The next day, Jen had a headache.  Well, not so much a headache as a screaming power drill boring through her eyeballs, which someone had replaced with curried gravel, lubricated with wasp sand.  Behind her eyeballs, some small but very enthusiastic person was gleefully swinging a wrecking ball in metronomic rhythm with the pounding of her blood and the churning of her stomach.  Heedless of the damage it would do to her nacre-brittle skull and spine, she staggered out of bed, and just barely made it to the loo in time.  Unfortunately, though she valiantly attempted to keep it out of her way, some of her hair escaped into the path of her vomit.  Not that she noticed – she was too busy hanging on for dear life.

Finally, she stopped, and leaned exhausted against the cool tiles next to her.  Her mouth tasted foul, her throat was raw and her stomach achingly sore.  She groaned – quietly, but with a great deal of feeling.   She’d never been this ill on alcohol before, and couldn’t think why she was now.  Unless…oooh nooo – what was that stuff they’d given her after the cider became too gassy and she couldn’t drink any more…some local brew?  Hadn’t Dave said something about the only spirits she should be afraid of were the ones they served in the pub?

“Dammit!  He knew how awful that stuff was – why didn’t he warn me?”  she thought.  But without much conviction, as she was far too exhausted to even think angrily.

As her eyes blearily wandered around the bathroom, she noticed a large glass of water perched on the deep back of the sink with… “Oh, Mags!  May all the angels bless your wonderful, wonderful heart!”…some fast acting painkillers right next to it.  There was a small note propped up next to it saying, “Drink up – you’ll need it.”

Jen swallowed the painkillers and downed half the glass in one go.  She almost brought it back up again, but the thought of having to go hunting for more painkillers helped her to exercise iron self-control, and she managed to keep it down.  Leaning back against the tiles again, she sipped the rest of the glass slowly and gratefully.

 

She’d refilled it twice before the knock came at the door.  It opened a crack “Jen?” came Mags’s softly apologetic voice.  “I’m sorry to disturb you dear, but I wondered if you might be able to manage a little dry toast?”  “Oh Mags, I don’t know…” groaned Jen.

“May I come in?”

“Sure – as long as you can handle the sight of a grown woman looking like a corpse.”

Mags was smiling faintly as she entered with a plate of toast in her hand.  “Oh, I’ve seen worse, dear.  You should have seen Dave the first time he got drunk on the local brew.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually turn green before.  You look like you might have had a fair bit more restraint than him.”

“He did this to me on purpose, didn’t he?” said Jen.  “I’m going to kill him slowly and painfully.  As soon as I can move without the top of my head feeling like it’s going to come off.”

“Oh, don’t be too hard on him, dear.  It’s a sort of local initiation ceremony.  They like to test people’s mettle at the Cock and Pullet”

Jen squinted at Mags suspiciously.  “You knew this would happen, didn’t you?”

Mags looked embarrassed.  “Well… I suspected you might not be immune.  I know I wasn’t…” She winced slightly at the memory.  “I’m terribly sorry, dear, but I was beginning to get worried about you being cooped up in that library all hours of the day and night.  Working so hard isn’t healthy, you know.  You needed to get out and have some fun.”

“I don’t feel very healthy at the moment, Mags.”  Jen said, accusingly.

Mags squirmed a little in contrition.  “I know, dear, and I am very sorry.  Try some of this toast – it may help.”

Jen took a slice and nibbled at a corner cautiously while Mags perched on the side of the bath.

“Look at it this way, dear.  It would have happened sooner or later.  This way, at least you didn’t have to drag it out by worrying about it and anticipating the hangover.”

Jen sighed.  “Well… I suppose it’s happened, now.  All I have to do is recover.  I’m still going to kill Dave, though.  Or maybe I’ll just sprinkle his underwear with itching powder.”

“Well, dear,” said Mags, “If you need any help, give me a call.” Her eyes twinkled with suppressed malice.  “It’s about time that holy terror got some comeuppance, anyway.  Why don’t you have a nice long bath or shower?” she continued.  “See if it will help.  Then, when you’re ready, come down to the kitchen and I’ll make you a proper breakfast.”

Jen nodded, and then winced as her brain rattled.  “Actually, that sounds like a good idea, but I think that just some more toast and a bucket of tea would be best.”

“As you say, dear.  I’ll let you get on, then, and I’ll see you in a while.  There’s no rush.”

“I don’t think I’ve got a rush in me this morning, Mags,” said Jen, wryly, as the older woman left.

 

Some time later, showered, dressed and feeling somewhat better (thankfully, the painkillers had finally kicked in), Jen entered the kitchen.

“Oh, there you are, dear – I was beginning to wonder if you’d decided to go back to bed, after all.  Wouldn’t blame you if you did.  You are a brave soul!”

“Actually, not so much.  I just know what I’m like.  I try not to sleep during the day if I can help it.  If I do, I tend to have trouble getting to sleep at night.  I’ll just have an early night.”  She stifled a huge yawn.  “Mind you, the way I feel, that’ll probably be at about three o’clock.”

“Sit down, dear; I’ll get you that bucket of tea you mentioned.”

Jen smiled. “Thanks Mags” she said, as she sank gratefully down onto one of the chairs around the table, which she leaned her elbows on.  Her mind drifted in space whilst Mags bustled about, finally coming back when she put the tea and toast on the table in front of her.

“Mags?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Did you say they did that to you, too?”

“What?  Get me drunk on that awful stuff?”

Jen nodded, albeit carefully.

Mags grimaced.  “Oh yes, dear.  I had a shocking hangover, too.”  She smiled.  “It was my own fault, really,” she mused.  “I’d had a warning about it, but I didn’t think it could be that bad.  I was quite good at drinking at that time.  Of course, that was a long time ago, now.  I was much younger.”

Jen was taken aback to think of Mags willingly getting drunk on moonshine.  She was so sensible!  Not to mention respectable.  She said as much.

Mags laughed.  “I didn’t come out of the womb like this, you know!” she exclaimed.

“Sorry,” mumbled Jen, slightly shamefaced, “That was a stupid thing to say.  My head’s a shed this morning.”

“Oh, think nothing of it, dear!” said Mags, merrily.  “It’s fine.  We often forget that people had pasts, rather than springing fully formed into our world.”

“True enough,” said Jen, “But I still ought to know better.  The past is my job, after all.  I have more business forgetting that people are in the present or will be in the future.”

“Oh bother that!” said Mags.  “Whoever could think straight with a hangover that bad is a better man than I am, Ghunga Din!”

Jen smiled.

At that moment, the kitchen door to the vegetable garden opened and a disheveled blonde head poked through the gap.  Jen immediately stopped smiling.  Her eyes narrowed dangerously as the head croaked “Morning.”

“You,” she grated “Are in an awful lot of trouble.”

“Aw, Jen – don’t be like that.  You had a good night, didn’t you?  You played pool like a demon,” Dave continued, “you were brilliant!”

Not mollified, Jen replied in a level, yet menacing tone, “I am not, however, having a brilliant time this morning.   If you don’t wish to find out what your head looks like when it’s put on backwards, I suggest you keep out of my way for a while.”

Dave looked slightly less cocky than normal, and swallowed a little nervously.  “Ah…  I’ll just…  Um…  Things to dig…  Er…  Bye!” and the head disappeared abruptly.

Mags looked at the door thoughtfully.  “Hmmm….  I’ll have to try that sometime.”

“It probably wouldn’t work for you, Mags, you’re too nice.  I, however, meant every word of it.  I will put his head on backwards if he comes near me again before this hangover goes away.”

 

That afternoon, at Mags’s suggestion, as part of her campaign to get Jen away from her desk for a while, Jen went for a walk, out of the house, through the forbidding iron gates and out across the rolling parkland of the estate.

Fortunately, Mags had thoughtfully lent her a wide-brimmed hat and had provided a bottle of water, as it was a glorious day and the sun was very hot.  A soft breeze tugged at her clothes and hair as she as she wandered across the flower-dotted turf, watching herds of sheep and deer in the blue haze of the distance.  Here and there were stands of trees, their leaves whispering secrets to her as she passed by.

She didn’t think about much as she wandered along, content to let her mind drift through gauzy veils of nothingness, feeling the sun and breeze on her skin and revelling in the sensuous pleasure of it.  She finally came to rest under the shade of a giant oak tree that stood in splendid isolation at the top of a rise.

Jen sank down gratefully at the foot of the massive gnarled trunk and took off her hat to shake her hair out as it had become damp with the heat and was clinging to her scalp and shoulders.  She drank some water and laid her back against the bark, her eyes idly wandering over the landscape.  As she did so, the dream she’d had in the wood the previous night came back to her in a vivid rush; the crimson glow through the tattered cloth, the strange half-familiar writing on the spines of the books, the musky, animal scent of the minotaur and the sweet wash of his breath as he bid her welcome.  “Welcome to what?” she wondered, as her eyes began to grow heavy, the dappled shade of the canopy lulling her gently to drift away.

 

…welcome to the library said the quiet deep voice that seemed to thrum through the trunk of the tree.  it shivered through her body like a caress.  she smiled slightly in her sleep and settled deeper against the bark which still felt as if it was humming to the sound of the minotaur’s deep velvet tones.  the voice continued to weave through her dreams.  it whispered strange tales and half-heard secrets that she knew on some deep level of dreaming…