Written by: Lucy Brooke (Archaeology, 1997)
I'll pour you another, chum, while I tell the tale. I don't drink alone these days. For when the wind weaves round the clocktower and winter seeps in across the lake, who knows what is hiding in the darkness?
The rest of our intake were Romanis, Nottingham being quite the spot for Classics. The new building helped, of course, its symmetry and parkland appealing to the stiffs’ love of order. May and I were the only prehistorians that term: they thought us savages.
Our last prof had been confined to a san (exhaustion, allegedly) since excavating a nearby Celtic site in the hols. His papers and prize find, a stone head of the stag god Cernunnos, had been passed to our new tutor for writing up.
Lukas “Lucky” Penny arrived fortuitously, as pennies do. He was dapper and handsome, and his credentials were impeccable: digs in Europe, and a dollop of foreign referees both impressive and elusive.
‘Hurry, Jeffrey,’ May called back to me, as we travelled into the underworld of the Archaeology department for our second tutorial with the great man.
Lucky had chosen a remote study overlooking the lake, and I relished the sight of May’s athletic figure racing down the corridors. Her mind was beautiful, too: she wrote sinuous, thoughtful essays that had Lucky entranced.
It made me bristle with jealousy.
Lucky and May gobbled hazelnuts from a bone-white dish on the desk. A dagger, its pommel twined with ram-headed snakes, hung above the fireplace. Coals snarled in the grate and mistletoe crawled along the mantel. I know what that's for, I thought grimly. May reminded me of a tree bursting into joyous leaf, fed by Lucky’s wisdom.
The Celts believe water is the gateway between this world and the next.
He smoothed the head of Cernunnos in his left hand. ‘Gods are at work in the depths.’
‘Past tense, surely?’ I said, sour as a pickled egg.
‘You've no romance in your soul, Mr Carlton. Unlike Miss Forest,’ said Lucky, to May’s glee. He proffered a decanter, the crystal twinkling in the candlelight. ‘Wine? A communion in all cultures. Drink together, eat together, be as one.
’When the decanter came to me, it was down to the dregs. May offered me her glass, but I refused. My hackles were up. I wanted to learn about hillforts and coinage, not this Druidic tosh.
‘Only one tutorial left before Christmas,’ lamented May. ‘What's our prep?
‘Reincarnation.’ Lucky grinned. His teeth were strong, like an animal’s. ‘Sacrifice as the ultimate honour. Caesar tells us the Celtic soul is indestructible, thus robbing death of all its fear.’
‘That’s one way of fooling men into battle,’ I said. My father was killed in the Great War; I don't think he believed in reincarnation, though I never knew him.
‘And women,’ said May. ‘I'd fight the Romans.’
‘My Boudicca,’ Lucky cried. He passed Cernunnos to her.
‘It's warm,’ she marvelled, tracing the antlers. ‘As if it had life.’
‘Only because it's been in his grip the last hour.’ I hefted my satchel and pulled May up to leave. She felt strangely loose and heavy against me.
‘Remember your prep.’ Lucky drained May’s glass, his mouth wrapped around the lipstick traces. ‘Argumentum ad Ignorantium. Question all things. Find your own truth.’
I met May for a cigarette beside the grand Portland entrance the following week. She stamped her brogues on the icy steps and our breaths mingled with smoke in the teatime gloom.
‘Lucky told me we shall have a little festive farewell, tomorrow,’ she said, oddly shy, then added quickly, ‘I saw him yesterday, picking mushrooms by the lake.’
‘Am I invited?’
‘He didn't say not. Must dash,’ she said, flicking away her tab end. ‘I need a new frock.’
And as she ran, I glimpsed a brace of deer keeping pace with her through the rhododendrons.
It was the last gasp of term. No hats and scarves on the hooks. No hum from the common room, or buzz from the electric lights. Someone had been here, though: there was a note in my pigeonhole.
Apologies, it said, in Lucky’s curlicued hand. Tutorial cancelled. Merry Christmas.
Yet, in the distance, a flash of green and white headed towards his room.
I crept along the corridors, furious at being hoodwinked and determined to surprise them. A sprig of mistletoe, like a dropped glove, showed the way.
Outside, fingers of snow trailed the windowsills, a typical December pall that could only be lifted by blazing logs and tipsy laughter, but shadows and silence were my sole company, that afternoon.
I tiptoed round the final corner.
An unearthly chant in an unrecognisable language, two voices, one deep, one high, came from behind the study door. There was nothing Christian about it, despite the season. It froze me to the floorboards and raised the hairs on my wrists.
Then Lucky intoned:
May, queen of Cernunnos, Goddess of the sacred waters, show to us the glories of the afterlife…
I burst into the study.
What I saw made my horror-seized heart pound like a colliery engine.
Lucky was spreadeagled across the desk. His shirt had been ripped open to expose his hairy chest. The stone head lay on his stomach.
May, trance-like, clutched the dagger, its blade poised between Lucky’s ribs. A gale rattled the open sash, snow settling on her white dress and mistletoe crown, as she stood over him.
The cold air galvanised me. I grabbed Cernunnos, then wrenched the dagger from the unresisting May and dragged her back down the interminable corridors, out into the grounds and to the lake.
She seemed to wake at the splash when Cernunnos hit the water.
‘Jeffrey?’ May clung to my sleeve, snow spiking her eyelashes and her crown lost in the scrimmage. ‘What the deuce is going on?’
Something monstrous bellowed. We watched, awestruck, as the huge stag charged away from the university and into the darkness.
I'll fetch the brandy, shall I?