Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
In The Studio Afterwards
“Well, that was extraordinary,” Tenpole Tudor Williams exclaimed as he plonked down in his worn, leather chair and switched his computer screen on. “It’s as if someone put them there while our backs were turned. Viking carvings on stones that weren’t there before. Trap doors and secret chambers. I mean, how can one just miss such things! Have you translated those runes yet, Vanda?”
Here in the studio there were machines that could analyse all the finds they had brought across from the Brothers’ Library Café, once their initial investigation of these odd new anomalies was complete. Tenpole and Vanda had virtually raced from the coffee shop to get down to that business as quickly as possible. They had left Brian to smooth-talk the waitress and help tidy up. This was where the real archaeology began, where the magic of synthesis that required the knowledge these two had come by after years of patient study could take place.
Vanda already had the pictures of their recent finds from her iPhone up on her computer screen where they were magnified many times over. “The bind runes read: We are the guardians of the secret set in stone and wood. We bind it with these runes. We keep it safe until the One who holds the key shall come. A bit trite, I’d say, but nothing out of the ordinary.”
Sixth sense made both Tenpole and Vanda look round as Brian sat himself down at the large round table in the centre of the studio’s floorspace. They both eyed him a little too keenly, then glanced at each other before grinning inanely like school kids.
“What?” Brian demanded. “Have I done something wrong?
Vanda broke into giggles. “You’ve just passed the test of the Seige Perilous, that’s all.”
“Congratulations, young Ambrose,” Tenpole added. “You’re now officially an archaeologist and will have to get very drunk at a pub of your choice this very evening. I recommend the Market House, they pull a good pint in there. Might I ask how the bloody hell you got in here, by the way?”
“The usual way,” Brian answered, “Through the door.”
“And it didn’t ask you to run a plastic card through its slot?”
“No. Just opened and let me in.”
“Oh, that’s worrying, that is. Very, very worrying.” Williams continued, enjoying his little game. “Who are you? First you find strange stones, then you lead us to mysterious messages in secret chambers accessed through convenient trap doors, that were not there previously. And now the studio door lets you in without swiping ID and the Seige Perilous just opens its arms and invites you to sit in it as if it’s known you all its life.” He pulled a face intending to convey his suspicion, pausing for dramatic effect, before continuing slowly. “Who are you, Brian Ambrose?”
Vanda’s giggles exploded into laughter as Tenpole Tudor Williams walked theatrically across the floorspace between his desk and the large, round table. He bent down to inspect the chair that Brian was sitting on before progressing back the way he’d come.
“So, what exactly is this Seige Perilous thing?”
Vanda and Tenpole laughed together.
“Will you tell him, Boss? Or shall I?” Tenpole asked.
“Oh, I think you should, Tenpole. You are after all the designated bard of the unit. And not without sound justification.”
“Why, thank you, m’lady.” He bowed, looking ridiculous doing so in dark purple cords and bottle green jumper. “The Seige Perilous, young Brian, is the name given to the empty seat at King Arthur’s Round Table at Camelot. It was reserved by Merlin for the knight who would one day be successful in the quest for the Holy Grail. This turns out to be either Percival or Galahad, depending on which version of the story you’re reading. But whomever it is, the Seige Perilous is so strictly reserved that it is fatal to anyone else who sits in it.” He took an artistic break for a moment or two, then continued. “Well, the table at which you are now seated is our Round Table, here at the court of Professor Nestor at the Glastonbury Archaeological Institute, and that chair you’re sitting on is strictly reserved on account of the fact that it’s broken and usually ejects anyone who attempts to plonk their arse on it. But, young Ambrose, as you appear to be living a charmed life, I ask again, who the blazes are you?”
He laughed as he concluded his story and clapped Brian congenially on the shoulder, at which point the chair gave way.
“Why don’t you just get rid of it,” Brian asked, after picking himself up and finding another.
“Bit like old digging boots, I suppose. You never can bring yourself to throw ‘em away.”
“Can we get back to this stone now, please,” Vanda prompted. “What can you tell me about the animal style now that you’ve blown your pictures up, Tenpole?”
“Well, the BM – that’s the British Museum for the layman in the room – has a brooch that came from Gotland, dated late ninth, early tenth that’s decorated in Borre style, four backward-biting animals forming a cross from a central boss of eight long-necked animal heads. All very similar up to this point. But here’s the interesting bit: round the edge there’s two squatting humans holding forked beards in their mits, alternating with animal heads that look like dogs holding bars in their mouths with their paws. Quick recap: this ornamentation is usually found on metalwork worn by women and is three-dimensional. Ours is on stone, hence only in two dimensions, and our circle is squared by the bind runes, which leaves room to put our squatting men and animals in their own corners, like the guardians I think they’re meant to be. The similarities to the Gotland brooch are staggering, apart from one detail. Our top right animal is no doggy with cute lappet ears, he’s a half-lion, half-man beast with wild, shaggy hair and beard, and long sabre-like teeth. If I had to make a spot judgement I’d say that someone’s playing tricks on us. It’s a style from a Viking era that asks us to believe it was placed there at a time when Guthrum and Alfred were fighting over the Somerset Levels, which predates our Templar chapel by at least a hundred years even considering the last known example of this style.”
“Is he always so precise.” Brian was genuinely impressed with the manner in which Tenpole reeled off his findings and related thoughts so easily.
“Encyclopedic knowledge,” Vanda nodded, trying to look serious. “He swallowed a whole set as a baby and has never been able to stop regurgitating bits of it every so often ever since.”
“Maybe we should call him Wiki-pole,” Brian laughed, then recovered himself. “Sorry, that was so not funny.”
“It was a bit,” Vanda empathised. “Who d’you think’s responsible for writing most of the entries!”
“OK, moving on,” Williams intoned crustily. “What do you have on the wooden tile from the secret chamber, Vanda?”
“A message. In some obscure Pictish dialectal runes I didn’t even know I knew. It reads quite simply together there’s so much more.” She raised her arms and shrugged slightly, a nonplussed expression opening her face up pleasantly. “Anyone have any ideas about that?”
“Would you two excuse me for a moment,” Brian asked, politely if urgently. “And can someone tell me where I can find the Gents, please.”
“Out the door, turn right, first on the right,” Tudor obliged. “Here, take my keycard, just in case the door won’t let you back in again as it did earlier!”
“Thank you,” Brian said as he took the card.
Tenpole walked slowly back to his desk, giving Brian time to move out of hearing range. “I’ve been doing some digging on our man Brian, Vanda,” he began. “Listen to this: his real name is Sylvester Brian Ambrose. He’s the descendant of a man called Alfred Newton. Newton was a zoologist and ornithologist who was Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University, Magdalene College, from 1866-1907. His family owned an estate in Suffolk called Elveden. William Newton, Alfred’s father, made his fortune from sugar plantations in the West Indies, moving to Elveden in 1813 after the abolition of slavery, and Alfred inherited a great deal on his death. He became best friends with the Maharajah of Lahore, one Duleep Singh, who bought Elveden from Newton’s family on the death of his father in 1863. Between them Newton and Singh were extremely wealthy – this is the same Singh who, when he was only thirteen years old, was forced to surrender the Kohinoor diamond to Queen Victoria, as spoils of war, once she was declared the Empress of India. And this bit’s priceless: when they got bored they used to think up games to play, puzzles to solve, and legacies with impossible conditions attached to them. More particularly this legacy of Brian’s that has conditions so impossible to meet that no one’s ever met them!” He paced up and down for a few moments, clearly agitated, before leaning both hands on the edge of Vanda’s desk, hanging his head and sighing deeply into his chest. “Vanda, I’m concerned about this. I have a feeling about it.”
“A feeling,” Vanda repeated slowly, and with much emphasis. “Tenpole, when have you ever had a feeling in your life? You operate on fact and evidence, not feeling. It’s what makes you such a good archaeologist. No discolouration of ideas with emotions.”
“Well, I’m having one now,” he replied, seriously. “And it’s not a good one.”
The outside door slid open again with a pneumatic hiss and Brian reappeared, looking damp and discordant, his eyes on the floor. He put the key card down on the round table slowly, deliberately, and clung to its edge.
“You look like you could do with some coffee,” Vanda said, with concern in her voice and her face.”
“Umm, yes,” he said without looking up from the floor. “Yes, please.”
“Right!” Williams stood emphatically to attention, no hint of a feeling within yards of him. “I’m off to the Brothers’ again. More pictures.” He strode off towards the door looking grim-faced and growling. “More everything!”
Vanda filled the kettle and busied herself with coffee-making while Brian deposited himself in a safe chair, ashen-faced, pupils dilated and small beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.
“White, no sugar, right?” Vanda said, remembering the Latte and the pretty waitress from earlier.
“Thanks … yes,” he replied, distractedly.
“Come on then,” she pressed gently. “Tell me!”
He looked up at her, still with the wide-eyed, faraway look on his face. “H–how–”
“How do I know something weird’s just happened to you?” She laughed. “Because I’ve had that exact same look on my face more times within the past eighteen months than I care to remember. I can certainly recognise it on someone else’s when I see it.”
“I was just washing my hands, that was all. I looked in the mirror, but I couldn’t see anything because it had gone black. Everything had gone black. Then there was this sequence of images. A lady … lots of ladies … one after the other. Each from different times, from thousands of years ago, up to … I was holding onto the side of the sink and the water was running. It started splashing me and there was the woman … the past life woman from last night … your past life … Lily-Anna. She was on her boat. The one that didn’t go to the right place. And the seawater was splashing me, as if I were there. I let go of the sink at that point and it all went back to normal again. And now I have the strongest feeling that there’s something we have to do about it. We being you and I. Together!”
“Oh, that’s good. I’d already come to that conclusion myself.”
* * * * *
And now for the normal bit of post-scene chat:
All comments in the form of constructive criticism or mistakes you’ve noticed that I might not have noticed yet, whether typos, spelling or grammar, will be very gratefully received and appreciated – although I think spelling and grammar ones are most unlikely, but you never know … I’ll post the next scene in a week, and thank you very much for reading.
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