‘Jesus,’ he whispered, and put his fingers to his nose. There was a distinct smell of combustion. Not petrolish at all, but a scent of burning so intense he could taste it on the back of his tongue. Like something out of a volcano. What in the name of God Almighty could burn a rock and leave the man who carried it alive?
The sort of thing he’d met among the standing stones, that was what.
He’d been doing all right with the not feeling too afraid until now, but … he swallowed hard, and sat down again, quietly.
‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ he whispered to the knees of his trousers. ‘I pray the Lord my soul to keep …’
He did in fact sleep eventually, in spite of the cold, from simple exhaustion. He was dreaming about wee Roger, who for some reason was a grown man now, but still holding his tiny blue bear, minuscule in a broad-palmed grasp. His son was speaking to him in Gaelic, saying something urgent that he couldn’t understand, and he was growing frustrated, telling Roger over and over for Christ’s sake to speak English, couldn’t he?
Then he heard another voice through the fog of sleep and realised that someone was in fact talking somewhere close by.
He jerked awake, struggling to grasp what was being said and failing utterly. It took him several seconds to realise that whoever was speaking—there seemed to be two voices, hissing and muttering in argument—really was speaking in Gaelic.
He had only a smattering of it himself; his mother had had it, but—he was moving before he could complete the thought, panicked at the notion that potential assistance might get away.
‘Hoy!’ he bellowed, scrambling—or trying to scramble—to his feet. His much-abused knee wasn’t having any, though, and gave way the instant he put weight on it, catapulting him face-first toward the door.
He twisted as he fell and hit it with his shoulder. The booming thud put paid to the argument; the voices fell silent at once.
‘Help! Help me!’ he shouted, pounding on the door. ‘Help!’
‘Will ye for God’s sake hush your noise?’ said a low, annoyed voice on the other side of the door. ‘Ye want to have them all down on us? Here, then, bring the light closer.’
This last seemed to be addressed to the voice’s companion, for a faint glow shone through the gap at the bottom of the door. There was a scraping noise as the bolt was drawn, and a faint grunt of effort, then a thunk! as the bolt was set down against the wall. The door swung open, and Jerry blinked in a sudden shaft of light as the slide of a lantern grated open.
He turned his head aside and closed his eyes for an instant, deliberate, as he would if flying at night and momentarily blinded by a flare or by the glow of his own exhaust. When he opened them again, the two men were in the cow byre with him, looking him over with open curiosity.
Biggish buggers, both of them, taller and broader than he was. One fair, one black-haired as Lucifer. They didn’t look much alike, and yet he had the feeling that they might be related—some fleeting glimpse of bone, a similarity of expression, maybe.
‘What’s your name, mate?’ said the dark chap, softly. Jerry felt the nip of wariness at his nape, even as he felt a thrill in the pit of his stomach. It was regular speech, perfectly understandable. A Scots accent, but—
‘MacKenzie, J. W.,’ he said, straightening up to attention. ‘Lieutenant, Royal Air Force. Service number—’
An indescribable expression flitted across the dark bloke’s face. An urge to laugh, of all bloody things, and a flare of excitement in his eyes—really striking eyes, a vivid green that flashed suddenly in the light. None of that mattered to Jerry; what was important was that the man plainly knew. He knew.
‘Who are you?’ he asked, urgent. ‘Where d’ye come from?’
The two exchanged an unfathomable glance, and the other answered.
‘Ye know what I mean!’ He took a deep breath. ‘When?’
The two strangers were much of an age, but the fair one had plainly had a harder life; his face was deeply weathered and lined.
‘A lang way from you,’ he said quietly, and, despite his own agitation, Jerry heard the note of desolation in his voice. ‘From now. Lost.’
Lost. Oh, God. But still—
‘Jesus. And where are we now? Wh-when?’
‘Northumbria,’ the dark man answered briefly, ‘and I don’t bloody know for sure. Look, there’s no time. If anyone hears us—’
‘Aye, right. Let’s go, then.’
The air outside was wonderful after the smells of the cow byre, cold and full of dying heather and turned earth. He thought he could even smell the moon, a faint green sickle above the horizon; he tasted cheese at the thought, and his mouth watered. He wiped a trickle of saliva away and hurried after his rescuers, hobbling as fast as he could.
The farmhouse was black, a squatty black blot on the landscape. The dark bloke grabbed him by the arm as he was about to go past it, quickly licked a finger, and held it up to test the wind.
‘The dogs,’ he explained in a whisper. ‘This way.’
They circled the farmhouse at a cautious distance, and found themselves stumbling through a ploughed field. Clods burst under Jerry’s boots as he hurried to keep up, lurching on his bad knee with every step.
‘Where we going?’ he panted, when he thought it safe to speak.
‘We’re taking ye back to the stones near the lake,’ the dark man said tersely. ‘That has to be where ye came through.’ The fair one just snorted, as though this wasn’t his notion—but he didn’t argue.
Hope flared up in Jerry like a bonfire. They knew what the stones were, how it worked. They’d show him how to get back!
‘How—how did ye find me?’ He could hardly breathe, such a pace they kept up, but he had to know. The lantern was shut and he couldn’t see their faces, but the dark man made a muffled sound that might have been a laugh.
‘I met an auld wifie wearing your dog tags. Very proud of them, she was.’
‘Ye’ve got them?’ Jerry gasped.
‘Nay, she wouldna give them up.’ It was the fair man, sounding definitely amused. ‘Told us where she’d got them, though, and we followed your trail backward. Hey!’ He caught Jerry’s elbow, just as his foot twisted out from under him. The sound of a barking dog broke the night—some way away, but distinct. The fair man’s hand clenched tight on his arm. ‘Come on, then—hurry!’