Winner of the Dragonblade Publishing Writestuff Competition 2021.
OUT ON JANUARY 11th, 2022!
When I went to scatter my father’s ashes, I didn’t expect to get kidnapped.
On that chilly Sunday morning in November, I wanted to be alone for the last words I’d ever say to him. With Dad in my backpack, and leaving my boyfriend, Nathan, asleep in bed in our Glastonbury hotel, I climbed the steep path to the Tor.
In the half-light of early morning, thick mist lay over the town, and no one else was about. For miles around only the odd dark treetop and the tip of a church spire emerged from the sea of white.
Easy to see why some people believed this hill could have been part of Avalon, that mystical land King Arthur had vanished to after being mortally wounded in his last battle. My father had been one of those people.
Shouldering off my backpack, I pulled out Dad’s urn. It weighed surprisingly heavily in my hands for someone who’d only been skin and bone when he’d died. I stood him on the grass beside the roofless church tower.
“I wish Artie could be here, Dad.”
No answer, of course. My twin brother was on the far side of the world on a prolonged trip with his mates, and I’d have to imagine him here with me, spiritually, despite the fact he hadn’t made the effort to get back. Typical.
A bitter frost sparkled on the short grass. For a minute or two, I stood looking at the bleak hilltop, remembering the last time I’d been up here seventeen years ago. Artie and I were seven, our mother was already dying. Although being so young we weren’t aware of the limitation on our time with her. I remember it so well because it was the first time I saw the Fancy-Dress-Man.
The trees’ naked branches rattle in the wind beneath a dull grey sky. Damp cold penetrates to my very bones. My mother’s skin is parchment pale, her once glorious auburn hair wispy and colorless beneath her hand-knitted hat.
My father, over-enthusiastic as usual, expounds on the history of the Tor. He looks old, with his bush of grey hair, jutting eyebrows and thick-lensed spectacles. He’s a university professor and obsessive Arthurian scholar, which is how my brother and I have come to be called Arthur and Guinevere. Although my mother shortens those to Artie and Gwennie.
The hump of Glastonbury Tor rises out of the surrounding flat farmland, long since reclaimed from ancient marshes. Dad parks our Land Rover on a rutted grass verge, and we take the shortest route to the summit.
Artie and I run on ahead, our boots splashing through the puddles. We’re oblivious to the quiet suffering of our mother as she and our father slog along behind us. It’s a pilgrimage for them, as it will be the last time she sees the Tor. But to exuberant seven-year-olds, she just seems annoyingly slow.
We reach the summit together, well ahead of our parents. For a moment the gaunt outline of the tower holds me mesmerized, even though I’ve seen it countless times before. Artie and I have been visiting Glastonbury since just after we were born.
“Race you to the tower.” Artie gives me a backward push and sets off at a run. I sprint after him, but he’s long-legged and athletic and taller than I am, and besides, he’s given himself a cheating head start. He wins, of course. I pretend I haven’t been trying. We walk round to the far side of the tower and look out at the view over the Somerset Levels.
Voices carry on the wind. I peer through the arches of the tower. Our parents appear at the far end of the hilltop.
“Race you back.” Artie’s off again, legs hammering down the slight slope. This time I ignore him.
I’m alone. The wind blows through the empty shell of the tower. Below me, the town lies quiet. I turn on the spot, my short arms outstretched, my face uplifted to the slate grey sky overhead, eyes stretched wide to take it all in. Strands of my long chestnut hair whip across my cheeks.
Above the whistling of the wind, a faint musical note sounds. I close my eyes and open my ears. Such a sweet sound. To a seven-year-old brought up on bedtime tales of Celtic heroes it carries all the allure of fairyland. My lips curl in a smile. My small feet take tentative steps toward the sound.
I open my eyes. I’m standing inside the tower. The wicked wind has died to nothing. All I can hear is that single faint musical note. Beyond the stone arches the world has blurred out of focus, yet within, every stone is crystal clear. I turn around, pushing loose strands of my hair out of my eyes.
He’s standing watching me. A man in strange old-fashioned clothing. Immediately in my head I dub him the Fancy-Dress-Man. He’s tall and slim and as out of place as a hawk on a garden bird table. His clothes remind me of a picture of the Pied Piper of Hamelin in one of my books. A long russet cloak hangs below his knees. I’m not afraid.
He smiles at me, dark eyes crinkling in a thin, tanned face. His shoulder-length hair’s a darker shade of brown, his clothes like autumn leaves. I smile back, just a little shyly.
He extends a hand. Something sparkles in it. Without thinking, I reach for what he offers. My fingers close over warm metal. It shimmers like solid gold. He releases his hold, and I look down in curiosity.
Heavy in my hand lies an open-ended gold bracelet, at each end an intricately worked dragon’s head. It takes my breath away. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.
I lift my eyes, words of surprise and, I like to think, of thanks on my lips. But he’s gone. The wind whistles through the tower again and my parents approach up the grassy slope, Artie between them. I’ve never felt more alone.
What a fuss this causes.
There’s nothing secretive about me at seven, and the first thing I do is show my parents, proudly, what I’ve been given.
“The Fancy-Dress-Man gave it to me,” sounds feeble, even though it’s true.
Artie goes green with envy and runs off round the tower looking for the Fancy-Dress-Man until our father brings him back and anchors him down with a firm grip on his hand.
“A stranger?” my mother asks, rising panic in her voice, her sunken eyes darting over the empty hilltop but finding nothing.
“Haven’t we always told you never to talk to strangers?” Every father would say the same.
My mother goes to the brow of the hill and looks down the path to the town. She shakes her head. Artie tries to free himself from our father’s iron grasp and can’t. He whines his hand is hurting.
My mother comes back, and my father holds out his hand for the bracelet.
I hesitate. I don’t want to let it go. It’s mine. The Fancy-Dress-Man gave it to me. I’ve seen the kindness in his dark eyes, telling me the gift is meant for me alone. My jaw juts in rebellion. I’m angry that my parents think differently.
“Let me see it,” my father says.
With great reluctance I hand it over. Immediately, I feel naked without it, my hand where it nestled warm against my palm, cold and lost. A tear sneaks its way out of the corner of my eye and runs down my cheek.
“Look at the work on the dragon head terminals. This is exquisite craftsmanship. It’s old, very old.”
“It’s mine,” I say tearfully. “The Fancy-Dress-Man gave it me.”
My mother’s gloved hand, tight around mine, reassures rather than admonishes. “Of course it’s yours.” There’s strain in her voice and an unhealthy flush to her thin cheeks. “You shall have it as soon as Daddy has taken a good look at it.”
And so I do eventually, after my father has completed his research and shown it to his fellow Dark Age scholars. He never tells me what he’s concluded, and I never ask. It’s enough that it’s mine again, my present from the Fancy-Dress-Man.
Too big for my wrist for years, I keep it in the little wooden jewelry chest my mother gives me before she dies. I have her to thank for it. She insists my father let me keep it, so it’s a present from her as well as the Fancy-Dress-Man.
That isn’t to be the only time I see him, though.
Roused from my reverie, I stroked the warm gold of the bracelet and it chased away the cold.
“Well, I can’t stand here all day reminiscing,” I said to Dad’s urn, “or someone’s likely to come up the hill, and then I won’t be able to scatter you.”
I bent and picked him up, the feeling strong that he was here, in this urn, still with me.
I unscrewed the top. This was something I’d vowed to do – something I’d promised Artie. I swallowed the lump that threatened to rise in my throat and walked the few steps to the brow of the hill.
I cleared my throat. “Dad.” My voice cracked with emotion, “I’ve brought you here, like you wanted. You’ll always be a part of Glastonbury now. You’ll be here for all eternity…” My voice trailed off. Shimmering through the cold air came a musical note, high and pure and lovely. It felt like a salutation to my father. More tears trickled down my cheeks.
No way would I let it interrupt me. “I’ll never forget you. You were the best dad ever. I know you’re with Mum now, and one day Artie and I will see you again. I love you, Dad.” I upended the urn. A sudden breeze took the ashes, spreading them across the hillside like fine snow.
The musical note swelled. Was I just overcome with the emotion of the moment and imagining it? Or was the Fancy-Dress-Man up here too, stalking me when I most wanted to be alone? Indignation welled up in me at the thought.
Because that’s what I half-believed he was. A stalker.
The summer after our thirteenth birthday, Artie and I miss the last two weeks of school to go on a dig with Dad at Glastonbury Abbey. Piled into our Land Rover amidst all the paraphernalia of archaeology, we travel from our Berkshire home and set up camp in a couple of ridge pole tents on site.
Like dutiful little budding archaeologists, Artie and I set to with the mix of students and volunteers to scrape away, millimeter by millimeter, the layers of soil in the trenches that have been opened.
The end of the summer holidays arrives, and we only have a few days left on the dig. It’s evening. Everyone else has gone home or to the pub. I sit outside my tent twirling my gold bracelet in my fingers. Under my touch, the warm metal throbs with heat and for the first time in years I think about the Fancy-Dress-Man.
From where I’m sitting, the taped off area of the dig lies between me and the deserted abbey ruins. A slight movement, glimpsed from the corner of my eye, draws my gaze, and I turn my head. A faint ringing starts. Just beyond the far tape barrier stands a lone figure. A man, in tunic, trousers and a long cloak – fancy dress.
Memories come flooding back to me as clear as though they happened yesterday, memories I didn’t know I still had.
The bracelet burns hot against my skin as though it, too, recognizes him. I remember the earthy shades of his clothing, the russet cloak, the soft brown boots splattered with dried mud. For a long minute his dark eyes hold mine across an acre of open ground, and then he turns toward the path up to the Tor.
Without thinking, I follow him.
On a warm summer’s evening, to encounter not a single other person on the Tor path is strange. Ahead of me the Fancy-Dress-Man, his russet cloak swishing, strides always out of reach, no matter how I hurry.
It’s quiet, too. No noise penetrates from the town. I’m inside a bubble of silence broken only by the lonely cries of a colony of rooks in the treetops.
Emerging from the trees, I spot him above me on the summit, silhouetted against the evening sky. I hurry. He turns away, vanishing from sight over the brow. I want to shout “wait for me” but can’t find my voice.
Out of breath, I reach the top of the hill. And there he is, leaning against the wall of the tower.
I approach in curiosity. In the background the thrumming musical note I remember from our first encounter swells to fill the air.
“Who are you?” I ask, my hand automatically going to the hot bracelet on my wrist.
I’m up close now. He smiles, and his eyes crinkle just as I remember, and I can’t be afraid of him. But now I look at him with more interest than I did as a seven-year-old. Brown wavy hair reaches his shoulders and a shadow of stubble covers his chin.
“A friend.” There’s a lilt to his voice that’s pleasant and reassuring. Like no voice I’ve heard before. A voice for reciting poetry.
“Why are you watching me?” I’m still unafraid, despite the fact that I’m alone with a strange man.
He tilts his head to one side. His face is unlined yet full of wisdom.
“To make sure you’re safe.”
“That’s a funny answer. Why wouldn’t I be safe? I’m with my dad.”
“Not now you’re not.”
I frown. “That’s because I followed you.”
He grins. “How do you know you’re safe then?”
Of course, I don’t. Any amount of danger might be lurking. He can’t be the source of it though, because for some reason I know he means me no harm.
A different tack is needed. “What d’you want? Why me? Why do I need a guardian angel?”
This makes him laugh out loud. “No one’s ever called me that before.”
I scowl. I don’t like being laughed at. “Why me?”
He doesn’t answer but indicates the bracelet on my wrist with a nod of his head. “I’m glad to see your mother let you wear it. Keep it on. Never take it off. It’s your protection when I’m not here.”
With all the wisdom of my thirteen years it begins to dawn on me that he might just be a teeny bit nutty. After all, this is Glastonbury, and he’s wearing fancy-dress as though he’s off to a party or is maybe an actor playing a part. But there’s also something deep within my mind that urges me to believe him.
“My mother’s dead.” It’s a ploy I’ve used a number of times to put people on the back foot. It usually works a treat.
It doesn’t with him. He just nods. “I know.”
“How do you know? How do you know me? Are you a stalker?”
He holds his hand up to silence me. “Your name is Guinevere. You’re thirteen years old. Your father is Professor Andrew Fry. Your twin brother is Arthur Fry. Your mother Alison died when you were eight.”
“You are a stalker.” I’m still not afraid, even though he knows so much about me, but I take a wary step back, just the same.
“I’m here to keep you safe. You’re not ready yet. Go back now to your father and brother. Never take your bracelet off. Others seek you. One day we’ll meet again.”
He straightens up from where he’s been leaning against the wall and steps inside the ruined tower. I follow him, to have it out. He hasn’t answered my questions properly at all. He’s only left me with more, and I’m angry.
The tower is empty.
The memory blew away.
My father’s ashes settled, leaving the air empty once again, but the musical note continued. I put the open urn beside my backpack and walked around the tower, half expecting to find the Fancy-Dress-Man lurking there, intruding on my grief.
Not a soul. I surveyed the frosty hillside in every direction. Still no one. Yet that musical note swelled until it filled the crisp, early morning air.
“I know you’re here.” My voice sounded small and lost in the stillness of the morning. Anger made me bold. “Come out right now.”
Nothing. I walked around the tower again, then paused and looked inside. Low sunlight slanted across the uneven paving slabs, but it seemed as empty as everywhere else. Or was it?
Something shone on the ground in one corner.
I stepped inside. The note, loud in my ears, rose to a crescendo. A ring. Lying on the flagstones.
I took another step. The morning sun filled the ancient building, bouncing off the uneven walls, magnified so much I had to screw up my eyes against the glare. On the floor at my feet, the ring shone as though a star had fallen from the sky. The musical note rose. I bent, reaching for the ring. It looked like solid gold, with a dragon, like the ones on my bracelet, carved on its face. My outstretched fingers touched it. A powerful force yanked me forwards and I fell, arms outstretched, fingers clenched tight around the ring. The sunlight vanished, and the stone walls of the tower melted away as bright lights exploded in my head. Air rushed past my ears, and a high-pitched wailing joined the musical note. It might have been me making it.