New page on my blog for Read Me A Story, Ink

Delighted to announce that I’ve got a new page on this blog  featuring links to stories of mine that you can read and/or listen to at the fabulous site, Read Me A Story, Ink, a great, free resource for parents, teachers and children, created and run by booklover, bookseller and reader Robert Topp.

At Read Me A Story, Ink, you can find searchable lists of short stories for children by hundreds of authors, with the full text available for download and print out, and some stories also provided as appealing audio readings by Bob himself. A guide to reading age is also given, along with the name of the publication the story first appeared in, and all authors have given their full consent for stories to appear on the site.

Eight of my stories appear on the site. Have a look at my page where you’ll find links to all of them.

A favourite Christmas memory…

Last year, at this festive time, I republished a piece I’d written in English and French for a magazine, about my childhood Christmasses. This year, as a favourite Christmas memory, I thought I’d offer instead a magical Christmas story, The Dolls’ First Christmas, which was published in the Random House Australia anthology, Stories for Seven Year Olds(, edited by Linsay Knight, 2014). It was inspired by my very talented friend Fiona McDonald giving me a beautiful handmade doll she’d created–and who I immediately named Esmeralda, after one of my favourite characters in a favourite childhood book of mine, Le Capitaine Fracasse, by Theophile Gautier..

Hope you enjoy–and the very best of wishes to you all for the festive season!

The original Esmeralda

The Dolls’ First Christmas

by Sophie Masson

Christmas Eve in the toyshop. In Miss Jeffries’ toy-shop, the last delivery had just arrived. Teddy-bears and tin toys. Puppets and pull-alongs. Rocking-horses and doll’s houses. And Esmeralda.

She arrived in an ordinary box, like the other dolls:

Sarah and

Donna and

Laura and

Clara and

Gloria.

 

Gloria, haughty queen of the dolls in Miss Jeffries’ toy shop, sat on her glittering throne in the window. Everyone gasped when they saw Gloria and said how beautiful she was. But no-one had bought her yet. She was too special. She cost too much.

Esmeralda was beautiful too, but in a different way. Her hair wasn’t golden, like Gloria’s, but black, in great long curls. Her skin wasn’t peaches and cream, like Gloria’s, but honey and tea. Her eyes weren’t sky blue, but nut-brown. Her stripy dress was splendid—but she did not have elegant satin slippers, like Gloria. Her feet were bare.

Miss Jeffries smiled as she set Esmeralda up on green velvet. ‘There, now, ‘ she said. ‘We’ll have two Queens. A snow queen. And a sun queen. You’ll be friends.’

But can two queens really be friends? Gloria didn’t think so. Esmeralda didn’t think so. Each thought she was better. Each sat in her splendour and looked haughtily away and thought she would be the first to go.

It was a long busy day. Sarah and Clara and Laura and Donna left and two boy dolls and six tin toys and eight teddy-bears and three puppets and two fairy dolls and a mermaid doll and two clowns and four baby dolls, plus a brace of Barbies. But not Gloria. And not Esmeralda, either.

At last, and very late, Miss Jeffries was about to close up. A man rushed in, shouting, ‘I work for Mr Darling, the millionaire. He sent me to buy a Christmas gift for his daughter Cherie. Her mother’s dead and her father has no time. I need your best doll. Your very best doll.’

‘There are two,’ said Miss Jeffries, calmly. ‘Esmeralda, and Gloria. Which one would Cherie like best? Sun queen or snow queen?’

The man stared.  ‘Oh! I have no idea. But I know she’ll have a tantrum if she doesn’t like what I choose. She’s always having tantrums. Blow it. I’ll take the two.’

‘Good choice,’ beamed Miss Jeffries, ‘they belong together, no question.’ She put them in their boxes and tied a pretty ribbon around them and waved a cheerful goodbye as the man hurried out, muttering to himself, ‘After all, if that brat doesn’t like one of them, she can always give it to someone else. Or throw it away. They’re only dolls, after all.’

Poor Gloria and Esmeralda! They had been made with such care. Their dresses were hand-stitched, their hair hand-knotted, their faces hand-painted. They’d been made to be loved. And now here was someone saying they might just be thrown away, like some cheap, broken factory toy.

Dolls may not talk in words and their red satin hearts may not beat but they have other ways of communicating. Gloria and Esmeralda sensed each other’s fear. At first, each thought it didn’t matter. Whichever doll Cherie liked best would be safe. But then– what if Cherie got sick of her? She might be worse off, then. While the other one might have gone to a good home. To a little girl who loved her.

Most dolls are airheads, the space under their pretty china or plastic skulls quite hollow. But Gloria and Esmeralda had cloth faces, pulled tightly over wads of stuffing. In the middle of the stuffing, each had a long, bright pin, left in by mistake. So their thoughts were sharp and they each thought the same thing at the same moment. They were queens. Snow queen, sun queen. They might not be friends, but sometimes queens put rivalry aside for the good of all. They would do something together, not apart. But how?

 

At the Darling mansion, the man gave the boxes to the housekeeper. She took them to a room where a tall, twinkling Christmas tree stood, with piles of presents under it.  The housekeeper shook her head, sadly. ‘More things going to waste on that spoilt child,’ she said.

The dolls lay under the tree for hours. No clever ideas came to them. Soon, they knew, it would be too late.

And then, just after midnight, there was a clatter of hooves on the roof above. Moments later a deep voice grumbled, ‘Why do I come? She has so much already!’

Now all toys, no matter how new, know what happens Christmas night. So Esmeralda and Gloria knew the grumbler wasn’t Mr Darling, or any of his staff. It was that jolly visitor, come from a magical world, whose job is to give every child in the world a present. The humans call him Santa Claus.

The dolls’ red satin hearts swelled and the sharp pin in their heads glittered as they tried to struggle out and beg for his help. They only made a tiny rustle, but Santa Claus’ sharp ears pricked up. And his kind eyes, that see into the heart of every child everywhere, saw right into those two red satin hearts. With a little chuckle, he opened the boxes. He gazed in at Esmeralda and Gloria. ‘A Christmas gift for you, little ones?’ he said. He touched each of them, very gently. A warm, golden stream of light seemed to flow from his fingers, into the dolls’ painted eyes. ‘Very well, then. I give you the power of love. And a very merry Christmas to you both.’

And with that, he was gone. The dolls heard the clatter of his reindeer’s hooves on the roof, then nothing. They waited in the warm piney darkness, filled with hope now.

Soon, it was morning. The dolls heard a man’s voice, trying to be jolly. ‘Well, Cherie, aren’t you going to open your lovely presents? Start with those two boxes.’

‘Yes, Daddy.’  A thin, flat, voice. Gloria and Esmeralda were afraid again. This child would not love them, no matter what Santa Claus said. All was lost.

Next thing, the wrapping-paper was roughly ripped, the lids of the boxes pulled off, so quickly that the dolls flipped helplessly out, onto their faces.

Mr Darling cried, ‘Really, Cherie, be careful! Look how beautiful they are! ‘

‘I don’t like dolls,’ shouted Cherie. ‘They stare and stare and they’re stupid! Stupid!’

‘Oh, nothing’s good enough for you, I’m tired of it, tired, do you hear!’ yelled her father. And he went out, slamming the door.

Cherie glared at the dolls. She picked them up, roughly. Gloria and Esmeralda thought their last hour had come. They would be torn limb from limb, their bodies shredded, their heads wrenched off. But as they helplessly looked up they suddenly saw in the child’s eyes, under the anger,  a sadness that  made their red satin hearts clench and their sharp minds ache. In that instant, something warm and golden and loving flowed from the dolls to the child, seeping into Cherie’s unhappy, lonely eyes.

She stared at them. Her lip trembled. She said, faintly, ‘I don’t like dolls..’ Shyly, she touched Esmeralda’s hair, then Gloria’s. She stroked their clothes. She held a doll in the crook of each arm. She whispered, ‘Most dolls are stupid,’ but then added, ‘not you,’ softly.

That is how Mr Darling found them when he came back, ashamed of shouting at his daughter on Christmas Day, wishing that he’d chosen her present himself, telling himself that he must try and understand, even if she made it hard.

But she smiled at him and said, ‘Daddy, do you know what their names are? Gloria and Esmeralda. I think they must be good friends, don’t you? Oh, Daddy, I love them already.’

And as Mr Darling sat happily with his daughter, Gloria and Esmeralda lay happily in her arms. Can two queens really be good friends? Why not? Anything was possible, on this beautiful Christmas morning.

The Koldun’s Daughter

Today, I am posting something different: an enigmatic short story which appears in my novel, Trinity: The False Prince(Pan Macmillan, 2015). The Koldun’s Daughter is a story-within-a-story, supposedly  written by ‘A.I.Denisov’ an aspiring writer who had been killed many years before, and whose death is one of the mysteries investigated by my character, ex-policeman Maxim. I wrote it like a fairytale, against what appears to be a timeless background but which in fact subtly gestures to the very early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. It functions in my novel as both a real clue and a red herring, but it also works quite well as a story in its own right, so I thought readers might enjoy it as is!

And of course, if it whets your appetite for the novel itself, and its predecessor, that’s a bonus 🙂

(A ‘koldun’ by the way, is traditionally in Russia a sorcerer, or male witch. You can read a bit about the background to that here.)

The Koldun’s Daughter

There was once a young woman named Nadia who lived alone in a small cottage in a deep forest. The forest had been her home for as long as she could remember, though she had not been born there. Nadia’s mother had brought her there when she was just a baby, for safety.

Nadia’s father had died even before she was born. She did not know his name, for her mother said it was too dangerous to say it, but she knew he had been a famous koldun. ‘He was a great and kind man but he had deadly enemies,’ her mother said, ‘and the worst of them all was Lord Winter, who had vowed to destroy him.’

Even though the girl had never seen her father or known his name, she always felt close to him. Her mother had brought with her from that other place, far away, a small leather bag, finely tooled.

In it was a tooth, and a piece of bone, and a fragment of a wooden cross. They had all once belonged to the koldun. Nadia’s mother herself had gathered the relics one terrible night, when Lord Winter and his men had finally hunted down Nadia’s father, killed him, and burned his body to ashes. ‘They thought they would destroy his very soul,’ said her mother. ‘But it lives on in us, and especially in you. Never forget that, Nadia.’

The leather bag with its precious relics was kept in a metal box, buried near an old rose bush that grew at the cottage door, for the koldun had loved roses. In that special spot were also placed other things, such as birds’ eggs, and feathers, and the bones of certain animals, for extra protection. Nadia would sit there often, by the rose bush, and the spirit of her father, the great koldun, was with her then, by her side.

The koldun’s greatest gifts had been in healing and prophecy, and the girl’s gifts were close to that. She could heal a sore just by touching it, and her skills at bone-setting were second to none, as she showed by her work on injured birds and animals of the forest. But despite this she was not really a healer, and her path did not lie in prophecy either, though she sometimes caught flashes of things happening in the wide world beyond, things she could not really understand, for she had only ever lived in the forest. But her mother knew what it meant, and it made her believe even more that they must never leave the forest, for terrible things were happening in the world, and rivers of blood swept through the land. The koldun had predicted it all, she told Nadia, and it was all coming to pass, just as he’d said.

Nadia only saw those flashes because of her own special gift. Mostly, she heard those whose tongues were silent; she saw those whose presences were fleeting. In short, she saw and heard the dead. And so she never felt lonely, in that quiet place. It was not only her father whose presence she knew, but other people, who had once lived in that cottage, and in the great forest beyond. But Nadia did not just know human phantoms; she could also sense the long-gone animal ghosts of the forest, and the animals who lived there now sensed that too, so she could walk unmolested among wolves and bears as easily as among deer and rabbits.

Though her mother often spoke of the koldun, she never spoke of her own past, at least not the past before she had met Nadia’s father. ‘My true life began that day,’ she said. She had fallen in love and left her parents, her prospects, everything to follow the koldun. But their joy had not lasted long, for only a few short weeks after, he was dead. And Nadia’s mother, carrying Nadia in her belly, had fled far from her old home and come to the forest, for she knew that otherwise the koldun’s enemies would hunt them down too. She had come on the cottage, not long empty, and in that place had made a cozy home for herself and her child, trapping small animals, growing vegetables, gathering wood, cooking good food and teaching her daughter many beautiful songs, for music was Nadia’s mother’s special gift. And there they had stayed for sixteen long years.

But then one morning, not long before Nadia’s sixteenth birthday, her mother did not wake up. Her heart had suddenly given out in the night and she had gone to rejoin her beloved koldun. Nadia was now all alone. She buried her mother close to the rose bush and tried to live as before. It was what her mother wanted, she knew that, because she could see and hear her mother now in the ghost-world, just as with the others.

And for a time she managed it. She was a strong and clever girl, and a good hunter. She knew all the ways of the forest and to her it was like a larder might be to a city girl. And she still had the company of her ghosts.

But after a time, strange dreams began to come to her. Dreams filled with new things, new people, new places. And in many of them, the same two figures appeared. Two young men. One, a soldier called Philip. The other, a painter named Yannik. These names were strange to Nadia, and she did not know where they had come from, she only knew the names were on her lips when she awoke. Both young men were handsome, each in his own way – Philip dark and delicate of feature, Yannik blond and strong of face. In each dream, Nadia’s name was called by one or other of them, but while Philip called to her in a voice soft as sorrow, Yannik’s voice was a summons like the ringing of a bell.

Presently Nadia began to feel that these men were not just in her dreams but were real people, somewhere. It was not just in her own mind she thought this; her father the great koldun told her so. She who heard the voices of the dead was now hearing also the voices of her future, his spirit whispered to her, and she must answer those voices before it was too late. So the day of her seventeenth birthday, she made ready to leave the place that had been her home for as long as she could remember. She packed food and clothes and her old hunting rifle. She dug under the rose bush and took out the box. Gently removing the leather bag containing the precious relics, she wrapped it in soft cloth and placed it in her bodice, next to her heart. Around her neck she slipped the only thing her mother had kept from her old life: a small enamel locket, with a miniature painting of a house in its heart. And so Nadia’s mother and father would stay close and travel with her, wherever she went. She would never be alone in the big world beyond.

Before she left, she said goodbye to all the ghosts of the forest, and blessed their memory. She did not know if she would be back. She did not know what the future might hold. That was not her particular gift. She only knew that she must go on this path.

Leaving the cottage behind her, she walked and walked. After two days, she came to another lonely cottage and there met an old hunter who lived there with only his equally old dog for company. The hunter gave her some more food and told her that she should not try and leave the forest, for he had heard that many bad things were going on in the world outside. But Nadia did not trust the old hunter; there was a look in his eye that reminded her of an outcast lone wolf. Such creatures could be dangerous. So she bade a polite good day to him and kept on her way.

She passed a few more cottages on her way, but none of them had people in them. At last, three days later, Nadia emerged from the forest into a large village. The people who lived there were not a friendly lot, and neither were the ghosts who clustered around the living like sticky shadows. At first, the villagers would not answer Nadia’s questions about where she might find a soldier called Philip or a painter named Yannik; indeed, they looked at her as though she was mad. They were pinched-faced people with eyes that seemed made of stone and mouths of cold steel. But Nadia was not put off – she could sense the fear in them, and the pain, and she knew that they did not really wish her harm. She had no idea about money because she had never seen any but she knew that people might expect something for their answers. So she thought they might like a song in exchange; but when she started singing, their eyes grew round as the full moon and the fear was in them worse than before. ‘You must not sing such songs, someone might hear you,’ one of them whispered, at last.

‘You had better leave,’ added a woman, ‘or you will bring misfortune on us.’

And then a third person, a young boy, said, ‘We should tell him, we should, you know that!’

Nadia did not know who ‘him’ was but from the expressions on their faces, she knew she probably did not want to find out. So she took to her heels and fled from that mad village and she did not stop till she had left it far, far behind. She did not understand what she had seen and heard and for once her ghosts were not of use to her. Even her father, the koldun, did not speak or make himself known in any way, and the leather bag which contained his precious relics felt cold against her breast, as did her mother’s medal locket.

But as she went along the road that led far away from the village, a little cat came out of the bushes and joined her. At first, she did not take much notice of it, for it slipped like grey smoke in and out of the shadows behind her. But then she turned around and looked at it and the cat looked back. As their eyes met, she began to see them, all around them. Ghosts and more ghosts, more than she’d thought might exist in the whole world. They were streaming past her with their eyes vague and their mouths open, but they did not speak and neither did they look at her. It was as though she were the ghost, and not they. And she knew then that the cat had been sent to show her. Sent to her by the koldun, her father.

She whispered kind words to the cat, and it came fearlessly to her and weaved around her legs. She said to it, ‘Show me the way,’ and it did, stalking in front of her with its tail in the air. So on they went and on until they reached a town. To Nadia’s eyes, it seemed huge, though in truth it was just a small town, bigger than the village, but not by much. But that was not what struck her most. For in that town was a place that Nadia recognized from a story told by her mother. ‘It’s a citadel,’ she told the cat, ‘where great men lived a long time ago, and it is surely a sign, like you.’

The walls of this citadel were white, its domes were silver and in one tower there was a large bell. As Nadia and the cat came closer, the bell began to toll, and at once she thought she heard, in the sound of the bell, the voice of Yannik, the golden-haired man from her dream. ‘He is there, he and Philip,’ she told herself, and marched on.

They came to a stone archway, alive with figures that loomed like golden shadows beneath a veil of new white paint. Another eye but Nadia’s would not have seen the figures beneath the white paint, but her gift was to see ghosts, even those of hidden art. Standing in the archway were two men that she knew at once were like the old hunter, only worse, much worse, for around them swirled black-clad ghosts in long robes, weeping tears of blood. These guards had big moustaches and ugly uniforms and large rifles in their hands. They did not look at all welcoming. But she would not turn back, not now. Her father’s relics against her breast were warm again, the cat was at her heels like grey smoke, and she knew she was in the right place.

She had to find a way to get past the men at the gates. And she could not ask the ghosts to help. Not the ghosts of the people anyway, for the old world that they had lived in before they’d been killed was gone, and fear and confusion had trapped them in a place of endless mourning so they could neither hear nor see her. But the cat whispered in her mind that the animal ghosts were a different matter. They sensed her, as did the living ones, and it was them she called to distract the guards so she might slip through.

So that is what she did, and in through the gates she went then, with the cat still at her heels, while the guards, their attention taken by the sudden howl of a wolf, seemingly close by, and the skittering of dozens of small feet, seemingly all around them, swung wildly here and there, trying to get a fix on the sudden invasion of unseen animals. Later, they would tell each other, fearfully, that they had heard and seen nothing, and would never speak of it to any other living soul.

Nadia ran through the courtyard beyond the gate, heading for the most magnificent building she could see, with shining silver domes against the blue, blue sky. All around, she could see signs of devastation; barns with doors ripped open; great gouges in the earth; meadows strewn with bits of cloth and fragments of stone. Still she ran, till she came at last to what had once been a garden, now overgrown with weeds. In the midst of this wilderness was a man standing at an easel, and the sunlight glinted on his hair, which was golden as straw. ‘Yannik!’ called out Nadia, and the man turned and looked at her. His eyes were blue-grey, soft as mist.

But before he could say anything, another man came walking across the garden. Though he was tall, and dressed like an officer, with a peaked cap, his features were delicate under jet-black hair, and Nadia knew him at once, too. ‘Philip!’ she cried, and he stopped, and looked at her with eyes as blue-green as the sea.

Faintly, she heard her father’s ghost, saying in her heart, ‘It is as it should be, my daughter, and soon you will be with child. A great koldun, that child will become.’ But he did not say which man to choose, which would be the father. She looked for the cat, but it had vanished as suddenly as it had come.

Yet now she found she could look at the two men with the eyes of her gift, and she called out the ghosts from their pasts. And then she knew, and came towards them, smiling. ‘I am the koldun’s daughter,’ she said, ‘and I have come from the past so the future may live.’

Copyright Sophie Masson

 

The Spanish Wife: a short story

Today I’m republishing another story of mine–rather Gothic in feel, with a real twist in the tail. It was inspired by a very strange dream, in which I actually heard a voice saying, ‘He was such a grey man, till he came back with a Spanish wife” I woke on those words, intrigued: who was speaking? Who was the ‘grey man’? And what was it about the ‘Spanish wife’? This story was the result of answering those questions. Enjoy!

The Spanish Wife

by Sophie Masson

You’d never have credited it, of Moffat. He was such a grey, precise little man. The sort who is always at his desk a full fifteen minutes before anyone else. The kind whose desk ressembles some general’s abstract plan of attack—never the messy reality of the battlefield. The type of irreproachable bachelor who’s just that—not playing for the other side or anything, but a man who lived a blameless, virtuous, dull life, first with his widowed mother, then when she died, by himself, in a small Holborn flat as neat and grey as his person. He appeared to have no ambitions, no dreams, no hopes, no fears. He had risen in the company only in small steps but did not appear to be resentful of the fact that chaps like Jones or Carey, who’d come in at the same time as he, with pretty much the same qualifications, were streets ahead of him now. He had no enemies, but no friends, either. At least, unless you count me. I took an interest in the funny little chap, for no reason I can really explain, because he is a good deal older than I and not really interested in the same things as I am. My last lady friend, Cora, told me that it was because Moffat made me look good—that his greyness made me look much more sparkling, witty and charming than I really was. But as she said it just before saying I was the most immoral, most selfish man she’d ever met, and slamming the door in my face, we can probably discount that as an explanation. I suppose, if I was to be pushed for an explanation, I was intrigued by him, in a strange way. He seemed to live life in a kind of dream. No, not really a dream; he was like a shadow amongst the solid. Not like a ghost, mind you; ghosts are unexpected things, producing disturbance, fright, an upending of order, what have you. Moffat was the very soul of the expected; the very epitome of unchanging order, always there, never noticed. A nobody, in short.

Until the day when he returned from Spain, with a Spanish wife. The going to Spain was odd enough: the country was in the middle of a bitter civil war, with Reds and Brownshirts and I don’t know what other dismal colours battling it out for control. Why Moffat of all people would go there was a mystery big enough in itself. He was not political in any sense of the word—he’d no more have dreamed of joining one of those hotheaded foreign militias rushing over to drape themselves in the warring colours, than he’d have thought of dancing naked around the office. (The mind boggles!) He had no sense of romance either, none that I’d been able to discern, at least—and certainly the image of sultry senoritas with roses in their teeth and clicking heels and bullfights and all that sort of thing would, I’d have sworn it, simply failed to register with him. He had not, so far as I knew, ever travelled before beyond the various seaside resorts of the South of England. Oh, and once to Cornwall, I believe, but he hadn’t much liked that. Too foreign I suppose. And yet there it was—Moffat had not only gone to Spain, but he’d come back with a Spanish wife. A wife at his age—he was by then in his mid-fifties—was surprising enough. But a Spanish wife—that really took the biscuit. A real revolution, you might say.

Rather to my chagrin, I wasn’t the first to find out. Mrs Evans, the tea-lady, made the discovery. On the day Moffat returned from holidays, Mrs Evans had come in early, at the same time as Moffat himself, and had seen him sitting at his desk, gazing at a photograph. In the deft way of her kind, she had managed to contrive a glimpse.

‘And that’s when I saw her. Gave me quite a turn, I can tell you! Never would’ve thought Mr Moffat had it in him.’

Dolores, her name was, Moffat said. He did not seem at all put out at being caught by Mrs Evans. Indeed, she said, he seemed to positively relish the opportunity to talk about his sudden spouse. He’d met Dolores while on holiday in Spain. They’d ”clicked”, as the saying has it, at once. They married within the fortnight. Yes, he smilingly told the gaping Mrs Evans, she had come back with him to England. He was very happy. Everything was perfect.

‘I am sure it will all end in tears. It isn’t natural, ‘ said Mrs Evans, sagely, as we crowded around her, agog at her story. Moffat was out of the office, on some errand—rumour had it he’d gone to check on his Spanish wife, make sure she was still real, and not a dream. Some of the others in the office were inclined, despite the evidence of the photograph and Moffat’s words—the man had never spun a fantasy in his whole life—to believe that it couldn’t be true, that Moffat had somehow gone a bit senile or, for reasons of his own, was pulling the wool over our collective eyes. But I knew that it must be true—Moffat had no imagination, no mischief, no romance, as I said, in him. Continue reading

Dreamer–a short story

Today I thought I’d republish one of my short stories with a real twist, Dreamer.  Hope you enjoy!

Dreamer

by Sophie Masson

‘So what seems to be the trouble?’ The psychologist spoke rather briskly. He was a busy man, harassed, there weren’t enough hours to the day dealing with trouble such as you wouldn’t read about, and there was something about the woman and boy facing him that made him feel slightly uncomfortable. For a start, they didn’t look like his usual clients. They were very neatly dressed. The woman was mildly pretty, with dark hair and eyes and a soft voice underlaid with the trace of a foreign accent. The boy was thin, nervous, with dark hair and large, pale brown eyes, and he was small for his age, which the woman said was fourteen.  It was more than the sum of these impressions, though that disconcerted the psychologist: mother and son gave off something odd, some unstable mixture of feelings he couldn’t put a name to.

‘What seems to be the trouble?’ he repeated, impatiently.

The woman looked at him, then at her son. Hesitantly, she said, ‘It’s the dream, Doctor. He keeps having the dream, you see.’

The psychologist stared. ‘I beg your pardon?’

The woman shot another look at her child. He didn’t look up, but the psychologist thought he saw a tremor running from the child’s thin shoulders to his folded hands. The woman said, even more hesitantly, ‘It’s the third time he’s had it. I..I thought we must come and see you. It’s not..well, you see, each time has been worse than the last. ‘

‘A recurring nightmare?’ said the psychologist, relieved at being in somewhat familiar territory. Many of his clients had nightmares.

‘Yes. He’s woken up—oh Doctor, he’s woken up scared out of his mind, I’ve had to comfort him for ages, you must help him—help us. You must stop him dreaming..’

The psychologist sighed. ‘I am not a magician,’ he said, gently. ‘And besides, nightmares can be a way of coping with bad things. They can rehearse, in our minds, a trauma which has afflicted us, and attempt to change it so that..’

‘You don’t understand,’ broke in the woman. ‘It’s not like that at all. There’s no trauma in my child’s life. None! The dream..’

‘Perhaps we should let him speak for himself,’ said the psychologist, quietly. He felt he could place the woman now—one of those anxious mothers, either single parents or estranged somehow from the child’s father, devoting herself to the care and protection of her only child. She would not want to believe anything bad had happened to him which might cause him to have nightmares. He’d met people like that before. They didn’t understand what harm they did by their stifling protectiveness. So he ignored her, gently, but firmly. He leant towards the child, and said, ‘Is the dream very bad?’

For the first time, the boy looked up. His eyes were expressionless. For an instant, he looked into the psychologist’s face; then he dropped his gaze again and whispered, ‘Yes.’

‘Will you tell me about it?’ the psychologist said.

The woman made a sudden movement. The boy looked at her, briefly. Then he turned to the psychologist and said, indifferently, ‘If you like.’

It was an unusual dream, there was no doubt about that, thought the psychologist, as he listened to the boy. It had started with the boy dreaming he had arrived in a place he didn’t know but that was somehow familiar to him. It was a large city, but not busy, like a city normally is. Instead, it was very quiet. There were few vehicles about, and though the streets were neat and clean, there was little sign of life. Doors and windows were closed, though you could sense, said the boy, that eyes were looking out at you behind closed shutters. The first time, he’d just stood there in the street in the dream, looking around, not sure where he was but feeling that nagging sense of familiarity. Then, he said, he felt a dread growing on him, a sudden nameless dread that made his heart pound and his skin feel clammy. He was being watched, and not just by the eyes behind the shutters. Something was going to happen, he felt sure of it..

But he’d woken before anything did. He’d woken, very frightened and disturbed, but glad to be awake. The next night, he’d not dreamt at all; but the night after that, the dream had come back..

‘The same dream?’ interrupted the psychologist.

The boy nodded; then shook his head.

‘It’s not quite the same,’ said his mother, anxiously. ‘You see, he..’

‘Let him speak,’ said the psychologist, sternly. She subsided.

The second dream had not been the same as the first, though it had started in the same place, in the streets of that silent city. The boy said that it had begun with him walking away from the place he’d arrived, with the dread still on him, the feeling of being watched. He’d come to a large square, which was dominated by the statue of a man on horseback. He couldn’t see the man’s face, because the statue had its back to him, and before he could go round to have a look, suddenly a crowd began filing into the square, a vast, silent crowd. It was eerie, horrible, that silence; and then as they filed past him, seeming not to see him at all, he saw something even more horrible. Some of them had their mouths open—and he saw they had no tongues! But it was clear that once they’d had them; for there were ragged wounds where their tongues should have been. Oh, it was horrible, said the boy in his flat, precise little voice, and just to see it made my dread come back so strongly I thought I would faint. I wanted to run away, but I could not move;  my limbs were made of lead. Besides, I was being watched; I knew I was being watched, and that if I made a false move, something dreadful would happen to me..And then I woke up.

The psychologist steepled his fingers. It was an unusual case indeed, he thought. He hadn’t come across one quite like it before. Recurring nightmares yes, but not ones that changed—well, progressed, really—in this way. He said, ‘I can see it must have been frightening. What happened in the third dream? ‘

‘That was last night,’ said the woman, breaking in. ‘It was the worst—the very worst. I don’t think he can recount it. It will make him live it all over again. Let me tell you..’ Continue reading

The Neptune Clock: a short story

I wrote this story of unexpected magic quite some years ago, and it’s been popular with readers, so I’m republishing it here today. Enjoy!

The Neptune Clock

By Sophie Masson

The summer my grandfather disappeared, I had been with him, as was usual during the holidays. We’d spend the weeks just swimming and fishing and talking. Grandad was a great talker. Mum reckoned he could talk the hind flipper off a dolphin! It was a good picture to have of Grandad, if you know what I mean, because he was really a sea person.

He and Grandma, both. Every year, when she was still alive, they’d lock up the farm and head for the coast. Grandma was a wonderful swimmer; she’d nearly been chosen for the Olympics. It was hard for her, living at the farm; yet she loved it, loved Grandad, too, so she didn’t complain. But when she died, Grandad sold the farm and everything in it, and moved permanently to the coast. He said he felt closer to her that way; reckoned her spirit was in the sea, watching.

The only thing he’d brought back from the farm was the clock. His Neptune clock, as he called it. He had found it in a junk shop years and years ago before he and Grandma were married. I’d known it all my life. You just couldn’t imagine Grandad without it. That clock was a remarkable thing: a grandfather clock, with a glass front, a cedar case, and a carved brass face. Around the Roman numerals were all sorts of sea-figures: dolphins, seashells, a mermaid, seahorses. And the figure of an old man, holding a trident. Neptune, god of the sea, Grandad had said. When I was little, I used to think secretely that Grandad had been the model for Neptune’s face: kindly, thin, as filled with lines as a spider’s web. That clock ticked and tocked and bonged through all our days together; Grandad reckoned that it kept him going. He loved that clock, and used to polish it regularly. And when it stopped, he would open the case with a little key, a lovely brass key in the shape of a dolphin, and start the weights up again. And while he started it, he would tell me endless stories, stories of when he and Grandma were young, stories of the farm and the animals he’d had, stories of the sea. My favourite was that old Scottish story of the selkie–you know, the seal woman who is captured by a fisherman but eventually returns to the sea, leaving her family on land. It’s a sad story, and Grandad’s eyes always looked wet when he told that one. Sometimes I wondered if he thought of Grandma, then, Grandma, who’d so loved the sea, who’d seemed so at home in it…

I’m not sure when I noticed Grandad was a little different, that holiday. I think it started when I found him down at the beach, early one morning, without his beloved rod, just gazing out to sea. ’I saw the dolphins again today,’ he said. He turned to look at me, his blue-green eyes full of excitement. ’They’re coming closer!’ I nodded. I didn’t quite understand his urgency, his excitement, but it was nice to think of them out there, playing, leaping, the brilliant sea sparkling off their skin like scattered gems. Grandad sighed a little, and rubbed at his eyes. ’I don’t really feel much like fishing, these days.’ I looked at him sharply, but he had not sounded weary, only a little restless.

I watched him carefully for the next few days, but he seemed to be just the same as ever. Only occasionally he’d interrupt his talking and look out of the window at something I couldn’t see, but it was only a moment. Next moment he’d be back chatting and spinning yarns. And in its corner the Neptune Clock chimed out its creamy slices of days, chiming in with the rise and fall of his voice.

 

But then one morning–that morning!–I woke suddenly. The house was perfectly still; almost as if it was listening. Something in the quality of that silence made me jump up and fling clothes on. I ran from my room into the kitchen. No-one there. I looked in Grandad’s room. No-one there. The bathroom door was open–no-one there either. Behind the door, fishing rods, boots and all were still in place. But the clock was silent, its sound stilled, somehow adding to my fear.

There was no-one on the beach, and in the silver light of morning I ran and stumbled across the windswept sand, calling for Grandad. I ran and ran, my heart thumping and swelling with knowledge that I didn’t want to face.

It was near the end of the beach, as you go round into the next one, that I found them. His clothes, I mean. Even then, I shouted, ‘No!’ and looked around frantically for him, my eyes almost splitting from the enormous tears that ran all over my face.

Suddenly, there was an unusual movement in the long rolling waves uncoiling before me. Through the tears, I saw two backs, arching, sleek grey bodies slipping in and out of the silken water. Closer they came, closer; and then…People have told me I’m crazy, since then, that it’s just wishful thinking–but I swear that one of those dolphins’ faces was lined, as crazily as a spider’s web, with humorous, sea-change eyes, eyes that had so often been turned on me. And then I watched the dolphins, playing, leaping, looking for all the world like loving people who have found each other again after a long absence…

I can’t tell you how long I stood there, how long they stayed there. But after a while, I walked back slowly to Grandad’s house. And there, on the hall table was the clock key. I picked it up, and turned it over in my hands. ’It’s time, then,’ I whispered. I inserted the key gently into the keyhole.

It opened easily and there, under the weights, was a note in Grandad’s writing: ’This is your clock now, Jessie. It will be a good friend.’ And then followed instructions for starting up the clock. Carefully, I followed them. Then as the clock started ticking again, I looked up at it–and caught my breath. For the Neptune figure, the one which had once had Grandad’s face, stared back at me with a highly-polished grin, out of a face I knew well. Of course I knew it well. I saw it in my mirror every morning.

 

 

The Questing Beast: another story from Arthurian times

This is another Arthurian story I wrote some years ago, set again in the court of Camelot, like The Common Dish which I republished yesterday: unlike it though it’s set at the beginning of the Grail Quest, and the coming of Galahad. And this one is told in Guinevere’s voice.

The Questing Beast

By Sophie Masson

Galahad

May it was, a beautiful Pentecost dusk, when Galahad first came to Camelot. Oh, in a blaze of glory he came, streaking across our sunset sky like a fiery comet, lighting the brilliant way to the end of our world! We saw the brightness, but not the doom; we did not understand that he brought both death and life to the tired land. And we did not pity him. We did not see anything in him to pity..

It was the springtime of the year he came, but the autumn of Camelot. For the great deeds of the past, the vigour and magic of the youth of our world, had dwindled. All the paths, it seemed, had been taken; all the monsters vanquished. We lived in a peace and prosperity unknown to any before us. No wars disturbed our peaceful borders; but the ideals of our past had grown old with our King, and soft with our living. For it is a strange thing that men long for peace when there is war; yet when there is peace, war reigns in their hearts. Melancholy now lived amongst us, where she had been unknown before; yes, and her sister regret, and her daughter despair, and her cousin indifference. The young spent their days in fruitless jousting, in never-ending tournaments of empty valour and foolish risk, in boasting and swaggering; the old in endless recounting of events of long ago: when, they claimed, not only were the deeds more valorous, but also the sun itself shone more brightly in the bluer-than-blue sky!

But there was more than this, something that was dangerous above all else. For the memory of the ways to the Otherworld had grown dim too. The path through the forest of dream had become overgrown and choked with the brambles and vines of our indifference. No longer did the graceful maidens or perilous knights visit us from the immortal realms; and we had almost grown to forget they had ever come at all. The doors and windows of our heart-fastnesses were shut to all marvels, all joy and wonderment, and darkness encroached steadily upon us. So the Wasteland grew around us without our even becoming aware of it; and we bled from invisible wounds, and did not even know it.

Oh, there were a few of us knew well enough, both of the old and the young. Mordred, for one. He had come to Camelot not long before, and had caused quite a stir. But memories had grown dim at Camelot along with so much else; and long shadows are easily hidden at dusk. Mordred did not remind the Court of any unpalatable things; he was always a smiling villain, and clever, and became quite a leader amongst the young men. But villain as he was, he understood what was lacking, what was missing in this autumnal Camelot. And in this understanding he saw his own chance. But he was also one of the few to understand Galahad for what he truly was: bright sun to his own night, yet kin to him in all but name, and necessary to each other. For if there was no sun, truly, the night would be bleak and overwhelming; but if there were no night, would the sun not seem merciless?

And Perceval, the one they called the Holy Fool. He knew. He had been to the perilous castle, he had seen the maimed piteousness of the Fisher King. He had failed twice to ask the questions that would heal the land. But alone of those there, he knew it was the questions that must be asked, not the answers sought. He and his sister the Lady Dindraine, who was in my household, they were amongst the best of the young ones there; bright with enthusiasm and kindness, both, though hotheaded and impulsive, at times, and in a fair way to losing their brightness, in the enervating atmosphere that was now our world.

Arthur should have known. But melancholy had settled over him like a well-worn cloak; his heart was in mourning, his mind wounded, enshrouded in fog. The anger and coldness that was in Mordred had come from him, after all: the son was a mirror of the father, a demon’s bitter glass, to be sure, but nevertheless reflective. The memory of his ancient double sin–the sin of incest, however unwitting, the sin of then attempting to kill his own son–might have faded from the Court’s memory, but it had never left Arthur. In his earlier years, it had seemed to him that the sum of his honourable deeds and his care for his land of Logres, might be set in the balance with his old sins, and tip it in his favour. But now, he was not so sure. The bewilderment of the past had returned to him in full force, and he had none of the defences of youth to hold up against the darkness anymore. And every evening, now, he was reminded. Every evening, Mordred sat at the table, and led the young knights to their boasting, and swaggering. Every evening, Mordred raised a toast to his father. Every evening, he toasted the Queen, and the First Knight, Lancelot. And every evening, his mouth smiled and smiled like summer, and his eyes were cold as winter.

But Arthur did not look at his son if he could help it; his mouth never formed the name ‘Mordred’. It was his only protest, his only defence. And it availed him little, in people’s minds; for there were many there that spoke, not so secretely, of Arthur’s unfairness and coldness towards his only son, who had always behaved with the utmost respect towards him.

And I? What of me? In that autumn of our world, the power of summer had left me. I was weak with the onset of my nature’s own winter, and sad with the onset of my years’ end. True I had been, in my way, the way that meant I loved two men; but with the years had come an understanding as draining as Arthur’s; that never would the glory and careless pride of our youth return.

Lancelot and Guinevere in youth

It was on such an evening that Galahad came. He came not unknown and unheralded, like the King himself had done, long ago; but blazing out of the darkness, out of the palace shut in on itself for so long. Handsome as the day, with a skin touched with a golden bloom and hair as black as a raven’s wing, he was clad in red armour, with a golden scabbard by his side. He came not orphaned and humble, as did Perceval the Fool; but indeed to claim his rightful place at the table. Yet he did not come in fuss and fight and defensive jealousy, as did Mordred. For Galahad there was no test of valour necessary: his very name was enough, for the Siege Perilous glowed in letters of gold at his approach. Young, assured and strong and bright as a lick of Pentecost flame, he stood before us, not arrogant in his pride, but straight, as someone who knows his true worth, his own truth, who has always known it. Neither he nor the white-clad old man with him, his guide, needed to ask for our silence. Their very presence was enough. The Otherworld had returned to us; summer and winter were one.

Oh, how I remember now the looks on the faces turned towards him! The young ones felt the fire of their loins rushing up instantly into their minds; the older ones knew a bittersweetness rising up to overwhelm them. In all the manly hearts was a longing, all the deeper for being sudden: that it was they, standing straight and proud and tall like that, gazing calmly into all of the waiting faces! And the women–ah, the women knew a longing that they might stand by his side, might share in all he was to ask of them, as mothers, or sisters, or lovers. I understand it, for I felt it, too, so strongly…

I looked across at sweet Dindraine, and saw that her eyes were fixed on the young knight. She was already his: her heart already lost, her soul already promised, her body already aflame! Before long, it would burn with a fire all the greater for being denied, a flame tall and straight and white and consuming.

‘Peace be with you, fair lords,’ said the old man. His voice was soft, yet somehow it made us all tremble. He turned to the King. ‘Sir, I bring you a young knight who is of king’s lineage, and of the kindred of Joseph of Arimathea.’ He paused a while, and his voice dropped to a whisper. But still we heard it, low and thrilling. ‘And through him, all the marvels of this court and of all strong realms shall be accomplished.’

I watched Lancelot’s face then. It was transfigured. His striking, strong face: it was suffused with a  joy I had never seen there before, as he gazed on his only son. I remembered what his castle had been called, when he had lived with the Princess Elaine, mother of Galahad: Joyous Gard. It was this joy for which he had been waiting all his life. Oh, there was nothing selfishly proud, nothing of fatherly swagger about him: of all the men there, Lancelot could see the truest of all. Not with the sharp eyes of hate, like Mordred, or the clear eyes of innocence, like Perceval: but the true eyes of a loving man. Indeed, his son was a shining child to him, though, never, never as dear as his father, and lacking…lacking in something, though I did not know it yet. And seeing Galahad through Lancelot’s eyes, I felt as if a great burden had gone from me, as if I truly understood.

But there was Arthur. Arthur, gazing hungrily, wildly, on Lancelot’s son, as if he would devour him with his eyes. And the pain of it was like a lance in my heart, a frost-tipped lance of endless sorrow.

The King nodded. ‘Sir, you are right welcome here, and the young knight with you.’ Lancelot looked at him then; for Arthur was not immediately warm, in his voice, and the First Knight always was a man frank and bold in his own reactions. But I could see the King was holding in check some great leap of the heart; some terrible yearning; and I longed to help him, but could not.

Galahad bowed, and smiled: not discreetly, but with a grave golden dignity.

‘Sir, I thank you for your courtesy.’

Then the old man brought him around the table, towards the Siege Perilous. And there was another great silence in the hall, a silence that was like fear.

The old man lifted the cloth that had always covered the seat; and he read out in a loud voice the words that had appeared there, in letters of gold:

This is the Siege of Galahad the High Prince.

There was a great sigh then, and a rustle, as everyone got to their feet, craning to see as Galahad slowly sat down on the seat that had always been meant for him. There was no surprise in his face, just that golden smile. And suddenly, I looked across the hall, and saw Mordred. And he was smiling, too. Smiling and smiling, with his mouth and eyes bleak as winter. And for a moment, pity filled me. Mordred did not have his father’s love, his father’s blessing: nothing but his lineage, and the memory of an ancient sin that must be expiated. His place here at Camelot had been forced on Arthur. Here he was, the High Prince; Arthur’s heir; yet it was Lancelot’s son who sat thus enthroned.

Mordred caught my eye. He did not stop smiling; but in his eyes something leapt then, something like a dark, questing beast, blind and wild in its fury.

Galahad was speaking. ‘Go in peace, old man. You have done what was needed of you. Give my respects to my grandfather King Pelles and my mother Princess Elaine. Tell them that my father has greeted me.’

So young, to be so commanding! Yet none of us wondered at it, for in his radiance, half-human, half-Otherwordly, he reminded us of our old contract with the Otherworld, and it gladdened all hearts, the young and the old.

 

And so the die was cast. The coming of Galahad was truly a great wonder, and many marvels he accomplished as well, after it, but what I remember most of all is the way in which he transformed the court in his short time there. I never saw him again after he left Camelot, but he left an indelible impression on me, as he did on everyone who knew him. Whilst he was there, there were no foolish quarrels, no hasty words, no witless swaggering, and Mordred’s poisonous whispers went unheard. Lancelot went about in a happy daze, so happy that all our old joy was restored. And most of all, the fog seemed to leave Arthur’s eyes, and he seemed not so much reborn as refreshed. Not that he forgot his sins; but that, like so many others, in Galahad’s presence, he felt that truly the balance was there. That he had truly atoned, and that though Galahad was not his son, his very presence at Court was a sign of forgiveness. Arthur even looked on his son Mordred then, and spoke his name, and attempted kindness where tenderness did not yet come naturally. Mordred was becoming uncertain: the dark unhappiness and desperate anger of his heart trembling under the new way of things. Even in the bitterest soil, a loving miracle can make a beautiful flower grow. If it had all lasted longer, who is to know what might have happened?

But that was never Galahad’s aim. Never his destiny. He was the blazing comet, the last brilliance of our wounded land, and not its healer. Earthly harmony held little music for him, for he was of the Grail Family, keepers of the secret flame, the holy blood. Kind he was indeed to Dindraine, but never did he love her as a man loves a woman: for Lancelot’s son though he was, he did not have Lancelot’s soul. Galahad’s being was of light, and had no share in darkness at all. And a man must have both within him if he is to know love, and love is to know him.

When the knights came to Arthur and begged to be allowed to go on the Quest for the Holy Grail, Galahad’s name was on all their lips. Galahad was the shining light. He was the one for whom the Grail had waited, and now he was here, it would be found. The King gave his consent–of course. How could he not? Was it not what they had all been waiting for? At that time, this is what they thought: this would be the healing to end all healings; Camelot would be purified and made whole, forever. They did not think that light blinds and burns as much as it illuminates. None of us remembered. We had been living in the twilight for too long, to remember that morning’s fresh gilt is followed by midday’s burning, and that the setting sun burns brightest of all.

Watching, I could hardly fault them their fervour and worship of the young Grail knight, not when I myself had known such peace when Galahad was there. But he was going; and now I began to see that he had always meant to go. And I began to wonder. What did Camelot mean to him? What did it mean, for one so young, to know he was marked by God? What did it mean, to know one’s conception had not been made in earthly love, but in otherwordly deceit, sweet and good as that deceit might have been? And I could find no answers. Questions, only. I thought, like Perceval, I should be content to know the questions and not seek the answers–but oh, I am too much a part of this unstable world to be able to do so.

And so, the knights would be going, all of them, even Lancelot, only Arthur remaining behind. Only Mordred had not declared for the Quest; the tough vine of his jealousy had sprung up again, and he wanted to make quite sure it was not all a plot to distance him from Camelot, and from Arthur’s favour. But no, perhaps that’s not the full story; perhaps it was truly because he knew.B ecause as I said, he understood Galahad.

Dindraine came to me on the day before they left, to bid me goodbye, for she was going on the Quest, with her brother Perceval, and good Sir Bors, and Galahad her love. She was aflame still, sweet Dindraine: and in her voice and manner was the fervour of one who would lay down their life for their love, for the glory of a deed to impress her name on him forever.

‘Good lady, I ask for your blessing,’ she said,’ for you have always been kind to me, and I have admired you, always.’

‘I give you my blessing joyously,’ I said, ‘for I see that it is in joy you go, and not grim destiny.’

‘Oh, yes,’ she said, and turned wide eyes to me; ‘with Sir Galahad, there is no grim fate, but only the surprise of joy, always!’

I did not show in my eyes or my mouth that I had any doubts. I blessed her, and hoped that God would smile upon her, and that Galahad might see her one day, and love her as much as she loved him. But as I fastened on her cloak the gilt brooch that was my gift to her, I felt such a tremor of fear that I could barely murmur words of farewell. In any case, she hardly heard me; her spirit was already on the road, with the three knights.

But I had Galahad called to my presence, nevertheless. As he stood there before me, so much his father’s son yet so unlike him, I felt a pang of grief unlike any I have ever known, so that for a moment I could barely speak.

‘You sent for me, Lady?’ His voice was low, yet sweet. There was no surprise or wariness in those clear blue eyes, his mother’s eyes: only compassion. Strange, then, that I should feel afraid to continue.

‘Yes, Sir Galahad.’ I made my voice firm. ‘I have been speaking to the Lady Dindraine.’

His eyes lit up. ‘She is a beautiful soul.’

The words were wrenched out of me. ‘Oh, Sir Galahad, do not forget she has a body too! Lovely as the morning, for it is the mirror of her soul, the sacrament of her spirit, and must not be tossed lightly aside.’

His eyes were still clear and blue. ‘Sweet lady, do not fear,’ he said gently. ‘The Lady Dindraine comes willingly.’

‘I know that.’ Somehow, the arguments had thickened on my tongue, but I forced them past my lips. ‘I am a daughter of earth, I know, Sir Galahad, and not like your mother, who is a princess of the Otherworld. But Dindraine is of earth too. And so I am afraid; for our bodies are our souls’ only home in this world.’

‘Dear Lady,’ he said, again, ‘do not fear, for I am her knight, and her friend, and will protect her.’ And his smile was so sweet that all the questions left me.

On the morning they left, then, we made a merry occasion of it, and the air was bright with trumpets and gay with green and blue and red favours .The Questers rode out of the court with a tumult of hooves and a flourishing of mailed hands, and hope and glory and courage rode with them. And at their head, a figure beautiful as the dawn: Galahad himself. And riding behind him, queenly in bearing, with her bright hair up, the Lady Dindraine…

For a moment it was as if we were looking on the morning of our own world, and not just on day’s beginning: and I felt the tears start in my eyes, and thanked God for granting us this sight. I looked at Arthur, and saw that his eyes were full of it too, and we reached out to each other, and our hands clasped, and held firm, and warmth surged through each of us, and renewal, and hope.

But then came Mordred’s slow, thoughtful voice behind us, making us spring apart, as if by instinct.

‘My Lord Arthur, my lady Guinevere–is it not a strange sight indeed?’

Arthur turned. ‘Strange sight, my son? Whatever can you mean?’ His voice held a strain, but he was striving to be fair. For Mordred had decided at the last moment that he would not go, and Arthur had made him see, most plainly indeed, just what he thought of that. Cowardice was a thing he never could stand, and he had accused Mordred roundly of it. But I did not know these things till later, when it was far too late: or I would have told him that cowardice was not a thing Mordred had in him. Many other things, yes, but not that one.

Mordred smiled. And horror rose in me at the sight, for there was winter again in his gaze, the white harshness of frost in his features.

‘Why, great King and Queen, would you not say that yonder line of men looks most uncommonly like a great beast? A great questing beast bright in colour and sinuous in movement, with many and many baying tongues: and its head like a flame?’

We could not help looking, and to our horrified eyes, now that Mordred had spoken and unlocked forbidden things in our minds, the long line of knights did indeed look like some terrible thing, some devouring dragon eating up the land. Some ravaging, wild and wicked thing. And at its head, a flame, pitiless as fire, blind as the sun.

‘Why,’ said Mordred, watching our faces. ‘Why, great Queen, great King, I am sorry if my thoughtless question has caused you pain. I have too lively an imagination, it seems.’

‘Thoughtless…’ echoed Arthur, and his voice was choked. ‘You never did anything except by great thought, Mordred. But imagination–that you do not have. That you cannot take, as well.’ And without another word, he turned on his heel, and was gone from my side.

Mordred raised an eyebrow at me. For a moment, the fear of him was great in me. He was growing strong, and would soon be stronger.

‘My lady Guinevere,’ he said, ‘Forgive me if I have offended you. I meant to be merely amusing: the knights of the Round Table, questing off on the hunt, quivering, like some great eager beast.’

He waited for my reaction; but I hardly heard him. For in that terrible moment, Galahad had turned in his saddle and was looking back towards Camelot. From this distance, I thought I saw uncertainty in his bearing. No longer was he the flame-head of some hideous questing beast, but a young man, still beardless, and alone in all his perfect glory, in our imperfect world. And the sight of him filled my lungs with power, my mind with the question I should have asked him, so that I cried it out loud:

‘Oh, my friends, why do you quest far away for the Grail, when it might live bright within you?’

But they were too far away. They marched away gaily, all unheeding, those doomed bold men, that doomed brave girl: for of that large and shining company, only a pitiful few would return. There was only Mordred to catch my words, and only his wintry smile in answer, as he turned away from me, and followed his father into Camelot.