Avalon

 

Evening

“For Queen and country! Gloriana, Albion and St. Edmund!”

The Red Cross Knight raised his sword to the skies, and called out his battle-cry. At the other side of the skiff, facing him across the central space where the simple square-rigged mast was stepped, Celia sat, and considered.

The knight had knelt before her in the abbey courtyard, that self-same blade that now reflected the late sunshine almost blinding in the forenoon radiance as he held it out on his mail-gloved palms. It was clearly a working weapon, the edge, though ground sharp, was slightly ragged, like some of the full-metal re-enactors' swords she had seen at gaming conventions, nicked and notched by clashes with armour. Unlike the facsimiles, the almost just for show blades ground like carving knives from a simple slab of steel, under its lacework of engraving, and in the deep blood-gutters, on this one she could see the swirling twists of light and darker phases of steel of a proper composite construction.

Nonplussed for a moment, she knew something would be expected of her. Slipping her bracelet down to her knuckles, she unclasped it enough to pass over her thumb. Holding it secure around her palm, she passed her hand palm-down along the length of the blade, as if to magnetise it with the bracelet's magic.

That was clearly the sort of thing that had been looked for, as the Knight's reverent expression showed. And though the sunlight made it hard to tell, had there been some glimmer of another glow that briefly limned the sword's edge? She took it in her stride. Always stay calm when the punters expect you to know what you're doing, even when it's a big bluff. It had worked as a rule of thumb for her security work, whenever she was having to proceed by intuition.

Now she just had to figure out what exactly it was she had achieved. Not whatever magic it was she might or might not have done, but what it had done to how she was perceived.

The knight stood, sheathed the sword with a rasping of metal on metal, as the nuns took hesitant steps back. Joining in the mass shuffling, Celia noted, from the corner of her eye. that the Abbess was looking at her somewhat askance, but this was not a suitable time for questions.

“I thank your ladyship. And now we must ride. The Queen awaits!”

“Sir Knight, I must protest!” The Abbess was trying to regain control of the situation. “The Lady of the Mark is lodged as our guest by one of the Sisters of the Moon. We may not simply surrender her.”

“Then I shall answer to the Sisters as they please, for else I shall certainly answer to the Queen.”

Celia's mind raced. Who to side with? The fact that Aradia could find her at home, back in the mundane world left her little doubt that she could be found again, and if the Queen were at London, or even somewhere else appropriate like Winchester, they'd still be heading in the right direction.

“I am bound for Kaer Ludd, so if the Queen is at the Tower, or Hampton, or parts between, then the paths run together. I must gather my belongings, and then we may depart.”

“She holds her court in the White Tower at this season. That will be on the path you take.”

Ah, that Tower, she thought. And more horse-riding, she added ruefully, as she turned to the Abbess.

“Well, that was soon sorted. Now could you assign me a guide so that I can get back to the cell where I left everything.”

The Abbess pursed her lips, paused, then “Follow me.

“Sir Knight, you will wait here for our return. The rest of you, back about your duties.” before striding briskly back into the cloisters, Celia following close behind.

Once inside, and out of sight from the courtyard, the Abbess had turned to her.

“You knew what to do. ” she accused.

“Huh? Oh, you mean with the sword. No, I didn't know. It just felt an appropriate thing to do. A lucky guess.”

“Less luck than you think. Remember, the Lady's magic springs from the heart, not long and complicated invocations and formulae. The Gift may be with you when it is needed. Just trust in her and it will be provided.”

Celia hoped that her cynicism didn't show in her expression at this “Trust to the Force” style admonition, the sort of thing that negated thought, though she realised that she had known that from years before. As it happened, the Abbess at that point stepped into a little alcove that was the bottom of a steep and narrow spiral stair, to ascend to the dormitory corridor.

A couple of twists and turns from the top, they came to the cell where her rucksack and discarded set of normal clothing still sat on the pallet. She quickly checked through, to make sure all she expected to find was there, then to organise things so she could add the clothes to the bundle. Some could be found niches, like adding knickers to the protective packing in the plastic lunchbox that held various bits of her electronic gadgetry wondering as she did so what she would find if she were to try a GPS sounding here.

It was immediately clear that it wouldn't all fit, with an extra change of outerwear to add to an almost full load. A little squeezing and folding found some space, but it was soon obvious that the easiest way to carry the excess was going to be to wear it, admonitions about colour schemes for her outfit notwithstanding. So while the Abbess waited, she kicked off the sandals she had been fitted with, and pulled on her jeans, wearing them under the skirts of the monastic habit, then one of the pairs of comfortable socks that had been jammed in to fill one side pocket nigh to bursting, and her hiking boots. The process of lacing them gave her a feeling that in some measure again she was taking control of her life. At the same time there was a pang of regret — she would really like access to her own wardrobe, to pull out the rarely worn power-dressing suit, dressing to get herself into the take charge mindset, if not to impress the locals. As it was, she had only these few bits of severely practical outfit, and they would have to suffice.

She shrugged to herself, stood, and wriggled into the rucksack. “We go.” she declared.

Returning to the courtyard, she did feel a little more self-confidence. Sure. there were risks, though if her escort was whom she guessed him to be, her virtue should be safe enough. She shivered slightly at the thought of how the innocence of youth had kept her from worrying about that sort of menace from the black-elf and goblin hordes.

Before her mood could falter, she strode out into the sunlight, and marched up to the knight.

“I'm ready,” she declared.

“You must ride with me, then, for we have much ground to cover, to be with the Queen this night.” He whistled, and his horse trotted over, massive, like the cart-horses she remembered from childhood, but as much larger in proportion as she too had grown, almost like a rhino, hooves leaving enormous prints in the dust.

The knight put his left hand upon the saddle, and vaulted easily into place. Settled there, he started to reach out one hand, then “Go you over to the block yonder, and there I'll fetch you up.” She marched across to the mounting block near the gatehouse, the horse, for all its size, stepping elegantly alongside as if at an equestrian event, the Abbess and other nuns who had been present in the courtyard trailing after.

The knight held out his hand as Celia stepped up on to the block, and she started to climb up onto the horse's back, but they were clearly getting in a tangle — he was trying to lift her up in front, while she was trying to ride pillion.

“Ride at the front, my Lady, so I may hold you. so you shall not slip as we gallop.”

“And have my pack hit you under the chin at every stride? I don't think that will work. Better if I just hang on to you.”

“I would rather keep hold, lest you slip off the side, and I drag you along before I wot of it.”

“I didn't tumble off the crupper even on the Lady Aradia's…” she had been about to say “turbocharged steed” and stopped to cast around for some less anachronistic phrase, when realisation dawned.

“No, I shan't be riding side-saddle. Look!” she hoisted the skirts of her habit, and kicking out one leg to show off the jeans underneath “Canvas breeches!”

“Very well, then, Lady,” in a tone that suggested that the honorific was being re-evaluated, “mount, and hold on tight.” And this time, with his patient assistance, she did manage to scramble up, with a little more grace than on the previous evening.

The Knight then turned to the Abbess. “My thanks to you, Mother. Tell the Lady Aradia that we ride to court, if she comes seeking us here.”

“So shall I, Sir Knight. But before you ride, here are provisions, as we were not able to offer any other hospitality.” And one of the nuns held up a small sack, which the knight reached down to take. As he tied it to the saddle, Celia caught a scent of fresh baked bread. Simple fare, then.

And, with a brief instruction to his squire, the Knight took up the reins, and then they were off, trotting out of the abbey courtyard, and onto the old road, turning to head generally southward, and picking up to a respectable, ground-covering canter. A stone bridge of three short arches crossed the river, and then the road entered the wild wood.

Now the road showed signs of age, pot-holes, patches, drifts of sandy silt and leaf litter, moss and weeds between the slabs. But there were also signs of recent work — stumps of recently felled trees, and signs of overhanging branches lopped, the wood still yellow with carotenes, rather than a weathered grey — that had cleared the route on either side, left it open to the full benefit of the sunlight.

Though in part she was hanging on for grim death, Celia relished this journey, to be in motion again, and, better still, out in bright spring sunshine, away from the gloom of impending winter, here where flowers bloomed anew, and leaves were bursting from the bud.

As they rode, through this primeval forest, alive with sun and birdsong, there were occasional glimpses of deer, stags in full antler, whose first appearance had caused her to start with memories of the Hunter, but which turned out entirely mundane. As the land rolled gently, she was afforded broader views out across the countryside, mostly tree-tops blurring with new green, but occasionally church towers, bright in the sun against dark cloud building up, in maddeningly brief flashes, too short to make out what sort of buildings surrounded them; and at times, the sound of the birds, and the wind, and the hoofbeats seemed to be joined by the whining hum of traffic, always somewhere over the next rise in the terrain, or behind a thick screen of trees.

And after an hour or more, now sometime after noon, with cloud having bubbled up, first cauliflower cumulus, in rows of fair-weather cloud, then thicker and darker, the threat of April showers now evident, they had burst out of the woodland into open fields, long stripes of land, part meadow, with spring flowers and sheep, others with new green growth springing up. Beyond the fields, a village by a narrow river, a church some way outside the habitation.

At the river, the Knight reined in and hailed one of the villagers, who bobbed his head in acknowledgment.

“I will have a boat,” he demanded, “We must be with the Queen this night.”

“Come, Sir, Lady,” the peasant led them along the riverbank to a rude wharf, at which something barely more than a sailing dinghy was moored. A toothless old man scrambled out of a nearby shack, and grovelled, as they approached.

“Good man,” the Knight called down, “we will have passage to the City this day. And thou, cotter, provide for my mount until my squire is come for him.”

With a bound, he dismounted, and offered his hand for Celia to descend. Carefully, feeling sore and stiff, she managed to bring her leg up, and over the saddle, sliding down to land with a little splashing of mud. She had then stood there, feeling slightly useless, as he efficiently unpacked his weapons, and the sack of food. The cotter scampered up to take the sweating beast's reins as soon as unloading was complete, and then gingerly led the horse away. The Knight gave him not a glance as he strolled over to the boat, and laid his burden down.

The boatman joined him and both held out their hands. Time to board. Carefully she stepped into the boat, which rocked slightly, slopping some water around the bottom of the hull. There were seats, plain benches across the breadth, of damp wood, so squatting for balance, she hauled her bedmat from where it was rolled up under the rucksack, and laid it out before sitting down and starting to wriggle out from the pack. When she was seated, the Knight sat opposite her, and the boatman unhitched the line, and hopped aboard, squatting at the stern by the tiller.

Slowly the little boat drifted away from the bank, and turned downstream, roughly south, gaining way as the sail dropped down, and was rigged to catch the breeze. For a while, there were fields, before the woods closed in again, looking stark against the deepening grey of the sky, where the clouds were piling up like the wrath of god along the western bank. Above the gash the river cut in the trees, the imminent weather towered, waiting for something to trigger an avalanche.

And then it broke, the first few drops splashing in the rippling surface of the river turning rapidly into a torrent, with hail amongst the raindrops. Celia tore open her bag, and hauled out her waterproof jacket, draped it over herself as a cape, while the Knight drew his heavy woolen cloak, greasy with its own lanolin, over himself, and the boatman pulled on a knitted woolen hat over his sparse locks.

For a few minutes the rain pounded down, and then slacked, and ceased, leaving just the dripping of the trees. The sun, revealed, shone forth again, making the Knight's cloak steam.

Some miles downstream, after a second shower, they emerged into a reedy fen. While they still made good time — nowhere near as fast as the cantering horse, but far more sustainable — the passage of the river seemed endless, now an alternation of open water, and reedy, where the boatman would occasionally let go the tiller and the rigging to unship an oar and scull. Ducks swam on the open stretches, and swans and moorhens, but the season was yet too early for their young; and in the reeds other birds called. Could those be reed warblers? and those bitterns, booming like foghorns?

What did lie in that Wild Wood on either side, beyond the wetlands, this living ghost of Epping Forest or Waltham Forest. Were there wolves roaming? Or would Pan serenade the dawning to a bemused and awestruck audience of moles and water rats? Celia shivered, and a tear welled in one eye, and spilled down her cheek.

As evening began to approach, the sun fell below the clouds, and golden light shone over the little boat, and its company. Celia woke from her reverie, aware that, while she had broken her fast late that morning that she had eaten nothing since.

“Shall we eat?” she asked, breaking the silence. The knight stirred himself, and sought the sack. The boatman looked on with sudden keen attention.

From the sack, the knight drew a small loaf, about the size of a bap around, but not flattened, and handed it to Celia. Another, he set on his lap, and then he took out a piece of ham hock. With his bare fingers, he tore a chunk of meat, then handed it to her.

Celia smiled in thanks, and, while the knight tore his bread, and gnawed at the ham on the bone, she took her Swiss Tool from her bum-bag. There was a suitable serrated blade, and here, the lack of a crown-cap bottle opener was no loss. She cut two slices that made half the loaf, and then sliced the ham coarsely. It smelt good, so, while there was no mustard for the sandwich, there was also no need to go for the emergency bottle of Tabasco that was an indispensable of part her hiking gear. As she ate, she fashioned the rest of the bread and ham into another sandwich, paused, and then handed it to the boatman, who thanked her profusely before eating as if starved.

Somewhat fortified, she sat back to watch the land flow by. When the knight had finished his meal, she asked the question she had been waiting to ask, fearing that the answer would be nothing of the sort, some other evasion presented as an explanation. “Do you know what is going on here? What is it you are fighting for?”

The knight looked taken aback, almost affronted. With a smooth motion, and a rasping noise of metal on metal, he drew forth his sword, raising it to flash in the low sun, and voiced his battle cry.

As she had expected, something that missed her point.

“And against sin, I expect,” she asked, hoping that it would correctly be taken rhetorically, given the slightly sarcastic tone of voice, continuing hurriedly, “No, what I mean is that I see no enemy. I'm only told of one, and the telling doesn't match up to what I see.

“The Visitor, the Grey Wolf, as Aradia named her, promises something,” she groped for the suitable word, conscious of being about to sound like Dave Bowman in 2010, “something wonderful.” Yes, she thought to herself, truly wonderful, and terrifying, and more immediate, more personal than the brute stellification of a remote planet.

“You saw the comet last night? For that alone I feel we can trust her — not that we have much choice in the matter. Her power is overwhelming — had she wished, she could have cast down that mountain of rock and ice that would obliterate half England in the instant, send waves as high as mountains across the seas, and darken the skies for years. And yet she has not made demands. At least that was how things were yesterday. Cut off here, I don't know what else she has said since.

“What she promises is terrifying, true, but she will have seen what lies beyond that, and still to be convinced of the cause…”

The knight sheathed his sword, and pondered.

“I am no philosopher or theologian,” he eventually replied, “just a simple man of the soil, but I am told that she is bringing the End of the World ahead of its time.”

“I suppose accelerating the Singularity is much the same thing as Imminentizing the Eschaton. But is that really all her fault is? To be skipping ahead to the good part?”

“Her unwitting error is to conspire to end this life, this Real world, to leave just a counterfeit.”

“How do you know all this is real? I mean, that's something I've been wondering since Aradia took me to Wandlebury last night. Where is this place? What is it? How is it so close to the everyday world of cars and nukes and terrorists and Internet porn, yet still apart, at arm's length from it?” she paused, thought. “Or is this some 'Class Special-A', some Avalon beyond the Real, and it's all been a simulation all along??”

“Like this!” and he thumped the gunwale with his fist, “That's how I know our Albion is real.”

“That was Huxley's argument against solipsism, if I recall. But now let's visit the Cartesian Theatre.

“Imagine an imp who has been simply holding up a personal little playhouse before your eyes, contriving to tickle your perceptions as you think you touch, taste, smell and all the other little senses that you rely on to know about the world.

“In the limit, you might only be a brain in a jar, all sensation faked deeper than the skin. How could you tell?”

“Because that would be heresy!”

“That and more. Even Manichee didn't deny the physical world, just its author's divine credentials. The Cartesian Theatre gets by on just the substrate in which the intentional entities exist as a shared hallucination. The problem is, we can't tell. Like you, I can only have faith…”

She trailed off into silence. These were uncomfortable thoughts even for her, and she had pondered the issues to herself in the wee small hours. What was this ephemeral, insubstantial self that floated on top of chemical processes, themselves built from the interactions of atoms that seemed to vanish into the mist of the quantum vacuum — whatever that was — when you looked too closely at them? The Cartesian imp, with his objective substrate inhabited by his victims, seemed almost cosy.

No imp, no substrate… There was something odd going on when the concept of being uploaded into some Transcendent computation actually seemed like the offer of a world that was more real. More honest in its abstraction, perhaps, even as it piled itself atop further layers from any ultimate reality, as there should be fewer layers between her consciousness and where mathematics took over, and each step comprehensible in principle, given suitable enhancements.

“It's even worse than just resting on faith,” she began again, as the knight sat looking horrified, “With unbounded computation, there can be endless simulations of the same events. The odds are that we are living in the Cartesian Theatre, unawares. And maybe not for the amusement of any imp, but just as one of countless replicas in some statistical experiment.”

“Lady,” the Knight spoke wearily, “I must be sure. May I see the Mark once more?”

Celia drew back her sleeve, and held out the wrist that bore the badge that was at the root of all this, had literally marked her out. The knight took her small hand in both of his, and they were rough and callussed. With utmost care, he extended one finger to touch the metal band, to turn it about her wrist.

After some time in deep contemplation, in the waning light, he gently unclasped her hand, and sat back.

“Save that this is silver, and hers is ivory, this is the like, as best I can tell, of the one worn by Angharad duLac.”

“Yes, mine is the crescent, hers is the full of the moon. But she is a power here, and I am not,” she sighed, resignedly, “So I should not be surprised that you have crossed paths with her.”

“Long ago, when she was wed, and the land was full of rejoicing, in the shadow of evening. Though I was not one of his Knights of the Table Round, I was called to the tourney and celebrations. Years before, even before he took his sword and his crown, Arthur and I had ridden together on quest, and in this twilight of his reign I was joyfully obligated to attend, to do my friend honour.”

He looked into the distance in the dusk, the last glow of sunset adding to the glow of enthusiasm on his face. Celia meanwhile started, struck by an incongruity. The Sleeping King in Merlin's cave looked old — hair and close-cropped beard purest white, face weathered and lean with age under its golden crown and silver-bright mail coif, the visage of a man approaching seventy though still hale. And this Knight who looked not even thirty had seen both start and end of his reign, and all the long years since.

But then neither did the passing years show on the Lady of the Lake, and time here was different. And, if Spenser was a guide — and Malory, writing closer to the events, in as much as that was meaningful to say, it seemed was not to be relied upon — the man sharing this little boat with her had been revived by the waters of Eden after his first match with the dragon, and who knew what gifts that such a baptism would bring?

“It was in the aftermath of the Field of Camlann, where the King had slain the son of his incest, when it seemed that the Powers of Night had been driven away, that the Golden Age was now restored forever. But many had fallen in that battle, thinning ranks that the Quest of the Grail had already decimated. And not all those who survived were present. Launcelot had returned to exile, and Lady Guenever had withdrawn to a cloister.

“Yes, there was joy and merriment, but it was a last hectic glow of sunset, before the end of day. The time and date of the ending was set, and the celebrants knew it would soon overtake us all. Within a sennight, the King and his Knights, those of old, and some newly raised to the Table Round, were to ride off to the secret place that Merlin had prepared, there to await the great battle of which Camlann would merely the foreshadowing, the Final Battle when all the armies of Night would ride out in full array expecting to conquer all.

“I rode to Camelot as escort to Gloriana, daughter of old King Oberon VIII, whom Arthur had succeeded in this land of Albion. To the Princess, he was in his turn leaving the stewardship of his realm, and as her escort I was privileged to be introduced to the bride, the Lady Angharad.

“She was fair and maidenly modest, but already known as a sorceress of power, one who would soon assist Merlin's enchantments. She greeted us, and there and then blessed the Princess Gloriana, in just the manner that you blessed this blade just hours ago, with the same Mark. How could you do that, carry that token, perform that blessing, and yet deny your place?”

“My place? What is my place in all this? When I was a child, it was to be the carrier of the needful magic token, in the right place just by seeming happenstance, first for Firefrost, then the Mark. Now I am grown, I expect to be in some sort of control of my life. And I've not been in contact with anything I would term magical, however it might seem to you, for decades. Things of such subtle craft, as to be nigh indistinguishable from magic, have taken my interest.

“And now this sudden eruption of all this, I'm still trying to come to terms with it all.”

“There is little counsel I can give. That is not my Art,” the Knight spoke in a more certain voice, “which is strength of arms. But I recognise that darkness of uncertainty. I accept that it is no good to exhort you to have faith. All I can say is that this will pass, and in time, all will be made clear.

“But for now, rest. There are hours left before we reach the Tower.”

The Dead of Night

She woke with a start in faint light. Water lapped around the boat, and stars shone hazily down through the streaming cometary tail. The ring and its central mountain were rising, but there was no sign of the moon as yet. There was a steady trickle of shooting stars, no doubt gravel spat out from that dirty snowball as it boiled away in the sunlight.

Despite the uncomfortable situation, she had clearly been ragged enough after the broken sleep of the last two nights to have dozed a couple of hours. She rubbed at her eyes, and tried to unknot her shoulders, leaning back to yawn. And paused. Despite the dim lantern hoist up the mast, she could see that there were lights in the deepness of the sky that were moving slowly against the stars. Not the familiar navigation lights of aircraft, but steady faint white points moving together in formation. She traced them from one to the next, in a line through the comet, to the ring, and beyond to the horizon. There were more things now in orbit above them.

‘Come and take me away!’ she thought in silent prayer, aware that she was echoing the pleas of UFO cultists. Only these lights were incontrovertible evidence of purpose from outside the Earth. And that catastrophe had not overwhelmed them by this time was proof to her that it was not malign. But then there had been no eucatastrophe yet either.

Sighing, she turned her gaze Earthwards. The knight seemed to be asleep, but the boatman was busy, sculling away, even though they were now on open water. Perhaps that was the sound that had woken her.

“Excuse me,” she whispered.

“Ma'am?” the soft reply, surprised.

“Where are we?”

“Rounding the Isle o' Dogs, ma'am. The tide is with us now, but coming to the slack. None the less we should be at the Tower within the hour, ma'am, an we meet no obstacle.”

Silence again, but for the sounds of the water and creakings of rope and wood. Celia turned to look towards the bow, to see what lay ahead on the river.

Slowly, as the ring ascended to its culmination, the boat turned about, from south, to east, and on to the north. Now her attention was drawn from the spectacle above to other traffic on the river, both small boats such as their own, and larger ships, riding at anchor, and hung about with lanterns. Her geography of this part of London was scant, but if this was near the Isle of Dogs, then surely the Canary Wharf tower, or at least the warning beacon on its crowning pyramid, would be visible, should be visible from here, if nothing else.

She felt cold and lost, shut away from the comforts of the wonted world. She was shivering with terror as much as the cool of the night breeze. Though she did not look up to see their works, she could feel the UFO gods above, as uncaring as all the others.

After Moonrise

Iron shod boots struck harshly on stone, in courts and corridors where the widely spaced lanterns made it, if anything, harder to see the way. As often as not, Celia found herself blindly following the silhouettes of the Knight and the courtier, hoping that there were no steps or other hazard in the pitchy dark. She was now completely lost.

When they had drawn up at the Tower, the waning moon was up, showing enough of the place that she was sure that while the White Tower was there at the heart of it all, this was not the simple Norman castle she had expected. Not that that would have been any help — it was over thirty, going on forty years since she had actually visited the Tower. Only the taxi ride to Waterloo International even brought her near the site these days.

Perhaps the landing stage they had tied up at, after the Knight had bawled reluctant guardsmen into standing down their pikes was cognate to the Traitors' Gate. The low archway and short flight of steps seemed to wake a faint memory, but it wasn't one she felt she could trust. After some hauling and cursing, they were tied up, and she had been helped ashore. The knight followed her, while the old boatman simply curled up, to sleep where he was.

At the top of the stairs, they were handed over to what she guessed was the sergeant of the watch, who escorted them across the first courtyard, and through a wicket into the next, where a hasty conversation saw them handed over to the charge of an unarmoured man, dressed in vaguely Elizabethan attire, and neatly pointed beard, who now led them deeper into this Gormenghast.

From courts, to cloisters, and finally corridors where lantern light at last gave enough light to see clearly by, despite the darkness of the ornately carved wood panelling. The courtier was now revealed as dressed in dark burgundy trimmed with gold, and not the black she had taken it to be, and that his sandy hair was thinning, though neither it, nor his goatee showed grey. A small, slight man, with calves that his leggings did nothing to flatter, he seemed to be awed by having to escort such as the knight in his slight utterances of direction.

At last, they came to a double door, guarded by two halbardiers, who snapped to attention at their approach. Through the doors, a room only slightly wider than the corridor, with bench seats along either side.

“Please wait here,” the man said, with a rather nervous licking of his lips, then turned and exited through the doors at the far end.

Celia shrugged off her rucksack, placing it on the bench, and started a brief stretch to work out the stiffness caused by dozing in a cold wet boat. She wondered if she could remember how to curtsey, not having needed to do it since country dancing at primary school, let alone pull it off without falling on her arse. It was bad enough facing the prospect of greeting royalty dressed in this mix and match of habit and hiking gear, without the prospect of making an idiot of herself with the rest of the hoop-la.

Having finished the routine, she sat down on the marginally cushioned leather seat, and took a sip of water from the bag packed in one of the rucksack pockets, wincing slightly as the chill water caught a tender bit of tooth, and she probed with her tongue to tell if gritty bread had already cracked a filling. The knight had simply taken a parade rest stance, and was watching her incuriously.

According to her watch, it was now about half ten. How late would it be this night before she could sleep properly? And what sort of bed might it be?

Her reverie was interrupted by the return of the courtier, with and older man in tow. The newcomer wore long black robes trimmed with black fur, and a little hat, tied under the chin, behind his grey beard. The ensemble was vaguely academic, and Celia's guess was Magus.

“The Queen will speak with you now,” the newcomer announced in a dry aged voice, “so, if you would be so kind as to follow me…” and waved an arm in vague indication.

Celia slung her kit over one shoulder, and rose. The knight raised one eyebrow, slightly tilted his head.

“Yes, you also, sir.”

He stepped forwards, unbuckling his sword belt as he went, and thrust the armful of tack into the surprised courtier's arms.

More corridors, with more men-at-arms, and then a large room, with three bay windows of tall thin leaded panes. A long table reached from near the middle bay, towards the door, and people sitting at it, all turning their faces to see who had entered.

At the head of the table, the woman in dove grey, with the hair redder than henna bearing a coronet, was clearly the Queen. Most of the other faces around the table were men in middle age or later, but two were women. One was another red-head, though less extremely so, and older. A familiar face, that of Angharad duLac, who broke into a welcoming smile.

The last. She too was a familiar face.

“Morgan,” Celia breathed, feeling her lips curl back. She remembered all those years ago when she had first, unknowing, cast eyes on this, her enemy who she first knew as Lutetia Celine. Then she had thought her a strange old woman, dumpy and plain. Now it was she who felt the dumpy old woman, and Morgan was leaner old age, showing an afterglow of youthful beauty, long silver hair falling free on her gown of black velvet. There was something feral, wolfish, about her, especially in her mirthless smile.

“How unlooked for! You have grown in years, child,” the sorceress acknowledged her, “if not in power.”

The discreet clearing of a throat halted the exchange.

“I beg Your Majesty's pardon,” Morgan turned to the head of the table, bowing her head an almost imperceptible amount.

“Freely granted, my Lady of the Isles,” the Queen dismissed the interruption, then turned to Celia, “And welcome to you both my good Knight, and you, my Lady of the Mark.

“Please, be you seated.”

In the small hours

Celia stared at the bed, the full four-poster works, the actual surface hidden somewhere behind the curtains, at about chest height. She probed it gingerly, uncertain about the construction, suspension and ecology. She was fuddled for lack of sleep, and the little she had had broken over the last, she counted back, yes it was only forty-eight hours since she had been woken for a security alert.

And now, it seemed, the fate of the world, no doubt of worlds beyond, was turning on her. It was bad enough when it had only been the continued existence of her employers as going concerns able to put money in her bank account.

Wearily, she dropped her rucksack on the floor, put her candle down on the chest by the bed, and slumped on a stool that stood against the wall. She was too tired to do any more, and yet her mind was still buzzing.

The council had dragged on, while she had struggled to stay awake, dragging up bad memories of three-way videoconferences with Seattle and Sydney which she had had to sit through in earlier years. Those had rarely achieved even a meeting of minds; and tonight had been little different.

She had sat at the table feeling out of her depth, and not well at ease. “Think suit,” she told herself, taking a few deep breaths, sitting up, then relaxing back again in a more expansive posture, looking levelly down the length of the table.

“So, where have we got to so far?” she asked.

The queen returned her gaze, then turned to one of the councillors, who fidgeted with his notes, before launching into a recital of omens and portents.

Most of them seemed to be accounts of the Visitor's Ring, and the later works going on in orbit. The comet in particular was hailed as being something that was too much to merely signify the death of princes. Others were less explicable — apparitions of a great devouring grey wolf. And the same message that Aradia had borne, of the End of All Things being at hand.

“The wolf is literally at our door,” the queen summarised, “and to keep to my charge, to hold this realm until the King comes again, we must fight her.”

For a second or so, there was silence around the table, broken only by a slight shifting of positions, and Celia realised that this was her cue.

“Wolf,” she repeated, playing for time, until she found a theme. Memory came to her unsought, a snow-covered land, a hill, a broken cross — and a wolf to end all wolves, or so she had then thought, striding over the horizon out of the north.

She threw back her head, and chuckled, a wry and mirthless laugh.

Suit, she again thought to herself, centering herself after the outburst. Now she knew what her initial theme would be.

“I have seen a Wolf, almost the Wolf, when I was but a child. As you well know, Morgan, for you were there that day. Terrible indeed was the get of Fenris, striding the world under the cloak of Fimbrulwinter.”

Morgan nodded, grimly. That day had seen the ruin of her challenge against the King, and sealed the enmity between the two women as something personal. Few had survived the wolf's onslaught, she only by Merlin's protection, and Morgan by arts and means she knew not.

“That was a wolf in the guise of a force of nature. It consumed an army,” or, she thought to herself, something of about regimental strength, “What the Visitor represents is a force of nature that will consume a host of hosts. The future is already looming like an avalanche, or a tsunami, to shatter the world we know. She serves only to confirm what our seers have long suspected, that this Change is inevitable.

“Can I defend the future? That is a difficult thing to do. The past is a known quantity, something safe to bet on. The future is a matter of hazard, and the Visitor promises that it will be unknowably different from the past.

“That she speaks for it says to me that, however terrible it may be, that it will be a victory. Everyone shall have won, so all shall have prizes, to misquote the Mock Turtle.”

“In what manner, won? and what the prizes?” one of the men along the table asked her.

“Winning by being in a state where all our current petty problems may be trivially solved. Where want and suffering as we know them are no more.” She paused. “Though what may take their place, if lacking cycles might become the new poverty or hunger…”

“But suffering is part of what makes us human. The moral fibre of the race will fail. And without suffering, there will be no Art.”

“Oh, puh-lease!

“Artists suffer because they have a fire inside that drives them to create. If you have it bad, then unless you are lucky enough to be able to get paid for what you create, then life in this economy of scarcity will be hard. If the results are subversive of the status quo, and official displeasure is expressed, all the more so.

“I know this, because I too have that fire, though only to a lesser extent, so that I can bridle its incessant urgings. Some of it I can even get paid for, the rest I have to fit in where I can. I have far more projects lined up, that I could do, than I have the time and energy to accomplish.

“Or are you saying that there must be suffering to be the subject of Art? Neither painting nor sculpture need it. Drama — I suppose that has to have some obstacle to surmount but do you suffer when, say, proving a theorem, which is another form of pitting oneself against the Cosmos?

“The logical conclusion of that sort of reasoning is that Heaven must be boring beyond all comprehension, that Paradise is only of use if indefinitely deferred.”

“That is because we are now merely imperfect creatures. Only in the incorruptible spirit can we be perfected.” One in more ecclesiastic garb.

“And that is likely to be what is on offer. Being freed from the limits of meat, computed in an abstracted world, with all the time to become everything we can be.”

“The Visitor is very much flesh and blood. Not the ghost in a machine that you propose.”

“Because whatever happened — will happen — was unforeseen at the instant. She said it herself — some were left behind. I'd guess that it couldn't take in people who were off-world, or who were otherwise late arrivals. Perhaps latecomers would have not been sufficiently superhuman to catch up. Perhaps there were simply other, merely superhuman, hazards that they couldn't circumvent should they try to take the same route.

“It is clear that her intent is that everyone should win this time, with her guidance. None left behind, she said. And with the alternative being permanent exclusion for the unfortunate when the Spike eventually hits, as it will eventually, I know what I'd rather. Let's have the better possible world, all the harvest of the ages gathered in.”

“But, the King…” the queen gasped.

“Merlin spoke to my brother on much this matter, when he asked how the King and his knights could prevail against an army such as we could field even at that time. He replied that before the King returned, the wheel would have turned full circle.

“Our Visitor offers us a way off this bloody wheel of suffering. Liberation from the cycles of the world. If there is any good in it, I cannot oppose it. If it is for ill, then all I could do is merely stave off the inevitable, perhaps for no more than a few decades, the rest of a natural life. And then, after I take that last ride with the Sisters of the Moon — then what? How much might we have squandered for such a brief delay? How much worse the eventual outcome?”

“Might we not do more than mere delay, but avert the future she represents?”

“If we didn't know, we might suppose that there would be a chance of only reaching a state that was materially more advanced without such a complete change. But knowing that more is possible, how long might that state last. Until someone like the Visitor who wanted to take that next step, grasps the new Promethean fire. Or until some decadence sets in. I don't believe in a plateau, only up or down in the end.”

“What she is doing is wrong, unnatural!”

“Why? uncomfortable to be sure — but truly, I suspect that what we face is actually more unknowable than it is either good or ill.

“If there is anything in human experience that can possibly compare with what we face, it is the act of growing up. When I was little, growing up meant being able to go to the Zoo, and have ice-cream, whenever I wanted.

“And I suppose that I do. Only it's far, far less often than I might have guessed, and done for different reasons. In the life to come, after the Ascension, all our current concerns will surely seem petty and childish. And what might come of our mature creation, I can only surmise.

“But the danger — and it's my guess that this is what the Visitor is trying to avert — is that part of growing up that corresponds to adolescence. When we are like teenagers, and superhuman, with nobody there to guide us.”

And so it had continued, round and around, until the Queen had cried

“Enough of this! The hour is late. Let us sleep on the matter, and start again when wits will be clearer.”

And the courtier had come to lead her to this bedroom.

Rousing herself, she took a mouthful of water, scrubbed her teeth, spitting into the chamber pot, then spread the sleeping bag on the rug, rolled up a jacket for a pillow, to attempt to have some little sleep before the next demands were to be made on her.

Dawn

The sky ranged from greyish in the west, through palest blue, to salmon pink over the river to the east. Threads of cloud burned red, the lowest turning to molten gold. The bright colours reflected uneasily from the murky greenish waters.

“This is the threshold of the waking world.”

Aradia stood beside her mount, tethered now close to the massive obelisk that was set on the promenade at the water's edge.

“Here we part.

“I cannot direct you. I can only place my hopes in you, that you will do what is right when the time comes to make your decision.”

Celia turned from her, to look up at the spire of pink granite, its deep-incised cartouches inlaid with gold, and at the crouched gryphons, so finely carved and gilded that she could not be sure that these were not the actual beasts, kept under the same preserving slumber as the Knights of the Table Round.

“So, which way do I go from here?”

“In any way you wish. You will naturally return to your own place.

“But remember… ”

She looked at Aradia, at that strange face, and considered what she had been told.

She had settled into a restless sleep, into strange dreams in which she had been attempting to perform security patches with fragments of poetry, when she had become aware of a growing light filling the almost blind confines of the dreamscape, behind the not quite seen prompts and verses.

It seemed natural to her to open her eyes and find herself standing on grassy moorland, under blazing stars, too dense and bright for her to pick out any well-known constellations. It would seem like another of those “in a globular cluster” or “at the centre of the Galaxy” paintings, save for a familiar moon, now a four or five day old crescent, setting ahead of her — but even that looked larger than seemed usual. Around, there was a glow, like moonlight, but brighter than the crescent could provide.

Easing her pack on her left shoulder, she turned around to survey the scene, to tease out why it seemed that she knew this place. And turning around, saw Aradia waiting there, sat astride a white mare, holding the halter of another.

At that point, Celia realised that although she still carried her rucksack, she was wearing a linen tunic like Aradia's, though while that was decorated with knotwork, her own had a Greek key pattern.

“Is this it, then? Did the Queen find my answers that unsatisfactory? Do we ride off into the moonset?”

“No, not now, nor likely for many a year of Men. Then all shall be there to greet you, sister. Tonight we ride to deal with more immediate concerns.”

Mounting the second horse came easier, as it had on that ride long years before, not at all like the clumsy efforts of recent days. Reins in hand, she sat now alongside Aradia, and looked out at the scene.

“Where is this? It seems so familiar.”

“Behind us is where we parted, and yonder, above that rise where the moon is setting, is where you called down the west wind, and the Wild Hunt. Or rather, like the house that Morgan conjured from moonbeams, it is a dream of such a place.

“It is a starting place, not our destination. We ride!”

The horses began to walk upslope, nimbly picking their way through the coarse tussocks, then cantering.

“Aradia,” Celia juggled a question that needed to be asked, then spat it out, “What are you? What do you fear from the Visitor?”

“In a sense, we are dreams. Not only ourselves, but also the other hidden folk that you have met. Some are the dreams of Men; others, such as I are older yet.

“There were once others who dreamed, and strong dreams, before the race of Man came to these shores. The faces we have shown you are just our current masks, but we remember how we were once.”

Her thoughts whirled. Images arose of feather crested dinosaur folk, or, worse, crinoid monstrosities or rugose cones.

But there was no such horror. Just a wider setting of the eyes, a flattening of the nose, perhaps a slight change of colouring. It was a face that was human enough, even beautiful after its own fashion.

“The Dreamers woke us into being, and when they faded away, Men could still dream enough to sustain us. But in this final ending of Man, who can be left for us?”

The question was still hanging in the air unanswered, as they crested the brow of the hill. Below was not the vista of roads and city lights, at the foot of a precipitate drop, but more of the moorland, a gentle valley containing a walled rectangle that seemed overgrown with dark vegetation.

“Is that it?” Celia asked.

“No. It is something I had not expected, a manifestation of the Garden from which we all are barred, when innocence is past.”

“Overgrown like that, it seems more like a metaphor for rude ignorance, or where one might find Sleeping Beauty. But if it is what I think you think it to be, I would have expected to find it somewhere in this direction.”

“Perhaps that is why it is here, if it is strong in your dreams.”

“No, it's not a place I've dreamed to remember — not like the Town, the London Terminus, or any of the Railway Stations, or any of the other familiar scenes. But look — there's something inside!”

In amongst the dark limbs of trees, almost winter bare of leaf, something paler, a warm caramel colour. The idea came that she must investigate.

“No, you cannot.” Aradia protested.

“I see no guardian with flaming sword. Perhaps this is actually the Garden of the Hesperides, or something like that, rather than the obvious one to find when heading west from the land of Nod.

“If you will not join me, then I shall rejoin you at the far end of this valley.”

And she kicked her horse onto the downward path to the nearer end of the walled garden. As she drew nearer, the elusive light continued to show and vanish again as her vantage point changed.

Then she was at the gates. The walls to either side were blackened stone, mottled with paler lichen, the gates tall, black iron, rough with rust, adding to the overall impression of a rural French cemetery, though the wrought work had no obvious symbolism, and within the walls were no signs of tombs.

Just as well, she thought wryly — never mind that I dont have any pistols, I'm not up to backflips, even here.

She put one hand on the weathered metal, and pushed tentatively, half a memory of a word of power in her mind. Without needing to voice it, both leaves opened, resisting only where they scraped on the ground. Transferring her efforts to just one, she opened it wide enough to pass, and closed it again behind her.

There was the remnant of a stone path underfoot, and the enigmatic light ahead, which drew her on, through the tangle of dry branches. A few yards, and then an opening where set into the ground was a disk or column of honey coloured stone, its upper face carved into a Tudor rose.

Feelings of anticlimax, that this riddle was all there was to see, struck her

And then, from the darkness beyond, stepped a black woman, clearly neither maid nor crone, with a fullness of body that had not slid over into corpulence, and dressed in robes of royal blue, her hair bound in more of the same. She carried a tall ewer on her head, balanced with one hand.

Gracefully, she set it down beside the rose.

“You are thirsty, daughter,” the woman said, in a husky voice, “Come, drink of this.”

From her robe, she took a plain and battered cup, and poured water from the ewer.

Celia hesitated, wondering whether this might be some form of trap or temptation. The Mark on her wrist was just inert silver, no guide. There was none of the oppressive feeling that being near Morgan always gave. She could only give her trust without reservation.

She stepped forwards, and took the cup. She was, indeed thirsty.

“You a fine girl”, the woman declared, “none o' those knights riding with their lances all held high, you know them, a-sleeping now under the hill, would look at what I offered them.”

Celia looked down, expecting to see the water aglow with inner light, or transmuted into wine, or even blood.

But the water was just water, the cup, just a cup. There were no fireworks, no soaring of the spirit, no tingling in the veins as she drank. But her thirst was quenched.

She looked back at the woman.

“Thank you.”

She paused, then, “What is your message for me?”

The woman smiled broadly back.

“You are my beloved daughter,” she said.

The smile seemed to fill the world. And then she was riding again, at Aradia's side.

“What happened?” she asked.

“You rode down to the garden, but it faded as you rode up to it. Was that not what you saw?”

Celia paused.

“No,” she said. She recollected what had happened, but was not certain what it signified. For the moment, she felt it simpler to keep her own counsel.

And they rode together in silence for some while, as the rolling land continued to descend beyond the vale where the garden had been, the occasional patch of scrub interrupting the rough grassland.

Finally, the land ended at a line of cliffs, and they rode along, the sea below on their left crashing against the rocks, in little coves where the whiteness of the foam showed in the light of the setting moon across the dark sea.

The cliffs became lower and lower and then they were pounding along a beach and the out along a sand spit towards a rocky island rising out of the ocean.

“Is this it?” she asked, worried about the turn of events.

“For tonight's ride, this is our destination. And then back to Kaer Ludd do not fear.”

About half a mile across the brink of the waters, then up the abrupt slope to the top of the islet, where a tower stood. As they had approached, it had looked little different from Celia's expectation of a lighthouse; but now it seemed to rise out of sight in distorted perspective.

Aradia dismounted, and Celia followed her through the door at the foot of the tower, and up the spiral steps inside. In the almost dark, it was hard to tell how far they had to climb, and it was a sudden shock to come out into a room with great open arch windows of alternating light and dark brick or stone, that looked out on the three sides away from the stairs. Each showed the sea far, far below, with the setting moon almost at the horizon ahead.

“Despite your detour, we are in time. Quick, the moment is almost here.”

And Aradia went over to the far window, and leaned out, one hand on the sill to support herself, the other reaching out in a manner that brought memories of Escher prints to Celia's mind. It seemed that she gathered up the moon, and a constellation or two, that they tangled up with strands of starlight. And Aradia turned back to her with a circlet of silver, set with diamonds, and one perfect pearl. And the moon had set beneath the obsidian waves.

“This is what we came here for, to arm you for the struggle to come.” And she placed the circlet on Celia's head. She reached up to feel it, adjust it, but could not feel it.

“It is more subtle than the Mark. It will be with you now for when the need arises; and only those with subtle eyes will see it.

“And now we must ride like the wind; the day will soon be here.”

“But the moon only just set — it can't be past midnight.”

“Not here; but when you settled down to sleep in Kaer Ludd, it was well past midnight, and time has passed since.”

This time, when they descended the stairs, the interior of the tower was filled with ethereal light, and that light stayed with them as they mounted their horses, and set off down the slope and back across the causeway to the mainland.

Back on the grassy shore, Aradia kicked her horse into a gallop, and Celia matched the move.

With the rolling land streaming past, the wind in their hair, but not in their eyes, Celia made a decision.

“The Garden,” she said, “It didn't vanish when I arrive. I went in. It was full of the same dark bushes as it seemed from the outside.”

“Did you see anyone there?”

“Yes — in the depths there was a hidden carving of a rose, and there was a woman there, a woman in blue.”

“What did you do?”

“She offered me water.”

“And did you drink?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, sweet Mother of us all! These are even deeper waters than I feared.”

Celia looked at her guide.

“You know her? Did I do the wrong thing?”

“She is the Mother of us all, one of the oldest of us. Of those you have met, only the Hunter is so ancient, and few others remain from that era. Of such, I fear that you will meet the Wolf before this is out.

“Was it the wrong thing? I cannot say. What was the drink?”

“Nothing to worry about. Just water, no sorcerous liquor.”

“How did you drink?”

“She offered me a cup.”

“What did you do then?”

Celia paused, recollecting, “I took the cup, and drank, and then I was riding again.”

She paused, thought, then freed one hand from the reins, and reached into a pocket of her tunic.

“I still have the cup.”

“Then guard it with all your force. It has the Mother's blessings.”

“It's just a simple tin cup.”

“That may be how you saw it. But you have heard of it by another name. This may be the greatest gift that can be offered. At last I dare feel a distant hope.

“Perhaps the Dreamer's legacy will continue. That is what you must strive for.

“But look! The dawn is close! Ride hard!”

In the east ahead of them, the sky was indeed becoming paler, greying with the first hint of dawn, but the stars — they had been unnaturally bright before, and now if anything, they too were becoming brighter.

And then they were lanterns, and they were riding amongst them, along a riverbank, first in open parkland with scattered trees, and then more and more amongst buildings. The river widened, the sky brightened, and before them hulked a great mass of towers and turrets. With this in sight, Aradia reined in, and pointed.

“There! Stop at Prester John's Bodkin!”

They halted at obelisk, set by the river, surrounded by gryphons, some way before the Castle, and dismounted. The horses seemed uneasy in the growing light.

“Now what? Where am I? Do I wake up somewhere now?”

“You are here in the otherworld, just as you were whenever you have seen Angharad. And you are, have been, here in body as you were when the Mark brought you to her. You are not sleeping in the Queen's castle, you are all here, and you can just walk away now.

“But when you re-enter the waking world, remember the Dream.”

And so it was as the sun was about to leap over the horizon, she bade her farewell to Aradia, and turned her back on the dawn, began to walk. The dawn chorus was soon joined by the familiar sound of traffic. Each step filled in some more familiar detail, the light of the new risen sun catching the giant bicycle wheel of the London Eye.

She was walking down the Embankment, with the early morning traffic flowing on her right hand, the Thames on her left. The trees were in leaf, though some were starting to colour.

Now, she knew where she was. Next to find out when. Setting her pack on the balustrade, she rummaged in a side pocket for her mobile, switched it on, and waited for it to boot and acquire signal. The BBC News website would tell her what she wanted — the date, and what she had missed.

Oh, it was good to be home again.


© Steve Gilham 2003
© Mr. Tines 2003


Chapter 5 — Eternity

Chapter 7 — City

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