The beginning of Dying to be Fathers by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago The sixth Dai and Julia Mystery, set in a Britain where the Roman Empire never left.
Pridie Nonas Maia MDCCLXXVIII Anno Diocletiani
Julia Llewellyn was at that stage of her pregnancy where she couldn’t imagine why she ever thought having a baby was a good idea. She was used to having a lithe, boyish body, that ran and jumped with ease and delight, but currently she was close to the shape of an egg and prone to sudden bouts of indigestion and cramp in her limbs. The thought of nearly three more weeks of this with the intense summer heat, was almost too much to bear. So it was with some relief that she sat in the shade in the secluded walled garden where Cookie grew her herbs and found she felt neither sick nor uncomfortable. It couldn’t last, but for as long as it did she was content to raise her face to the sun and daydream a little.
The world, she thought wryly, was rapidly turning upside down. Not only had she and her beloved husband Dai managed to get through the best part of a month without her wanting to throw something at his handsome head, but his sister, Cariad, who she had always thought of as little better than a wharfside strumpet had come home after a break to recover from a very traumatic experience and seemed to have turned over a new leaf. She appeared to be really trying to appreciate having a good kind husband and two beautiful children. Julia still nursed doubts about the durability of this sea change, but hoped for everyone’s sake it was going to last.
For her own part, Cariad’s children, Felix and Cassia were a big reason she held on to any hope that being pregnant was worth the undoubted discomfort. The duo was one of the delights of her life.
Currently, Felix was out in the hills with his father and his uncle Dai, mounted on one of the sturdy local ponies Dai’s brother Hywel bred as a hobby. Ostensibly Felix was having riding lessons. It would have been rather more honest to say that he was having a whale of a time away from the constraints of being the only son of a very important man.
Julia idly wondered what Cariad and Cassia were up to, and it seemed to her that her fancy had conjured them to her side, because she heard Cariad calling her name urgently then Cassia’s voice sounding uneasy.
“Mam, I think Aunt Julia is asleep. Do you?”
“I don’t know, carissima. But if she is we really must wake her up.” Cariad’s musical voice was not entirely steady. Concerned now, Julia opened her eyes and sat up.
“What is it? Is something wrong?”
She had a sudden private dread that the beauty of the family must have got herself into more man trouble, and braced herself to refuse if she was to be asked to cover up an indiscretion. To her surprise, Cariad’s face was pale with anxiety and her Llewellyn blue eyes were swimming in tears.
It was Cassia who spoke. “We were feeding the ducks on the pond past the fruit trees. Mam got a message on her wrist phone from a man who is playing a game. He said he has stolen Pater and Felix and Uncle Dai. I don’t think that’s a nice game to play. Mam said we should tell you so we came straight here.”
It took a second or two for the meaning of the words to sink in and when they did her own heart tumbled in freefall with fear for Dai. Then something shifted deep in her psyche. It was cold and hard, cutting off the emotion, like a stone door slamming shut. Sleepiness banished, Julia went from somnolence to action in a single breath. She heaved herself to her feet and grasped Cariad’s cold hand.
“Come on,” she said gently, “pull yourself together and let’s see what is to be done.”
Cariad made what had to be a superhuman effort, then forced a smile. “Yes. Silly of me. It’s bound to be a mistake.”
Cassia looked at her with tolerant patience. “I was playing with Mam’s wrist phone when the message came in. I saved it for you.”
She handed over the expensive brand phone and Julia pulled up the menu on it’s curved screen and pressed the play button. The face that looked back at her was mostly covered by the dark fabric of a ski-mask except for a pair of dark eyes.
“We got your man and your son and your brother. You do as you are told and they comes to no harm. Mess us about and we’ll send you your son in pieces. Starting with his fingers.”
And that was it.
Julia felt her throat constrict as a ball of panic and rage bubbled up in her stomach. With sheer force of will she thrust it away again and pulled herself into a place where clarity of thought was possible. She used her own phone and tried Dai’s number. There was no reply and after a few desultory call tones it went to voicemail. Reaching out, she struck a small silver bell on the table beside her and a few moment later a porter stuck his face around the gate which led into the walled garden.
“Please fetch Edbert for me.”
The man nodded and disappeared. Julia gave her attention back to Cariad who hovered like a lost ghost clutching Cassia’s hand tightly.
“I think you should take Cassia indoors to see what Cookie has been baking today.” That made the little girl smile widely and begin to tug on her mother’s hand. Julia held up the wrist phone. “Can I borrow this for a bit?”
Cariad nodded, and even managed a taut smile of gratitude as Cassia towed her towards the house, chattering excitedly about cakes.
Julia input another number on her own wrist phone and Bryn Cartivel’s homely features filled the screen.
She didn’t give him a chance to speak. “Bryn. I need you here as quick as you can and you’d better bring Gallus. There’s something bad going on with the Magistratus and Dai. I’ll tell you when you get here.”
To his credit, and Julia’s relief, Bryn didn’t argue or ask for more details.
“Okay. We’re not too far away as it goes. Should be with you in ten minutes.”
As she was making the call, Edbert appeared on silent feet. Julia found she couldn’t begin to say what needed saying. Instead, she replayed the message on Cariad’s wristphone, holding it up so Edbert could see and hear. As the vile words finished, his whole body stiffened like a hunting dog scenting prey and he showed his teeth in a fierce grimace.
“Well,” he said, “we’re not having that are we?”
Hearing the message again made Julia nauseous, but she managed to dredge up a thread of voice. “No. We are not.”