First of all, a disclaimer: this is a work of fanfiction. All I own are the original characters: Dr Woods; Nurse Scott (whom I envisage being played by Katy Murphy); Dr Hepburn (inspired by one of my tutors and by my two high school Classics teachers, and whom I picture Annette Crosbie playing); the unseen, but long-suffering Professor Aimery; Uncle Anciau, and some minor supporting characters. Everyone else was created by the late Michael J Bird (the mjbird. org. uk site will give you an outline of the original serial): I am simply playing with them for fun, not profit, because I love them (two of them in particular). The quotations from real works of literature, history and songs are credited to their original writers in the course of the story, where possible. Again, this is for fun only.
This is about as close to 'romance' that I get: bittersweet Gothic rom-com with a background of murder, torture, conspiracy and psychic manipulation. I have located the Scottish castle in the Angus Glens because a) I wanted to use Dundee Art Gallery for a key scene, and b) I have first-hand memories of Dundee and Fife in this time-period.
The basic scenario has been lurking in my mind since 1983, when I was a First Year Mediæval History student at St Andrews, watching Dark Side in the TV room of my hall of residence. For my friends and I, the romantic pairing we wanted to see was obvious – but did we get it? No. Instead, there was GBH.
There were a few gaping logical holes in the plot. How is a curse supposed to work when the intended victim knows (from official medical records) that it is impossible, and when the curser also knows that the victim knows? Also, would someone who had killed a lover in cold blood (not in a crime passionnel or by some mishap) still be carrying a torch after several centuries to the extent that he keeps her picture on desk, treasures her jewellery, and takes uncharacteristic risks to possess her look-alike? We never learned Raoul's version of events.
I was disturbed by the presumption of Templar guilt. The charges were dubious in the extreme, and the methods used to extract confessions brutal. A Templar who confessed, but then recanted on the grounds that his confession had been extracted under torture or threat of it, faced the stake as a relapsed heretic. The Grand Master himself died this way, declaring his innocence. In Cyprus (at first), torture was not used, and the Templars were found innocent; the Pope was dissatisfied, and ordered a retrial in order to get the desired result. The uncertainty over the fate of all the Templars in Cyprus (which had the highest concentration of knights, as opposed to sergeants and serving-brothers) is a gift for this fandom. But it seems to me that anyone who had passed through that terrible universe of show trials and torture-chambers (foreshadowing the horrors of the 20C) would be likely to be deeply damaged by it, mentally and physically.
I apologise to the shade of Hospitaller Grand Master Foulques de Villaret (Folco del Vilaret), for further besmirching his reputation (not that he did not manage this perfectly well by himself). Anthony Luttrell's observation about the lack of specific examples of acts of oppression attributed to him at the time of his deposition leaves scope to insert a crucial incident from the canonical back-story. It fits perfectly in date, and makes sense of the otherwise inexplicably un-secret 'secret confession' of Brother Philibert. So I have tried to draw the fictional back-story closer to plausibility, in the context of Hospitaller politics in 1317.
Rating: This story carries a 'T' rating. Strong language occurs only once or twice, and there is no explicit sex, but there is violence (in flashback), and references to torture. Sadly, this is inevitable, given the historical back-story.
Don't try this at home: In real life, I do not recommend using a knife to open a relationship. People get hurt, and carpets get ruined.
(being a sequel to M J Bird's The Dark Side of the Sun)
This is emotion
A torn shirt and a long dead cause
I can't sleep
This kind of thing gets me down
Don't say walk
I may lose my fear
I could lose myself
In this honesty
China Crisis, Christian
(the slow dance from the masked ball, Episode 4)
1: Crossed Destinies
Ismini Christoyannis returned to her London hotel, and spent the evening turning over the day's events: Dr Phillimore's account of Anne's condition; Anne herself, uncommunicative, resigned to her delusions, gazing vacantly out of her window. If her phantom pregnancy was her psychic weapon to kill Raoul Lavallière, what would be the price? What remained of her sanity? Her life?
But how could he have survived, Ismini asked herself. The knife had gone through the muscles, into the thorax between the left shoulder-blade and the spine. It did not need to go deep to kill: few centimetres into the chest cavity would be enough there. Yes, the light had been poor, but she would have felt it if the blade had struck only the bone…
It was true that nothing had been made public these past few months: she had heard only vague rumours of sudden illness or death. Several distinguished visitors had left Rhodes hurriedly – private jets flying at odd hours from the airport. The Kastello Hagios Theodoros seemed almost empty, and she no longer sensed his presence on the island. And yet…
Anne knew. But she was not sharing that knowledge, not letting her into her mind lest she undermine her delusion.
That night still haunted her: the séance, the stabbing… Blood on her hands. Yes, she had blood on her hands, literally and metaphorically. She had touched the parapet of the balcony, and felt it, warm and wet, on her fingers. She was a doctor: it went against all her instincts to kill, and yet, when she saw his hands on Anne's throat, she had done so without remorse.
There had been a moment – only a moment – when they had stared into each other's eyes and seen themselves reflected. Only a moment, but it had seared her very soul: pain, anger, centuries of loneliness, above all, an intensity of life. Had it held for another second, she might have –
Better not to think of that.
Then, with the knife still buried in his back, he had stumbled past her, out on to the balcony, and fallen into – nothing. She stood there, in her thin white dressing-gown, with his blood dark and sticky on her hands, gazing down into the dark where a body should have been, but was not… The night breeze had rustled in the trees.
She would reach out to him herself: there was no other way.
She raised her own defences, so that, if she made contact, he could not read her mind. She pictured him as she had seen him waiting for Anne in the café, that last day: soigné and aloof, with those ice-pale eyes trying to pierce her mind.
De Montrefort, Lavallière, whatever you are calling yourself these days – if you're still alive, where are you…?
Hundreds of kilometres flashed past her: darkness, the lights of towns. Pictures and emotions jumbled together. She saw a building – grey, towered, close to water and hills: a castle, but not a real fortress like Hagios Theodoros, more of a decorative fancy. She sensed panic; physical pain, in the left side of his chest…
If Anne were trying to kill him by his own method, she would expect that: a heart attack.
She kept probing, expecting to feel his psychic barriers resisting her. Nothing. His defences were down. Something was wrong, she thought. Was he dead, after all? Unconscious?
Another building: modern, big. Windows. More water: the sea, or a large river, perhaps. Brightly-lit rooms.
Pain like a needle, now…
She heard a man's voice, unfamiliar: "Less than four months ago? I hope you're not making a habit of this!"
A young woman, with an accent: "A wee rest and you'll be fine! My, you've been in the wars… What happened to you, for Christ's sake?"
He was disoriented. All his thoughts seemed to be of Anne, but she could not make sense of everything. It was as if she were hearing him speaking, in a language she did not quite recognise – neither French nor Spanish nor Italian, but slipping between them.
The elegant vision from the café slipped from her mind. Again, she saw him as at the last, in the bedroom: the knife, the blood, his gaze locked on hers… Predator and prey, bound together: but which was which?
She slept badly, dreaming of a nightingale flying into an upstairs window of the house on Rhodes. She was a child – it must have been after the war, just after the Italians had left – when her father had shown her the broken, brown-feathered body lying, twitching, on the balcony; that same balcony from which…
"Poor little thing, it must have seen its reflection in the glass, just like a mirror!"
"You're a doctor, Papa – can't you fix it?"
"It's kinder to wring its neck."
And now she saw a bird lying on the drawing-room floor (furnished as it had been in those days), below a shattered mirror. A line from an English poem: "The mirror crack'd from side to side;/ 'The curse is come upon me,' cried…"1 But now it was a falcon, with its wings outspread and studded with shards of glass like glittering knives…
She heard her father's voice again: "It's kinder to wring its neck."
Her adult self answered: "I'm a doctor now, Papa."
"But look at its claws, girl. It could tear your heart out."
And the stricken bird stared up at her as a man had done, expecting the coup-de-grâce.
After breakfast, in the hotel's coffee-bar she leafed through the morning papers – a range from across the UK, and some international ones – but she could not concentrate. Her own dreams and memories mingled with her vision of his fate. Her father had killed the injured nightingale to put it out of its misery. Was that was she must do – deliver the coup-de-grâce? Her hand trembled involuntarily.
"– Are you all right, madam?"
The waitress's voice jolted her back to her surroundings.
"Why, yes." Then she realised that she had knocked over her coffee, spilling the lees on to the papers. "Oh, I'm so sorry!"
She dabbed up the coffee with her paper napkin. "I think it most of it should still be readable!"
Then she noticed the article on which the stain had fallen: a short paragraph on an inner page of The Scotsman:
Man Collapses at Castle
A man is in a stable condition in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, after collapsing at Glen(...)stle, in the Angus Glens, yesterday afternoon. The man, whose name has not yet bee(...)eased, is believed to have been viewing the castle, which has been on the market for the(...)wo years. The estate agent raised the alarm…
"What is it?" asked the waitress, reading upside down. "Is it someone you know?"
"I fear it may be."
But she knew.
She called Dr Phillimore, to let him know that she was going up to Scotland for a few days.
"A good idea! I'm afraid there's unlikely to be much change in Mrs Tierney's condition in the meantime. Do you play golf at all?"
"No, I'm afraid not! But I may as well make the most of my time while I'm here: I'm afraid I never took the opportunity to go there while I lived in London," she said. "But I will be back to see her."
"Shall I let her know?"
"Just say an old friend – Oh, no, it doesn't matter. It would just confuse her."
The less Anne knew, the better. However, she decided to be honest with David, and telephoned him back at home on Rhodes. Just in case the worst should happen, someone ought to be informed of her whereabouts…
Poor David. They had been lovers briefly, early in their acquaintance. It had been more or less an accident: a particularly trying phone-call from her ex-husband; too much wine with dinner one evening; moving on to the bedroom. (The smell of cheap aftershave still triggered bad memories of the whole episode.) But it did not last: he was too young, too immature. They had, at least, remained good friends, but he reminded her of a clumsy puppy, eager to please, amusing enough, but hopelessly unsophisticated. He was out of his depth in this recent business, and had almost got himself killed.
She pushed coin after coin into the phone-box. The line crackled.
"Hello, Ismini! What's the news on Anne?"
"Not good, I'm afraid. Physically, she's recovered – overdose of sleeping pills – but… she believes she's pregnant. She's even showing symptoms, purely psychosomatically."
A pause. "But that's impossible. Isn't it? Oh, please don't tell me…"
"Physically, yes, it's completely impossible. But she has convinced herself of it – I think, in order to convince someone else."
"'Pointing the bone', David. Remember what I told you about how curses work? If he knows –"
"But he's dead, isn't he? After what you did to him?"
"No, he's not. He's in Scotland."
"Oh, bloody hell…"
"But I know where he is, and I'm going to find him."
Another pause. "But that's dangerous!"
"For him. He's ill. I think he's dying."
"– But we thought that before!"
"That was different. Anne is making him believe the prophecy is coming to fruition: his own mind is killing him. He's already collapsed. He's in hospital, in Dundee."
"But even so… You will take care? And let me know that you're all right?"
"Yes, of course! Don't worry. I just want to make sure." After all, of the three of them, she was by far the most capable. She had already resisted Lavallière's efforts to read her mind at least once. "What about you? What's happening with you?"
"A bit of news – good, I hope," David went on, hurriedly, as he always did when nervous. "I told you Prof Aimery2 said he'd passed my de Montrefort article on to Edith Hepburn, for peer-review? One of the experts on the military orders! Well, she wants to have a chat with me about it! She's at a Crusades conference in Israel just now, and says she'll stop off here in the next few days, on her way home!"
"Congratulations! That does sound promising!"
"– But Ismini – for God's sake, do be careful! He nearly killed me!"
All he did was give me a headache, she thought. Show me a man who doesn't – even you.
She phoned ahead to book a room in the Queens Hotel, not far from the university, and caught the first available train north. The journey took the rest of the day. She began a letter to David: "Instructions – just in case", and a fuller account of Anne's condition. It was evening by the time she arrived, and she was tired. She slept well, without nightmares.
Next day, following instructions from the hotel receptionist, she took a bus to the hospital, a large, modern building, with long rows of windows overlooking the Tay. She played the innocent foreign visitor, working her way from Main Reception to Accident & Emergency with leading questions and halting English:
"The gentleman who was taken ill at the castle… I am looking for a friend of mine… I was afraid…"
And being a charming, not to say attractive, woman with large brown eyes and a fascinating accent, she managed to learn from various members of staff that he was an Italian with diplomatic and military connections, Alessandro Taviani.
By the time she reached the doctor, whose voice she knew at once from her vision, her English had improved remarkably. He was a dark, neatly bearded man of about thirty-five: the badge on his white coat named him as 'Brian Woods'.3
"Ah, yes. Are you the next-of-kin?"
"No, I know him professionally and socially." She gave him one of her business cards, printed in Greek on one side, and English on the other: it gave both her Athens and Rhodes addresses.
"Interesting… He gave us an address in Venice."
"He has a summer place on Rhodes," she said.
"Well, that doesn't surprise me. Works for the UN, I understand. How did you know he was here?"
"I saw the report in the press, and I guessed, from what he had told me of his plans about viewing property… What exactly happened?"
"The estate agent thought he was having a heart-attack, but the X-rays showed the pneumothorax. History of trauma… A lung injury just a couple of months ago, yes?"
Ismini nodded, giving nothing away.
"If you ask me, it was a bit soon to risk flying: the change in air-pressure…"
"I was surprised he'd recovered so quickly," she answered innocently.
"Well, we did a tube thoracostomy. The problem should resolve itself in a few days."
She gave a thin smile. "I'm sure it will."
The doctor caught the attention of a passing nurse. "Becky – Nurse Scott – this is Dr Christoyannis. She's here to see Signor Taviani. Can you take her over to him?"
The nurse smiled. She was very young, not long out of training: bright, round eyes in a round, freckled face and a slight overbite gave her the look of an eager hamster. "Hello! You're his first visitor! Have you come a long way?"
"From London." She recognised her voice, too. It was better not to say too much: he might be reading the nurse's mind.
"He's doing fine, though he'll no' take anything for the pain." She guided her towards a curtained bay. "He's in here, on his own: he was anxious about other people… Wasnae worth going private for a few days, though. We got his things sent fae his hotel. Lovely manners: a real gentleman… Are you family?"
"A friend," she lied.
Nurse Scott smiled knowingly.
"More of an acquaintance," she added, lest the younger woman's imagination ran away with her.
"A visitor to see you, sir!"
For a moment, as the nurse's hand drew aside the curtain, Ismini wondered whether behind it there might indeed be a Signor Alessandro Taviani, an Italian diplomat and complete stranger. If so, she might have been relieved (although he, undoubtedly, would have been quite alarmed).
It was, indeed, Raoul Lavallière. He was sitting up in bed, reading a Calvino novel, Il Castello dei Destini Incrociati, which had an illustration of Renaissance tarot cards on the cover. His hair was browner than she recalled: dyed for his new identity, she suspected. He was half-wearing his pyjama jacket (silk, as she might have guessed, a subtle slate colour), the left side merely draped about the shoulder, because of the chest-drain. His eyes (which also appeared darker) darted up as the women entered. Briefly, Ismini detected mingled alarm and anger in them. Then, just as swiftly, his expression reverted to its usual mask-like serenity. "Thank you so much," he said, with a slight bow of his head.
The nurse beamed at him. Ismini read her mind in an instant. Unused to courtesy from injured city drunks and Hilltown junkies, and given to spending tea-breaks reading Mills & Boon romances, she was quite infatuated.
"If you need anything, just buzz, okay? – And don't let him tire himself, doctor."
And then she left them alone. Together.
To be continued:
1 Alfred Tennyson, The Lady of Shallott.
2 Walter Scott Crusade novel joke: see The Talisman and the 1954 film King Richard and the Crusaders. The names of most of the original characters contain references to Scott's Crusade-era novels.
3 Translate into French: see Ivanhoe.