The Trouble with Mercia


         Fairfax trudged up the furrowed snow-slope of Braden’s Covert, the ghost of his old dog by his side. This time last year Fido had accompanied him on one of their last walks together. Perhaps he should have got another dog by now, but he didn’t think so. For one thing, it wasn’t fair to the new dog; you didn’t really want him, you wanted the old dog back, and that wasn’t going to happen. But even on his own, he still went for a walk most evenings in the countryside he loved. Living five miles out of town wasn’t always convenient, but it was worth it, even in winter.
         It was his favourite walk, up to the centuries-old Tower of the Night, on the Anglesborough estate. Theoretically he would be trespassing, not that the Earl and his keepers would be too bothered about that, so long as he wasn’t in pursuit of game. Even then they tended to be pretty easy-going, just warning poachers off, and only prosecuting in the case of persistent offenders. Ramblers who behaved themselves had nothing to fear, and anyway he knew his lordship slightly. If he’d run into him, the old boy would simply have wished him a cheery good evening.
         The only child of indulgent and moderately wealthy parents, Fairfax had soon realized that he had been born, if not with a silver, at least a silver-plated spoon in his mouth. He had never been seriously ill, or short of money, or suffered any kind of prolonged physical hardship. Yet life wasn’t always easy, not for anyone. Leading a sheltered life simply meant that you acquired a different lot of problems. For instance he didn’t know whether, if push came to shove, he would prove to be a hero or a coward. One thing he had learned was not to judge those who had been less fortunate than himself.
         Discouraged, at least passively, from forming close emotional attachments outside his immediate family, he had grown up a loner, which had made the death of his parents the harder to take. Being a loner didn’t mean that you could never be lonely. Especially at Christmas. This would be the third Christmas he had spent on his own.
         It would be the first truly white Christmas of his life, and the last of hers. Fairfax did not deceive himself with false hopes. In five days’ time it would be the nightmare Sunday, with the knowledge that next morning, just over a month short of her forty-second birthday, Rhonda Scarlett would walk out on to the scaffold in front of Castletown Prison and pay the ultimate price. The price for something she had not done. A couple of months ago he had been scheming how to disentangle himself from such a shallow creature, telling himself what a mistake he had made by ever getting involved with her. It had started as a bit of harmless fun, or so he had thought, wondering if he could make it with the King’s former mistress, the most notorious woman in the country. What a self-satisfied, judgmental bastard he had been.
         And how he had hurt her. She had tried to pass it off, and he had wanted to believe her, but he had known. He had known as soon as she had used the words ‘I’m a big girl now.’ Even then it had not been too late. And what he would not give to go back again and do things differently. ‘… Nor all thy piety nor wit …’
         He ought to be there at the end. Just possibly the sight of him might give her the courage she would need, not that she had ever lacked that.
         It was a cold, clear night, with a gibbous moon. To the south, the seven great stars of Orion blazed from the cloudless sky. At the celestial hunter’s heels, his two immortal dogs. Julius Caesar would have seen them, as would generations yet unborn. The earth was a speck of dust in an inconceivably gigantic universe. Did it really matter what happened in Castletown in the last few days of 2278?
         He reached his goal. Before him, framed by a snow-decked plantation of fir and pine, loomed the decayed five-hundred-year-old stone building known as the Tower of the Night, built by the present Earl’s many-greats-grandfather as a refuge where he could indulge his passion for gambling, and no doubt even less reputable vices.
         ‘Childe Rowland to the dark tower came.’ The most sinister line in King Lear entered his head unbidden. How did it continue? ‘His word was still, fie foe and fum, I smell the blood of a British man …’ Had Shakespeare copied the pantomime, or vice versa?
         He would spend tomorrow alone. Cook himself the best he could do for a Christmas dinner, and spend the afternoon reading in his study. King Lear, perhaps – he could always get something new out of the play – or maybe a novel by a writer from the olden days, say the early twentieth century. He felt more in tune with them than with more recent stuff. Then in the evening he’d have some mince pies and a drink, before going out for another walk. Finally a nightcap, and early to bed. In all probability he would not see or speak to another human being all day.
         Unless … Some time soon they would be moving Rhonda to Castletown. In the interest of avoiding public disturbances, there would be no prior announcement. There were no trains on Christmas Day, and after that the time would be running out.
         As if on cue, from the south-east came the distant ‘whoo-whoo’ of the last train before Christmas, the North-Western Express from London Yewstone. Was it possible that she was aboard, converting the train, temporarily at least, into a magic place? The place where she was living, breathing, talking and thinking. Perhaps thinking of him, and how shamefully he had let her down. Or was it just a train like any other?