In the near dark, the white Range Rover pulled into the parking lot next to the Avebury Lodge. Sadie reached across to open the opposite passenger door to free Harry from the car’s confines. He’d become more and more agitated as they approached Avebury Henge. The smoke had been thick around London. Not just Hyde Park was burning, much of the wooded areas west of the city had suffered a similar fate. But when they split south of the M4, the air cleared and with the window rolled down, Harry spent the last thirty minutes taking deep snuffling breaths, which resulted sometimes in growls and other times in an annoying whine.
“Get out!” Sadie exclaimed. “Ugh, he’s been driving me crazy.”
Cassandra got out and agreed. “I would have thought he’d gotten plenty of country air back home. We better not let him wander too far, I doubt the local farmers would like their livestock bothered by the likes of Harry.” She gave a sharp call to bring the dog back to her side. “Sit. Good boy. You stay there while I check inside.”
Allie stepped from the Rover and stretched, yawning. “That’s the farthest I’ve driven since my time in Greece.” She walked around the lot and up to the stone fence surrounding it. She peered out, espying a few looming stones standing like sentinels, guarding the hamlet.
“What was that on the radio, something about Tunguska? I couldn’t really concentrate over Harry’s whining.” Sadie joined Allie at the fence calling the dog over to her.
“An asteroid hit in the Australian desert today. Half of it fell all the way and the other half burst before it hit.” Allie knelt to pet and calm the dog; his agitation still evident.
“Oh, so the explosion was like Tunguska, then. Wow, that must have been something to see.”
“And hear. They say people heard it both in Darwin and Adelaide, nearly 1000 miles in two different directions.”
“In the desert, though. Was anybody hurt?”
“The combination of impact and explosion, they said, covered something like fifty square miles, a circle eight miles across. Yeah, it killed a few dozen ranchers and their families, not to mention all their animals. It’s good it didn’t hit closer to Uluru, that big rock, Ayers Rock, I think. There’s a state park there now.”
Sathena’s mother returned from the lodge. “There’s no room at the inn,” she said smiling. “Mainly because of our furry friend. But there’s a set of cottages down High Street that they manage. I’ve rented one for the evening. The manager said the Red Lion would be open for another few hours still. Let’s get situated and come back for a bite. There’s a patio, so we’ll eat outside, for Harry’s sake.”
“Thank you, Cassie. That was a great burger.” Allie sipped at her half of the pint of ale she and Cassandra had split. “I see you’re saving half of your meal for someone special, eh Sadie?”
“When we get back, I’ll mix it with Harry’s food. You’ve got him so well trained. I’d hate to mess that up.”
Cassandra remarked at the dog’s demeanor. “So true. I wouldn’t have expected him to wait this long. In just a few weeks you’ve taught him some manners. Thank you, Allie. There was a time when we couldn’t keep his nose off the table. I agree, let’s not ruin Allie’s hard work.”
Dinner concluded, they walked west on High Street, Allie holding Harry’s leash. “This is one of those ancient Celtic henges. Like Stonehenge. So why is it that you think we might find clues about your father or the Gribble here?”
Sadie explained, “Well, besides the etching of the eyeless bird, I thought you said in the car that you’d found references to this place in father’s notes.”
“True. But we didn’t get a chance to talk about what else you found in that talisman book.”
Even here the faint scent of smoke flavored the air. In winter the smell would be welcome, but now the whole countryside was under high alert. Harry’s nose constantly sampled the breeze, and his tugging on the leash pained Allie’s shoulder.
“Can you take him. He’s really pulling now. Harry! Easy now!”
Cassandra reached to grab the offered end of the leash, but on the darkened road she missed. “Oh, damn, I dropped it. Harry come back here!”
The dog vanished, a dashing wraith cutting left and south, leaping like a gazelle over the fence next to a gate with a sprung latch.
“Come on! We have to catch him.” Sadie cried.
The three of them raced down to the gate, flipped the lever and entered the field. Barely visible, a hundred yards distant, they saw a shape, darker than the faded summer grass, dim starlight the only illumination, stop suddenly and pause.
“Look, he stopped. I think he’s waiting for us,” Allie said.
They bumbled over the tussocks of grass, walking, not on the worn path that ran in parts around the Avebury ring, but straight to where Harry stood at the edge of the ditch that dipped down — twice head height — and rose up again; the trees on the far side casting starshadows. Sadie, arriving nearly to Harry’s side, cried out again, “Harry, stop. You stop this instant.”
But some intangible lure drove him on. The hound, his leash flopping erratically behind him, flew down into the dry runnel and up the other side. The women had no choice but to follow. Cautiously — as Cassie had just stumbled into a badger burrow nearly trapping and breaking her ankle — they threaded their way down and up under the heavy eves of the trees. Underneath, they again found the dog sitting, his keening reached them as they navigated the deep roots of a massive beech tree growing there.
“You naughty dog! You better not run away again,” Cassandra called. She’d had enough. Years of sedentary behavior left her unprepared for such impromptu exercise. All three doubted her stern words would have an effect, but the dog remained steady as Sadie retrieved the end of the leash, holding it fast in the event of another attempted escape.
Sadie knelt down in the near pitch blackness beneath the beech tree trying to soothe Harry’s persistent discomfort. Her mother and Allie arrived and Harry produced a mournful and unexpected yelp.
From the deepest shadow a familiar voice spoke. “Your beast shows promise as a seeker.”
“Harry’s no… Lady Ara?”
“The same. I travel with the Gribble. He and I have been recounting possible locations for his Eyes.”
Sadie’s frustration of the prior week swelled and burst. “I’ve been out everyday searching for you…”
The spider, barely visible as pitch against the tar-like shadow beneath the beech, deflected the girl’s admonishment. “Hadn’t you best introduce us first? Decorum does, after all, count for something.”
Caught once again, Sadie recouped, took a deep breath and fell back on well-learned manners. “Mother, may I present…”
“Is that food I smell?” The Gribble waddled from around the tree, still dressed as always, kilt and sword. His size remained as the three remembered. “I’ve missed more than one sup’ getting here. Are you saving what’s in that bag?”
Sadie held the bag protectively to her chest, Harry foremost in her mind. “Oh, well, our ‘beast’ does have food back in our room. Here…”
Argus took the bag and made quick work of the half meal. “Mmm, tastes like auroch. I thank you.”
Allie spoke up. “Can we move out from under this tree? I can barely see anything. And I’ve got a thing or two to say to Arachne, and I want to see her while I do so.”
The group shifted southwest from under the tree. Another path was evident here, forming a concentric circle.
“Truthsayer, hold if you will. Sathena, please continue.” Lady Ara wore what appeared to be a new hat, white in the light of the stars. However, her satchel looked to be original.
Sadie cleared her throat. “Mother, this is Arachne, Lady Ara. She’s the whole reason we’re in the middle of a field in the dark, hundreds of miles from home.” She finished in a huff, evidently unhappy with their predicament.
The great spider coughed, rough and gravelly. “So much for manners, it seems.”
“Sadie!” Cassandra exclaimed. She’d caught her breath and advanced around the group to stand directly before the massive black horror. Her nerves took an obvious shot as the size of the arachnid became apparent. “Lady Arachne, I’m overwhelmed at the moment. The girls prepared me, explained to me the goings on. But you must excuse me. I’ve only just recovered–”
“Lady Cassandra, there’s no need to apologize.”
“–And with the death of my husband… My, that run through the field has me exhausted. I think I’d better sit down.”
Allie helped Cassandra find a seat on one of the benches that dotted the henge’s perimeter. The others migrated with them. Then the tutor rounded on the spider, “I’ve had enough of this run-around. You take our oaths, you bite the dog (who recovered, no thanks to you), you chase us off that night, when, when the Professor was killed. That ugly bird thing now follows us everywhere. I want some answers–”
“Shh,” the Gribble interrupted. He pointed an index finger straight up. “It may be up there, high above us. Watching. Listening.”
“You see what I mean. I’ve had enough of this!” Allie sat down on the bench and crossed her arms, giving both Argus and Arachne a glare which neither could see, but both would chuckle at were they to witness it.
Harry took the cue from the Gribble and growled low and mean. Sadie had dropped his leash when she went to help her mother locate a resting spot. He’d stayed close to the Gribble until then. But when the late night breeze shifted out of the southwest, his nose struck a scent and he performed a baleful howl the likes of which Sadie and her mother had never heard. It lasted for a half-a-dozen heartbeats and when done he sprinted away directly into the wind.
“Oh, no. Not again.” Cassandra levered herself up and the group was off chasing the wolfhound.
Argus spoke up. “Your Seeker, he has found his way.”
“His way to what?” Allie launched herself off the bench.
“Ah, to what indeed?” Argus tempted.
“Here,” Arachne offered as they ran, “I’ve brought one of your torches. It is not nearly as fancy as Sathena’s, with the red tint, but it will help you navigate the dark.” The spider pulled a flashlight from her satchel and thrust it at Sadie as they dashed to catch up with the others.
They crossed a hedgerow and wound up in a crop field of some sort. Harry was in the middle whining, and as they arrived at the spot, they found him digging furiously. Sadie went to rein him in, but Argus held out an arm to stop her.
“He’s found an Eye,” Argus whispered.
“Out here in the middle of nowhere?” Allie exclaimed while she supported Cassandra who struggled to keep up.
Sadie looked around and then back toward the way they’d come. “I don’t think it’s ‘nowhere.’ This is the same distance from the middle of the circle to the ditch — if we were to measure out from the edge. And isn’t this the direction of where the winter solstice would set?”
“Sathena, you surprise me,” Lady Ara said. “Many of the ancient stone monuments built millennia ago focused on the sun and moon and their relation to the seasons. ”
“That’s what I was reading about on the way here,” said the girl.
The dog continued to dig, and the Gribble got down on his knees to help push away the dirt. “I helped raise the stones here.”
“What? You did what?” Allie came up to help. “If this is going to be an archaeological expedition I want to try to protect any artifacts we might find.”
“Lifetimes ago I traveled this land,” the Gribble continued. “I helped raise the stones that used to ring this site. This site and others. Many stones have been moved and taken away. But the distant channel remains as we once dug it.”
“You helped dig that ditch? Those thousands of years ago?” Allie’s baffled tone belied her anticipation of what they might find.
Argus nodded, unseen in the dark. “Aye.”
Sadie was now down on her knees, helping to move earth, the torch light set to shine into the growing hole.
Arachne had positioned herself to acquire a good view of the excavation and the direction from which they’d come. “Cassandra, come. I have hot tea that may help revive you.”
The spider and widow moved to sit off to the side where Cassandra murmured, “Mmm, ambrosia,” as she took the cup, her hands trembling a bit.
“Yes, a favorite of mine also.” The spider lowered her full body to the ground, resting her heavy abdomen. “I have news of Sathena’s father. Our adversaries have become — aware. Aware of your husband’s work, aware of the decay of humanity. Alas, great forces have been set against us. One such force struck against your husband those days ago.”
“Struck? You mean murdered. Did you know he would be killed?” Cassandra asked, an accusing tone in her voice. After a moment’s hesitation she held her cup out for more tea to which the spider responded with a refill.
“No, and I am deeply sorry. That night, Chaos showed himself, bringing Darkness and Night and there was nothing I could do. They set about summoning minions to interfere in our work. One creature still lurks, you realize, near your home. I’m afraid the loss of your husband may only be the start.”
Cassandra held the cup close to her nose, inhaling the fragrant steam. It calmed her and, true to form, revived her, despite the news that her husband had been purposefully targeted and killed. “I… I can’t believe he’s gone.” She palmed away a tear. “And the auger I spoke that day? My daughter and Allie tell me I spoke a prophecy, among other things, that evening.”
“All true. As true as prophecies can be. But yes, from what we know, all disturbing and true. ”
“We’ve found something!” Sadie cried.
“Softly,” Arachne grated out, her voice like a pebble beach in heavy surf.
The two ladies approached the furiously digging team. Harry panted heavily, Cassandra swore she saw a grin in the curl of his lips.
The hole was four feet wide now and half that deep. The top of a stone could be seen and the team continued to dig around it. Flat on top, narrow front to back, with its sides stretched to either edge of the hole. “Dig to the sides to find its width. I may be able to lift it.” The Gribble used his gladius to dig at the back.
“Lift it? It must extend deep into the ground. It might weigh tons!” Allie used her experience on the few digs she’d crewed to help her judge the effort.
“Truth in that, young miss. Still, it was I who helped place it here. There are hand holds further down. Know that my strength comes not only from me alone.”
“You’re just now telling us this?”
“I just now remembered. The stone’s touch tells all.”
Sadie scraped the dirt from the henge-facing side. “I think there should be a figure carved near the top, a falcon or eagle.”
Cassandra kneeled down herself. “That would make sense. Animal deities were worshipped back when these henges were erected.” She paused and looked up to catch Argus’ singular eye looking back at her. “Hold on. Argus, you said you were here? Helping to build this place? That would mean–”
“That I am much older than the myths would indicate? Yes.”
“But how much older?” Allie had stopped digging to join the discussion.
“Thousands and thousands of seasons have I endured. I and others, most who have passed on. But some who still linger, here and there.”
“Where else have you traveled, helping?” Allie asked.
“The names would mean nothing to you now. But know that where humans worked stone, I may have been there to help.”
Sadie and the dog had continued to labor at the front of the monolith. “I see a carving, I think it’s the head of a –”
“An owl.” Cassandra finished for her.
“Yes, that’s right. How did you know, Mum?”
“What does this owl have for eyes?” the Gribble asked.
“Hold on, they’re still covered in mud.” Sadie spit down onto the face of the carving and rubbed it clean. “Harry, get out of the way now!” she exclaimed to the dog who was trying to lick at the same spot. “Can someone hand me the flashlight?”
Lady Ara, standing close, retrieved the torch from the edge. “I’ll hold it for you while you work.”
The wolfhound began to whine now, a heart-rending sound. Allie again attached his leash — they’d freed him as he dug — and pulled him up from the hole.
“The owl eyes are blue. Blue marbles!” Sadie squealed with delight.
“Argus,” began Lady Ara, “you must pass Sathena your first eye. She must call to those mounted there.”
The Gribble sat, shoulders hunched on the edge of the hole. His bare chest streaked with mud; his sword stuck into the soil next to him.
“One moment!” he gruffed. “They pop in most readily. Removing them hurts.”
The three women watched the macabre sight as the Gribble cleaned an index finger in the dew-soaked grass and pried out his one and only eye from the center of his forehead. As soon as it was out, his entire presence seem to withdraw into itself, and where a man-boy once sat, now a tiny Buddha squirmed and nearly fell into the hole, all the while holding up the vivid blue Eye for Sathena to take.
“You recall the words, the rune callings, girl?” Arachne posed.
With a nod of her head Sadie delicately took the glowing sapphire Eye from the Gribble’s outstretched hand, and holding it tight in her own recited the part of the incantation she knew somehow would work to free the other Eyes from the stone.
“Vreíte tous adelfoús mou.” “Find my brothers.”
As she held her free hand beneath each of the carved owl’s Eyes, they plinked free and fell, one, two into her palm.
“May I have them back now?” Argus asked politely, his cherubic voice comical in the night. The girls giggled at the sound.
Lady Ara interrupted the exchange that Sadie was willing to perform. “Return the one, but keep the others. Remember, they must be nurtured, savored, kept warm and nestled for their own runes to be read come the next full moon.”
Sadie did as the spider requested.
The Gribble grimaced at the acceptance of Arachne’s words. He returned the one Eye to his head, instantly expanding to his previous size and voice.
Harry growled deeply and looked up into the starlit night. One loud woof erupted from his muzzle. Cassandra made to shush him.
Voices from off to their right bellowed across the field. A pair of spotlights pierced the night and crisscrossed the land around them, searching like Cyclops hunting for Odysseus.
“There they are! Out in the middle.” A deep male voice reached them booming the alarm. At the same time a screeching penetrated down from above. The harpy, and something else, was back and preparing for attack.