Bealtaine

Disclaimer: SAPPHIRE AND STEEL is the copyright of P J Hammond, no infringement intended.

Rating: Innocuous.

Feedback: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my top page.

Comment: This story takes place some time before the starting point of the series. Sapphire and Steel have been working together for a long time, yet none too closely as yet ...

 




B E A L T A I N E

 

by Eliann SleepingCat



<Steel?>

He heard her voice in his head and turned around.

<It's here. In this barn. Steel.. we're too late.>

He resumed his examination of thin plank walls and cracked floor boards with tufts of mouldy hay still strewn about over them. "Aren't we always? Quite often anyway. Can you take time back?"

She smiled behind his back. "Not that kind of late. I meant, they already know."

"Humans?" He sensed no field of disrupted time in the walls. Through the cracks between the weathered boards he could see a distant farmhouse. It seemed to be still in use, though the farmer had left this far-flung barn to the teeth of time. The cracks were so wide, the sunlight spilled through easily. So, in all likelihood, would the rain. As good a reason as any why the structure had been disused for several years. Until now..

"Yes. They are using it."

That caught his attention. "Using the breach? How?"

She met his cold blue gaze calmly. She knew he wasn't accusing her; he only sounded that way. She knew better.. a quick pang of guilt came and went. It wasn't as if she could have respected his privacy. There really was no way to read his thoughts detached from his emotions. As impossible as hearing a person's words separated from voice inflection. "For the portal that it is, of course", she answered his question. "After all, there isn't much else to do with it."

"Did they open it?"

She stood quiet for a while. Gradually, the blue of her eyes grew in intensity, exceeded the human range, became greenish, started to spill over.. Then suddenly, back to normal. "Yes. But it was an accident, the first time."

"And after that?"

"Quite deliberate."

He flicked his head, trying to keep his dusky blond hair out of his eyes. "I can't sense anything. There's no field here."

"Not yet", she confirmed patiently.

He hated it when she made him feel like a little boy. "I thought you said we were too late."

"Not for the celebration. It hasn't started yet."

"Celebration?"

"Steel, it's a ritual. An anachronistic game, if you will."

"The worst kind. If people would only quit playing with things they don't understand.."

"..we'd be out of a job. Besides, it's how they learn. By playing with things they don't understand."

They moved further into the long barn. Passing thick beams just barely upholding a decaying roof. "They should have put plates on that", he said, squinting up at the sunlight falling in unhampered through a ragged hole. She smiled, noncommittally.

"Time?" he asked.

"April 30th, 1978. About four p m."

Still nothing. Then, at the far back, five people in a rough circle, gathered on apparently fresh straw. Three women, two men, holding hands. All with their heads bowed in concentration. All naked.

At the approach of the two Elementals, one of the men looked up. "Have you come to join us?" he asked civilly, but his voice was shaking a little.

<He feels vulnerable> Sapphire cautioned mentally.

Steel nodded. <They usually do, without clothes. I don't think it's significant. He's got nothing to hide.> If the pun was intended, it certainly did not show on his face. Aloud he said, "Who are you?"

The man began introductions. "I'm Pete, the leader of this coven, at your service." Without breaking his hold on the hands next to him, he nodded towards his immediate neighbour, a buxom young lady with chestnut hair. Apparently her own colour, Sapphire noted, as it was none of the currently available artificial shades. "This is Juno, our Healer.."

"June would have been more appropriate", Sapphire said.

The girl smiled. "It's Judith, actually. Juno is my coven name, the one I use here. Are you ill?"

"Can't you tell?" Steel said with just enough condescension that Sapphire knew he was not entirely unimpressed with the Healer's shapeliness. She smiled to herself.

"Later, Juno", Pete admonished his acolyte gently. "This next one is Pam.." An overweight girl with long, straight, brown hair bowed solemnly. "Pam has not yet acquired her specialty among us. Next to her is Stephen, our Bard.."

<Their minstrel, more likely> came Steel's cool voice as the gangly youth bowed gracelessly to them. This time, Sapphire took care not to smile at the mental message.

"..and this is Rosie, our stone-cutter. She makes magical jewellery." Sapphire took in the aspect of the barely middle-aged, stoutish woman with short hair - permed and bleached to brittleness - and a resolute countenance. She felt her own face drain of colour, and she took an involuntary step backward, realising too late that her reaction had alerted Steel.

<What's wrong?> came his voice inside her head.

<I don't know. There's something about that woman.. she doesn't belong here.>

<Any idea why?>

<Not yet. Perhaps it will surface.>

<Let's hope it does so soon.>

Immediately upon introduction, Rosie had launched into a detailed exposé of her professional methods. If she was bothered by her unclothed state - or the fact that nobody seemed to listen to her - she did not show it. Steel was reminded of an out-of-control bulldozer but refrained from making the observation to Sapphire.

Interrupting the discourse on ancient and modern jewelmaking, Pete said, "We were sort of expecting you. Expecting someone, anyway. What are your names?"

Sapphire told him. None of the group seemed to think the names in any way unusual. "Coven names?" Juno asked hopefully.

"Not exactly", Sapphire said. "We've found them useful in most situations."

Apart from Rosie, Pete himself was the oldest member of the group. Going on 42, Sapphire noted, although he looked no more than thirty-eight by human standards. Pam came next at 37, and Juno and Stephen were the youngest, at 27 and 23 respectively. Both Elementals closed their eyes briefly, trying to figure out if the relative chronology of the group had any significance. Viewing the matter from slightly different angles, they had the problem well covered between them, yet time seemed indifferent to this group. Not the people then; their functions. Steel opened his eyes. "What are you doing here?"

"We have gathered here to celebrate the feast of Bealtaine", Pete said with imperfect pronunciation of the Irish word. He was still holding tightly on to the hands of the women on either side of him, as he had been all along. "I'm afraid there's no room for you here, as we have already established the circle. But feel free to draw up one of your own. A circle of two is still a circle."

<One of his own makeshift rules no doubt> Steel muttered in Sapphire's head. "Very well", he conceded aloud. "Where's your athame?"

As he had expected, the group looked bewildered. Finally Juno said, "It's in our midst and must not leave there until we break our circle. Have you none of your own?"

<Good question, Steel.> Sapphire's mental voice seemed accompanied by inaudible laughter. Ignoring her, he answered the Healer, "I'm sorry, I did not think to bring a dagger." Now that he looked, he could see theirs lying at the centre of the circle, under a tuft of hay. "I'm afraid we shall have to refrain this time."

<Pity. I had rather looked forward to you without your clothes on> Sapphire thought. Catching his glare, she hastily turned to the group. "Is it all right if we watch your celebration?"

Pam giggled, Stephen looked uneasy, and Rosie said, "You're most welcome. Especially him." She winked at Steel who regarded her coldly, as if she had been a fly in an important laboratory experiment. Pete gave them all a stern, responsible look. "There's nothing to see", he explained. "On this side. When the time comes, we all go into the Otherworld, where the celebration takes place."

<Did you hear that, Steel? When time comes..>

<I heard.>

A big, black cat slunk in under the wall, where the board ends had been eaten up by years of dampness, and walked casually towards the group. Ignoring their stricken looks, he strode between them to curl up on Pam's naked lap. She took it bravely, despite the occasional, unretracted claw.

The others were less charmed. Disgusted, they let go of each other's hands, scratching out their dagger from under the hay and flinging it approximately on the invisible border of their circle to complete the breach. "Aw, now he's done it again!" "Isn't there any way we can shut him out, Pete?" "He's always breaking the damn circle!" "Whose is he, anyway - does anybody know?"

Pete, rising to his office, calmed them all. "Muirdoch lives here - or at least it's part of his territory. We might look at it this way: we're borrowing the barn from him, he's our host. He has every right to be here. If he breaks our circle, it only means it is not yet Time. We are not to start our celebration yet; our ancestors and counterparts may not be ready to receive us. Really, we ought to thank Muirdoch for his insight and kind advice."

He stepped over to an old livestock pen and picked up a purplish robe hanging over its side. The robe was neither a dressing-gown nor a street garment but looked handmade and home-dyed. Putting it on, he turned to the two Elementals. "We have been forced to postpone our celebration. It seems as though you'll be able to join us after all."

His acolytes muttered among themselves, casting dirty looks at the cat - all except Pam, who was stroking it - as they in turn picked up their robes from the sides of the livestock box. Sapphire noted their colours automatically. Some were home-dyed, others not. Purple for the leader, she thought. Green for the Healer. Red for the power-seeker - now that's interesting, she seems so docile otherwise. Yellow for the minstrel - not bad - and, white for the rose? Odd, I would have figured her for pink, or perhaps lemon.. None blue, of course.

<You've figured the plump one for a power-seeker?> came Steel's voice, and she realised she had been thinking on the broad band.

<Isn't it obvious? She thinks of herself as fat and rat-coloured. She doesn't believe she has anything in herself. So she seeks another kind of power. One that won't be so easily recognised on her own plane.>

<Odd. Her hair is a rather lustrous brown. She has an interesting face, a mature figure. In fact, I thought her quite beautiful.>

<I know> came Sapphire's amused comment. <But even if you could convince her, I doubt she'd be content with 'beautiful'. Her main lament right now is that she has no specialty here. But in fact, she has. She's the brightest of them, I should think. Only, she does not know it.>

<Or it might not count, with this lot. What about the others?> His thought was cut short by Pete's insistence, "You will join us, won't you? We'll try again at twilight. It should be a better time. The fires will be all prepared, over there. Meanwhile, let's talk. How did you hear of us?"

"We didn't", Steel told him bluntly.

"What's the name of your coven?" Sapphire broke in, smoothing things over.

Pete laughed uneasily. "I didn't know covens should have special names. We just call it the North-West Coven."

"North-West of what?" Steel muttered, but Sapphire silenced him with a glance. "Isn't it unusual for a coven to have a male leader?" she asked.

Pete drew himself up, preparing to give his usual lecture. "Now that is a misunderstanding. Men can be wicca too, it's not restricted to women. If we look at the ancient word, it just means spellcaster, it says nothing of the sex of the person casting the spell. In our time of course, we don't cast spells, but.."

"Where do you cast them then?" Steel wanted to know.

Pete gave him a bewildered look.

"You said you don't cast them in your time", Steel clarified. "So where do you cast them?"

Pete opted for laughter. "It's a joke, right? We don't cast spells at all. At least.." he looked around at the others. "I don't think we do.. Anyway, as I was saying, men can perfectly well.."

"You did not answer my question", Sapphire smiled at him. "I know men want to be wicca too. But what I asked was, isn't it unusual for a coven to have a male leader?"

"I wouldn't say that", Pete objected. "Most female wiccans agree that Merlin would have made an exceptional High Priest. In fact, of the three other covens I'm familiar with, only one has a High Priestess. Of course, we always take the advice of the eldest female member. I always confer with Rosie before making laws, for instance."

Sapphire glanced at the bossy-looking woman in her incongruously white robe. "I'm sure that's - very wise", she said, suppressing a shudder. Rosie beamed at her.

"Is there any significance to the colours of your robes?" Steel asked, having picked up on his partner's reaction to the white one.

Pete chuckled. "Nothing much. For the most part, we work naked. Not always, mind you - rather depends on the weather, doesn't it?" He grinned at them. "Clothes aren't significant. Matter of personal choice."

"Mine are significant", Juno told them. "I thought green would be the best choice for a Healer, don't you think?"

"Of course", her High Priest amended, "a certain colour could be significant to the wearer."

"I work better in green."

"I'm sure you do, dear", Rosie said, getting to her feet. "I'm going out for a while - I'm dying for a cigarette. Anyone else?"

"I thought you were cutting down", the Healer said. It sounded like formula, like something said so often, it had turned into part of the coven ritual. Predictably, Rosie did not answer but swept out of the barn with its layers of still flammable straw.

<Perhaps she simply chose white> Steel thought to his partner. <Perhaps she has a - colourful past..>

Following the change in group structure, no one spoke for a while. The minstrel brought out a handheld harp from a dark blue canvas bag and started to strum it. The instrument was badly tuned, and Steel suspected the boy did not know how to tune it. Perhaps not even that it needed to be tuned. Perhaps he thought it was magic.

"I would have thought covens were generally larger than this", Sapphire said conversationally.

"Oh, there's no fixed number", Pete said. "Thirteen is considered optimal, eleven is quite good. You know - transcending numbers. One more than the nearest stable number."

"Or one short", Steel remarked drily. "Eleven could be either. Thirteen would probably be seven short - unless you count all even numbers as stable."

"Oh no", Pete said. "Besides, there are stable odd numbers too. Like five is the most stable, still useful number for any group of people. Six and eight are even more stable, but a group that size won't get much done."

<Scattered bits of learning> Steel quoted mentally. <Do these activities always require a mind like a lumber room?>

Sapphire suppressed a smile. <Most human minds are like that, Steel.> Aloud, she asked, "Is that the reason you settled for five? For practical reasons?"

Stephen unexpectedly gave up on his instrument and put it aside. "We didn't exactly settle", he said. "There used to be nine of us. Another stable number", he added with a glance at Steel. "Two took up yoga instead - hardly the same thing, but they claimed they had no time for the coven after that. Personally, I think they had a falling-out with Rosie." Catching a glance from Pete, he held up his hands. "Ok, ok, it's just my opinion. Officially, we don't have any disagreements in the coven. The other two were musicians, like me. They left to form a group, and I hear they've had some moderate success."

"They didn't invite you to join them?" Steel asked, his voice not entirely free of sarcasm.

Stephen shrugged. "No use for a harp. I tend toward folk, they wanted to do pop. Called it rock'n roll of course, only it wasn't."

Suddenly Rosie was in their midst again, though neither Sapphire nor Steel had noticed her coming in. This time she was in pink. She must have brought a change. "The sun is setting", she said. "How about it, Pete - shall we make another try?"

"There's no hurry", Pete mumbled, "it'll be a long twilight, this time of year."

"But that dratted cat might walk all over our circle again. We might as well start."

"I think he's asleep", Pam said, carefully transferring the cat from her lap where he had curled up again the minute she got back from putting on her robe. As she placed him on a pad of straw, he glanced up with one yellow eye, then made himself comfortable in his new location.

"All right, everybody", Pete said. "Anyone else need to - make a tour of the grounds before we start?" There was some circulation, as most everybody in the group disappeared for a while. When they were all gathered again - and Muirdoch still had not stirred, though he kept an occasional eye on the proceedings - they removed their robes and sat down as before. Pete held out his hand towards the two Elementals. "If you want to come, you must be in the ring before I draw the actual circle."

"I'm not sure I want to appear in the Otherworld stark naked", Steel said. "I might frighten the natives."

The group laughed. "It would probably frighten them more if you turned up in what you're wearing now", Pete said. "We'll be going far back into the past. Nobody will have seen clothes like yours before."

"Besides, at Bealtaine, most of them will be naked too", Rosie winked at them.

<We could do what you're always accusing me of> Sapphire sent. <Use time as a wardrobe.>

<If I've understood him correctly, this particular breach originates further back in the past than any we have met with before> Steel thought back. <Nothing to choose from.> He turned to Pete. "You don't seem overly concerned. What do you usually do - just walk in?"

"More or less", Pete said. "As for clothes, our ancestors help us. There's a hut on the outskirts of the village where they place some things at the festivals - things we might need."

<As organised as that?> Steel thought to his partner. <How long have they been using this breach?>

<Must be a stable one> Sapphire thought back. <Apparently, they haven't really disrupted anything yet.>

<That can only be a matter of time..>

"Your ancestors?" Sapphire prompted the High Priest. "How do you know they are?"

Pete looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, we don't. Not really. But most of us seem to have some sort of counterpart over there, so we decided to think of those people as our ancestors. For convenience, you might say."

"Have you told them where you come from?" Steel asked.

"Not yet. But I think we shall. Those people are quite used to magical phenomena - or to the idea of them anyway. They think in those terms. They won't find it hard to accept."

"Are you two coming, or aren't you?" Rosie asked impatiently, in her most strident voice.

"We are", Sapphire decided, stepping out of her spike-heeled blue shoes. She could have just made her clothes vanish, but decided that that might be a little too much magic for this coven. In good order, she removed her sapphire earrings, then her matching necklace, and put the items in her right shoe. Then she slipped out of her lavender dress and sat down next to Stephen, where the group had made room for her. She had a passing feeling of being a little too tall and thin, but judging by Pete's admiring looks at her, she was acceptable. She thought briefly that it might have been useful for Elementals to be able to design their human bodies to fit the occasion, but she knew they could not. Their bodies were constructed as extrapolations of their individual qualities and could not be built from what was not there to begin with.

Steel had followed her example, removing his tie when she took off her shoes, then keeping pace with her. He was now sitting next to Rosie, and Sapphire was certain the jewelmaker had contrived this placing herself. There was no mistaking her interest in her neighbour. Sapphire had to admit it was warranted; she could not help looking either. But for a brief, half-lit moment in the spray from a temporary leak on the Marie Celeste, she had never seen him in human form without a shirt, let alone like this. He was slight but strong, wider in the shoulder than the cut of his jacket would let her believe, and the light dusting of blond hair on his chest was well within her aesthetic tolerance. Flaxen everywhere she thought, recalling something she had last heard from Henry VIII. She took care to shield the thought quickly, so as not to accidentally broadcast it. She did not often choose to keep Steel in the dark, but there were definitely things he had better not know. She wondered how familiar he was with human standards - did he think of himself as attractive? He seemed well built all over - which actually surprised her as she had rather expected his slight stature to be echoed elsewhere, as was often the case with humans. But then, he wasn't exactly human.

However beautiful she found him in body, she could not help but wonder if his eyes were not still his best feature. Coldly blue, almost disdainful, keeping the world at bay by never really looking directly at it.Noli-me-tangere eyes.. she thought. What woman could resist testing that barrier?

At that moment, he actually did look up, directly at her. So much for that.. Had she clamped down on that thought in time? Then, as the light began to increase around the circle, she realised that he must have intended to warn her. She could see the time rift clearly now, as it seemed to approach from the end of a long corridor that had not been there when they sat down. She should have sensed it earlier. She should have been the one to call his attention to it. If she had not been - preoccupied.. Damn, but he was distracting..

<So are you> she heard his amused comment inside her head. Then abruptly his tone changed. <Can you close it? Or at least hold it off?>

She shook her head, oblivious to the others. <It's approaching swiftly. We shall have to..> Then the light was upon them, accompanied by a roaring sound as if from a full gale though there was no wind that she could feel. <Steel!> she called in her mind. <I can't hold it. Can't we get rid of the stonecutter?>

<Don't worry> came his silent voice, already from a distance. <I won't let her harm you.> Then the portal descended, a spinning vortex of light and sound. And time.

 

*  *  *  *

<Sapphire!>

His call rang out for all that it was silent to the others. No answer. He glared at Pete. "Where is she?"

"Who?" Pete asked, bewildered.

"Better ask: where are they", Stephen said, and only then did Steel realise that they were alone, just the three of them.

"I don't understand it", Pete said. "We've never been split up like this before. Not even when there were nine of us. There must have been a disturbance.."

Yes, Steel thought. We were the disturbance. Sapphire and I. He couldn't have lost her - he couldn't. "Then something is very wrong", he clipped back. "Would you say that we are in the right time?"

Pete looked around. "It looks like the hut we usually arrive in."

"Yes, yes, it must be the counterpart of the barn we started out from", Steel said. "It's in the same location - but is this the right time?"

Stephen went over to the doorway and looked out briefly. "The village is in place. The fires are lit - only a few as yet, but I can see some of the others and they seem to be all built. It's definitely Bealtaine." He came back to them, and on his way picked up some garments off the floor. "And here are our clothes, laid out as usual. Take your pick, they still bring nine sets; ever since the first time we turned up here."

Steel eyed the mostly home-dyed clothes, then settled for the only tunic and breeches that were not dyed at all, but still their natural off-white colour. "What year is this?"

"We don't rightly know", Pete confessed. "Somewhere in the first century, perhaps a little earlier."

Stephen shook his head. "Definitely earlier. I haven't seen or heard any signs of the Roman invasions as yet."

"You've been outside?" Steel asked sharply.

"Of course we have. We celebrate all our festivals here. People have come to expect us."

Steel groaned inwardly. "How many times have you come here?"

"Thirteen, counting this one. It started at Samhain, very fitting. We were brought here to celebrate the new year - that's the time we had some problems with clothing.." Stephen fell silent, musing.

"So, from your point of view, you've come here for a year and a half? And the second Samhain you found clothes laid out for you, same as now?"

"Always, after that first time", Pete said.

"And the seasons have always matched?"

"Yes", they both said at once, surprised that they had never thought about it before.

"I think we do have a stable portal", Steel said. "The fact that it seems to be able to connect two time periods as if they were parallel, is an indication. The common version is tied to a certain point in time at one end or both. It doesn't 'drag its tail'."

"Tail?"

"A normal, point-to-point portal can be thought of as a funnel. This one is more like a dragnet."

"I see", said Pete, his expression indicating that he did not see at all. "How come you know so much about these things?"

"Call it my coven specialty", Steel said drily. "But I still need to know what year this is. Would it be any use asking the locals?"

"We don't speak their language", Pete said. "It doesn't sound like any of the Gaelic tongues we've studied. We've only communicated by hand signals."

"I doubt their calendar would make sense to us anyway.." Stephen muttered. "Can't we just assume things are the way you said?"

"Probably", Steel snapped. "Unfortunately, it won't do us any good."

"Why? What should we do?"

"The portal must be collapsed. It should never have been used in this manner. We can't have a recurring time bubble for everybody to enter and exit at will - you'll wind up disrupting our entire universe. That has already started, or we would all have come through. We must collapse the portal."

"First we must get back to our own time", Pete pointed out.

"And find the others", Stephen added.

"Quite correctly observed", Steel seethed, "and if I only knew what year this is, we would stand a chance. But I don't." He glared at Stephen. "Did you bring your harp?"

Stephen blinked. "I always do. Here it is. Had it on my lap this time - sometimes I keep it slung about me, but I always bring it. Why?"

"How old is it?"

"I don't know. Very old. It's a genuine antique."

Steel glared at him. "Well, hang on to it then, in case you ever need to travel the other way. Right now, it's useless."

Stephen stared at his harp as if he had never seen it before. In a way, perhaps he hadn't.

"What do you propose we do?" Pete asked quietly.

"Wait for someone outside this bubble to bring us through", Steel said testily. "Let's hope Sapphire is still out there.." he added under his breath.

 

*  *  *  *

<Steel?>

No answer. On any level. A look around convinced her that none of the men were there, though Juno, Pam, and Rosie were still with her. She closed her eyes, reaching out.. nothing. The four of them were alone. Not even the cat was still where he had been.

"We've been left behind", Pam said. "Muirdoch is gone too, how can that be? He wasn't in the circle."

Sapphire opened her eyes which gradually returned to normal, passing through parts of the green spectrum on the way. "We haven't been left behind." She rose and walked in the general direction of the entrance to the barn. The floor was smooth under her bare feet, no traces of straw - nor of their clothes, for that matter. There were no holes in the roof now, presumably there were corrugated steel plates on it. Electric lamps were hanging on every beam and some on a cord between. She found the switch and turned them on. The only daylight so far had come from a small, grimy window she did not remember having seen before. "We were taken the other way", she said. "This is the future."

The others got to their feet and followed her with a vague sense that there might be safety in numbers. They voiced no doubts. The sturdier structure of the barn, the improvements and additions, all spoke for themselves. Besides, if one could enter the past, one should be able to cross into the future. For reasons of symmetry, if nothing else.

The door now sported an elaborate lock. A few meters away from it was a work area consisting of several tables or desks with machines on them, most of which included a display monitor, though a few seemed to content themselves with paper. Sapphire's eye colour began to deepen again. "People work here", she said. "Not now, not during the holiday.. odd, it seems to be an extension of the farm.. a place to do other kinds of work.. and the accounting for the farm.. Don't go outside!" she admonished Rosie who had been examining the lock.

"Not bloody likely", Rosie muttered. "I'm still in my birthday suit, aren't I?"

"And the door is still locked", Juno pointed out.

"Can we get back?" Pam asked.

Sapphire gave her a reassuring smile. "Well, we never actually left. Time broke through - apparently from two directions, which makes this a little complicated. But the portal is still around somewhere. If we can locate it, it should deposit us when we were - or possibly when we were going in the first place."

"You mean you don't know?" Rosie accused.

"It's difficult. A portal like this ought to be shaped like a funnel - but this one seems to be some kind of hyperbolic structure, probably twisting around the middle. We were sucked into the future end. Not as deeply as we could have been - we can't be more than a couple of decades off - but we're not when we're supposed to be."

"Perhaps if we go back and sit down in the same place, the portal will come for us", Rosie said, and Sapphire gave her a strange look.

"Exactly what I was about to suggest", she said.

"We should draw up the circle again", Juno said. "Have we got the athame, or do the boys have it?"

"Wonder what happened to them.." Pam mused.

"They were probably caught in the past as intended", Sapphire stated, fervently hoping that she was right.

"Or they're dead", Rosie added helpfully.

Juno gave her a stricken look. "What makes you say that?"

"Well, if this portal thing is twisting around its middle and they were still there when it started flinging us about.." she broke off. "Just an educated guess. I may be all wrong."

"Then let's have no more 'educated guesses'", Pam said. "Sapphire, you seem to know the most about this portal phenomenon. What should we do? Will sitting down as we were be enough? Is there anything else we can do to help?"

"It would help if we knew the exact date and time", Sapphire said. "I daresay we can find out from the terminals here.."

"Computers", Rosie corrected her. "They may be small, but these are all computers in their own right. The one over there seems to be on. I'll see if I can find out for you." She went over to one of the desks. Sapphire saw that none of the machines were on. Rosie did not seem to be the technical type. If only they had brought Silver..

"There now", Rosie said, cracking her fingers. "I'm in." The display glowed - with a polychrome light at that. "Let's see.. last time I used a terminal, it had quite simple date and time commands. I'll try those first.." A moment later she announced, "April 30th, 1997. 8.30 p m - we seem to have gained a few years, but we haven't lost any time", she quipped. "Always providing that this thing runs correctly.."

"It's off by one hour", Sapphire said calmly. "It doesn't match the sun."

Rosie shrugged and went to spotcheck some of the other machines. "Then they're all off."

"I can't be wrong", Sapphire said.

"I didn't say you were. My guess is that Summer Time is still set to one hour this year. You only check solar time, don't you?"

Sapphire gave her another searching look. She had felt uneasy about this woman since she first came into her presence. Rosie seemed rough and vulgar, uneducated and lazy - on the other hand, she had displayed both common sense and technical insight. And perhaps - something more..? Sapphire's eyes started to change again, as she probed..

She was efficiently blocked, as if she had come up on a wall. "Now that we know when we are", Rosie said, "can you take time back? To when we had just drawn our circle for instance?"

<Who are you?> Sapphire asked mentally.

Rosie looked at her, her pale eyes oddly penetrating. "Very well. I suppose I shouldn't have asked that. Dropping projection.." She straightened, seemed to grow taller and younger. Even her hair changed a little - not so much in length as in texture and hue; if anything, it turned even paler, a platinum blond shade bordering on white. The image of the coarse, permanently frustrated woman was gone, slipped off like a mask.

"Diamond", Sapphire said. "I should have known. How could you hold that image so well? You can't change your human form any more than the rest of us can."

"It's only a projection. Now and then I like to appear as an uncut woman - uncouth, I mean. I've had some practice.."

"I can see that. What are you doing here?"

"I came soon after the portal was opened. It didn't look like an emergency, so I hung around for a while, observing it. Then, as I learnt you and Steel were coming, I decided I might as well have some fun. I take it he didn't recognise me either?"

Juno pinched her own arm. "Just wanted to check if I'm real", she said to Pam. "Are you?"

Pam assured her that she was. Diamond remembered her manners - she had been doing well without them while being Rosie. "Sorry, girls. I'm Diamond - a being rather like Sapphire here, though perhaps a little tougher. Rosie's my favourite disguise - I thought I'd be a little less conspicuous that way. Besides, I like to go slumming now and then."

Juno didn't look entirely appeased, but Pam clearly dismissed the minor deception as nonessential. She might not know how it was done, but she wouldn't have joined a coven, had she not believed in magic. "I'm glad you're here", she told Diamond. "It should improve our chances, shouldn't it?"

"I hope so", Diamond said. "How about it, Sapphire, can you take time back?"

Sapphire shook her head. "The portal is in the way. It disrupts the flow - I can only take linear time back."

"Any way we can straighten out the kink?"

"Not without removing the portal. I don't think we want to do that yet. Besides, if we did, the distance would be too great for me."

"What are you two talking about?" Juno groaned.

"She can only reverse time back to when we first came into the future", Diamond explained. "Not to before we were separated from the others, because the portal is in the way. And if it weren't, she'd have to go back nearly two straight decades, and she can't do that."

Pam looked up at her. "So it isn't much use, is it?"

The two Elementals both shook their heads.

Pam turned to Juno. "You're a Healer. Can't you just - heal time?"

"Better not try", Diamond said hastily. "If she succeeds, she'll only collapse the portal, and we can't do that while we're still in the wrong time, and we don't even know when the others are."

<Not that she's likely to succeed> Sapphire thought drily.

<Will you take the risk?> Diamond thought back. <Be my guest..>

Sapphire gave her an inscrutable look. "We shall have to collapse the portal eventually", she said aloud. "But we must find our way back first. And we must find the others."

"It seems such a pity to close it.." Juno said.

"Would you rather be thrown about like this?" Pam asked. "It isn't safe any longer."

"It never was", Sapphire said. "No breach in time is safe."

They went back to the place where they had dropped out of the portal. Juno looked about for the athame but did not find it. "We shall have to do without. Perhaps we don't need an actual circle." She sat down, and so did the others, joining hands - not so much to emulate a drawn circle as to try and keep track of each other, in case they were flung between times again.

"Diamond?" Pam said, "Can I ask you a silly question?"

"Those are often the best", Diamond acknowledged.

"If your Rosie persona was only camouflage anyway, why didn't you keep your clothes on underneath - or behind, or whatever? I mean, nobody would have known."

Diamond looked at her in surprise. "I never thought of that.."

"Someone is coming", Sapphire said. "I only hope the portal gets here first. I can sense it circling about - Diamond, can you help me attract it?"

"I'll try", Diamond said, closing her eyes. Opening one of them again, she said to the human girls, "Though it might help if you two concentrate as well."

<It will?> Sapphire thought at her.

Diamond shrugged. <It certainly can't do any harm..>

 

*  *  *  *

The roar died down, and Juno opened her eyes. The barn was the same as when she had closed them - except for the company. She was still holding Diamond's hand, but opposite her were Stephen and Steel - in clothes she thought of as ancient Celtic country fashion - and nobody else. "I suppose this time we really did get left behind.." she said.

Diamond nodded. "It didn't quite work out, did it? Hello, Steel", she added.

"Diamond! What are you doing here?"

"Too long to explain. You can ask Sapphire when you see her again. If you see her again."

"Diamond used to be Rosie", Juno added helpfully.

"Ssshh. Not now, girl. Steel, this is the future. We were all here - the entire distaff side of the circle, you might say - and we tried to use the portal again to get back. Apparently, two of us made it.."

Steel glared at her. "When exactly were you aiming for?"

"Well.. just back, I suppose? To the starting point in 1978? Or to wherever we were going in the first place?"

"I just wanted to get back to you", Juno said quietly. She was looking at Stephen as she said it, and was favoured with a warm look in return.

"You mean you weren't decided?" Steel said acidly. "Perhaps you should have discussed it before you started out."

"We were in a bit of a hurry", Diamond admitted. "There was someone coming.." She closed her eyes briefly. "No, it's all right now. Either we got dragged only a little back, or whoever it was changed his mind."

"Did you get a clear impression?"

"Not really. I think Sapphire saw more. But it seemed to be someone from the farm, coming in for some work despite the holiday. There's a work area over there now, computers and all. I checked the date on them. I suppose I'd better do it again.." She stood, and went to switch on the light. "Sapphire did this last time, and we forgot to switch it off. I suppose we really have been moved back a little." She went over to the other end of the barn, and the others followed her. A little while later, she announced, "April 30th, 1997. 8.30 p m. Same as last time."

"Eight thirty?" Steel said.

"Sapphire said they were off by one hour. I think it might be 'Summer Time'. It has varied throughout the century, but they finally decided on an offset of one hour. It would seem that they are still sticking with that."

"Why do they insist on messing with time? Though I suppose they didn't really - just their own heads. Are you sure we are at the same junction you arrived at?"

"Reasonably sure."

He glared at her. "Let's hope reasonably is good enough. That means someone will be coming here in - how many minutes?"

"I'm not sure. Sorry."

"We'd better try and get back at once. And this time, we'll switch off the light."

They walked over to the other end, and sat down the way they had been. Through the semi-darkness of the barn, both Diamond and Steel tried to sense the sweeping end of the portal.

"It should be here somewhere", Diamond said after a while. "It was, last time."

"It's no use", Steel said. "We'll need something else.. a trigger.. Stephen, have you still got your harp?"

"I always do", Stephen reminded him.

"Then play it. An old tune - the oldest you can remember."

Stephen started strumming.

"Although you had better tune it first", Steel grated. While Stephen started fiddling with the screws, he added, "And please hold to the same target this time. Let's make for our point of exit in 1978, because that's where I have a chance of taking us. I need an exact date at both ends - Sapphire is not so limited."

"Let's hope that's where she and Pam headed anyway", Juno said.

Diamond raised her head sharply, her eyes still closed. "He's coming", she said. "Have you got that lyre tuned yet?"

"It's a harp", Stephen said. "But yes, I think I have." He started to play, just as the vortex descended on them.

 

*  *  *  *

<Steel?>

<Sapphire? Glad we're finally contemporary.>

They opened their eyes. Straw on the floor, thin, weathered walls, the athame in the circle, the cat sleeping on his pad of hay. The others.. two missing this time - could have been worse.

"Pete? Have you seen Juno and Stephen?"

He shook his head. "I was simply brought here. One moment, I was still in the hut, the next.."

Steel turned to Sapphire. "How much time has passed locally?"

"One hour. It's getting dark."

"A full hour?" Diamond said. "Wonder where we lost that.."

"I hope they are not still in the future", Steel said. "If I'm right about the nature of this portal, we have lost an hour at either end, as well as here."

Sapphire looked at him. "So it is a stable portal?" He nodded.

"Stephen was playing the harp", Diamond said. "Shouldn't it have brought him back?"

Steel nodded. "It should have. He said it was a very old harp.." He turned to glare at Pete. "And you are here.. that's it, isn't it? That harp was too old - it brought him all the way back, displacing you instead.."

Pete spread his hands. "If you think so, I suppose it's possible. I swear I did not see anybody."

"What about Juno?" Pam wanted to know.

"She wanted to be with Stephen", Diamond said. "Let's assume she is."

"A bit of a mess, isn't it?" Pam remarked.

"Not necessarily", Steel said. "But we have to get them back before we can collapse the portal, or they'll be trapped. However.." he looked around again to make sure. ".. right now, we don't seem to have anyone stranded in the future. So perhaps we can close off that end."

"What if the harp didn't bring them back?" Pam asked. "Or, not both of them?"

"We can't know for sure", Sapphire agreed. "But we don't have to close it off permanently. Diamond? You can block that path without actually cutting it off, can't you?"

"Depends on how you plan to get those two back. Is anyone going in?"

Steel shook his head. "Not this time. We all stay here, and all we send back will be the clothes that belong in the past. That should be enough. We had no balancing counterweight when we started out, we don't need one now. All we need to do is prod that end a little. Meanwhile, Diamond stays just outside the circle and blocks the path to the future."

Pete drew up the circle - it made him feel better to know that it was properly done, he said. He and Steel took off their clothes again and put them at the centre of the circle - or square - that they formed with Pam and Sapphire.

<Let's hope the portal does come back> Sapphire thought. <We lost one hour, remember?>

<It should> Steel thought back. <Pete told me it passes here three times each festival, except at the vernal equinox. Then it comes only twice.>

Five minutes later, the corridor of time opened. The roar and the light approached.

 

*  *  *  *

Pete flung the athame on the circle border with a sigh. The clothes were gone, but that was all. The missing wiccans had not appeared.

"Looks as if they weren't there after all", Pam said.

"Oh yes, they are", Sapphire countered, "They still are, I sensed them. But they have gone outside the hut."

Steel looked up. "Why would they do that?"

Pete smiled a little. "It would take a lot for two young people to stay in on a Bealtaine night. After all, they've had a full hour."

Steel looked at him as if humans were about the most exasperating beings imaginable. Which was pretty much the way he thought of them. "Well, if they must, why couldn't they have stayed inside the hut?"

Pete's smile grew wider. "Not very romantic. Especially with all the fires burning outside, against the blue twilight of a reasonably warm evening.."

Feeling Sapphire's quiet amusement in his head, Steel refrained from further comment. "We shall have to go in after them then", he decided. "And we may have to look around for them, which means going outside the hut."

"All of you?" Diamond asked, her voice somewhat shaky.

"Everyone but you. As full a circle as we can manage, except you stay, and this time you cut off the future end. For good. Do that first, the moment you can get a hold on the portal. Then, as soon as you see we are all back, you help Sapphire and me collapse the rest of it. Is that clear?"

"As crystal", she said caustically. "Only - if you are all going in, I'm not sure I can hold that thing alone."

"Try it", he clipped back. Then, relenting a little, "I wouldn't ask this if we had a choice. But we don't. This is our last chance, the portal will only be back once more today. We can't afford experiments."

She looked him resolutely in the eyes, the epitome of readiness. "Very well. For you, I'll do it. If at all possible." He nodded and went to sit with the others. Another quick nod to Pete who got up and drew his circle again. They all linked hands.

Diamond stared tensely into the back corner where the corridor had appeared before. This time, when she saw it, she barely waited for the portal to come within reach of her powers, then quickly her mind's edge descended, cutting it off exactly at the present, and sealing the breach in the process - on the future side only. The path vanished behind her, melting into the future. The unsealed entrance started whipping about as if in reaction to lost mass rather than time, and from the corner of her eye she saw the others bowing their heads together, using their concentration to help her. The roar and the light increased.

Then, in helpless horror she saw Muirdoch, the cat, stretch and yawn on his bed of hay. Unperturbed by the roaring light around him, he washed a paw, then jumped down, walking directly toward the circle. He crossed the nearest dagger-drawn border, breaking the circle once. He left it by crossing the opposite border at the exact moment the portal descended on it. Behind him, everything collapsed.

 

*  *  *  *

<Steel? Something is wrong. The portal is gone.>

<Are you sure? Sorry, of course you are. I suppose she couldn't hold it after all. Still, it shouldn't have collapsed.>

<You think she did it on purpose?>

<Not really. I've never quite trusted Diamond, but I can't see what reason she could have..>

"Well, here we are again", said Pete's voice, and the two Elementals opened their eyes. To Steel, the hut looked the same as it had when he last saw it.

"It's good to be back", Pam said, forgetting that Pete had been there twice this day. "I'll be sorry when we have to close the portal. But I suppose it's necessary."

Sapphire glanced quickly at Steel. <They don't feel it's gone. Should we tell them? Perhaps we can think of something.>

<A way to get back without it? That would mean we still had a breach..>

Pete and Pam walked over to the pile of clothes which lay where they had expected. He chose something blackberry-dyed, she something that had an almost definable colour, red bordering on orange. "Only seven sets", she remarked. "We must still have got here after Juno and Stephen then. I don't know - somehow I almost hoped we would regain that hour.."

Pete picked up the undyed set and threw it at Steel. "I believe these are the ones you chose last time." He threw a greyish blue dress at Sapphire. "I've gathered that you favour blue? It certainly favours you. I'm sorry home-dyes rarely make for very bright colours; this is as blue as it gets.."

She caught the garment, and smiled at him. "I'm sure it will do."

They all dressed in silence. Then Pete went to look out the door. "All the fires are burning", he said. "It's nearly dark. I suppose you want to go looking for our couple right away?"

Sapphire caught the wistful note in his voice, and decided. <Tell him> she sent to Steel.

He glanced at her briefly, but he did not really need a verification. "The portal is collapsed", he said.

Pam looked up, and for a moment he could not tell whether she was pleased or upset. "You mean - it's gone? How do we get back?"

"We don't", Pete said drily from the doorway. "Unless I'm very much mistaken."

"We don't know", Sapphire said. "If we can find out how it was collapsed, perhaps we can think of a way to get back."

A slow grin spread over Pete's face. "But it won't happen any time soon?"

"We don't know of a way right now", Sapphire confirmed.

"Then", the High Priest said, "we might as well enjoy our Bealtaine celebration." He held out a hand to Pam. "Fair lady?"

She beamed at him and hastened to take his arm. At the door, they both turned with a questioning look at the two Elementals, who exchanged a glance in turn. Sapphire said, "Why not? There isn't much they can do right now."

Steel nodded. "They've been here before. They're not likely to disrupt anything." He was rewarded by a big smile from Pam, as the couple disappeared into the deepening twilight.

Sapphire walked slowly to the doorway.

"Where are you going?" Steel asked her.

"I just wanted to have a look. It's very beautiful, all those fires. No wind."

"I'm not sure we should go out there. We haven't been here before."

"It's all right. Anyone emerging from this hut is considered a visitor. This is a hospitable people. In fact, hospitality is sacred with them."

"Do you sense that, or did the wiccans tell you?"

"A little of both. I sense no danger as long as we remain in the village. We can't disrupt time - in fact, the wiccans have hardly stirred it. Besides, it's dark in here."

"Very well, if you're sure it's safe.. I suppose we have to look for Stephen and Juno anyway. We won't find them in here."

 

*  *  *  *

They walked slowly among the fires, taking care not to disturb the couples around them. Occasionally, someone would look up and watch them, but without curiosity on this night. <Steel?> Sapphire thought, <If we find the others.. perhaps we should tread carefully..>

<I shan't bother them> his thought came back. <Not unless they are ready to be bothered. I just want to make sure they are here.>

<In the village? We mustn't go outside it.>

<I know. That's why I want to know if they have.>

But tonight the entire shore area, slanting towards a wide lake, was part of the village. The fires seemed countless. The two Elementals walked from one fire to another all over the slope and then along the water's edge, without seeing either of the couples who were, like themselves, marooned in time. After a while, Steel took Sapphire's hand, and they kept walking in silence.

<Why did you do that?> she just had to know.

<I thought it would make us less conspicuous.>

<We weren't conspicuous to begin with.>

He stopped. "We soon will be", he said aloud. This is the last fire."

"Unattended", she noted. "We haven't found them. They must have gone in the other direction."

"We shall have to turn back, there's nothing for it. I'd rather not keep wandering all over the place, that will make us conspicuous, but we haven't covered the other end of the village yet."

Sapphire thought for a moment. And to her surprise she realised that she had already made up her mind. "There's no hurry. Nobody will wonder if we turn back - after a couple of hours."

"Hours?"

"Or even at dawn. We have no way to return to our own time. We have to find that first, before we have a reason for haste."

He had to admit she was right. "True. I just don't think we should stay here too long.."

"We're not disrupting this time and place. Nothing we do will change it."

He nodded, even smiling a little, a barely noticeable tug at the corners of his mouth. "All right. Let's watch the fire for a while then." He sat down, and she sat beside him.

"The stars are coming out", she remarked.

"They have been doing that for a while", he said.

At the back of her mind she knew she could still hold back. Sit here through the night, shielding her thoughts. She knew she was not going to. <Steel?> she thought. <I - want you. In the human way.>

He froze. Her chin and hand on his shoulder precluded any sudden movements. <We're not human.>

<Our bodies are human>, she sent. <Well - almost.>

He turned slowly then, detaching himself to look at her. <Don't let the fires get to you> he warned. Damn, did that dress of hers have to be cut so low?

<It isn't them. I've been thinking about it for a long time now.>

<You must have shielded it well.>

<This is the first time we've been trapped. Usually, we complete our mission and turn back for another. Now, we can't.>

He turned away from her. <You don't know what you're asking.>

"Shouldn't I know? Steel, I know we're not supposed to bond. I know the Authority would throw us into another dimension and have us replaced by someone reliable. Or at least he'd wish to. I'm not so sure he actually would, because even he must realise that a close bond is not always the same as a conspiracy, and there can be conspiracies for much scantier reasons, if it comes to that. But - he'll never know. We're trapped in time on a far-flung mission - even if we do get back, how could he ever find out?"

"I know all of that", Steel said through clenched teeth. "That's not what I meant."

"Then what did you mean?"

He took a deep breath. "I wouldn't think twice about defying the Authority. He can be quite overbearing at times. And as you say, he probably wouldn't even find out. To tell you the truth.." He turned back to look at her - almost helplessly, she thought. ".. there's nothing I should like better. If it were safe. But it isn't. I can't just - drill into you. I'd grind you to dust, or at the very least, hurt you badly. I told you, we're not human, we can't.."

She put her finger to his lips, and her hand on his shoulder. "It'll be all right, Steel. I promise."

 

*  *  *  *

Dawn broke before they knew it. The fires had mostly gone out, and the chill of the grey morning did nothing to warm them. For once, they had not heeded the passing of time, and yet they had not slept. Not that they ever did. She leant over him, brushing his damp, blond hair from his brow. She kissed him, long and deliberately. <How does it feel?> she asked then, <Playing at being human?>

He lay still for a moment, remembering. How his body shook as if pure magma were pouring out of his very core to come to rest in the soothing blue cool of her being. He knew he would never be quite the same again. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.

His eyes were wide and darker blue than she had ever seen them. "Sapphire.." he said softly, "After this.. if you ever hurt me, you could destroy me. You know that?"

She smiled a little. <I know.>

She hugged him gently, her golden hair brushing his face. "Steel, we must leave. We can't be found here like this. And - I've only just noticed that the ground here is very damp. We're practically lying in water.."

They walked slowly back, still hand in hand because they could not bear to let go of each other, not quite yet. They walked without speaking, without thinking.

The fires were out, and some people were about, but nobody had begun to clear away the traces of the festival as yet. Perhaps they would not, perhaps they would just leave the extinguished fires to be overgrown, then build next year's fires on the foundations. Or perhaps they would gather the ashes and spread them on the fields as fertiliser. As if by agreement, the two Elementals avoided the villagers now, walking towards the hut they had arrived in, rather than continuing their search for their contemporaries. Chances were the others would make for it too.

Pete was standing outside the hut, looking at the sun just coming up over the lake. The morning turned everything golden, including the High Priest's face. Sapphire and Steel let go of each other's hands as if burnt, yet they both knew he had seen them.

"Good morning", Pete greeted them good-naturedly. "I hope you had a pleasant festival?"

Not even Sapphire could think of a diplomatic answer, and the High Priest smiled knowingly but did not press them. "Juno and Stephen are back", he said instead. "I've told them about the portal. We decided we'd better gather in the hut and wait for you. I suppose we should have a discussion on what to do next. There's the matter of breakfast, for instance.."

"Breakfast?" Steel asked as if that thought was the furthest from his mind.

"We have a rule about food and drink. We must not eat or drink anything that originated in the Otherworld - I'm sorry I forgot to tell you, but it's a common rule for anyone travelling here. I hope you haven't..?"

They both shook their heads, and Pete smiled a little. "No, I thought not.. Well, now that the situation is different and we don't know how long we'll be trapped, we may have to reconsider. So you see we have a lot to talk about. Won't you join us?"

The rising sun was sending its rays slantwise into the hut, providing a little more light than they had had last night. There was also a small skylight that had not really been noticeable in the dusk of the previous evening. Yet the Elementals had to wait a moment for their human eyes to adapt to the relative darkness. Pete entered behind them, to stand just inside the doorway.

Pam, Juno, and Stephen were sitting on the packed earth floor. The Healer was the first one to look up. "There you are! We were wondering how long you two would be.." She giggled. "You must be cold - your clothes are all wet. Did you go down to the lake? It's really quite soggy there, we could have told you. You'd better take those things off, and.."

The transition was instantaneous and unnoticeable. One moment they were all loosely grouped about the hut, the next they were all sitting down in their original circle in the barn - though not where they had started out from, but close by one of the weathered walls. Judging by the thin sunrays through the cracks, the time of day was the same as in the past they had just left.

Diamond was sitting some distance away, dressed in the white robe she had first been wearing as Rosie. The complete surprise in her eyes was enough to tell them that she had had nothing to do with their recent transfer. "How did you do that?" she asked.

"I was about to ask you the same", Sapphire said, "but I see that you don't know."

Pete got up quickly. "We'd better break the circle at once, in case it happens again."

"Not only that", Stephen said, "I for one am going to leave this place altogether, while I can.."

"Perhaps you should get dressed first", Pam said practically. "We seem to have mislaid our clothes again. Though this time I can't recall taking them off.."

"Stop!" Steel called out sharply, and the wiccans stopped milling about. "Before we do anything, we must know if there is still a breach. If there is, we must seal it. Sapphire, can you sense anything?"

She closed her eyes, then opened them wide. Changing shades of blue flowed through them as she listened, smelt, looked, felt.. "Nothing", she said finally, as her eyes reverted to the human range. "There is no breach. And no portal."

"How can there not be?" Steel turned to Diamond. "Did anything happen here, just before we were brought back? Anything at all?"

"Not really", she shrugged. "I was just sitting here through the night, wondering what to do. All right, I admit I was sort of in despair after losing the portal, but.."

"How did you lose it?"

"Muirdoch walked right across your circle just as.. wait a minute! He was here with me just before you came back. He had been out hunting overnight, then he came in, washed himself, and lay down beside me. I sat here, stroking him and trying to think of a plan to get you back. Suddenly he sat right up, and then he walked out under that wall. I saw his tail disappear under there, just as you began to materialise."

"It is said that cats can move freely on all planes.." Pete mused. "It seems likely that they can move between them too."

"Without the benefit of a breach or portal?" Diamond wondered.

"It would seem so."

"The cat must belong to the past", Steel said. "You said that none of you knew where he came from?"

"We don't", Pam confirmed. "He could have slipped through from the past, I suppose. Cats haven't changed - we wouldn't have noticed anything special about him."

"No, you wouldn't, perhaps", Steel said. "But Sapphire should have. Sapphire?"

"I must have missed it. I did notice something out of place - Diamond, masquerading as one of the wiccans." She turned to Diamond. "You were the one really standing out; I never realised you were not the only displaced being here.."

Without thinking, Steel placed his hand on her shoulder, squeezing very gently. "You're sure there's nothing left for us to collapse?"

In the blink of two dazzling eyes, Sapphire saw that Diamond had realised - and that she was not happy with the insight. "I'm sure", Sapphire said. As a directed thought, she added, <though I wish you hadn't phrased it quite like that..> She moved away from him, found her original clothes neatly folded next to where the first circle had been, and started to put them on. Steel did the same with his, and the wiccans put on their varicoloured robes. Apparently they had not brought anything else.

Diamond watched her fellow Elementals closely. No, she thought, taking care to shield her musings, they can't have. They know they mustn't, they can't.. But if they thought they were trapped..? It was outrageous, the very thought made her furious - not the least because she could not fight a surge of pure, searing jealousy. Not that she would ever.. but if she had been the one trapped in time with Steel? It could have happened, it had been so close. If she had not stayed behind.. No, it was impossible, she was imagining things, they couldn't have..

The wiccans were leaving now, each one with thanks to the three Elementals for their help. Preoccupied, Diamond barely acknowledged them, but Sapphire was gracefully thanking the humans for letting her take part in their festival.

Juno winked at her. "I trust you had a good one. Considering that you and Steel were the last ones in, in the morning.." She left, chuckling.

Nothing Sapphire or Steel could have said would change Diamond's conviction now. She stood, gathering her white robe around her. "I think I had better leave too", she said, and her voice was cold and cutting. "I must see the Authority at once." She waited for their reaction, but none came, not even a silent one. They simply stood there, too close together, waiting also. For her verdict. "I have been loitering here far too long", Diamond concluded as if she had never intended to say anything else. "It's time I took on my next mission. See you around." She made a half turn and was gone from their plane.

Steel put his arm around Sapphire's shoulders, protectively. "Do you think she'll tell?"

"Yes", Sapphire said. "Perhaps not right away. But one day, she will."

He nodded. "The problem is - whom will she tell..?"

 

* * * The End * * *