© FJ Reid
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When I went to scatter my father’s ashes, I didn’t expect to get kidnapped.
I wanted to be alone to do this private thing and say the last words I was ever going to say to him. At least, that was how I felt that chilly Sunday morning in November. With Dad in my backpack I climbed up the steep path to the Tor from the hotel in Glastonbury where my boyfriend Nathan and I were staying.
It was just after first light; a thick mist lay over the town and no-one else was about. The tip of the church tower was just visible above the fog and for miles around only the odd dark tree top emerged from the sea of white.
On murky mornings like this it was easy to see why some people believed this hill could have been part of Avalon, that mystical land where King Arthur was supposed to have been taken after he was mortally wounded. My father had been one of them.
Shouldering off my backpack, I pulled out Dad’s urn. It was surprisingly heavy 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, and no Artie. My twin brother was on the far side of the world on a prolonged trip with his mates, but I liked to think he was with me spiritually, despite the fact he hadn’t made the effort to get back. Typical of him.
It was bitterly cold and a frost still sparkled on the short grass. For a minute or two I stood looking at the bleak hill top, 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 that our time with her was limited. I remember it so well because it was the first time I saw the Fancy-Dress-Man.
It’s winter. The trees are naked skeletons, their branches rattling in the wind, the sky a dull grey and the damp cold is in my very bones. I remember my mother’s parchment pale skin, her once glorious auburn hair wispy and colourless beneath her handknitted hat.
My father is his usual over enthusiastic self, expounding on the history of the Tor. Even then 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 lone hill that is the famous Glastonbury Tor rises out of surrounding flat land long since reclaimed from ancient marshes. Dad parks our Land Rover round behind it and pulls up on a rutted grass verge so we can take the shorter route to the summit.
Artie and I run on ahead, our Wellington 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 an exuberant seven-year-old she just seems annoyingly slow.
We reach the summit together, well ahead of our parents. For just a moment the gaunt outline of the tower holds me mesmerised, but I’ve seen it countless times before. Artie and I have been visiting Glastonbury since just after we were born. It’s almost like a second home to us.
“Race you to the tower,” Artie shouts, giving me a backward push and setting off at a run. I sprint after him, but although we’re twins 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 come to us on the wind. I look through the arches of the tower. Our parents appear at the far end of the hilltop.
“Race you back,” Artie says and sets off, 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 closed. My long chestnut plaits 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 gods it carries all the allure of fairyland. My lips curl in a smile. My small feet take tentative steps towards the sound.
I open my eyes. I’m standing inside the tower. The wind has died to nothing. The only thing I can hear is that single pure yet faint musical note. I push my hair back out of my eyes. Beyond the stone arches there’s nothing - the world outside has blurred out of focus, yet within the tower every stone is crystal clear. I turn around.
He’s standing watching me. A man in strange old-fashioned clothing - the Fancy-Dress-Man. He’s tall and slim and as out of place as a hawk on a garden bird table. Clothes the shades of autumn 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, his dark eyes crinkling. His face is thin and tanned, his shoulder-length hair another 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’s offering. My fingers close over warm metal. It’s a solid gold bracelet. He releases his hold on it and I look down in curiosity.
Heavy in my hand lies an open-ended bracelet. At each end is a ferocious 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 are coming up the grassy slope towards me, Artie between them.
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 edge of the hilltop and looks down the path to the town but there’s no-one to be seen. Artie tries to free himself from our father’s iron grasp and can’t. He whinges 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 in his dark eyes that he’s kind, that the gift is meant for me alone. My jaw juts rebelliously. 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 is reassuring rather than admonishing. “Of course it’s yours,” she says, and I don’t hear the strain in her voice or see the unhealthy flush to her thin cheeks. “You shall have it as soon as Daddy has taken a good look at it.”
And so I did, eventually, after my father had completed his research and shown it to fellow Dark Age scholars. He never told me what he concluded about it, and I never asked. It was enough that it was mine again, my present from the Fancy-Dress-Man.
Too big for my wrist for years, I kept it in the little wooden jewellery chest my mother gave me before she died. I had her to thank for it. She’d insisted my father let me keep it, so I felt it was a present from her as well as the Fancy-Dress-Man.
That wasn’t to be the only time I saw the Fancy-Dress-Man, though.
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, remembering how last night in the hotel Nathan had made me put him away in my bag when he’d wanted to make love. He’d joked and said he couldn’t possibly do it with my father watching. I’d laughed with him, but now it didn’t feel so wrong. 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 walked the few steps to the brow of the hill.
I cleared my throat. “Dad,” my voice was husky with emotion, “I’ve brought you here just like you wanted. You’ll always be 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. A tear trickled down my cheek.
I wasn’t going to let it interrupt me. “I’ll never forget you. You were the best dad ever. I know you’re with Mummy now and one day Artie and I will see you again. I love you, Dad.” I upended the urn and a breeze took the ashes, spreading them across the hillside.
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, stalking me when I most wanted to be alone? Anger welled up in me at the thought.
Because that’s what I believed he was. A stalker.
The summer after my thirteenth birthday, there’s a dig at Glastonbury Abbey.
We miss the last two weeks of school. Piled into our Land Rover amidst all the paraphernalia of archaeology, we travel from our home in Berkshire, 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, millimetre by millimetre, the layers of soil in the trenches that have been opened. In shorts and t-shirt, I’m soon bronzed by the sun and my long chestnut hair is streaked with blonde.
It’s the end of the summer holidays and we only have days left on the dig. It’s evening. Everyone else has gone home or to the pub. I sit outside my tent twirling the golden bracelet in my fingers absently. Under my touch the warm gold throbs with heat and I find I’m thinking for the first time in years of the-Fancy Dress-Man.
From where I’m sitting the taped off area of the dig is between me and the deserted abbey ruins. Something, some slight movement glimpsed from the corner of my eye, draws my gaze and I turn my head. A faint ringing starts in my ears. Standing just beyond the far tape barrier is a lone figure. A man. He’s in fancy-dress.
I know it’s him. The bracelet burns hot against my skin as though it too recognises 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 and walks away towards the path up to the Tor.
Without thinking, I follow him.
There’s no-one on the path. On a warm summer’s evening, to encounter not a single person on my way up to the Tor is strange. Ahead of me the Fancy Dress Man, his russet cloak swishing as he walks, is always out of reach, no matter how I hurry.
It’s quiet, too. No noise penetrates up from the town as I climb. There might be no cars down there and no people. I’m inside a bubble of silence broken only by the lonely cries of a colony of rooks in the tree tops.
Emerging from the trees, I see 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 him 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 there’s the shadow of stubble on his chin.
“A friend,” he says, with 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 ask, still unafraid.
He puts his head on 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’m not afraid of him.
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, because 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 is 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’s urging me to believe him.
“My mother’s dead,” I say. 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 Gwen. 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 don’t know what a stalker is. 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. One day we’ll meet again.”
He straightens up from where he’s been leaning against the wall and steps inside the empty tower. I follow him, to have it out with him. He hasn’t answered my questions properly at all. He’s only left me with more and I’m angry. I look inside the tower. It’s empty.
The memory blew away.
My father’s ashes settled and the air was empty once again, but the musical note continued. I put the open urn down beside my back pack and walked round the tower, half expecting to see the Fancy-Dress-Man lurking there, intruding on my grief. But there was nothing. Not a soul. I looked down the frosty hillside in every direction. Still nothing. Yet that musical note swelled until it filled the crisp early morning air.
“I know you’re here,” I called out, my voice lost and small in the stillness of the morning. Anger made me bold. “Come out right now.”
Nothing. I walked round the tower again then paused and looked inside. Low sunlight slanted in across the uneven paving slabs but it was 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 there 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. Carved on its face was a dragon, like the ones on my bracelet. My outstretched fingers touched it.
Bright lights exploded around me. Something yanked me forwards and I fell, arms outstretched to save myself, fingers clenched tight around the ring. The sunlight was extinguished, the stone walls of the tower melted and vanished. The air rushed past my ears and a high-pitched wailing filled my head. I think it was me making it.
The ground that came up to meet me was bumpy and cold and wet instead of hard stone slabs. I rolled over and over, mud and grass finding their way into my mouth, my head shaken about like a rag doll. My hands scrabbled as I tried to stop myself and eventually I slithered to a halt facedown, eyes shut, head spinning.
I struggled to get my breath back. It must have been at least a minute before I opened my eyes. I was stretched out, arms above my head, fingers hooked into the soft wet grass and face pressed to the ground. My whole body ached as though I’d been trampled by a herd of buffalo. I felt sick. I could no longer hear the musical note. If I moved I was going to throw up.
After a moment the feeling of imminent sickness began to pass so I raised myself up and took a peep. Tree tops and shrouding mist and grass sloped steeply away below me. I was lying on the side of the hill, my long hair a tangled mess and my hat lost. And now I was definitely going to puke.
I retched a bit, and then a bit more, but only bile came up as I’d not eaten any breakfast. However, it did make me feel a little better. What was happening? Was this an earthquake? Ridiculous as that sounded I couldn’t think of any other explanation.
I pushed myself into a sitting position. I must have rolled in every patch of mud on my way down the hill. My right knee was sore and I was covered in dirt. I opened my right hand and looked at the golden dragon ring. There was nothing else to do with it so I slipped it onto my forefinger where it fitted perfectly. Then I rubbed my hands together to get rid of the worst of the dirt.
I got to my feet and looked about. The mist had crept up the hill and thickened. I’d better go and get my back pack and Dad’s empty urn and hobble back down to Nathan. The thought of him snuggled in our nice warm hotel bed was a great incentive.
The climb back up the hill took a lot longer than my roll down it. The frost had vanished and instead the ground was damp and slippery and peppered with sheep droppings which no doubt I’d rolled in as much as the mud. My knee throbbed and the effort made me pant. On top of that I was aware that I must be quite smelly.
Reaching the brow, I looked across the hill top. The tower was not there. And with the tower had vanished both my back pack and my father’s urn. But the hill top wasn’t empty - where the tower should have been stood a circle of uneven looking standing-stones, gauntly outlined against the grey sky.
More ridiculous thoughts popped in and out of my aching head. Was I dreaming? Hallucinating? No way could something as substantial as a church tower just vanish into thin air.
I stared at the stones - were they even real? There’d once been a circle of stones on top of the Tor. Was it possible someone had tried remaking them? I must be dreaming. If so then it was a very realistic dream.
I hobbled over to take a closer look at them. They looked real. I reached out a tentative hand and touched the nearest one. It was cold and damp and hard - definitely a real rock. When I gave it a shove it stood its ground. I walked round the others touching them all in turn. Every one of them was real, the grass growing rank and tall around their bases, as though they’d been planted there a long time. How weird was that?
So weird it was making my brain hurt. So weird I decided I’d have to think about the disappearance of the tower later. This was a dream and I’d wake up in bed with Nathan in a minute or two, ready to get up and take my father’s vanished urn up to the Tor and scatter his ashes for real.
I pinched the back of my hand hard with my nails but nothing changed except the back of my hand hurt. Could you have dreams as real as this one? Could you get stuck in them? The idea that I might be hallucinating resurfaced. The only thing I could think to do now was to go back down the hill into the town. To the staid normality that was Nathan, who was probably going to think I’d gone mad. Perhaps I had. Perhaps I was imagining all of this. Perhaps the shaking I’d given my brain as I rolled down the hill was playing tricks on me? That was an awful lot of perhapses.
Then I remembered my phone. Taking it out of my coat pocket I flicked it on. 95 per cent battery but the bars for signal were at zero. However, it did tell me it was already half past eight. I gave it an annoyed shake but of course, that did no good. There were still zero bars showing. Typical. You have a mobile phone just in case of an emergency and the moment you need it, it decides not to work.
I put it back in my coat pocket. Thinking about Nathan and the shower I was so looking forward to, I set off in the direction of the town, plunging down into the sea of mist. It was so thick now that it was hard to find the path down. Well, impossible really. I ended up sliding on my bottom part of the way, bumping into trees I wasn’t expecting to find and making a bit of a hash of the descent. I began to feel both grumpy and hungry, even a little bit tearful – not at all like me. I put it down to the shock of my fall.
The land at the foot of the hill leveled out. I should have been approaching the A361 and houses on the edge of town by now, but there was no sign of civilisation at all. Just more grass and more trees and even more mist. It was very quiet too. A glance at my phone told me it was now nearly a quarter to nine so I should have seen cars about and heard the town waking up even though it was a Sunday. Maybe even a church bell or two. I began to feel nervous.
Just as that thought crossed my mind, I heard the faint sound of a single bell tolling through the mist. Relief washed over me, quickening my steps almost to a run. I’d been beginning to think I’d come down on the wrong side of the hill in the confusion after my fall, but the sound of the bell reassured me that I must be nearly back. It rang out again and again, but the mist stole the sound, playing with it so it was impossible to tell where it was coming from. I broke into a run, wanting to find it before it stopped ringing. Any minute now I’d see the buildings of the town and be safe.
More trees loomed up out of the mist like ghostly spectres. I tripped over a root and went sprawling face down in the dirt. For a moment I lay there, hands and face pressed to the ground. The bell sounded no closer. This was ridiculous. Where on earth was I? Where was the town? And where was the sound of that bell coming from? I struggled to my feet and ran a few more paces before this time I fell into a swampy pool.
Luckily for me it wasn’t very deep. I struggled out of it, wet now as well as muddy and shitty, and beginning to feel very annoyed. What was Nathan going to say when he saw me? I was going to have to have a thorough shower before I got back into bed with him. Thoughts of Nathan and the hot shower, and other things he might do to comfort me after my adventure, spurred me on.
Watching out for more swampy pools, I jogged towards the bell for a few more minutes. But I was too late. The ringing ceased and silence enveloped me. I stood still, ears straining, hoping it would start up again.
“This is ridiculous,” I said out loud, then wished I hadn’t. The mist that swirled between the forlorn trees deadened my voice to nothing. The silence had been making me feel very alone but breaking it was worse. I took my phone out of my coat pocket again. Thank goodness it hadn’t got wet in the swampy pool, but it still said zero bars. I must be in the back end of beyond for phone services. I shoved it back in my pocket.
All around me the mist swirled and eddied.
Footsteps on dead leaves.
Coming towards me through the mist.
I swung round, my heart pounding. Who was it? What was it?
A sheep emerged from the gloom and bleated at me. It was small and brown, nothing like the sort of round white woolly creatures I was used to seeing. In fact, it looked more like a goat than a sheep. A second similar sheep materialised out of the mist, and then a third. They stood in a row looking at me out of their narrow pupiled eyes. Nothing to be afraid of in sheep. My heart began to steady.
Then I saw the boy. The mist swirled aside for a moment revealing his small sturdy figure standing behind the sheep. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old. Thick dark hair hung in a tangle to his shoulders and his urchin face was as grubby as mine must have been. But the strangest thing about him was the way he was dressed. He wore a dirty checked tunic that reached to his muddy knees and a sheepskin, slung over his shoulders like a cloak, was fastened on his chest with a bronze clasp. On his feet were what I suppose you could have called boots if you were being generous, but really were bits of animal skin tied on with strips of leather. He had a wooden shepherd’s crook hooked over his right arm, and was holding a catapult. A loaded catapult. He was aiming it at me. We stared at one another.
“Who’re you?” His voice was wary and strongly accented but I couldn’t place its origin. With large dark eyes he surveyed me from head to toe and obviously found what he was looking at to be wanting.
I smiled as I might smile at any child to put them at their ease with an adult stranger, as I’d done countless times in the library where I worked. He needed humouring. He was a very odd sort of boy. In all my time coming to Glastonbury with my father though, I’d come to understand that there was nothing there that could ever surprise me. This child’s eccentric appearance must be something to do with the many hippies who congregated here.
“My name’s Gwen,” I said. “I’m lost and I’m trying to get back to the town and I think I’ve come down the wrong side of the hill in the mist. I was following the sound of the church bell but it stopped. Can you show me the way back, please?”
“Don’t you come any closerer t’me,” he said, holding the catapult out in front of him as though he thought I might hurt him, his lips curling back in what was almost a snarl. “How’d you get ‘ere?” His teeth were woefully gappy.
“I walked, of course,” I said. “And now I want to get back to my hotel and get a nice hot shower and some clean clothes. I’ve got no phone signal so I can’t ring anyone for help. Can you show me the way, please?”
Was he an idiot? From the blank look on his face he didn’t seem to have understood what I was saying at all. I’d have to spell it out to him. I held out one of my wet jean clad legs. “Look, I’m all muddy and wet. I need to get home. Which way is the town?”
It began to dawn on me that he was looking at me as though I was the idiot. For a moment we stood at an impasse, like the pair of idiots we took each other for, and then he gave a jerk of his shaggy head and turned away from me. I took that as an indication to follow him. The sheep did too, and all four of us trailed behind him through the thinning mist, me hurrying to make sure he didn’t get out of sight because he was moving at a speed that told me he was very sure of his way.
I couldn’t see it, but in the east above the low cloud the sun must have been climbing into the sky. The Tor was shrouded in mist that had risen to envelope the higher ground. What I could see opening out in front of me were scrubby trees and bushes, more sheep droppings, a muddy track and then even more sheep. Not a very promising aspect. The three who were accompanying us broke away and went off to graze with their fellows. The boy kept on walking, glancing back from time to time to make sure I was following him. Or maybe to make sure I didn’t get too close. I hurried to keep up.
I was getting worried now. There was nothing I recognised anywhere. I should have crossed the main road and been almost at the hotel in the middle of the town by now but instead all I saw was soggy grassland and stunted trees. That was until the first hut loomed up out of the mist. It was rectangular with a low thatched roof that sloped steeply up to where smoke was escaping through the apex to mingle with the mist. The bit of the wall that I could see beneath its overhang appeared to be made of wattle and daub.
Realisation dawned. I wasn’t dreaming after all. This must be some sort of historical re-enactment site. Hence the hut and the oddly dressed boy with the gappy teeth. There was sure to be someone here over eight years old who’d be able to give me a sensible answer to my questions and tell me how to get back to the town. Maybe even someone who could give me a lift in their car. Especially if I told them who my father was. He’d been well known in the sort of circles that did re-enactment.
It wasn’t the only hut. There was quite a cluster of them, the smoke from their fires hanging over them in a pall. Between them were wooden pens where pigs rooted in the mud, their stench mingling with the smell of the woodsmoke. Bedraggled chickens scratched in the dirt, stacks of firewood stood near each house, and there were buildings that might have been grain stores. Several heaped middens steamed in the cold air. It was a very authentic looking re-enactment both to look at and to smell.
My scholarly instinct was piqued. My father would have liked this place.
A woman lifted the leather flap that served as a door and came out of the first hut. She straightened up and looked at the boy and me, and I looked back at her hopefully. She was about my age with dark hair tied back in a thick plait that reached her waist and a rather plain face that creased into a frown as soon as she saw me.
“Hello,” I said in my best friendly-to-the-public voice, “your little boy found me on the side of the hill and I asked him to show me the way back to the town. But he brought me here instead.” I was beginning to wonder if the little boy was a bit backward. “I’m sorry to bother you but is there someone here who could tell me how to get back – or even better, give me a lift back themselves? Has anyone here got a car?”
The woman’s hand came up to her chest and her fingers sketched a shape in the air, fear etched onto her face. I realised with a start that she was warding off evil. In fact, she thought I was evil.
The boy went to her side, the catapult aimed at me afresh. “She’s talkin’ weird,” he said in a low voice. “I thought I’d best bring ‘er ‘ere. I think she’s fairy folk.”
The woman’s frown deepened making her look older than I’d thought at first. “Or a Yellow Hair spy,” she said. “You did right.” She looked me up and down with open suspicion. “She’s not from round ‘ere, that’s for sure. Look at ‘er clothes. How’d she get through the marshes by ‘erself? Someone must’ve showed her.” Her voice was rough with the same sort of fear I’d felt in the boy. Why would she be frightened of me and what was she talking about? Was this some sort of secret historical project I’d stumbled on?
“I’m certainly not a fairy,” I said, grasping onto the boy’s words and thinking this conversation was taking a very strange direction, “and I’m not a spy. I don’t know what marshes you’re talking about unless you count the stinking pond I just fell into, which is why I’m so dirty.” I encompassed my muddy apparel with a gesture of my hands that made both of them take a step back as though they thought I was about to attack them. “I was up on the Tor scattering my father’s ashes. I just need to get back to my hotel so I can get a hot shower and some clean clothes. If you can’t help me, can you get someone who can?”
“See?” said the boy, “I don’t unnerstand most of what she sez.”
The woman nodded. “Got that last bit though, din’t we? Go fetch Geraint. He’ll know what to do with ‘er. And gimme your crook. If she do anything odd I’ll fetch her one with it.” She glared at me. “You stand there and don’t budge. You’re our prisoner now.” The boy thrust the crook into her waiting hands and went running off towards the biggest of the round huts shouting Geraint’s name.
Her prisoner? This was all beginning to feel rather surreal. I decided to wait and see what this Geraint might say. Hopefully his would be the voice of reason. I didn’t want to risk her giving me a whack with that crook. Beneath her rough tunic she looked tough and strong and well capable of dealing me a heavy blow.
A huge bear of a man emerged from the biggest hut, and, roused no doubt by the boy’s shouts, a fair number more men and women came out of the lesser huts, most followed by a cluster of tatty children. Their costumes were much the same as the woman’s – tunics and trousers for the men, ankle length homespun gowns for the women.
Geraint came striding towards me as the boy gabbled his story. I noticed with a pang of unease that he and all the men had come out buckling swords onto their hips, and most of the women had wooden clubs in their hands. Even the children had weapons.
The woman who was guarding me with the crook stepped back, a look of relief on her face. Geraint stopped in front of me, heavy brows knitted in aggression, bearded square jaw jutting. He was maybe fifty years old, with bushy grey hair and a thickened white scar running from above his left eye right down to his chin. Where his eye should have been was just a puckered reddish hollow. I swallowed. Surely this was taking realism just a tiny bit too far?
He didn’t need to get his sword out to frighten me. One look from that grim face had already done that. The rest of the men and women gathered round in a threatening circle, the children peering between the bodies of their elders. If anything, the women looked fiercer than their menfolk. There’d be no use appealing to them for help.
“Who’re you?” Geraint demanded.
“Gwen,” I said breathlessly, “My name’s Gwen. I’m here by mistake. I -”
Geraint gave a growl of annoyance. “Jus’ answer my questions, woman.” His eyes ran over my clothing which was so very unlike theirs. “Where did ye come from?”
Indeed, where had I come from to end up here? That was a question I wanted an answer to myself. I pointed back towards the Tor. “Up there. I went up at dawn to spread my father’s ashes but when I came back down I got lost and ended up here. I don’t know where I am. I’m lost.”
“No-one ends up ‘ere unless it’s by intention,” Geraint spat at me. All around the others muttered their agreement in a hissing chorus. “There’s no way in ‘less ye know the way. And I’ll be bound ye don’t. Who was it brought ye in and why?”
I felt like I was drowning in a sea of mud, bogged down and being sucked under. “I came here to Glastonbury in my boyfriend’s car,” I said, guessing this answer wouldn’t do. “I walked up to the Tor and then I walked back down and I fell in a bog. Look at me. I’m wet and filthy and all I want to do is get back home to get a shower and clean clothes.” I was beginning to sound desperate.
“She ‘as the clothes of a heathen,” came a rough voice from behind me, followed by grunts of assent.
“She’s not one of us,” said another. A rumble of approval went through them all.
“String ‘er up right now.” That one came from a woman. No sisterhood here then. Did she mean it?
“I haven’t done anything,” I protested in real fear now. “I just need to see someone who can help me. Please, I need your help. I’m not a spy or a fairy or anything else you don’t like.” A sea of blank faces greeted my outburst. “I’m just an ordinary person who got here by mistake. Please help me.” My voice rose in panic.
One of the women, a wrinkled crone with no teeth at all, had a coil of rope in her hands and was edging closer, running it through her fingers.
Geraint pushed her away. “We don’t know what she be or what she be about but the abbot will. He’ll know for sure what to do with ‘er.“