As she watched the water pouring across her outstretched legs Laura couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid.
This was like a bad film where the silly woman keeps getting into trouble and having to be rescued. At least I’ve still got my clothes on, she thought, but before she’d decided what her next course of action should be she heard a voice.
“There, by the grille. I told you I heard something fall.”
“I can’t see anything.”
Laura couldn’t tell where the speaker was coming from so she just waited, but then she saw two figures splashing down the tunnel towards her, one of them holding aloft a glowing blue torch. It was rescue time.
Edgar and Cara stood and stared down at Laura in disbelief.
“I thought you were a dog,” Edgar said.
“You’re very wet,” Cara added helpfully.
Edgar looked at her more closely, “You’re Joseph’s friend. You saved us.”
“Well maybe I helped, a little.”
“Our turn to save you then.”
The two Mer grinned at each other, then Edgar pulled Laura to her feet and told her to follow them back up the tunnel.
It was hard going for Laura, even keeping close to the wall in the shallowest part of the stream. In the end Edgar had to pull her along, guiding her through the darkness, his hand cool in hers. She hurt all over from her fall, but just when she felt she could not take another step they reached a much wider and drier tunnel and the Margrave appeared in front of them.
“What is all this?” he frowned.
“We found her at a grille, she’d fallen down a drain,” explained Cara.
“We saved her,” Edgar said proudly.
Laura leaned against the wall, silent and cold. The Margrave spoke kindly to her, “You look exhausted, come and rest.”
But before she could even heave herself upright again there were heavy footsteps and another figure appeared.
“What is the meaning of this?”
It was Jorn. He glared first at Laura and then the young ones. “You bring more danger to us. You are out of control!” He stepped forward angrily but the Margrave put a gentle but firm hand on his arm.
“Jorn you remember Laura? Edgar and Cara found her in trouble at an outflow so they quite rightly brought her to me.”
Laura hadn’t realised that the Margrave recognised her, and it soon became apparent that Jorn also remembered her, but not in a good way.
“So it’s Joseph’s woman again,” he sneered. “Why is she in the Riverways this time? Spying on us?”
“Firstly I am not Joseph’s woman,” Laura bristled, “and secondly I was not spying.”
“So what were you doing my dear?” asked the Margrave, and Laura blushed under his steady gaze.
“I was just… looking,” she mumbled, suddenly feeling very foolish.
Jorn snorted, but the Margrave seemed satisfied.
“Well there is no harm done,” he said, “come with me.”
He took her hand and led her down the tunnel and through a doorway into his chamber, a spartan room with once plastered brick walls and a tiled floor. There were ventilation shafts and odd bits of pipes and cables hanging from the ceiling, and there was another door in the far wall. An old desk, a couple of wooden chairs and a sagging sofa were the only items of furniture.
The next hour passed in a rather pleasant daze as Laura sank comfortably into the frayed cushions of the sofa and was given warm blankets and a hot drink – some sort of black tea she thought. The Margrave then started to question her gently. He knew she was no threat – Joseph trusted her and that was good enough for him – he simply wanted to know more about her, and her life.
He was fascinated to hear about the British Library. “Every book,” he marvelled, “how wonderful.” He told Laura how he loved to read, and longed to have more books but was limited by what was brought to him from outside. Joseph was very generous, but the young ones who did most of the scavenging never saw books as a priority.
He showed Laura through the other door into a small ante-room lined with utilitarian metal shelving units. In contrast to the rest this room was harshly lit by a single electric lightbulb hanging overhead. “Joseph helped me with the connection,” the Margrave explained conspiratorially when he saw Laura looking at it. Faded posters on the wall cautioned against Careless Talk and in one corner stood two wooden tea chests holding a tangle of bakelite telephones and typewriters. On the shelves were rows and rows of books. It was a motley collection, mostly made up of discarded paperbacks, their pages curled from the damp atmosphere. They didn’t seem to be in any sort of order and Laura’s librarian instincts prickled at the disarray, but then she spotted that there was one shelf arranged beautifully, and these were not scavenged volumes, but immaculate brand new reference books – these must be the ones that Joseph brought.
The Margrave’s face softened when he spoke of Joseph. There was clearly a strong bond between them and Laura wondered what Jorn thought of that. She had felt the force of his hostility to her as an outsider, and there was an undercurrent of tension that the Margrave was carefully ignoring. Laura did not want to pry, but she felt a pang of concern for the leader who was showing her such kindness.
It was very late, and all Laura wanted now was to go home. The Margrave called for Edgar and asked him to show her the way.
“Do you need to climb back up the same shaft?” Edgar asked as they walked through the tunnels.
“No, and I don’t want to get wet again either. Anywhere near Muswell Hill would be just fine.”
This didn’t seem to be a problem for her guide, and after a few more twists and turns they arrived at the bottom of some steps which led up into the darkness beyond the blue light of the torch.
“There you are,” Edgar pointed upwards.
“Really?” Laura was doubtful, “where do they go?”
“They are access stairs from an old generator plant room. The generator went years ago and the room was bricked up and forgotten. We opened it up again, it’s good for dry storage and it’s quite near the surface. Come on.”
Clearly enjoying being in charge, Edgar went first up the steep steps. There was a ledge with a doorway opening into the storage room, and bolted to the wall was a rusty iron ladder stretching on upwards. Again Edgar went first, but he soon came to a stop. Laura bumped into his feet and then waited as he wrestled awkwardly with something above his head. At last there was a scraping noise, a blast of fresh air and a shower of dust and leaves as he heaved open a metal cover. He climbed out and reached back down to help Laura through. She was soon standing amongst trees on ivy covered ground. She could hear the distant hum of traffic and a helicopter droning overhead.
“Queens Wood,” said Edgar, “hope that’s good enough?”
“Perfect, thank you.”
It should be an easy walk home from here, once she had worked out which direction home lay that is. As she was looking round to get her bearings Edgar lowered himself back down the shaft and pulled the iron cover across to seal the opening.
Laura kicked at the ivy and leaves so they concealed the entrance, but she knew that this was the sort of feature that people would walk over every day of their lives and not notice. That must be what the Margrave meant when he’d talked about seeing.
She shivered. A dark wood late at night in north London was not the ideal place to be loitering, so she set off at a trot to find her way home.