Chapters:

Prologue

August, 1903.

In the beginning was Linwood Hall, and Linwood Hall was the world.

That was how the Linwood children — Alan, Roger, and Caroline — saw it. The high tower room they’d claimed as their playroom was its centre, a remnant of the Norman ruin from which Linwood Hall had evolved, and from its windows, they could see for miles in every direction. The howling winds brought them heather and gorse and peat smoke, and there was no light but the liquid gold of the sun pouring over the ancient oak plank floors. Immediately to the east, the mossy-roofed village of Linwood Hollow nestled in a bowl-like dip in the landscape, but beyond that and all around was nothing but the wheeling North Sea gulls and the open, windswept expanse of the North Yorkshire moors going on and on and on to forever.

Any conventional means of access to the tower room had long since been lost to some ancestor’s rebuilding efforts. The only way there now was through the servant’s passage, a network of narrow corridors behind the walls, much of it unused and unexplored, to a door hidden behind one of the cabinets in the first floor linen closet. From there, a stair wound up through the darkness with steps worn down to a dangerous angle, to arrive finally at the sunlit glory of the tower room — Camelot.

A girl of about seven or eight was hurrying along the passage. She was a graceful child, with eyes so dark her pupils seemed one with her irises, and long, black hair swung down her back in two fat braids. This was Caroline Linwood, and she was imagining herself as the ghost of some historic Linwood, gliding soundlessly through the walls of the house. Her preferred entrance to the passage was a secret panel behind the grand staircase in the great hall, well placed for dramatic disappearances; today, however, she’d had to begin her journey from the kitchen instead, as she’d had to nick something out of the pantry for her play. The kitchen entrance was no more than an open arch — prosaic, unromantic, and no way to stage a dramatic exit — but then the servants had no call to hide their movements from each other.

Up ahead, behind the tower door, was Roger Linwood, Caroline’s brother, a year and a half older. He was applying axle grease to the door hinges because he’d had quite enough of that door squeaking when you opened it, potentially alerting every servant within earshot, and he meant to fix it just as he’d fixed the secret panel from his own room — his favourite entrance to the servants’ passage because it was his own. Caroline didn’t know this, of course. Squeezing behind the linen cabinet, she threw the door open, and the collision was quite enough to squelch any further pretence at being the Ghost of Linwoods Past.

“Oy! Watch where you’re going, you!” Roger frowned down at his sister in a perfect imitation of their father. It was widely known that Sir Lawrence Linwood’s children were all adopted, so no one expected much family resemblance; but Roger, darker even than Caroline and with a hard-to-place exoticism about his features, promised to be at least as tall as Sir Lawrence once he was grown, and his frown really was a perfect imitation of him in one of his sterner moments. And an imitation was all it was: a moment later, it had melted into a cheerful grin. “What do you think?” he said, nodding at the door. “Smooth as silk, and not a sound. You can do nearly anything with glue and grease, I say.”

“You can do what you like,” Caroline replied, eyeing his grease-stained hands, “only don’t touch me.”

“As if I’d want to!” Roger shoved his pot of axle grease into a corner. He’d have to return it to the handyman’s workshop before it was missed. For now, he simply bounded up the stairs to the glimmer of sunlight above, shouting to his sister, “Come on! Alan’s waiting for us.”

Alan was the eldest of the three, adopted as Roger and Caroline were, but fair and flaxen-haired. He was lodged in the west window of the tower room, where the afternoon sun outlined his silhouette in gold and made his hair shine like a halo. One long leg swung against the Plantagenet masonry of the tower’s exterior wall as he read from a tome he’d taken from the library on the way up: his favoured entrance to the servants’ passage was through a revolving bookcase there, precisely because he could snatch up some light reading — what he considered “light” reading — on his way up. He was getting too old for their usual games of make-believe, really; but that wasn’t about to stop him from pitching in where his siblings needed him. His role was that of a narrator, directing the story and filling in the bit characters; or, as he put it, “I’m King Arthur.”

“You’re always King Arthur,” Roger complained, though with an undercurrent of good humour. He caught up a bit of rag from the useful detritus of years spent playing in this private Eden, and began to wipe the grease from his fingers.

Alan peered owlishly at him over the top of his book. “I was here first,” he said, “and I’m the eldest. So I’m King Arthur.”

“All right, then.” Roger tested his hands on a relatively clean section of his rag, then flung it aside and caught up an old training sword that, unbeknownst to them, really belonged in a museum. “I’m Lancelot. What about you, Caroline? Guinevere?”

“Guinevere’s no fun,” Caroline said as she untied her braids. She knotted two hanks of hair under her nose and let them fall in a curtain over her mouth, like a long, black beard. “I’m Merlin.”

“You can’t be Merlin. You’re a girl.”

“I can so be Merlin. I’ve got a beard.” Caroline held out the prize she’d smuggled up from the kitchen: a jar of flour, which she dusted over her “beard.” The effect was slightly spoiled when the flour got up her nose and made her sneeze.

Alan laughed. He shut his book and swung both legs around inside the room. “Caroline can be whoever she wants,” he declared, and Roger acquiesced. Alan’s word was law when he took that tone of finality. “We don’t want another soppy romance, anyroad —”

“Anyway,” Caroline corrected him, then sneezed again.

“Anyway.” Alan inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “It sounds as though Morgan Le Fay has placed a fiendish sneezing curse on her rival Merlin!”

“Zounds!” cried Roger, brandishing his sword. “The villainess must be found and the curse lifted!” He was ready to throw himself into a quest — in much the same way he threw himself into his projects.

Caroline sneezed, this time for dramatic effect, and they were off.

Outside, the late afternoon sun descended towards evening, mingling gold with purple heather so even the lowliest scrub blazed with glory. There was nothing above but blue sky, and nothing between the tower and the distant horizon in any direction but the windswept moors. There was nothing outside the tower room that mattered, and nothing inside but Alan and Roger and Caroline, their laughter, and the worlds their words conjured.

Next Chapter: Alan