Jerry had a bad stitch in his side, and his knee was all but useless by the time the little group of stones came in sight, a pale huddle in the light of the waning moon. Still, he was surprised at how near the stones were to the farmhouse; he must have circled round more than he thought in his wanderings.
‘Right,’ said the dark man, coming to an abrupt halt. ‘This is where we leave you.’
‘Ye do?’ Jerry panted. ‘But—but you—’
‘When ye came … through. Did ye have anything on you? A gemstone, any jewellery?’
‘Aye,’ Jerry said, bewildered. ‘I had a raw sapphire in my pocket. But it’s gone. It’s like it—’
‘Like it burnt up,’ the blond man finished for him, grim-voiced. ‘Aye. Well, so?’ This last was clearly addressed to the dark man, who hesitated. Jerry couldn’t see his face, but his whole body spoke of indecision. He wasn’t one to dither, though—he stuck a hand into the leather pouch at his waist, pulled something out, and pressed it into Jerry’s hand. It was faintly warm from the man’s body, and hard in his palm. A small stone of some kind. Faceted, like the stone in a ring.
‘Take this; it’s a good one. When ye go through,’ the dark man was speaking urgently to him, ‘think about your wife, about Marjorie. Think hard; see her in your mind’s eye, and walk straight through. Whatever the hell ye do, though, don’t think about your son. Just your wife.’
‘What?’ Jerry was gob-smacked. ‘How the bloody hell do you know my wife’s name? And where’ve ye heard about my son?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ the man said, and Jerry saw the motion as he turned his head to look back over his shoulder.
‘Damn,’ said the fair one, softly. ‘They’re coming. There’s a light.’
There was: a single light, bobbing evenly over the ground, as it would if someone carried it. But look as he might, Jerry could see no one behind it, and a violent shiver ran over him.
‘Tannasg,’ said the other man under his breath. Jerry knew that word well enough—spirit, it meant. And usually an ill-disposed one. A haunt.
‘Aye, maybe.’ The dark man’s voice was calm. ‘And maybe not. It’s near Samhain, after all. Either way, ye need to go, man, and now. Remember, think of your wife.’
Jerry swallowed, his hand closing tight around the stone.
‘Aye. Aye … right. Thanks, then,’ he added awkwardly, and heard the breath of a rueful laugh from the dark man.
‘Nay bother, mate,’ he said. And with that, they were both off, making their way across the stubbled meadow, two lumbering shapes in the moonlight.
Heart thumping in his ears, Jerry turned toward the stones. They looked just like they’d looked before. Just stones. But the echo of what he’d heard in there … He swallowed. It wasn’t like there was much choice.
‘Dolly,’ he whispered, trying to summon up a vision of his wife. ‘Dolly. Dolly, help me!’
He took a hesitant step towards the stones. Another. One more. Then nearly bit his tongue off as a hand clamped down on his shoulder. He whirled, fist up, but the dark man’s other hand seized his wrist.
‘I love you,’ the dark man said, his voice fierce. Then he was gone again, with the shoof-shoof sounds of boots in dry grass, leaving Jerry with his mouth agape.
He caught the other man’s voice from the darkness, irritated, half-amused. He spoke differently from the dark man, a much thicker accent, but Jerry understood him without difficulty.
‘Why did ye tell him a daft thing like that?’
And the dark one’s reply, soft-spoken, in a tone that terrified him more than anything had so far.
‘Because he isn’t going to make it back. It’s the only chance I’ll ever have. Come on.’
* * *
The day was dawning when he came to himself again, and the world was quiet. No birds sang, and the air was cold with the chill of November and winter coming on. When he could stand up, he went to look, shaky as a newborn lamb.
The plane wasn’t there, but there was still a deep gouge in the earth where it had been. Not raw earth, though; furred over with grass and meadow plants—not just furred, he saw, limping over to have a closer look. Matted. Dead stalks from earlier years’ growth.
If he’d been where he thought he’d been, if he’d truly gone … back … then he’d come forward again, but not to the same place he’d left. How long? A year, two? He sat down on the grass, too drained to stand up any longer. He felt as though he’d walked every second of the time between then and now.
He’d done what the green-eyed stranger had said. Concentrated fiercely on Dolly. But he hadn’t been able to keep from thinking of wee Roger, not altogether. How could he? The picture he had most vividly of Dolly was her holding the lad, close against her breast; that’s what he’d seen. And yet he’d made it. He thought he’d made it. Maybe.
What might have happened? he wondered. There hadn’t been time to ask. There’d been no time to hesitate, either; more lights had come bobbing across the dark, with uncouth Northumbrian shouts behind them, hunting him, and he’d hurled himself into the midst of the standing stones and things went pear-shaped again, even worse. He hoped the strangers who’d rescued him had got away.
Lost, the fair man had said, and even now, the word went through him like a bit of jagged metal. He swallowed.
He thought he wasn’t where he had been, but was he still lost, himself? Where was he now? Or rather, when?
He stayed for a bit, gathering his strength. In a few minutes, though, he heard a familiar sound—the low growl of engines, and the swish of tyres on asphalt. He swallowed hard, and, standing up, turned away from the stones, toward the road.
* * *
He was lucky—for once, he thought wryly. There was a line of troop transports passing, and he swung aboard one without difficulty. The soldiers looked startled at his appearance—he was rumpled and stained, bruised and torn about and with a two-week beard—but they instantly assumed he’d been off on a tear and was now trying to sneak back to his base without being detected. They laughed and nudged him knowingly, but were sympathetic, and when he confessed he was skint, they had a quick whip-round for enough cash to buy a train ticket from Salisbury, where the transport was headed.
He did his best to smile and go along with the ragging, but soon enough they tired of him and turned to their own conversations, and he was allowed to sit, swaying on the bench, feeling the thrum of the engine through his legs, surrounded by the comfortable presence of comrades.