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There is nothing for it. She will have to go into a dark grey forest with a man who is desperate to get his hands on something that she is guarding. They stand side by side on the lawn in front of the big house. The doors have closed behind them, the director and Tina waving them off and wishing them a pleasant romp through the forest. The director has told Helena not to forget about the new signposting they are planning as well as the maintenance work that needs to be done on the drainage on the West side of the park. Helena just nodded and said yes. Then Stephan also expressed an interest in the old water mill in the park, and asked if it is still there. It is! Tina trilled, and pressed Helena to include it in her tour. Such a lovely time they are going to have together!
With the closing doors, silence has fallen between them. A bird rustles in the bushes where Helena hid just the night before. It is a dreary day. Clouds are hanging low and a slight drizzle is falling – the kind of light rain that can keep it up all day long. Helena pulls her collar up against the chill. She stamps her feet, fear and anger and loathing boiling inside of her.
“Nice job,” she says, “convincing them you are interested in making a donation.”
He nods, his face grim. “We are good at that in our family.” Then he turns and bows extends his arm. “Shall we go?”
They set off in the direction of the lane.
“How did you get here anyway?” asks Helena, “I don’t see your car here. I would recognise it instantly” she smirks.
“My obliging husband dropped me off, if you will believe that. I left the car at the garage this morning,” he replies, “to fix the damage on the damage. I will have the bill sent to you, shall I?”
“Oh I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Helena says through gritted teeth, “Things like that are extremely bad for your karma. Better to bear responsibility for your own actions.”
He laughs. “Oh god no! Can’t suddenly start doing that! What on earth would ever become of me?”
“In my experience,” Helena adds, “if you don’t pay for your own actions, someone else – or something – will make you.”
As they pass the windows of the café, where the first early morning hikers are already enjoying their first cup of coffee and piece of cake, Helena sees Marina anxiously watching them from behind the counter. Then she hears the grind of tires on gravel and looks around. Rick is getting off his racing bike and staring at them, his face red under his helmet.
“Good morning,” Stephan says with a little bow. Helena feels a pang of guilt at having involved Rick too in her aventure-gone-wrong. She should not have done that. She should not have involved anyone in this!
Rick and Marina watch them go.
They reach the shed. Helena tries the door handle, but this time it is not locked. She pulls the door open and stands aside.
“Shall we go by bike?” Stephan proposes, slipping past her in the doorway and crossing the floor straight to the bikes.
“Where is the van?” asks Helena, staring at the open space in the middle of the shed.
Stephan shrugs. He examines the bikes and chooses one. It is the bike Helena used the night before. Mud and sand are still caked to the underside of the frame and pedals. Then he also grabs a shovel off the wall and puts it in one of the tool clamps on the back of the bike.
Helena stands aside and waits for him to exit. She hesitates before entering the shed herself. She grabs the first bike she reaches and gets out as quickly as possible, but he is waiting by the side of the lane and looking out over the fields where a slight morning mist is still rising from the grass and pond in the distance.
“Isn’t it just…” he seems to be searching for the right word, “… excruciatingly dull?” A pained expression crosses his face. “Why in the world would anyone even want this soggy bit of land?”
“It is beautiful,” says Helena quietly, “and full of wonderful plants and interesting animals and the mushrooms at this time of year are…”
“Extremely boring! That is what they are! What in the world is so interesting about bloody mushrooms?” Stephan continues, shaking his head, “They are mould! I can leave my bread in the kitchen for two weeks and see the same thing! There are more interesting things in a plate of risotto!”
“Yes, mushrooms for starters,” Helena mutters.
He casts her a withering look. “At least they are edible. Here you must leave them where they are and just look at them and go ooh and aah.” He shakes his head. “Unbelievable.”
“Why do you want it then? The land?”
“I never said I wanted it.”
“Then why all this trouble?” Helena asks, her voice rising. “Why don’t you just leave this land alone and bugger off? It doesn’t need you. It doesn’t even need your money!”
A couple of hikers pass by them on the lane and cast an affronted look at Helena’s outburst, but she doesn’t care. She is glad to have them nearby; people means safety and right now she can use any safety she can get. If it were at all possible, she would beg these hikers to stay with her, but it would be cruel to put them in danger too.
“It is not the land I want, and you know it” Stephan growls.
“You want the fortune.”
“Yes and you are going to bring me to it. You can keep the land.”
“Do you even know what to do with that stone once you have it?” Helena’s bike is trembling under her shaking hands.
“Yes. I have found the instructions in my great-grandfather’s writings. A simple incantation will do the trick.” He is looking positively obsessed now. A strange fire is burning in his eyes and for a moment Helena seriously considers calling out to the hikers, but they have disappeared into the forest. And anyway, they wouldn’t understand how she would feel threatened by this obviously well-off and well-mannered man in his camel coat and charming roguish grin. He would pull it off, just as he did with the Trust’s director.
“What about the price that will have to be paid?”
“Who says I will be the one paying the price? My family offloaded that stuff for generations.” He pushes his bike into the lane. “Shall we go?”
They bike further up the lane, like a very odd couple on a day out.
“Lead the way.”
“To where you left it. And don’t be stupid and try to deceive me, I will know.”
“Why in the world would I show you the way to the stone?”
“Because you want to get out of here alive. And your friend Rick, too.”
Helena nearly steers her bike into the ditch by the side of the lane. “Rick? What does he have to do with anything?”
“He was with you last night when you were going around the forest to various places, digging holes and leaving them empty all over the place.” He sounds angry. “We spent the entire night digging, but we didn’t find it. And so I gather you either still have it, on you or somewhere else, or you hid it” his face is grim, “so you can use it yourself later.” He glances at her. “Or maybe not, judging by the shocked look on your face. No” he laughs scornfully, “knowing your kind of people you probably want to bring it back to wherever you think it belongs or something sentimental like that. Ha! Like my granddad and his weepy remembrance of his beloved wife.” He spits on the ground
“No,” Helena says. They have reached the edge of the forest and the light around them dims even further, but the shadows don’t hide her expression of disgust. “His wife wanted to get rid of that ugly, evil thing. Which is why he killed her.”
Stephan’s eyebrows shoot up. “Ah you know that, do you? My great-grandfather wrote all about it! He thought my granddad was right in killing her. And he told him so.”
“Yes, I know it” Helena says quietly, “and it drove your grandfather to despair, to know what he did.”
“I don’t know about despair,” says Stephan almost casually, “but I do know that the old man must have been absolutely crazy. Did you know that he tried to destroy the stone?”
“Yes,” Helena says, “but he couldn’t even scratch it. Except for the hinge.”
He squints at her. “How do you know? Did you see it?”
“Yes. The hinge is the only vulnerable place on the pendant.”
“Did you open it?”
A hungry look has crept into his eyes now. “What does it look like? The stone?”
Helena slows her bike and looks at him with disdain. “Dull,” she says.
They are in the thick of the forest now. The track has become harder to bike along and they must go single file. Helena’s mind is racing. Where does she lead him? Will he hurt her if she doesn’t lead him to the right spot, if he doesn’t find the necklace and the stone? If he doesn’t, or if he does? She can’t make up her mind. This man, who was always the distant but friendly husband of her mentor, and she is trying to guess if he will kill her.
“Don’t take me to the meadow’s edge. The one with the hunter huts thingies,” he calls out to her, “We saw you digging there yesterday, and have tried excavating it but there was nothing there. Empty hole. Nice decoy, and it worked. Pissed me off so well done. Now go to the one that does hold the stone, why don’t you? Save us a bit of time and trouble, and you might just get out of this in one piece, eh?”
Helena curses inwardly, and turns away from the path that would have led her to that exact spot. The meadow would have been her getaway, as it is often observed by a number of people and people means safety. But that didn’t work. They plod on. Then they get to a fork in the road, and Helena stops. Stephan’s brakes screech behind her.
“Why are you stopping?”
“Checking the tracks for biking conditions” she says, and spies into the dusk ahead, “to decide which road to take.”
“Get on with it!” he urges her on.
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