From her study in the large cupola surmounting Fairdamon's library, Ko Tricali watched the farmers carrying boxes of soft fruit to preserve for the winter. The glass canopy that protected the apricots, strawberries and tomatoes caught the sun and gleamed like ruby in its setting rays. Soon the apples would be ripe enough to store and root vegetables ready to earth up. Whatever the season, Fairdamon never went without carrots and parsnips while the rest of the country starved. The Fairdamons might have felt guilt over that, but people outside their walled town depended on animal husbandry for their diet and, as with heretics, regarded vegetarians as aberrations.
Her assistant's expectant expression as he anticipated each new revelation to issue from the tip of her quill was disconcerting, so Ko Tricali laid it aside and sent him to bring refreshments.
Some of the manuscripts they worked on were old transcriptions from an earlier language even Ko, with all her expertise, could not decipher. And then there were the fragments of ancient text on linen, wood and papyrus. Assembling them into a sensible order had taken the librarian and her staff years.
Ko took a deep, resigned breath, and adjusted her eyeglasses - one of the few useful things that had come from outside the isolated town of Fairdamon. Otherwise the medicines her people used were so in advance of those possessed by the world they shunned, their doctors would have been accused of witchcraft had they left the town's walls to treat the victims of plague now raging across the country. Fairdamons were already regarded as interlopers from an ancient pagan cult, and attempting to help their benighted, puritanical neighbours would not only have been futile, but dangerous.
So there the community was compelled to stay, behind the high walls, living in relative comfort, eating their own produce and contemplating the hugeness of an unknowable Universe. They had all the time in the world to try and make sense of how their ancestors had walked the planet like beneficent daemons, educating the very people who would now have them hanged as witches.
On the desk before Ko was the earliest known papyrus fragment, the one all translators came back to in an attempt to tease another small gem from its disjointed script.
"In those days lived giants..."
After that a tantalising amount of text was missing until, "Lands were fertile," then a much argued over inflection, "The people prospered...." or was it, "The giants helped people prosper."?
Ko took the beverage her assistant had made them and silently contemplated the unknowable origins of her giants, who not only pre-dated the people they knew, but probably several ice ages as well. At least the librarians had pieced together enough to document the extraordinary lives of ancestors who became legends to the primitive tribes they had helped to survive. Their benevolent sensibilities had not been emulated and those "golden giants" remained long enough to wonder what sort of creatures they had helped to plunder their beloved world.
It was not in the philosophy of the Fairdamons to harbour regrets, yet they knew that the best intentions could have unfortunate consequences. Ko could only hope that at some time in the future these people would become more aware and less self-obsessed. Then, perhaps, the truth could be told.
The irony was, if it had not been for an outsider - and one from a religious order at that - even these ancient texts would have been lost. Brother Petrus had been a remarkable man and his historical accounts were much easier to read, being only in mediaeval Latin. The mere fact that he risked committing his encounter with the Fairdamons to a chronicle spoke volumes about the monk's courage and veracity. Had his writing fallen into the wrong hands, he would have certainly been condemned as a heretic.
The sun was trying to rise milkily through the early spring mist.
Black-booted men were surreptitiously loading weapons from a lock-up garage into the back of some lorries. It was too early in the morning for the local residents to be bothered about the manoeuvres of the sinister brigade in fascist tunics. Many districts had them. It was only now that the government warned that Mr Mosley and his jackbooted followers, entertaining the population with their goose-stepping antics long after the Third Reich realised how hard its was on the Achilles tendons, were not harmless eccentrics after all. It was no longer possible to make jokes about what was happening in Europe. Many preferred not to believe it, while realists were aware that the huge, malign cloud sweeping across the continent towards them would not be turned back by wishful thinking.
While the Blackshirts loaded their weapons in the dingy backstreet, a member of the well-heeled gentry was saying goodbye to his family outside their palatial residence, soon to be turned into a dormitory for young people taking refuge from his fascist masterís carpet bombing. However much those inner-city children managed to cause havoc, it would be nothing compared to the devastation visited on the neighbourhoods they came from.
The wealth of Penelope Freeman's family came from banking, so their country estate had no need to maintain arable land or sitting tenants. The Georgian manor's facade was elegant, restrained and free of vines, climbing roses, or swastikas. The family butler had made it clear, at whatever the cost, he would report Michael Freeman to the authorities if so much as a thumbnail of Nazi iconography defaced the home of his wife's late, revered parents. It was no doubt fear of Penelope discovering his treacherous affiliations that restrained Freeman. For all the years he had been living there, inheriting its staff as well as the property, he had never been able to take the measure of the mysterious butler, and wasn't prepared to challenge him over so much as a tarnished teaspoon.
The Freeman's family manor house would have been idyllic if it were not for the dubious politics frequently discussed behind its walls. The embroidered Queen Anne chairs had supported the angular rumps of Third Reich sympathisers, and the Victorian sofas the more ample backsides of German (and English) aristocracy who were so detached from reality that surrendering the world to a master race seemed quite rational.
Penelope Freeman remained innocent of what was going on. Never asked to join in their discussions, she was persuaded that her husband's German speaking guests were too civil to be engaged in anything as impolite as the Third Reich. A gardener with an East End accent would have raised more suspicion, which was probably why - apart from her inheritance - Michael Freeman went to such lengths to ensure she became his wife. The cook, butler, maid and gardeners, all aware of what was going on, knew their places. Destroying their gracious mistress's view of a benign universe was not in their terms of contract, so everyone continued to potter about, attending to the tasks that enabled the huge house to run smoothly as though oblivious of the maelstrom already engulfing Europe. There were cordons of peaches to train, a large, lopsided wolfhound to feed, an older brother to be rescued from a precocious infant with destructive tendencies, and gravel to rake over the incriminating tyre tracks of the motorcade that brought their dubious guests.
All the staff could do was breathe a sigh of relief when the master of the house left on his secret jaunt to generate treasonous mischief.
Michael Freeman was good-looking and in his early forties; if there was not something sinister about the man, anyone else meeting him casually might have detected an element of the Latin gigolo. His infatuated wife saw none of these things; he and their two children were her sole reason for existence. Their eight-year-old son hardly resembled his father and lacked any familial force of character. His four-year-old sister had enough for both of them, a little too much for a child barely able to read. No reassuring children's storybooks for her, she would soon be breaking her intellectual teeth on medical non-fiction with all the gruesome details that entailed. This precocious sibling was determined to be a doctor; her placid brother learning to put up with the bandages and poultices for the sake of peace and quiet.
As their father stowed a suitcase in the back of his open top saloon car, family matters were not uppermost in his mind. Penelope Freeman would have asked about the voyage he was about to undertake if the devotion that blinded her had not suppressed the question, in the same way she had always accepted that the guests they so lavishly entertained in their country seat were business associates. In a rare moment of suspicion, the lady of the house had once wondered who they really were but, as her husband had invited them, how could there have been anything wrong about their presence? How could these elegant, polite visitors have been connected with the terrible rumours that were leaking from Europe? The formidable family butler's expression may have hardened at their approach, but the local huntís dogs liked them, though it was the only time the wolf hound would seek out the protection of its infant tormentor.
As her husband drove off into the mist, Penelope Freeman was apprehensive; taking a voyage given the international situation was risky. War could be declared at any moment. Had she been aware that he was meeting up with a gang of Blackshirts armed to the teeth, Michael Freeman's wife might have recalled her cousin's advice about marrying the man in the first place. An amazingly astute woman, Bethany was now cruising the mighty rivers of the Amazon in the search for exotic plants. Penelope would have also been interested in botany had she not at heart been a hausfrau and dedicated hostess to her husband's sophisticated, strange, friends.
Under a leaden sky, Freeman's saloon car rendezvoused with several kaki-covered lorries waiting by the common in Greenbridge village. The only ones disturbed by their presence were the ducks in the pond. Other residents accepted it as a necessary intrusion by an army preparing for invasion, though why Hitler would have needed to invade a small village in the middle of nowhere escaped them. And why the commander of a British army unit would turn up in smart civvies and an expensive saloon car to take his men on manoeuvres was also not something open to question. There must have been a good reason, but that was probably a state secret as well.
As though anticipating the convoy's murky venture, the mist resolutely refused to lift and bless it with a little sunlight. It was well away by the time the morning queue formed outside the local baker.
The khaki lorries droned on behind the open topped saloon car like noisy, obedient caterpillars trying to pursue a butterfly. As they wended their way through narrow lanes, the saloon's paintwork was assailed by brambles more used to ensnaring the flanks of horses and shins of cyclists.
A mile from Greenbridge the road forked into two overgrown routes without a signpost as though the resident troll refused to allow anything larger than a push bike through. But their leader had committed the route to memory and this convoy feared nothing. It was well-armed and prepared to take on the hordes laying siege to Valhalla without so much as disturbing the partings in its combatants greased down hair.
As the saloon crested the brow of a hill, Michael Freeman anticipated the small, ghostly town hiding in the valley, confident that it was not expecting him.
But he was wrong.
A lookout in Fairdamon's tallest Italianate tower had spotted the dull, dung coloured vehicles following the saloon car and quickly wended his way down to announce their arrival.
Shafts of sunlight from the high windows of the main debating chamber spotlighted a gathering of elders, and other Fairdamons credited with enough common sense to make decisions tempered by the pragmatism of self-preservation. This had always been an egalitarian town where even the innocence of children was heeded. Not on this occasion, however.
Many wore ancient robes for the occasion, as though knowing that this would be the last time they ever saw the light of day. Centuries old, the material still glinted with threads of silver, platinum and gold in the decaying splendour of the ornate chamber. The residents of Fairdamon had at last accepted that the rest of the world was aware of their isolated community. Once human beings had acquired the combustion engine, it was inevitable that their solitude would be disturbed; it was just surprising that it had taken so many decades.
Nor Nagada, the eldest present, was still astute, and determined that some vestige of their glorious past should be preserved when their ancient lineage at last petered out like a guttering, exotic candle. She advised that the young, infirm and elderly be taken to safety on the outskirts of the town.
A burly man, not quite so golden-haired and tall as the others, entered carrying a large bunch of keys.
'Bring up the reality switch, Anthony, and then ensure that the cellar is sealed,' Nor Nagada asked.
Anthony left with three others to descend the steps spiralling round a platform lift shaft and down into a cavern excavated by an underground river, which now trickled along its original massive course as though in apology. The walls of rock were illuminated as they descended, bringing into sharp relief surreal sculptures entwining the towering pillars supporting its roof.
Several recesses above the water line were secured by solid wooden doors and massive locks. Anthony ascended a ramp to the furthest of these and used the keys to turn its many tumblers in strict sequence.
As soon as the door was pulled open lamps inside came on like flickering fridge lights to reveal a jumble of gleaming artefacts never destined to meet the trowel of amateur archaeologist or metal detector. Entombed so deep, behind impenetrable bolts, this ancient hoard was more likely to end up being subducted by continental plate movements before astounding the archaeological dogma of a society that believed it knew everything. Fairdamon's policy had been to allow humankind to go on conjecturing that it was the pinnacle of the planet's intelligent evolution. This fragile glassware pearlised by millennia of storage, and amber bowls that could have only been chased by an advanced technology, would never be seen by those more inclined to drill the ocean for oil than gaze at the stars for enlightenment.
But precious tableware was not what the keyholder and his companions had come down for. Tucked away amongst the treasure, almost in embarrassment, was a large, dull box crouching like a toad in the waterlilies. It took all four men to lift it out and manoeuvre it onto the platform lift where it was carried up to see daylight for the first time in centuries.
When Michael Freeman reached Fairdamon he realised that the only way in for his convoy was through the ornamental gates in its high, stone wall that would have kept out a tank.
While the vehicles waited in the narrow road circling the ancient town he calculated how much explosive would be needed to blow out the pillars supporting the gates' heavy hinges.
Before the order could be given the gates slowly opened as though sensing his expertise with dynamite.
There was no one about. It had to be a trap. The faces of the mythological wrought iron beasts gazing down with alien expressions would have daunted any other visitors. But these invaders had a mission, a keen sense of the mystical and were heavily armed. They were confident their destiny lay in their Aryan descent and heavenly crystal spheres from which they originated.
Michael Freeman's saloon car cautiously led the other vehicles down a winding road into the small town of Fairdamon. Its cupolas, towers, and decorative ridges caught the morning sun's rays as the mist at last lifted, setting the stage for a bizarre drama even he could not have anticipated.
The architecture was not what he had been expecting. It should have been more monumental, like the work of Albert Speer, not a politely decaying Portmeirion. Fairyland turrets and towers jutted up through the lingering mist from steeply gabled roofs, and terraced houses clung magically to the valley walls. The town should have had that robust Bavarian elegance in its architecture; this was more like a Romanesque cake iced with white marble and sprinkled with small, glinting windmills and screens to collect the rays of the rising sun.
The convoy drove on to the town's large square surrounded by a colonnade. A tall woman, as ancient and mysterious as her surroundings, stood at its centre.
As Freeman left his saloon car, an inexplicable sensation of finality invaded his mind. He shuddered. But the German agent was made of stern stuff and pushed the intrusive thought aside. He strode over to confront the imposing woman. Her strands of glinting silver hair played in the light thermals channelled through the narrow streets radiating away from the square. Nor Nagada could have been anything between seventy and 700. Her tall, straight stance had never known bone loss and that stern gaze could have stopped a tiger in its tracks. The ankle length robe she wore was also ancient and studded with a rainbow of unfamiliar gems. If Fairdamon was an enchanted town, this woman was its supreme wizard because she seemed to know why he was there.
She continued to gaze steadily at the intruder without blinking or bothering to glance at the heavily armed men climbing from the backs of the lorries.
'We knew somebody would eventually come,' Nor Nagada eventually announced. 'We just did not expect it would be on behalf of Adolf Hitler.'
As an Abwher agent, Freeman prided himself on not allowing his movements to be known by anyone, let alone that he was a German spy. 'How can you know who we are?'
'The rumour of Fairdamon possessing the ultimate weapon has been absorbed into local mythology. Unlike most who believe it to be a myth, only someone committed to the evil absurdity of Nazi superiority would pursue the rumour as fact.'
The intruder squinted in annoyance at her distain for his crusade to install a Teutonic hell on Earth: at least, that seemed to be what this unworldly, uncompromising hag was suggesting. Despite that, there could be no doubting that she came from Aryan stock. Her silver hair still sparkled with golden strands and the tall, straight limbed posture verged on the Valkyrie. Yet the woman stood before him, radiating contempt so fiercely the armed men behind him must have been aware of it.
Her defiance could have only meant one thing.
'Who else knows we are here?'
'The war machine in this country is driven by more rational considerations, like self preservation and trying not to release their tenuous grip on an empire. They do not believe that there is such a doomsday machine because they dare not. Only those who truly hold life so cheap would not flinch from using it.'
'Then it does exist?'
It had to be a trap, yet Freeman was unable to fathom how.
'Well, don't you want it then?' There was a challenge in the elderly woman's tone.
He hardly dare believe his ears. 'What?'
'It is of no use to us. We do not intend to take over the world.'
'If you believe I'm an enemy agent, why are you willing to let me have such a dangerous weapon?'
'It is of no consequence to us who uses it. Each side will annihilate the other soon enough. There are levels of reality no human can comprehend, and whatever happens here will make little difference to them.'
'Our reality is the only reality!' stormed Freeman.
'So why you are willing to destroy it?'
'Your weapon will be well used by the master race.'
Nor Nagada gave him a pitying look before beckoning four men standing in the colonnade to bring over a large, bland box. The Aryan in Freeman could only admire the tall, golden-haired Fairdamons, their muscles straining under the weight of the doomsday machine. Could these men be descended from a branch of the master race that his paymasters were unaware of? He wasn't going to find out; the old woman waved them away. They hesitated, so she pointed firmly to one of the streets radiating from the square. They obeyed her command and reluctantly left. Now he had the weapon - whatever it was - within his reach and without a fight.
'How do you activate the device,' Freeman demanded.
Nor Nagada gave a mysterious smile and took a small crystal rod from her gown pocket. This she inserted into a slot in the lid and then, with unconcerned deftness, dialled a code into the panel beside it as though about to book a reservation at the Ritz.
The heavy lid slowly lifted.
A dazzling light virtually howled from cavernous depths as the entity in the box woke.
Freeman's men stepped back and aimed their guns at the device.
'There is no need to be alarmed. What did you expect from the most powerful weapon ever created?'
Freeman also hadn't expected to find himself peering down the throat of an enraged dragon.
The lid slowly yawned wider to reveal another control panel, though the light was too intense for him to see the core of the device.
It took all of Freeman's willpower to avoid showing that he was astounded. 'What is it?'
'Your means to conquer the world - or destroy it.'
'How does it work?' he demanded.
'It is necessary to dial the correct sequence to release the safety locks.'
'Show me how it's done.'
She gazed at him long and hard. 'You wish me to activate it?'
'Just show me how it works,' Freeman demanded.
'No, you do not believe our reality to merely be the tip of a cosmic dimension beyond human comprehension, do you?'
How dare this ancient hag sneer at his superiority! 'So prove me wrong, woman, and let this machine reveal the face of God!' Freeman ordered, confident that she would not do it.
Nor Nagada smiled icily and dialled in another code. The panel flashed out a complex sequence as she unlocked each safety protocol. Blue and violet lights chased each other faster and faster until the panel became a dazzling blur.
Freeman's men drew closer. Although daunted, their curiosity was ensnared by the astonishing machine. How could such a wonderful device be the harbinger of death?
Yet it was.
Too late, Freeman realised what was happening. 'Switch it off! Switch it off!' he screamed.
The old woman raised her hands. 'Prepare to be enlightened.'
An innocent sounding "click" issued from the depths of the box.
A globe of plasma roared from it and engulfed everyone, giving them just enough time to see the flesh fall from the amazed faces of the others.
The horror remained soundless as the Fairdamon stood, hands raised, until she dissolved into the fierce furnace of energy.
Reality stuttered and guttered out for everyone. The men's tissue became a sticky smog that coated the colonnade and cloisters behind them.
Then followed the explosion that shook every parish for twenty miles.