2354 words (9 minute read)

Chapter One

Roger Linwood’s fingertips scuttered gingerly over the uneven wall of the ruined church steeple, finally finding purchase on an inch-wide lip of stone. He eased back, letting his weight flow through his body, down to his toes, and into the ancient Plantagenet masonry. He was a part of it, and it was a part of him, this structure that was already ancient in the time of his grandfather’s grandfather. Roger let his breath out in a steady stream of air, then felt for the next toehold.

Only Alan, Roger’s older brother, had ever conquered the ruined church steeple, but that was a long time ago. They’d been children then, and now Roger was a man, made lean and fit by the rigours of the Great War. His grip was firm and his balance was cat-like. The next time he reached up, his fingertips curled over the sill of the belfry window. With a surge of triumph, Roger felt his strength snap back from his toes into his arms, and he practically shot himself into the belfry. There, he raised his arms over his head like a champion prizefighter, let out a whoop of primal joy, then turned to look down on the world beneath him.

"It’s going to be just as dangerous coming down as it was going up, isn’t it?"

The speaker was a dark-haired young fashion-plate perched on a displaced block of weathered limestone, as incongruous among the ruins as a martini in the village pub. Her name was Iris Morgan, and she was trying very hard to look bored with the proceedings. Roger knew quite well that she’d been biting her knuckles in anxiety throughout the duration of his climb.

"I don’t know what you mean," Roger called back, grinning. "A child could have made the climb. My brother Alan was ten when he first did it."

"Yes, well, that was Alan, and you are you." Iris stood and paced across the ground under the steeple. "Aren’t there stairs on the inside, Roger? There must be an easier way down."

There was, in fact, a trap door in the belfry floor, but it was firmly locked. Roger said, "I could always jump, if you like."

"Do it and I’ll never speak to you again. Oh, do get down from there! Before it gets too dark to see."

"At least give me time to enjoy the view, Iris. I’ve never had the pleasure until now."

It was closing in on dusk, and the setting sun tinted the world with hints of gold. Around the steeple, the old church was a maze of ruined stone. Doubtless, there had been a churchyard once, but the headstones lay broken and lost now amid the gnarled roots of the churchyard yews. The village of Linwood Hollow spread out a respectful distance away, with houses in the same rough stone Roger had just scaled, and slate roofs sheltered by the same twisted yews crowding up in all directions.

It was a different world from what lay beyond. Linwood Hollow was entirely nestled within a bowl-like depression -- a crater, really. The winds sweeping the heather and scrub of the surrounding moors swept right overhead, leaving the village to stew in the still, stale air. The crater’s ridge encircled the village, a sharply defined line between earth and sky, somewhat higher than where one expected the horizon to be and broken only by the square, ugly shape of Linwood Hall.

There’d been a castle there, once, or a mediaeval fortress of some sort: a ruin claimed by the first Linwood in the reign of James I and expanded inwards rather than outwards. Subsequent generations reinforced those thick, ancient outer walls and filled in the gaps, so that the final product was a cuboid shape devoid of poetry, with a squat little tower projecting from the side overlooking the steep side of the ridge. Roger wondered, irrationally, if he could be seen from there, and suppressed the urge to wave.

No, Linwood Hall would win no architectural prizes, but Roger loved it and thought it the most beautiful house on earth.

“I hope you’ll love it too,” he said, dropping the last few feet to the ground. “It really is a better view from up in the belfry, but you can see it just as well from down here. Look, the sun’s right behind the tower now. It’s almost as though it were set up that way on purpose, like Stonehenge.”

“I’m sure it’s very nice,” Iris replied.

Iris’s guarded tone wasn’t lost on Roger. She was a dowdy daughter of the lower middle class when he’d found her in London, and it was his influence that polished her into the fashion plate she was today; but either way, she was a city mouse who’d never known a horizon without architecture. It did occur to him that the plain little stenographer of two years ago might have adjusted better to the open countryside surrounding Linwood Hollow -- he had no business getting her nails lacquered if he was going to worry about them breaking -- but there was no denying that she’d blossomed since then. Roger still thought of her sometimes as his project, though less and less as Iris grew more spirited and sure of herself. She was quite likely to snap her fingers in his face and walk away if he affected that old proprietary attitude now.

“Don’t forget why you’re here,” Iris said, breaking his reverie. “Your father’s funeral? I’d have thought you’d be too cut up about his death to go gambolling about like this. You seem to be taking this whole business entirely too lightly.”

Roger’s expression barely faltered. He hopped up onto a well-worn block of stone and patted the space beside him. “This is the world I grew up in,” he said, ignoring Iris’s comment. Iris hesitated, then sighed and joined him. In front of them, the setting sun blazed behind the black silhouette of Linwood Hall. Roger put an arm around Iris’s shoulders and gestured to the ruin around them. “We used to play here, you know: Alan and Caroline and me. You’ll meet them soon enough. Alan was a bit older, and Caroline was a bit younger. The village children were just a touch too deferential to be proper playmates, and so we just had each other. We came here whenever we got a break from our lessons. It was just the sort of place to fire up a child’s imagination, and we told each other these were the ruins of Camelot. Alan would climb into the belfry and proclaim himself Arthur, High King of all he surveyed. I would be Lancelot or Gawaine or whichever of the knights we wanted to play at, and Caroline --”

“Guinevere?”

“Merlin, actually.” Roger grinned at Iris’s expression of surprise. “None of us were particularly interested in any tales of romance, but we did need a Merlin for the stories we made up. Caroline filled in for the wizard by unbraiding her hair and pinning it together under her nose so it made a beard. There was one time when she nicked a jar of flour from the kitchen to turn her ‘beard’ white, but it only made her sneeze, and got her into a world of trouble afterwards. Though we did have a fine afternoon pursuing the Wicked Witch of the Sneezing Curse.”

That got a chuckle out of Iris, but Roger had gone pensive.

“We never got a lot of opportunity to play much,” he added. “Not with all the tutors Father foisted on us. He was very anxious that we made the most of what we had. I assume Mother must have intervened at some point, or we’d have been drilled through our lessons twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”

The sun was just a golden outline around Linwood Hall now, and the blinding brightness had died down enough to make out the few slit-like windows of the house. In his imagination, the ruined church took on the grandeur of a white-walled castle, and the rustling of leaves turned to the snap of pennants in the wind. A twelve-year-old Alan, bright-eyed and glowing with health, stood in the window of a tower, dictating the course of the story to a ten-year-old Roger and an eight-year-old Caroline below. Caroline, tall for her age and nimble as a monkey, leapt from one rocky outcrop to another, pretending to hurl fireballs at the unseen enemy painted by Alan’s imagination. Roger himself, chubby and a little ungainly, scurried around at ground level with a stick to serve as his sword, flanking the same enemy whose attentions were occupied by Caroline’s magic.

Roger was always chubby and ungainly in his own imagination. The Army had changed that, but there were still times when he’d spot himself in a mirror and be surprised at how good he actually looked. Then he’d have to look again just to be sure he hadn’t imagined the image. Climbing the steeple today had been an action spurred by much the same reason: a desire to prove to himself that the metamorphosis was real.

But also part of Roger’s childhood memories was the figure of his father, Sir Lawrence Linwood, always larger than life, always in the background of everything Roger and his siblings did. Remembering their childhood games brought the old man to mind in a way that Iris’s admonishments did not. After all, Iris had never met the man, and knew nothing of the Linwood family. As children, Roger, Alan, and Caroline had treasured their playtime here, away from adult supervision; but, looking up at the shadow of Linwood Hall now, Roger noted the window at the top of the tower, the window of Sir Lawrence’s private study, and wondered if their play had ever been as unsupervised as they imagined. It was strange, knowing that the looming presence of Sir Lawrence Linwood was really and truly gone.

As the last of the sunlight died away, Roger slipped down from his perch and helped Iris down as well.

“There’s something you ought to know about us Linwoods, Iris. It was never worth bringing up before, but now that you’ll be meeting us as a family -- Caroline, at least, and Mother; Alan’s probably still in South America at the moment -- well, the fact of the matter is that the three of us were adopted, Alan and Caroline and I, so don’t expect much in the way of family resemblance. Alan in particular: there’s probably a touch of Chinese in him, we think. You can see it if you know what to look for.”

That gave Iris pause, and she turned to look at him. Roger guessed she was searching his features for traces of the exotic, and turned his face to catch the fading light. She said, “Do you imagine I’m going to get all snobbish about your pedigree, Captain Linwood?”

“I might be the child of Jack the Ripper.”

“I’ll take that chance. You’re not your parents.”

It was dark now but for the moon overhead and the lights appearing in the windows of Linwood Hall. Roger said nothing as he led Iris back to his motorcar. This was a sleek, powerful machine and the only one of its kind: Roger had built it himself, and was rightly proud of it. He loved it almost as much as he loved Linwood Hall -- perhaps a bit less, because he knew he could always build another motorcar just like this one if it came to ruin. He couldn’t build another Linwood Hall.

As Iris settled into her seat and pulled a rug over her lap, she looked back to the church ruin and said, “I don’t remember seeing another church steeple as we came down from the ridge. Where is the funeral going to be held?”

“Not at a church, if that’s what you’re thinking. Linwood Hollow isn’t much given to religion. I think we gave up on the whole idea after Cromwell’s Protectorate banned Christmas. Father in particular had no use for religion.” He paused as the car turned onto the paved road winding up to Linwood Hall, then added, “I think he’d have liked you.”

But Iris was still looking over her shoulder at the village, with its yews crowding up against its time-worn stone walls. She frowned. “A village of atheists in the heart of England! That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“No stranger than a village of Christians, when you think about it.”

“Yes, it is. Very much so.”

Roger shrugged. They’d reached the front drive of Linwood Hall, and he stopped the car on a gravel pad to one side. “I’m surprised at you, Iris. I didn’t think you cared tuppence for religion yourself; it was one of the things I liked about you. The Linwoods have been atheists for generations, and the village followed suit. That’s all there is to it.”

“That’s what worries me, Roger: this sort of wholesale conversion. It sounds dangerous ... I mean, to say they ‘followed suit’ makes it sound more as though they stopped believing in God, not that they began to believe there was no God. That’s not the same thing at all. In my experience, people who start by dropping religion don’t simply fall into atheism: they fall into believing anything that comes their way.”

Roger studied her profile for a good, long moment. “You’ve given this a lot of thought, I see.”

“Would you rather I keep quiet and look pretty?”

“No. Never.” Roger laughed and vaulted out of the car. As he opened the passenger door for Iris, he said, “Don’t worry too much about the villagers of Linwood Hollow. They’re a tough-minded lot -- like us Linwoods. I guarantee you there isn’t a trace of superstition among them.”