“This is more like it,” Mary-Lou said with a grin to Georg as they sat at the breakfast table, a heaped plate of bacon and eggs in front of each of them, and freshly squeezed orange juice in a pitcher in the middle. “No tent – a comfortable bed at night – locals who all speak something approaching the Queen’s English –”
“Which is almost impossible to understand,” Georg interrupted, his voice dry. “And your bed may be comfortable, but mine felt as if full of straw.”
“Well, I’ve slept on straw before, if you haven’t,” Mary-Lou said, refusing to let her good mood be dampened. “And since one of us – not mentioning any names – is not an early riser, and spends most digs complaining about being up before the sun-” she stopped as Georg raised a hand.
“I give in! Your bed and breakfast is not entirely unappealing, and we are, after all, only here for a week.” The light in his brown eyes belied his complaints. Like Mary-Lou, he’d been forced to give up his holidays plans to travel to this northern English town; but while he hadn’t said anything, she suspected he’d much rather be working than visiting his family in Baden. He couldn’t even mention his brother without his mouth pulling to the side in an expression of distaste, although he still returned home whenever he had the time to do so.
“I can’t believe they asked the museum to send anyone in the first place,” Mary-Lou said. For her own part, she’d had a good night’s sleep, and was feel cheerful as a result. “Why should they think there’d be any Roman artefacts in that tunnel – which is on record as being built for the cathedral – which isn’t to say that it should be destroyed, of course – but at least we’re only here to look it over.”
Georg looked disparagingly at the cup of tea their hostess had kindly placed beside his plate, and reached for the pitcher instead. “They did find Roman coins there,” he pointed out.
“Oh, that’s easy enough to explain – we know there were Romans in the area. They were probably found by someone more recently, and thrown into the tunnels – or hidden there, perhaps, by a local kid. I imagine they’d make quite a good hiding place, if you weren’t scared of the dark.”
“Or of the ghosts.” Mary-Lou, who had been about to take a bite of a slice of buttered toast, paused, her mouth hanging open for a moment.
“Not again,” she said. “Not after Peru.”
“I hardly think so,” her partner told her soothingly. “Our hostess was telling me before you came down to breakfast that when she was a child, the southern parts of the tunnels were open for visitors, but that no one would go near the northern tunnels. She seems to think that they were considered dangerous, but that the children would have it that they were haunted.”
Mary-Lou relaxed. If it was only a children’s tale, then there was nothing to worry about.
“What do you think?” Georg’s voice echoed slightly from behind her.
“The brickwork is the same all the way along,” she called back over her shoulder. It was better to be cautious at this early stage, but the stones certainly seemed to be made of the same red-brown blocks as the southern tunnels they’d viewed that morning. Of course, their way was only partially lit by the lamps the local workers had left for them, and even her own powerful torch could only do so much. “I think I can guess why this part was thought to be dangerous in Mrs Daltry’s day, though! Listen.”
They both stopped their slow progress along the tunnel and stood, silently, until the noise Mary-Lou’s quick ear had picked up was the only one to be heard. An irregular drip – drip – drip sound. Mary-Lou turned cautiously, so that she was looking directly at Georg. His helmet covered his cropped, dark-blond hair, and he’d somehow managed to get a streak of dust across his face.
“This is one of the driest summers on record,” he said slowly, “and the old spring was in the south. Where is that water coming from?”
“It could be a leak from the sewage system,” Mary-Lou teased. “But what price an underground stream? If enough rain fell it might flood the whole area – you did notice the watermarks on the bricks, I suppose.”
“Of course I did,” Georg said, a certain note in his voice that Mary-Lou remembered from their days of bitter student rivalry at Oxford. She grinned at him, not displeased to have antagonised him, and after a moment, he grinned back. “It might explain how the coins got here – if they were carried from somewhere else.”
“They were encrusted with dried mud when they were found,” Mary-Lou added thoughtfully.
“A good theory, at least. Shall we test it?”
They stood for a moment more, trying to tell where the sound of the water was coming from. In that echoing, near-darkness, it was impossible to tell, but as neither of them had noticed any dampness on the way in, they decided the only thing to do for now was to continue on.
Their progress was slow. It wasn’t only that they didn’t want to stumble, or bump their heads against the occasionally low roof of the tunnel. There was also the slim chance – very slim, Mary-Lou thought – of coming across more artifacts, and they scanned the ground and the walls with their torches as they went by.
“This must be as far as the workers came.” The tunnel had widened, enough that perhaps two people could walk along side-by-side, and there were no more lamps. The roof was high here, too; Mary-Lou could stand up straight, and when she reached up her fingertips just brushed against coarse stone. She wondered how far underground they were; these tunnels were not shown on any of the town’s plans, and no one had been able to tell them how deep they ran.
“It is a dead end.” Georg stepped forward and shone his torch back and forth, showing bricks in all directions but the one they’d come from. “And this is where the coins were found,” he added, letting the beam fall onto the ground where a small amount of digging had obviously taken place. “So we come back tomorrow with our equipment and sort through the muck ourselves.”
Mary-Lou didn’t answer him immediately. She'd caught sight of something he had missed; a slight wetness on the wall, at the level of her shoulder. She trained her light on it and moved it slowly upwards to try and find its source. Georg, catching sight of what she was doing, gave a muttered German swear.
“What is that supposed to be?”
That was a hole in the brickwork, just above Mary-Lou’s head. A purpose built one, or so it seemed from where she stood. “Some kind of runoff?” she suggested. Irritated at not being able to get a good look, she stretched up onto her toes. “Look! It’s a decent size.” She moved out of the way so that Georg could get a good look. He did the same thing she had done – they were of a height – and then turned back to her. She knew him well enough to know that they were both thinking the same thing.
“If you give me a leg-up –”
“If I assist you there –”
Half a minute later Mary-Lou was scrambling into the small space, manoeuvring until she was lying almost flat on her stomach, partially propped up by one elbow, flashing her torch down the narrow space. “It’s not very long,” she called back to Georg, “and I think our stream’s at the end of it.” Stream wasn’t really the right word; it conjured up a much bigger flow of water than this small, steady trickle. It was hardly the type of exciting discovery that she and Georg were after, but Mary-Lou thought it might be important all the same. The county council would need to find where it was coming from before their building plans could progress any further, if they didn’t want to risk the foundations suffering water damage.
Mary-Lou got into a crawling position and began to back out. Now that she was moving again, she could feel the dampness underneath her. The water definitely came this way, when there was enough of it. She was about to call back to Georg again, when something made her stop. Had she really just felt that? Yes – there it was again. A small burst of cool air against her cheek.
The space was too confined for her to sit up. Instead, she rolled onto her back, slowly trailing the light from her torch along the wall. She could see nothing but rock, and dirt.
“Just a minute!” she called. She reached a hand out to the wall, trying to find the spot where her face had been. She expected her hand to touch something cold, rough, and damp; instead it passed straight through the side, as though there was nothing there at all. She gasped. “What-” she started to say, and then the ground gave away beneath her and she was rolling, tumbling down a steep incline, pebbles and clay tumbling with her. In her surprise she let go of her torch, so that when she finally stopped rolling, she was in total, complete darkness.
The darkness was silent. Which was wrong, Mary-Lou thought, frowning. It had felt as though she had fallen a fair way, but not so far that she wouldn’t be able to hear George yelling for her – and he always would yell for her when they had been separated.
She attempted to stand up, and found that while she felt like she’d been hit a thousand of tiny hammers, there was nothing else much the matter with her. Then it struck her that she could stand up, and must be in a much larger space than she had been. A cavern of some kind, perhaps? The darkness and the silence made her feel like she was covered in a thick blanket. “Hello?” There was a slight echo, but nothing more.
What next? Should she try and find her torch? No, not a practical idea. It could have rolled anywhere, and with no light she could easily trip and hurt herself. She debated sitting down to wait for Georg, but she didn’t much fancy catching a chill, either. She was just deciding whether she should call for her friend when she heard a noise, directly above her. Stone scraped on stone and suddenly Mary-Lou could see where she was, light filling a deep, round cave with smooth grey walls. Looking up, she could see a crescent of blue sky, which gradually filled out into a full circle. It was a deliberate opening, she realised. Was she underneath an old well? Or something else?
She let out a yodel – an old habit – but there was no response. Something fell towards her; instinctively she leaped back, and then saw it was a rope ladder. Was she meant to climb up it? She reached out a hand to grab it, only for her fingers to pass right through it. “Oh, marvellous,” she said out loud. A vision. So much for not being in Peru.
A shadow fell across her face and she looked up at the opening again. Someone was coming down the ladder now, with a surprising quickness given the fact that he was wearing a pale blue tunic; as he came closer she saw he also sported an embroidered baldric, and, thankfully, trousers. He didn’t appear to notice Mary-Lou. As he reached the bottom he opened his mouth as if to speak, but while his lips moved Mary-Lou heard nothing. Again, something fell from above; the man held out his hands and caught a satchel, and seemed to speak again. The rope ladder swayed, and a second, identically dressed figure began a descent from the top.
The first man was dark, with curly black hair and olive skin; this newcomer had hair so blond it was almost white, and skin that must be pale when it wasn’t red, as it was now – whether it was sunburn or something else, Mary-Lou was unsure. When he reached the ground the first man opened the satchel and peered inside. Before, he had seemed calm, and unhurried. Now something that he saw enraged him; still clutching the bag with one hand he stepped towards the new arrival in a clearly threatening manner.
Mary-Lou saw the danger before the dark-haired man did, and even thought her good sense told her that there was nothing she could to about what was happening, that it had happened centuries ago, she yelled “Look out!” as the second man drew a dagger from his shoulder belt and sliced at his companion.
The blade cut a diagonal line down the other man’s chest, and as its wielder pulled it back caught on the edge of the satchel. The dark-haired man jerked the bag away and staggered, backwards, coins dropping to the stone floor of the cavern from the tear in the bag. His hand belatedly went to his own weapon belt but the other man was already on top of him, the dagger this time aimed for his neck.
Mary-Lou closed her eyes, blocking out the vision. Her stomach rolled, and she swallowed, telling herself this was no time to be violently ill. When she felt that she could bear to look again she found that the blond man had a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder and was preparing to climb back out. Steeling herself, she looked for the other man. He lay still, sprawled on his back, a red stain down the front of his chest. Mary-Lou shivered, and glanced away again.
The blond man was already halfway up the ladder. When he reached the top he disappeared from view; after a moment the ladder began to ascend until it, too, disappeared, and finally, there was again the groan of stone on stone as the round circle of daylight slowly but surely closed over. Once again, Mary-Lou was standing in the cold darkness.
That was my death. Mary-Lou didn’t start at the unexpected voice, but she clenched one of her fists, as if by reflex. Here, in a place as cold and wet as this miserable island. I died abandoned by the one person I thought I could trust.
“I’m sorry,” Mary-Lou murmured. “That- must have been awful.” It was inadequate, she knew. But she had no words for this poor man, betrayed and stabbed and left here to die alone.
I died unloved and abandoned. The voice didn’t seem to come from any particular direction. It was as if she wasn’t hearing it with her ears, but only inside her head. And as I died, I swore that whoever else entered this chamber should suffer the same fate.
“But-” Mary-Lou didn’t have a chance to get any words out at all. Something above her groaned, and something hit her head, hard, knocking her down to the ground.
Verity-Ann found Mary-Lou in the orchard, staring up at the green leaves that were trembling slightly in the breeze. A small frown creased Mary-Lou’s brow, and she was winding one of her pigtails around her fingers – a bad habit that would have earned an immediate reprimand from Gran. “Aren’t you happy, Mary-Lou?” she asked.
Mary-Lou turned, and smiled as she saw her friend. “Rather,” she said, her emphatic, clear voice a strong contrast to Verity-Ann’s silvery tones. “Mother and Commander Carey both need looking after, and this way they can – can look after each other!”
This statement probably would have amused both those people, if they had chanced to hear it, but Verity-Ann was not known for her sense of humour. Besides, her own, rather more romantic view of the match, fully allowed that her father, who still suffered at times from the injuries sustained in the Amazon, would be well nursed by Mary-Lou’s father; and that Mrs Trelawney, a quiet, gentle woman, would be happier with a husband to help her. “You don’t feel like we’re taking Mrs Trelawney away from you?”
“No!” Again, Mary-Lou was emphatic. She dropped her pigtail and clasped her hands together instead. “Only it’s going to mean changes, and I don’t like changes.” She looked at Verity-Ann rather doubtfully. “I don’t really remember Father, you know. So – I’m going to have to learn how to have one. But Commander Carey is so decent – and you had to get used to him, when he came back to England, so I suppose I will too.”
“I haven’t had a mother before,” Verity-Ann said thoughtfully. “I think I’ll quite like it.”
“Mother’s a dear,” Mary-Lou said warmly. “And you’ll get Gran, too, and – oh my goodness, we’ll be step-sisters!” she stared at Verity-Ann, an almost comical look of surprise on her face. For a moment, Verity-Ann looked just as shocked; then she shook her head.
“Not step-sisters,” she said, in a firm tone Mary-Lou recognised. “In stories step-sisters are always simply awful.”
“Well, we can’t call ourselves sisters,” Mary-Lou pointed out. “Aunt Gillian always says that accuracy is important. We’ll have to think of a better word.”
They fell silent, thinking hard, but no flash of brilliance visited either of them; and as they soon heard Mrs Trelawney calling them in for dinner, they had to leave the question alone for the moment. But as they entered the house, Verity-Ann caught Mary-Lou’s arm for a moment, halting her progress. “You really don’t mind?” she asked, and Mary-Lou caught the note of anxiety in her usually composed friend’s tones.
“I used to be awfully lonely in Polquenel,” she said in her forthright manner. “Then I met Clem, and then I went to school, and I’ve never been lonely at all since then. But if I have a sister – well, I can’t be lonely ever, can I?”
Mary-Lou was kneeling on all fours on the ground. Her head was reeling, and she thought of her old injury and hoped that her helmet had spared her too much damage. The mud at her hands was cool to the touch, and it was wonderfully real – far more real than this strange rampaging spirit, or its meaningless vendetta.
“What…” she tried to say, but her voice wasn’t much more than a croak. She sat back on her haunches, licked her lips, and tried again. “What absolute rot.” She gave the words the authority that only a woman who had been a Head Girl of the Chalet School could. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard such ridiculous drivel in my life.”
I am unloved and forgotten. It was the same, unemotional statement. Those that I cared for abandoned me. Now you must suffer the same fate.
“I already have,” Mary-Lou replied tartly, “and I certainly didn’t throw a tantrum about it.”
Another rock fell from above, but this one thumped just to her left. For the second time, Mary-Lou got unsteadily to her feet. How could you have been abandoned? There is no loneliness in you.
“My father left my mother when I was too young to even remember him.” Mary-Lou said evenly. “My mother married again, but she and my step-father both died. My step-sister married. After that, I was alone.”
You are not lonely. For the first time, there was a hint of anger in the voice. I have seen the man that travels with you.
“You don’t have to be alone, to feel lonely.” There was no reply. “I’m sorry you died down here alone, in the dark. But killing me won’t mean I’ll stay here with you. It won’t mean you’ll be any less lonely.”
She braced herself, expecting another rock fall. Instead, the voice said, You understand. It sounded hesitant now, and seemed to Mary-Lou to be fainter than it had been. Perhaps I have been wrong, to be so angry.
“You weren’t wrong to be angry,” Mary-Lou said sympathetically, “just wrong to hold onto your anger for so long. But then, if it were me stuck down here – I don’t know that I’d be any different.”
The voice made no response. Instead the heavy blackness seemed to lessen. It took her a moment to figure out why; there was light coming into the cavern, although not from the opening above her. She turned, looking upwards, searching for the source of the light. There – a dim glow in the wall, and a large, sloping pile of stones underneath it. That must have been where she fell. The light moved, growing unsteadily brighter, and she guessed that her friend was on his way to her.
“I’m going to leave,” she said, “and you should probably do the same.” Still no reply. Georg’s face appeared, peering down at her, one arm holding forth one of the workman’s lamps from the tunnel.
“I’m fine!” she called up to him.
“Fine is not the word,” Georg called back. “That trapdoor you fell through closed over and I have only just learned how to open it again. What mess have you put us in this time?”
“I didn’t do anything!”
“But you are unhurt? I heard…” his voice trailed off. She couldn’t read his face properly, not from this far away.
“Just cuts and bruises. Do you have a rope? I might need a hand scrambling out of here.”
Wait. The voice was imperative. The shadows in the cavern moved as Georg jerked the lamp, startled. My bones lie here still. If you will let me see sunlight again, I will let you go unharmed.
“I can’t take them with me now.” Mary-Lou’s own voice was steady. “But I promise I will return, and see that they are taken away.”
Thank you. It was very faint, by Mary-Lou thought that there was, perhaps, a lightness to the voice that hadn’t been there before.
“So we will be excavating after all.” Mary-Lou ignored the obviously irritated Georg for the moment. Now that her eyes had adjusted to the light, she’d glanced around and caught sight of something at her feet. A small, round, disk shape, unmistakably made by man, not by nature. “One day we are going to go on a proper dig, where there are no spirits to be disturbed.”
“It could have been worse,” Mary-Lou said, stooping to pick up the coin. “There was only one of them this time. Not like Peru.”
The only answer she had was a loud sigh, but when she looked back up at Georg he was grinning.
Verity Trevor sat at her piano, her fingers moving over the keys almost automatically. Her husband would jokingly accuse her of mooning if he saw her now, eyes wide and staring at nothing, but in truth her thoughts weren’t drifting – they were scurrying around frantically as she tried to calm her nerves and make sure she had forgotten nothing. The children were at their aunt’s for the night – they were too young, at the moment, to accompany their parents out. In a year or two, when they could sit still for more than half an hour without wriggling – then, perhaps they could!
Her dress was newly pressed and hanging in the wardrobe, ready for her to wear; her driver knew what time to collect her, and that Alan would be the one to take her home. Really, there was nothing left to do but properly warm up her voice, but at the moment she was finding it impossible to concentrate.
The telephone’s jarring bell was a welcome interruption. Hoping it wasn’t a bothersome reporter, she left her piano and went into the hallway to pick it up.
“Verity! I hope I’m not disturbing you?” came a familiar, much loved voice.
“Mary-Lou?” Verity felt a rush of relief that it was only her sister-by-marriage, and then a burst of pleasure that she had remembered to call. It had seemed too good to be true that she’d actually be in London tonight; and then, of course, it had been too good to be true, because there’d been some find somewhere and Mary-Lou had had to leave in a hurry.
“It’s me alright,” Mary-Lou replied, cheerfully ignoring the conventions of grammar. “We found more coins today, so it looks like I’m going to be stuck here even longer than I thought. But I wanted to say ‘break a leg’, and to let you know that I’m going to be listening to your triumphant return to singing on the wireless.”
“It may not be triumphant,” Verity pointed out. Then, “Oh, Mary-Lou! I wish you were here. Alan will be there, of course, and Clem and Tony, but – they’re not you.” There was a pause on the other end, long enough for Verity to wonder if the connection had been lost. “Mary-Lou?”
“I’m still here. I am sorry to be missing your concert, my lamb. And I miss you, too.”
Verity gave a little sigh. “You will still come to us when you’ve finished, won’t you?”
“Absolutely. I have presents from South America for Roland and Vicky in my trunk, and I would be a most despicable aunt if I neglected to give them.” Verity laughed, and their talk moved onto more inconsequential things until Mary-Lou, with a squawk, realised that she would be later for her evening meal if she didn't make haste to tidy herself up, and they had to say goodbye.
Verity returned to her piano. It was just like Mary-Lou to ring her at exactly the right time; she felt calmer, now, as if her worries were creases and her sister-by-marriage had managed to iron them flat. Now when she looked at her music, she could concentrate on it, rather than on all those small details which were far less important. “This is more like it,” she murmured, and lost herself in a song.
Written for lost_spook for Yuletide 2013.
The title was inspired by the Flight of the Conchords' "Rambling through the Avenues of Time", which doesn't in itself relate in any way to the story but which, you have to admit, has a good ring to it. The tunnels were inspired by the ones which run under Exeter, which are in their own way frightening and fascinating but not, as far as I know, haunted.