Towns and cities passed by, like pestilence ships in the night, but Val never saw any signs or markers to indicate where they were going. She didn’t care.
Nobody bothered her on the train, even though they had now been heading south for a day and a half. Nobody asked to see her ticket and the other passengers on the train ignored her. The train had stopped at many stations on the way, sometimes for hours at a time, but she didn't move. At times, it felt like it was doubling back somewhere across the Paris countryside, she couldn't follow the train's path at all. But she didn't move.
At one point, she opened her eyes and saw the train was empty and she knew she was the only living soul on board, but then she blinked, and the train was full of people – old lovers, young parents and sullen teenagers – all ignoring her and living their own lives.
It wasn’t getting any better. She thought if she just got away from N'buli as fast as she could, then they wouldn’t bother with her. But they wouldn’t let her go. If anything, the voices in her skull were getting louder, and the memories of her deeds were only getting more painful.
And now she was starting to think the train was talking to her. The rhythmic throbbing and pulsing of the train was beginning to sound like words, like somebody was trying to tell her something
She shut it out. She shut it all out again and again and again.
But by the end of the second night on the train, she couldn’t take it any more. The train wasn’t talking to her, it was crying – huge, wailing sobs of despair. The other passengers on the train weren’t innocent people going about their own business – they were all out to get her and destroy all that was good in the world. And the train wasn’t taking her away from N'buli – it was taking her straight to her own damnation.
'No,' whispered Val through gritted teeth.
For the first time in two days, she stood up and walked away from her seat. It was late in the night, and the rest of the passengers were all sleeping, and nobody took any notice of her as she walked to the end of the carriage.
Stepping into the space between carriages, she moved to the nearest exit and wrenched open the door. The train was travelling at a fast pace, and she was almost knocked back by the force of wind pushing through the open door, but she didn’t let that stop and stepped forward.
'No!' cried an oddly familiar woman’s voice behind her. 'Don’t jump!'
This new voice was almost enough to give her second thoughts, but her momentum meant she couldn’t stop now and she jumped out from the train, into the dark night.
Val hit the ground hard and wrenched something in her shoulder. It flamed in pain as she rolled down a grassy embankment and skidded out onto a gravel road. She bit down on the pain and automatically made a wound assessment – she was bruised, cut and torn, but there was nothing broken.
She got to her feet and looked around. The train had passed on and it was absolutely silent. She was somewhere out in the country, and it was almost pitch dark. She could just make out the gravel road in the pale starlight. Picking a direction, she limped away.
N'buli fumbled with the map as they travelled deeper into Polish forests, but couldn’t understand a single thing.
'I told you we should have got a GPS!' snarled Max.
Val ended up stumbling off the gravel path and after falling over a couple of short fences, she found herself wandering through open fields.
Dawn was coming and she was walking towards the new day. The voices in her head had subsided in the country air and she finally managed to clear her mind as she walked.
The long grass beneath her feet was heavy with dew, and she could hear mice and rabbits in the wild. Apart from a few owls that hovered far overhead, the rest of the world was asleep, even though the sky was starting to bruise in a dull morning light.
As she walked, she realised there was somebody behind her, someone who had been following her since the train. Whoever it was, they were keeping well back, but even after all she had been through, even after all she was still going through, Valentina Nabokov knew when the hunt was on.
And then there was somebody standing right in front of her, somebody who was dressed in painfully tasteful overalls. Someone with a big smile who took a bigger bite out of an apple and crunched it enthusiastically.
'Well,' said Mrs Goodson, talking with her mouth full of apple. 'Isn’t this going to be a beautiful morning?'
Val’s eyes narrowed three millimetres.
Mrs Goodson didn’t notice and she kept talking and carried on eating her apple as she walked around the field. 'It’s always fascinating to see where you jump off, but you couldn’t pick a more fitting region.'
She gestured towards the east, where there was now some faint orange light. 'Over there, somewhere, is the village of Rennes-le-Château, and this entire area is steeped in history and mystery, going back to the earliest days of man. Poor old Bérenger – he accidentally found the secret name of God in these fields, and we had to shut him up again.'
Val didn’t know what Mrs Goodson was talking about, and didn’t really care. Her hands curled up into tight fists.
Mrs Goodson didn’t stop talking. 'There are all sorts of legends about Templars and all that, from legends and whispers that are a thousand years old, but it goes back further than that. There used to be woods here, and that’s where we first talked to men, before there were any villages, anywhere.'
All the voices in Val’s head were drowned out by her own burning rage and she couldn’t contain it any longer. She lunged at Mrs Goodson, screaming, trying to rip out the housewife’s eyes, but Mrs Goodson just stepped out of the way, still talking.
'All those years, and nothing beats the anger of a mourning mother. I keep telling my boys that, but I don’t think they ever really listen to me.'
Val was screaming, howling in wordless rage and drowning out the sound of Mrs Goodson’s voice. She kept trying to hit her and kick her and hurt her in any way possible, but Mrs Goodson kept stepping just out of range, avoiding all of Val’s attempts with little effort.
She kept trying, but Mrs Goodson just turned around and somehow swept her legs out from under her, and Val went down hard. She fell flat on her back and in the brief moment she was winded on the ground, Mrs Goodson got her foot on Val’s throat and held it there firmly.
'I’m so sorry we had to do what we did, Val,' said Mrs Goodson, as if she really meant it. 'But it will all work out in the end, I promise.'
Val tried to struggle free, but could barely move. But she could see behind Mrs Goodson and saw a third person closing in out of the early morning gloom.
Mrs Goodson was so busy studying Val’s face that she didn’t see it coming. The new arrival came in at a run with a metal baton in her hand, which she slammed into Mrs Goodson left knee from behind. The housewife buckled over in pain and her attacker caught her in the face with the backswing of her baton, sending her sprawling back onto the wet grass.
Val got up on one elbow and got her first good look at her rescuer. 'Sonya?'
Sonya had looked so serious when Val had last seen her in Luxor, but now her smile was brighter than the dawn. She leaned over and held out her hand. 'Hello, Val. Are you all right?'
Val took the offered hand and got to her feet. 'I don’t understand. What are you doing here?'
Sonya shrugged. 'N'buli called me and asked me to watch out for you. He gave me the number of some woman called Snark, who helped me track you down. We worked out which direction you were heading in and I found you on the train when it stopped in Lyon, and have been shadowing you ever since.'
Val was about to ask another question when she saw Mrs Goodson getting slowly to her feet, groaning softly and limping on her injured leg as she wiped the blood away from her nose.
'There really wasn’t any need for that,' she said to Sonya. 'Violence is a male tool.'
Sonya sneered at her. 'That’s what males keep telling me.'
She moved in to take another swipe at Mrs Goodson, but the housewife was ready for her this time and easily ducked the swinging baton, catching Sonya by the wrist and twisting the weapon out of her hand.
'Now, dear, I really don’t think-'
She never got to finish her sentence, as Val stepped in and punched her in the stomach. Mrs Goodson doubled over and Val slammed her knee into Mrs Goodson’s chin, sending her falling to the grass again.
Val turned back to Sonya. 'She's right. Violence is a man’s tool, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use it too. But what makes you think I need any help?'
Sonya smiled with genuine compassion. 'Don’t give me that, N'buli told me about your son, and I saw you on the train. You’re a mess.'
'I was a mess,' said Val. 'I’m better now.'
As she said the words, Val knew they weren’t just empty bravado. The voices in her head had stopped whispering, and even the crushing guilt she had felt over Stevie’s death had subsided. She didn’t know what Mrs Goodson had hoped to accomplish by showing up in the French field, but she had given Val something to focus on, and when she was focused, there was nothing else in the world.
Mrs Goodson started laughing with an edge of slight hysteria, but didn’t get up from where she lay on the ground. 'Oh Val,' she said. 'That was the whole point.'
Val turned to her with fury in her eyes. 'What do you mean, bitch?'
One moment Mrs Goodson was lying on the ground, bloody and beaten, the next she was standing up again, with no sign of her injuries. Val never saw her move. 'We’re not here to hurt you, Val. There will always be sacrifices, but we’re not out to hurt anybody.'
The rage was building to a fever pitch in Val’s mind again. 'Stevie was not a sacrifice! He was my son!'
She attacked Mrs Goodson again, but the housewife easily blocked all of her blows. Sonya joined in and tried to take out Mrs Goodson’s left leg, only to find her target slipping away.
All of Mrs Goodson’s moves – as slick as they were – were purely defensive. She made no move towards attacking the other two women, just blocked, avoided and slipped away from all of their attacks.
This carried on for some time in the silence of the early dawn, witnessed only by a few sheep in the neighbouring field, until Mrs Goodson twisted around to face west, and held her hands out to her side, palm upwards. Val and Sonya both moved in to take advantage of her sudden stillness, but were both blinded by the first true rays of the morning sun, which appeared over the horizon behind Mrs Goodson.
Val tired to press the attack, but all she could see was the blinding light, and she could hear Mrs Goodson’s voice emanating from the centre of it.
'This was all part of the plan, girls. It all works out okay in the end.'
The light intensified and Val could feel it burning away the worst of her grief for her lost son, and all of the rage she felt over it.
And then the light faded, just enough for Val to see, but Mrs Goodson was gone, as if she had been swallowed up by the glare. Val and Sonya were alone in the field.
'Where did she go?' asked Sonya.
Val didn’t reply, she just frowned and rubbed her forehead, feeling as if something that had been pressing down on her face was suddenly gone.
Sonya moved to her side and put her hand on Val’s shoulder. 'Are you okay?'
Val took her hand away from her face, and smiled wearily. 'I need a phone.'
'I need to call my husband, and tell him everything is okay.'
'Right.' Sonya looked around the open fields and pointed east. 'Didn’t she say there was a village or something down there? We could sort it out there.'
'Sounds like a plan,' said Val, walking off in that direction.
Sonya had to jog to catch up. 'And then what?'
'What?' said Val, not breaking her stride.
'What do we do after you have your phone call?'
As she walked, Val watched the sun finally fully rise, bathing the countryside in light. 'We help our friend save the world, of course.'