Jen groggily rose from her nap to discover that she’d fallen asleep in her clothes and the sleep had lasted far longer than it was supposed to.  She groaned.  She’d been asleep for hours!

As she attempted to unstick her eyelids from each other and make them stay that way, she heard the tapping on her door that must have woken her.

“Jen!”came a hoarse whisper through the door.  “Jen!  Bloody well wake up and let me in!” hissed Dave.

“Hang on” said Jen, stifling a yawn and shuffling towards the door.  She shivered as she did so – it must be quite late, she thought.  She opened the door to admit an impatient Dave with a flask in one hand and a couple of mugs in the other.

“Tea” he said, brandishing the flask.  “Thought you might be needing it.”

“Oh Dave – you star!” said Jen in gratitude as he sat her down on the bed, handed her a mug and poured some of the contents of the flask into it.  Hot, sweet tea.  Jen drank gratefully and felt the warmth seep through her core and begin to wake her up.  “I don’t think I’m cut out for this sneaking around in the middle of the night lark,” she said, stifling another yawn.

“’Course drank, going, young man?  t.  yyou are!” said Dave, encouragingly.  “Come on, drink up – there’s plenty more where that came from – it’ll help.”

“It is doing – I just need five more minutes.”

“Dave chuckled.  “You sound like a school kid – ‘Just five more minutes, mum!’”

Jen smiled ruefully.  “Story of my life – I think I like sleep too much.”

“Nothing wrong with liking sleep.  It’s good for you.  Very important, sleep.  Nothing wrong with it at all.”  Then he added, “Of course, there’s a fine line between a love of sleep and being an incurable lazybones…”

“Hey!” protested Jen, giving him a shove.

Dave chuckled, and then said, “Come on – you awake, yet?”

Jen slurped the remains of the tea in her mug.  “Delicious!  Think I need another one, though – my core temperature isn’t up far enough, yet.”

Dave poured her another, which she drank with enthusiasm and concentration.

“Right,” she said, finishing the second mug, “I think that did the trick.  I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  Has Lord Ambrose gone to bed for the night, then?”

“I assume so,” said Dave.  “I followed him to his room, the light went off and he didn’t come out again, so my guess is that he’s gone to bed.  Finally.”

“Why?  What time is it?”

“Late.  Let’s go.” He said, pulling a coupe of torches from his pocket and handing one to Jen.

“Oh, no – I remember what happened the last time you gave me a torch – I ended up with The Hangover From Hell.  What are you going to do this time?  Wall me up in the secret room like one of those poor buggers in those lurid stories you told me?”

“Nah – can’t be bothered.  I might whack you round the head with one if you don’t get a bloody move on though, my girl!”

“All right, all right, I’m coming” Jen grumbled as hey left her room.

They moved quietly down the corridor and were at the library door in short order.

“Here, hold this for a minute,” said Dave quietly, handing Jen his torch before rummaging in his pockets for the key, which Jen had given him for safekeeping, afraid she’d lose it.

“Uh, Dave,” whispered back Jen, “Why are we whispering?  There’s no-one else in this part of the house.”

“Just in case” whispered back Dave, taking the torch back and fitting the key in the lock.  It turned with a quiet click that nevertheless seemed too loud in the stillness that surrounded them.    Jen held her breath, her heart pounding.

“Oh, good grief!” she chided herself, “Get a grip.”  Surprised that she had butterflies in her stomach, she took a steadying breath as Dave turned the handle and pushed the door open slowly.  Dave looked as if he was in his element, a look of glee on his face – whether from the creeping about or the fact that the key had worked or something else entirely, she wasn’t sure.

“Let’s go and find some treasure!” he whispered, and led the way into the dark library.

“Big bloody kid” thought Jen as she followed him in.  She couldn’t deny, though, that she, too, was finding this exciting.  All of those childhood adventure stories were coming back to her in waves.

They moved swiftly across the floor of the library towards the shadowy rear alcove.  Of course, when they got to the shelving that half-concealed the panel that had swung back, the panel was closed.

“How did you open it?” asked Dave in a low voice.

“I tripped and banged my arm on the shelving,” said Jen, rubbing the bruise on her elbow and wincing at the memory.  “I think it was somewhere here.”  She indicated the section of carved shelving.

“Well, then – let’s start pressing stuff and see what happens” he said, beginning to do just that.  Jen, however, had shone her torch over the carvings and she stood stock still as the beam came to rest on one in particular.

“Dave,” she said, “Look at this.”

“Well well well,” said Dave, “Would you look at that.  I guess we were right about the subliminal thingamajig after all.”

They looked at each other.  Slowly, Jen extended her hand and pressed the carving of a minotaur that she had found.  The panel opened with a faint click.

They both stood very still, shining their torches at the panel.  Jen took a deep breath and spoke first.

“Well then,” she said, “Shall we have a look?” and stepped forward.

She pushed the panel very gently, and it swung back in silence, revealing darkness beyond.  Stepping through the opening, she shone her torch around the room.  It was deep, going back a fair way.  The walls and floor were made of stone, well fitted together.  Painted all around the walls were murals of  the sun, moon, stars, and all around, the twisted shapes of labyrinths.  She walked further in, playing her torch over the beautiful designs.  Dave followed her in silence, doing likewise.  The murals were highlighted in gold paint, which threw their torchlight back at them in strange patterns.  As they moved deeper into the room, a gleam at the far end caught Jen’s eye.  She swung her torch towards it and abruptly stopped moving.

“There he is,” she breathed.

Dave came to stand beside her and gave a low whistle.

“Well hello…” he drawled.  “Look at you.”

Standing at the far end of the room, in a curved alcove surrounded by painted stars, was a beautiful gilded statue.  As it stood, movement hovered around its perfect golden limbs and torso in an invisibly sparking cloud.  Its body was that of a man, an athlete perfectly proportioned and defined.  Jen could see the outline of each sinew in the carving.  Surmounting the athlete’s body and gazing into some unimaginable distance, was the proud horned head of a bull.

In contrast to the majestic minotaur, there stood directly in front of the alcove, a stained and ugly block of stone.  The stains were mostly on the top surface, though there were streaks down the side, here and there, and a worrying brownish black in colour.  There was evidence that it had been scrubbed, but the stains were deeply ingrained in the stone, and it hadn’t done much to remove the marks of years, perhaps ages.

“Dave…” said Jen, quietly.

“…I know…” he said.  “It doesn’t look good, does it?”

“Not really.  Now what?”

“Er, I think we should probably leave.” Said Dave in a sombre voice, all the glee drained out of him.

“I think you might be right.” Jen agreed, still transfixed by the stained stone block.  Then her gaze returned to the statue, which threw back her torch’s light dazzlingly.  “What’s been going on in here, then, big boy?” she asked it.  The statue, ignoring her, continued to gaze at that far distant place or time that only he could see.

 

They left the room slowly, looking at the exquisite murals as they went.  Jen wondered that it was all so beautiful yet hidden away.  What was the point?  She could think of half a dozen reasons, none of which were particularly pleasant, and nearly all to do with the stained altar – for that was what it appeared to be.  Some of them were downright horrible.

She shuddered as they stepped out of the room and closed the panel behind them.

“Weird” said Dave.

“Mmm…  Scary, too.” Jen agreed.

“Aw, come on, girl.  Scary?  Really?”

“Well, yeah.  I mean, what the hell’s been going on in there?  And was any of it recent?  Those weren’t coffee stains on that stone, you know.”

“I know that.  Dunno how recent they might be, though.  I mean, it may be that nothing went on in that room at all.  Rich people are notorious for travelling about and nicking other cultures’ antiquities, though, aren’t they?  Look at the Elgin marbles, for instance – the Greeks are still trying to get them back.  And what rich people are also notorious for is hiding stuff away so they can gloat in private.”

“Well, I suppose so…” conceded Jen doubtfully, as they started back across the library.  “But it’s still… I dunno…  It feels a bit spooky, somehow.  You can be as rational as you like, but at this time of night in a concealed Greek temple looking at a suspiciously stained altar stone by torchlight… well… I’m not sure I can.  Call me a coward or a whimp if you like, but it gives me the creeping shivers.”

“Well, I suppose if you put it like that, I can see your point.”

They reached the door, and Dave checked the corridor was empty.  As he signaled all clear, they scurried out.  He carefully relocked the door behind them and they made for Jen’s room as quickly and quietly as possible.  Once inside, Jen shut the door firmly and sank down on to the bed, tension draining out of her and relief flooding in to take its place.

They sat and talked for a while, speculating on what they had seen, where it had come from, and what reason Lord Ambrose might have for keeping it hidden, who else might know of its existence.

Then Jen said, “I wonder what the significance of all of those firstborn heirs conceived in there is?  And how does a tradition like that get passed on, anyway?  I mean, does Lord So-And-So take aside the young lordling Whatsisname and say ‘Now, listen here, m’boy – I don’t care how many chambermaids and peasants you consort with, just make sure the heir gets conceived in here, or else’, or what?”  Then she laughed at the absurd image in her mind.

“Heh, maybe” chuckled Dave.  “Who knows what the upper classes get up to in their spare time?”

“But why would he want to ‘examine the room in private’, though?  It was as if he’d never seen it before.”

“Well, maybe he hadn’t” said Dave.  “His dad died when he was quite young, you know.  Maybe he’d just heard about the room – perhaps by listening at a keyhole or through the banisters or something – but was never formally told about it.”

“Mmm…  I suppose you could be right.  But then, what would he have known about it?  If it’s some coming of age thing, how much would the old lord tell the new lord before time?”  Se yawned.  “Oh dear – I think it might be bed time” she said.

“What, again?” asked Dave, aghast.  “Blimey, you do sleep a lot!  I would have thought you’d had plenty earlier on.”

“Well, my body doesn’t seem to think so,” said Jen.  “It’s still the middle of the night, after all.”

“Actually, it isn’t” said Dave, gesturing to the window, which was beginning to lighten with the first faint flush of dawn.

“Oooh good.  The birds will be yelling soon – just what I need.  Still, I might get an hour or two before the racket wakes me up.  You should try to get some shuteye, too.”

“Ok,” Dave sighed, “I’m going, I can tell when I’m not wanted.”  He rose and made for the door.  “See ya!”

“’Night, Dave.  And thanks for coming with me tonight.  It would have been too creepy on my own.”

Dave grinned and threw “Sweet dreams!” over his shoulder as he left the room.

“Huh, fat chance!” muttered Jen as she finally crawled into bed.