Ten-year-old Alan Linwood reached the crumbled stone wall first, slapping his open palm on its sun-warmed surface as he used the momentum of his run to vault up on top of it. There he stood up and looked back for his siblings. Caroline, six years old and tall for her age, arrived soon after; she scrambled with equal enthusiasm up onto the wall to sit beside him. It was another minute before their brother Roger, older than Caroline but younger than Alan, came huffing and puffing up to join them.
“I wish you’d hurry up,” Caroline complained. “Father only gave us until teatime, and he’ll beat us silly if we’re not home before then.”
“I ran as fast as I could,” Roger said, leaning against the wall to catch his breath. Caroline simply tossed her head and bit back her retort. The sun was shining on a glorious summer day, and if you closed your eyes, you could smell the heather of the surrounding Yorkshire dales. It would be a crime to waste it fighting, when Father so rarely let them out to play.
Alan, meanwhile, waved in the direction of the house--Linwood Hall--before leaping down on the other side of the wall.
“There’s no use waving,” Roger called after him. “Father can’t see you from all the way home!”
“Better for us,” Alan called back. He was already jogging over to the old steeple. “I’ll be King Arthur.”
“You’re always King Arthur.”
“You can be King Arthur when you can climb to the top of Camelot.”
“Camelot” was their name for the steeple, all that remained of the old village church. Alan was already scrambling up the far side, where the wall was at a bit of an incline and the crumbled stonework provided ample footholds for the boy who would be king to find his way onto his throne. Alan was getting too old for these games of make-believe, or so he’d been saying for over a year, but he was happy to indulge his younger siblings. Besides, fat, ungainly Roger never could make it more than halfway up the side of Camelot.
Roger, preferring to walk around the wall than clamber over it, picked up a stick and swung it through a nearby bush. “Then I’ll be Sir Lancelot. What about you, Caroline?”
There weren’t a lot of good female roles in Arthurian legend for Caroline to slip into, and she’d been far from satisfied with being Guinevere the last time. This time would be different. She’d been unbraiding her pigtails while the boys were talking, and, shaking out her long, golden-blond hair, she pulled two hanks of it around to tie together under her nose. “I’m going to be Merlin,” she declared.
“You can’t be Merlin,” Roger told her. “You’re a girl.”
“But I’ve got a beard,” she replied, “and you don’t.”
“Caroline can be whoever she wants,” Alan said. His word was law when he took that tone of finality, and Roger acquiesced. He had to admit that an adventure with Merlin would be more fun than another soppy romance with Guinevere.
Roger Linwood’s fingertips scuttered gingerly over the uneven wall of the ruined church steeple before finding purchase on an inch-wide lip of stone. He eased back, imagining his weight flowing down his body and through his toes, into the antique 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. Letting his breath out again in a steady stream, he pushed himself up and began feeling for the next toehold.
Only Alan, Roger’s elder brother, had ever conquered the old steeple before, but that was a long time ago. They’d been children then, and now Roger was a man, made lean and fit by his time in the Army. As dark as his time in the trenches of the Great War had been, it had forged him into the man he now was. His grip was firm and his balance was cat-like. He had the calm self-assurance of one who’d danced with death; the side of a crumbling church ruin was child’s play. The next time he reached up, his fingers curled over the sill of the belfry window. He was there! Strength surged through his arms and snapped like elastic through his body, and he practically shot himself through into the belfry. Raising his arms in triumph, he let out a whoop of primal joy, then went to the opposite window to look down on the world below.
“It’ll be just as dangerous coming down as going up, won’t it?”
Perched on a displaced block of weathered limestone was a dark-haired beauty, an urbane fashion-plate as incongruous among these country ruins as a martini in the village pub. Her name was Iris Morgan, and she looked utterly bored with the proceedings. Roger knew she was anything but. She’d been biting her knuckles in anxiety throughout his climb, not that she ever intended to show it.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Roger called down to her. “A child could have done it. My brother was ten when he first did it.”
“Yes, well, that was him and you are you.” Iris stood and paced across the ground. “Oh, do get down from there! Before it gets too dark to see!”
“If it’s too dark to climb, I could jump instead.”
“Do that, and I’ll never speak to you again.”
Roger laughed. “At least give me some time to enjoy the view, Iris. I’ve never had the pleasure until now.”
It was closing in on dusk, and the setting sun poured into the valley of Linwood Hollow like liquid into a bowl, glowing on the twisted yews and gilding the slate roofs of the houses. It caught on the swinging sign over the front door of the Collier’s Arms, and it blazed like fire on the polished metal bonnet of the motorcar Roger had built himself. Only Linwood Hall, set as it was atop a steep ridge overlooking the village, was a dark shape against that golden sunset. A memory tickled, and Roger thought he saw three children, the youngest desperately trying to tie her hair back as she ran, racing to get back to the house before teatime.
He blinked the memory away. This was no time to get sentimental, and in any case, he needed to get back to the house, too. There was the small matter of a funeral to attend.
“I’d have thought,” Iris said as Roger dropped the last few feet to the ground, “that you’d be too cut up about your father’s death to go gambolling about like this. You seem to be taking this whole business entirely too lightly.”
“Would you prefer that I be utterly prostrated by grief? I’d be useless if I were--and Father would have hated it. He couldn’t abide mawkish sentimentality.”
Iris peered curiously at him, and Roger continued, “We were all adopted, you know: Alan and Caroline and me. That makes for a certain uncertainty about where you stand in a family. You grow up wondering how truly you belong, and what would happen if your parents decided they didn’t want you anymore. For the three of us, at least, it made us quite desperate to impress Father. And he was everywhere. We couldn’t do a thing without it being somehow connected to him.”
Roger’s memory tickled again. The ruined church took on the grandeur of a white-walled castle, and the rustling leaves became the snap of pennants in the wind. A ten-year-old Alan, bright-eyed and glowing with health, stood in the window of a tower, dictating the course of the story to an eight-year-old Roger and a six-year-old Caroline below. Their games of make-believe were among the few times they could forget about Father looming over every aspect of their childhood lives. Even as an adult, Roger always knew that Father was here, in the background, following their every move. It would be strange, to know that the presence of Sir Lawrence Linwood, the man they called Father, was really and truly gone.
The sun was behind Linwood Hall now, a golden outline around a pitch-black shape.
“He was a hard taskmaster,” Roger found himself saying. “We never really got a lot of opportunity to go out and play, not with all the tutors Father foisted on us, and even then he drilled us through half our lessons. He was very anxious that we made the most of what we had, you see. I assume Mother must have intervened at some point, or we’d never have got out at all.”
But Roger quelled her sympathy with a fierce look, and Iris straightened up again.
She said, “He sounds like a terrifying old man, and I’m rather glad to not be meeting him. I hope the rest of the family isn’t quite like that.”
“Not at all.” Roger took Iris by the hand and began leading her back to the motorcar. “You’ll meet Mother, at the very least. She’s nothing like Father was. Caroline’s made her life in Paris, writing for the newspapers, but I don’t expect that to stop her from coming back for Father’s funeral. You can form your own opinion. But Alan’s in Panama, digging up the lost artifacts of ancient civilisations. He probably won’t be able to get here in time.”
Not unless he could fly. One day, Roger thought as his fingers brushed over the polished metal body of his motorcar. One day, these distances would not be a problem.
Roger would see to that.
The last of the sunlight disappeared behind the shadow of Linwood Hall, and the final echoes of childhood games around the ruined church died away. The past was gone, and with it the fat, ungainly boy he’d once been. In his place was the trim figure of the adult Roger, lean and fit and vigorous, sliding into the leather seat of a sleek, powerful machine with the lovely Iris Morgan at his side. The world was at his fingertips; or else it would be.
Roger pushed the ignition button--not for him the tiresome handcranks that ignited other engines--and the motorcar roared to life. Gravel and loose dirt spat from under its wheels as it leapt away from the grass verge and sped through the village. He wasn’t even going very fast, but villagers emerged from their houses and from the Collier’s Arms to mark his passage, and he waved to them as he passed. A few waved back; others only stared in astonishment.
Iris, holding on to her hat, looked back over her shoulder at the rapidly receding steeple of the ruined church. She remarked, “I take it the funeral won’t be held in that old ruin. Where is the village church, anyhow? I don’t see another steeple anywhere.”
“Linwood Hollow hasn’t got a church.”
“We’re not 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, and the village followed suit.” He paused as the motorcar turned onto the steep, uphill drive up to Linwood Hall, then added, “I think he’d have liked you, even if you did think him a terrifying old man.”
But Iris was craning her neck to look back at the village, with its yews crowding up against its time-worn stone walls. She frowned. “What exactly do you mean by the village following suit? Surely they don’t get their beliefs dictated to them by you lot in the big house.”
“It’s just the way it is, Iris. I don’t know what happened with the village: they simply stopped believing in God, I reckon, when there wasn’t a local vicar to stir things up again. I didn’t think you cared tuppence for religion yourself: it was one of the things I liked about you.”
“But I’ve thought about it,” Iris replied, “and I drew my own conclusions. I didn’t simply let it all fade away. It’s not the same thing at all. In my experience, people who start by dropping religion don’t simply fall into atheism afterwards: they fall into believing anything that comes their way.”
Roger stopped the motorcar. They were at the front gates of Linwood Hall now, and he had to get out and open them so as to drive through. But first, he studied Iris’s profile for a good, long moment and said, “You really have thought about this, I see.”
“Would you rather I keep quiet and only look pretty?”
“No. Never.” Roger laughed and vaulted out of the motorcar. “Don’t worry too much about the villagers of Linwood Hollow, Iris. They’re a tough-minded lot--like us Linwoods. I guarantee you there isn’t an ounce of superstition among the lot of them.”