Laura makes an entrance…
They had to stoop for a few minutes under the low roof but the passage soon opened out into a broad tunnel with brick lined walls and a smooth stone floor, and Laura wondered if they were near to areas she’d been in before.
Rounding a bend they came to a junction where several tunnels met. To their left the way was blocked, but not by a wall or door, instead an enormous piece of rusting metal machinery towered over them. It was almost beautiful with its elegant struts and fretwork and Laura reached out to touch it. Joseph explained that it was one of the original Victorian tunnelling machines – too difficult and expensive to remove when the tunnels were finished, they were simply left behind, entombed for ever more.
The sound of voices reached them from the other direction, they were almost there. They rounded one last corner and there was the arched entrance to the Great Hall. Through the archway Laura could see blue torches on the walls, linked by chains of fairy lamps, some more of Joseph’s dodgy electrical work she supposed, and the twinkling lights cast their glow up towards the vaulted ceiling. Groups of Mer stood chatting, some of the older ones sitting on the battered furniture arranged around the edge of the large room.
Edgar was leaning against the wall just outside. He’d been waiting for them, and as soon as he saw them approaching and spotted the boxes they carried he rushed up to greet them.
“You’re here!” he exclaimed.
“Are you talking to us or the crisps?” Joseph teased.
Edgar held out his arms and Laura stacked the two boxes one on top of the other so they were wedged safely under his chin. He thanked them quickly and headed straight into the hall. Just before he disappeared into the throng he turned and called over this shoulder.
“The music’s about to start.”
Laura expected them to follow, but Joseph hung back and touched her arm to stop her entering.
“Aren’t we going in?” she asked.
He shook his head and frowned. Laura was about to ask why not when it began. The most beautiful sounds she had ever heard were coming out of the Hall and she stood transfixed, letting the astonishing sensations wash over her. And then the singing started and she was overwhelmed. Tears were streaming down her face and she had an irresistible urge to move towards the music, to find where it was coming from and to be as close as possible. She felt a floating detachment as her legs start to carry her through the arch and then a vague awareness of something pulling her back so she tried to brush it away and walk onwards.
The next thing she knew she was sitting on the ground leaning against the cool metal of the tunnelling machine. Her head was throbbing and she ached with a terrible emptiness, as if she’d lost something, or had a most precious thing stolen away. Joseph was squatting in front of her with his hands on her shoulders and a face like thunder.
“I might have known you’d be really susceptible,” he said. “Do you feel alright?”
“I think so. What happened? There was music and it was lovely and then…” she tailed off in confusion.
“Sirens, that’s what happened. You went right under, really quickly, so I had to drag you away. Sorry about that, I didn’t expect it to get you so fast.”
Her headache was fading and embarrassment was rapidly replacing the heartache.
“You weren’t affected?” She got up, and holding on to the rim of a huge metal wheel for support she stamped her feet to chase away the fuzzy feeling.
“No. If you know what to expect you can block it out by singing your own song in your head. I usually do my old school hymn. Christmas carols work too, Happy Birthday, anything you know really well.”
“I guess I know for next time then, Praise My Soul the King of Heaven it is.” She turned to Joseph shaking her head, “Is this for real? I mean honestly, Sirens? Is Medusa about to make an appearance too?”
“I never said that all the myths were true. The Sirens are a water people too, sort of cousins, but a very different nature. They are not always as discreet as the Mer and they can cause problems. The Margrave told me the other day that the so-called killer Mediterranean riptides in the tabloids probably had something to do with them. I’m quite surprised to see any of them here actually.”
His expression darkened further, “Let’s just say there’s a bit of history there.”
Laura was curious, but before she could press him, Edgar and Cara popped their heads round the corner, faces glowing with excitement.
“We were wondering where you’d – wow, what’s happened to you?” Edgar stared at Laura who realised that she must still be in quite a state.
“It was the song, she wasn’t expecting it,” Joseph explained as Laura fished in her bag for a mirror.
“No!” The two young Mer collapsed into fits of giggles, “I wish we’d seen her, did she go right under?”
“She’s recovered now,” Joseph could sense Laura’s embarrassment, “if the singing’s finished we’ll come in.”
“Yes they’ve gone. Father would only let them do one song and then he sent them away.”
“Do you know who they came with, Edgar?”
But Edgar simply shrugged. Then he and Cara couldn’t wait any longer, they rushed back to the hall to tell the others all about Laura’s little episode.
Laura was peering with dismay into a small mirror she’d found in her bag. Her hair was no longer tamed neatly and what little makeup she’d put on had dissolved with the tears. She snapped the compact shut and stuffed it back into her bag, then tried to brush the worst of the dust from her dress. She was a mess – great party this was turning out to be.
Joseph had watched her doing all this and realised she was upset. “You look fine,” he said, trying to be kind.
“Fine? Marvellous. That’s just what I was aiming for in my best, in fact my only party dress,” Laura snapped.
“What do you want me to say? The dress is pretty enough but it is a bit grubby now. No one will notice in there though, I promise.”
That hadn’t come out quite how he’d intended and she looked even crosser, so he took her by the hand and led her into the Great Hall without saying another word.