The old Herm stands at the crossroads, looking west, guarding the secrets of a thousand years. He was known as Mercury or Hermes, the small god of travellers who kept company with those other gods of woods and streams. These Old Ones are forgotten now; those who worshipped at their shrines, poured a libation, left offerings of food, are long gone. But the old Herm remains, though his plinth is smashed and his body is crumbling away. The blank eyes, the faintly smiling lips and the rim of beard are still visible to anyone who stoops to look, pushing aside the wild flowers and fading grasses that hang like dreadlocks around his stony brow. He watches over this ancient way and those who travel it.
The dogs appear first around the bend in the lane, tails waving, still eager and energetic despite their walk. Their liver and white coats are sleek and shining, wet from their splashings in the stream, and the larger spaniel carries a ball in his mouth. Mungo follows more slowly with his elderly mutt, Mopsa, pottering along behind him. The August sunshine is hot and Mungo has slung his jersey around his waist, tying the sleeves in a loose knot. He stands for a moment, stretching in the warm dry air, snuffing up the scents of new-cut grass and honeysuckle. The dogs come racing back to him. Boz drops the ball at his feet and Sammy makes a grab for it but Mungo is quicker. He seizes the ball and throws it as far as he can. They skitter after it, jostling and barging each other, and he laughs out loud as he watches them. As usual, he is aware of the past all around him: the ghosts of Roman soldiers marching to the long-vanished fort; a line of laden packhorses plodding down to the Horse Brook, where the original granite clapper bridge still crosses the narrow stream.
Way back, when his name was beginning to be on everyone's lips, he'd acted in and directed a film that rocked the British box offices and became an international hit. This was its location: this valley, these crossways, the ford at the horse bridge. The vanished wooden fort had risen again and the air was once more riven with the clash of swords and the shouts of soldiers. The camera crew spent many rainy hours drinking coffee in Mungo's kitchen in the long-since converted smithy whilst the older members of the cast retired to their trailers in the paddock at Home Farm.
Isobel Trent was cast in the role of the wayward local beauty opposite his tough Roman general. They'd become cult figures; his films always successful, their partnership so magical. The media treated them like royalty; photographed them, gossiped about them, conjectured at the depth of their relationship.
'Let them talk,' Izzy said. 'Much the best way, Mungo darling. Puts them right off the scent.'
Her secret, stormy affair with Ralph was over by then.
He'd disappeared out of their lives for ever, after that final, terrible argument in Mungo's kitchen. How young they'd been; how serious and intense their emotions: his own rage and helplessness, Izzy's tears, and her despair, and Ralph's cruel indifference.
Mungo pauses at the crossroads, makes his obeisance to the old Herm, and follows the dogs up the steps, through the gate and into the cobbled courtyard. In the lane silence gathers again, shadows creep beneath twisty boughs of ash and thorn. The old Herm remains, watching the pathways, guarding his secrets.
Mungo towels down the dogs, pours them fresh water and leaves them to lie panting in the courtyard. He pushes the kettle on to the hotplate, pulls it off again as the telephone rings.
'Mungo. It's Kit.'
Kit Chadwick. Her voice is warm and eager and he sees her vividly in his mind's eye: ashy brown hair, smoky blue eyes, slender, restless.
'I hope this is to tell me you're coming down,' he says. 'God, it'd be good to see you, sweetie.'
'Well, it is, if you'll have me. London's sweltering, and something a bit weird has happened.' Her voice is suddenly uncertain. 'Honestly, Mungo. I really need to talk to you.'
'Then get the next train out.' He is alert, interested, but knows it's best not to question her now. 'Or will you drive?'
'I'd rather. You know me. I'd like to stay for a few days, if that's OK, and I might need to be a bit independent.'
'Fine,' he says easily. 'So when?'
'Later, when it's cooler. I'll be with you, say, nine-ish. Not too late?'
'Of course not.'
'And listen. I remembered earlier. It's Izzy's birthday.'
A tiny pause. 'So it is. We'll have a delicious little birthday supper. Gnocchi suit you? And I've got a bottle of Villa Masetti chilling in the fridge.'
'Sounds like heaven.'
'Go and pack then. And drive carefully.'