Winner of the Dragonblade Publishing Writestuff Competition 2021.
OUT ON JANUARY 11th, 2022!
Prequel to Guinevere: The Dragon Ring
The Calm Before the Storm
My boyfriend Nathan dumped our bags on the carpet in front of the hotel reception desk. “We’ve got a room booked.”
The girl behind the desk, who’d been studiously filing her nails, gave us a vacuous stare.
Nathan sighed. “In the name of Wilton.”
Despite being no more than seventeen, the girl had clearly spent a good part of her morning daubing makeup on, particularly around her eyes. Cleopatra would have been impressed. She laid her nail file down on the crumb-covered desk as though doing us an enormous favour, and peered at the computer screen like a myopic owl. Maybe if she removed some of that mascara, she might be able to see better.
With fingers hampered by the length of her shiny pink nails, she hit a few buttons, heaved a bored sigh and nodded. “Room 205, second floor.” She possessed a strong west country burr. “Up those stairs and turn right. Keep goin’ to the end.”
A rummage under the desk produced a key with a large plastic fob attached, which she handed over as though we’d asked her to pass a dog poo. Her other hand crept back longingly towards the nail file.
I picked up the key, and Nathan shouldered our bags again, one of which contained my father’s ashes.
Room 205 turned out to be pretty average, but then, we hadn’t paid much for it. A last minute deal. Your dad dying doesn’t usually come as a planned event.
A king-size bed, built-in bedside tables, a TV, and a kettle with a tray of the usual teabags, instant coffee tubes and UHT milk containers. Better than a tent, though, which was the kind of Glastonbury accommodation I’d been used to when in Dad’s company. I’d gone up in the world since I’d met Nathan.
I sat down on the bed and watched him dump our bags on the floor. His thick, sandy brown hair fell forward over his face as he bent over, and when he straightened up he put up a hand in a familiar gesture to push it out of his eyes. My heart did a little skip. We’d been together since my last year at university, but I still hadn’t quite got used to him loving me. Not that he ever told me he did.
I smiled. “Thanks.”
“For being you and understanding that I have to do this.”
He sat down on the chair in front of the dressing table, long, jean-clad legs splayed. “Gwe-en.” He stretched my name out, making it sound reproachful. “Honestly. How could I not? He was your father. How could we not do what he wanted?” He paused, leaning the chair precariously back onto only two of its legs. “Although I still think you should have waited for Artie to come home.”
I folded my arms. “If he didn’t come when Dad was ill, or for the funeral, do you really think he’d come back from the other side of the world to scatter Dad’s ashes?”
He shrugged. “Maybe not. But he’s still your brother. Your twin. I always thought twins were closer than you two seem to be.”
I pursed my lips. Today was not the day to discuss my ne’er-do-well brother.
I turned the conversation away from Artie. “I’m just pleased you came with me, even though you’re so busy with work. It’s a long way to come for a weekend.”
Was that a dismissive grin?
“Just a hop skip and a jump. And nice to be away from work for a while.” He chuckled. “From marking terrible essays. And a good excuse for a weekend away with the girl of my dreams.”
His words warmed my heart, and I smiled. “I do love you.”
“Ditto.” He picked up my bag again and put it beside me on the bed. “Better get the old guy out and stand him on the side, don’t you think? Don’t want him spilling all over your undies.”
Maybe a joke too far. Nathan could sometimes be a little insensitive, in sharp contrast to his occasional moments of caring.
Dad’s urn came out of my bag. It weighed surprisingly heavy in my hands. I set it on the side between the TV and the kettle. I’d chosen him an attractive urn – a bit Grecian. He’d have liked that.
Nathan’s turn to sit on the bed. “I could murder a cuppa. D’you want to put the kettle on?”
While it boiled, I stood looking out of the window. Across the dismal, clustered buildings of the town of Glastonbury, the familiar hump of the Tor rose out of the bare treetops, dominating everything, the ruined church tower on its summit pointing skywards like a jagged finger.
By the tower, I could just make out the silhouettes of half-a-dozen tiny figures. It was going to be hard to find a moment to scatter my father’s ashes up there with no-one else around.
We drank the tea and ate tasteless biscuits that came in little plastic wrappers. Then we kicked off our shoes and lay back on the bed, tired from the stressful drive down from the north. Nathan put his arm around me, and I snuggled in close and closed my eyes.
I woke in the late afternoon. Outside, the cloud-veiled sun must have already sunk low in the sky, and twilight would soon be upon us. Leaving Nathan lying on the bed, I went to the window. “I can see the abbey ruins from here. You’ll love them. They were my father’s second favourite place here in Glastonbury. After the Tor, of course.” I turned to face him. “Come on. Get up. If we hurry, I’ll have time to give you the tour.”
With a groan, Nathan rolled off the bed and stood up, hair tousled. “If you insist, although I can think of something better to do.” He caught my hand and pulled me into his arms. “Right here.”
I wriggled free and shook my head. “No, definitely not here. Not with Dad sitting on the dressing table in his urn…watching. Let’s go.”
It wasn’t far to the abbey ruins. A notice outside announced the opening hours. Enough time to take a quick look at everything before it closed. We paid our money in the little shop and, hand-in-hand, entered the grounds.
I’d been so many times with my father, I’d lost count. I knew the towering ruins and wide lawns like the back of my hand. But Nathan was from Yorkshire and had never been before, so I was looking forward to explaining it all.
Together, we explored the transept and the chapels, the once tiled floors all grassed over now. Then I took him into the Abbot’s kitchen, which, as it had been used to store all the looted treasure at the Dissolution, was the only building still boasting a roof.
Lastly, he took my photo beside what remained of the supposed tomb of King Arthur and his queen. Just a simple plaque on the ground nowadays.
I took his hand, our fingers intertwining. “Back in the twelfth century, the old church burnt down. It was going to cost the monks a fortune to rebuild.”
My father had loved this story. “It was the age of pilgrimages to holy places that owned relics. The monks wanted something good to attract their own pilgrims – and money, of course.” I squinted up at him. “Local legend, or maybe a monk or two, had claimed Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon for a long time. I guess the monks thought why not go the whole hog and claim they’d found King Arthur’s grave?”
He snorted. “Medieval conmen?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Who knows? Before the Somerset Levels were drained, Glastonbury really was an island in a huge expanse of watery marshes, so it fitted the description.”
I waved my arm. “And this whole place is full of legends. You can still see the thorn tree that’s supposed to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. He’s said to have come here in the years after the crucifixion.”
Nathan snorted again in disbelief. As an atheist, he didn’t care a jot for anything to do with religion. Only the historicity of religious sites interested him.
“Don’t mock,” I reproached. “The people who came here on pilgrimage really believed this stuff. A lot of people still do.”
Another derisive snort. “I like to know the history, not the legends.”
“Okay. They were rebuilding the abbey when they found the grave. They dug a bloody deep hole, which in itself was a bit odd, Dad always said.”
For a brief moment, Dad stood before me, expounding his theory that somehow, they’d known where to dig and what they’d find, and that it had nothing to do with King Arthur or his legendary queen. Tall and thin, with a bush of unruly grey hair in a fuzz like a dandelion clock and round spectacles on the end of his long nose, he waved his arms about as he spoke at the speed of an express train.
How I missed him.
No. I wouldn’t dwell on this. I drew in a deep breath. “They found two bodies in the hole, of an enormous man and a woman. They reburied them right here.” I tapped the plaque with my booted foot. “But the tombs were destroyed during the Reformation, and the bones, whoever they’d belonged to, were lost.” A shame. What would modern DNA testing have been able to tell us?
“They found a cross with them, but that’s also handily been lost for centuries. It’s supposed to have been inscribed with the words ‘hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex arturius in insula avalonia.”
As an ex-public schoolboy, he knew his Latin. “Here lies buried the renowned king Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.”
I nodded. “Dad always said it was nothing but a giant hoax, but it worked. People believed the monks’ story, and pilgrims came. The abbey made pots of money and was famous as the last resting place of King Arthur. It finished up as the richest abbey in England, come the Dissolution. Bit of a mixed blessing. No wonder Henry VIII coveted its riches.”
I turned away from the plain slab in the grass, staring up at the towering ruins of the abbey church. What must this lonely, haunted place have looked like when those henchmen of Henry’s arrived to loot it? But I hadn’t come here to think about Henry, or even Arthur. No, I was here for my father, on my own pilgrimage.
Nathan spun slowly on his heel, smirking. “How did all those pilgrims equate a grave they could visit with the story that Arthur wasn’t really dead and would come again in Britain’s hour of need?”
I shrugged. “No idea. Dad said it was an attempt to prove to ordinary people that he wasn’t coming back. Just in case the Welsh had any ideas of an uprising in his name.”
We wandered away from the grave site. The sinking sun, peeking from behind the clouds at last, cast the long, dark shadows of the ruins across the neatly clipped grass. The handful of people still here were heading back towards the gates.
For a few moments, we stood alone in the quiet abbey grounds. No sound of town traffic, just a light wind sending a flurry of damp autumn leaves gusting across the lawns. We could almost have been in another time.
“Come on,” Nathan said, grabbing my hand. “I’m starving. I spotted an Indian restaurant on the high street when we walked down here.”
The spell was broken. The sounds of the busy town pressed in on me, suddenly loud. I let Nathan lead me out of the abbey grounds and into the street.
I’d already decided that the time to scatter my father’s ashes was early on Sunday morning, so we had Saturday to ourselves, and there was somewhere else I wanted to take Nathan to see. Another pilgrimage for me. South Cadbury Castle.
My father had never been on a dig there, but he’d taken Artie and me to see it so many times I could have walked around it blindfolded and still known where I was. It’s a good ten miles from Glastonbury and not far from the busy dual carriageway of the A303. A little carpark sits beside a farm, and a short walk along a quiet lane takes you to the stony track that climbs steeply through the woods to the ancient hillfort on the summit.
“Not a castle then?” Nathan asked, as we started up the track.
I shook my head. “It’s an iron age hillfort. Four massive banks and ditches with a palisade wall on the top. Not now, of course. Only the banks left. Look.”
He followed my pointing finger, peering at the heavily wooded hillside. “What makes you think it’s Arthurian?”
“An old local legend said it was. That was why they decided to excavate.” I beamed, triumphant. “And they found it had been refortified at exactly the right time to have been Arthur’s stronghold.”
Nathan gazed uphill. “I can see why it would be a good place to choose as a stronghold. Any soldier having to slog up this hill would be good for nothing by the time he got to the top.”
True. The hill path was steep, and at this time of year the going less than good. The run off from a recent downpour had scoured the path, revealing its uneven, rocky bed. Overhead, a rising wind, heavy with the threat of rain, rattled the branches of the beech trees.
I paused for a breather at the kissing gate. “Whatever you believe, someone took the trouble to man it with soldiers – a lot of soldiers in fact – during the Dark Ages. Why shouldn’t he have been called King Arthur?”
Leaning on the gate, Nathan laughed. “But King Arthur’s just a myth. A story with no basis in fact. There’s really nothing concrete to prove he ever existed, or even someone like him. I hate to have to disillusion you, Gwen, but he’s next best thing to a fairy tale.”
I bristled. This was tantamount to rubbishing all my father’s work.
“But there’s nothing to prove he didn’t exist,” I retorted, using an argument I’d heard my father proffer on numerous occasions. He’d been a scholar and an archaeologist who’d worked with ancient manuscripts as well as solid facts grubbed out of the ground.
But he’d had imagination, and he’d been absolutely certain that once, fifteen hundred or so years ago, a king who might have been named Arthur had existed. A king who’d briefly held the Anglo Saxons at bay, and whose legacy was the stories we knew today, greatly evolved, like Chinese whispers, but grounded in fact.
Nathan gave a snort of derision. “Yeah, how likely is that?”
“I don’t care what you think,” I said firmly. “My father was absolutely certain this was Camelot.”
I was just a bit annoyed with Nathan’s scepticism. I’d been looking forward to showing him the hillfort, and his reaction had made me feel cheated.
That annoyed me some more. I’d been willing to share the territory of my childhood with him, and now it felt as if he were poking fun.
When I was little, Artie and I had played up here on the grassy ramparts while our father and his students had gone marching off discussing the archaeology of the place. We’d truly been Arthur and Guinevere, our namesakes, then, him with his wooden sword, me with my anorak tied around my waist pretending it was a long skirt. There’d been dragons too, on Artie’s insistence, because what decent fairy story doesn’t have a dragon for the hero to kill?
If I closed my eyes and listened hard, I could almost hear our childish laughter echoing around the hill’s wooded embankments, as we raced between the trees on imaginary horses.
I pushed open the kissing gate and squeezed through the narrow gap. Ahead, open sky beckoned, drawing me on. Ignoring Nathan, I strode up the stony track.
Where the topmost rampart began, the woodland ended, and the bank ran away to left and right. The vast interior of the fortress rose gently to a highpoint in the centre where once the great hall would have stood.
I stood still, breathing in the damp air, the wind lifting my long hair and blowing it out behind me. The ancient magic of the place vibrated up from the ground beneath my feet.
Nathan came up beside me and took my cold hand in his warm one.
“I didn’t mean to belittle your father’s beliefs,” he said. “This is an amazing place. Even I can feel it.”
I managed a smile, but the lurking feeling that he’d been mocking my father remained.
We walked clockwise around the ramparts. To the north stretched the plain of Somerset – the Levels, drained now, but in the distant past, when this fortress was in its heyday, mile after mile of impassable wetlands. A steep climb led us back towards where we’d walked up.
Still visible in the grassy bank to our left, the remains of stone walls peeked from their earthen cloak, a secretive last remnant of the hillfort’s military past. Nathan bent to examine the stones in closer detail, digging at the soil to expose more of the wall with the penknife he always carried.
Leaving him to his makeshift excavation, I turned away, my gaze drawn to the centre of the fortress, where my father’s words had once painted the great hall in all its splendour.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and my ears pricked. A faint musical note hung on the wintry air, rising steadily. I stared. A tall man stood on the brow, silhouetted against the wild grey sky. His long cloak billowed in the wind.
I stood transfixed, as the musical note went on rising, impossibly high.
“Nathan.” I half-turned and grabbed his arm, pulling him upright. “Who’s that?”
Nathan looked where I was pointing.
The hilltop was empty.
“He must have ducked down,” I gabbled. “He was there on the top. A man wearing a cloak. Who the heck wears a cloak nowadays?” My voice rose.
“We’ll soon see about that.” Nathan loped up the slope with his long, rugby player’s gait, and I scuttled after him. He reached the summit ahead of me and stood staring around, a puzzled frown on his face.
I halted beside him and surveyed the view. The hill was quite empty. There was only us, alone on the summit near a very solid looking circular stone panorama table. Nowhere for anyone to have gone.
Nathan spun on his heel. “No one here.”
“But I did see someone. A man in a cloak.”
With a theatrical, resigned shrug, Nathan looked behind the panorama table. “Nothing.”
He came back, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Are you sure you saw someone? No one can run that fast.” A hint of that mockery I’d sensed before.
Could I have imagined it?
“I’m certain,” I muttered, uncertainly. “I couldn’t have imagined him. I saw his cloak billow in the wind. There was definitely a man up here. He must be hiding somewhere.” Was I trying to convince myself?
“Well, he’s not here now. And those rainclouds are rolling in fast. We’d better get back to the car. If he’s hiding up here, then he’s going to get wet. That’ll teach him. Come on.”
We hurried down the track, racing the rain, which started with a few drops as we reached the road and unleashed a curtain of water as we dived laughing into the car, the strange man in the cloak forgotten.
That evening we ate in one of the town pubs and talked about Christmas, which wasn’t far off. Anything but talk about my father. Or about the man I’d seen on South Cadbury.
After coffee, we walked back, arm-in-arm, through the rainwashed lamplit streets to our hotel, a nearly full moon shining in the dark sky. The rain had vanished and our breath made statues in the air. Tomorrow there’d be a frost.
From the road outside the hotel porch, I gazed up at the Tor’s shadowy shape, black against the inky, star-speckled sky. “Tomorrow morning really early, I’ll scatter his ashes.” I glanced up at Nathan. “But I’d like to do it on my own. With any luck I’ll have the hilltop to myself at that time. Going alone feels right. I want it to be just me and him.”
Was that relief in his eyes? “If you’re sure.” He put his arm around my shoulders, holding me close. “I’ll keep the bed warm for you, and when you get back, you can get in and I’ll warm you up.”
I turned in his arms so I was facing him. “Thank you for understanding.” I touched his cold, bristly cheek. “I appreciate that.” On tiptoes, I kissed him lightly. His arms tightened around me, as he kissed me back. When we parted, I rested my head on his chest as we stood on the cold wet road that sparkled in the street lights like fairyland. I felt very peaceful.
The calm before the storm.