

Agnes looked up and done some rapid thinking.

‘Call the Seniors to the great hall,’ she said, ‘We have to meet them straight away.

‘What about me?’ asked Bernice, ‘What should I do?’

Sister Agnes retrieved a set of keys from beneath her habit and gave them to Bernice.

‘Check the outer doors are all double locked,’ she said, ‘Then lock all the Sisters in their cells.’ Seeing the look of concern on Bernice’s face she quickly explained.

‘It’s for their own good,’ she said. ‘There is a madman out there and though the doors are solid, there is no knowing what lengths he will undertake to get in. Lock them in and then wait in your cell until we call you.’

All three descended the stairs and separated at the great hall. The two Seniors entered the giant doors while Bernice hurried along the corridor to do as she was told. Within the hour she had carried out her instructions but before returning to her cell, realised that she had possession of the keys and, as the doors were now all locked, she should return them to Sister Agnes. She made her way back to the great hall and knocked on the heavy doors. When there was no reply, she knocked again only harder. Again there was no answer so she tried the handle but found it locked.

Bernice looked down at the keys in her hand and in particular the ornate hall key. With only slight hesitation, she placed the key in the door. At first there was some resistance but with another shove the key rammed home into the lock. She heard a metallic thud on the other side, but pushed the door open anyway and entered the great hall. Bernice looked around. The hall was well lit from the dozens of candles that were burning ready for the now abandoned morning prayers, and it took her only a moment to see the hall was empty. She realised the Senior Sisters must have gone elsewhere and turned to leave the hall but as she did, her feet hit something on the floor. Looking down, she saw another small bunch of keys and realised that she had pushed these out of the lock with her own set when she had unlocked the door.

She bent over to pick them up, stopping suddenly, her brow furrowed in puzzlement. If these keys were in the lock, that meant that the doors must have been locked from the inside, yet…

Sister Bernice looked around the hall again. It was definitely empty and there was no other door that she knew of. She did a quick circuit around the room, checking once more, passing the image of the Holy Mother on the way but as she already knew, there was no sign of anyone. In confusion, she hurriedly left the hall and locked it from the outside, leaving the second bunch of keys on the floor inside. Finally she returned to her cell, and locking her door behind her, sat on the edge of her bed, confused and scared.

Chapter 21

England 2010

Brandon and India sat at the back of the church, waiting for the service to end. It was a typical village church and the congregation was quite healthy bearing in mind the apathy to religion that seemed to be the norm across the country. Finally the service came to an end and the people filed out, dropping their donations onto a copper plate as they left. Eventually there were just the two of them and the vicar left.

‘Hello,’ said the vicar, ‘I don’t think I have seen you here before. Are you new to the village?’

‘No, not really,’ said India, ‘What I mean is, we don’t actually live here, we were looking to speak to you, if you have the time.’

‘What about?’ asked the vicar.

‘I am India, and this is Brandon,’ she said. ‘We are writing a book about the village history of middle England and were told you may be able to help in our research.’

‘In what way?’

‘We are interested in the Temple at Weycock hill. I believe it was built in the first century and some of the stones were used in the building of this church. Is that correct?’

‘Indeed it is,’ said the vicar, ‘Some of the masonry can be seen in the lower courses of the church walls.’

‘How old is the church?’ asked Brandon.

‘Built in 1672,’ said the vicar, ‘Though there was a place of worship here hundreds of years before that in many different guises.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Brandon.

‘Oh the village stretches back thousands of years,’ said the vicar, ‘The remains of a stone age fort have been found nearby, ‘As well as the Roman ruins. It has been dominated by Romans, raided by Vikings and supplied no end of archers during the Norman conquest.’

‘Is there anything you can tell me about the Temple?’ asked India.

‘Not much to tell, really. Experts reckon it was built in the first century AD. That’s a bit special in itself really, as there are no others from that era. Many were built in the few hundred years after that but it was thought the area was still too volatile at the time for a standalone Temple outside of any defended town, yet it seems it was still there a few hundred years later, until of course the Romans left.’

‘How do you know?’ asked Brandon.

‘There was a stone coffin found in one of the excavations with the inscription 474 AD inscribed on the lid. It was obviously the burial of someone important as it was within the boundary of the Temple, but in order to be buried there, it must have been still standing at that time.’

‘But how did it last so long?’ asked India.

‘Who knows?’ said the vicar, ‘But the Romans weren’t always tyrants to the locals you know. And by then, the population had probably become Romanised anyway. Probably even worshiped at the Temple themselves.’

‘Who would have been the Gods at that time?’ asked Brandon.

‘Some people say the whole Pantheon would have been worshiped there?’ said the vicar, ‘But the locals insist it is a Vestal Temple. An early one I agree, but a Vestal Temple nonetheless.’

‘Why are they so insistent?’ asked India.

‘I don’t know, really,’ said the vicar, ‘But it has always been so. There are even mentions of the Temple in the parish records going back hundreds of years. And of course, the legend of the white lady goes back long before that.’

‘What do you think?’ asked Brandon.

‘Oh I believe it is a Vestal Temple,’ said the vicar.

Really?’ said Brandon in mild surprise, ‘Any particular reason?

‘Not really, but it is so embedded in the local Psyche then it just seems right. Of course, there’s also the carving.’

Both heads span towards him

‘What carving?’ asked Brandon, a little too quickly.

‘Many buildings were built from the stone of the Temple said the vicar and over the centuries anything of archaeological value has been lost but there is one carving that survived showing a Priestess.’

‘Can we see it?’ asked India.

‘Oh it’s not here,’ said the vicar.

‘I suppose it’s in a museum,’ said Brandon.

‘I doubt it,’ said the vicar, ‘It is built into the walls of the church of St Giles in Tockenham.’

‘Where’s that?’ asked Brandon, hardly daring to breathe.

‘Fifty miles or so away,’ said the vicar.

Despite their excitement both India and Brandon managed to keep the pretence going a bit longer before making their excuses and leaving. A couple of hours later they were stood outside the gates of St Giles, reading the opening times displayed in the notice board.

‘Closed!’ said India in disappointment. ‘Open again on Thursday morning for a private christening and next week for Sunday service.’

‘What sort of church closes on a Sunday?’ snapped Brandon in frustration.

‘Well, it is five o’clock,’ said India, shaking the gate in vain, ‘Besides, it’s a sign of the times. We are turning into a nation of atheists.’

‘Come on,’ said Brandon.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Inside,’ said Brandon. ‘We can’t afford to wait another week.’

‘We can’t break into a church,’ hissed India.

‘Who said anything about breaking in?’ asked Brandon, pulling out a strange looking tool.

‘What’s that?’ asked India.

‘Swiss army lock pick?’ he suggested sarcastically.

‘You are not going to pick the lock?’ said India in disbelief.

He raised his eyebrows briefly before vaulting up onto the wall.

‘You coming or what?’ he asked and held out his hand.

She paused momentarily before taking his hand and clambering up the dry stone walling. They dropped down into the cemetery beyond and made their way around the wall to the arched doors of the main entrance. Brandon quickly knelt down and fiddled around with the strange tool before selecting a suitable candidate.

‘Oh for God’s sake,’ mumbled India. She looked around nervously while Brandon fished around in the keyhole with his lock pick. A few seconds later they heard the satisfying clunk of a falling lever and Brandon smiled up at India.

‘Sign of a disaffected childhood,’ he said, and pushed the door slowly inward.

Chapter 22

England 2010

The Nuns gathered in the great hall, eating their meal in relative silence. It had been two days since the tragedy and though they knew the Mother Superior had died, they had been told it had been natural causes. Sister Bernice had been sworn to secrecy, the explanation being that there was no need to worry the rest of the order. None of the Nuns were allowed outside of the walls after dark, and Maximillian and his son, Jacob, patrolled the corridors at night. Despite all this, Bernice still felt uneasy. She had never questioned the way of the order before but could not understand why they just didn’t call the police. Agnes had spent a lot of time with her in the last two days, trying to convince her that it was in everybody’s interest to keep the tragedy within the realms of the order, though despite Bernice’s protestations, she would not tell her exactly why. All she would say is that they nurtured a sacred secret and if the outside world came snooping around, then that secret could be lost forever. Bernice was also reassured that steps had been taken to protect the order and that very soon she would be initiated into the senior order, and, when that happened, everything would be revealed to her.

The meal continued in silence. Every thought was with the mother superior, now laying at rest in the order’s crypt beneath their feet. The seals had been replaced on the crypt and the Sisters were partaking of their last meal before a day of fasting. Once again Bernice sat alongside Sister Suzanna.

‘How are you coping?’ asked Suzanna in concern.

‘Not very well, in truth,’ she answered.

‘She had a good life,’ said Suzanna, ‘And it was her time. You even said yourself she was not looking well.’

Bernice stared at her friend, desperate to blurt out the true horror of what she had seen yet keeping her silence due to her loyalty to the order.

‘Oh, Sister,’ she said, ‘One day, when this is all over perhaps I will share my burden with you. In the meantime, I just need to get through the next few days. I may need your support.’

Suzanna took her hand and smiled.

‘I am here for you Bernice,’ she said and they both turned back to their meagre meal.

— -

Brandon and India walked around the inner walls of the church looking for any sign of the carving. Ten minutes later they met again near the altar.

‘Any sign?’ asked Brandon

‘Nothing,’ said India, ‘But it could be anywhere. What about the back rooms?’

‘All locked,’ he said.

‘Can’t you open them with that thingy?’ she asked.

‘I could but will take a while,’ he said. ‘Tell me, why is it so important we find this carving? It’s not as if it is the actual Palladium.’

‘No but if it proves the Temple was actually a Vestal Temple then it may prove that Rubria came here all that time ago. If we can prove that, we are one step nearer finding the Palladium.’

‘Come on then,’ sighed Brandon, ‘Let’s get started.’

For the next few hours they searched the small church for any sign of the carving without any luck. Finally they came back to the seats before the altar and sat on one of the pews.

‘I can’t believe we done all this for nothing,’ said India.

‘Never mind,’ said Brandon, ‘Let’s get out of here.

As they stood up, they heard the sound of the front doors creaking open and they stopped dead in their tracks.

‘Someone’s coming,’ whispered India.

They ducked behind the altar and peered towards the far end of the church.

A figure entered the gloom and paused at the end of the aisle.

‘Who is it?’ asked India.

‘A woman,’ said Brandon, ‘Cleaner, I expect.’

‘Do you think she seen us?’ asked India.

I don’t think so, said Brandon, though we can’t get out that way anymore.’

‘Shit, she is coming!’ hissed India, ‘We have to find somewhere to hide.’

Brandon grabbed her arm.

‘No time!’ he said, Come on, there has to be another way out. He led her back towards the rear of the church, following the short corridor towards a single door.’

‘We don’t have time to pick the lock,’ said India.

‘No need,’ said, Brandon with a smirk and pointed at the chrome push bar that looked so out of place on the old oak door. ‘Fire-escape,’ he said simply, ‘Good old heath and safety!’ He operated the mechanism and led her out of the door into the cemetery at the rear of the church.

‘Quickly!’ said Brandon and pulled her along the wall towards the wooded area of the cemetery. Suddenly India tripped and sprawled into the undergrowth of an unkempt grave.

Brandon turned to help.

‘You okay?’ he asked.

‘I think I’ve twisted my ankle!’

‘Let me help,’ he said.’ He bent down to help her to her feet, but as she looked up at him her gaze focussed on something behind his head.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.

‘Look!’ said India, ‘Up there on the wall. All that searching and it was outside all this time.’

Brandon followed her gaze and for a few moments, both people stood gazing up at the relief of a figure, set into the church wall a few feet above their heads.

The carving was set back in an arched alcove, carved out of a single piece of marble. It stood out from the rest of the wall as it contrasted against the dull greyness of the local stone and looked slightly out of place. Within the alcove was the image of a figure wearing a toga, and, though badly weathered, enough detail was still visible to see the outline of long hair suggesting it was female. What was more important, was what she was holding in her right hand.

Reaching half way up the body was a representation of a staff, on top of which stood the worn remains smaller figure. The pole was thicker than you would assume a staff to be and on closer inspection, they could make out that it was enwrapped with some sort of vine or serpent.

‘That’s it,’ said India in awe. ‘That’s the Palladium!’

‘Are you sure?’ asked Brandon.

‘Well, obviously it’s not the actual palladium,’ said India, ‘But certainly a representation of it. The statuette of Pallus Athena atop the staff is weathered away, but you can see where it once was.’

‘Fair play, India,’ said Brandon. ‘It seems you were right. It looks like Rubria might have brought the Palladium here all that time ago, after all.’

‘Doesn’t tell us where it is now though,’ said India.

Brandon snapped to his senses.

‘No time for that,’ he said, ‘We’ve got the proof we needed, now lets get out of here.’ He helped her towards the perimeter wall, supporting her weight as she limped along. Within a few minutes they were in the car.

‘Where are we going?’ asked India

‘Get that foot seen to first,’ he answered, Then somewhere to rest until we make some sense of this.’

The car sped away into the encroaching darkness, the occupants conscious that they were getting closer to solving the mystery, but completely unaware they were being watched from the church tower.

Jason Venezelos sat in the one room of the squalid bed-sit he had called home for the past few weeks. It was dirty, sparsely furnished, and smelled badly of the recent, down on their luck occupants who had hidden away from the prying eyes of society as they plied their trade in sex and drugs. Ordinarily, he would not have even considered such a place, but the back street location in the sleazy part of town and the greed of the landlord who was only interested in the money he offered, meant it was perfect for his needs, anonymity.

He paid in cash, kept his head down and made sure he did not draw attention to himself, eating at grubby takeaways and changing his routine daily as he went about his business.

When they had first arrived in England, he and his brother has rented a small flat but when Peter failed to return one evening he knew there was a possibility that he had been caught or worse. The brothers had made a pact, that should anything happen to either, then the other would continue in their quest so he had left the flat in a hurry and found the sleazy bed-sit in a nearby town.

The two Greek brothers had been in the UK for six months, following the leads they had been given back in Rome. At first it had been exciting and they had embarked on their quest in a haze of patriotism. However, after the first few weeks the trail had grown cold and their enquiries had drawn nothing new. The lack of progress was frustrating and they were on the point of giving up when fate stepped in to lend them a hand. Jason Venezelos had been researching their own country’s history, taking advantage of the free internet access in the local library when a Google search pulled up the image of a very interesting coin. Further investigation had revealed the owner was looking for identification and valuation, but to Jason, it was priceless and exactly what they had been looking for. A couple of false e mails later they had managed to set up a meeting with the man with a view to purchasing the coin.

That’s when it had started to go so wrong. The man had refused to sell and the conversation had got heated. In the end a scuffle broke out and only the intervention of a passer by stopped the fight getting worse. The brothers had ran but soon doubled back and followed him back to his home, For several days they watched him, never managing to get close, but, finally, the opportunity arose when he had visited a library and showed the coin to the librarian. When he left the library the brothers made their move but Peter had lost his temper and used his knife on the man. They immediately knew the wound was fatal, and what made matters worse, was the fact that he didn’t have the coin after all but had left it in the library.

Everything was going wrong but despite his pleas to his brother to flee the country and return home, Peter had insisted on returning that night and breaking into the library to retrieve the coin, torching the building to hide their tracks.

Jason sliced off another wafer of cheese from the block he had bought the night before, chewing slowly as he stared at a spider making its way across the peeling wallpaper. Since that night the situation had escalated. A policeman was obviously on their trail and Peter had set out one night to warn him off, and that was the last he had seen of his brother. In the meantime, Jason had relocated to this slum and kept his head down. He finished his meal before throwing the remains across the room. He picked up his rucksack and left the room without a backward glance. He knew that whatever happened, he wouldn’t be returning here again.

Chapter 23

England 2010

Brandon sat opposite India at the hotel breakfast table. They had booked two rooms the previous night on Brandon’s credit card.

‘You look awful,’ said Brandon.

‘Thanks a bunch,’ answered India.

‘I mean tired,’ said Brandon, ‘Didn’t you sleep?’

‘Not much. The past few days are catching up with me.’

‘Me too. I think we are so close yet are missing something obvious. Everything keeps spinning around in my head, making no sense.

They both made small talk as they ate their breakfast. Brandon got stuck in to a cooked breakfast while India made do with fruit and muesli.

‘Not having a fry up?’ asked Brandon.

‘Not hungry!’ said India, ‘There must be something obvious we are missing, a vital piece of the jigsaw. If we could just find out what that is, I am sure everything would just fall into place.’

‘Well, that’s just it,’ said Brandon, ‘It’s always the last piece of any investigation that closes the deal.’ He smiled up at the waitress as she cleared the table.

‘Could we have some more coffee please?’ he asked.

‘Certainly sir,’ she answered, ‘Anything else?’

‘Yes,’ interrupted India, ‘Could we have some paper and a pen.’

‘Of course,’ said the waitress, ‘I’ll bring them straight over.’

‘Paper and pen?’ queried Brandon through a mouth full of toast.

‘I just need to write things down,’ she said, ‘To make some sense of what we know.’

‘Let’s go elsewhere,’ said Brandon. ‘I’d rather speak in private. You never know who’s listening.’

‘Your room?’ asked India.

‘I’d rather not,’ said Brandon awkwardly. ‘It’s a bit messy.

India laughed.

‘That doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Brandon, feigning hurt feelings.

‘We just spent three days sharing a room in Greece, remember?’

‘I thought I was very tidy,’ said Brandon.

‘If that’s what you call tidy, then God only knows what your room is like without me to tidy it up,’ laughed India. ‘Okay, my room it is.’

A few minutes later they were in India’s room. She made a couple of coffees while Brandon sat at the dressing table, painfully aware of the heady mix of soap and perfume that still lingered in the beautiful woman’s room. India brought the coffees over.

‘Budge up!’ she said, nudging him with her hip.

He shuffled sideways on the upholstered bench that served as a stool, just big enough for both of them.

‘Okay’, said India, opening the pad they had been given by the waitress, ‘What do we have so far?’

‘How long have we got?’ asked Brandon.

‘Bullet points only!’ said India.

‘Okay,’ said Brandon, ‘First and foremost, we have an abducted child of a VIP, taken from outside a hotel in London.’

Missing girl wrote India in the centre of the page, drawing a circle around the entry.

‘Actually, we have a string of abductions,’ she said, ‘Don’t forget the two girls in the tunnels.’

‘Well, they are classed as murders,’ answered Brandon ‘And we don’t even know if they are linked yet.’

‘Okay,’ said India and added the entries to one side of the page.

‘Dead guy at the library,’ said Brandon, ‘And don’t forget the Greek at my mother’s house.’

India wrote quickly adding names and events as they came up until finally her sheet was covered with circles.

‘Is that it?’ she asked, finally.

‘Let’s not forget the Palladium,’ said Brandon.

‘Of course!’ said India and added the name of the artefact that had fascinated her for so long.

‘So, what do we have?’

‘One big mess,’ sighed India, gazing at the tangled spider’s web she had drawn.

‘Let me see,’ said Brandon and India slid the sheet across the table. He took a few more sips of coffee before speaking again. ‘Got a different colour pen? he asked eventually


‘There are too many lines here and we need to differentiate between them.’

India searched her handbag and came up with an eye liner.

‘Got this!’ she said handing it over.

Brandon took the blue pencil and drew over some of the lines, leaving a thick blue trail as he went.

‘These are the direct links to the Palladium,’ he said gazing down at the paper, ‘But even with the most tenuous links there seems to be two different sets of lines. The blue ones connect the Palladium right up to yesterday’s situation in the church.’

‘And the other ones?’ asked India

‘Not clear,’ said Brandon, ‘We have the two dead girls and the prime ministers niece, but they don’t seem to link anywhere to the rest. Perhaps we have been barking up the wrong tree.’

‘Wait a minute,’ said India, twisting the paper around, ‘What about him?’

She pointed at the circle containing the name, Bennet.

‘A bit of a dead end,’ said Brandon, ‘We thought he was the killer, but forensics have ruled him out. Seems like someone else was responsible.

‘Then why did he kill himself when the police went around?’

‘Don’t know,’ said Brandon, ‘All we know is he was a bit of a loner who occasionally helped out with the homeless. Bit of a tree hugger by all accounts.’

‘Which organisation?’ asked India.

‘What?’ answered Brandon.

‘Which organisation did he help out with?’ asked India again.

‘Apparently it was a charity called Gateway?’ said Brandon. ‘An organisation dedicated to the homeless and destitute. They base themselves around the train and bus stations of London.’

‘Who else works for them?’

‘All sorts of people,’ he said, ‘Students, volunteers, nuns, the occasional celebrity on red nose day. Anyone and everyone, really.’

India stood up.

‘Where are you going?’ asked Brandon.

‘Need to make a phone call,’ said India, holding up her mobile.’ She walked out of the room leaving Brandon poring over the paper. Five minutes later she returned, and sat back down, a smug look on her face.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Brandon.

‘I know the link,’ answered India, ‘It was so bloody obvious, it’s a bit embarrassing.’

‘Well,’ asked Brandon, ‘What is it?

‘Nuns!’ said India.


‘Yep, Nuns. You said yourself that Bennet worked alongside a group of Nuns with Gateway.’

‘What have they to do with the Palladium?’

‘Think about it Brandon, the Vestal Virgins were nothing more than forerunners of modern day nuns. Not long after the Vestals were disbanded in 382AD, the new Christianised roman government resurrected the idea of pure female servants of God, though in the Christian ways rather than the original Pagan practises.’

‘It’s a bit tenuous,’ said Brandon.’ There are hundreds of different orders of Nuns across the world and I see no link between those at Gateways and any of the events of the past few weeks.’

‘No neither did I,’ said, said India, ‘But something stuck in my mind so I made a few calls. Apparently the Nuns working at Gateways belong to an order called Santa Rosa, a small convent linked to a church in middle England.’

Brandon stared at her, beginning to see where the conversation was leading.

‘And you know the name of this church?’

‘I do, and so do you. The church of St Giles in Tockenham!’

‘But that’s where we were yesterday,’ said Brandon.

‘The very same,’ said India.

‘Fascinating!’ said Brandon, ‘So do you think that the girl’s murderer may have been linked to that church?’

‘I don’t know,’ said India ‘But you have to admit it is a very interesting coincidence.’

‘Brandon stood up. Come on he said, let’s get packed.’

‘Where are we going?’ asked India.

‘Back to the church of St Giles,’ said Brandon. ‘No more pussyfooting around, I want to ask the priest some straight questions. I’ll meet you downstairs in half an hour.’ He left India’s room and made his way down the corridor to his own room. As soon as the door was shut, he felt his phone vibrated and he opened up unread message. It said simply, ‘Call in!

He sat on the edge of his bed and dialled a number. A few seconds later, someone answered.

‘Brandon,’ said a voice, ‘How’s it going?’

‘Not bad, Mike,’ said Brandon, ‘What’s up?’

‘Bit of an update,’ said the disembodied voice, ‘We’re being called off,’

What?’ asked Brandon incredulously, ‘Why on earth would they call us off?’

‘Don’t know,’ came the answer, ‘The official take is it’s getting too expensive, but off the record the feeling is the girl is probably dead already.’

‘Do they know that for certain?’

‘Don’t think so, but there’s been no contact from anyone at all regarding a ransom.’

‘But it doesn’t make sense,’ said Brandon, ‘She is the Prime Minister’s niece, surely they are not going to just give up.’

‘The word is, the instruction came from the very top. Intelligence says the kidnappers probably realised they were in deep shit, topped her and gone to ground. The police will continue with the investigation but all special forces have been stood down, and that, my friend, includes you,’

‘This is bollocks,’ said Brandon, ‘Just as I seem to be making some progress, the gig is cancelled.’

‘Orders are, if you have anything solid, to hand it over to Scotland Yard. Sorry, mate, it’s over. Close all your leads and make your way back to Stirling for debrief.’

Brandon paused before answering.

‘Okay, Mike,’ he said, ‘It’ll take me a day or so to round up my kit. I’ll report back first thing Monday.’

‘Roger that,’ said the voice, ‘I’ll book you in. See you then.’

‘Yeah, cheers, Mike.’

The phone went dead and Brandon let himself fall back onto the bed, staring at the ceiling in frustration. The situation spun around his head over and over. India would be devastated, though truth be told, sometimes it was difficult to differentiate between the hunt for the girl and the hunt for the Palladium. He knew India felt they were intertwined but he was not so sure. Eventually he sat up. It didn’t matter anymore. He would pass everything over to the police, and India could carry on with her treasure hunt.

At last he stood up and threw his bag onto the bed. He would break the news to India downstairs and arrange some transport. In the meantime, he had to pack. It was over!

Chapter 24

Off the coast of Britannia, 64AD

Rubria woke to the sound of voices up on deck. They had been at sea for over two months, hugging the coastline, and spending the nights moored in friendly ports along the Gallic shore. Often they were forced to spend days at a time lying up to avoid the changeable Atlantic weather, but despite this, Rubria had not once left the safety and anonymity of the ship.

At last the journey was coming to an end and the ship neared the coastline of Britannia. She wrapped herself in the rough cape Rose had managed to buy in one of the many nameless ports en-route and climbed the ladder to join the others on deck.

She pulled the cape tighter as the bracing wind swept over the timber decks, making her shiver in the unfamiliar low temperatures. For a moment she paused, taking in the scene around her. The day was overcast and damp, yet in the distance she could see a coastline looming out of the mist. Some of the crew were lined up staring at the approaching landfall they had travelled so far to see. She approached the familiar shapes of two fellow travellers amongst the small crowd.

‘Is that it?’ she asked, causing Rose and Dragus to spin around.

‘Priestess, you’re awake,’ said Rose, stepping forward to adjust her cape. ‘You should have called.’

Rubria smiled as the slave fussed over her.

‘Is that Britannia?’ she asked again, looking over Rose’s shoulders.

‘It is,’ said Dragus,’ Draped in the same misty garb she wore when I last left her shores.’

‘Looks cold,’ said Rubria.

‘It is,’ he said, ‘But not all the time. For a few months a year she sheds the greyness of winter and the clime matches that of Rome in spring.’

‘Just a few months?’

‘Yes, but good months. We will just have to make the most of them.’

‘You are obviously enamoured of these shores, Dragus, yet you are Roma born. What is it that stirs your blood so?’

‘I don’t know, Priestess,’ he answered with a sigh, ‘But there is something here that gets under the skin. The people are proud, and often brutal, but despite what you hear, they are not barbaric.’

‘The sailors say the people here send their children to fight their battles,’ said Rose.

‘It is true that every member of the tribe fights to the death when threatened by our fist, but that is the way of many peoples if their way of life is threatened. Pay no attention to the tales of sailors. They have little other use of their time but to make up stories to impress.’

‘You have some sympathy for the heathen,’ said Rubria in mild surprise.

The last time I was here I fought under the Eagle of Plautius,’ said Dragus, ‘Many Celts fell at the end of my Gladius and I shed no tears for them. However, throughout my five years here, I realised they are a proud people trying to resist invasion and occupation, a sentiment I admire. I do not offer sympathy, Priestess but respect. It is a very spiritual place and though they worship different gods, I am sure you will be impressed by their spirituality.’

‘Do they worship the Goddess?’ asked Rubria.

‘I saw no such tribute during my tour, but it does not mean she is not here,’ answered Dragus, ‘Most of my time was behind the palisades of the legions or on campaign.’

‘Then we shall bring her grace to these poor people,’ said Rubria.

Both Dragus and Rose stared at Rubria.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Dragus.

‘Our time at sea gave me time to think,’ said Rubria. ‘I cannot return the Palladium to the Temple of Vesta while Nero holds Rome beneath his heel. If the Gods will it, the people will see him for the tyrant he is and cast him at Pluto’s feet. Until that time I am forced to stay away from my home but it is a burden I will gladly bear in the name of the Goddess. However, I will not hide her glory away from the eyes of the undeserving. I will carry out my calling and educate these poor people in her grace.’

‘Rubria, we are fugitives from Nero’s justice,’ said Dragus in disbelief, ‘You cannot draw attention to yourself, even this far from Rome. When word of your flight reaches the Governor, as it probably will, he cannot suspect that you are within his jurisdiction.’

‘Am I not a Priestess of Vesta?’ asked Rubria, ‘Even out here that will carry weight with any of noble birth.’

‘Priestess,’ said Dragus, ‘Out here they are a different breed. There is no place for the weak of will, only men of steel. Britannia is seen as a stepping stone for those who have greater goals on their mind, and, if there is kudos to be gained from returning a runaway Temple Priestess to the Emperor, then the Governor will not think twice. You will be seen as a ticket to the Senate and be in chains before the sun sets.’

‘Then we must make sure he does not find out,’ said Rubria.

‘How?’ asked Dragus, ‘Londinium is a hotbed of gossip and intrigue. How long do you think the presence of a Vestal Virgin in its midst would be kept secret?’

‘Then we must go elsewhere,’ said Rubria.

‘Where?’ asked Dragus in frustration, ‘Camulodunum was razed to the ground by Boudica, and all other Roman settlements will have their own networks of informers. No, we must slip into the backstreets of Londinium and fade into its populace with the minimum of fuss. No one must know of your identity or the precious burden you protect.’

‘I am not going to Londinium,’ said Rubria. ‘I understand your concerns but I will not deny the Goddess her glory. You must find your own way, Dragus, you have sacrificed enough, as have you, Rose. The two of you must seek a quiet life away from Nero’s reach and grow old in peace. I will take a different path.’

‘Where will you go?’ asked Rose.

‘I intend to find somewhere away from Nero’s gaze,’ said Rubria, ‘Somewhere I can bring her glory to the uninitiated. It need not be loud, with proclamations or fanfares, but with patience and gentleness, for her story is all the message I need.’

‘But Priestess,’ interrupted Dragus, ‘This is a barbaric place. Your head could end up on the belt of a Chieftain and the Palladium nothing more than fuel for a fire. You cannot take this risk.’

‘Did you not say but a few minutes ago that this was a spiritual place and the people not barbaric?’ smiled Rubria.

‘I did but…’

‘Then I will embrace that spirituality and bring the flame of the Goddess to their dark existence. Don’t you see, Dragus, I have been set upon this path for a reason. These people are misguided and lack the grace of Vesta. All that has happened to me has happened for a purpose. To celebrate her name amongst the ignorant and bring light where there is darkness. I know it will be dangerous and it will take time but with Vesta’s will, I will be successful.’

Dragus took a deep breath and stared at her for a long time.

‘Your mind is made up?’ he said eventually.

‘It is,’ she said, ‘When we land I will take a different road and settle where it feels safe.’

‘Then I will come with you,’ said Dragus.

‘No, you have already done too much,’ said Rubria.

‘I will not take no for an answer,’ said Dragus, ‘I have come this far and would see out my part in this. I know the land, speak some of the language, and know the habits and training of the military. There is a place I know west of Londinium where the locals are peaceful and particularly spiritual. Perhaps we will find a place there.’

Rubria, smiled.

‘Thank you, Dragus,’ she said, before turning to her servant. ‘What about you, Rose? she said kindly. ‘You have no Mistress here and are free to travel wherever you will. Where does your future lie?’

‘Wherever your footsteps fall, therein lays my destination,’ answered Rose simply.

‘Even if there is danger?’ asked Rubria.

‘Unto death itself,’ said Rose and fell to her knees before the Priestess, taking her hand in hers. ‘My heart has always been with the Goddess, mistress,’ she said, ‘Though circumstances limited what devotion I could bring. My life is now yours, and through you, Vesta’s.’

‘Then make this the last time you kneel before me, Rose,’ said Rubria. If this place is as dangerous as Centurion Dragus would have us believe then perhaps we should keep our traditions away from prying eyes, at least in the short term.’

Rubria turned to Dragus.

‘Where will I find the Captain?’ she asked, ‘I have a debt to pay.’ A few minutes later she stood alongside Stellus in the bow of the ship.

‘Well, Captain,’ she said, ‘You have been true to your word and brought us to our destination.’

The Captain looked up at her in puzzlement.

‘What is it you have done so evil that it sends you to the ends of the earth to escape Nero’s wrath?’ he asked quietly.

‘I would not burden you with the knowledge, Captain,’ she answered, ‘For I believe it would put you in danger. Suffice to know that I believe I am innocent and as soon as Nero’s shadow leaves Rome, I will return to face my accusers. Until then, I will suffer whatever the Gods lay in my path.’

‘So be it,’ said the captain.’ I will arrange a boat to take you to the shore long before we reach port. The less anyone knows about your passage the better.’

‘And your crew?’

‘They will keep silent. They are well rewarded under my command.’

‘With coin?’

The Captain laughed out loud.

‘Oh Priestess,’ he said, ‘You are truly innocent in the ways of men. Yes, in coin, but also in other pleasures, the details of which I would not inflict on your pretty ears.’

‘Oh, I see,’ she said blushing, ‘Anyway, I too have a debt to pay.’ She reached within her cloak and withdrew the necklace of Vesta, offering it to the Captain. ‘Take it,’ she said, ‘It is mine to give.’

He took the necklace from her and gazed into its stunning lustre.’

‘It is truly beautiful,’ he said in awe.

One of only six,’ said Rubria, ‘Use your contacts to sell it back to the Temple of Vesta. They will pay a king’s ransom to have it back where it belongs.’ She left him staring at the gem and rejoined her fellow travellers to pack their things.

An hour later the three fugitives sat in a small boat below the imposing bow of the merchant ship, bobbing gently in the swell. The Captain looked down at the fugitives.

‘Head for the mouth of the river,’ he shouted down. ‘I am told the tribes are quite friendly along its banks. North lies Londinium, South is the unknown.’

‘Thank you, Captain,’ shouted Rubria, ‘Safe journey home.’

‘One more thing, Priestess,’ he shouted, and threw something down into the boat. Dragus’s reflexes were quick and he caught the necklace before it landed, holding it up as the reflection of the sun bounced off its surface. Rubria looked back up at the Captain.

‘Why?’ she shouted.

‘It may be yours to give, Priestess,’ he answered, ‘But it is not mine to take.’

Dragus handed over the necklace to Rubria and took his place at the oars. Rubria looked up one last time.

‘I will be forever in your debt, Captain,’ she shouted, ‘The blessing of Vesta be on you and your crew,’ She stared at the man for a long time as Dragus’s powerful arms rowed the boat away from the ship and towards the shore. Finally she turned her gaze to the looming shoreline.

‘Take a good look at your new home, Priestess,’ said Dragus, between breaths, ‘We could be here for a long time.’

Chapter 25

England 2010

Brandon carried his overnight bag down to the hotel reception and paid for the rooms. He took a seat in reception and read the complimentary paper as he waited for India. Fifteen minutes later he called her on her mobile, but when there was no answer, he approached the desk once again.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘Could you ring room thirty one please, and remind Miss Sommers I am waiting?’

‘Oh, I think Miss Sommers left earlier sir,’ said the receptionist, ‘A few moments before you came down.’

‘Left?’ quizzed Brandon, ‘Did she leave a message for me?’

‘No, sir, but it seemed she was in a hurry. At least, the gentleman she left with was.’

‘She left with a man?’ snapped Brandon.

‘Yes, sir, he was waiting for her when she came down and gave her a note. I do recall she seemed distressed and left with him immediately.’

‘I don’t suppose you know who this man was?’

‘No, sir, sorry’.

‘Do you know where they went?’

She shook her head.

Shit!’ cursed Brandon, ‘Do you know which way they went?’

‘I believe they left in a taxi,’ said the receptionist, looking towards the rank outside the door.

‘How could you see them from here?’

‘I had to leave the desk to pick up the note Miss Sommers threw on the floor,’ she said.

‘Where is the note now?’ he asked

‘I put it in the bin.’

Brandon strode towards the bin and reached inside.

‘Blue!’ said the girl as she watched him unwrapping various bits of crumpled paper.

He picked up the only blue paper, tugging at the edges so he could read the words better.

India, Something urgent has come up,’ he read, ‘You can trust this man, he is one of us. Go with him and we will meet up later.’

Shit! said Brandon again and returned to the desk.

‘What taxi company do you use?’ he snapped.


‘The taxi rank outside, who has the license?’

‘It’s open access, sir, anyone can pick up.’

‘Do you have CCTV?’ he asked.

‘Yes sir, we do, but can only show it to the police.’

Brandon leaned forward.

‘Miss,’ he said, with urgency in his voice. ‘I believe that Miss Sommers is in danger and has been abducted. I would call the police but have no time. All I need to know is what taxi they got into.’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ she said nervously, ‘My boss…’

‘Needn’t know,’ said Brandon. ‘I don’t want to see the footage, what if you just tell me the cab company?’ He put a twenty pound note on the counter.

The girl looked around before taking the note and adjusted the CCTV under the counter.

‘United Cabs!’ she said eventually.

‘Can you see the man she left with?’ he asked urgently.

‘Yes, sir but as I said…’

Brandon vaulted the desk and pushed the girl out the way.

‘What do you think your doing?’ she hissed.

‘Sorry, love, someone’s life is at risk and I don’t have the time to piss about any longer.’ He stared at the paused picture of a young man looking back up at the camera. He had expected to see someone similar to the dead Greek he had killed back at his house but didn’t recognise his face.

Shit!’ he said for the third time in as many minutes, and jumped back over the counter.

‘I should call security!’ said the receptionist indignantly.

‘You should,’ said Brandon, ‘But you won’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘I can think of a hundred reasons,’ said Brandon, dropping a pile of notes on the counter.

She looked back up at him in surprise.

‘We cool?’ he asked.

‘Cool!’ confirmed the girl sweeping up the money and watched as Brandon ran from the hotel.

Brandon avoided the first two cabs and ran to the third in line.

‘United cabs?’ he asked through the window.

‘Yup!’ said the driver.

‘Great!’ said Brandon and tried to get in the back.

‘Those two are in front of me,’ said the driver, ‘Have to use them first.’

‘I only use United,’ lied Brandon, ‘Won’t use anyone else.’

‘Don’t know!’ said the driver, ‘They wont be very happy. Business is a bit slow today.’

‘Double the meter!’ said Brandon.


‘I’ll pay you double the meter, in cash.’

‘Where are you going?'

‘Don’t know yet,’ said Brandon, ‘I’ll find out in the next few minutes.’

‘What’s this about?’ asked the driver.

‘Triple the meter!’ interrupted Brandon, upping the ante.

‘Get in!’ said the driver, unlocking the central locking system.

‘Thanks,’ said Brandon, and dropped into the back seat, slamming the door behind him. The driver pulled out and passed the two cars before him in the queue, answering the shouts from the other drivers having a cigarette break with an extended middle finger as he passed.

‘What’s your name, driver?’ asked Brandon, as soon as they cleared the hotel.

‘They call me Murray,’ answered the driver, ‘Where we going then, guv?’

‘Murray,’ said Brandon, ‘About ten minutes ago one, a friend of mine got into one of your company’s cabs outside that hotel. I need to know where they went, and I want you to take me there.’

‘Don’t know if I can do that,’ said Murray, ‘Customer confidentiality and all that.’

‘Murray,’ said Brandon, ‘For all I know they could have gone across bloody London. I don’t know how far that is, but at triple time it could be very lucrative.’

The driver paused, considering the opportunity.

‘What’s her name?’ he asked eventually.

‘Sommers,’ answered Brandon, ‘India Sommers.’

Murray picked up his radio mike.

‘Control this is Two-Three,’ he said, ‘Come in.’

‘Go ahead Two-Three,’ came the reply.

‘Control, one of our cars picked up a lady at Premier inn, Watford about ten minutes ago. Do you know where they went?’

‘I can find out, why, what’s the problem?’

‘She dropped her purse and I was wondering if they were local so I can return it.’

‘Hang on,’ came the disembodied voice and the Radio went silent for a few seconds before bursting back into life.

‘It was car Three-Seven, said the voice, though they are probably too far away now. Just bring it into the office later and we will return it.’

‘No problem,’ said Murray, ‘Where did they go anyway?’

‘Victoria Station, do you want me to give Three-Seven a call and let them know?’

‘Nah, don’t bother said Murray,’ seeing Brandon’s shaking head in the mirror, ‘She was a bit of a moody cow anyway.’

‘Okay,’ said the voice, ‘Control out!’

‘Victoria Station,’ asked Murray to the mirror.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ answered Brandon, ‘They will be long gone by the time we get there.’ He thought for a few minutes before speaking again. ‘Murray, do you know a place called Tockenham??’

‘Tockenham, Swindon?’ asked Murray.

‘That’s the one. There’s a church there called St Giles. Take me there.’

‘You do realise that’s the best part of eighty miles away?’ said Murray.

‘Yes,’ said Brandon, ‘Though you had better stop at a cash point on the way. I’ve got a feeling this is going to be a very expensive taxi ride.’

‘Five hundred quid’s worth of taxi ride,’ said Murray with a grin, ‘Up front, in cash, if you please.’

‘Like I said,’ answered Brandon, ‘You had better find a cash point.’

Ten minutes later Murray felt the comfortable bundle of fresh twenty pound notes in his shirt pocket before pulling out into the traffic. Behind him, in the rear seat, his new customer, who obviously had more money than sense, was busy speaking into a phone.

‘Mike,’ said Brandon, ‘I need you to do me a favour. Can you get the CCTV footage in Victoria station checked out for the last hour?’

‘Why?’ asked his colleague.

‘My contact was abducted about half an hour ago. Apparently she was taken to Victoria station and I need to know where they have taken her.’

‘Brandon, the case is closed, just tell the police.’

‘Mike, it’s a bit of a coincidence, don’t you think? I start following some leads and my main contact is abducted.’

‘Brandon, you’re not listening to me. The case is closed, savvy? Get your things and get back to Stirling.’

Brandon thought furiously.

‘Listen, Mike, have you booked me back in yet?’

‘No, why?’

‘Then pretend you couldn’t get hold of me. As far as anyone else is concerned, my phone was off. My next report is not due until next week, so there is nothing unusual in me being offline for a while,’

‘I don’t know,’ Brandon said his friend.

‘Mike, I need this from you. You are my oldest friend and I have no-one else to turn to. This girl is, well, she means a lot to me and I will not abandon her. All I need is to find out where they have taken her.’

There was silence on the other end of the phone for a few seconds before Mike spoke again.

‘Brandon, I am not putting my career on the line for this, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I will refer your request to the CO and ask his permission to extend your posting. I know he’s going to an officer’s mess bash tonight, and has a couple of days leave after that, so he won’t get the request until Monday. I am sure he will pull the plug, but until he does, I will keep you online. That gives you just over three days.’

‘What about support?’

‘We’ve already got a team on stand bye anyway, so I won’t stand them down until you come in. Make sure your beacon is armed.’

‘Will do,’ said Brandon.

‘I hope she is worth it, matey,’ said Mike, ‘Now, I need descriptions, locations and timings.’

Brandon gave his colleague what info he had, knowing that Mike could draw on no end of intelligence and contacts to scour the CCTV network.

‘Got it,’ said Mike, ‘Anything else I need to know?’

‘No that’s it, I think.’

‘Right, give me a couple of hours, and I will get back to you. If you find yourself in the smelly stuff, hit your beacon and we’ll come running.’

‘Cheers, Mike,’ said Brandon, ‘I owe you one.’

‘That’s right,’ said Mike, ‘You do!’ and rang off.

An hour and a half later the taxi pulled up outside St Giles.

‘Can you wait here?’ asked Brandon.

‘Whatever you say, Mister, meter’s running,’ said Murray with a grin.

‘Oh come on, Murray, give me a break here. You’ve already got five hundred off me.’

The driver turned and stared at Brandon.

‘Look guv,’ he said, I don’t know what you’re into, and I don’t want to know, but whatever it is, it sure sounds dodgy. If it’s something illegal I could lose my license.’

‘I promise you won’t lose your license,’ said Brandon. ‘You turn that goddamn meter off, drive me around for the rest of the day and I’ll give you another five hundred cash, but that’s it. What do you say?’

‘A grand for a days work,’ smiled Murray,’ I’ve had worse days, I suppose.’

‘Good!’ said Brandon. ‘Wait here, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.’

He left the car and made his way to the church entrance, this time the door was open.

‘Hello!’ he called ‘Anyone here?’ His voice echoed around the empty church and he walked towards the back and called out again.

‘Hello, anyone at home?’

He continued towards the office and stopped dead in his tracks. Before him was part of a bloody footprint on the flagstone. His hand crept to his pocket and he withdrew his ever present gun, pulling back on the slide to load the chamber.

Brandon pushed the door open slowly, careful not to expose too much of his body to any gunman. The office was trashed and behind the upturned desk, Brandon could see a body. He checked around the room before crouching besides the man, placing his gun in his inside jacket pocket. A pool of scarlet spread from the victim’s bleeding skull, a nearby discarded candlestick, the obvious attack weapon.

Brandon took in the scene, frowning as he did so. Something was wrong. This was no vicar on the floor, and though he didn’t know him, he seemed strangely familiar. The man’s eyes opened and stared up at Brandon.

‘Don’t worry, son,’ said Brandon, fishing for his mobile, ‘I’ll get an ambulance. Who’s done this to you?’

The man struggled with a few breaths, coughing up blood as he did.

‘Him,’ said the man, ‘The priest.’

‘The priest!’ gasped Brandon incredulously, ‘Why would he do this?’

‘Mortuus Virgo,’ said the man though bubbles of blood in his throat, ‘I didn’t realise, you must stop them.’

‘Who are Mortuus Virgo,’ asked Brandon, his voice raised in frustration, ‘Where is India? Come on man, I need some help here.’

The man’s eyes closed as he struggled with his last breaths, and, as he died, Brandon realised why the he had seemed so familiar. This was the man they had been seeking, Jason Venezelos.

He laid the man back down on the floor, trying to make sense of the situation. If he was correct, and this was indeed the second Venezelos brother, then that trail had just come to an abrupt end. He looked around the room, searching for anything that would give him any idea where to look next. After searching the room, including the drawers and cupboards he was none the wiser and left the office to return to the taxi. As he entered the church itself, he heard someone approaching, and, though he froze against the wall, was relieved to see it was the same cleaning lady he had seen the previous day. He stepped out of the shadows, coughing to attract her attention.

‘Oh my word,’ said the woman, jumping back slightly, ‘You gave me such a start. I didn’t expect to see anyone here today. Can I help you?’

‘Possibly,’ said Brandon, ‘Do you work here?’

‘I do,’ said the lady, ‘Iaid esm sorry, who are you?’

‘I think you had better sit down,’ said Brandon, indicating a nearby pew. He pulled out his wallet and showed her his ID.

‘Can I ask you your name?’ he asked.

‘Colleen,’ she said, ‘Colleen McNamara. What is this about?’

‘Colleen, in a moment we need to call the police, but first I need to ask you some questions.’

Why, what’s happened?’ she asked, her brows frowning in concern.

‘I’m afraid there’s been a murder,’ said Brandon.

Colleen’s hand flew to her mouth.

‘Oh my God,’ she gasped, ‘Is it Father O’Brian?’

‘Is Father O Brian the priest of this church?’ he asked.

‘Yes, is he okay?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Brandon.

‘But you said…’

‘The dead person is not from around here,’ said Brandon, ‘And there is no sign of father o Brian. But I do need to know some things about him. Can you help me?’

‘I’ll try,’ she said, ‘What do you want to know?’

‘How long have you worked here, Colleen?’

‘About ten years, in all,’ she said, ‘A couple of hours cleaning here and there and I sort the flowers for weddings and funerals.’

‘So you knew father O Brian well?’

‘Not really,’ she said.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Brandon.

‘Well, he was okay, nice enough if you know what I mean, said good morning as he passed but tended to keep himself to himself.’

‘Isn’t that a bit strange for a priest?’ asked Brandon.

‘Oh, he was okay when he was here, but spent a lot of time away from the church, so he did.’

‘Do you know where exactly?’

‘Don’t know,’ she answered shrugging her shoulders, ‘We only open on Sundays and for weddings and funerals. I was called in when needed, you see.’

‘But you must have talked to him to arrange the details of your tasks.’

‘Not at all, I took my instructions from Sister Wendy.’

‘And who is she?’

‘One of the Nuns who works here.’

‘There are Nuns here?’

‘Sister Wendy came in every week to meet with Father O’Brian, but sometimes others came as well.’

‘How often was that?’

‘Christmas, Easter, the usual holidays.’

‘Is that normal, to have Nuns come to a church as small as this?’

‘Haven’t given it much thought, really,’ she said, ‘It was quite nice to have someone to talk to.’

‘Did you know them all?’

‘No, I only got to know Sister Wendy, though once a year there were quite a few.’

‘At Christmas?’

‘No, it was in June, though the dates escape me.’

‘How many?’


‘How many Nuns came in June?’

‘At least twelve, I suppose.’

‘What did they do?’

‘I don’t know, the church was locked up whilst the service went on.’ She paused. ‘I’m not being much help, am I?’

Brandon took her hands in his.

‘Of course you are,’ he said, ‘You’ve been a great help. I don’t suppose you know the name of the order, do you?’

‘Of course, the order of Santa Rosa,’ she said, confirming what Brandon already suspected.

‘And do you know where I can find them?’

‘No, sorry, though you could ask in St Lawrence’s church in Littlewick Green. I do know they often went there as well.’

Brandon stood up and gave her a card from his wallet.

‘Colleen, I want you to call the police and wait outside for them. When they arrive, give them this card. They will contact me direct. Don’t go in the office, there’s nothing you can do for the man in there, he is dead.’

‘Okay,’ she said, nervously glancing over to the closed door.

‘Right, I have to go,’ he said but as he walked away, Colleen called out.

‘There is one more thing,’ she said.

‘What’s that?’ asked Brandon.

‘It’s probably nothing,’ said Colleen, ‘But I have noticed that after their private service every June, there are flowers left at the foot of Aesculpius.’

‘Aesculpius?’ asked Brandon, ‘Who is he?’

‘Greek God of medicine,’ she said, her face showing great delight at sharing this impressive knowledge, ‘You know, the statue in the outside wall of the church. You must know about it, it is quite famous.’

‘Yes, I’ve seen it,’ said Brandon, ‘Though I didn’t know it was of Greek God of medicine, I was told it was a Roman goddess.’

Her brow furrowed again.

‘That’s strange,’ she said, ‘You’re the second person to say that in a few days’

‘Who was the other one?’ asked Brandon quickly.

‘A foreign gent,’ said Colleen, ‘Had an accent and a good sun tan. Do you know him?’

‘I think so,’ sighed Brandon, glancing towards the back room, where the body of Jason Venezelos lay. ‘So, what is so strange about the Nuns leaving flowers?’

‘Well that’s just it,’ said Colleen, ‘Their not flowers really, just the stalks. Bunches of stalks bent over and tied around the middle. Very Strange.’

‘Anything else?’ asked Brandon.

‘No,’ said Colleen. ‘Should I phone the police now?’

‘You do that,’ said Brandon and shook her hand. ‘Thank you, Colleen, you have been a great help.’

— -

Murray was leaning on the bonnet, smoking a cigarette.

‘Find what you wanted?’ asked the driver.

‘Nope,’ said Brandon, opening the passenger door, ‘Come on there’s one more place to try.’

The driver took a last drag and flicked the stub across the road before squeezing his ample frame behind the steering wheel.

‘Where now?’ he asked, as Brandon jumped in the car.

‘St Lawrence church, Littlewick Green, as quick as you can.’

‘Where the fuck is that?’ asked Murray.

‘Call yourself a taxi driver?’ quipped Brandon.

‘Bit out of my patch,’ said Murray.

‘Head for the M4,’ said Brandon, retrieving his I phone, ‘I’ll Google the postcode.’

‘Fucking hell, it’s like the bloody Sweeney,’ said Murray, gunning the engine.

Chapter 26

England 2010

Brandon slammed the taxi door shut and walked down the pavement towards the town centre. They had been sat in a traffic jam for forty five minutes crawling at a snail’s pace, the product of unseen road works, and when the spire of the church appeared in the distance, he decided to run the rest of the way.

Five minutes later he found himself outside the double doors of St Lawrence.

‘Feels like I’m going in circles,’ he murmured to himself as he entered the church again. Knowing that there was a killer loose, he was much more careful and kept his hand wrapped around the butt of the pistol in his pocket.

There were fewer people in the church this time, some sat in isolation on the pews, wrapped in their own thoughts, while some wandered around the aisles reading the various inscriptions on the plaques screwed to the walls or sunk in to the floor. Brandon assumed the role of another tourist and wandered around the walls, making his way slowly towards the vestry.

He stopped at the steps before the draped altar, looking up at the figure of the crucifixion looming above him, getting lost in the moment as he became transfixed by the piercing eyes of the wooden messiah. He jumped slightly as a voice interrupted his reverie.

‘Hello, again,’ said the man.

Brandon spun around and looked into a vaguely familiar face.

‘Hi,’ said Brandon, his eyes screwing up slightly as he struggled to recall how he knew him.

‘Sorry,’ said the man, ‘It’s Father Grant. We met yesterday. You were with your lady friend and interested in the Roman Temple.’

‘Of course,’ said Brandon, ‘I didn’t recognise you, without your, um, you know…’ He pointed at the lack of collar around the Priest’s neck.

‘Ah yes,’ said Father Grant, glancing down at his jeans and baggy t shirt. ‘Out of uniform today. Day off, you see.’

‘Oh, I thought you had to wear that stuff all the time.’

‘Naah, modern church and all that. Did you manage to find your statue yesterday?’

‘Yes, thanks,’ said Brandon. ‘Fascinating. Some sort of Greek doctor, apparently.’

‘Some think so,’ said the Priest. Though ask any local and they will tell you it is the white lady, a Vestal Priestess, no less. Anyway, how’s your research going?’


‘Your project,’ said the priest, ‘How is it going?’

Brandon spotted an opening.

‘Excellent,’ he said, ‘There seems to be a very strong religious influence around here.’

‘You could say that,’ said the Priest, ‘Though our congregations are very old and very small, these days.’

‘I thought that Christianity was undergoing a bit of a comeback.’

‘Well, if you’re into rock bands and happy clappy Christianity, I suppose it is, but it’s not my cup of tea.’

‘You’re a bit more traditional, I take it.’

‘It’s what the people expect around here.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed said Brandon,’ looking around, ‘I’ve even seen a few Nuns walking around the village.’

‘Really?’ asked the Priest, ‘That’s unusual for this time of the year.’

‘Oh, I thought they were based in this church.’

‘Heavens, no said father Grant, ‘We are far too small. We often get visitors but have no permanent nuns, though we do have volunteers from the local convent, occasionally.’

‘I didn’t know there was a convent around here,’ said Brandon, ‘What order would be?’

‘Santa Rosa,’ said the priest. ‘A very old order I’m led to believe.’

‘May be worth interviewing them,’ said Brandon, ‘Perhaps you could introduce me?’

‘I doubt it,’ said the priest, ‘They keep themselves to themselves. Very secretive.

‘What’s there to be secretive about?’ asked Brandon. ‘I thought the church was modernising.’

‘Let’s just say that some would rather cling on to the old days,’ said the priest.

‘Sounds fascinating,’ said Brandon,’ I’d really like to meet one of them, if I could.’

‘Waste of time said the priest. They are a silent order.’

‘What, they don’t speak at all?’ asked Brandon, thinking of what the cleaner had said about her conversations with Sister Wendy.

‘They do sometimes, but only out of necessity. They certainly wouldn’t consent to be interviewed.’

‘Do you mind if I try?’

‘Nothing to do with me,’ laughed the priest, ‘But I think you are wasting your time.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Brandon, ‘Are there any here at the moment?’

‘No, sorry, they are in retreat.’

‘In the convent?’

‘Yes, the Mother Superior sadly passed away this week. Very sad.’

‘And where is the convent?’ asked Brandon, finally getting to the crux of the matter.

The priest paused for a few seconds.

‘Do you know what?’ he said, after a while, ‘I can’t really say. I’ve never thought about it before but I don’t really know where it is. Never had need to I suppose, I’ve only been here a couple of years myself.’

‘No idea at all?’

‘Oh, I know its somewhere near the old Roman Temple but I couldn’t give you directions.’

‘Never mind,’ said Brandon, ‘Probably a waste of time anyway.’ He spent another few minutes making small talk with the pleasant young priest before making his excuses and leaving. Murray watched him stride down the path.

‘About fucking time,’ he said. ‘Thought you done a runner there.’

‘Why would I do a runner?’ answered Brandon, ‘You’ve got a grand of mine in your pocket and I still got five hours left on the meter.’

‘Meter’s off,’ said Murray, ‘Remember?’

‘You know what I mean,’ said Brandon, climbing into the car.

Murray got into the driving seat and started the engine.

‘Where to this time, 007?’ he asked, sarcastically.

‘Weycock Hill!’ answered Brandon.

Murray looked at him through the rear view mirror, mild amusement in his face.

‘Oh for fuck sake,’ said Brandon, reaching for his I Phone. ‘Just drive northwards out of town. I’ll get a location from the web.’

‘Good things them interwebs,’ said Murray, gunning the engine. ‘Might be getting one myself, soon. Suppose I could get a good one for a grand.’ He smiled into the mirror, but though Brandon glanced up, he didn’t bite.

‘Just drive,’ he said as he waited to get a signal on his phone.

‘Roger Dodger, 007,’ said Murray pulling out into the traffic, laughing at his own joke as he went.

Chapter 27

London 2010

When the taxi arrived at Victoria station, the stranger led her past the entrance to the steps of a beautiful house with an imposing entrance.

‘Where are we going?’ asked India.

‘Somewhere safe,’ said the man, breaking the relative silence he had maintained throughout the taxi ride.

She followed him up the steps and watched him swipe a card across a magnetic reader, disengaging a lock and they walked into an imposing hallway with a gated lift at the far end. India looked around in awe. Having seen the man use the modern swipe card she had half expected to see a modern hallway but what she walked into took her breath away. It was as if she had stepped back in time.

The decor was straight out of the thirties with walnut panelling lining the walls and lush carpets soft beneath her feet. Above her, several levels of landings circled the spectacular hallway and the biggest chandelier India had ever seen hung dramatically from the ceiling high above.

‘Wow,’ said India, ‘What is this place?’

‘You like it?’ asked the man, allowing himself a quick glance around as he removed his coat, before placing it on an ornately carved coat hanger. ‘It is rather quaint isn’t it?’

‘It’s beautiful,’ said India, in awe.

‘We like it,’ said the man.

‘Who’s we?’ asked India.

‘All in good time, please, come this way.’ He walked past the stairways, and slid open the gate to the lift. India followed him in.

‘Which floor?’ she asked as he closed the gates, her fingers hovering over the ivory buttons.

‘None of those,’ he said, producing a key on a chain from around his neck. ‘Excuse me.’

He eased her to one side and placed a finger on a small brass plaque bearing the manufacturers name, sliding it to one side to reveal a keyhole.

‘Security,’ he said with an apologetic smile. He turned the key, and to India’s surprise the lift descended rather than travel upwards.

A few seconds later the lift came to an abrupt stop bur the view through the gates was obscured by a large door. The man slid open the gate and pushed the door away from them.

‘After you,’ he said and stood to one side for India to pass.

India stepped through but stopped suddenly, as she saw she had entered a large, subterranean car park.

‘Wait a minute,’ she said, nervously, ‘Are you sure…’

Her sentence remained unfinished as the man’s strong arms enveloped her from behind.

India’s eyes widened and she thrashed wildly for a few seconds before the stench of chloroform from the cloth enveloped her senses and she slipped unconsciously to the floor.

Chapter 28

England 2010

Sister Bernice left her cell and made her way to the kitchens. The last few days had passed so quickly, she had hardly had time to think. The Senior Sisters had become sidetracked dealing with the Mother Superior’s death and she had found herself being relied upon to step up and help with the day to day business of the rest of the order. This morning she was overseeing the preparation of the midday meal and she made her way quickly to the kitchens. The eight kitchen staff were stood silently in line, patiently waiting to be told what to do.

Bernice walked in and smiled at the girls. All were shaven headed and were volunteers who lived at the convent. It was a five year apprenticeship, designed to test the devotion of all who wished to join the order. Bernice looked back at the time she had been in their shoes with fondness. The work had been hard but she found it cleansed her soul and prepared her for the life of devotion she had craved since childhood.

‘Good morning, ladies,’ said Bernice.

‘Good morning, Sister,’ they replied, in unison.

‘Right, shall we get started?’ asked Bernice with a nervous smile.

‘Please forgive me, Sister,’ said one stepping forward, ‘We didn’t expect to see you. Wednesday is usually Sister Agnes.’

‘She is busy today,’ said Bernice, ‘I will help and guide.’

‘Is everything okay, Miss?’ asked another.

‘Of course,’ said Bernice, ‘Why wouldn’t it be?’

‘We heard there is a madman stalking us,’ said the girl.

Bernice stared at the girls. Sister Agnes had given strict instructions not to discuss the threat with the staff, but they looked really scared and had obviously heard something. She smiled gently and perched on the edge of the table.

‘Come here,’ she said kindly, ‘Come on, gather around.’

The girls closed in to a semi circle, facing Bernice with concern on their faces.

‘Look,’ said Bernice, ‘I am not going to lie to you. There has been an incident but it is well under control and you are completely safe here.’

‘What happened?’ asked one of the girls.

‘Oh, let’s just say that there was a prowler,’ said Bernice, hoping that they hadn’t heard any of the gory details.

‘Has he been caught?’ asked one of the girls.

‘No, but the caretaker has checked the area and there is no sign of him. It seems he is long gone.’

‘Then why are we still locked down?’ asked another.

‘Better safe than sorry,’ said Bernice, ‘To be honest, there are so many unsavoury characters out in the big wide world, we should have taken these precautions long ago.’

‘But who would threaten a convent?’

‘Sadly, it is often the way of the world, Sharon,’ said Bernice, ‘All we can do is continue in the service of the Holy Mother and pray for the souls of those who know no better.’

‘But what if they come back?’

‘Well, I have talked to Sister Agnes, and she tells me that things have been put in place for our protection. Apparently, they have engaged a security company to look after us. Now, enough negativity, shall we get started on lunch?’

The group dispersed to their tasks while Bernice pulled down the recipe books from the shelves. Despite allaying the fears of the trainees, there were more questions than answers spinning around her mind. After a while the thoughts eased as she became involved in the lunch preparations and, for an hour or so, normality returned to the kitchen.

Suddenly, the relative calm was shattered as one of the girls screamed, dropping a pan clattering to the floor. Bernice span around.

‘What’s the matter?’ she shouted, running over.

‘There’s someone there,’ shouted the girl, pointing at the door, ‘They tried to get in!’

Bernice stared in horror at the locked door. Despite the solid Oak, the thought of less than two inches of wood between them and any potential attacker the other side filled her with dread. She walked slowly to the door, while the rest of the girls gathered behind her, talking in hushed tones. Suddenly there came a loud knock on the door, making them all jump and a voice called out from the other side.

‘Hello, anyone there? It’s Maximillian. The door’s locked, can you let me in?’

Bernice let out a sigh of relief as she recognised the old man’s voice. Since the day of the Mother Superior’s death, the convent was locked down as secure as any prison and Maximillian and his son patrolled the outer corridors as if their lives depended on it, taking it in turns to rest or eat.

Maximillian was the caretaker and was employed directly by the order. For the last few days, he and his family were the only ones allowed through the locked doors of the convent for security reasons. The caretaker and his family had served the convent all their lives, as had his grandfather and his predecessors as far back as records were kept. They were intrinsically linked to the convent and had unswerving loyalty to the order.

Maximillian, or Max, as he was known to the Sisters, kept the grounds in shape and tended the allotments while his son, Jacob saw to the minor maintenance around the buildings and maintained the cemetery. Maximillian’s ageing wife, Anna, carried out errands on behalf of the Sisters to the local village and liaised with the Mother Superior on all things to do with the outside world. In return, the family enjoyed rent free accommodation in a small cottage in the grounds and received a modest yet adequate income from the estate. The whole family had been deeply affected by the death of the Mother Superior and they had moved inside the walls of the convent to support and protect, not just the sisters.

Bernice opened the door and allowed Max into the kitchen, locking the door behind him.

‘Thank you, Sister,’ he said, stamping the snow off his feet, ‘Any chance of a cuppa? It’s brass monkeys out there.’

‘I think we can do better than that,’ answered Bernice, ‘How about a nice bacon butty with freshly baked bread and brown sauce?’

‘Thank you Sister,’ said Max, his face lighting up, ‘Don’t mind if I do.’

One of the girls brought the caretaker a cup of tea while another retrieved a pack of bacon from the fridge, dropping four slices into an enormous frying pan. Within seconds, the delicious smell of sizzling bacon wafted across the kitchen. A few minutes later, Bernice ushered the caretaker over to the other side of the kitchen, and waited patiently as he poured an unhealthy amount of brown sauce over the bacon, before replacing the top layer of bread.

‘Luverly!’ he said before stretching his jaws open to take a bite of his prize.

Bernice waited until the first sandwich had been demolished before speaking again.

‘Any news?’ she asked, quietly.

‘No sign at all,’ said Max, licking his fingers, ‘There were some footprints in the snow but they’ve mostly disappeared.’

‘Has there been any contact with the police?’ she asked hopefully.

‘I don’t think so,’ he said picking up the second sandwich, ‘But there’s no need to worry. This place is like Fort Knox. No one is getting in here and besides, even if they did, they’ve got to get past me and Jacob first.’ He bit into the sandwich again as Bernice looked on, handing him his cup of tea when he choked slightly.

‘Thanks, Sister,’ he coughed, taking the cup.

‘So what do you think, Max?’ asked Bernice eventually, ‘What do you think is happening?’

‘Search me, Sister,’ he shrugged.

‘But you must have some idea,’ answered Bernice, ‘You know more about this place than anyone. Wasn’t you born here?’

‘I was,’ said Max, ‘But I keep myself to myself.’

‘Oh come on, Max,’ said Bernice, ‘You must know something?’

Max replaced the third sandwich back on the plate and stared at the Nun.

‘All I know, Miss,’ he said, ‘Is that this convent holds a secret bigger than all of us. What it is, I don’t know, and I don’t particularly want to know, But any madman, murderer, call them what you like, who thinks they can make the order of the Santa Rosa give up their secrets by threats of violence or even death, have a lot to learn.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Bernice.

‘Look, Sister,’ answered Max, ‘There are forces at work here that are greater than you or I can even begin to understand. This man, whoever he is, won’t be the first to threaten the order and probably won’t be the last, but he, like all the others, will get nowhere. Trust me, the order is more than capable of looking after itself.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Bernice, ‘How can a group of elderly women and novices unversed in the ways of the world overcome such a horrific threat?’

‘How long have you been here, Sister?’ asked Max.

‘Twenty two years.’

‘And what have they taught you in all that time?’

‘As in what way?’ she asked.

‘The history of the order,’ said Max.

‘Well, most of the time we spend in the worship of the Holy Mother….,’ said Bernice.

‘Yes, interrupted Max, ‘But what about the history of the order itself?’

‘Not much really, the role of the novice is to rejoice in the glory of the Holy Mother, and bring succour to the homeless and the needy. The history of the order is for the Senior Sisters only. I do know our history stretches back hundreds of years, right back to the time of the Normans.’

‘The Normans,’ said Max, sipping his tea thoughtfully.

‘Yes,’ said Bernice,’ The order was one of the first formed in the UK.’

‘What if I told you that this order reaches back almost a thousand years earlier.’

Bernice looked confused.

‘Your wrong,’ Max she said, ‘That would put our foundation as far back as the birth of our saviour himself. Even if we were the very first order in the UK, it couldn’t have been that early. At the very earliest it must have been after the visit of St Augustine.’

‘St Augustine?’

‘Yes, the revered catholic missionary who brought the light of the church to Britain in 597 AD. See, even if you are right, we cannot possibly be older than that as there were simply no representatives of the catholic church before that time.’

Max sipped his tea again, looking over the rim of his teacup in silence.

‘You don’t agree?’ said Bernice eventually.

Max placed the cup down and stood up.

‘Look, Sister,’ he said, ‘It’s not my place to give you history lessons here, but there is much you don’t know about your own order. Suffice to say, it is older than you can even imagine. Forget even the birth of Christ, for your order was old before he was born.’

‘Predates Christianity?’ she said cynically, ‘Now you’re being absurd. How on earth can any organisation predate that, which it is formed to revere?’ It doesn’t make sense.’

‘You make the assumption that your order exists for the worship of Christianity,’ he said.

‘Max,’ said Bernice, ‘I don’t want to be rude, but how on earth can you stand there and tell me that I have devoted most of my adult life to a lie.’

‘You misunderstand me, Sister,’ he replied, ‘I do not criticise your commitment or indeed your devotion. You worship that which is placed before you, yet it is but a veil that blurs the truth.’

‘You’re making no sense,’ said Bernice.

‘I have said enough,’ he said and turned to leave.

‘So why, Max,’ asked Bernice, ‘Why tell me this, now.’

The caretaker turned back around and stared back at her.’

‘Because I like you, Sister Bernice,’ said Max, ‘You have always been kind to me and see me as an equal, not a servant. The order is very strong with important friends across the world. They can look after themselves. But I feel times are changing, and not for the better. This new age of computers and the like is beyond me. I don’t claim to understand such things but what I do know is this. It is only a matter of time before the order’s secret is unveiled, and when that happens, I fear our secure little world will come crashing down around us. You don’t deserve to be caught in the fall out. Now, I have to go, but before I go, let me give you a piece of advice. You are a lovely person, Sister, and I don’t want to see you hurt. Do yourself a favour and keep your distance from the senior sisters.’

‘But Max…’

‘I have said enough,’ said Max, glancing down at the last sandwich, ‘Do you mind if I take this for Jacob?’

‘No, of course not,’ said Bernice.

‘Thank you, Sister,’ said Max, ‘Stay safe!’

Bernice watched him leave and sat for a while mulling over the strange conversation. Max seemed genuinely concerned for her safety, but rather than frighten her off his comments only aroused her curiosity. Her thoughts were racing and there were far too many unanswered questions to let the matter drop, and, by the time she left the kitchen to return to her cell, she had formed a rudimentary plan.

Brandon and Murray walked up to the closed gate blocking the road. They had driven around for hours looking for the convent but eventually had come across a farmer who had pointed them in the right direction. Finally they had found the right road and had travelled over half an hour along a winding country road before coming across the obstruction.

Beyond the gate, the road was un-surfaced and disappeared into a wood that spread as far as the eye could see. A brand new chain and padlock secured the gate to the post, its message absolutely clear. Keep out!

The two men climbed over the gate and walked towards the tree line, but hadn’t got within a hundred metres when a man emerged from the trees and walked towards them. Brandon and Murray slowed but continued walking.

The man was dressed in lightweight green trousers and a waxed Barbour jacket, with a pair of green Wellington boots on his feet and a deerstalker hat on his head in an obvious attempt to meet the cliched uniform of a gamekeeper, however, it was the shotgun cradled in the man’s arm that focussed their attention.

‘Can I help you?’ asked the man.

‘Yes, I’m looking for a convent,’ said Brandon, ‘I was told it was somewhere up here.’

‘Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said the man, ‘This is private property and I have to ask you to leave.’

‘Oh, sorry,’ said Brandon, ‘I didn’t realise. It’s just that I am doing some research for a book and was wondering what is actually up there.’

‘Nothing that concerns you,’ said the man, ‘Now if you don’t mind.’ He pointed back down the track, making the instruction to leave crystal clear.

‘What’s your problem?’ asked Murray to the gamekeeper, ‘We won’t cause any damage, can’t you allow us half an hour? You’re boss wouldn’t need to know.’

The man took a few paces towards him.

‘Sir,’ he said, ‘You have climbed over a locked gate and are on private property. I have already explained that we cannot help you. Now, I will ask you one more time to leave. Otherwise, I will have you removed by force.’

‘Oh yeah,’ snapped Murray, ‘I don’t see any signs saying private property, so I can walk wherever I damn well want to.’

‘Really, well this says otherwise,’ said the man un-cradling the shotgun.

‘Oh for fuck sake,’ said Murray, ‘Like you’re going to shoot us just for trespassing.’

Brandon grabbed his arm, holding the taxi driver back. As the gamekeeper had un-cradled his shotgun, his jacket had swung open slightly and he had seen the strap of a shoulder holster.

‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ he said, ‘You heard the man, it’s private property. Come on, let’s go.’

‘Listen to your friend, stupid,’ said the game keeper with a sneer, ‘Or you may get hurt.’

‘No problem,’ said Brandon with a smile, ‘Sorry for bothering you, come on Murray, let’s go to the pub.’ He pulled the reluctant taxi driver and walked back down the path, closely followed by the gamekeeper. Five minutes later they were driving back down the road towards the town.

‘Do you believe that Pratt?’ snarled Murray, ‘Gamekeeper my arse, nothing more than a jumped up gardener as far as I am concerned.’

‘He was no gamekeeper,’ said Brandon looking out of the window.

‘Looked like one to me,’ said Murray, ‘Even had all the clobber.’

‘He did,’ said Brandon, ‘But I’ve never seen a gamekeeper wearing Ray-Bans, have you?’

Murray looked in the rear view mirror.

‘Yeah, I noticed that too,’ he said, ‘And he had a strange accent.’

‘Italian!’ said Brandon.

‘So who do you think he was?’ asked Murray, ‘Some sort of security guard?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Brandon, ‘But I intend to find out. Stop here.’

‘But we’re in the middle of nowhere,’ answered the driver

‘Pull over,’ said Brandon, ‘There’s something I want you to do for me.’ A few minutes later, they were both stood alongside the taxi. Brandon was scribbling an address in his notebook.

‘I want you to drive to this address,’ he said, as he wrote. ‘Pick up a bag for me and bring it back here as soon as possible. I have made the arrangements. All you have to do is pick it up. But I need you back here by dark. Do you think you can do it?’

Murray looked at the address.

‘I suppose so,’ he said, ‘But what about you? Forecast says there’s a bad snowstorm coming, you can’t stay out here all day, you’ll freeze your nuts off.’

‘I’ll be fine,’ said Brandon, ‘Just make sure you get back here as soon as you can.’

‘Okay,’ said Murray, ‘But then we are done. Agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ said Brandon, ‘Now go. My number is on the pad. Ring me when you’re on the way back.’

He watched the taxi disappear down the lane before climbing over a stile and making his way back up the hill, keeping close to the hedgerow to avoid being seen.

In the car, Murray glanced at the address on the pad. ‘Oxford,’ he read.

Brandon walked around the hill, keeping to hedgerows and dead ground wherever possible until he found a relatively sheltered area overlooking the track leading into the forest. For hours he watched the gate, catching occasional sightings of the two security guards located just within the forest edge. Throughout the afternoon a few vehicles drove passed into the forest, including two cars and a white transit van. The van in particular caught his eye, as, unlike the cars, it was quite old with an odd door on the passenger side, obviously the result of an amateur repair. He watched for a few more hours before making his way back down the hill and waiting in a small copse, huddling beneath his coat as the temperature dropped. After what seemed like an age, his phone vibrated and his head sprung from his chest where he had dropped off into a light sleep.

‘Murray?’ he asked.

‘Who the fuck is Murray?’ asked a voice.

‘Sorry, Mike, You caught me having a power nap. Any news?'

‘Well, sort of,’ said Mike, ‘We reviewed the CCTV on all the entrances and there is no sign of her entering the station.’

‘Shit!’ cursed Brandon.

‘Hold your horses,’ said Mike, ‘I also reviewed the cameras outside the station and it seems like two people matching your descriptions got out of a cab and entered a house halfway between the train station and the bus station.’

‘You think it was them?’

‘Sure it was,’ said Mike, ‘We managed to get someone inside, but it seems the place is hardly used.’

‘What happened?’ interrupted Brandon sitting up, ‘Was she there?’

‘No, one of the guys had a good look around and there’s no sign of her. The only thing we can think of is that they left the building via the car park.’

‘Car park?’

‘Yes, underneath the building there is a small car park that exits onto the road at the side of the building.’

‘Anything on camera?’

‘No, that’s the thing. The only vehicle to come out after the time she went in was a battered old van.’

Brandon looked up the hill towards where he had spent the last few hours, thinking about the vehicles he had seen a few hours earlier.

‘Describe it,’ he said suddenly.


‘Describe the van,’ said Brandon tersely, ‘Was there anything strange about it?’

‘No not really, it was a bit shit, really. Old, white, battered.’

Go on,’ thought Brandon, ‘Say it.

‘Oh and it had a black door on the passenger side,’ said Mike, confirming Brandon’s suspicions. By the time we realised the connection it had long gone, and I can’t access the London CCTV grid without a warrant. Sorry, Brandon, I have no idea where it went.’

That’s okay, Mike,’ said Brandon, ‘I know exactly where it went.’ His phone beeped once in his hand. ‘Mike, I have to go,’ he said, ‘I’ve got another call on the line. Talk later, cheers.’ He pressed the red button on the phone, quickly followed by the green one.

‘Murray,’ he said, ‘About fucking time.’

‘Calm down,’ he said, ‘I got stuck in traffic.’

‘Where are you?’

‘About ten minutes away,’ he said, ‘You okay?’

‘Don’t worry about me,’ said Brandon, ‘Just shift your arse and get back here.’ He hung up and made his way down the last few hundred yards to the lay-by. A few minutes later, the taxi pulled up and Murray got out.

‘Got it?’ asked Brandon.

‘In the boot,’ said Murray, ‘Nice lady, you’re mother.’

‘Yeah, diamond,’ said Brandon.

‘Got you something else, too!’

Brandon looked as Murray reached over to the passenger seat to retrieve a carrier bag.

‘Your mother sent me on a side errand on the way back,’ said Murray, ‘Figured you may be hungry. Fish and chips and a can of coke do you?’

‘Murray, you’re a fucking legend,’ said Brandon with a smile, taking the bag. He sat on a log and got stuck in to the greasy meal with enthusiasm. He had not realised how hungry he actually was. Murray leaned against his cab, eating his own bag of chips.

‘Thanks for this,’ he said, ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’

‘No problem,’ said Murray, ‘I’ll add it on your bill.’

Brandon smiled.

‘So what happens now?’ asked Murray.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Up there,’ said Murray, ‘At the convent. That’s where you’re going, isn’t it?’

‘What makes you think that?’

‘I’m not stupid,’ said Murray, ‘That bag in the boot, it’s special forces issue isn’t it?’

‘Is it?’

‘Look mister,’ said Murray, ‘Many years ago I did some time in the Territorial Army. Nothing special but some of my mates are still in the mob and I know a squaddy when I see one. I reckon you intend to get into that convent to find your girlfriend or whoever she is.’

Brandon stared at him for a moment before laughing.

‘Fucking hell,’ he said, ‘Everyone’s an expert these days, so much for secrecy eh?’

‘I’m right, aren’t I?’ said Murray.

‘Look, mate,’ said Brandon opening the boot of the car, ‘You probably know too much already, and that’s my fault. I wasn’t thinking straight.’ He unzipped the oversized air-force blue holdall.’ The less you know the better,’ he continued, ‘Nothing personal, you understand, it’s just safer that way. At least five people have died that I know of, and I would hate you to be the sixth.’ He started to undress, placing all his civilian clothes in the boot, before donning a pair of black denim cotton trousers, and pulling a black, fleece lined buffalo jacket over his head.

‘Look,’ said Murray, ‘I know you can’t tell me what’s going on but if there’s anything I can do to help, just ask yeah?’

‘Cheers,’ said Brandon, tying the last lace on his combat boots. He stood up and looked thoughtfully at Murray, ‘Actually, there is something you can do,’ he added, pulling out his phone, ‘What’s your number? ‘

Murray told him his number and watched as Brandon punched something into his own phone.

‘I’ve just sent you a number,’ said Brandon, ‘If you don’t hear from me in twenty four hours, I want you to call that number and ask for Mike. Tell him everything. He will know what to do.’

‘You sure about this?’ asked Murray.

‘Positive,’ said Brandon, pulling out a pre packed rucksack from the holdall, ‘You do that, and when this is all over, you can treat me to a couple of pints out of that grand you swindled me out of, yeah?’

‘Yeah, whatever,’ laughed Murray, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be watching that clock like a hawk.’

‘Right, I’m off,’ said Brandon.

Murray held out his hand, and after a second, it was taken by Murray in a handshake based on trust.

‘Good luck, mate,’ said Murray.

Brandon nodded and climbed over the stile to the field beyond, retracing his steps up the hill he had checked out earlier. Murray pulled a cigarette and leant against the cab, drawing the smoke in deeply as he watched the stranger disappear into the gloom. A few minutes later he held out his hand to flick the butt of the cigarette over the hedge, but froze dead in his tracks as the feel of a cold pistol barrel pressed gently against his Temple.

‘Hello again, stupid,’ said a voice with a foreign accent, ‘Remember me?’

Chapter 29

Britannia 64 AD

The first couple of weeks had been difficult for the fugitives. They had travelled by night, heading westwards away from the coast, avoiding any contact with locals and the occasional Roman patrols. The ship’s Captain had given them what dried meat, he could spare but it wasn’t much and they had to supplement what they had with roots and berries wherever they could.

Eventually, however, the food inevitably ran out, and in desperation they had to risk interacting with the locals. By carefully selecting their targets and with Dragus’s basic knowledge of the language, they somehow managed to scrape through, but eventually, Rose approached him with a look of concern on her face.

‘Centurion, I would speak with you,’ she said.

Dragus opened his eyes and looked up at her. He was sat with his back against a tree, one of many temporary resting places they had been forced to take as they struggled through the never ending forest. The fact that they were avoiding the main tracks meant that it was much harder going and the effort was taking its toll on the women. This was the third break since morning and the sun was still not yet halfway through its journey.

‘How is she?’ asked Dragus, nodding towards the resting figure of Rubria who was sat on the banks of a small stream, bathing her sore feet.

‘Not good,’ she said, ‘We really need to find somewhere a bit more permanent so she can rest properly.’

‘I know,’ said Brandon with a sigh, ‘Another few weeks and we will be in the lands of the Atrebates. They are known to be a friendly people and welcome strangers to their midst.’

‘We cannot wait a few weeks,’ said Rose, ‘We have to find somewhere soon or I fear the worst.’

‘Surely it’s not that bad,’ said Dragus, ‘I know there is little food but we are not doing badly.’ He looked over towards Rubria. ‘I’m afraid her beauty and frailty comes at a price. Her hands were not designed to fend off the thorns of the forest, and blisters are a curse she was never intended to bear.’

‘You underestimate her,’ said Rose, ‘I have not heard one complaint escape her lips yet I know she is exhausted.’

‘We will take more rests,’ said Dragus, ‘Give her chance to regain her strength.’

‘Another few weeks and we will be relatively safe.’

‘We don’t have the time,’ she interrupted, ‘We have to find somewhere soon.’

‘That is not an option…’ started Dragus.

‘Dragus, for the love of Vesta, will you listen to me?’ she hissed, ‘She is with child!’

What?’ said Dragus, ‘That is impossible.’

Rose glanced over at Rubria before continuing.

‘I have seen this a hundred times, and she has all the signs.’

‘She can’t be,’ said Dragus,’ She is a Priestess of the Goddess Vesta, one of her Holy Virgins. They are betrothed to the order for thirty years. Surely she would not have broken her oath so easily.’

‘Not by choice,’ said Rose, ‘Don’t forget what she suffered at the hand of our illustrious leader.’

Dragus looked over towards Rubria.

‘Has she discussed this with you?’ he asked eventually.

‘Discussed it?’ said Rose gently, Dragus, the Priestess is so innocent, I don’t think she even knows she is pregnant.’

They both looked at the Priestess, leaning back on her elbows as she dangled her feet in the cool stream. Her head tilted back to face the sky, drinking in a sunbeam that managed to break through the foliage and her eyes closed for a few seconds, enjoying the rare feeling of warmth on her skin.

Dragus took in the detail with growing concern. He had been so wrapped up in getting them safely to their destination he had not noticed the deterioration in the Priestess. Her once long golden hair was tangled and her face was smeared with stains of sweat and grime. Her clothes were torn and her face was gaunt. As he watched he saw her brow furrow slightly and her hand went unconsciously to her stomach, reacting to an unfamiliar feeling within.

‘By the gods, Rose,’ said Dragus, quietly, ‘What have I done?’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Rose, ‘This is not you’re fault.’

‘But it is,’ said Dragus, ‘I have been so engrossed in my own little adventure I have neglected that which I hold most dearly.’

‘Don’t be so hard on yourself,’ said Rose. ‘It is not too late but we do need to find somewhere soon.’

‘Agreed,’ said Dragus eventually. ‘We will make a camp here. There is water and some food. If you’re careful, it should last a few days. I should be back by then.’

‘Where are you going?’ asked Rose.

‘To bring this to an end,’ said Dragus. ‘You are safe enough here, but if I am not back in three days, head east towards the morning sun. You will eventually come across one of our roads. Make your way to Londinium and take your chances there.’

‘Dragus,’ said Rose…

‘Enough!’ said Dragus, ‘You will do as I say. I have brought this on and I will resolve the matter.’

‘But can’t we all go together and just stop at the nearest village?’ she asked.

‘Not as simple as that,’ he answered, ‘Trust me, I know how these people work. You stay here and I promise I will return, now, help me make a shelter. The sooner I get started the sooner I will return.’

They got up together and as Dragus gathered the saplings and bracken he needed to make a shelter, Rose explained the situation to Rubria, blaming an imaginary foot injury as an excuse why they couldn’t go on any further.

‘Take care, Dragus,’ said Rubria when he was ready to leave.

‘I’ll be fine,’ said Dragus, ‘You just look after Rose.’

‘I will,’ she said and the two women watched as he disappeared into the gloom of the forest.

For a day and a half he struggled through the forest, the hunger gnawing at him like a rabid dog, Finally he saw signs of life and he followed the track to a village situated at the edge of a small river. He hid in the undergrowth for a few hours, watching the day to day life unfold, gleaning an understanding of the type of village it was. If it was warlike, then he would have to bypass it as the fact he was Roman meant he wouldn’t last a few minutes, but seeing no signs of militia, he finally stood up and walked in, making his way to central hut, where he knew he would find the Chieftain. A group of curious children gathered around him as he walked, and the commotion brought interested people from the surrounding huts.

Finally he stood outside the largest hut and a young man came out to greet him.

‘State your business, stranger,’ he said.

The five years Dragus had spent in Britannia meant he spoke some of the language.

‘I would speak to your Chieftain,’ he said.

‘You can speak with me,’ said the man, ‘I am his son.’

‘Bring him in,’ coughed a voice from within the hut and after hesitating a few more moments, the boy stood aside to let Dragus enter the hut. As soon as his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he saw an old man wrapped in furs, tended by a young girl.

‘Greetings, Chief,’ said Dragus.

The old man nodded in return.

‘I am Dragus,’ said the Centurion, ‘What house do I have the honour of addressing?’

‘I am Blackthorn,’ said the man, ‘Chieftain of the Horse clan of the Atrebates State your business, Dragus.’

‘Blackthorn,’ said Dragus, I find myself on a great undertaking. One which has come from the Goddess Vesta herself.’

‘I have heard of the cult of Vesta,’ said Blackthorn, ‘She holds no sway here for she is a Roman God.’

‘Many Romans worship her it is true,’ he answered, ‘Including myself, but her aura graces many different tribes across the world, She is the Goddess of all hearths and smiles on those who nurture the family, sharing her bounty with those who pay her homage.’

‘Your devotion to your Goddess is admirable,’ said Blackthorn, ‘But if you seek tribute you have had a wasted journey. We have nothing of value here. Your legions took all that we held dear.’

Dragus thought quickly. He knew what the legions were capable of. He himself had taken part in the decimation of many such villages in the past.

‘I feel your pain, Blackthorn, ’he said eventually, ‘And I can only say the Gods will judge the acts of my countrymen in the afterlife.’

‘I carry a great secret that I have shared with no living man. Within your own lands, less than a days ride away, one of the Goddess’s high Priestesses and her servant lie close to death. I ask for shelter and succour for them both to recover their strength.’

‘What concern do I have for the death of another woman,’ he asked, ‘Many of our own women have died since the Romans came.’

‘Because the Priestess carries the child of Vesta said Dragus, ‘A child fathered by no man.’

‘That cannot be,’ said Blackthorn.

‘Yet it is so. She is one of the Emperors Vestal Virgins and has lain with no man.’

‘And you know this to be true?’

‘Upon my oath,’ said Dragus.

Blackthorn stared at him for a long time.

‘Why don’t you seek the shelter of your own people, Roman? There are settlements less than three days ride away.’

‘We can’t do that,’ said Dragus, ‘If our presence here is discovered we will be carted back to Rome in chains.’

‘There is probably a price on your head, Roman. What is to stop me betraying you to you countrymen and claiming the coin?’

‘Nothing!’ said Dragus, ‘But your tribe is renowned for its hospitality to travellers. I would suspect the great chief Blackthorn would not break his own people’s tradition.’

‘You are correct, Roman,’ he said, ‘But do not deem to use this against us. Our hearths are offered to travellers born of these lands, not invaders or those who would abuse our hospitality. Your people invade our lands, killing thousands. They rape our women and take our young into slavery. We are taxed more than we can bear to make you Emperor rich and are forced to kiss their collective arse just to be allowed to live in our own ancestral lands. Yet you walk in here as brazen as a camp whore and ask us to help you. I could have you killed within a few heartbeats and no one would know any difference.’

‘Blackthorn, all I can say is that this woman needs your help. I understand you may have a problem with me, but I plead with you, do not take out your frustration on her. She is not responsible for this situation. At least give her and her slave succour. If my presence offends then I will take my chances with the wild things of the forest.’

Blackthorn stood up and walked around him, looking at his dishevelled appearance.

‘We don’t have much here, Roman,’ he said, ‘We live hand to mouth and struggle to feed our own people. How can we feed three more mouths?’

‘I am strong and can work to support the three of us,’ said Dragus. ‘All we ask is shelter and a chance to contribute until the birth of the child. As soon as the mother regains her strength, we will move on.’

Again Blackthorn fell silent, taking in all Dragus had said.

‘Your story intrigues me, Roman,’ he said, ‘Bring your Priestess to my hut so I can gaze upon her. If my eyes tell me she has the aura of a Goddess then I will grant your request. However, if I feel you employ falsehoods as allies, then your heads will hang from my saddle by dawn.’ He stared at Dragus. ‘Life is hard in Britannia, Roman,’ he said, If you want to live in our world then this is how it will be.’

Dragus stared back at the chief for a long time, the implications spinning around his mind. If he agreed he would be putting all their lives on the line but no matter which way he looked at it, he knew he had no option. The food was all but gone, the weather was turning, there was a baby on the way and they were on the run from a madman who commanded the greatest army in the world. There was no choice, this village and the protection of Blackthorn was their only hope.

‘So be it,’ he said eventually, ‘I will return to Priestess and bring her back here by midday tomorrow.’

‘First you will eat,’ said Blackthorn, nodding an unspoken instruction to an old woman in the corner. ‘Two of my men will accompany you with spare horses. We will have them back here by nightfall.’ The old woman brought some warm bread and Dragus took it gratefully.

‘You have my gratitude, Blackthorn, ‘said Dragus, ‘And will have the blessing of Vesta herself.’

‘We will see, Roman,’ said Blackthorn, ‘We will see.’

Chapter 30

England 2010

Brandon crawled through the bracken towards the forward edge of the hill. Below him, the slope fell away to the forest he had watched earlier in the day. The snow was falling fast now, but though it was dark, he could just make out the locked gate where the security guard had turned them away with his shotgun. A few seconds later a tiny glow gave away the position of one of the armed men as he enjoyed a cigarette in the dark.

‘Fucking amateur,’ thought Brandon to himself,

He took off his rucksack and unzipped the pouch on the top flap, removing a soft bag. From within he took a small electronic telescope, and flicked a switch on the side. An almost imperceptible whine indicated the batteries were powering up the starlight technology within and he waited a few seconds before lifting it to his eye. Immediately the dark landscape before him opened up into an eerie green vista, revealing everything in surprisingly clear detail. The space age technology took the ambient light available from the surrounding area and used it to illuminate the ground before him, albeit, only within the body of the scope.

He scanned the edge of the forest, pausing on the gate where the two guards were now crystal clear, before continuing along the fence line. When he was happy there were no more guards along the front edge, he flicked the switch on the side of the scope to a different setting. The image immediately turned grey, and, though the landscape was a lot less clear, this was for a completely different purpose. Within a few seconds, the infra red setting picked out a heat source further back in the woods, the blurred white images revealing two previously unseen guards, obviously patrolling just inside the forest edge.

‘Hello, boys,’ said Brandon to himself quietly, ‘Just what is it you are hiding in there that warrants so much muscle?’

He watched for another half an hour, working out the best approach to avoid the guards, planning his route until finally, he put his rucksack back on and made his way to a stream bed he had seen earlier. He crouched into the dead ground and followed it down to the fence line, and within minutes, was making his way carefully into the depths of the forest, stopping every few minutes to check the way was clear with his night scope.

Eventually the ground started to rise and the presence of more guards along the path meant he was forced to go further into the undergrowth to give them a wide berth. Finally he topped the rise and found himself looking down into a tiny valley located deep at the heart of the forest, edged on three sides by trees and on the fourth by a steep cliff. At the base of the crag, an old looking complex of stone buildings was enclosed by a perimeter wall and Brandon could see another two guards guarding the only visible entrance gates.

‘Bingo,’ he said and switched the scope to starlight mode. He spent an age scanning the building complex, seeking a way in but soon realised that, even without the regular patrols by the guards, the high walls on three sides and the towering cliff on the fourth, meant that the convent was as secure as any prison.

‘Only one thing for it,’ thought Brandon and retreated into the undergrowth, following the edge of the wood up towards the cliff edge. He used the scope to select a possible route and withdrew a coiled rope from his rucksack. The kern-mantle rope was of a typical climbing construction, though, at only 6mm thick, was thinner than anything on the open market. Its lighter weight meant a man could carry longer lengths and was a recent innovation in the field of insurgency and counter terrorism.

He secured one end around a tree and connected a purpose made, carbon Karabiner to a clip on his belt. Finally he placed his pistol in the chest pocket of his Buffalo jacket and, without wasting anymore time, started to carefully abseil slowly down the cliff face into the cemetery at the back of the convent.

Inside the main building, Bernice was unusually quiet at the evening meal. In fact the atmosphere in the whole room was sombre. Since the Mother Superior’s death, Sister Agnes had taken on the role of washing the feet of the undeserving prior to the meal, and until they had decided the Mother Superior’s successor, had become the temporary head of the convent. Despite everyone’s best efforts to protect them from the terrible truth, all those present had now heard of the way the Mother Superior had died and fear was evident on many faces. Before the meal started, Sister Agnes stood to address the hall.

‘Fellow Sisters,’ she said quietly, ‘These past few days have been very challenging and I thank you all for your patience and understanding. I know many of you are tired, confused, and even frightened. What happened to the Mother Superior was dreadful and shook us all to our very souls.’

All present made the sign of the cross and kissed their rosaries at the mention of the Mother Superior.

‘Some may even question their safety here,’ she continued, ‘And wonder why we haven’t involved the authorities or ask why it is we are so…’ she paused, searching for an alternative to secretive, ‘Private in our day to day life. Well, let me tell you this. It is precisely because of situations like this we have not called the police. Our order, Sanctimonialis Rosa has long been persecuted by those who believe different to us. Our ways are strange to the world and often, when we become visible to society in general, the unenlightened have tried to change us, either by way of indoctrination or force. Over the centuries many such people have tried to impose their ways upon us and sometimes, it has to be said, some of our order have lain down their lives to protect that which we hold sacred.’

A murmur of unease rippled around the room.

‘But do not be concerned,’ she continued, ‘For over a hundred years there has been no incident and I am sure this latest affront to our order will soon pass and we can get back to our prayers and charitable work as soon as possible. The unholy actions of one, despicable individual, will not be allowed to threaten the sanctity and divine purpose of this order.’

‘We may be small compared to others,’ she continued, ‘Some may even say, reclusive, but I assure you this. We have many supporters across the world and answer to an authority greater than the police or government of this country. Even as I speak, measures have been taken to protect this convent and the safety of everyone therein. We will have to postpone our charity work for a few days while they search for this madman, but, rest assured, he will be caught, and when he is, we will seek retribution for his terrible sins. Until that time, all I can ask is that we all work hard and pray for the soul of our dear departed Sister.’

The speech ended and everyone looked up at her in relief. It was the first time anyone had taken the time to explain the situation and the lifting of tension in the room was almost palpable. Conversation returned to normal as the meal was served and everyone seemed much happier. Everyone, that is, except one.

Bernice stirred her soup aimlessly. The speech was welcome but left her with more questions than answers. Why would they be persecuted just for worshipping the Holy Mother, Who was this authority they reported to? And most of all, what did she mean when she said; seek retribution for his terrible sin. That almost sounded like a threat of violence. Surely, if he was caught, they should hand him over to the police. The only other action they should be taking is praying for his soul and begging forgiveness for his misguided ways. That was what the Mother Superior would have wanted. Wouldn’t she?’

Suddenly, what little conversation there was came to a stuttering stop when there came a knock on the main hall doors. Everyone looked over in surprise. No-one ever interrupted the evening meal and all heads turned to look at the Senior Sisters at the head table for guidance. Sister Agnes stood up.

‘Sister Bernice,’ she said gently, ‘Would you be so kind to attend the doorway please?’ Bernice placed her spoon on the table and withdrew her chair. She walked over to the door and eased it open. Outside, Jacob, the Caretaker’s son stood waiting, wring his cap in his hands.

‘Yes, Jacob?’ said Bernice.

‘Sister, please excuse me,’ he said, ‘I have news that must reach the ears of the Senior Sisters immediately.’

‘Jacob, we are at our evening meal,’ said Bernice, ‘And as you are aware, we should not be disturbed. Can’t it wait?’

‘Sorry, Sister,’ he said ‘But this is very important.’

‘Wait here,’ she said, ‘I will see what I can do.’ She closed the door and approached the table, passing on the message. A few minutes later Bernice led the caretaker/s son between the tables towards the senior sisters. With every step he felt the eyes of all the Nuns burning in to him suspiciously. Bernice strained to hear the whispered conversation but was too far away to hear any detail. Finally, the nervous young man left the hall and all the Nuns turned to face the top table in anticipation. Agnes stood up once more.

‘Sisters,’ she said, ‘I have to bring this meal to an end. Sister Bernice, will escort you back to the wings.’

One of the younger Nuns spoke up nervously.

‘Sister Agnes, ‘she said, ‘If I may be so bold to ask, is there anything to be concerned about?’

Agnes’s face did not reveal the annoyance she felt about being questioned in public about a private conversation. Still, the girl was young and had a lot to learn, and besides, this news could save a lot of distress and awkward questions in the long run.

‘On the contrary, Sister Wendy,’ she answered, ‘Quite the opposite. The guards have apprehended the murderer and have him in custody. Now, If you don’t mind, we have things to do. Please return to your cells and I will have bread brought to you at the last bell.’

The gathering stood and filed out of the dining hall. Bernice approached the top table to collect the cell keys from Sister Agnes

‘Bernice,’ said Agnes, ‘I want you to secure our Sisters in their cells until this is sorted out.’

‘Is there anything else I can do?’ asked Bernice.

‘No, thank you, just bring them back to the hall after morning prayers.’

‘What about the keys?’ asked Bernice.

‘Keep hold of them until tomorrow,’ said Agnes, ‘You will need them to unlock the doors for morning prayers. These are trying times, but hopefully it is coming to an end. Once it is over, we have to get back to normal as soon as possible. There will be a vote for the position of Mother Superior and whoever gets the position, it will leave a vacancy for a Senior Sister. Quite apart from your spirituality and dedication, your support during this difficult period has not gone unnoticed. If there was any doubt before, there is none now. You will take that role, Bernice. The decision has been made. You will be the next Senior Sister and will be inducted into the higher order as soon as possible. You keep the keys, Bernice, I trust you. After all, you will be one of us soon enough.’

‘Thank you, Sister,’ said Bernice, and turned to follow the other Nuns leaving the hall.

One of us,’ she thought as she walked, ‘I wonder what one of us means, exactly?’

Bernice spent the next half an hour locking the Sisters in their cells before returning to her own room to pray. She cleaned her room, and washed head to foot from the water bowl on the simple sideboard. Finally she read passages from her bible, seeking succour from its comforting pages, but found her mind wandering, her eyes often drawn to the convent keys hanging on the back of her cell door. Finally she gave up, and replaced the bible on the bedside table. She took a big sigh and rose to get the keys off the door. She knew what she had to do but now she had the opportunity, her nerve was failing. She gathered her courage and started to take the keys off the giant ring, seeking the only one she would need if she was going to see this thing through. At last she left the cell and walked down the dark and silent corridor, her one hand playing with the hall key she had placed in her pocket.

Chapter 31

Britannia 64AD

Dragus, Rubria and Rose stood before the Chieftain’s hut, waiting patiently for him to emerge. It seemed half the village had assembled to see the three fugitives brought back from the forest and everyone knew that the day would end in bloodshed, if Blackthorn wasn’t happy. Rubria looked around in fascination. She had never even seen a true Celt before let alone been in the midst of a Celtic village.

‘Who are these people?’ asked Rubria quietly.

‘They are a clan of the Atrebates tribe,’ said Dragus, ‘One of the smaller tribes of Britannia.’

‘Are they friendly?’ asked Rose nervously

‘Depends on the mood of the Chieftain,’ said Dragus. ‘Over here the clan leaders hold total control of their clans. They have the power of life or death within their own villages and their word is law.’

‘These are not the same people that are sold as slaves in the markets of Rome,’ she said, ‘There, they have unruly hair with wild beards, and the smell from their bodies is awful. These people are clean, with trimmed beards. Look at the colours of the children’s clothes, such hues are expensive in Rome yet here they are worn by the children.’

‘Don’t forget, Priestess,’ said Dragus, ‘The captives you refer to in Rome were often kept in cages like animals for months. They were probably half starved and had travelled across the known world before gracing the markets of the Eternal City, and were certainly no stranger to the whip on their travels. Is it any wonder they looked like savages?’

‘I didn’t realise,’ said Rubria, ‘We were told they were barbarians who ate their own babies.’

‘These people are like you or I, Priestess,’ said Dragus, ‘They have hopes and dreams. Raise families and look after their elderly. There are no poor here, what little they have is shared equally. They are a proud people and have their own Gods and traditions. Rome came to these shores expecting to find heathen. What they found is a fierce nation of tribes whose only fault is their continual infighting. If they had found a way of combining the tribes into a cohesive army then our northern frontier would still be on the shores of Gaul. Caratacus came close, Boudica closer still, but at the end of the day Roman Gold won over more chieftains than Roman spears ever did.’

The Chieftain, his son and half a dozen of the tribe’s elders ducked out of the hut and approached the three fugitives, stopping in front of Rubria. The Priestess had washed the grime from her face and brushed her golden hair until it hung down past her waist. Blackthorn and his son walked around her, finally stopping to stare into her astonishingly blue eyes. Some of the men touched her hair and one actually tried to force open her mouth to look at her teeth.

‘Get your hands off me,’ she snapped, causing them all to laugh.

Finally they returned to the hut.

‘What now?’ asked Rubria.

‘We wait,’ said Dragus.

Five minutes later one of the elders emerged and called out.

‘Roman,’ he said, ‘Blackthorn requires your presence.’

‘Here goes,’ said Dragus and walked forwards into the chieftains hut. Inside, the elders had taken their places in a half circle, sitting on carved chairs of oak. Dragus stood inside the entrance, waiting to be addressed.

‘So Roman,’ said Blackthorn eventually, ‘This is the Priestess you told us about.’

‘It is.’

‘I have to admit, she does have something of the Gods about her.’

‘So you will help us?’

‘I will,’ said Blackthorn, ‘But there is a price to pay.is a?

‘We have little coin,’ said Dragus.

‘I have no need of Roman coin,’ said the Chieftain. ‘We will give you shelter and our protection. No word of your whereabouts will reach the ears of the Romans or the filth that take their coin. You will work for your keep but will share in the food of the village. Your Priestess will also be allowed to set up her shrine and worship your Goddess. However, after the child is born, the Priestess will wed my son.’

‘What?’ asked Dragus incredulously, ‘But she would never allow that to happen. She is a Priestess of Vesta and vowed to know no man for thirty years.’

‘The rules of your homeland do not apply here, Roman. She will be allowed to continue worshipping this Vesta you speak of, but she will do so as the wife of my son. One day, when, the birds pick over the remains of my funeral pyre, she will become the wife of a Chieftain. Until that time, the slave will see to her health and you will see to her safety.’

‘And if any Roman patrols come to the village?’ asked Dragus.

‘They will not find you in any of our huts. Back amongst the tree line there is a cave where we used to keep our pigs in winter. It is dry, and there is a stream nearby. With a few furs and a bit of cleaning, it will be comfortable enough. This is where you will stay until the child is born. Take it or leave it, Roman, I can just as easily have you bound and handed over to the governor of Londinium. Your choice.’

‘There is no choice,’ said Dragus eventually, ‘We accept your offer.’

‘Do you not wish to speak to the Priestess, first?’

‘There is no need to worry her about this matter, Blackthorn. There will be time enough when the child is born.’

‘I like the way you think, Roman,’ laughed Blackthorn, ‘Then the deal is done, but know this. If you decide to flee, my riders will find you within hours, and this time there would be no mercy. Understood?’

‘Understood,’ said Dragus.

Blackthorn turned to his son.

‘Reynard, show them to the cave,’ he said.

The two men left the hut and joined the women outside.

‘Well?’ asked Rose, ‘How did it go?’

‘Not great,’ said Dragus, ‘But at least we will be safe. Come, Reynard will show us to our new home.’

‘A cave!’ said Rose in Disgust, looking across the stream to the hole in the rock face, ‘You expect us to live in a cave?’

‘And when did you become so choosy?’ asked Dragus.

‘I may have been a slave, Dragus,’ said Rose, ‘But i t was to the household of an Emperor, don’t forget.’

‘This is not Rome, Rose,’ said Rubria, ‘We will make do.’

‘But why didn’t they give us one of the huts?’ asked Rose.

‘They can’t risk us being found by any of the patrols in the area,’ said Dragus. Besides, this will see us through the winter and until…’ He left the sentence unfinished.

‘Until when?’ asked Rubria.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Dragus, ‘Now, let’s see what this place has to offer.’ They crossed the stream and walked up to the cave entrance.

The gaping hole was four large paces across and just higher than head height. There was an old fence across the entrance and the foreground was a muddy mixture of mud and filth.

‘By the gods, it stinks,’ said Rose, lifting her hand to her nose and mouth. ‘We can’t stay in there, it is unhealthy.’

Dragus looked up at the sky.

‘It will be dark soon,’ he said, ‘We will make camp in the tree line tonight. One more night under the stars won’t hurt us. Tomorrow we will clear out the cave and build a wall across the entrance to shelter us from the wind.’

The two women gathered some extra firewood while Dragus built a fire next to the stream. Within the hour they were sat huddled around the fire, chewing on the last of the dried meat they had saved and drinking some water from the stream.

‘Do you think it will rain?’ asked Rose looking up at the sky

‘Who knows?’ sighed Dragus, ‘By the look of the skies we should be all right but there seems to be no pattern to the weather in these lands.’ They lost no time in wrapping themselves in their heavy waxed capes and curled as close as they could to the fire to glean what little warmth they could. Within moments the women were asleep, but Dragus lay awake for a long time.

He threw a few more sticks into the flames and glanced at the sleeping figures of the two women, wrapped in their warm waterproof capes. They were all relatively safe, warm and the hunger pains had been appeased for another night but he knew that they had an almost impossible task in front of them. They were in a strange country, had little money and were fugitives from the most powerful empire that the world had ever seen.

He wrapped his cape around him and laid down alongside the fire, staring into its hypnotic flames. As sleep crept up on him his last thought was for Vesta.

‘Great Goddess,’ he said quietly, ‘I don’t know what purpose you have set before us, but whatever it is, please benefit us with your grace.’ He dropped slowly into a deep sleep, while below them, the village settled down for the night. In the forest an owl hooted as if welcoming the strangers to its territory, and the surrounding land fell silent.

Dragus awoke late. The sun was already above the horizon and the fire had long since died. For a second he struggled to remember where he was, but as soon as he gathered his senses, he sat up and looked around the temporary camp. Rose was still asleep but there was no sign of Rubria. He jumped up and walked over to the cave entrance. Rubria was stood outside, still wrapped in her cape.

‘Good morning, Priestess,’ he said. Rubria turned and smiled at him.

‘Good morning, Dragus,’ she replied, ‘Did you sleep well?’

Once again the Centurion’s breath was taken away by the depth of her eyes.

‘A little too good, I think,’ he answered, ‘The sun is already on its way across the sky and there is much to do.’

‘There is plenty of time,’ said Rubria, ‘At least we can now focus on one place instead of moving on every few days.’ Rose joined them and they all stared at the cave entrance in silence. Finally Rubria removed her cape and placed it across the bough of a nearby tree.

‘No point in putting it off any longer,’ she said, ‘Give me a hand to remove this fence.’

‘Leave it to me, Priestess,’ said Dragus, removing his own cape, ‘This is man’s work.’ He used his knife to cut the bindings and placed the planks to one side. ‘I can use these to make a door,’ he said, ‘The posts are rotting but will make good firewood.’

When the fence was down the women entered the cave. The limited light revealed a space approximately four times the size of a standard hut. The natural stone ceiling was just out of reach of a tall man and the floor was covered with old stinking straw. Rubria scraped away some of the straw.

‘We are in luck,’ she said, ‘Beneath the filth there is a stone floor. With a bit of sweat and plenty of water, it will scrub clean.’

‘Leave this to me, Miss,’ said Rose, ‘It’s nothing that a bit of hard graft won’t sort out. You wait outside in the fresh air and I will make it a bit more homely.’ She dropped to her knees and started to pick up the filthy straw that littered the floor, but within seconds, was joined by Rubria on her knees, At first Rose protested but the Priestess would have none of it and they cleared the room together, both gagging as they cleared the filth from the cave.

Dragus spent the day cutting small trees to form a rudimentary palisade across the entrance. When the uprights were solid, he intertwined supple ash boughs between them to make a wall. Finally, he and rose collected arms full of bracken to fill the holes in the surprisingly solid barrier. Eventually he turned and walked into the cave to see how they were getting on. The cave had been swept clean and one side had been piled up with bracken for bedding.

‘I am impressed,’ he said, ‘You would never know this was the same place, and the smell has almost gone.’

‘What we need now is a fire,’ said Rubria, ‘I would rather smell of smoke than pig droppings.’

‘I will get some firewood said Dragus.

‘No, we can manage that,’ said Rubria, ‘Why don’t you check out the village and see if you can find any food. We ate the last of ours at midday. Here,’ she said, and gave him a coin.

‘I’m afraid coins are not worth much here,’ said Dragus, ‘And are best kept for the travelling merchants.’

Rubria thought for a moment before taking her silk scarf from around her neck.

‘Will this bring anything?’

‘Perhaps,’ said Dragus, ‘I will see what I can do.’ He left the cave and walked down into the village.

‘Right,’ said Rubria, ‘Lets get a fire started.’

By the time Dragus returned, they had built a circle of stones in the centre of the cave and a fire sent its smoke upwards to escape through the unseen cracks of the natural ceiling. Rose sat tying bunches of straw into tight knots.

‘Fuel,’ she said, answering his unasked question, ‘Shame to waste all this straw.’

She looked at the bag over his shoulder.

‘You were successful in your task?’

‘I was,’ he said, ‘Though it’s not much, just a loaf, and a chicken.’

‘Bread and meat,’ smiled Rubria, ‘After what we have endured it is a relative feast. Rose, take the pot and bring some water, would you?’ She took the bag from Dragus and started to pluck the chicken.

Rose took the copper pot given to them by the ship’s Captain, and, after filling it at the stream, placed it on the fire to boil. When Rubria had finished preparing the bird, she took Dragus’s knife and cut it into tiny pieces, putting everything except the stomach into the pot. Dragus dug into his pockets and added some herbs and edible shoots he had found along the path on the way back from the village.

‘I’d prefer it spit roasted,’ he said whimsically.

‘Me too,’ said Rubria ‘But we have to be prudent. A roast chicken would last but one meal whereas this stew will keep us fed for several days.’

‘I know,’ smiled Dragus, ‘But a man can dream.’

Rubria laughed aloud and Rose and Dragus looked at her quizzically.

‘What’s so funny?’ asked Dragus.

‘Oh, Centurion,’ she laughed, ‘Have we sunk so low that our dreams consist of nothing more than a roast chicken.’

‘Priestess, the way my belly feels, I would pay an Emperor’s ransom for a slice of beef and die a happy man. However, for tonight, chicken stew will suffice.’ He looked around the cave. ‘There is no privacy here,’ he said, ‘Tomorrow I will build a willow screen, but tonight I will sleep outside.’

‘You will do no such thing,’ smiled Rubria, ‘You will sleep in here with us.’

‘But Priestess,’ said Dragus, ‘Modesty forbids, but fear not, it will not be the first time I have slept under the stars.’

‘You worry needlessly, Dragus,’ said Rubria, ‘I fear the temperatures dictate we will once more be sleeping fully clothed this evening, our modesty is ensured. Tomorrow we will concern ourselves with making this hovel into a palace, but in the meantime, let us spend one more night together at the fire, a group of fellow travellers on a great adventure.’

Rose glanced at Dragus and smiled. The Priestess’s naivety often made her laugh. An hour later, Dragus sat with his back against one wall of the cave, his belly full for the first time in ages. The cave danced with the light from the flickering fire. Rubria was fast asleep, the effort of the day having caught up with her. Rose walked over and sat besides him.

‘A long day,’ she said eventually.

‘It was,’ said Dragus.

‘Do you think we will be okay?’ she asked, turning her head to look at him.

‘I think so, Rose,’ he said, ‘It’s not going to be easy, but in the circumstances, it’s the best we can do.’

She leaned her head on his shoulder and stared into the fire.

‘I hope so,’ she said, ‘For her sake. Not only is she the holiest person I have ever met, but her innocence is almost childlike.’

‘She will be fine,’ said Dragus, ‘We will make sure she is. She just needs a lot of attention.’

Rose lifted his arm and placed it around her own shoulders.

‘She’s not the only one,’ she said quietly and snuggled in to his side, closing her eyes as the exhaustion of the day swept over her.

Dragus stared down at the girl in his embrace, confused at his feelings. During all these months he had devoted his time and attention towards the Priestess, and though he and Rose had grown close, he had only thought of her as Rubria’s slave. Yet, here he was, holding her sleeping form in his arms, and for the first time realised how pretty a girl she actually was.

Chapter 32

England 2010

Bernice slowly placed the key in the lock of the hall door, before glancing up and down the passage one last time. The turning of the latch sounded horribly loud in the silence, and she hesitated before easing it ajar just enough to slip through. The hall was lit by discreetly placed candles and she quickly scanned the room to confirm that it was indeed empty. At this time of night, everyone would be asleep and she knew she had a few hours before first bell to find out where the Senior Sisters had disappeared to a few days earlier. She locked the door behind her and paused before starting her search for any hidden doorway.

The long embroidered tapestries hanging on either side of the hall were the obvious location and she lifted each in turn searching for the door that had to be there. When these yielded no results, she checked the bare walls between them for any sign of hidden doorway yet all the joints were solid. Finally, she turned her attention to the floor, lifting the rugs at the far end to find any trapdoors or hidden stairways. At last she sat down on one of the benches, tired and frustrated. This made no sense. Perhaps the door had not been locked from the inside on the night of the Mother Superiors death, but had just been stuck. That had to be it she realised, and breathing a deep sigh she stood up to return to her cell but was just about to insert the key into the lock when she heard a noise from outside.

She stood, frozen in fear as the footsteps drew closer, hoping they would pass by, but her fear turned to horror when the person stopped outside the door. Her worst fears were realised as the sound of jangling keys revealed the persons intention of entering the hall.

She stepped back in panic, and span around, searching for somewhere to hide. There was only one option and she ducked behind the nearest tapestry, hoping that whoever it was did not see the giveaway bulge in its centre.

The tapestry lay heavy against her, and she prayed that the dusty smell of age did not make her sneeze. She heard the hall doors open, and the sound of keys locking it again, before the unseen person hurried down the length of the hall, not noticing the displaced tapestry besides the door.

Bernice lifted the tapestry slightly from her face and watched the back of the grey clad figure as she made their way towards the far end of the hall. Bernice recognised the shape of Sister Agnes as she knelt before the image of the Holy Mother for a few moments in prayer before making the sign of the cross and standing up again, but instead of turning around and returning up the hall, the Senior Sister stepped forward towards the carving.

Bernice watched in confusion as the Nun opened her arms as if embracing the image and her mouth dropped opened in astonishment as the whole carving slid sideways in front of her. She watched Sister Agnes disappear into the passage beyond and saw the door slide effortlessly back into place of its own accord.

When the room had again fallen silent Bernice left the security of the tapestry and approached the archway containing the image of the Holy Mother. She placed her ear against the wood and listened intently but could hear nothing. She ran her hands over the carving looking for some sort of lever to open the door, remembering the adventure books she had read as a young girl but again, could find nothing. Finally, realising she had ridden her luck a little too much, left the hall and locked the doors behind her. If nothing else, at least she knew her suspicions were well founded and there was something unhealthily secret about the whole order. A few minutes later she entered one of the upper corridors and made her way to her own cell at the end of the row, anticipating the familiar security of the space she had known as home for the past twenty years. She closed the door behind her but before she could turn around into the familiar surroundings, a large male hand clamped over her mouth, choking off the terrified scream that was erupting from deep within her.

Murray sat in the corner of the room, staring up at the unseen ceiling. The room was pitch black and stank of dampness and stale air. He had seen no-one since being brought in at gunpoint many hours earlier and had spent the first thirty minutes banging on the door and shouting abuse at his captors. Finally, realising there was nobody there; he retreated into a corner and waited for someone to come, afraid to even contemplate the horrible possibility that they might not.

Eventually after what seemed like a lifetime, the sound of distant footsteps echoed down the unseen corridor. An overhead lamp switched on, and he turned his head away from the unexpected light. The door swung open and two men entered the room, setting up a small table with two chairs situated opposite each other. A third man came in and sat on one of the chairs, while the other two stood either side of the door.

Murray stayed in the corner, staring at the man at the table, waiting for someone to speak.

Eventually, the man at the table spoke, nodding towards the empty chair.

‘Sit,’ he said, simply.

‘I’m okay here, thank you very much,’ said Murray.

The man glanced at one of the guards and gave a slight nod of his head. Both men marched over to Murray and before he could do anything to defend himself, one of them punched him on the side of the head, sending him sprawling across the floor.

What the fuck?’ shouted Murray, but before he could say anything else, they dragged him to his feet and the bald guy’s mate sent a punch deep into his stomach, and as he doubled up in pain, followed it up with a knee to the face.

Murray’s nose shattered and he slid down the wall in pain and shock. The two men returned to their positions by the door as the man by the table lit a cigarette, as if in boredom. He blew out a lungful of smoke before repeating his earlier instruction.

‘Sit,’ he said again.

For a second, Murray didn’t move but when the stranger’s eyes rose in mock surprise, he forced himself to his feet and approached the empty chair. Blood poured from his mouth and nose and he felt at least one broken tooth with his tongue. One of the thugs stood behind him.

‘Thank you,’ said the man in the chair.

‘Why the fuck did you do that?’ asked Murray through his rapidly swelling lips.

‘Simple,’ said the man, ‘I am going to ask you some questions. You will answer quickly, and honestly, leaving nothing out. Do you understand?’

‘Yes but why set your fucking monkeys on me?’

‘You need to understand I am not playing games,’ said the man. Fuck me about and you will get more of the same. If you do as I ask, and don’t play funny buggers, there’s the slightest chance you may still get out of here alive. Now, I’ll ask you one more time. Do you understand?’

Murray nodded nervously, realising he was in a world of shit.

A massive blow to the side of the head sent him flying once again, before he was dragged back into the chair.

‘When Mr Smith asks you a question,’ said the thug, ‘He expects an answer.’

Okay, okay’ he screamed, ‘I get it, just stop fucking hitting me.’

‘Okay,’ said Mr Smith, ‘Let’s get started, First of all, what is your name?’

‘Murray,’ he said, wiping his bloody mouth on his sleeve, ‘Stephen Murray.’

‘And, where are you from, Mr Murray?’


‘And your job?’

‘Taxi driver.’

Mr Smith paused, writing notes on the pad in front of him.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘Tell me Mr Murray, why are you here/’


‘Easy question!’

‘I genuinely don’t know. I’ve done nothing wrong. I was sat in my cab when one of your thugs pressed a fucking gun against my head. What’s all this about?’

Murray flinched as the thug behind him leant forward, and spoke speak menacingly into his ear.

‘Mr Smith asks the questions, you provide the answers. Savvy?’

Mr Jones stopped writing and sat back in his chair.

‘I know the circumstances of your capture, Mr Murray. What I need to know is why you were there in the first place?’

‘I was dropping off a customer.’

‘In the middle of nowhere?’

‘Murray thought furiously. No matter what trouble he was in, he saw no mileage in dropping the army guy in the shit.

‘He was a writer,’ said Murray, ‘Seemed interested in the history of the area and particularly wanted to learn about some nunnery that used to be around here.’

‘My sources tell me you seemed to be quite friendly with the man, in fact, you got quite aggressive with one of the gate guards.’

‘He was a prick,’ said Murray, ‘No need for rudeness.’

‘Hmm, quite,’ said the man, ‘Tell me, Mr Murray, where is your patch as a taxi driver?’

‘West London.’

‘Do you often get fares all the way out here?’


‘And you didn’t think it strange when you picked up this one?’

‘When someone waves a grand in your face, you don’t ask too may questions.’

‘So you don’t know him personally?’


‘You sure?’

‘Before this morning I had never set eyes on him.’

‘Yet you spend most of the day with him, then drove off to God knows where and brought him back a rucksack.’

‘I didn’t know what was in the bag.’

‘Wasn’t you curious?’

‘Like I said, a grand is a lot of money to me.’

‘What was in the rucksack?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘When he left you, did he say where he was going?’

‘To search for the nunnery, I believe. Murray looked nervously over his shoulder. ‘Can I say something please?’

Mr Smith nodded.

‘Look, I don’t know what this is about but you have got this all wrong. I only met him this morning and I have ferried him around all day. Yes it is strange, I admit, but for a grand I would have driven him to land’s end and back. We didn’t talk much. In fact, he was quite ignorant, We went to two churches but I waited outside while he went in. He didn’t tell me anything. All I know is he ended up very interested in finding this nunnery.’

The man calling himself Mr Smith stared at him for a long time.

‘You know what?’ he said eventually, ‘I think I believe you.

‘Thank God for that,’ said Murray, placing his head in his hands.

Mr Smith stood up to leave.

‘So, can I go now?’ asked Murray sitting up straight again.

Mr Smith paused, before speaking over his shoulder.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ he said, ‘There are too many loose ends here, you being one of them. We will speak again soon.’ He left the room, closely followed by the two guards.

‘Shit!’ cursed Murray when the door was locked, and laid his head in his arms on the table.

Outside the cell, Mr Smith turned to one of the guards.

‘Any news on the other guy?’ he asked.

‘Not yet,’ came the answer, ‘We lost him in the woods but it won’t be long before we find him. We have every man on the case. Don’t worry, he can’t get in here, it’s locked up tighter than a ducks arse.’

‘Good. Let me know as soon as soon as there is any news.’

‘What about him?’ asked Baldy nodding towards the locked door.

‘I don’t think he’s involved,’ said Mr Smith, ‘Still, he’s probably seen too much already. We wouldn’t want Mr Murray running to the police, would we?’

‘You want him to disappear?’

‘That would be good,’ said Mr Smith, ‘But don’t make it messy. When this is all over I want the order to be squeaky clan. There’s a lake a couple of miles away. Quite a steep drop to the water, as I recall. If passing car or taxi was to have a blow out it could well find itself at the bottom of the lake, complete with driver, if you get my drift.’

‘Leave it to me,’ said Baldy, ‘I’ll make the arrangements.’

‘You do that,’ said Mr Smith, ‘But not yet. First of all let’s find this other guy before he causes any more damage. There’s too much at risk here.’

In another cell a few yards away, someone had their ear pressed up against the cell door, just about making out the conversation through the ancient oak.

The two men walked towards the end of the subterranean corridor, and slammed the door behind them. Long after the corridor had fallen silent, Murray sat at the table, his head still resting on his arms when he heard a muffled woman’s voice.

‘Hello?’ it called out quietly, ‘Mr Murray, can you hear me?’

Murray looked up, momentarily confused.

‘Hello!’ said the muffled voice again, ‘Mr Murray?’

Murray stood up and went to the door.

‘Hello!’ he said, ‘Who’s there?

‘Thank God,’ said the woman’s voice, ‘I thought you may be dead. Listen, I, don’t know who you are but you are in terrible danger.’

Murray’s hand crept unconsciously to his bloody face.

‘Really?’ he said, ‘I’d never have guessed.’

‘Seriously,’ said the voice, ‘Those two men who just left, they mean you terrible harm. I overheard them talking and I think they are going to kill you.’

Murray’s eyes closed, realising the worst. He was fucked!

‘Mr Murray, we have to get out of here,’ she said.


‘I am a prisoner as well,’ she said, About three cells up, I think.’

‘Are you hurt?’

‘No but I don’t fancy my chances much. We can’t just sit back and wait to killed. Is there anyway you can force the door?’

‘I don’t think so,’ he said rubbing his hands over the door, ‘It’s too solid.’ As his hand passed the lock receiver, he winced as a splinter lodged under a finger nail. He pulled out the splinter and examined the frame carefully. It seemed a lot older than the door and was certainly much damper. He looked around the room, searching for something to use as a tool. Finally his eyes settled on the table Baldy and his friend had left behind.

‘Wait,’ he said, ‘I have an idea.’ He turned the table over and grabbed one of the wrought iron legs pulling it outwards away from the frame. At first it resisted but eventually the friction built up and the hot metal severed, leaving him holding the cast iron leg of the table.

‘Got it,’ he said and returned to the door. ‘Right,’ he said to himself, ‘Let’s see what we can do here.’ Grasping the leg with both hands he drove the jagged edge into the door frame. At first it resisted but after a few blows, the old timber started to splinter and he attacked the frame with renewed vigour. Twenty minutes later he exposed the bar of the lock and placed the table leg behind it to lever it towards him. The door sprung inwards and he ran from the room in relief.

He looked along the corridor, getting his bearings. The cell he had escaped from was at the end of a short dark corridor, lit by a single bulb. Either side of the corridor were four rooms, each of which were open apart from the last one which was locked shut. At the end of the corridor, a stairway led up into darkness.

‘Did you do it?’ came the voice from the locked cell, ‘Are you out?’

‘I am,’ said Murray, trying the handle, ‘This frame looks rotten as well, step aside.’ He kicked at the door alongside the handle several times.

‘That’s it!’ said the woman’s voice, ‘It’s going.’ He stepped back and ran towards the door, shoulder barging it as hard as he could. The door flew inward and he fell sprawling to the floor, smashing his already hurting face against the floor.

‘Oh my God,’ said the pretty woman bending over him, staring into his blood covered face. Are you alright?’

‘I’ve been better,’ he said, through the pain, ‘What is this place?’

‘I think we’re in some old store rooms under the convent,’ she said, ‘By the smell of it, they haven’t been used for ages, perhaps hundreds of years.’

‘We’re under the convent?’

‘I think so, why? Do you know anything about it?’

‘Not really, but a passenger of mine was very keen to come up here.’


‘Yes, I am a taxi driver and brought a man down from London this morning to look for a missing lady.’ As he spoke he looked at her face and sat upright before asking her the obvious question.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked, ‘If you don’t mind me asking.’

‘India,’ she said, ‘ India Sommers.’ She held out her hand to shake his. ‘Pleased to meet you Mr Murray, now, if you don’t mind, can we get the fuck out of here?’

Murray and India made their way up to the ground floor and found themselves in an outbuilding of the convent. Murray peered through the window, checking for guards.

‘All clear,’ he said, and they made their way out into the snowstorm.

‘Where are we going?’ asked India.

‘Anywhere away from here,’ said Murray.

‘But you said Brandon was in there somewhere.’

‘He is, but there’s nothing we can do to help him. There are too many nutters around here. He did give me a number to call, but they took my phone. The best thing we can do is get to a village and call the police.’

‘In this weather? We wouldn’t get halfway.’

‘I know, that’s why we are taking that.’ He indicated the snow covered car alongside the gate on the other side of a small cemetery.

‘We don’t have any keys.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Murray, ‘I’ve hot wired enough cars in my time to start that little beauty.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Murray,’ I’m sure, after all, it is my taxi!’

They checked the area was clear before running across the graves. The flakes were falling thick and fast now and everything had a covering of snow.

‘Out of the way,’ said Murray when they reached the car. ‘Sorry babe,’ he muttered and smashed the side window with the table leg he was still carrying.

‘Oh my God,’ said India suddenly.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Murray

‘Look over there.’

Lying in the snow was the shape of a body, being rapidly covered by the falling snow. The dark patch by the head indicated a massive pool of blood, the cause of the man’s demise.

‘Who is it?’ asked India

‘How the fuck do I know?’ asked Murray incredulously, ‘Come on, we have to go.’

‘Wait, he may still be alive, we can’t just leave him.’

‘India, come on, there’s no time.’

‘I am not leaving without checking,’ she said, ‘A minute is all I need.’

She ran over and lifted the man’s head gently, her hand sinking into a soft mush behind his skull. He had been shot in the head and was obviously dead. Murray ran over and joined her.

‘Satisfied now?’ he asked.

‘Who do you think it is?’ she asked.

‘Looks like one of them goons, to me,’ said Murray. He looked around the area, checking for guards. ‘Shit,’ he said, ‘There’s another one.’ Sure enough, another body lay a few yards further along. ‘No wonder there’s no guards,’ said Murray, ‘Someone’s killing them all.’

‘Who, Brandon?’

‘Must be,’ said Murray, ‘Unless there’s a third party involved here.’

Suddenly, India jumped as she heard a loud thud and Murray staggered backwards. He looked down at his chest in confusion as blood started to ooze from a bullet hole. He looked up at India, with shock in his eyes.

‘Shit!’ he said and keeled over backwards into the snow. India span around in terror, only to come face to face with the barrel of a silenced pistol aiming directly at her forehead.

‘Hello, Miss Sommers,’ said the distinctive voice, ‘We meet again.’

Gatilusi,’ gasped India, in shock.

‘The very same.’

India stared at the gun, holding her breath as she waited for the flash that would end her life.

‘Are you going to kill me?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, and stepped forward, placing the cold barrel against the skin on her forehead.

India closed her eyes and waited to die.

‘No,’ he said eventually, ‘I may have need of you.’

She exhaled slowly and opened her eyes.

‘Don’t try anything stupid, Miss Sommers, I do not want to hurt you, but if you cause me any problems, I will shoot. Do you understand?’

India nodded silently.

Gatilusi lowered the gun and stared at her.

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked, nervously.

‘Looking to return something to it’s rightful home.’

‘The Palladium?’

‘It belongs in my country, Miss Sommers and I will stop at nothing to retrieve it.’

‘All these dead people …’.started India

‘Will not be missed,’ interrupted Gatilusi, ‘They are agents employed by the order and officially are not in the country. My people will ensure their bodies are not found.’

‘But what about him?’ asked India, looking at the body of the taxi driver, ‘He wasn’t part of this mess.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Gatilusi, ‘He was coming at you with an iron bar.’

‘He helped me escape,’ said India.

Gatilusi looked down at the body of the taxi driver.

‘He wasn’t one of them?’

‘No, he was as much a Victim as me.’

‘Then I am truly sorry,’ said ‘Gatilusi, but I suspect the order had arranged his disappearance anyway. One more missing person won’t unduly worry the police.’

‘We have to help him,’ said India.’

‘Too late,’ said Gatilusi, ‘He’s already dead.’

‘.I don’t understand,’ said India, ‘Why are you killing people, and how come you’re over here?’

‘My people followed you and your friend from Samothrace,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t difficult. All we had to do was be patient and you led us straight here.’

‘But I was kidnapped.’

‘Yes, we lost you for a while, but luckily your friend is very diligent and he led us here.’

‘Brandon is definitely here?’

‘He is, and that’s why I need you. You are my insurance policy. Now, turn around and make your way into the convent, and no funny stuff.’

A terrified India led the way towards the building closely followed by the Greek policeman holding his gun against her back. She stopped at the door and glanced back over her shoulder.

‘You won’t get away with this,’ she said nervously, ‘We know all about you and your secret society.

‘Do you really, and what exactly is it that you think you know?’

‘We know you are into kidnapping, murder and theft,’ said India, ‘Isn’t that enough to start with?’

‘Speculation,’ he said, ‘The authorities have nothing.’

‘Okay,’ she said, grasping at straws, ‘We know your organisation is called Mortuus Virgo.’

A smile played around his mouth.

‘Oh, this is good,’ he laughed, ‘You think I represent Mortuus Virgo?’

‘Don’t you?’

‘Oh no, Miss Sommers, I don’t, and that simple statement reveals how little you really do know. You think I am a dangerous man, and in a way, I suppose I am, but I am not on the same scale as Mortuus Virgo.’

‘Why, who are they?’

‘I think you are about to find out, Miss Sommers,’ he said, ‘Now move. He nudged her in the back with his gun and she stepped into the silent entrance hall of the convent.

Chapter 33

England 2010

‘Please, don’t be frightened,’ hissed Brandon, ‘I mean you no harm.’

Sister Bernice froze, her eyes bulging in fear as the hand clamped tightly around her mouth.

‘Okay,’ said Brandon, ‘I’m going to take my hand away. If you promise not to scream, I will explain everything, but if you call out I will have to tie you up and gag you. Like I said, I mean you no harm. Do you understand?’

Bernice nodded and Brandon slowly removed his hand from her mouth. She turned around slowly and gasped when she looked into his blackened face.

‘Don’t be frightened,’ said Brandon again, ‘Please sit down and I will try to explain.’

Bernice walked sideways and sat on the bed, never taking her eyes from Brandon.

‘Good,’ he said and pulled up the single stool and placed it before her.

‘Okay,’ he said again, sitting in front of her, ‘My name is Brandon and I work for the government. I am seeking a missing woman and I have reason to believe she is somewhere in this building.’

‘How did you get in here?’ whispered Bernice, ‘The door was locked.’

‘Don’t I know it,’ said Brandon, ‘I came in through there. He indicated the arched window high on the wall. Sorry, I had to break a small pane of glass but I will get it replaced, I promise. I couldn’t use the normal ways in, far too many security guards.’

‘How long have you been here?’

‘Not long, I was trying to pick the lock when you returned.’

‘You said you are seeking a missing woman, what makes you think she is here?’

‘The van she was abducted in came here yesterday morning. At least, I think she was in the van.’

‘You’re not sure?’

‘Look, it’s a bit complicated,’ he said, ‘And I’d love to explain, but I think her life may be in danger.’

‘What do you intend to do?’

‘To be honest, I’m not sure yet,’ he said, ‘I would like to have a look around and try to find her if I can. But that depends on you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I know it is asking a lot but as you’re here, perhaps you can make this a bit easier. If you could just make some suggestions as the best place to look I can get out of here even quicker and leave you to your business.

‘Just wait a minute,’ said Bernice, ‘You break in here, into a holy house with some extraordinary story about abduction and expect me to help you. Who do you think you are?’

‘I know it looks strange,’ said Brandon, ‘But you have to admit, there are things going on around here that are hard to understand.’

‘Like what?’

‘Well, for a start, the whole building is guarded by a dozen men with guns. That and the fact that the last place anyone saw my friend alive was in a house in London, and a van matching the description of the one outside was seen leaving that address less than an hour after she went in.’

‘What address?’ asked Bernice.


‘The address of the house in London, what is it?’

‘Don’t know the details but it is just off Victoria Station.’

‘Isis house, ‘said Bernice quietly, ‘The property belongs to the order and we use it when carrying out charity work in London.’

Brandon fell quiet and stared at the Nun in silence as she obviously digested all the information. Finally she looked up at him again.

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Nothing much,’ he said, ‘Just describe the inside of the convent to me. Think of anywhere they may keep someone locked up. An attic, an office, even a cellar. Somewhere like this must be riddled with old rooms.’

‘Look, Mr ….?’

‘Walker,’ he said ‘Brandon Walker’

‘Look, Mr Walker, I don’t know if what your telling me is true or not, but I agree there may be something strange going on.’

‘Like what, exactly?’

‘Like the murder of the Mother Superior,’ she said dramatically.


Bernice spent the next few minutes explaining the details of what had happened.

‘Did anyone call the police?’ he asked.

‘No, they said there was no need. They said that everything would be taken care of. ‘

‘Who did?’

‘Sister Agnes.’

‘And who is she?’

‘The Senior Sister, it is rumoured that she will replace the Mother Superior when all this is over.’

‘Do you think she had anything to do with her predecessor’s death?’

‘No!’ snapped Bernice, ‘Absolutely not. She was as grief stricken as all of us.’

‘Acting perhaps?’

‘Why would she? The Mother Superior was very ill and it was only a matter of time before Sister Agnes took her place. Besides, Sister Agnes is a holy person who has devoted her life to service of the Holy Mother. She could no more take a life than I could.’

‘Okay,’ said Brandon, ‘I will take your word for it. Thank you for your candour. Now, could you tell me where is the best place I could start my search.’

‘I can do better than that,’ said Sister Bernice, ‘I will take you myself.’

‘You know where she is?’

‘No, but there is a place where I have never been. It is kept locked and the Senior Sisters go to great lengths to keep it secret.’

‘Okay, but there’s one more thing before we go.’ He retrieved his phone from his pocket.

‘Who are you calling?’ she asked.

‘The police,’ he said, ‘I think the time has come to involve the authorities.’

‘I think you will find there is no signal here,’ said Bernice, ‘Nor anywhere else in this valley, for that matter.’

Brandon checked the phone, confirming what she said was true.

‘Is there a landline?’ he asked.

‘We are an order of prayer and dedication,’ said Bernice, ‘We have no need of such things here.’

‘But what if there is an emergency or you need medical help?’ he asked.

‘Maximillian, the caretaker, drives to the top of the hill at the end of the valley,’ she said. ‘It is the only place you can get a signal.’

Brandon took off his waterproof jacket and placed it on the back of the chair. He removed his gun and placed it on the table, along with an item similar to a mobile phone but with a thick antenna like a walkie talkie.

‘What’s that?’ asked Bernice.

‘Emergency beacon,’ said Brandon. ‘If I switch it on, it sends a request for help and brings support.’

‘Can I see?’

Brandon nodded and Bernice picked the beacon up to examine it. She could see three LED lights on top, all flashing red.

‘Why don’t you use this, then?’ she asked.

‘Pointless,’ said Brandon, ‘It works on a similar system, but sweeps all the phone networks for an available signal. Those red lights mean there is no signal whatsoever. Besides, It’s not really warranted at the moment, it’s not as if I am in any danger yet, and when that thing goes off, all sorts of shit kicks into action.’

‘So you are on your own.’

‘For the moment, but I have made alternative arrangements. If I don’t report in within the next few hours, Murray will make a call and this place will be swarming with good guys within the hour.’

Bernice placed the beacon on the bed.

‘Who is Murray?’ she asked.

‘Long story,’ said Brandon, picking up his gun. ‘Now, show me this locked door you told me about.’

‘What do you need that for?’ she asked.

‘There are guards everywhere,’ said Brandon, ‘If we are seen, I don’t want them thinking you helped me. At least this way, they will think you have been forced.’

‘Okay,’ said Bernice, ‘Let’s get this over with.

They made their way down through the corridors and towards the hall without meeting anyone. Bernice opened the doors and made her way quickly towards the carving of the Holy Mother. She quickly ran her hands over the carving again, searching for the release switch she knew had to be there.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Brandon.

‘I don’t know how it opens,’ she said.

‘Are you sure it is a door?’

‘Yes, I saw it open earlier on.’

‘How did they do it.?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Let me see.’

Bernice allowed Brandon to replace her and he stood in front of the carving in silence.

‘Explain what you saw, exactly,’ he said.

‘Sister Agnes stood in front of the Holy Mother in veneration and the door seemed to open by itself.’

‘Explain veneration.’

‘She held out her arms in the shape of the crucifix.’

‘Like this?’ asked Brandon, stretching out his arms.

‘Yes,’ answered Bernice.

Brandon’s arms couldn’t stretch to their full extent as they each met the reveals of the alcove on either side.

‘I wonder,’ he said and gave a push with each hand.

The panel on each side clicked and the carving in front of him slid to one side.

‘Bingo,’ he said, staring down the corridor to his front.

Bernice looked over his shoulder and into the dim corridor. This was no ordinary passage but a tunnel carved out of solid rock, the scars of ancient tools still visible on either side where it had been worked to make it wider.

Come on said Brandon. Let’s take a look. He walked slowly forward, his gun held down at his waist, ready to be pulled into the aim at a second’s notice. As soon as they entered the corridor, the sliding door closed behind them with a click, and they walked forward nervously.

Ten metres in, they passed a single doorway cut into the right hand corridor wall and though the door had no lock, Brandon could see it could be secured from the outside by a large metal bolt that slid across the door and into the rock reveal. At the far end they could see another door, though this one had a lock.

‘Your friend must be in there,’ said Brandon, ‘Where does it lead?’

‘I have no idea,’ said Bernice, ‘But I have a bad feeling about this. There should be no secrets within the order.’

Brandon fingered his trigger nervously and tried the door handle. As expected, it was locked, but after a moment’s pause, Bernice produced her keys and gave them to Brandon. He tried a few before hearing a satisfying click, and, after a brief glance towards Bernice, eased the door slowly away from him.

Immediately, a breath of warmth hit him and he eased his way sideways through the tiny gap, closely followed by Bernice. They both took one step beyond the doorway before pausing to stare at the scene below them in awe.

In front of them was a stairway leading down to the floor of a cavern the size of a large church, warmly illuminated by hundreds of candles. At the centre of the cavern, a fire burned brightly in a pit sunk into the rocky floor, helping the candles to send flickering shadows around the cave. Leading away from the doorway, in either direction, a landing followed the walls of the cave, stopping about halfway around, providing a good view of the entire cavern. A one metre dwarf wall edged the landing, providing a natural barrier from the drop to the floor below.

Brandon and Sister Bernice crouched down behind the perimeter wall and peered into the cavern.

‘Is that your colleague?’ whispered Brandon, indicating a lone figure near one of the walls.

‘Yes,’ said Bernice. Sister Agnes was replenishing candles in the hundreds of tiny alcoves cut into the walls.

Brandon looked down into the cavern, taking in all the detail. There were several doors sunk into the rocky walls, each closed tight and secured with a locking bar slid into the frames. At the far end, and half way up the wall, a small wooden balcony extended into the cavern from an arch cut into the rock, and a small wooden stairway descended to the floor.

‘What is this place?’ he whispered.

‘I have no idea,’ she said.

‘Some sort of hidden Temple?’ suggested Brandon.

‘It would seem so,’ said Bernice, but why, I don’t know.’

Down on the cavern floor, Sister Agnes finished her task and started to collect her things.

‘Come on,’ said Brandon, ‘Let’s get out of here before we are seen. I need to find out what we are dealing with here. Do you know where I can find any paperwork like records or anything?’

‘That room we passed looked like some sort of office back in the corridor,’ said Bernice, ‘You could look there, I suppose.’

‘Perfect,’ said Brandon, Let’s go.’

They walked back down the corridor and stopped outside the barred door.

‘I don’t think this is an office,’ said Brandon, there’s a locking bar on the outside, ‘Why would there be a need to lock someone inside an office.’

‘Probably used to be a cell,’ said Bernice, ‘My own cell is exactly the same. Worth a look, though.’

Brandon slid back the bar and stepped inside. Immediately he could see the room was empty except for a few items of basic furniture. He wandered around, looking for anything that may be of interest. Suddenly the door slammed shut and he heard the sound of the locking bar being slid home on the outside. He ran to the door and pulled on the handle, but to no avail.

‘Bernice, what do you think your doing?’ he shouted through the locked door.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the Nun’s muffled voice from the other side of the door, ‘I don’t know what is going on here, but as far as I can see, you seem to be part of it.’

‘Let me out,’ said Brandon urgently, ‘Can’t you see, I am trying to help?’

‘You may well be,’ said Bernice, ‘But too much is happening for me to take in. It’s better you stay in there until I can make sense of all this.’

‘Bernice, don’t be stupid,’ hissed Brandon, ‘You are in terrible danger, we all are. You have to let me out before it’s too late.’

‘Sorry, Brandon, she replied, ‘But it’s better this way. I won’t be long, I promise.’

He heard the sound of her echoing footsteps rushing back down the passageway towards the main hall and walked over to sit on the ancient chair in the corner, at a loss as to what do next.

Chapter 34

Britannia 65AD

Dragus stood at the back of the cave they had called home for the last few months. All smell of the pigs had gone and the cave was sub divided by walls of interweaved willow for privacy. Rubria had her own large space as befitted her position whilst Dragus and Rose each had their own, smaller stalls, though most nights saw Rose creeping into Dragus’s bed space when Rubria was sleeping. The Centurion and the slave had grown close over the last few months and despite the obvious physical benefits, had come to realise they had feelings for each other.

‘Soup?’ asked Rose, walking up to him with an iron tankard containing a hearty broth.

‘Thanks,’ he said, and nodded towards Rubria’s stall. ‘How is she?’

‘As good as can be expected,’ she said, ‘Seems to have come to terms with it at last.’

Not long after moving into the cave Rubria had realised what was happening to her body and at first found the idea repugnant and went into denial. However, when it became obvious and there was nothing she could do about it, she became resigned to the idea and started to make the cave as comfortable as possible for the baby’s arrival.

‘Has she said who the father is?’ asked Dragus.

‘She hasn’t said anything, except she has lain with no man voluntarily.’

‘Then my worst fears are confirmed, the child’s father must be Nero.

‘By the Gods, Dragus,’ said Rose, ‘Do you realise what you are saying? Because, if that is the case, then it is no ordinary baby in her womb, but the child of an Emperor. If it is born male, he would be the firstborn heir to Nero and be the rightful successor to the most powerful role in the world. If Nero found out he had a son he would scour the far corners of the earth to bring him back to Rome.’

‘That’s if his enemies didn’t find him first,’ said Dragus, ‘They would be just as keen to find any heir, though their motives would be far different, I fear.’

‘Then that’s it, said Rose, ‘Eventually the truth will come out and as soon as it does, our fate will be sealed.’

‘Then we have to get from here,’ said Dragus, ‘Find somewhere we can settle down in safety.’

‘We cannot leave now, the birth is too near, and besides, Blackthorn won’t let us go. He sees Rubria as a bride for Reynard, remember?’

‘I know, said Dragus, ‘But we can’t stay here. I have to convince Blackthorn to let us go.’


‘I don’t know,’ said Dragus, ‘But I’ll think of something. I have to.’

Dragus sat nervously in front of Blackthorn in the Chieftain’s hut. He had been invited to share a skin of wine with the leader, and they passed it around the circle of elders sat around the fire. He looked across the flames to stare at the man who held the fates of all three fugitives in his hands.

Blackthorn took a last swig from the skin and belched before staring into Dragus’s eyes.

‘So, Roman,’ he said, ‘The woman’s time is nearly here.’

‘It is,’ said Dragus, ‘The women of the tribe are with her. The child will be with us before the sun sets tomorrow.’

‘Good,’ said the Chieftain, ‘My son has been patient long enough. He will take her as his bride as soon as she has seen her first blood after the birth.’

‘Blackthorn,’ said Dragus, ‘You have indeed been very patient and we are grateful for your protection and hospitality, but I am not sure about the joining of your son and Rubria.’

‘Your worries are not my concern,’ said Blackthorn, ‘The union will go ahead as discussed.’

‘But she is a Roman Priestess,’ said Dragus, ‘A Vestal Virgin who knows nothing about such things.’

‘She will learn our ways,’ said Blackthorn, ‘And bear me many grandsons. What better fate could a woman have than to marry the son of a Chieftain?’

Dragus’s head bowed and he paused before speaking again.

‘There is more,’ he said, ‘Something you should know.’

Blackthorn waited for him to continue.

‘I think I know the child’s father.’

Blackthorn’s eyes raised in surprise.

‘You said she had lain with no man.’

‘And she hasn’t, at least not voluntarily, answered Dragus, ‘But she was raped and would not name the rapist because of who he is.’

‘Do you want me to kill this man?’ asked Blackthorn.

Dragus hid a smile.

‘That is a very appealing thought,’ said Dragus, ‘But I fear he is out of the reach of even your mighty sword. It is none other than Nero himself.’

‘The Roman king?’ laughed Blackthorn, ‘If this is so, then she was not raped. A king can take any woman he wants.’

‘Emperor,’ corrected Dragus, ‘And in our lands, rape is rape. We cannot do anything about it but there may be repercussions.’


‘The women are saying the child will be a girl. If this is true, then there may not be a problem, but if it is a boy, he will be the son of a Roman Emperor, and heir to the Empire. If this news gets out, the Romans will send an army to retrieve him, or kill him depending on who gives the order.’

‘Why should this concern me?’

‘They will take the boy and his mother away. You will be seen as an accomplice whatever the outcome and they will wipe your tribe out. Every man, woman and child will die or be sold into slavery. You and your family will be taken to Rome and paraded through the streets as a common criminal before being strangled in the Forum in front of the Senate.’

‘You do not know this.’

‘Trust me, I am Roman and know how it works.’

‘Then where does this leave us, Roman?’ asked Blackthorn, ‘I will not see my people die for the sake of one child.’

‘There is no need,’ said Dragus. ‘Let the woman recover and allow us to be on our way. No one need ever know we were here and you can go about your business as before.’

‘And my son?’

‘He has the choice of a hundred women. His attention will soon settle elsewhere.’

‘I have another way,’ said Blackthorn, ‘I could just kill you all and feed you to the pigs. No one would ever know of your time here.’

‘You could,’ said Dragus, ‘But what man would risk the wrath of a Goddess as powerful as Vesta. Kill one of her Priestesses and her fury would descend upon your people like the worst storm you have ever seen.’

‘Do you threaten me, Roman?’

‘No great chief, I only seek what is best for all of us.’

Blackthorn sat back in silence, staring at the foreigner. He was afraid of nothing, apart from the gods, but as a child he had also seen the power of the Romans, slaughtering everyone before them during their invasion. He knew that Dragus was telling the truth. Eventually he spoke again.

‘Tomorrow, when the child is born, we will decide,’ he said, ‘But tonight we will drink. He threw the wine skin over to Dragus. ‘Drink deep, Roman, there are plenty more skins to drain before the sun rises.’

Dragus unplugged the stopper with his teeth and lifted the neck up to his mouth. He had played the game, the die was cast. Their fates were now in the hands of the gods, and a certain unborn baby.

— -

The following morning saw the entire village gathered in silence around the cave entrance. Word had been sent that the birth was imminent and a hung-over Dragus dragged himself from the quilt of furs where he had fallen several hours earlier. He left the hut and dipped his head in a horse trough to bring himself around. There was no sign of the Chief but he followed the crowd up to the cave and made his way to the front of the throng. Blackthorn and his son were already there, neither showing any sign of the heavy drinking session.

‘You must have the head of an ox,’ said Dragus.

‘And you, a stomach of a child,’ answered Blackthorn.

‘It seems I underestimated the strength of your ale.’

A commotion at the cave drew their attention. An old woman came out and talked in hushed whispers to the smaller group. Two of the women rushed into the cave while another came quickly down the slope to talk to the chief, talking in a dialect Dragus couldn’t understand. When she had finished, the chief dismissed her and she made her way quickly back up to the cave.

‘What’s the problem?’ asked Dragus, ‘Is the child okay?’

‘Things do not go as expected,’ said the chieftain.

Dragus stepped forward to make his way up to the cave, but the grip of the Chieftain on his arm prevented him.

‘This business is not for men,’ he said. ‘The women are with her. Leave it to them.’

‘She may need me,’ said Dragus.

‘She has her slave and her Goddess,’ said Blackthorn, ‘With their help she will be okay.’

Inside the cave, Rose stood to one side of the cave, waiting for the midwives to finish their work. Rubria had already given birth, relatively easily, and the sound of the baby crying was a welcome relief to all present, however, now the attention of the old women was now totally focussed on the mother. Gradually, one by one they left the Priestesses side until eventually only one was left. She looked around and caught Rose’s eye, shaking her head slightly to confirm Rose’s worst fears. She beckoned her over to the pile of furs where Rubria lay. Rose waked forward, her heart sinking and the old woman moved out of the way, rubbing the ex slave’s shoulder in sympathy as they exchanged places at the bedside. Rose fell to her knees alongside Rubria, tears flowing like rivers down her face.

‘Mistress,’ she whispered, picking up one of Rubria’s hands.

The Priestess opened her eyes and tried to focus on the slave who had become her friend.

‘Rose?’ she whispered.

‘Yes, mistress, said Rose, ‘I am here.’

‘Is the child okay, Rose?’

‘Yes, Miss, a beautiful baby girl. I will bring her to you.’

‘Wait,’ said Rubria, ‘There are things that must be said.’

‘There will be time for words later, Miss,’ said Rose.

‘No there won’t,’ said Rubria, ‘I have learnt enough of these peoples words to know I am dying.’

Rose’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle the sob that threatened to burst from her very soul.

‘Rose,’ continued Rubria, ‘We have come a long way you and I, and you are a free woman, But there is something I would ask of you.’

‘Anything,’ whispered Rose, almost silently.

‘The child,’ said Rubria, I want you to care for her as if she was your own. Bring her up in the ways of the Goddess. Teach her the devotions and the rituals that have been part of me for as long as I can remember. Will you do that?’

Rose nodded, and wiped the tears from her face with the sleeve of her shawl.

‘Of course I will,’ she said.

‘Also,’ said Rubria, weakly, ‘The child will need a father to protect her. Make an honest man of Dragus and take him as your man.’

‘I am a slave, Miss, I am not sure he will see me as a suitable match.’

‘You are a free woman, Rose, and I have seen the way he looks at you,’ said Rubria, ‘But men are stupid in these matters, you will have to take the lead. Besides, the attraction seemed mutual in the darkest hours of the cold nights.’

‘You have heard us?’ asked Rose, feeling the blush starting on her cheeks.

‘Don’t fret, Rose,’ said, the Priestess, ‘You have your needs, and truth be told, there were times when I envied the protecting embrace of a man when I was afraid. Alas, it seems the mother has other plans for me.’

‘Oh, Miss,’ started Rose.

‘Wait,’ said Rubria, ‘There is one more thing you must do.’ She spent the next few minutes explaining the task to her friend before collapsing weakly back onto the firs.

‘I grow tired,’ she said, ‘Do you understand everything I have said.’

‘Yes, Miss,’ said Rose, ‘Though it is a big undertaking.’

‘I know you can do it, Rose,’ said Rubria, ‘Now, bring me my daughter so I can take the memory of her into the next life.’

Rose stood up and collected the baby from one of the women remaining in the cave. She placed her in the arms of the Priestess and pulled the linen cloth back from around the child’s head so Rubria could see her face.

‘She’s beautiful,’ whispered Rubria, her own tears beginning to roll.

The baby woke up and gazed into her mothers eyes for the first and last time.

Rubria gasped in astonishment.

‘Holy, Mother,’ she whispered, ‘Look at her eyes, Rose, have you ever seen any so beautiful.’

Rose looked down, and though the imminent death of her Priestess was foremost in her mind, the astonishing depth of blue that stared back at her was like nothing she had ever seen.

‘She is truly blessed by the Goddess,’ said Rose.

‘Look after her, Rose.’

‘I will, Miss,’ cried Rose, ‘By all the God’s in the heavens, I promise you she will be brought up safe and in the ways of Vesta.’

‘Then I will die happy,’ said Rubria.

Outside the cave, the crowd had fallen silent, and Dragus sat with his back against a tree waiting to be told something. Finally, thirty minutes later, the morning air was shattered by a chorus of unearthly wails, echoing out of the cave and around the valley as all the women started their mourning.

Dragus jumped to his feet, and ran up the hill. This time, nobody tried to stop him. He burst passed the several women at the cave mouth and entered the cavern. Rose was knelt by the side of Rubria’s body, smoothing her sweat-soaked blonde hair back from her cold brow. Any colour had gone and Dragus knew the Priestess was dead. He knelt besides Rose and put his arms around her shoulders.

‘What happened?’ he asked.

‘The birth was too much for her,’ said Rose, not taking her eyes off the Priestess, ‘She gave everything she had but in the end was too weak.’

‘The child?’ asked Dragus, looking around.

‘She is fine,’ said Rose, ‘The midwives are seeing to her needs for now, but it is you and I who will raise her. Rubria wished it so.’ She looked up at him through glistening eyes. ‘Is that okay?’

‘Of course it is,’ he said.

They stayed with the body for over an hour before the women took it away to prepare for burial. Finally they were alone.

‘I can’t believe she has gone,’ said Dragus eventually, the words echoing around the cave.

‘She hasn’t,’ said Rose

‘Sorry, I don’t understand,’ said Dragus

‘She is here,’ said Rose looking up to the cave ceiling, ‘All around us. Her spirit inhabits these walls, and always will.’

‘You don’t know that,’ said Dragus.

‘Oh but I do,’ said Rose, ‘She told me herself before she died.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘She made me promise three things,’ said Rose, ‘The first two was to look after the child and you, but the third is a lifetimes work. She made me promise that I would build a Temple to Vesta, and bring up the child in the way of the goddess.’

‘What, here amongst the Celts?’

‘It is what she wanted,’ said Rose, ‘She reckons that the order of Vesta would be far more appropriate here than in any city. After all, do not even these simple people have hearths and families? 'Vesta judges not by material things but by the goodness in peoples hearts.’

‘We cannot build a Temple here,’ said Dragus, ‘It would draw the attention of the Romans and there would be too many questions. Especially while Nero lives.’

‘That is why we must build it in here,’ said Rose, looking around. ‘Right here in this cave. No one needs know except those who are devoted. All we need is enough room to establish a central hearth and space for those called to service to lay their heads. Do you think we can do that, Dragus?’

Dragus stared long and hard at the beautiful ex slave before looking around the gloomy space.

‘I have been told there is a second cavern behind this,’ said Dragus. ‘It has not been used for generations and is filled with rubble but if I can clear that, perhaps there will be enough room.’

Rose took his hands and kissed him gently.

‘Thank you, Dragus,’ she said, ‘Now, I have to leave you for a while. I need to pay my respects to her earthly remains and prepare her body for burial. You go and speak to the chief and see if it is okay that we stay here.’

‘Leave it to me,’ said Dragus and returned the kiss, ‘Henceforth my life will be devoted to you, the child and the Goddess.’

‘What about the memory of Rubria?’ asked Rose, in mild surprise.

‘As far as I am concerned,’ said Dragus, ‘There is no difference. In my eyes, Rubria embodied the very essence of Vesta herself. She was the Goddess.’

Dragus didn’t return to the cave and Rose spent a lonely sleepless night on his furs. Finally she must have fallen asleep for the sound of Dragus’s voice in the distance dragged her back to consciousness.

‘Rose,’ called Dragus’s voice, ‘Wake yourself. There is work to be done.’

Rose stood up, and, wrapping one of the furs around her shivering naked body, walked sleepily to the cave entrance. She squinted against the sunrise before looking down at Dragus on the clearing below.

‘About time,’ called Dragus, ‘The day is almost done.’

‘The day has just started,’ contradicted Rose. ‘Who are these people?’ She indicated the hundred strong crowd behind the ex-Centurion.

‘These,’ said Dragus, ‘Are our workforce, Rose. These are the people to build the shrine to Vesta.’

‘The chief has agreed it?’

‘Absolutely. He has seen the holiness in the eyes of the child and adopted Vesta as one of his own gods. He has given us fifty slaves for labour, Rose, the rest are volunteers. Stone workers for statues, miners to enlarge the cavern and foresters to provide the supports. He has even decreed that every villager will provide tribute of food to the Temple. I know it is not the Temple she craved Rose, but until the time of Nero is over, I will make this cave a tribute to the Goddess and Rubria herself. And, in years to come, when Nero is rotting in Hades, we will build that Temple, Rose. We will clear a hill of trees and build a Temple in the sunshine that Vesta herself would be proud of.’

Rose gasped in astonishment.

‘Is this really true’? she asked.

‘It is,’ said Dragus, ‘And the task will be led by Reynard himself. During all that time with Rubria, he became converted to the worship of Vesta.’

Rose looked down at the crowd, unable to quite take it all in.

‘Well,’ shouted Dragus, ‘Do we start or shall I send them all back to the village.’

Rose wiped the tears from her eyes and her face broke into a wide smile.

‘You send them back, Roman, and you will be doing all the work yourself. What are you waiting for?’

Dragus returned her smile and gave the signal. The huge workforce flowed past him and up the slope. For a few moments the Centurion and the slave stared at each other over the heads of a hundred workers before she had to move to allow them into the cave. The work on Britannia’s first Temple of Vesta had begun.

Chapter 35

England 2010

Brandon opened his eyes slowly wondering where he was. Suddenly he sat up as his memory kicked in and he remembered his predicament. He looked at his watch. Four hours had elapsed since the Nun had locked him in, and for two of those he had been asleep. At first he had heard various people going back and fore outside the room, and he had waited nervously for one of them to open the door, but nobody did. He stood up from the old dusty mattress where he had finally fallen asleep and walked over to the door, listening to see if there was anything happening.

After a few moments, he heard the faint sound of someone coming up the corridor. This wasn’t the sound of confident footsteps of someone who had a right to be there, but considered steps, careful not to be heard. Brandon considered carefully and when he heard a muffled conversation, being carried out in whispers, he took a calculated gamble. Taking his gun from his belt, he stood to one side of the door, and held his gun in both hands, barrel facing upwards in the ready position.

‘Bernice,’ he said hesitantly, ‘Is that you?’

The voices stopped and silence fell.

‘Bernice,’ said Brandon, ‘If that’s you, you have to let me out. There are lives at risk here.’

The steps came closer and stopped outside the door.

‘Open the door, Bernice,’ said Brandon, ‘Please, don’t make this any worse.’

He heard the sound of the bar being slid back and the door swung inwards, creaking on its rusty hinges. Brandon stepped out into the open and levelled his gun at the person in front of him.

‘Bernice!’ said the woman, ‘Who the hell is Bernice?’

India!’ gasped Brandon in astonishment, ‘What are you doing here?’

‘She’s with me,’ said a male voice, as Gatilusi came into view, aiming his own gun at Brandon.

Gatilusi,’ gasped Brandon, aiming his own gun at the Greek policeman, ‘What on Earth is going on, here?’

‘Long story,’ said Gatilusi, ‘We can catch up later, suffice to say, there is not much time. Now, I didn’t expect to come across you in these circumstances, but there is an advantage to be gained here. I intend to find what I came for. I can leave you both locked in this cell or we can work together. This place has secrets we both need to solve if we are to retrieve our respective items.’

‘The girl is not an item’ snapped India.

‘Whatever,’ said Gatilusi, ‘The point is, both seem to be intrinsically linked. ‘I want the Palladium. Nothing more, nothing less, and I believe, by finding the whereabouts of the artefact, you have a good chance of finding the girl. Together, we stand a greater chance of not only being successful, but also of getting out of here alive. It makes complete sense. Your call.’

Brandon glanced at India before answering.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I will trust you.’ He slowly lowered his gun and reached around his back to place it in the holster on the back of his trouser belt.

‘Good,’ said Gatilusi, and lowered his own gun. ‘Right, let’s see what this is all about.’ He turned and made his way up towards the cavern door, closely followed by India and Brandon.

‘What is going on here?’ asked India as they walked.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Brandon, ‘But Sister Bernice told me about a secret inner order within the convent. I think they have something to do with it.’

‘Sister Bernice?’

‘Yes, a long story but I don’t think she is part of this, whatever this is.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘What about him?’ asked India, indicating the back of Gatilusi.

‘We have no option but to trust him,’ said Brandon, We are on our own here.’

‘Shouldn’t we just call the police?’ asked India

‘Not possible,’ said Brandon, ‘There are no phone lines here and apparently the only place you can get a signal is at the top of the hill at the end of the valley.’

Gatilusi stopped before the giant door to the cavern.

‘Is this the place?’ he asked

Brandon nodded.

‘Then it’s time find out what this is all about,’ said Gatilusi and, kneeling on the floor to keep a low profile, eased the door inwards, just enough for them to slip through.

Brandon joined Gatilusi behind the protection of the dwarf wall. They had crawled forwards from the door and now sat behind the wall, invisible to any eyes in the cavern. India followed them and, very slowly, they peered over the wall and into the Temple below. There was no sign of Sister Agnes and the cavern seemed to move eerily in the flickering candle light.

‘Can you see anything?’ whispered India

‘The Palladium doesn’t seem to be on display,’ said Gatilusi, ‘But that was to be expected.’

‘Sod the statue,’ hissed India, Is there any sign of the girl?’

‘No,’ said Brandon, ‘Though she may well be in one of those locked cells. If there’s no one here, we can quickly check and get the hell out.’

‘We can’t do that,’ said Gatilusi.

‘Why not?’

‘Because, I need to wait until someone comes. The chances of finding the Palladium by chance are minimal. I need inside information.’

‘But that increases the risk,’ said Brandon, ‘If the girl is there, we can be away in minutes.’

‘And how does that help me, exactly?’ asked Gatilusi, ‘You forget we have a deal. You help me and I help you, remember?’

‘And why should we help you?’ asked India, ‘You intend to steal an ancient artefact and take it to the other side of the world.’

‘I intend to steal nothing,’ hissed Gatilusi, ‘The Palladium is ours by right and was taken from Samothrace a long time ago. For thousands of years its location has remained a mystery until now. We have spent millions on unsuccessful investigations and though we had made the link between the disappearance of Rubria and the placement of the fake Palladium in the Forum, the trail went cold around the time of the great fire of Rome.’

‘So how come you found your way here now?’ asked India.

‘Mortuus Virgo are one of the most secretive organisations in the world,’ said Gatilusi. ‘They enjoy the patronage of some of the most influential people in power, including politicians, royals and clergy. We believe they are funded from the purse of the Vatican itself, though they have always denied it, and knowledge of this place is restricted to those privileged by right of birth only. Despite our best efforts, we could not find out where they were based, until those fools, the Venezelos brothers got lucky and fell in with a well meaning, yet senile old rogue who showed them a carved plank in return for a thousand dollars.’

‘What carved plank?’ asked India, her interest aroused.

‘Nobody thought much of it at first,’ said Gatilusi, ‘It was a very crude drawing, etched into a plank of a Roman cargo vessel, sunk about two thousand years ago. Carved by a bored sailor more than likely, perhaps to pass away the time.’

‘What was it?’ asked India.

‘A picture of a woman kneeling down and kissing the shore of some unknown land,’ answered Gatilusi, ‘But it was what around her neck that was important, a necklace of Vesta.’

Rubria gasped.

‘Are you sure?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ said Gatilusi, ‘As you know there were only six ever made, and five are spoken for, either in the hands of private collectors or are documented as being buried with various Vestal Virgins.’

‘All except one,’ said India.

‘The necklace of Rubria,’ confirmed Gatilusi.

‘How does that link here?’ asked Brandon.

‘The board was in Rome,’ said Gatilusi, ‘But it was returned there years ago along with many other artefacts. The actual wreck was found in the mud of the river Severn, A river separating England and Wales. It was a very busy route around the time of Rubria as the Romans were busy establishing a fort in a place called Caerleon, further up the river. As soon as that was established we despatched the Venezelos brothers to continue their investigations here in Britain. It didn’t take long before they picked up the trail but after a while they disappeared off the radar.’

‘And that’s where we came,’ in said Brandon.

‘Exactly,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Thanks to you, we managed to find them again and the trail led here.’

‘You know they are both dead?’ asked India.

‘Shame,’ said Gatilusi, ‘But their contribution will be remembered.’ He looked over India’s shoulder.

‘Someone’s coming,’ he whispered urgently, ‘We had better get down’ If I am correct, over the next few minutes you will witness a ceremony of one of the most secretive cults in the world, Mortuus Virgo.’

Six Nuns, each dressed in a grey hooded cape entered the cavern and made their way down to the fire. They walked slowly, in time with a bell that rang gently in the distance, each holding their hands together in prayer. They spaced themselves out around the fire pit and stood awhile in silence before Sister Agnes finally raised her arms and started a litany, her voice echoing around the cavern.

‘Holy mother, hear our prayer,’ she recited.

Isis hear our plea’ the others replied.

‘Holy mother guide our will,’ cried Agnes,

Isis light our way.

‘Holy Mother give us strength.’

Isis, see our unity.’

Brandon watched the ceremony develop, the chanting raising in volume and intensity.

‘Are they supposed to represent the Virgins of Vesta?’ asked Brandon.

‘I don’t think so,’ said India, ‘It just doesn’t sit right.’

Suddenly the chanting stopped and Sister Agnes climbed up on a small podium and faced the raised pulpit set into the far wall of the cavern.

‘Pontifex Maximus. Come forth and hear our prayers, that they may reach the ears of the Goddess Vesta.’

The room fell silent and all the participants gazed upwards, waiting for something to happen. Slowly, out of the shadows, a male figure emerged onto the pulpit, swathed in a long red cloak, his face covered by a white, featureless face mask, and in his hand he held a wooden mace. He struck the struck the floorboards of the wooden balcony three times ceremoniously.

‘Hail Children of Vesta,’ boomed the male voice.

‘Hail Marcus Vibius,’ they answered in unison.

‘Oh my God,’ whispered India, ‘They have even kept the tradition of the Pontifex Maximus.’

‘Who or what is that?’ asked Brandon.

‘In ancient Rome, the Pontifex Maximus was the high priest of the Temple of Vesta. The only male allowed into the Temple. He was the controlling authority with absolute power over the priestesses. Second only to the Emperor.’

‘So let me get this straight,’ said Brandon, ‘What we have here is a religious cult, mirroring the cult of Vesta from Rome over two thousand years ago.’

‘Exactly that,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Though I fear it is about to get a lot more sinister.’

The Pontifex Maximus had raised his staff and indicated the line of locked doors in the wall of the cavern.

‘Summon those who honour the veil of the Virgin,’ ordered the priest.’

All six Nuns retreated from the fire, each making their way to the cell doors. The Priest struck the floor once more with his staff and each Nun slid back the locking bars and opened their respective doors.What happened next caused Brandon’s jaw to fall open in astonishment and horror.

Out of each door, came a small girl draped in white silk, each no more than ten years old. Each Nun took the hand of a child and led them back to the fire pit, but this time, with the children filling the gaps to complete the whole circle.

‘Holy shit!’ whispered Brandon, as he watched them hold hands again and restart the ceremony.

‘They are using children,’ gasped India, ‘Indoctrinating them in the ways of Vesta.’

‘Just like they did in Rome thousands of years ago,’ said Gatilusi.

‘But how?’ asked India, ‘Who on Earth would allow their daughters to submit to this sort of life in this day and age?’

‘I don’t think any of these are here with parental consent,’ said Brandon, ‘If I am correct, I wouldn’t mind betting these girls have been taken against their will from the streets of London.’

‘I am not so sure,’ said India, ‘Surely they would be missed.’

‘Think about it,’ said Brandon, These Nuns run soup kitchens in the worst parts of London. They get to meet the destitute and the desperate on a daily basis. Stay out there long enough and eventually an ideal candidate would come along. Perhaps a young mother with a child she doesn’t want.’

‘If that’s true,’ said Brandon, ‘Why kidnap a ten year old girl from the streets of London.’

‘Who knows?’ said Gatilusi, ‘Perhaps the supply of babies dried up, or there was a death. It is very important to these people that the number of acolytes is maintained at six, however drastic the measures needed.’

‘But why?’ asked Brandon, ‘I don’t understand the reasoning behind it. Surely they know it is only a matter of time before they are caught.’

Gatilusi smirked.

‘You think this is new?’ he asked sarcastically, ‘Mortuus Virgo bases its religion around the core of six Vestal Virgins and has done for thousands of years. Like I said earlier, some of the most important people in the world are devotees. You think the Masons are secretive, this lot makes them look like modern day celebrities. They have the power to cover up any indiscretions they need to.’

‘But, that’s awful,’ said India, ‘Are you saying that there have always been young girls used in this way?’

‘Exactly that,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Probably since this place was built a couple of thousand years ago.’

‘But surely someone, somewhere over all that time would have found out. What about when they grow up and realise there is a big wide world out there?’

‘Who said they are allowed to grow up?’ asked Gatilusi.

Brandon and India stared at the Greek in horror as the implications sunk in.

‘I’m not certain,’ continued Gatilusi, ‘But in the past they probably grew up in an age of seclusion and devotion. The world was a much more isolated place then. But as society changed, the people in power became corrupt and the meaning of an innocent Pagan religion became more sinister. Eventually, the people in charge could not afford the risk of being discovered. The longer it went on, the more secretive the order became until it became a self perpetuating monster.’

‘So what are you saying?’ asked India

‘Why take the risk that the girls grow up and leave the order?’ asked Gatilusi, ‘When there are plenty of replacements out there. When one of the Virgins gets too old or starts to ask awkward questions, all they need to do is select a replacement from the big wide world.’

‘But what about the original?’ asked India, ‘What happens to her?’

Gatilusi stared at her before answering.

‘The clue is in the name, pretty lady,’ he said, ‘Mortuus Virgo, The dead Virgins!’

‘No, you must be wrong,’ said India, ‘Despite everything, this is a religious order. They would not condone murder.’

‘The Nuns may not,’ said Gatilusi, ‘But don’t underestimate who you are dealing with here. I have devoted half of my life chasing their shadows, yet at every turn they manage to cover their tracks. Their influence extends in to every walk of life, Police, organised crime, politicians and clergy. Their network extends all over the world and they will do everything in their power to ensure the cult continues and their secrets are kept, and if that means some people disappear, then so be it. Corruption follows them like a bad smell.’

‘Do you think Camille is down there?’ asked India.

‘No!’ said Brandon, ‘Those girls look too well versed in their responses. Camille hasn’t been missing long enough to learn the litanies. I think she is probably being held in one of those locked rooms, waiting for the brainwashing that this lot obviously employs.’

Shit!’ gasped India, and she threw herself down behind the wall in fear.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Brandon.

‘I think he saw me,’ she gasped.

‘Are you sure?’

‘No I am not sure,’ she hissed, ‘He’s wearing a mask for fuck sake, but he raised his head and looked in this direction.’

The three of them stared at each other for a few moments before Gatilusi spoke.

‘We have to go down there,’ he said.

Bullshit,’ hissed Brandon, ‘If he sees us, he’ll probably call his security.’

‘We have no other option,’ said Gatilusi, drawing his gun, ‘If he saw the girl, then they are probably on their way already.’

Brandon paused.

Do you want that girl, or not,’ hissed Gatilusi.

‘Of course,’ said Brandon.

‘Then its now or never,’ said Gatilusi, and raising himself into a crouch, he ran towards the stairs.

Fuck,’ cursed Brandon and followed Gatilusi down into the cavern.

The masked figure on the balcony span away from his followers, surprised at the commotion. He lifted his staff and pointed it at to the two men running down the stairs.

Unbelievers,’ he roared, as the ceremony came to a stuttering halt.

For a few seconds, nobody moved as they stared in confusion at the approaching men until one of the young girls saw the gun in Gatilusi’s hand and screamed in fright. Each of the Nuns grabbed one of the young girls in a protective embrace, and faced the interlopers.

Nobody move,’ shouted Gatilusi, brandishing his gun as he walked towards the nuns, ‘We don’t want to hurt anyone.’ He pointed the gun upwards to the male figure still on the balcony.

‘You, come down here.’

The man moved slightly and pressed a hidden switch with his foot.

‘You will not get away with this,’ he said, the voice muffled slightly by the immobile lips of the mask, ‘You do not know who you are dealing with.’

‘Let me worry about that,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Now, get your arse down here.’ When the man still did not move, Gatilusi grabbed the nearest Nun and held his gun to her head.

‘Stop it,’ shouted India, running down the stairs behind them, ‘Brandon, stop him!’

‘Last chance, weirdo,’ shouted Gatilusi.

‘No need for that,’ hissed Brandon.

‘We don’t have time for games,’ said Gatilusi, ‘I am too close. Now, why don’t you persuade him to come down here, before this trigger finger gets twitchy?’

‘I suggest you do as he says,’ called Brandon, ‘He has already killed more than one man today.’

The masked priest slowly made his way down the stairs from his pulpit and walked towards the Greek police officer, stopping a few paces before him.

‘Take it off,’ said Gatilusi, pointing his gun at the mask.

After a pause, the caped figure raised his hands and lifted the mask, revealing the face of a young man. A quiet gasp escaped the throats of most of the Nuns present, who, until now, were unaware of the identity of their Pontifex Maximus.

Jacob!’ said one of the Nuns in astonishment.

‘You know him?’ asked Gatilusi

‘He is the caretaker’s son,’ said the Nun.

India stepped forward and slapped Jacob across the face.

Whoa!’ shouted Brandon, ‘What’s all that about?’

‘He’s the man who abducted me from the hotel,’ said India, ‘I have never been so scared in all my life.’

Brandon looked at the man, and recognised the face from the hotel CCTV the previous day.

‘So it is,’ he said.

Jacob rubbed his face slowly.

‘You will regret that,’ he said.

‘I don’t give a shit,’ said India, ‘It feels good right now.’

‘Enough,’ said Gatilusi, ‘You, get down on your knees.’

‘And who are you, exactly,’ answered Jacob.

‘That doesn’t concern you,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Suffice to say you have something I need, and I am not leaving here without it.’

‘And what would that be?’ answered the Priest.

‘The statue of Pallus Athena,’ said Gatilusi.

‘The Palladium?’ said Jacob, ‘You think we have the Palladium here. Oh this is good. If you knew anything about your history you would know it has been buried beneath the pillar of Constantinople for over fifteen hundred years. You have wasted your time friend, the Palladium is a thousand miles and two thousand years away.’

Gatilusi smashed the man across the head with his gun, sending him sprawling to the floor.

‘Enough,’ shouted Brandon, ‘This is getting us nowhere.’

Gatilusi dragged the man back to his feet and placed his pistol under his chin.

‘Okay, Marcus Vibius or Jacob, whatever your name is, I’ll get straight to the point. I know Rubria brought the Palladium here sometime after Nero’s fire. I also know she was the one who founded this cult and based it around the Palladium. Now, if you tell me where it is, no one will get hurt, I will return the Palladium to its rightful home and you can return to your pathetic religious games. However, if you don’t tell me what I want to know, then you or some of your deluded friends are going to meet Vesta rather sooner than you think. Now, it’s very simple. Tell me where the Palladium is.’

‘You think I am afraid to die?’ sneered Jacob, ‘Our existence is ruled by the Pagan Gods and this life is just a stepping stone to the next.’

‘I thought you would say that,’ said Gatilusi, with a false smile, ‘So I came prepared!’ Without any warning he lowered his gun and shot Jacob through the knee.

The Priest fell to the floor, screaming in agony.

For fuck sake!’ shouted Brandon and stepped forward to intervene.

‘Stop there,’ shouted Gatilusi and pointed his gun at Brandon’s head. ‘I don’t have the time or inclination to play silly games with this lunatic.’

‘There’s no need for this,’ said Brandon, ‘Let’s just find what we each came for and get out of here. No need for anyone else to get hurt.’

‘Well that’s up to him,’ said Gatilusi.

Brandon looked at the man writhing in agony on the floor. His knee cap had shattered outwards and his lower leg was a mess of blood and cartilage. He had seen injuries like this before in Northern Ireland and knew the man would never walk normally again.

Gatilusi bent down and spoke quietly to Jacob.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘I have met nutters like you before, and when they are reminded that their ideals seldom match up to reality, then they always change their mind. Now, there are no arteries damaged so you will live, but the longer you hold out the greater the pain will be. In one minute, I will destroy the other knee, followed by both elbows, then your balls. I might even smash all your teeth. You probably won’t die but, but almost certainly end up as nothing more than an impotent torso in no control of his limbs. You will need people like these to spoon feed you porridge and wipe your arse. So, think carefully how you wish to proceed, Mr Priest, but, while you do, let me give you a little reminder of the sort of pain you are facing here.’

He stood up and placed his foot into Jacob’s shattered knee and twisted it downwards causing the caretaker’s son to scream in agony once again.

‘Clock is ticking, young man,’ said Gatilusi.

‘It’s not here,’ shouted Jacob through the pain, ‘I don’t know where it is.’

‘Shame,’ said Gatilusi, ‘The doctors may be able to fix what is left of your leg. Oh, you’ll have a severe limp, but if I do the other one, it’s at least a wheelchair job. Thirty seconds to regain your memory.’

India walked over and joined Brandon.

‘There’s no sign of her,’ she said, ‘I’ve checked all the cells and Camille isn’t here.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Brandon, ‘She must be here somewhere.’

‘Ten seconds,’ said Gatilusi.

‘Don’t do this,’ said Brandon.

‘Shut up,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Time’s up!’ He aimed the gun at Jacob’s other knee

Stop!’ shouted Sister Agnes, ‘For the love of God, you have to stop this madness.’

‘And who are you?’ asked Gatilusi.

‘I am Sister Agnes,’ said the Nun. ‘Nothing is worth the death of any individual. Why are you here, what is it you want?’

Gatilusi lifted his gun.

‘At last,’ he said, ‘Someone with a bit of sense. It is very simple, Sister, I want the Palladium and your Master here reckons it’s not here.’

She looked down at the semi conscious man.

‘He is telling the truth,’ she said, ‘It isn’t.’

‘Wrong answer,’ said Gatilusi, and aimed the gun again.

‘Wait!’ shouted the Nun. ‘I am telling the truth. The Palladium is not here and hasn’t been for two thousand years.’

‘That’s not true,’ said Gatilusi, ‘I know it is here. We have evidence that Rubria came to Britain and brought the Palladium with her.’

‘She did,’ said Sister Agnes, ‘But it is not here in this convent.’

‘Do you know where it is?’ asked Gatilusi.

‘In a manner of speaking,’ said Agnes.

‘Then what are we waiting for?’ asked the Greek, ‘Take me to it.’

‘I can’t,’ said Sister Agnes.

‘Oh for Christ’s sake,’ said Gatilusi looking upwards, ‘Will everyone stop playing these fucking games.’ His voice rose in anger. ‘Last chance, Sister!’ he shouted and placed the gun against Jacob’s head, ‘Take me to the Palladium or this man dies right now!’

I can’t,’ shouted Sister Agnes in terror, ‘It is buried with Rubria.’

The room fell silent before Gatilusi spoke again.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked.

‘You are correct,’ said Agnes, ‘Rubria did indeed bring the Palladium here and this place stems from her devotion. But she never got to see this Temple. Not long after she arrived she died in childbirth. The following she had already built up, buried the Palladium with her in tribute to her holiness.’

‘In here?’

‘No, this place came later.’

‘Then, where?’

‘Nobody knows. There was probably a tomb at one stage but it has been lost over the centuries. The Palladium, along with the remains of Rubria has been lost forever.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ said Gatilusi eventually.

‘Why would I lie?’ asked Agnes gently, ‘I have nothing to gain.’

‘Except to retain possession of the Palladium,’ said Gatilusi.

‘The Palladium was a piece of wood,’ said Agnes, ‘We worship the Holy Mother. Her aura is of peace, love and family, not pain and death. We do not need a redundant piece of wood to honour her name.’

Gatilusi lowered his gun.

‘This is true?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ said Agnes, ‘In the name of all that is holy, I give you my word.’

‘And nobody knows where she is buried.’

‘Not that I know of.’

‘You said she had a child,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Are there any descendants?’

‘No records,’ said Agnes, ‘We know she had a girl, but history has forgotten her.’

‘Then who built this?’ he asked, looking around.

‘Her slave,’ said Agnes, ‘The one after whom we take our name. Rose.’

Santa Rosa,’ murmured India, as she realised the link.

‘She carried on the message,’ said Agnes, ‘And we base our devotion on hers. She ensured the traditions continued long after Rubria’s death.’

‘Wait a minute,’ said Brandon, ‘There’s a Temple of Vesta less than five miles away. Why build that so close to here?’

‘We are not quite sure but believe it was as a sop to local Roman dignitaries. They focussed on the marble and ceremonies of the typical Roman Temple while the true devotions continued down here out of public view.’

Bullshit!’ said India suddenly.

They all turned to face her.

‘What?’ asked Brandon.

‘You heard me,’ said India, ‘She is lying.’

They turned to the Nun.

‘I don’t know who you are, young lady,’ said the Nun ‘But I assure you, I am telling the truth.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ said India, simply.

‘Why would I lie?’ asked the Nun.

‘I’ll tell you why,’ snapped India, ‘To take the focus from what it is you really do here and to ensure that this sick cult of abduction and murder is never opened up to the scrutiny of justice.’

Murder?’ gasped Sister Agnes, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

‘You know exactly what I am talking about,’ said India, ‘I am talking about abducting innocent children and forcing them into your service and them disposing of them brutally when they are past their sell by date.’

Sister Agnes stared at her in horror.

‘I have no idea what you are on about,’ she said.

‘Then look around you,’ shouted India, ‘There are six children here, all forced against their will to serve some defunct deity instead of running around in playgrounds having fun. Heaven knows what torture their parents are going through. They probably think they are already dead.’

‘I think you misunderstand,’ said Agnes.

‘Then why don’t you enlighten me?’

‘The parents of every child here have placed them here voluntarily. All were either destitute or terminally ill and saw our order as the chance for their children to have the best start in life. They are well fed, have daily schooling, and if you had bothered to look around, you would see we have dormitories and even a playground. Yes they are schooled in the ways of Vesta, but there is no difference to any other religion. They are happy, here, and, when the time is right, they have the option to either leave the order and return to the world or stay within the vows of the order and take our message of peace and love across the world.’

‘But the cells…’ started India

‘Ceremonial purposes only,’ said Agnes, ‘Used only on special occasions to recreate the glorious days of Vesta.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ said India, hesitantly.

‘Then ask them yourself,’ said Agnes standing to one side.

India did not move.

‘Then why was India abducted?’ asked Brandon.

‘I have no knowledge of that,’ said Agnes.

Brandon turned his attention to the wounded man at his feet.

‘What about you, Jacob,’ asked Brandon, ‘You must know the answer, why did you abduct India?’

‘Please, I need an ambulance,’ answered Jacob weakly.

‘Answer the question,’ snarled Gatilusi.

‘You heard him,’ said Brandon, ‘Answer the question or I won’t be responsible for his actions.’

‘I was ordered to,’ said Jacob, still staring at the floor.

‘Speak up!’ shouted Gatilusi.

I was ordered to, all right!’ shouted Jacob, ‘I was given her name and location from one of the elders over the phone and told to use her as leverage.’

‘But why?’ asked Sister Agnes.

‘Because they were getting too close to the truth, they thought that we could use the girl to make the cop back off.’

‘And if I didn’t?’ asked Brandon

‘Then you would both be disappeared,’ answered Jacob quietly.

‘But to what purpose?’ asked Sister Agnes, ‘We have nothing to hide.’

Jacob laughed sarcastically.

‘You really don’t know, do you?’

‘Know what?’

‘What this place really is, or rather, what it has become.’

‘I don’t understand, tell me.’

‘Have you ever met the parents of these children?’ asked Jacob.

‘No, but…’

‘Exactly, and you never will. The girl is right, most were abducted at an early age and have no memory of their previous lives. When they leave this place, they don’t go back to their families, they spend the rest of their lives in relative slavery for some of the most wealthy people on the planet.’

Sister Agnes gasped.

‘No,’ she said, ‘It is not true. They leave this place at the age of sixteen and join convents all around the world.’

‘They are sent all around the world, all right,’ said Jacob, ‘Shared out between the elders of the cult for their own perverted pleasures. Rich old men pay good money for Virgins these days.’

No!’ shouted Agnes, ‘It’s not true, it can’t be.’

‘Why are you telling us this?’ asked Brandon quietly, ‘You must realise you are facing a long time in prison.’

‘I am going nowhere,’ said Jacob,

‘And what makes you think you are safe?’ asked Gatilusi

Jacob looked up at him in derision.

‘You think I came down here without raising the alarm?’ he asked, ‘Even as we speak, my people are probably on their way. You will never get out of here alive.’

‘It was you, wasn’t it,’ gasped Agnes, ‘You killed the Mother Superior.’

‘What if I did? She was dying anyway and I just wanted to wipe that smug look of that self righteous face of hers before she did. Since I was a little boy, she has taken every opportunity to berate me and remind me I am just the caretaker’s son. She has made my family’s lives a misery as long as I can remember, and, when the last Pontifex Maximus died and I was approached to become the eyes and ears of the elders, I jumped at the chance. Only she stood above me in the order. Now the roles are reversed, and I have the control.’

Gatilusi grimaced and pressed his gun at the man’s head once more.

‘Don’t do it,’ said India, quietly, ‘We need him.’

‘Why?’ snarled Gatilusi, barely holding his temper, ‘What’s to stop me putting a bullet in his perverted brain right now.’

‘Because he might know where Camille is,’ said India.

The Nun looked at India

‘Who is Camille?’ she asked.

‘A ten year old girl who was abducted from London by one of your people,’ said India, ‘And I think he had something to do with it.’


‘Probably because he wanted some of the action himself,’ ventured Brandon. ‘Isn’t that right, Jacob? They may have given you the semblance of power but in reality you are just another pawn in the game. You do all the work and the faceless ones get all the pleasure. I think you used the contacts of the order in London to get young girls of your own.’

Jacob didn’t answer.

‘That’s it, isn’t it, Jacob?’ Everyone else was doing it so why couldn’t you? You enjoyed the protection of this organisation and believed you were untouchable. How many were there Jacob, two, more, perhaps dozens, and where are they now, Jacob, What have you done with them?’

‘You think you know all the answers,’ sneered Jacob, ‘But there are things not even you know. Yes there have been girls, but it was no more than I deserved.’

‘You killed those two poor girls as well, didn’t you?’ said India.

‘What girls?’ asked Sister Agnes.

‘There were two young girls murdered beneath Victoria Station in London. One was flogged to death and one was crucified. She was wearing a necklace with a coin as a pendant. Phillip of Macedonia.’

The Nun’s hand went to her own throat.

‘Like this?’ she asked and pulled out a chain.

‘Exactly the same,’ said India.

‘It was you, wasn’t it?’ said Brandon, turning once again to Jacob, ‘You gave them a similar necklace as a gift before you killed them.’

‘What if it was me?’ asked Jacob, ‘They deserved it.’

‘What girl deserves to be crucified?’ gasped India.

Un-pure ones,’ screamed Jacob, I thought they were Virgins but they weren’t. They were harlots. I deserve purity, I am the Pontifex Maximus. The punishment for impurity is clear and she had to be punished.’

‘Oh my God,’ said India, ‘How many others were there?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Jacob.

‘Of course it matters,’ shouted India, ‘How many have you killed?’

I don’t know,’ shouted Jacob, holding his head in his hands, ‘I don’t remember.’

‘What about Camille?’ asked Brandon quietly, ‘Did you abduct here as well, Jacob.’

‘The girl from outside the hotel?’ asked Jacob.


‘She is so pretty,’ said Jacob, ‘And so young. You would think she would be pure but even she needs to be punished.’

Bullshit,’ shouted India, ‘She was only ten, of course she was pure. You are nothing more than a cold blooded murderer, looking for excuses to justify the killings.’

‘What did he say?’ asked Brandon suddenly, interrupting the girl

They all looked at him.

‘Sorry,’ said India, ‘What do you mean?’

‘He said ‘Is,’ not ‘Was.’ Camille is alive.’

They turned back to Jacob.

‘Is she Jacob,’ asked Brandon, ‘Is Camille still alive?’

Jacob stared at the intense look on Brandon’s face and started to giggle.

‘Might be,’ he said, ‘I don’t know really, It’s in the hands of the Goddess.’

The sound of voices and running feet echoed from the entrance passage above.

‘What do you mean, in the hands of the Goddess?’ shouted Brandon, grabbing him by the collar, ‘Where is she you fucking pervert, where is Camille? What have you done with her?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ laughed Jacob hysterically, ‘It’s too late.’ He looked up as several men burst into the room and spread out along the landing, each pointing a pistol down into the cavern.

Brandon stared up at the six men.

‘Don’t even think about it,’ he said quietly, anticipating Gatilusi’s next move.

Gatilusi lowered his gun back to his side and they stood waiting for someone to speak. A grey suited man in dark glasses followed the rest into the room, and stood at the top of the stairs.

‘You,’ he shouted, ‘Put the gun down.’

Gatilusi crouched slowly and put the gun on the floor.

‘Kick it away from you.’

The gun went spinning across the floor.

‘Right, Caretaker, what is going on here?’

‘They shot me,’ shouted Jacob, hysterically, ‘I need an ambulance.’

The man stared at him derisorily, and turned to Brandon.

‘Mr Walker, we meet at last. I have to say you have caused our organisation a lot of hassle over the last few days. Still, nothing that can’t be resolved.’

‘And who are you?’ asked Brandon.

The man smiled sarcastically.

‘Call me Mr Smith,’ he said, ‘I represent this organisation.

‘Armed division, I assume,’ sneered Brandon.

‘Something like that,’ answered Mr Smith, So, out of curiosity, why have you gone to all this trouble.’

‘To find a missing girl,’ said Brandon, ‘We know she is around here somewhere and I suggest you let her, and the rest of us, go before it is too late.’

‘Really Mr Walker, I don’t think you are in any position to make any demands, do you?’

Brandon looked around, seeking a resolution to their dilemma.

‘Look, Mr Smith, or whatever your real name is, we don’t know what this is all about, but there is an option here where everyone wins.’

‘Oh yes, and what is that exactly?’

‘You just leave us here and go back to wherever you came from.’

‘And why would we do that?’

‘Think about it,’ said Brandon, ’There is no way you are going to get away with this. Within hours, special forces are going to be crawling all over this place, but you still have time to get away and those children can get back to a normal life.’

‘Special forces?'

‘Because I have already made the arrangements,’ said Brandon, ‘Even as we speak they are probably on their way.’

‘Ah yes, the taxi driver,’ said Mr Smith. He fished in his pocket and threw down a phone to shatter at Brandon’s feet. ‘I think we can safely assume that call was never made.’

Brandon’s hopes plummeted as he realised they were isolated. No help was coming.

‘Enough nonsense,’ said Mr Smith, ‘Caretaker, what is the situation here. How much do they know?’

‘Everything,’ said Jacob, grimacing in pain.


‘More or less.’

‘How very unfortunate,’ said Mr Smith, ‘Still, at least it makes the solution simple.’

‘What are you going to do?’ asked India.

‘Unfortunately, I have no option but to remove you from the situation,’ he said menacingly.

‘What do you mean, surely you’re not going to…?’

‘Oh, but I am,’ said Mr Smith.

‘You can’t,’ shouted Brandon amongst the commotion.

‘And why not?’ asked Mr Smith.

‘For fuck sake,’ shouted Brandon, ‘You can’t kill us all, what about the children and the nuns?’

‘Nobody knows the children are here, they can be replaced, as can the nuns.’

‘But what about the rest of the order, all the Nuns in the convent, you can’t cover up all their deaths.’

‘You are right,’ said Mr Smith, ‘But fortunately for them, none are aware of the existence of the inner order. They need not be harmed.’

‘You are serious, aren’t you?’ said Brandon, taking a step forward, ‘You really mean to do it.’

‘It is unfortunate, but yes,’ said Mr Smith.

Brandon took a step sideways until he was almost directly in front of Gatilusi.

‘But surely that means the end of Mortuus Virgo,’ said Brandon, ‘Why would you self destruct?’

‘You think this has never happened before,’ laughed Mr Smith, ‘Over the centuries, the acolytes have been wiped out on many occasions, and yes, sometimes at our own hands, but it is not the end of Mortuus Virgo. There are places such as this all over the world. Don’t you worry about us, Mr Walker, we will endure.’

‘What about me?’ shouted Jacob.

‘You are no longer any use to us,’ said Mr Smith.

‘What do you mean?’ shouted Jacob, ‘I am one of you. You can’t kill me, I am the Pontifex Maximus.’

‘Really?’ said Mr Smith, and turned his head to nod at one of his henchmen. A single shot rang out, and a bullet smashed into Jacob’s chest sending him flying backwards. ‘Not any more.’

Gatilusi looked down and saw Brandon’s gun tucked in the rear of Brandon’s trouser belt. Suddenly he realised why Brandon had moved in front of him. He slowly drew the gun as gently as possible from the belt, keeping it low and out of sight.

‘Ready?’ He whispered, ‘After three.’

Brandon nodded. If they were going down, they were going down fighting. He took a deep breath and braced himself.

‘One, two, three.’

Brandon threw himself forward to where Gatilusi had kicked his own gun a few minutes earlier, and Gatilusi opened fire at the men on the landing, catching them by surprise. The noise was deafening in the cavern and two of the men fell wounded to the floor, while the rest dropped down behind the perimeter wall in panic.

Brandon grabbed the gun discarded earlier and sent a few shots upwards to keep their heads down. The Nuns grabbed the screaming children and ushered them down behind the rear of the wall surrounding the fire pit. Brandon raced around the fire and joined them behind the wall.

‘What now?’ gasped Gatilusi, swapping weapons with Brandon.

‘I don’t know,’ said Brandon,’ But I’m not going to just sit back and take it. How many shots have you got?’

‘Two mags,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Forty rounds in total, you?’

‘Eighty,’ said Brandon, ‘Not a lot, but it may keep them away or a while.’

‘Then what?’

‘I don’t know.’ He turned to Sister Agnes.

‘Is there any other exit to this place?’ he asked.

‘Only the chamber of the Pontifex Maximus,’ she said pointing up to the Balcony from where Jacob had descended earlier, ‘But I don’t know where it leads.’

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘This is what we will do. Gatilusi and I will give covering fire while you and your colleagues get everyone up those stairs as fast as you can.’

‘Will we have enough time?’ asked India.

‘We have enough rounds for just under a minute,’ said Brandon, reloading his pistol with a fresh magazine, ‘So when the shooting starts, make sure that everyone knows exactly what they must do. As soon as we run out of ammo, they will pick us off like rats in a barrel.’

Thirty seconds later, India turned to Brandon.

‘Ready,’ she said, ‘They are scared but know what to do.’

Brandon turned to Gatilusi.

‘Okay sharpshooter,’ he said, ‘As soon as the last one is up the stairs, you and I cover each other and follow them up. Agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ said Gatilusi, ‘Ready? Go.’

Once more Brandon and Gatilusi jumped up and started firing at the balcony, only easing off when all the gunmen had dropped once more behind the wall. In his peripheral vision he could see a line of children and the six Nuns climbing the stair as fast as they could. Up above, Mr Smith realised what was happening and shouted an order to his men.

‘Get up,’ he screamed, ‘Their getting away.’

A few of the gunmen took their chances and sprang up to engage the Gatilusi and Brandon. A hail of bullets flew in either direction as the fire fight broke out until at last, Brandon ducked once more behind the wall. He looked up at the doorway above and saw the back of India, disappearing through the archway.

‘Right,’ he said, ‘Our turn, ammo?’

‘Just a couple left,’ said Gatilusi. Brandon threw him his last magazine. ‘One full mag each,’ he said, ‘Make them count. Ready?’

‘Let’s go,’ said Gatilusi and jumped up to run towards the stairs.

Brandon aimed up at the balcony and started to reverse towards the stairs, giving covering fire. Halfway up the steps, Gatilusi stopped and joined in the shooting to allow Brandon to catch up. The continued to cover each other until Brandon’s gun clicked on an empty magazine.

Empty,’ he shouted and turned to sprint the last few steps to the balcony, passing Gatilusi on the way.

Me too,’ said Gatilusi, as his gun too fell silent. For a few seconds the cavern was silent before the gunmen realised their advantage and jumped up to return the fire. Several shots ricotched off the rocky walls around them, as they raced through the archway and into the space beyond.

A few yards in, both men stopped in confusion. They had expected to find a passage of some sort, but instead the found a small chamber, sealed at one end by a solid looking door, the only other way out. To one side, all the children and Nuns were huddled together in a frightened group.

‘It’s locked,’ said India, a look of terror on her face.

Brandon ran towards the door and examined it closely.

‘Can you break it down?’ asked India.

‘No,’ he said, ‘It’s solid Oak.’

‘Then we are trapped!’

‘Sorry, India,’ he said, ‘It was our only chance.’

She stared at him for a while, before smiling gently and, tiptoeing up to reach him, kissed him gently on the lips.

‘What’s that for?’ he asked.

‘Just wanted to see what it felt like?’ she said, ‘Before it is too late.’

She smiled again and walked over to join the Nuns as they sat the children down, cross legged on the floor. Sister Agnes started a prayer.

Brandon and Gatilusi watched them for a few minutes before Brandon reached down and slid out a knife from within the side of his boot.

‘What are you going to do with that?’ asked Gatilusi, ‘They’ve all got guns.’

‘I am going to try to reason with him,’ he said, ‘And If I can get close enough, perhaps I can take him hostage.’

‘That’s a shit idea,’ said Gatilusi.

‘Maybe it is,’ said Brandon, ‘But it’s the’ only one I got left.’

‘They’ll never fall for it,’ said Gatilusi, You won’t get halfway down the stairs.’

‘Perhaps not,’ said Brandon, ‘But I’m not going to wait here and do nothing.’

Gatilusi stepped forward and offered his hand in friendship.

‘Nice knowing you, Brandon,’ he said, ‘Good luck.’

Brandon hesitated, but took the man’s hand.

‘You almost had it,’ he said.

‘The Palladium?’


‘Wasn’t meant to be,’ said Gatilusi, ‘The Goddess had us fooled all along.’

‘Seems like she did,’ said Brandon.

He looked towards India who was busy comforting one of the crying girls. She looked up and, after a moment, sent him a gentle smile.

He nodded and smiled back.

‘Time to go,’ said Brandon and walked back towards the archway, but as he entered the Cavern once more, he was blown backwards by a blinding explosion.

Chapter 36

England 2010

‘Steady,’ said India, as Brandon struggled back to consciousness, ‘Slowly does it.’

Brandon groaned. He could feel India’s hands on his face and knew he was lying on his back. His head ached, and his skin felt hot. He knew something awful had happened but could not remember what. He opened his eyes slowly.

‘I can’t see,’ he said, ‘I’m blind.’

‘Don’t be so bloody dramatic,’ said a familiar male voice, ‘The effects will wear off soon enough.’

‘Who’s that,’ asked Brandon.

‘Cheeky fucker!’ said the voice in amusement.

‘All in good time,’ said India, ‘You just rest for a few moments.’

India poured some water from one of the bottles they had been given onto a handkerchief and dabbed it on Brandon’s face. Slowly, Brandon regained his senses and sat up alongside India. He looked around the room, his vision clearing up by the second.

‘Feeling better?’ asked India.

‘Much,’ said Brandon, ‘What happened?

‘You happened,’ said India, You saved us, Brandon.’

‘How? I don’t understand.’

‘Your mates, the special forces you promised,’ said India, ‘They turned up just in time. It seems you managed to send the signal after all.’

Brandon patted his pockets.

‘I can’t have,’ said Brandon, ‘I don’t have my transceiver, I’ve lost it somewhere.’

‘Well, someone pressed the panic button,’ said a familiar voice, ‘And here we are. Just in time too, it would seem.’

Brandon looked up at the special forces officer standing over him. He was dressed head to foot in black combat gear, and the tinted visor of his assault helmet was lifted up revealing his sweating face.

‘Mike, you old bastard,’ said Brandon, ‘What are you doing here. I thought you were flying a desk these days.’

‘You didn’t think I was going to miss this one, did you?’ asked his old friend. ‘We have been following you for days. All other leads in the Camille case have come to nought so when it became clearer your investigations were getting somewhere, we prepared for the worst. As soon as that signal came, we came in John Wayne style.’

‘But you told me the case was cancelled,’ said Brandon.

‘Had to’, said Mike, ‘Boss’s orders. This thing is so sensitive; we had to keep you at arm’s length. Just in case you pissed someone off right at the top.’

‘Nice to feel wanted,’ said Brandon.

‘Come on, mate,’ said Mike, ‘You know the score.’

‘Just a number, right?’

‘Just a number,’ confirmed his friend.

‘Anyway,’ said Brandon, ‘How did it go?’

‘Seamless,’ said Mike, ‘Caught then with their pants down, so to speak. No casualties on our side, though some of the bad guys will have a headache for days.’

‘I know how they feel,’ said Brandon, ‘What was that thing?’

‘Stun grenade,’ said Mike.

‘Naah, too big,’ said Brandon.

‘New version,’ said Mike, ‘Designed for larger spaces like this one, takes everyone out in one hit. Incapacitates anyone in range for over ten minutes.’

‘Wow,’ said Brandon, ‘That’s some firepower.’

‘Keeps the body count down,’ said Mike, ‘And you caught it full frontal. Anyway, how are you doing? Feel strong enough to shed some light on this mess?’

‘Think so,’ said Brandon, ‘Help me up.’

India and Mike took an arm each and lifted him to his feet.

‘Where is everyone?’ asked Brandon looking around.

‘They’re fine,’ said India, ‘They’ve been taken back through to the convent. A fleet of police cars and ambulances are on their way as we speak.’

‘What about Mr Smith and his friends?’

‘We’ve got them secured,’ said Mike, ‘Borrowed some of the Nun’s cells.’

They made their way past the pulpit and down the wooden stairs to the cavern floor. Several soldiers were dotted around the room, automatic rifles held across their chest, alert to any further danger. Two more were kneeling down alongside someone in the centre, a rucksack open at their side. They had removed their helmets and flak jackets, and were working furiously to save a wounded man.

‘Who’s that?’ asked Brandon.

‘Hoped you could tell me,’ he said, ‘Got a smashed knee and a chest wound. We’re doing our best but don’t think he’s gonna make it.’

‘That’s Jacob,’ said Brandon, ‘The caretaker’s son and self styled high priest. It seems like he is the one responsible for the two girls in Victoria.’

‘What about Camille?’ asked Mike, ‘Any sign of her?’

‘No,’ said Brandon, ‘Only he knows what happened to her. Let’s hope you can save him.’

One of the medics stood up and approached Mike.

‘Sorry Boss,’ he said, ‘We managed to get a drip into him, but he’s losing blood internally. He needs an operating theatre, not a medic.’

‘Shit,’ cursed Brandon, ‘Can I talk to him?’

The soldier looked at Mike, before answering.

‘It’s okay,’ said Mike, ‘He is one of us.’

The medic turned back to Brandon,

‘He is conscious,’ he said, ‘But only just. He won’t last long.’

‘Then I have to speak to him.’ He walked over and knelt down besides the dying man.

‘Jacob,’ he said, ‘Can you hear me?’

The man opened his eyes slowly.

‘What do you want?’ he asked weakly.

‘I want you to do the right thing, Jacob,’ said Brandon, ‘I want you to tell me where Camille is.’

Jacob smiled weakly.

‘Oh yes, Camille. Still haven’t found her then?’

‘Is she still alive, Jacob?’

‘She may be,’ said Jacob, ‘I don’t know.’

‘Then tell me where she is, Jacob, don’t let another little girl die for nothing.’

‘Am I dying?’ asked Jacob, weakly.

Brandon nodded slowly.

‘You are,’ he said,’

‘Then I have nothing to gain by telling you where she is, you he said and closed his eyes.

Brandon thought quickly.

‘Don’t do this, Jacob,’ he said, ‘In the name of Vesta, don’t let her die.’

Brandon’s gamble paid off and at the sound of the Goddess’s name, the dying man’s eyes flickered open.

‘Don’t you dare use her name in vain,’ he coughed, spraying spots of blood over Brandon’s face. ‘She is greater than anything this world has ever seen. Her name was ancient when Christianity hadn’t even been thought of.’

‘Are you a true follower, Jacob? Do you really believe?’

‘You know I do,’ said Jacob, ‘And I welcome this final journey with open arms.’

‘And how do you think you will be judged, Jacob? At the time of judgement, how do you think Vesta, the Goddess of love, peace and harmony will see the terrible things you have done.’

‘She will know I acted always with her in mind,’ he said, ‘Those who were punished, died because they failed her expectations. They fell short of her high standards.’

‘Because they were not Virgins?’

‘Exactly, and died in the manner that all who failed her have done so throughout history.’

‘Then you have fulfilled your role, Jacob. There is no need for anyone else to die. Go to meet your Goddess with a lighter conscious. Tell me where this last little girl is. Do the right thing and tell me where she is.’

Jacob closed his eyes and Brandon’s head fell forward in defeat. He stood up to leave, when Jacob spoke one last time.

‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I will tell you. Come close.’

India sat on the second step of the stairway, talking to Mike when Brandon approached.

‘Well?’ she asked, ‘What happened?’

‘He died,’ he said.

‘Did he tell you where Camille is?’

‘Not exactly,’ said Brandon, ‘But he did confirm she is probably still alive.’

‘So, how does that help?’

‘It doesn’t,’ said Brandon, ‘But before he died, he did say something else.’


‘He said she is laying in the arms of the Goddess.’

‘The arms of the Goddess?’ repeated India, ‘Is that it?’

‘That’s it.’

‘But what does it mean?’

‘I have no idea,’ said Brandon.

They all stared at each other blankly for a few minutes before India spoke again.

‘What else did he say?’

‘Not much.’

‘You talked with him for several minutes,’ she insisted, ‘He must have said something else.’

‘Only that they died in the way that all such women have died throughout history.’

India’s eyes widened.

‘Of course,’ she said, ‘Why didn’t we see it before?’

‘What?’ asked Brandon, looking at her expectantly.

‘This guy, this whole organisation is based around the rituals of Vesta. Anything he has done has been true to the traditions. Those girls in the train station, they were killed according to the ancient ways of Vesta.’

‘One was flogged and one was crucified,’ said Brandon.

‘Yes but in the beginning, that was the way most of them were killed. Flogging in particular was used by the Pontifex Maximus to discipline wayward priestesses. This guy was being true to his predecessors. Jacob said she is still alive and laying in the arms of the Goddess. That can mean only one thing. She has been buried alive.’

Shit!’ said Brandon, ‘You really think so?’

‘Has to be,’ said India, ‘It is a typical execution method for fallen Vestal Virgins, and despite her age, Jacob’s delusion saw her as soiled and needing punishment. He has buried her somewhere.’

‘Then she is probably dead by now.’

‘Not necessarily, Vestals suffering this punishment were buried with enough food, water and blankets to keep them alive for a long time. It just relies on how much food and water he left her.’

‘But where?’ asked Mike, ‘She could be buried anywhere.’

‘No,’ said India, ‘Not really, the tomb would be quite large and need a lot of work. Most of his days were spent here in this convent. It has to be somewhere near.’

‘An existing room, then,’ said Brandon, ‘This place must be filled with them.’

‘I’m not sure,’ said, India, ‘It is apparent that the Nuns knew nothing about his actions. I think he would have been found out if he was using this place. There has to be an obvious answer.’

‘Wait a minute,’ said Brandon, ‘He was the caretaker’s son, right?’

‘Yes, amongst other things.’

‘Exactly, and one of those tasks was grave digging.’

India stared at him.

‘Of course,’ she said, ‘There must be dozens of tombs in the cemetery that are suitable.’

‘Then what are we waiting for,’ asked Brandon, ‘Let’s get going.’

They jumped up and started up the stairs, closely followed by Mike and two of the soldiers.

Outside the convent, the storm had abated, leaving a deep layer of snow over everything. In contrast to the anger of the storm, the cemetery was now an eerie and silent landscape, full of indistinguishable shapes that hinted at the sad secrets they protected. India and Brandon stopped in their tracks, staring at the scene before them.

‘Where do we start?’ asked Brandon.

‘Lying in the arms of the Goddess,’ said India, ‘There has to be a clue there, somewhere.’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know, said India, ‘But the longer we wait here the longer we will be. Look for anything that looks out of place.’

The two of them, along with the three soldiers started sweeping the snow from the covers of the tombs, reading each in turn to find anything that may shed a clue to the occupant’s identity.

Brandon made his focus any that had a statue of an angel or anything that could be interpreted as a goddess.

‘In loving memory of Sister Rachel,’ he read at the base of one.

‘Shout them out,’ shouted India, ‘Let me hear every one. They may mean more to me than you.’

‘Sister Leanne,’ shouted one of the soldiers.

‘Mother Superior, Elizabeth,’ shouted the other.

Over and over again, the names of the long dead echoed across the cemetery as they systematically checked the tombs.

‘No name on this one,’ came a shout.

‘This one’s collapsed,’ shouted Brandon.

‘Come on,’ said India to herself, ‘You have to be here somewhere.’

Between the five of them, they had cleared most of the tombs within the hour.

Brandon sat on a flat topped vault, blowing on his freezing fingers.

‘It’s no use,’ he said, ‘There’s nothing here. We are wasting our time.’

‘She has to be,’ said India, ‘It makes total sense.’

‘I don’t know, India,’ he said, She’s probably dead. Perhaps we should call it a day.’

India didn’t answer, just stared over his shoulder.

‘India,’ said Brandon again, ‘I said…’

‘That’s odd,’ she said.

‘What is?’

‘On the head stone, there’s no name, just a date.’

‘One thousand and five,’ read Brandon, ‘Must be one of the oldest here.’

‘The headstone may be old,’ said India, ‘But the engraving is quite modern.’

‘Perhaps someone just refreshed the date,’ suggested Brandon.

‘But why just the date,’ mused India, ‘Why would anyone do that?’

‘Who knows?’ asked Brandon.

‘Actually, it’s not one thousand and five,’ said India, ‘Look at the numbers, It says 100 then a space and then the number 5. It doesn’t make sense.’

Brandon stared at the engraving,

‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I hadn’t noticed.’

India’s eyes widened as realisation dawned.

‘Oh my God, Brandon,’ she said, ‘It’s not a date, it’s a label. The numbers represent Roman numerals.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The number 100 was represented by the letter ‘M’ and the number 5 was a ‘V’

She looked at Brandon with hope in her eyes.

‘Don’t you see, Brandon, MV are the first letters of Mortuus Virgo. They must have been carved by Jacob as a sick taunt to anyone passing. This is the one, Brandon, We’ve found her.’

Brandon rapidly swept the rest of the snow off the tomb with his arm. Underneath the snow, the lid of the tomb was six inches of solid granite, but in the centre, another, smaller and more modern slab sat its own, the mottled concrete finish looking completely out of place against the natural stone. Brandon pushed it to one side, revealing a circular hole underneath, the ragged edges showing where someone had drilled a ring of holes in the slab before knocking it through to make an access hole.

‘She must be down there,’ gasped India, ‘The poor thing.’ She leant over and shouted into the darkness, ‘Camille, are you there?’ She fell silent and waited for an answer. ’Camille, sweetheart,’ she shouted again, ‘If your there, just make a noise. We are here to help.’

When there was still no answer, she started to take off her coat.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Brandon

‘I’m going down there,’ said India.

‘No, said Brandon, ‘Mike sent for help. We can get this thing apart within the hour.’

‘She may not have an hour,’ said India, ‘I have to go down there now.’

‘Then let me go down,’ said Brandon.

‘Oh yes,’ said India, ‘Have you seen your midriff recently?’

‘Point taken,’ said Brandon, looking at the diameter of the hole, ‘Okay but hang on.’ He turned to Mike. ‘Have you got a torch?’ he asked.

Mike opened one of his pouches on his utility vest and handed over a pencil torch.

‘Take this,’ said Brandon, giving the torch to India, ‘If she is alive, let me know what you need and we will send it down. If she’s not, we’ll pull you out straight away. Okay?

‘Yes,’ she said nervously and hoisted herself up to sit on the tomb. She lifted her legs up and dangled them into the hole. Brandon took hold of her wrists and braced himself.

‘Good luck,’ he said, and India slid herself over the edge. Brandon grimaced as she descended into the darkness and he leant forward until his shoulders were almost completely into the tomb.

‘Can you feel the floor?’ he shouted.


‘Hang on, I’ll pull you back up.’

‘No,’ shouted India, ‘Let me go.’

‘I’m not letting you go,’ shouted Brandon, ‘You don’t know how far it is.’

‘Brandon,’ shouted India, ‘I know what I am doing, just let go.’

‘You sure?’

Brandon,’ she shouted.

‘Okay, okay,’ he said, ‘I’ll let you go. Bend your knees and roll when you hit the floor. Here goes.’ He let go of her wrists and India fell into the darkness.

India expected to hit a hard floor, but to her surprise she landed on a soft surface, twisting her ankle in the process. She sat up, coughing as she inhaled a mouthful of dust.

‘You okay?’ shouted Brandon from above.

‘Think so,’ she said and retrieved the torch from her pocket. The narrow beam of light was quite effective in the dark and she shone it around the tiny space.

The room was about ten foot square and was totally empty except for a small alcove cut into the wall. Within the alcove, a glazed pottery urn reflected the light from the torch back at her. The soft surface she landed on was revealed to be an old mattress that must have been rolled up and forced through the hole above. Empty crisp wrappers and water bottles littered the floor, evidence of recent life but there was no sign of the girl. India double checked the room for hidden doors, finding none. She stood in the centre of the room, turning slowly, totally confused. It didn’t make sense, she had to be here somewhere.

Her gaze returned to the urn. It was quite small for the alcove and sat slightly to one side of centre. She walked slowly over and stopped facing the alcove. The urn was beautifully decorated with multicoloured glazes and the lid was sealed with a thick layer of Red wax.

India caught her breath as a slight movement caught her eye in the tiny space behind the urn. She shone her torch into the alcove and slowly released her breath in relief.

‘Hello, sweetheart,’ she said gently, ‘You must be Camille.’

A tear stained face peered back at her in terror. A little girl was squashed into the tiny space, her knees drawn up to her chin in order to fit. She nodded slowly.

‘I thought so,’ she said, ‘My name is India’

‘Like the country?’

‘Yes said India,’’ Like the country.’

‘That’s a pretty name.’

‘Thank you,’ said India, ‘I like yours too.’

‘Have you come to take me home?’

‘I have,’ said India, ‘But first we have to get you out of this little hole, Is that okay.’

The little girl nodded, and wiped her runny nose.

‘Good, then let’s move this out of the way, shall we?’ She picked up the urn by the handles, but before she could place it on the floor, her foot slipped on an empty water bottle and she fell headlong into the darkness, emptying the urn’s contents across the tomb floor as it smashed into dozens of pieces.

India coughed violently as she inhaled micro particles of ash, the remains of somebody long dead. She got to her feet and spat out some more ash.

‘Are you okay?’ asked the tiny voice.

‘I’m fine, sweetheart,’ she said, ‘Just a silly slip.’ She turned back and helped Camille from the alcove.

‘Wow, it’s a bit tight in there,’ she said, ‘It must have been awfully uncomfortable.’

‘It was my hiding place,’ said Camille, ‘I thought you was the horrible man, coming back to get me.’

‘What man?’

‘The one who did all the nasty things to me.’

‘Oh sweetheart,’ said Rose, ‘Come here.’ She opened her arms and cuddled her tightly. ‘You’re safe now. That man will never hurt you again.’

India was surprised at the strength of the girl’s embrace and eventually had to prise her arms from around her neck.

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘Time to get you out of here. I am going to lift you up in the air, and a nice policeman is going to pull you out of that hole up there, Is that okay?’

‘Will you come up as well?’

‘Of course, I will,’ said India, ‘But there is only room for one at a time.’

‘Is the policeman nice?’ asked Camille.

‘Really, really nice.’

‘Will he have chocolate?’

India laughed gently and brushed the girl’s dirty fringe from her eyes.

‘Well, if he doesn’t, I’m sure someone will get you some really quickly. How about that?’

‘Okay,’ said Camille.

Two minutes later, India watched the girl’s legs disappear out of the hole as she was pulled from the tomb. Brandon’s face reappeared, framed by the, now clear night sky.

‘Won’t be long,’ India he called, ‘Just going to get some rope to pull you up.’

‘No problem,’ said India, and took the opportunity to look around the tomb once more. The beam from her torch fell on the broken urn and she walked over to examine it more closely. She picked up a piece of the pottery and examined the exquisite decoration.

As her hands disturbed the ashes, something beneath caught her eye and she brushed the ashes away gently to see what it was. The item was dirty with age but before she could make any assumptions, Brandon called out from above.

‘Come on, India, we’re ready here.’

India placed the item in her pocket and rushed over to the rope dangling from the hole above. She put her foot in the loop at the end and gripped tightly with both hands.

‘Okay,’ she shouted, ‘Start pulling.’

‘Where is she?’ asked India, when she was finally pulled free.

‘In safe hands,’ said Brandon, ‘One of the Nuns is looking after her and there is an ambulance already on its way.’

‘I must go to her,’ said India and ran into the Convent. She found her in the hall, wrapped in a blanket and being spoon fed warm soup by Sister Agnes. India walked quickly over and knelt in front of her.

‘Hello, Camille,’ she said

‘Are you India?’ asked the girl.

‘That’s right, I told you I would follow.’

‘You are very pretty said the girl.’

‘So are you,’ laughed India, ‘Though very dirty.’

‘I haven’t washed for ages,’ said Camille.

‘Me neither,’ said India. ‘Did they give you any chocolate?’

‘No,’ said Camille sadly.

‘I tell you what,’ said India, ‘When this is all over, and you are well again, I will buy you the biggest bar of chocolate I can find for being so brave, how about that.’

‘I would like that,’ said Camille.

The door opened and a team of paramedics came into the hall.

‘Will you stay with me?’ asked Camille.

‘No, you have to go home, now. These people are like doctors and will look after you. Is that okay?’

Camille nodded.

‘Good, and I will see you again real soon.’

‘Don’t forget the chocolate,’ said Camille.

‘I won’t,’ laughed India, and blew her a kiss.

Camille returned the compliment and smiled before being led away by the female paramedic.

Brandon came in and sat next to India.

‘You okay?’ he asked.

‘I think so, she said, wiping away a tear.

‘You’ve been great,’ he said, ‘But it’s all over now.’

‘Any longer and she may have died,’ said India.

‘If it wasn’t for Mike and his gang, we would all be dead,’ said Brandon.

‘Just as well you called them,’ said India.

‘I didn’t,’ said Brandon, ‘I made the arrangements with Mike, but didn’t operate the beacon. The last time I saw it was in Sister Bernice’s cell.’

‘You think she operated it?’

‘Pointless, it works using the satellite system, and there is no signal in the valley.’

‘Why don’t you ask her,’ said India.

‘I will,’ said Brandon looking around, ‘I wonder where she is?’

Two miles away, on top of the hill at the end of the valley, a squad of soldiers were searching the snow covered forest floor, their eyes seeking something very specific. One stopped in his tracks and put his hand up to signal those around him.

‘Stop,’ he shouted, ‘I’ve found it.’ A mound of snow lay at his feet, and just beneath the surface, the flashing lights of three LED bulbs were flashing green. He knelt down and scraped away the snow to expose the beacon.’

‘Shit,’ said the soldier and scraped more snow away revealing a grey frozen hand still clutching the beacon.

‘Poor sod,’ said one of the soldiers, ‘Who is it?’

The first soldier scraped away more snow and stood back in surprise.

‘Fucking hell,’ he said quietly,’ It’s a Nun!’

All four soldiers stared down at the frozen features of Sister Bernice.

‘Wow!’ said the soldier, ‘She must have come up here in the storm. Didn’t stand a chance, poor cow.’

Chapter 37

Littlewick Green — England 2010

‘So,’ said Brandon, ‘I hear you went back to the Convent recently.’

‘I did,’ said India, ‘The new Mother Superior kindly allowed me back into the Tomb where we found Camille.’

‘Really? Why go back down there?’

‘Oh, just something I had to do. When I was down there the first time, I accidentally broke an urn of ashes. I couldn’t leave them like that, all over the floor, so I had a new one made and the convent arranged for a small internment ceremony to re dedicate the ashes.’

‘Oh,’ said Brandon, I see.’

The sun beat down on both of them. It had been several months since the Cult of Mortuus Virgo had been uncovered and they were back in the village of Littlewick green. They had lunched at the pub and taken a stroll around the church of St Lawrence. Now they both sat on a bench against the church wall, overlooking the massive Oak at the centre of the peaceful cemetery.

‘I haven’t heard much about it on the news,’ said India.

‘No, and I don’t think you will.’

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t know,’ sighed Brandon, ‘But it seems Gatilusi was right. These people have friends in the highest places. The gunmen have disappeared, Gatilusi claimed diplomatic immunity and is back in Samothrace, and we have been instructed we are not to talk about it.’

‘But that’s mad,’ said India, ‘What about those girls?’

‘The ones from the convent are being looked after by social services.’

‘And Camille? Surely her abduction hasn’t been covered up?’

‘Her family has asked for no publicity. They want to be left alone.’

‘But she’s the Prime Minister’s niece.’

‘Look,’ said Brandon, ‘I don’t know the details, but like I said, they have friends in high places.’

‘Then it has all been for nothing.’

‘Not really, at least no more girls will be abducted around here.’

‘But what about the others? Jacob said there are similar places all around the world.’

‘We can’t change the world, India,’ he said, ‘Leave it to the authorities. Anyway, forget all that, why did you call me?’

‘Well, haven’t seen you for a while and thought it would be nice to catch up.’

‘Yes, but why here?’

‘Something has been bothering me,’ said India.


‘Remember I told you that over the years there had been at least two excavations of the Temple on Weycock hill.’


Well, one of the excavations found two coffins beneath the Temple, but only one had the remains of anyone inside. The other was empty.’


‘Well it would seem that the body had been removed deliberately a long, long time ago, probably to protect the occupant from Grave robbers.’

‘Why would grave robbers take a body?’

‘I believe Rubria was eventually buried under the Temple on Weycock Hill. For hundreds of years she and the Palladium lay there undisturbed but when the Romans left Britain in 410 AD the Temple would have been at risk from anyone who knew she lay there. However, we now know that by then, Vesta had a great following and I think her followers would have taken steps to protect her remains and those of the Palladium.’


‘By moving her body elsewhere.’

‘Where, into the cavern?’

‘I don’t think so. It could have attracted too much attention. No I believe they picked a site where nobody would think of looking for a Pagan Priestess.’


‘A Christian cemetery.’

Brandon looked around, understanding dawning on his face.

‘You think she is buried here?’

‘I do.’

‘But why?’

‘This church is intrinsically linked to the history of this village and has been since the Romans left.’

‘That doesn’t mean anything,’ said Brandon.

‘Perhaps not, but this is the church of St Lawrence. His story is fascinating in itself, but it is interesting that his followers built a church here, so far away from Rome and so close to the Order of Santa Rosa.


Perhaps, but St Lawrence is known by another title.’

‘Which is?’

‘The keeper of the secrets!’

‘Fascinating,’ said Brandon, ‘But even if you are right, how do you intend to find an unmarked grave from over fifteen hundred years ago?’

‘I don’t have to find it,’ said India, ‘I know exactly where it is.’

‘You do?’

‘I think so.’


India looked at her watch.

‘Just be patient a little longer,’ said India, ‘For if I am right, all will be revealed in a few minutes.’

Brandon looked at her in confusion but she would say no more. Five minutes later an old woman led a little girl into the cemetery and walked slowly along the path. India nudged Brandon and nodded her head towards the couple.

‘Who are they?’ asked Brandon.

‘Shut up and watch,’ said India.

The two generations made their way past all the headstones and across the central clear lawn area towards the oak tree. The old lady opened her basket and pulled out a bundle of grass, bending it over to form a loop. She tied it around the centre and handed it to the little girl, who, after kissing it gently, placed it at the base of the Oak. Without further ado, they turned around and headed back towards the gate, passing India and Brandon on the way. India stood up and spoke to the old lady.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘I hope I’m not intruding but I couldn’t help noticing what you just did? Would it be rude of me to ask if there was any significance in placing a knot of grass at the base of the tree?’

‘Oh that,’ said, the old woman, ‘Just a silly tradition. Been doing it all my life. Got to pass these things on to the younger generation, haven’t we?’

‘Of course,’ said India, ‘Is it widespread around here?’

‘Oh no,’ said the old lady, ‘It’s a family thing.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said India, ‘Sorry for the intrusion.’

‘No problem,’ said the lady, and turned to the girl. ‘Say goodbye, Ruby.’

‘Bye bye,’ said the girl looking up at India, and they both turned away to walk back to the village.

Brandon walked over to the tree and picked up the straw doll the woman had left. It was made from a fistful of long grass, bent in the middle to form a loop for the head. More grass was tied around the centre to secure the shape, and two smaller bunches had been drawn out of the torso to form the arms. Brandon gently pushed the grass arms down to the doll’s side, forming an even more familiar shape,

‘Isis,’ he whispered in awe, ‘India, look at this….. India…’ He turned around to speak to the woman but her back was towards him and she was staring at the retreating old woman and young girl.

‘Oh my God, Brandon, did you see her eyes?’


‘The little girl’s eyes, have you ever seen anything so blue?’

They turned back towards the tree and both looked at it in a new light. They were silent for a long time before Brandon started the conversation that they were both thinking.

‘How did you know?’ he asked eventually.

‘Simple,’ said India, ‘An Oak has no place in a Christian cemetery. It is a Pagan symbol.’

‘And Rubria was a Pagan.’

‘She was.’

Silence fell again.

‘I suppose an Oak would have been a good grave marker for a Priestess.’

‘A perfect choice,’ said India, ‘Though it wouldn’t have lasted two thousand years.’

‘I suppose it could have been replanted as each tree died.’

‘It could have, but that would have meant that her descendants, or at least her followers, still survived throughout the centuries.’

‘The old lady?’

‘And the girl,’ said India, ‘Don’t forget, the secrets of the Goddess were passed down the female side of the families.’

‘Her eyes were astonishing,’ said Brandon, ’But how did you know they would come here today?’

‘I didn’t, but I knew that if my assumption was correct, someone would probably turn up.’


‘The date,’ answered India.

‘June 29th,’ said Brandon, ‘Why what’s the significance?’

‘It’s an ancient festival carried out since the time of Isis,’ said India, ‘Eventually, the Vestals adopted the ritual, and every year, on June 29th, they would make straw dolls in Isis’s image and cast them into the River Tiber in Rome. Over time, it became a symbol of Vesta herself and any tomb or representation of any devotee of Vesta is honoured with this offering on this day.’

‘So, this is actually it,’ said Brandon, looking at the Oak, ‘The final resting place of Rubria, Priestess of Vesta’

‘And the statue of Pallus Athena,’ added India.

‘And nobody knows except you and me.’

‘And let’s keep it that way, eh?’

Brandon nodded, no explanation needed. They stayed for a long time, talking quietly beneath the tree.

‘I have some news,’ said Brandon eventually.

‘Oh yes, and what is that?’

‘I’ve given notice,’ said Brandon, ‘I’m leaving the army in three months.’

‘But why?’ asked India.

‘It’s not the same anymore and I need a change. I was thinking about starting a small detective agency specialising in anything to do with the past. What do you think?’

‘You know nothing about the past,’ laughed India, ‘In fact you are crap!’

‘I know, but I know someone who knows quite a lot. What do you think, fancy it?’

‘Who, me?’ asked India in surprise.

‘I don’t see why not, we make a good team you and I. Unless, of course you are happy in that little library of yours.’

‘What about work?’ asked India, ‘How do you know there will be enough to earn a living?’

‘I have a fantastic contacts,’ said Brandon, ‘Besides, they need someone like me who can work just far enough away to keep their hands clean, yet close enough to rely on in tricky situations. I already have their support.’

‘Whose support?’ asked India.

Brandon laughed.

‘Let’s just call them the grey men,’ he said, ‘Anyway, you have a think about it, and let me know.’

‘I will,’ said India.

They reached the gate in the cemetery wall and Brandon stopped, turning to face India

‘Something’s still puzzling me,’ he said, ‘Earlier on you told me that you went back down into the crypt to replace the ashes into a new urn.’

‘I did.’

‘Surely that was a job for one of the nuns?’

‘I asked the church for special permission.’


‘There was something personal I had to do.’

‘Like what?’

India smiled at him.

‘Perhaps I’ll tell you one day,’ she said, ‘Come on, you can buy me a drink.’

As they left the cemetery, India looked back at the majestic Oak dominating the cemetery, and, after a moment’s pause, whispered gently into the breeze.

‘Sleep well, Rubria,’ she said, ‘Sleep well.’


The tomb was still and silent once more. A new stone lid had been fitted above and the modern day rubbish that had littered the ancient floor, had gone. Everything was back as it had been for over two millennia.

One modern item did remain though. In the far wall, a new and beautifully made Oak casket, no bigger than a loaf of bread, sat central in the alcove. The lid had been fixed down and all the spilt ashes secured inside.

Deep within the ashes, however, lay something that only one person on the planet knew about. Since being spilt onto the tomb floor months earlier, it had been cleaned up and restored to its former glory until eventually, during the recent rededication of the ashes, the last missing necklace of Vesta had been returned to the resting place where it had spent the last two thousand years.

Alongside the necklace was one last thing, a tiny folded note bearing a personal message that would probably never be read by any living being.

Santa Rosa

Servant to Rubria, Priestess of Vesta

Rest in peace, Rose

All my love


Follower of Isis