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I handed him my hat and he held the candle over it. The flame melted some wax which dropped on its flat top. He stood the candle upright on the gob of hot wax where it stayed,

He handed the shako back to me. 'Put it on carefully,' he said ‘The candle could be dislodged very easily. You are to swim across shining like good deed in a naughty world, and you will need the light when you get there. Ladies,' he said, while speaking to the Amazons, 'If you insist on swimming across I think you had better go first so there is no danger of you splashing and putting out his light. As long as you are in line with the candles held by the boys then you are on track to reach the door even if the fire has gone out.

'Give us a candle each,' said Hilda. We can swim one handed and hold the candle up with the other.'

They took their candles and lowered themselves into the water. I followed and three little lights moved slowly across unknown waters to an unknown destination.

We came to a short flight of steps carved out of rock, with a metal handrail. At the top of the steps was a heavy wooden door, so tightly closed we couldn't even rattle it.

The Amazons looked round for a small boulder they could use to smash the door down.

'We should try knocking first,' I said. 'Perhaps someone will come and speak to us if we just knock on the door.'

The Amazons did not understand polite knocking but hammered on the door with large stones, and screamed for attention.

No one came so they looked round in the darkness for a large stone that they could manage between them to break the door. While they were searching, and I was knocking politely, Catherine noticed something floating nearby. A rope was attached to the railing, and the other end disappeared into the gloom.

Catherine tugged at the cord and a small. circular boat drifted towards us. It had no bow or stern, was as round as a saucer, but the sides were much higher.

It's a coracle,' said Hilda. 'We use them back home for fishing. They're a bugger to steer until you get used to them. Cath. was our champion coracle steerer. Some of us could never work it out, but she could go anywhere with them. Anyway, whoever owns it left the paddles, so she'll be right.'

This is a terrific find,' I said. 'Cath., can you go back to the others and tell them we found steps and a door, but we can't open it. If we can't get in this way we can at least use the coracle to explore the cave, there may be other ways out.

Catherine departed in the coracle while Hilda and I once again turned our attention to the door. I restrained her and knocked politely yet again. I even used a stone to tap out an s.o.s. message, but no one came.

Presently the coracle returned with two passengers and some bundles. 'Well,' said Professor Meadowes as he climbed out, 'How the world turns. These little craft were used by primitive fisher folk thousands of years ago. I suppose its owner fishes on the lake. Hand up the parcels Mr Arkwright, and you young people are wet, don't go near them or touch them.'He was delighted with the stone steps and the door. 'These thing were crafted with metal tools. What a pity we have to destroy them. Never mind, if Mr Arkwright is invited to he can restore them later.'

Aye,' said Jess I know what's what, and I can blow in a door if I try, and put it back together again like new, if I want to.'

'Mr Arkwright was a sapper and miner in the First World War’, said the professor. He spent three years on the Western Front digging tunnels under the German trenches, and blowing them up, so he knows all about explosives.'

Aye,' said Jess, 'And a reight awful job it were too. Those of us that weren't kilt went mad. I'm still a bit that way mesel, after all these years.''

They had brought packets of gunpowder and Jess was stacking them at the foot of the door while he talked. 'We mun have rocks to contain the explosion.'

'The stuff might be damp'. I said. 'Water could have got into the packages after all we've been through.'

'Yes, that's a possibility,' said the professor, 'But we were not going to inspect gunpowder by candlelight so we brought most of what we had. If this works it will be a spectacular explosion. There are four packets of powder and Mr Arkwright will run a fuse to each in case any of them don't go off. We'll take the others back with us in case we have to try again.'

'If they all go off,' said Jess, 'It'll be like the time the Australians blew up Hill 60. Dry rocks first, I don't want wet rocks anywhere near the charge.'

A flat space in front of the door had been cleared of stones, but many lay nearby. We gathered them to be put where indicated by Jess. Catherine boated off to collect more. The prof's boys helped to gather dry stones to add to Jess' collection .

Catherine made three trips across and brought stones back each time. On the first trip she took Hilda, who had been strangely quiet for a while. On the second trip she took two of us, the professor and me. We led everyone back into the tunnel so we could no longer see the light where Jess was still working.

The professor gave Sneezy, Grumpy, and Happy a lit candle each and stood them in a straight line, one behind the other in the tunnel. They stood in flowing water up to their waists. Catherine had been told about this and when the candles were in line with the coracle she was to turn and drive it straight towards them.

A distant shout was heard followed by bouquet of echoes. They had scarcely died away before the coracle was dimly seen and a flutter of shining drops as Catherine wielded the paddle for her life.

She remembered her instructions and didn't make for the tunnel directly until she saw the three candle in a row. Once in the tunnel I thought her craft was travelling too fast and would be caught in the current to be swept away. It would have been a bumpy ride back to where we started.

No worries, Grumpy and Co, in spite of their fears remembered their orders. They caught hold and pushed the coracle over to where we were pressed against the wall. Catherine and Jess climbed out to join us.

We waited, flat against the cavern wall, sheltered from any blast.

It was just as well. Seconds later there was noise of thunder, a flash of light that illuminated the cavern from end to end and we could see and hear rocks hitting the far wall and bouncing off. I had a sudden, painful ear-ache.

The whole party put their hands to their ears. The professor reassured us. 'It's alright, the air in here was compressed by the shock wave, but the pain will pass.'

He was right a gust of air blustered past as the last of the flying stones bounced off the wall into the stream.

'Yon was what I call an explosion,' said Jess, 'A reight big'un.'

Hilda stood up. 'Cath and me, we'll go and see what's happened,' she said. In spite of a tan from years in the open her face was white.

'I'll come too!'

'She looked at me with a strange expression. 'No! You stay here with the others.' There was no mistaking her determination not to have us with her.

'Cath, come and help me with the coracle.' She was pushing it against the stream to where the tunnel widened out to become a cavern.

Catherine. was puzzled. 'Can't we take Andrew? We don't know what we'll find there.

'No, he's not needed, just you and me, Cath.!'

She was so set on the idea of taking only Catherine that we didn't argue as they got into the coracle and disappeared round the corner.

We sat shivering in our damp clothes waiting for the coracle to come back. The prof. blew out the candle in his lantern because we had used up half our supply already, and did not know what lay ahead.

As we sat in total blackness time seemed to stretch on and on. We talked to pass the time. The explosion was rated a great success, Jess said the powder must have been dry and he was sorry to have used so much, a little explosion would have done the job, instead he had set off a monster.

There was plenty to talk about, we had come through dangers and set-backs enough to fuel a lifetime of reminiscent talk. But talk ran out in the end as we watched and waited for the tiniest speck of light or rescue.

We heard a lot of noise rolling round the roof of the cavern. It sounded like women screaming. Could it be that our Amazons were fighting for their lives while we cowered in the tunnel.

At last I said, 'I'm going to swim over and see what's happening.' I would grope my way to the place where I fell in when we first arrived and then use memory to guide me to the steps.

This proposal worried the professor. 'Andrew, you could drown out there. There is simply nothing to guide you. You could veer off course without knowing it and swim along the cave instead of across.'' How about lighting the candle?

If all else fails I could get back that way.' 'Good idea. We'll use it to find our way to the rock platform. We may be able to see something from there.'

Our discussion was interrupted by shouting. It was Catherine, she was paddling the coracle and trying to find us.

We shouted back, but that was useless, there were so many echoes that it was impossible to tell where the noise came from.

Jess had his tinder box ready. He lit the lantern and waded into the stream to give her some guidance.

She made it past the rocks and we all ran to catch her precious little life-boat before it was swept away.

Catherine was crying. She clutched the prof. 'I've had the most dreadful fight with Hilda,' she said, between sobs. 'She wants to kill you all.'

 

Chapter thirteen

Merlin’s Castle

 

We all stared at her, even the bearers knew that Catherine had arrived with some shocking message. Why does she want to kill us?'

'She says you're murderers. You tried to kill us all by blowing up our village. The noise of bombs going off in the village was the same as what we heard a while ago, and there were other explosions besides. She wanted my help in slaying you all, then we would go home.'

'My best friend and me, we were screaming at one another. I'm surprised youdidn't hear us. I told her my Teddy wouldn't do any such thing, he's too gentle. She specially wants to gut Teddy and Mr Arkwright I wouldn't let her on to the coracle so she could come back and do it.'

'We'll go and talk to her,' I said 'Hilda and I slept together last night, so she may not kill me, but if she does, don't let her get at either Jess or the professor.'

Take tha musket, lad,' said Jess. 'If she cooms at thee yer can protect thysen!'

I shook my head. 'No! No weapons. If she sees me with a gun or knife it might make her worse. I'll take my chances. Come on, Cath, let's go.'

We climbed together into the coracle and everyone helped to push it out of the tunnel into the deeper water of the cave.

A dim light burning to guide us to the steps where Hilda stood on guard, behind her was a jagged opening where the door used to be. Rubbish floated on the water but most of it had been driven inwards by the blast. The stone steps were covered in rubble but not much damaged.

A candle had been fixed to the railing and as soon as I came within its feeble light Hilda glared down. 'What do you want?'

'I want to come up and talk to you.'

‘You're a murderer, same as the others. You were in the plot and if you set foot on these steps I'll kill you.'

‘No you won't. I' m coming up. We talk first, then you can kill me afterwards, if you still want to.'

I climbed out of the coracle and walked up the steps, looking steadily into her eyes.' She clutched her spear and waited.

I said, 'You and Cath were part of the patrol that ambushed the Gorbies and captured me. Then I was brought to the village and chained to a post. I spent the night there, still chained. None of the slaves were allowed to speak to me. How could I know anything of this plot you were talking about. What plot?'

'I saw you talking to Meadowes in the morning.'

'You did! I think he was about to tell me something but all the people passing by frightened him, and he went away .'Some of the tension left her body and she supported herself with her spear. 'You knew nothing about it?' she asked

.'Whatever it is you're talking about, I knew nothing!' I lied.

'I'm glad I don't have to kill you, but I'm going to kill Meadowes and Arkwright.'

'No you're not. You Amazons brought plots and trouble on yourselves by keeping slaves and ill-treating them.'

'Amazons!' said a voice behind her. 'Amazons! I should have known. You females are always causing trouble and now you have totally destroyed my back door, go away, at once!'

The speaker was a man in a black gown with a hood. His garment was covered in white dust and he carried a lantern which threw some light on the scene. He was wearing carpet slippers.

The three of us stared at him, astonished.

'There is no excuse for trespass and wilful destruction of property. I would have the law on you if there was any law in this wretched country. Kindly vacate my premises immediately so I can get back to my studies.'

Hilda was about to reply but I stopped her. Negotiating is not a strong point with the Amazons, they tend to strike first and ask questions later.

'We're sorry about your door but we were desperate. We have just climbed a tunnel from a lower cave in the hope of finding a way out into the open. Then we saw your light and shouted, hoping you could help us.''

He snorted at us. 'A ridiculous story, you could have got out further along. Any person of ordinary commonsense would have done so.'

'Yes, but the cave is flooded and we don't have a boat. I'm sorry but we had to borrow yours. Look, I apologise, but we were desperate, if we had known of another way out we would have taken it and left you alone. All we want right now is to get out of this cave.

I put my hand on Hilda's shoulder. Sir, my name is Andrew, these are Hilda and Catherine, may I ask your name?'

'The man drew himself up, he was still shorter than me, and said, 'I am Merlin, a magician descended from the great Merlin friend, advisor, and magician to King Arthur. I have inherited such powers that were I not a merciful man I should blast you from these steps in a second, and it would be a particular pleasure to do so if you were all Amazons.'

While Hilda was looking at him, wondering what he was talking about I whispered urgently to Catherine. 'Cath., go and fetch the professor and, if you can fit them in, at least two of his boys, bring more of them if you can. They're to be his bodyguards in case Hilda goes mad when she sees him. Go back after that and ferry the rest of them here.'

Catherine paddled away, pleased to rescue her beloved.

I concentrated again on the two people with me. Hilda was still to respond to Merlin's remarks about Amazons, and I didn't want him to hear what she said in case it made matters worse. 'The only time filler I could think of was to ask if he had lived here for long.      

My family first settled in this valley in the year five hundred and fifty,' he announced. 'After the death of King Arthur we were forced to leave because of the spread of Christianity in Britain. Of course we were believers in the old faith, as was Arthur.'

'It would be safe to go back,' I said. 'After fifteen hundred years people are more tolerant. Nowadays you can do or say what you like, no one cares anymore.'

'I know that,' he said. 'We have not buried ourselves here. My ancestors studied at Oxford, as I have. But there little left now in Britain to remind us of Arthur.' He looked past me and frowned, then turned his lantern to shine on the water. It lit up the approaching coracle.

'Are there more of you?' he asked.

'Yes, just a few, and one of them will replace your door, if you wish.'

First out were two of the professor's boys. They came up the steps with spears and looked at Hilda. She ignored them but her face hardened as the professor followed.

I made a nervous introduction while keeping an eye on Hilda, who stood by glowering. I said, 'Professor, this is Merlin the Magician, he is the owner of the door, and I believe this is the back entrance to his dwelling. Mr Merlin this is Professor Edward Meadowes.'

'Might I enquire, Sir,' asked the professor, 'If you are a descendant of the Merlin who was the friend and magician of King Arthur?'

'Yes,' answered Merlin, I am a direct descendant of the Great Merlin, and may I ask as to your lineage?'

Professor Meadowes looked at him steadily and said 'I am the Pendragon!'

Merlin's eyes widened, and he drew in a sharp breath. 'The Pendragon,' he whispered. After all these years, his line still exists. Master!' He stopped to pull himself together. 'Master, let me hear the words of power, then I will know you are truly him.'

The professor waited as more people arrived on the steps, and when the whole company was together and quiet. I was facing Hilda, holding her gaze with Meadowes and Arkwright behind me. The professor did not notice this and spoke to Merlin in language that I had not heard before.

Merlin had a rapt expression as the words flowed over him. They were grave and beautiful. He sank to one knee and asked, 'Lord, are you directly descended from Arthur.'

'Yes, but in the Early Middle Ages we adopted the name of Meadowes. It was to remind us of the lost fields of Avalon.'

'Pendragon,' cried Merlin, there were tears in his eyes, 'My humble dwelling is open to you and your company. Enter!'

'That were Welsh, that were,' Jess informed us as the tension lessened. 'I worked with Welsh miners during the war and when they talked together, it sounded juist like that.'

We all filed inside, through the ruined doorway.

To the left was a passage that disappeared into more darkness, to the right were steps hacked out of the stone ,but directly opposite was a wall and by the light of Merlin's lantern we saw something crumpled against it.

'What's that? Shine the light on it,' I said.

He did and we saw it was the body of a girl who had been caught in the blast. A wooden bucket, smashed, lay alongside her.

'One of the kitchen assistants no doubt,' said Merlin. 'She would have been down here to get water. They will just have to send someone else. Now follow me upstairs and we will see about rooms for you.'

'But the girl, what are going to do about her?'

'No problem, I will mention the matter to the butler, he and his assistants will take care of things. They are very efficient. Now, follow me.'

At the top was another passage, along which we saw the glory of daylight, and were drawn towards it after our long, painful trek in the dark. The passage ended in a balcony overlooking a valley, but the light hurt our eyes and we had to turn away for a few moments. Then talking broke out as we moved around to take in the view. Air, light, space; It was overwhelming after all our fear and anxiety. We had come out on the east side of the mountain range. The sun was setting behind the mountains and casting long shadows over a beautiful valley spread out under the sky.

Hilda was not interested in scenery. She muttered, 'I'm still going to kill them.'

'No you're not!' We spoke quietly so the others couldn't hear us. 'I forbid you to do it. Besides, we are all guests under the shelter of Merlin's roof. If you were to murder a fellow guest you would be breaking the oldest law of hospitality and would deserve death yourself.'

This is the Vale of Avalon,' said Merlin, holding his arms wide as though to embrace the whole valley. 'It was so named by my family, when we moved here. They did so in memory of Arthur. Like your family, Pendragon, we have not forgotten the old days.'

'Is there anything to eat?' asked Hilda. She seemed frustrated by my attitude, and didn't understand what the professor and Merlin were talking about, anyway.

This time she spoke for all of us. We were tired, hungry, our clothes were damp and cold.

Of course,' said Merlin, 'Apart from blowing my door away you have had a very busy time. He walked the corridor in front of us opening doors as he passed. 'A fire is being lit in every room, choose which you want, I have ordered dinner for you, and it should be ready in about half an hour.'

Catherine and Hilda selected a room, disappeared into it and the door was closed firmly. The prof, now the Pendragon, and Jess, put their boys into another room and told them by signs and whatever scraps of their language they had picked up, to dry their animal pelts, and the homespun cloth they had for body covering.

They could not understand how anyone could sleep in a bed so they were allowed to strip the blankets off to lie in comfort on the floor mats. They were told to dry their bed socks by the fire, but not to burn them, and food would be brought when it was ready.

Between us we had picked up a few words of each other's language, and were practising sign language.

The professor and I shared a room, basking in the warmth of the fire and seeing our clothes steam as they dried. A servant knocked on the door and came in bringing a blue robe.

From my master,' he said, 'For the Pendragon' He held it up and it was decorated with a dazzling pattern of moon and stars.

He helped the prof. put it on but seemed nervous and fumbled while tying the waist cord. The Prof. took over and tied it neatly so the gold tassels on the ends of the cord hung about halfway to the floor. The servant bowed and went away 'Very chic,' I said. 'You'll be a sensation with the ladies. Perhaps not Hilda, but Catherine will like it. It must be the uniform of the Pendragon. But what is the Pendragon, What does it mean?'

'It means I claim to be a descendant of King Arthur, whose family name was Pendragon. He lived in Britain after the end of the Roman occupation, and was supposed to be lord of South West Britain, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, that area, before they were given their modern names. And, I think, at least part of Wales. Actually, no one knows where his boundaries were, or if there was any such person. During his lifetime he was supposed to have driven off invading tribes and kept his people safe.'

'And are you a descendant of this King Arthur, who may or may not have existed?'

'I don't know, but it seemed a good story at the time, and it pleased our host. I really believe he has delusions. But don't say so.'

I looked round. 'I haven't seen Jess since we left the balcony. where did he get to?'

He had an attack of conscience for his part in destroying the back door. He wants to start tomorrow to fix it all up, so he and Merlin went together to see what material was available. Merlin said there was plenty of timber and, certainly enough to make a door, and as well as that he had the tools that would be needed.'

He paused. 'There is one thing I can tell you about our host he certainly doesn't speak or understand the Welsh language. Though Welsh was supposed to be Merlin's native tongue.'

But you spoke to him in Welsh, the words of power. I heard you!'

'Yes, but I was being cautious and trying him out, words are too important to be wasted on people who don't understand them. I recited what I could remember, in Welsh of course, of parts of Dylan Thomas' poem, Under Milk Wood. If Merlin knew Welsh he would have asked me why I was quoting poetry, instead of the words of power, whatever they are.

So you think he's either a sandwich short of a picnic or he's a liar?'

'I don't know. In fifteen hundred years, if what he is saying is true, anything could have happened, but we must be very wary.'

Merlin knocked and entered at that moment. 'You have your robe,' he cried. 'Well done, we have kept it many years for this moment, wrapped in tissues and protected from the light.'

'It's a very fine robe, thank-you.'

'That reminds me,' I said. 'There is something that puzzles me about the Amazons, how is it they all speak English?'

'It's an accident of time, Mr. Mason, another mystery in this strange land. It seems that many years ago in England a group from a girls school went for a walk. They never came back, but it's possible they ended up here. Who knows?'

'The same thing happened in Victoria, where I come from. A party of school girls went for a picnic at a place called Hanging Rock. Some of them wandered off among the rocks and were never seen again. Perhaps their great-great granddaughters are living here now as Amazons.'

'It is possible,' said the professor, 'But Merlin, what intrigues me is how do you know what happens in England?

Simple, my dear Pendragon. The men of my line, including myself, have been studying at Oxford for hundreds of years. It was our great grandfather who told us about the missing girls.'

'Well then, how do you get to England and back?'

'It's a family secret,' said Merlin, smiling.

While we were considering this mysterious statement Jess arrived full of enthusiasm. 'This is a reight marvelous place,' he said. There's an old oak table down below, biggest I've ever seen and Mr. Merlin t

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