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Read the First Chapters of WYSARD and LORD BROTHER


QUEEN OF TIME - First Chapters
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Classics professor Lucasta Hilary's lackluster routine in Midwest academia changes forever thanks to seeming quirks of fate that bring her unexpected fame and inexplicable beauty, but her good fortune soon proves to be very far from heaven sent. Two eternal adversaries seek to alter Lucasta's destiny, in a struggle that spans eons and ranges from the bleak remains of Hadrian’s Wall to the lush jungles of the Yucatan highlands to the very edge of existence, where temptation, damnation, and redemption inextricably entwine.


QUEEN OF TIME
Chapter One


Finca Las Flores, Yucatán, December 2012.

The most difficult part of existence was finding time and place to be alone, but for the present moment Lucasta's chosen haven was a lush parador on the Campeche coast. Today, as usual, after a late lunch she wandered out to a secluded part of the broad white beach to revel in her perfections undisturbed. As she made herself comfortable in a lounge chair under her favorite palm umbrella, a handsome young servitor arrived as expected, bearing a pitcher of sangria and a crystal goblet. Setting his tray down on the nearby table as if presenting an offering, he bowed and filled the glass.

“With hopes for your enjoyment, señora,” he murmured in velvety Spanish, his dark eyes fixed on his task.

He didn't dare steal a glance at her near-nakedness, far less venture eye contact, because he knew that either liberty would cost him his job. Contemplating his dusky male beauty, Lucasta almost regretted that she'd stipulated such deference from all the staff when she'd arrived, but only almost. Glances exchanged with delectable males tended to progress to much more, and had been to blame for her last disastrous indiscretion. Giving a nod of dismissal instantly obeyed, she drank the glass down and refilled it, donned her music player, turned the sound up loud, lit a cigarette and gazed through her sunglasses and the smoke out to the far horizon where cerulean met azure and the glowing air throbbed with tropical heat and the wings of birds. Taking a sip of the second drink, she felt its buzz begin to mingle with the rush of the pre-lunch hashish she'd smoked on the veranda of her caseta.

She could not recall the last time she'd spent a day without drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. They provided no real enjoyment, but without them life was unendurable. I never thought it'd be this bad, Lucasta managed to think despite the music's thumping din. I should just get up and walk into the sea and get it over with.

Bitterly she reflected that her last ten years would have been considered heaven by most standards. A life without effort, every whim instantly catered to; a life without care, unencumbered by anything that might prove remotely irksome. A life with too much money and very little in the way of restraint, and absolutely nothing in the way of thought. Ten years that she never dreamed she'd ever get sick of; but now she was sick to death.

Taking out her earbuds, she tossed the player onto the sand and fixed her eyes on the distant division of sea and sky, listening to the soft crashing of the waves and the random shrieks of gulls. “Give me a sign,” she said to the infinite. “One sign, or I end this. I swear.”

Hardly had she finished speaking when something—someone—jarred her chair from behind, but Lucasta didn't turn around. The event was a cheap coincidence, worthy only of idle speculation. Whoever it was certainly couldn't be the handsome sangria bringer, who valued his job. The resort routinely and brusquely drove away vendors and beggars. Only adults were permitted as guests, so it couldn't be someone's obnoxious brat, and anyone with so much as a chance resemblance to a paparazzo or a detective was instantly evicted by discreetly inexorable guards. None of the people who considered themselves her friends knew she was here, far less her ex-husband. The most likely possibility was either a prospective admirer seeking her attention, or a spurned suitor wishing either another chance or perhaps revenge. She’d let a few of those down rather hard, in retrospect.

Whoever it was spoke at last. “Hello, Lucy.”

Again Lucasta didn't turn around, because the voice had called her by her old name, one she hadn’t used in a decade. A mistake, certainly, but oddly coincidental nonetheless. Her blood gave a little surge, something she hadn't known in a very long time, but she didn't reply.

The voice persisted. “Your cupbearer—or more accurately, I suppose, your
sangriador—warned me that you'd be standoffish.”

Lucasta reflected on the voice as she continued looking out to sea. Its question had been uttered good-humoredly, which was a relief. It was male and British, its accent cultivated; and something about it was oddly familiar. Stretching, Lucasta resettled in her chair, musing on where she might have heard it last. It was far too cultivated and clever-sounding to be anyone she'd known in the last decade.

The voice had begun at standing height but now issued almost at her ear, in a confiding whisper. “If you don't turn around, I'm going to pour my drink down your neck.”

With an exasperated sigh Lucasta took off her sunglasses and leaned her head back, glancing upward. Her glance turned into a stare, and she murmured an expletive. “That can't be you.”

“But you know it is.”

“You've changed, Dunstan.”

“So have you—rather incredibly, I have to say.”

Lucasta stared until she realized her neck was hurting. “You said you had a drink in your hand. I don't see one.”

“I can’t afford to drink here. I planned on helping myself to yours.”

Lucasta couldn't help smiling. “Come around here and do that, and let's get a look at each other.”

As Dunstan sat in the sand next to her chair and matter-of-factly helped himself to her glass, Lucasta assessed him with as much concentration as she could muster. She'd never have believed that Dunstan could ever be presentable enough for a place like Las Flores, but he astonished her. Up-to-date sun-lightened hair, well-made beach clothes, a body taut with muscle and a gold-tinged tan that transformed his rainwater gray eyes into sexy smoky topaz. He didn't look at all the age he had to be—the same years as her own—and in no way resembled the spindly dishwater entity she remembered from long ago. Lucasta ran her tongue over her upper lip, savoring the man's metamorphosis.

“Damn, you’re a knockout.”

He grinned. Christ, even his teeth were straight, now. “So are you,” he replied. “That's the most infinitesimal bikini I've ever seen.”

“You’re not supposed to notice it.” Lucasta gave him one of her long impudent unmanning stares, but he only smiled, and she felt a sting of pique at the calm way he was enjoying a view some men would kill for. His eyes ran over her intimately but without a trace of desire, and she wasn't used to that.

After a sip, Dunstan set down the glass with a wince. “Much too strong, and loaded with sugar.”

“Your looks may have changed, but you haven't. Still lecturing.”

“On that subject, I saw you having lunch on the terrace before you came out here, although of course you never noticed me. It's simply atrocious that you can stuff yourself to such a degree and still look like that.”

“I agree. But at my age one can eat anything and get away with it.”

Dunstan gave a half-laugh. “Lucky. But we both know how old you really are.” He shifted his attention to Lucasta's cigarette. Snatching it from her hand he took a drag, blowing the smoke out reflectively. “Nasty and lethal,” he said. “But I daresay you can get away with these, too.” Dropping the cigarette into the sand he carefully buried it, placing a little shell over the grave. “What's that hideous noise I keep hearing? Oh, this.” He picked up the discarded music player and tried on the earbuds, removing them with a wince after a few seconds. “What egregious garbage. Don’t tell me you actually listen to that stuff?”

“If sales are any indication, it's brilliant.”

“Poppycock. It’s monotonous, strident, and adolescently foul.”

“The singer and I are great pals.”

“If you call that racket singing, I'd rather not know further details. You really have changed.”

“I'd rather not discuss it.”

“I'm sure.” Dunstan turned off Lucasta’s music player and set it aside. “So what brings you to this revoltingly exclusive place?”

“Rest cure from a divorce. But more amazingly, what brings you here?”

“I'm staying nearby at far less expensive lodgings while I take the weekend off from a dig in the interior.”

Lucasta stared at him. “Here? As in Mayan ruins?”

“Well, they'd hardly be Roman, would they?”

“That's what I meant. Rather out of your bailiwick, I'd think.”

“A great many new interests have been taking up my time since I last saw you.”

“I shouldn't be surprised. It's been a while, after all.”

Dunstan sighed. “Lucy, I've thought of you at least once a day for the past ten years. After you'd left Marvel, you simply dropped out of sight—gave up your tenure at Harding, your career, everything. I kept checking out the journals in case you'd published anything, but you hadn’t. And I searched for you all over the Internet, fearing the worst. It finally dawned on me that you might be using an alias. That was my only comfort.”

“I took my grandmother’s name. If you recall, we didn't exactly part friends, you and I.” In the silence that followed those words, Lucasta watched the scattered shifting pattern of sunlight on the horizon. “How did you know it was me?”

“I had no idea whatsoever who you were. I just wanted to look at you because you were so incredibly beautiful.”

“Everyone does that.”

“I noticed. But what led me to recognize you were your ears. They used to be the only pretty things about you. You seem to have changed around them, clear down to your voice.”

“I never thought you'd observed my ears.”

“They struck me all at once when you were standing on Hadrian's Wall and the wind blew your hair back. But you didn't wear diamonds back then.” He scrutinized her lobes. “If those really are diamonds. They're much too big to be real.”

“Wrong.”

“My word. It doesn't bother you to consume so conspicuously?”

“Don't start with that, Dunstan. I earned them.”

“How?”

“I used to sleep with a very rich old man. Every time I did, he'd give me a present—these earrings were one—so I did it as often as I could. It was all perfectly moral. I was married to him.”

“If he was so good to you, why'd you divorce him?”

“He became a very kinky and nasty rich old man after a while. And I didn’t divorce him; he died. I married his bodyguard after that, not one of my more brilliant ideas.”

“A bit on the tawdry side, wouldn’t you say?”

“Everyone did. I came to my senses after a few months, and chose this place to dodge the scandalmongers. It's the perfect hideout, and has absolutely everything.”

“Indeed it does. Flagrant luxury in the midst of grinding poverty. Those diamonds would feed everyone in the village down the road from this place for at least five years.”

Lucasta sighed with bored impatience. “I've heard about that nasty little town. The people there are dirty and diseased. They have nothing. They know nothing. Why live at all, if you have to live like that?”

Dunstan was silent awhile. When he next spoke, it was softly. “You might show more mercy, Lucasta.”

“Perhaps I should, with Christmas less than a week away. But I haven't been in the spirit for quite a while.”

“That's all too evident, I'm sorry to say.”

She ignored the remark, as it deserved. “It should be fairly obvious by now that the person you think you're talking to vanished a long time ago.”

“I still recognized her.”

“Sure. Her ears.”

“So bitter. But yes, your ears. Even those vulgar diamonds couldn't blind me to them.” He reached out, examining the pendant that hung from her neck by a thick antique chain of purest gold. “Speaking of trinkets, I've never seen a finer Faustina coin. I suppose I needn't ask where you got it.”

“Byron gave it to me, the night he died. I've worn it ever since.” Lucasta felt tears catching in her lashes that everyone always assumed were too thick and long to be real. Never had her tears fallen, in ten interminable years. “I'd give anything to see him again. Anything.”

“Would you.” Dunstan was silent a long moment. “Let me take you to dinner tonight.”

“At the restaurant here? You said you don't even have the price of a drink. I'd bankrupt you.”

“Well, I was counting either on us going Dutch, or you being generous.”

Lucasta didn't laugh. “Very well. Let's meet on the bar veranda at eight.”

“Fine,” Dunstan said, standing up. “See you then.”

“But where are you going now?”

“To get ready for my run. The tide's going out, and the sand will be perfect for miles. Care to join me?”

“You've got to be joking. I don't go in for that sort of thing.”

“Odd. You look absolutely fit.”

“It just comes naturally, I guess.”

“Somehow I doubt that. Very much indeed.” Dunstan took a step away. “Well, until eight.”

“Until.”

He returned. “Remember, we have a date. Make sure you don't stand me up for someone else. All right?”

“I’d never be so treacherous.”

“That remains to be seen. You're capable of anything, now.”

“As it happens, your surprise arrival kept me from doing something very foolish. Thanks.” Lucasta took off her sunglasses, and their eyes met deep and clear for the first time, and they both smiled.

“Try to behave yourself until tonight.” Dunstan bent near, and kissed her on the mouth, and went his way.

Lucasta lay back, a little bewildered. She felt suffused with a warmth that the sun had no part of, a radiance that filled her to her heart's core. She and Dunstan had never kissed before, and this had been the barest touch of lip upon lip, but it imbued her with the first peace she'd known in many years. It was as if he had set his seal upon her.

“Until tonight,” she said, her whisper lost in the surge of the waves; but then she trembled as she realized what night this was. Dunstan's appearance hadn't been by chance, and the possible rival he'd joked about was far from a laughing matter, even if the name Byron Steele was hopelessly melodramatic.

She couldn't let herself think of what the future held. Pouring the last of the sangria she drank it down and closed her eyes, feeling her mind slide into reaches of memory she had sealed over for a decade, back to the life she'd fled; and the warm flower-scented air seemed to grow cold as a grave around her, reeking of dark earth and certain death.


Chapter Two

Hadrian's Wall, June 2002.


All the beauty of the world was white and blue. White sun on white marble, and pure white sand; white clouds now and then but not often, in a sky as blue as the sea. In this world where all was rooted in eternity, everything shifted: the sun in the heavens, the clouds in the sky, the sands moved by the swelling and ebbing tide…

“Corpse alert.”

That joke was so old that no one laughed anymore. Lucasta, wrenched from her Grecian reverie yet again, barely examined the find, and spoke without enthusiasm.

“Another pig bone. Mark the location and add it to the pile.”

Lucasta looked up from the dirt to the world around her. It would rain yet again, and soon. The wind blew cold, straight from the north, compelling her to pull up the hood of her sweatshirt. Unlike her pure imaginings, this was a world of gray and green: gray sky, gray stone, and thick weedy sheep-dunged grass. Beneath the grass, dense earth clung hard to its secrets, so unlike the kindly sands that had yielded up treasure after treasure there on the holy isle of Delos, that white and blue world that now seemed as far away as the gods it cherished. This was Hadrian’s Wall, the fixed boundary of the glory that had been Rome, an admission of failure written in rock. Here the great empire's northern surge had halted, exhausted by overstretch, and Lucasta Hilary, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Warren G. Harding University at Marvel, Indiana, was on hand to record the remnants.

“Dang, got me a pecker!”

Conroy’s cornpone holler drew the attention of the entire dig team. Lucasta had to break through the snickering circle to assess the discovery.

It was a common little bronze phallus amulet, and a damaged one. Still, it was the most notable find so far. “Good work, Conroy,” Lucasta said, trying to sound far more enthusiastic than she felt.

“Yeah.” Brent, Conroy’s workmate, nodded. “Just what you needed, dude. Too bad it wasn’t bigger.”

Stacy grinned. “Now, now. Don’t make him jealous.”

Tammy gazed at the amulet with approving calculation. “You know, that’s just the thing to wear to a club. I want one.”

Lucasta listened to her crew’s comments with strained patience. The Wall foray was her first time as a dig director, and she held the position only because the previously stipulated leader Irwin Unwin, head of Lucasta's department, Irwin Unwin of the baggy socks and equine chortle, was in the hospital righting the damage wrought upon his person by an automobile in front of which he'd stepped absent-mindedly back in mid-May. Lucasta, who’d already made plans to join a dig in a far sunnier clime, had protested that she was a classicist, not an archaeologist. Only when it was more than hinted that her involvement would enhance her possibilities of tenure did she deem it best to accept. All of the logistics had been worked out well beforehand with the partnership of the University of Newcastle, and Lucasta could consider herself lucky to have everything in place ready to step into. Best of all, she wasn’t handling the task alone, to her immense relief.

She and her crew were excavating nearby the fort on Hadrian’s Wall known as Vercovium to the Romans and Housesteads now, close to which had sprung the vicus, the camp town with its shops, taverns, inns, hovels and brothels. Of the fort and the vicus little survived but the foundations; the Wall still stood, but much diminished from its Hadrianic height. Housesteads was situated on striking terrain, and the Wall leapt and snaked over crags and hills in a breathtakingly photogenic fashion, looking very wild; but as part of the National Trust the site was provided with a modern visitor's center complete with snack bar, as well as ample parking, bus service, and close access to the main road. Lucasta, used to far less comfortable conditions at other digs, considered herself lucky.

The group’s mission was to continue the already-established excavation of part of the vicus in an attempt to learn more about civilian life on the Wall. Lucasta well knew that the dig wasn’t a fevered search for a Grail, or an exhumation of a mummy gold-wrapped like fancy chocolate; it was what archeology usually was, a meticulous sifting of detritus. Still, there might be treasure of some glittering kind among the rubbish, and Lucasta’s students—Brent, Conroy, Stacy and Tammy, whom Lucasta had privately monikered the Harding Four—often speculated on the chances of finding some. Their personalities, like their last names and private histories, were of no great concern save where they become troublesome, and they were seldom that. Brent and Stacy were having a tepid relationship, perhaps inspired by their mutual generic array of tattoos and piercings. Conroy and Tammy weren’t amorously involved, but shared a penchant for crude humor and other social inappropriateness. This was the first time abroad for all four, and homesickness led them to spend a great deal of time on their mobile phones talking and texting with relatives and friends, so much so that Lucasta had to outlaw those activities during work hours.

Lucasta appropriated the penile find and flicked away the dirt that clung to it, her fingers briskly workmanlike. “This used to have wings, but they’re gone now,” she said, indicating the stumps of those appendages to the crew. “Anyone want to guess why?”

She asked the question in a dutiful teacherly manner, and got the silence she expected, but as she rolled the little member around in her palm she gave the matter more thought. The phallus—a truly cocky one, impudently cute with its jaunty upturn—had not lost its wings by wear and tear. Bronze required work to snap. Whoever did this had intended vandalism.

A hand reached out—male, suntanned, tough but graceful too—and took the phallus from Lucasta, casually brushing her fingers in the act. “Kind of obvious,” said Rik Vrys, whose hand it was. “Jilted lover. Some guy gave this to a girl, and then dumped her, and she busted his balls—I mean, his wings.”

Another hand, smooth and fine as ivory now that it was freed from its glove, gently wrested the phallus from his grip. Lucasta watched as Helena Bellfiore’s cool evaluative eyes assessed the find.

“Magic,” Helena said at last, her soft voice matter-of-fact. “A woman bought this, and named it after her lover, and broke its wings to keep him forever tied to her.” She smiled in her enthralling way. “We can name him Marcus.”

“Okay, Marcus Erectus it is,” Rik said as his eyes met Helena’s, which widened before glancing away.

Helena was a sea-nymph in cargo pants, tall and slim and supple, perfectly shaped to a highly exacting standard of artistic proportion. Her skin was matte marble without a hint of color save for her rich coral lips and the slightest touch of rose, just enough to prove her human, on her cheeks. Masses of lustrous dark tendrils fell nearly to her willowy waist, but for work she clipped them up and out of the way in an offhandedly ravishing chignon. Her smoky eyes held a kind of shimmering gleam like light on water that you could never really look into, and her voice was low and soft with delicate modulations, a welcome contrast to the flat small-town stridencies of Stacey and Tammy. From earliest childhood Helena had toddled around the stones and bones of the Roman past. Her forebears had uncovered Pompeii, and her parents continued the tradition there and at Herculaneum when not lecturing at Princeton. Helena had joined the Wall dig through the auspices of the Università di Roma, which had ties to Newcastle. Not bad for barely twenty-one, Lucasta thought. The gods were kind to her.

Rik seemed to have been destined for Helena. He was very light blond with a perfect tan, handsome in a hard-bodied surfer way, and he dressed like Indiana Jones save that he preferred ball caps to fedoras. No one would ever guess he was South African; he barely had an accent. The indulged only child of a shipping-magnate father and concert-pianist mother, Rik spent his time wandering the world from one dig to another. His extensive field experience included most recently Delos, where he'd been a close assistant to the world-famous Caine Atwater, Lucasta’s dissertation director in years gone by. Caine's recommendation letter had sung Rik's praises to an extent that had made Lucasta almost jealous, but she'd ended up liking the lad.

As everyone else returned to work, Rik leaned toward Helena as they continued to discuss the phallus, trading it back and forth. Whatever he was saying to her was making her smile in her serene unstudied fashion.

Lucasta felt a nudge in her ribs, a mock-Cockney voice at her side. “Wonder wot they’re sayin’. Oh to be a fly on the wall, eh?”

She didn’t turn to the voice. She knew it too well. But she smiled.

Dunstan Lightner was an unqualified godsend. He'd joined the department at Harding two years before, although why he’d done so baffled Lucasta no end; surely he’d had better offers. He’d come to the cornfields of Marvel, Indiana directly from Trinity College in Cambridge, having excelled as a historian of Roman and medieval Britain. He was thoroughly trained in archaeological method and should have been leading the dig instead of looking after the dogwork, but he performed his endless array of thankless tasks without complaint. Because he was indefatigably affable the dig kids came to him with all their problems, for which Lucasta was exceedingly grateful. In the entire time she’d known Dunstan, Lucasta had never seen him angry or even moderately ruffled, and his unsinkable sense of humor had saved countless situations.

Just as Lucasta was about to say something appreciative to her friend—for Dunstan had been that to her from the very start—rain began to fall in earnest, putting an end to work. Lucasta bagged and labeled the phallus, everything was locked down for the night, and Dunstan, the only one able to reliably drive the dig’s van, chauffeured everyone back to their lodgings at the contiguous hamlet of Bycaster. When the team had been dropped off, Dunstan turned to Lucasta, and they asked each other the same question they always asked each other at the end of the day.

“Fancy a pint?”

The dig kids had their favorite hangout where the music blared loud, and avoided the Good Shepherd, a low-ceilinged old-fashioned pub whose warren of little rooms included a particularly cozy nook that Lucasta had christened the Venting Parlor. Here in a snug booth she and her associate discussed the events of the day in no uncertain terms, over the Shepherd’s stringent bitter.

“Have you noticed that everyone’s paired off like the Ark?”

Lucasta blinked at Dunstan. They were into their second ale. “What?”

“The crew. Every lad has his lass.”

“Tammy and Conroy aren’t exactly sweethearts.”

“True, but they’re still a match for each other in their dumpy way. And of course there’s Brent and Stacey, snogging during their smoke breaks like a couple of randy badgers.”

“They smoke a lot more than they snog, unfortunately.”

“And then we have Rik and Helena in the full bloom of fledgling passion.”

“Hm. I hadn’t noticed that.”

“Didn’t think you would. And here we are, the old folks taking a doddering nice pint together. I wonder if we’re being gossiped about.”

“We’re not. Trust me.” Lucasta regarded her friend, cataloging what she saw as if recording remnants. Height tallish, eyes bluish, hair reddish, face longish. His shoulders stooped, his eyes tended to water, and his hair always looked in need of a comb or a wash or both. She let her mind wander.

Dunstan leaned his chin on his hand and noticed. “You’re thinking of him again, aren’t you.”

Lucasta sighed. “Yep.”

Again she recalled Caine Atwater, now a robust colossus of fifty, six feet four and god-shaped, his skin bronzed by decades in the Hellenic sun, his eyes sky-blue and brilliant, his virile mane gold-streaked without a trace of silver. Caine Atwater, whose photo had seemed to figure in every archeology magazine she'd ever leafed through back in high school, Caine the dashing treasure-hunter with the triumphant grin. She’d dreamed of working with him ever since. He was on the faculty at the University of Chicago, and to prepare herself for the chance to work with him Lucasta had studied classical languages as an undergraduate in her native Virginia, because she knew he’d always be able to use a translator. In addition to learning Greek and Latin she’d become fluent in French, because Caine’s work centered on the sacred island of Delos, where the École Française d'Athènes headed the excavations. She matriculated summa cum laude, applied to the University of Chicago for graduate school, and waited in agony until the letter containing her fate arrived.

Lucasta never forgot the heart-stopping joy of the day she got the news that she'd been accepted, nor the miserable reality that followed. She had expected to be her hero’s trusty sidekick but had ended up as a drudge, left behind assembling and deciphering bits and pieces of dead languages while Caine followed the sun in search of ever more glory. She took the maximum number of classes, audited even more, and toiled constantly. Her social life was nonexistent, but that didn’t matter. Caine was all she cared about, and the only thing she longed for was to impress him somehow. But he was so famous, so surrounded by fans and used to adulation, that Lucasta despaired of ever getting more of his attention than the equivalent of a pat on the head.

Her menial status—and her entire life, she had thought at the time—changed abruptly when she translated some third-century Greek papyri that Caine had brought back from one of his expeditions—documents without provenance, found by chance. What she deciphered ultimately led to the discovery of the Temple of the Twins at Delos, in a part of the island remote from the main center of worship, almost at the sea's edge—an exquisite little megaron in near-perfect condition, down to the altar-statue of Apollo and Artemis standing hand in hand—the work of Phidias himself, according to some art historians. The temple had been deserted and left to the mercy of the sands soon after its completion in the fourth century BC; according to the papyri, it had been irredeemably defiled by the rape and murder of its priestess. A haunted place, it had been first shunned, then forgotten until the tattered paper and faded ink brought it back into the light.

Lucasta could still recall, as clear as now, the dazed amazement she’d felt when she read the lines that revealed the temple’s existence and location. She could still recall the time and place: her crummy apartment at 3 a.m. on a noisy Saturday night in April, her eyes about to fall out of her head from the glare of the magnifying lamp. How she couldn’t sleep for thinking of what she’d read, and how long those hours seemed before Caine finally answered her phone calls. At first he’d been dismissive, which nearly broke her heart, but expert papyrologists judged the manuscript to be incontestably authentic. After that Lucasta was at Delos, working side by side with Atwater and the French team to unearth what became known as one of the finds of the decade.

“It did indeed cause quite a stir,” Dunstan said, entering Lucasta’s thoughts in a way he often did, following the train of thought behind her silences. “And Caine was splendidly photogenic during all the press appearances. I think in one of them at least you’re somewhere in the background, mostly obscured by a potted ficus.”

Perhaps Dunstan was expecting a different reaction from the smile he got. “So much the better. Photogenic is the last thing I am,” Lucasta said. “Caine’s welcome to the notoriety—you have to admit it looks good on him.”

“You’re still as starry-eyed as a teenager. Unbelievable.”

Lucasta picked up her almost-empty pint glass and knocked back the last of its contents. “Returning to our original subject, I don’t think Rik and Helena are an item. They certainly don’t act like it.”

“Rik’s rather a playboy. I could tell tales, but I shan’t.”

“Thanks. I think he simply isn’t interested. Helena’s not exactly vivacious.”

“She’s too deep for vivacity.”

“I’d say she was too pretty for depth, but that would sound catty.”

“I’d say you had a right to be catty, but that would sound boorish. Care for a bit of a walk?”

*****

“I love graveyards,” Dunstan said some minutes later. “Don’t you?”

The air was wet, clean, and chill, heavy with the smell of stone. Bycaster was built almost entirely of stone, much of it robbed from the Wall centuries ago. The village’s church owed its existence to that stone, but Lucasta doubted that Hadrian’s soldiers would have minded. They’d have considered the Christian deity one more god to the good, otherworld insurance in case Cybele, Jupiter, Epona, Mithras, Mars and Isis failed.

No one else was out walking in the miserable drizzly weather, and she and Dunstan had the graveyard all to themselves with the accommodating dead. Progressive Victorians had installed lampposts around the church, and Lucasta and Dunstan strolled among the tombs, bending now and then to read one in the sickly yellowish light.

“Lavinia Crutcher, 1804-1826. That’s so young,” Lucasta said. “I wonder what she died of.”

“Childbirth, more than likely,” Dunstan replied. “Those four little stones stand for baby Crutchers, none of whom lived beyond the age of two, and the smallest is dated 1826. I can’t read the rest.”

“Poor woman. Where’s her husband?”

“Over there with his second wife Margaret, who was twenty years younger and outlived him handily.” Dunstan surveyed the stones. “You know, we’re in an interesting line of work. If we were to tear up one of these graves to plunder a fresh corpse—relatively fresh, that is—we’d be thrown either into jail or a madhouse. But as it is, we’re allowed to dig for old bones as much as we please.”

Lucasta shrugged. “The only bones we’ve uncovered so far belonged to pigs.”

“That could always change, you know, but I’d rather it didn’t.”

“Why? The kids would love it.”

Dunstan seemed not to hear. “Look, here’s the best monument so far—Colonel Preston and his lady side by side. Don’t they look Roman in those Empire styles? Even their hair’s right.”

Lucasta examined the carving and sighed. “That’s because they desecrated a Roman gravestone. I can see traces of a Latin inscription on the base at either side of the epitaph. Some lazy thieving botcher altered the features of the original Roman soldier and his wife, and chiseled a high cravat over the armor. The faces are much more sharp and clear than the rest of the stone. Clever, but real history got erased.”

“History’s always being eradicated,” Dunstan said in his irritatingly even voice. “It took thousands of men to build the Wall, while often it requires only a single individual to destroy a piece of it. But people die and the Wall stands.”

“I hate seeing things messed up. Especially idiotically.”

Dunstan shrugged. “Vandals are part of the master plan. They’re far more integrated into the order of things than we are. Their destructive impulses allows Nature to rebuild with raw materials. Nature loves termites and smashers.”

“So you’re calling us unnatural.”

“Indeed we are. The lads who built this wall had the army discipline and the building routine to keep them behaved. And the routine was important. The whole business of building the Wall and adding to it and tearing parts of it down again to rebuild was simply a means of keeping the troops in line. There wasn’t an enemy to fight until the Picts got rowdy in the third century. Young men nowadays could use a Wall.”

Lucasta sighed. “I’d prefer something a bit more meaningful.”

“Clever people do meaningful things. For the average youth, a wall will do nicely. If you paid them just a little more money than they could get on the dole, most would be more than happy to put the Wall back to its state of original Hadrianic perfection. You could even arrange it the way the centurions did in the old days, with rival gangs working side by side on different sections, seeing who could do the best job and finish first for the free beer.”

Lucasta looked around at the huddled graves. “As if it mattered. Most life is wasted. And too often, worse than wasted.”

“You’re just tired, Lucy. You look it.”

“Thanks. Scintillating though this conversation has been, I admit I could use some sleep. Tomorrow’s bound to happen.”

Lucasta didn’t sleep, though. Not right away, as she lay between the flimsy sheets of her narrow bed. Her mind roamed far into the past, back to the day that had brought her here.


Chapter Three

Tidewater Virginia, June 1976.

Lucy always knew who was coming down the home road on a dry day. Dad’s truck churned a broader swath of dust than Unk’s. Mom and Aunt Bim’s shared Chevy station wagon puffed a low grudging trail. Rev Kline’s Jeep tossed up all kinds of ragged grit like the chariot of King Jehu, who droveth furiously. Gramma’s Cadillac, the last vestige of her lottery win seven years ago, barely raised a trace because she went slow to keep it clean. Cuz Otis tried hard to make his motorbike spray a roostertail, but he was so fat that it could only manage a limp little dribble of dirt.

This one was different. Standing on the front porch, squinting from the shimmering midday heat, Lucy watched as whoever it was started out as an abrupt squall turning off the main highway onto the home road, then changed to a long steady towering line of pure white as the automobile’s dark body grew ever more visible and loud. It was a strange-looking car, and its radio was playing music Lucy had never ever heard before, sweet and mighty as it poured out of the wide-open windows. It made her remember Wordsworth, and his poem about trailing clouds of glory.

The car jolted to a stop right at the front steps, and the driver shut off the engine, silencing the music. It was a boxy odd car, dark blue—Volvo, it said on the grill. It seemed more like a name for a tornado than a car, a whirlwind like Elijah’s.

The driver got out, slamming the dusty door and talking to the air. “What a mess. You’d think they’d have paved the damned road by now, but no.”

Lucy blinked at the swear word, and thought fast. The family gun was just inside the house, in the drawer below the Bible, an easy reach. She took a step toward the screen door. “What are you?”

Sharp eyes darted to stare her up and down. “Shouldn’t you be using the word ‘who,’ Missy?”

Lucy studied the driver’s strange clothes, short-cropped hair, and indeterminate figure. “Nope. Not yet.”

The driver laughed, and Lucy finally relaxed a little. It was a woman’s laugh, rich and resonant. A woman who laughed like that couldn’t mean harm.

“Oh well,” the woman said. She gave Lucy a long look. “So you’re Lucasta Hilary.”

Lucy felt a vague surge of panic. “ “How’d you know my name? You from the school board?”

“No.” The woman looked her over. “What’s that stuff you’re mixing up?”

Relieved and reminded, Lucy went back to her task. “Slaw dressin’.”

“You’re helping with dinner, then?”

“Nope. Making it myself.”

“You’re only eleven years old, for God’s sake.”

Lucy bristled, but quietly. “Going on twelve.”

“You’re small for your age. Where’s everyone else?”

Lucy pushed up her glasses and gave the woman a straight look. “Why do you want to know?”

“Relax. I’m not here to do you any harm, child. Far from it.”

“Then why are you here?”

“God knows. For my sins, I think.”

The woman sounded as if she meant it, and Lucy relented. “Dad and Unk’s out in the back field. Mom and Aunt Bim’s at church.”

“Your mother and aunt must certainly be pious if they’re at church on a Wednesday afternoon.”

“They’re plenty pious, but right now they’re playing Bingo.”

“What church is it? Methodist, Baptist, Catholic?”

Lucy reflected. “Don’t know. I just call it Hellfire Bingo Church. Rest of the time they’re in town at Gramma’s.”

“And what do they do at Gramma’s?”

“Watch soap operas and gossip and stuff.” Lucasta wiped a line of sweat from her upper lip. “Gramma’s got air conditioning.”

“Wonderful. And they expect you to have dinner on the table when they get home?”

Lucy smushed her wooden spoon around in the dressing and made no reply. Her face felt hot, and it wasn’t just the weather. What was happening felt like something she’d only read about, and never expected to live. The old woman looked almost magical in her strange clothes—a long white shirt under a loose wide-sleeved jacket of smooth beautiful dark purple patterned with gold fans, and black trousers close-fitting around the calf and baggy above the knee, and flat shoes made of black cloth. She wore no jewelry. Her hair was silvery gray, man-short and raked back like Andrew Jackson’s on the money, and she stood up straight as a soldier. She had a crisp way of talking, every word sharp like a radio announcer, with an accent that was probably Northern.

And right now she was standing very close. Another instant and Lucy felt the woman’s hand under her chin, forcing her face up.

“That beak of a nose isn’t from my side of the family…and it isn’t Hilary either.” The sharp eyes grew edged. “And you’re gap-toothed. My God. Don’t tell me there’s Lovell blood in you.”

Lucy knew it’d be useless to try to get away. “Mom and Aunt Bim’s Lovells. And they’re twins too, like Dad and Unk.”

“That’s so preposterous I’ll believe you.” The eyes narrowed. “Please don’t tell me your Gramma is Serena Lou Lovell.”

“That’s her.”

The woman made a noise rife with disgust. “The Lovells are the most shiftless, degenerate people in all of the Tidewater. What a ghastly curse for you to have their genes. In England, Lovell’s a gypsy name. Did you know that?”

Lucy struck the woman’s hand away in an action that astonished them both. “The Lovells used to be rich. They owned half the county, once.”

“Only in Serena’s demented mind. I remember her people being little better than trash long before you were born, and I doubt that status has improved.”

“Quit talking so mean. How do you know my grandma?”

“Too well, but ever mind that. How bad are your eyes without those Coke-bottle specs?”

Lucy shrugged again. “They’re okay.”

“Let me see.” In another instant the woman had taken Lucy’s glasses and was looking through them. “My God. You are a little bat, aren’t you?”

All the world had become a blur. Lucy reached out in groping panic. “Give those back!”

Perhaps moved by the terror in Lucy’s voice, the woman complied. “Where’d you get that Moe haircut?”

Lucy hurried on her glasses, breathlessly relieved, and got back to work. “Dad.”

“It’s awful.”

Lucy stared down at the dressing, which she’d slopped over the edge of the bowl, and didn’t reply.

The horrible woman didn't shut up. “You look like a grubby street urchin, dressed in cheap hand-me-downs. Doesn't anyone bother looking after you?”

That tore it. Lucy slammed the bowl down hard on the porch rail and clenched her hands. “Tell you what. Why don't you just get back in your ugly car with the stupid name and drive away and be snotty someplace else?” Without waiting for an answer she went back indoors, slamming the screen door and hooking it locked. Once she was back in the kitchen she waited for the sound of the old woman's driving away, but it didn't happen. After a short time she heard rustlings outside. Climbing up the step-stool at the sink, she hollered out the window.

“Go away or I'll call the cops. You're a public nuisance.”

The woman only laughed. “It’d take the cops an hour to get here. I see the dairy shed’s still standing. Hasn't been used in ages, from the looks of it.”

The dairy shed was a cinderblock tin-roofed building some twelve feet by twenty-five, a stone’s throw from the back porch. “It ain’t been used since Great-Gramma was young,” Lucasta said. “Back when there were cows and pigs and chickens. Now it’s all brightleaf.”

The woman made a face. “Tobacco. I should have known the family death industry would be going strong.” She looked over the lawn that separated the house from the shed. “What happened to the garden?”

Lucasta shrugged. “Never knew there was one.”

“It used to fill this whole space with fruit and flowers and vegetables, a little Eden. Now there’s not even a single home-grown tomato or ear of corn. Pathetic. What in God's name do you people live on?”

“You ain't eatin' any of it. Quit taking the Lord’s name in vain and go away.”

The woman ignored her and continued to inspect the dairy shed's outside. “It's big enough, and has plumbing. I could fix it up, and still start a garden. Thing is, would it be worth it?” The woman turned around and looked at Lucy. “Or would it be hopeless, like everything else?”

Ever since the stranger had appeared Lucy had felt confused and at a loss, but now she was more angry than anything, angry in a hurt way that twisted her up inside and lumped in her throat. She wanted the woman to simply vanish, but felt that if that happened, she'd lose a chance that would never come again.

“I don’t know why I bothered,” the woman said at last. “All I got was my car dirty.” She moved away, rounding the corner to the front of the house, and something in her walk meant that she was going away forever. Lucy ran out of the kitchen and raced through the house to the front porch. Past the screen door she saw the woman opening her car door. The last thing Lucy would ever see of her would be a towering white cyclone like the one that took Elijah.

Lucy thought fast and spoke loud. “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.”

The woman halted with her car door half-open, but she didn’t turn around. Lucy tried again.

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” She heard her voice squeak and fall over itself as she said the words, and felt ridiculous.

The woman didn’t laugh, though. She turned around and stared at Lucy, hard. “What’d you say, Missy?”

Lucy thought faster. “She dwelt among the untrodden ways, beside the springs of Dove, a maid whom there were none to praise, and very few to love.”

The woman stared even harder. “Damn. Where’d you learn all that, child?”

“From the books in the attic trunk,” Lucy said. “They all had a name written inside. Celeste Bayard.” Lucy drew a deep breath. “That’s you, I reckon.”

“You could be right. I might just stick around after all.”

Lucy felt her heart pounding. She couldn’t remember ever feeling this happy before. “Want a glass of water?”

“I’d rather have a nice cold beer.”

“No one drinks here. It’s against their religion.”

The woman made that noise of hers like a growl, then entered the kitchen and accepted the jelly glass of tap water Lucasta held out, then assessed the room’s worn red linoleum countertops and gray-green linoleum floor, the old Sears appliances, the rusting chrome dinette set, the yellowing wallpaper. “I must be in a time warp. Even the same pots and pans.”

Lucasta felt her mouth falling open. “You were here before? When?”

“A long time ago, child—ages ago.” She sniffed the glass and made a face. “And the water still reeks of sulphur from that ghastly well. I can smell it even past the tobacco stink. Who smokes here?”

“All of ‘em.”

“Christ. No wonder you’re stunted, having to breathe in that filthy fug day in and day out.” She set the glass aside. “I wonder what's happened to the parlor. The place where all the nasty little knickknacks were, along with the horsehair sofa and the creaky chairs and the candy dish with the orange gumdrop slices. Always dark and cold as a grave.”

“It ain't changed.” Lucasta understood all at once. “You're her. The grandma that ran away and never came back when Dad and Unk were babies.”

“I am.”

“Why’d you run away?”

“That’s none of your concern.” The woman said the words calmly and quietly, but Lucasta knew enough never to ask again. After a tight little silence, Lucasta's grandmother spoke once more. “How'd you ever get a name as poetic as Lucasta?”

“They wanted to name me Luke, but I turned out to be a girl.”

“I suppose you know just how wonderful the name Lucasta is, even if they don’t.”

Lucy smiled. “Yep. ‘I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more.’”

“You really did read the books I left. Are you the only child here?”

“Yeah. They all wanted more but didn’t get ‘em.”

“Not surprising. Smoking causes infertility. How much do they hit you?”

Lucasta looked down at her bare feet, which suddenly felt very naked and dirty, with monkey toes. “Ain’t your business, is it?”

“You’re talking to your grandmother, and you’d better believe it’s my business. How’d you get that welt on your arm?”

“Back-sassed Aunt Bim.”

“What the devil kind of name is Bim?”

“Her real name’s Kimberly. I called her Bimberly once and she hated it. Called her that ever since.”

The woman gave a laugh. “So why’d you back-sass her?”

“She said I was dumb and ugly. I ain’t dumb.”

The woman reached out and very lightly raised Lucasta’s chin once more. “You aren’t quite a monster, either. I’ll have a talk with Bim.”

The gentleness of the touch made Lucasta warm all over. “Can I call you Grandma?”

“No, for heaven's sake.” Noting Lucasta's consternation, she hastened to clarify. “I’m only in my fifties. Call me Gann. That’s what I called my own grandmother, back when I was little.” The woman’s eyes, which were the blue of gun metal, held Lucasta’s almost sternly. “I’m going to ask you a question, and I want a straight answer. Has anything really bad ever happened to you? Anything that’s marked you for life?”

Lucasta felt her face going blank. “Huh?”

“You know what I mean. Answer me.”

Lucasta remembered, in a tearing flash, tales she had heard in school, and snickering vile jokes, and stories from the supermarket tabloids Mom and Aunt Bim preferred to newspapers…horrible things that made her sicken inside.

“No,” she said, but she couldn’t keep the quiver out of her voice.

“The truth, child. That’s all I want.”

“I’m telling it.” Lucasta hesitated just an instant. “Cuz Otis tried to mess with me once, but I called him an anthropoid and kneed him in the ta-tas. He’s never tried it again.”

Gann laughed long and loud, and seemed very relieved. “Smarty-pants. But thank heaven.” She gave Lucasta’s cheek a pat. “I was so afraid of what you might say.”

Much as she loved that gentle contact, Lucasta broke away from it, startled by a noise from outside. From the screen door she saw a low threatening cloud on the home road, and heard the crunch of Chevy wheels. “Cripes. They’re back and dinner ain’t near ready. I’m gonna catch it because of you.”

Gann just laughed again. It was a deep, lovely sound that Lucasta would never hear often enough. “The hell you are, Missy. The hell you are.”

*****

Gann’s return excited no great emotion in her sons. Dad and Unk were respectful, but scarcely effusive. Upon introduction they had shaken hands in a brief constrained way, and barely alluded to having been abandoned shortly after their birth. Mom and Aunt Bim were, as expected, sourly judgmental, but Gann shut them up with a few well-chosen words about their shiftless welfare kin.

When Gann proposed moving into the dairy shed, she was asked few questions save those relating to money. Gann curtly assured her sons and her daughters-in-law that she was quite well provided, and to Lucasta’s deep embarrassment everyone brightened entirely too noticeably, and murmured that maybe she’d be happier in the house; to which Gann replied that she had no intention of staying in such a tobacco-fouled atmosphere—she used the word mephitic, which confused them—and thought her granddaughter had quite enough work preparing and cleaning up after the evening meal for five people, let alone six, even if the food wasn’t that hard to cook or particularly fit to eat.

Life became so much better after that. The windows of the house were unstuck and opened. Mom and Aunt Bim started helping out more and spending less time at their mother’s house, thanks to an unforgettable confrontation between Gann and Grandma Serena. No one dared hit Lucasta any more, lest Gann change her will—a document she frequently alluded to, in which her sons would naturally be named as heirs to what was quite possibly a fortune, if they and their wives proved themselves worthy.

With Lucasta’s help, Gann made a garden. She put in fruit trees, and grew strawberries and roses and tomatoes and yellow wax beans and a lovely plant she called Honesty, that dried into stalks of little flat silver moons. Lucasta never forgot the smell of the fresh earth, and the delicious taste of the gifts it yielded; and all her life afterward she kept a bunch of Honesty in a vase, wherever she lived.

When school started again in the fall, Gann surprised Lucasta the first day by arriving in the Volvo to pick her up and take her home. She came every day after that, causing a stir among Lucasta’s schoolmates, who at first made fun of what they called Lucy's hippie granny. But Gann had a way of commanding respect, and Lucasta soon found herself being a bit more accepted if not exactly popular. Gann had Lucasta fitted with new, less clunky glasses, and took her to a salon to have her bowl-cut hair more acceptably styled. Under Gann's escort Lucasta visited the dentist for the first time in her life, a harrowing ordeal that made Lucasta stubbornly reject any suggestion of braces to correct what Gann termed her Ghastly Lovell Gap.

Gann was in Lucasta's life for five years. The two of them developed a bond at once close and loose, and while Lucasta knew she could come to her grandmother with any of her problems, she was well aware that Gann fiercely valued her privacy. Only now and then would she talk about herself, usually to complain about her work, which to Lucasta's eyes involved marking piles of typewritten paper with arcane symbols and margin-scrawls.

“It's called copy editing and I loathe it, but it pays well and I can work at home, if this hovel can be considered that,” Gann said once early on, in the August of that first summer. She and Lucasta were sitting on the little front porch of the diary shed, with Lucasta lounging on the double swing and Gann on a folding chair at a card table, laboring over someone's book. “What utter dreck this story is. I can't believe crap like this ever finds a publisher.”

Lucasta was puzzled. “If you're got money like you say you do, why are you working at something you hate?”

Gann grimaced. “Masochism. Anyway, I'm not as rich as all that. I just want your parents to believe I am, so don't tell them about this. Not a word, or I swear I'll—”

“Okay, okay. I promise. What's the book about?”

“I call it Hysterical Friction, since it's riddled with anachronisms of the silliest kind and its by-the-numbers plot centers on indiscriminate and interminable bed-hopping, but the author considers it historical fiction.” Gann leaned back. “I need a drink.”

“You mean another drink.”

“Hush.” Reaching for the bottle of wine at her elbow, Gann filled her glass again. “I can't be expected to slave away on this nonsense sober.”

“Why don't you write your own books? I'll bet they'd be good.”

The question elicited a snort, but then, to Lucasta's surprise, an answer too. “I've been told they were good often enough.”

“Cripes, Gann, you're an author?”

“Don't get excited. I was just another deluded soul thinking that I could write the Great American Novel. After a few tries that got some good reviews but scarcely any readers, I had the sense to quit.”

“Aw. Do you have some of 'em here, and can I read 'em? ”

“No, and no.”

“I'll find them in the Lookout library, then.”

Gann laughed. Not in her good way, but the bad bitter one. “Even if that pitiful little place had my stuff, you'd not know how to find it. I published under a pseudonym. A fake name that I'll never tell you. Now go look up what an anachronism is, and give me some space.”

Lucasta wandered off to her hideaway. Years ago she'd created a summer retreat in the shrubs that shaded part of the big backyard, making it comfortable with old blankets that she lay on as she read during the long afternoons when it was too hot to do anything else and the trapped air of the house was too rackety with television and rank with cigarette smoke. As a child she used to play or daydream, but after Gann's arrival she studied the rudiments of ancient Greek and Latin under the green cool leaves, or read about art and symbolism and iconography and anthropology and ethnography from books acquired by interlibrary loan or Gann's own collection. She poured beautiful, wonderful things into her head as if filling up a bucket, and the bucket always held more. It seemed to her that she was equipping her brain in the same way that Jason and Odysseus had outfitted their high-prowed ships. Like those heroes, she intended a journey.

As time passed Lucasta had gone through a series of mythic infatuations. At thirteen she had her Aztec fixation; at fourteen, her Egyptian obsession; at fifteen, her Norse mania and Arthurian fling. Gann helped her through all of these ailments—for ailments they were, passionate crises of obsession that excluded all other thought—but she did so with distaste.

“All savages,” she inveighed as she and Lucasta sat together in the Trees one muggy summer evening full of fireflies. The Trees were the five or so acres of woods that divided the house and its grounds from the brightleaf field, where Gann escaped when the dairy shed became too confining. A deep swift creek flowed through the Trees and made a looping bend that created almost an island, and this little spot of ground was Gann's particular sanctuary. She had built a lean-to and a firepit there, and used an old trunk as a table. Since the water was too wide to jump over, Gann got to her haven using a rope line and a raft, and once there she was unreachable unless she chose not to be. As evening fell Lucasta would thread her way through the path among the Trees, stealthy as an Indian, until she reached the water’s edge. Gann would be sitting there cross-legged, either listening to the night noises or adding to them with the notes of a wooden flute she called a recorder, and often she didn’t notice Lucasta until she was called to.

“Gann ma’am?”

“Come on over.”

Once Lucasta had made the short but always slightly perilous trip across, she would sit like Gann, cross-legged on old rag rugs. They would sit side by side so they didn't look into each other’s faces when they talked, and they kept their distance. While it was still light they studied the flow of the brook, and when it grew dark they gazed into the fire Gann built from twigs that Lucasta was sent to gather.

“Savages,” Gann repeated. “Fortunately every religion becomes mythology eventually. Or it used to, before the cult of personality and the rise of literacy. The biggest belief systems just now are named after human beings, not gods; that's a sign the whole business is ending, and about time.”

“Confucius. Mohammed. Buddha. Jesus.” Lucasta thought about the King James Bible in the house, and its grand beautiful language that had comforted her so often in a way no flat modern translation ever could. “You don’t believe in anything?”

“No. It’s saved me an untold amount of time.”

Lucasta considered. At that time her Arthurian mania was strong upon her. “I still like knights in shining armor.”

Gann snorted. “Those are the absolute worst. Trust me on that.”

“What makes you so sure?”

It was a bold question, but Lucasta had known Gann long enough to ask. Gann took her time replying, until it surprised Lucasta that she replied at all.

“Long ago,” she said, “a foolish young woman with too much time on her hands drove out from Washington, D. C. one hot summer day to explore the countryside. She'd just graduated from college, and felt like celebrating. By unlucky chance she got lost on a dirt road and had to stop at a farm for directions—a dilapidated old house where a handsome suntanned young rustic was working on an equally decrepit car. He was wearing overalls without a shirt, which showed off his suntanned muscles, and when he spoke, his buccaneer-tinged Tidewater accent enthralled her so much that it didn't matter what he said. Readily deducing that she was a free-spirited lass, after providing directions he rolled some remarkably good homegrown and they got high together, and then he gave her a huge ripe peach, the most delicious fruit she had ever tasted, and after that they wandered off to the barn and...well, never mind. A life of sheltered privilege had made the luckless girl at once arrogant and pitiably naïve, so she actually believed the enchanting hayseed when he said that his principal residence was a mansion that out-Tara'd Tara, and that his people were kin to ancient English nobility. When she married that clodhopper Lancelot her family finally disowned her, and I don’t blame them.”

Lucasta listened carefully, and replied solemnly. “Sounds like you were pretty wild back then, Gann.”

“Well, karma caught up with me. I expect you to read about karma.”

“I have, a little. I don’t remember Grandpa very good.”

“You don’t remember him at all. He died when you were three years old.”

Lucasta had read the newspaper clippings saved in the parlor Bible, about how Grandpa had gotten drunk for the last time and driven his truck into the river by accident. She retained a memory, just a blip of one, in which a man who looked like Dad only older, with a sour bad smell on his breath and beard-stubble like splinters, bounced her on his knee so hard that her teeth crunched and she cried and was rescued by a shrill angry woman who had to have been Mom.

“Where’d he get the peach?” she asked.

“From a tree,” Gann said, with the taut patience she might have used with an idiot. “A very fine tree that I chopped down when I was pregnant with your father and uncle. It put me into premature labor, but the fault was my husband’s and those little trash trollops he was always chasing. Anyway, enough of that sordid business. We were discussing gods.”

“Knights. You just said Grandpa was like Lancelot.”

“Keep talking about him and I’ll pitch you into the water, I swear.”

And with that Gann discoursed again about what benighted barbarians the Indians and Aztecs and the Norse were, and how the Arthurian period had probably never existed, and how the Egyptians were admittedly an advanced civilization, but empty at the core.

“They were all civilizations built upon death, and the fear of death,” she said. “But the Greeks celebrated life. They lived in the sunlight, with the blue sea all around and blue sky above, and pure white sand, and the gods dwelling among them.”

Lucasta thought of the beach not far distant with its khaki sand, gray-green water and knee-deep seaweed. Her parents and uncle and aunt had no interest it, but Lucasta and Gann went there at least once a week. They usually had it to themselves, except for a few fishermen and people with metal detectors, and they always came home with their hair blown into tangles, a bit tired from talking above the noise of the surf. “I wish the sea here was wine-dark, like Homer's.”

“Homer's wonderful, of course, but there's also Thucidydes, Sappho, Aeschylus, Herodotus, Hesiod, Sophocles…you’ve got a lot of reading ahead of you when you get to college.”

“Mom and Dad say I don’t need college.”

“They’re wrong, as always.”

“They ain't got money to send me.”

“You're smart enough to get scholarships.”

Lucasta winced from a sting of rancor. “The other kids aren't going to college. They live in town and have fun. I'm stuck out here with my nose to the grindstone.”

“They're not lucky, they're damned. None of them will ever leave this wretched little backwater. And please remember that I've always let you hang out with them at the drugstore before picking you up.”

Lucasta snorted,. “Yeah. A whole half hour.”

“Any more than that and you'd just be wasting time and getting into trouble. I even give you money for sodas, you ingrate.”

“Because you know boys won't buy me any. None of the cool ones, anyway.”

“At least you're halfway accepted now. When I met you, no one seemed to have taught you the rudiments of hygiene. Your teeth were a mess and your hair was close to lousy and you wore the same cheap nasty clothes days in a row. You had the table manners of a peasant. Be glad I changed all that.”

“Thanks, boss.”

“Go ahead and roll your eyes in self-pity. I suppose you'd rather end up like Darcy Hauck.”

Lucasta shuddered. Darcy, the head cheerleader, had dropped out of school to get married. Now she was raising a baby girl that had birth defects, living with her shiftless and resentful teenage husband in a tar-paper shack. “Her life's nothing but hell.”

“I'm glad you noticed. Now let's hear some poetry to clear the air. Recite something you love.”

Lucasta drew a long breath and looked out at the firefly-spangled sunset, and the words came as naturally as if she were making them up on the spot.

“The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold….”

*****

Whenever Lucasta visited Gann in the dairy shed, she always had to bring some bit of writing that Gann had stipulated beforehand, usually a poem—“and not just a bunch of word-slobber that’d make a crappy dull paragraph if written tight,” Gann would admonish. But one day early in the spring of her junior year, Lucasta arrived out of breath from running, banging on the screen door until it rattled like bones.

After a long moment, a sharp voice. “Go away.”

Lucasta knew Gann’s work voice, but banged again. She heard faint cursing from the depths of the little building, then Gann yanked the door open, glaring.

“What?”

Lucasta took an involuntary step backward, but held out a grubby fist. “Found this.” Opening her hand, she revealed a big white quartz arrowhead. “Last week’s rains turned it up.”

“Bah,” Gann said, barely glancing at it. “There’s a whole jar full of those in the tractor barn.” It was common to find arrowheads tossed up into the furrows during plowing time, and in their younger days Dad and Unk had collected the ones Gann spoke of, until they quit bothering. “I didn’t want a silly piece of rock. I wanted a sestina.”

“I ain’t writing a sestina,” Lucasta replied. “I’ve got better things to do.”

Stirred by Lucasta’s quiet rebellion, Gann opened the screen door and came out. “Give me that.” She rolled the arrowhead around in her hand, studying it. “What a crude bit of butchery this is compared to a Hohokam point. And I expect you to look that up.” She then fixed her gaze on Lucasta, far more keenly. “Tell me what else is going on. I can see that you’re bursting with some secret or other.”

Lucasta hesitated, but only for a moment before replying in a blurt. “I think I found a body.”

Gann’s eyebrows shot up. “A what?”

“A body. Human. Part of one, anyway.”

“Good God. Where?”

“Edge of the brightleaf field, near the Trees.”

“You’d better be joking.”

“Nope.” Seeing that Gann was shocked, Lucasta hastened to explain. “I think it’s a grave. An Indian one.”

“How do you know it isn’t a murder? All sorts of ghastly things happen in godforsaken places like this.”

“I just know. It ain’t fresh dead. Doesn’t smell or anything. I need an arkapologist to look at it.”

“Archaeologist, you sillybilly. If what you’re telling me is true, what you probably need is a coroner. Show me.”

Lucasta led the way to the place, explaining how she’d noticed something in the dirt that had turned out to be the top of a skull once she’d given it a kick. She blushed at the memory. “I didn’t mean to. Thought it was a clamshell. I didn’t touch a thing else, and I put it back where I found it.”

Gann nodded approval, but said nothing further until they arrived at the place. Kneeling down, she gently took up the domed piece of bone.

“So fragile. So white and clean.” She replaced it with delicate care, her quick eyes busy. “More arrowheads, and some beads.” Standing up, she brushed the dirt from her hands and looked away, not speaking again for a long time.

“Child.”

Lucasta knew that tone, and felt her excitement shrivel up. “Gann ma'am?”

“What you've found is obviously a grave. Let the dead rest.”

“But I don't want to. I want to find out everything about whoever it was. Or is.”

“Doing that will take you away from the path you were meant to follow. I know it will.”

“But Gann...”

Her grandmother rounded on her with piercing bitter fury. “Damn it, I made sure you had the best education possible in this benighted place. Your school is next to worthless. Without me you'd have spent your time watching junk television and reading trash and listening to hillbilly music. Without me you'd never have learned French and Latin. You'd never have read Lord Byron. You'd—”

“I'm grateful for everything, honest. But this is just...” Lucasta hesitated, feeling her stomach cramp. “I have to do this, Gann.”

“Christ. If I'd known you wanted to waste your life grubbing in the dirt looking for old bones and broken junk, I'd never have come to this accursed wasteland.”

Lucasta matched Gann glare for glare. “You don't have any idea what I'm going to do with my life.” The knot in her stomach was burning now. “But I sure as hell wasn't ever going to write the next great American novel, any more than you ever will.” She caught her breath, horrified. “Oh, cripes. I didn't want to say that, Gann. I'm sorry.”

Gann didn't answer, and her face didn't move a muscle. Then she turned away for a long terrible moment, toward the Trees, and her soldier-straight posture seemed to bow under a great weight. But then she turned back looking as if nothing had ever happened even though everything had changed forever, and amazed Lucasta by patting her shoulder. “You're right, Lucy. Righter than you know. I'll help you with this, and I'll do the best I can. The die is cast.”

Gann’s efforts brought a member of the faculty at the University of Virginia to check out the find. He was a pleasant skinny tall man in his fifties, and Lucasta could tell that Gann liked him. With a practiced eye he assessed the site, determined it was indeed a Native American burial and not a crime scene, and began taking notes. Early the next week he returned with a couple of colleagues, and they went quietly to work. Lucasta was there for every instant, watching their precise, deft, expert movements as they laid bare the grave and recorded the finds; and Gann was at her side, taking snapshots. One of the professor's assistants was an undergraduate, a quiet, capable red-headed girl who filled Lucasta with a burning desire to be just like her.

The report noted that the grave was isolated in the field, not part of a burial ground as would have been customary. It held the typical goods usually interred with a Chesapeake warrior, but the soil suggested the unusual presence of a wood coffin long since vanished. The date of the burial was determined to be somewhere in the early 1700s. The skeleton was very slender and slight, and its gender was difficult to determine. Age was estimated to be somewhere in the late teens. The skull was symmetrically formed in a manner more typical of Europe than Native America, and its dentition was even and perfect. The cause of death was uncertain; the skeleton displayed no visible injuries or malformations, suggesting that illness may have led to demise. What signalized the find was the large amount of wampum beads found on the skeleton, apparently wrapped about the body as a ceremonial belt. Time had dissolved the stringing and there was no way to determine what the design had been, but there were many more purple beads than white, indicating wealth and high status.

The find was published in the journal of the Virginia Archaeological Association, and Lucasta found herself famous at school as a result. She donated the burial to the college for research, and to her happiness was allowed to keep the wampum, since the beads were judged to have little historical value in their loose form. Gann was proud of her and framed the journal article, but Mom and Aunt Bim had been against the excavation from the outset for various superstitious reasons, and Dad and Unk glumly predicted that their fields would be overrun with intruders looking for more bones. But no ghosts materialized, and no one took the trouble to trespass. A brief flurry of letters to the local papers argued as to whether or not the remains belonged to a descendant of Virginia Dare, a controversy Lucasta chose to stay out of. But she insisted on marking off the site of the grave and having Gann order her sons to leave it alone at plowing time, and she often visited the place when she needed to think quietly.

Lucasta began to study the tribes of tidewater Virginia and Delaware, as well as archaeological method. She found instructions on how to string wampum, and formed her beads into a sash after determining which designs were possible given the ratio of white beads to purple. She made the belt three feet long with a design of open diamonds, feeling as if her fingers were directed by the past. After that she always kept it near her.

*****

The memories faded into the darkness like the wake of a high-prowed ship. And here I am at the end of the world, Lucasta thought. Many miles and many years down the road, lying in a bed that won't let me sleep.

As she had many times in her life, she reached out and groped around the bedside table until she found her wampum, that gleamed in her mind’s eye: small cylinders of dark purple and pure white, buffed to a sheen from being long worn and handled. When she wasn’t wearing them looped about her neck they became something between worry beads and a rosary…as now.

She ran the cool smooth strings through her fingers, hearing the soft clicking of shell upon shell in the night. No sound comforted her more. In another moment she was asleep, the beads in her hand.



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© Carolyn Kephart, 2015