Under a collapsed wall at the side of one of Skara Brae’s semi-subterranean houses, I found the torque. It wasn’t made of gold or silver, which would have suggested that it belonged to a priest, priestess or tribal leader. Instead, it appeared to be made from a type of iron usually associated with fifth-century weapons. How did it turn up in a five thousand year old village in the Orkneys?
If Gareth were here he would have said, “If we eliminate the impossible, Maxine, whatever’s left must be the answer.”
I suspected that was a quote from either Sherlock Holmes or Dirk Gently, but I couldn’t ask Gareth to elaborate. He was dead. My heart lurched at the reality that I’d never see him again and I struggled to fight back my tears.
The rest of the archaeological team were occupied elsewhere on the dig. I knew I should call them and show them what I’d found, but my mind was full of Gareth and I couldn’t face speaking to them right now. I sat on the ground and ran my fingers over the torque’s surface, experiencing an overwhelming urge to place it around my neck. I did so. A flash of light forced me to close my eyes.
When I opened them again I was sitting in the same place, but Skara Brae was intact. The low-built houses looked fit for habitation and the wall under which I’d found the torque stood undamaged. A bearded, elderly man wearing a long, rather grubby white robe, strode towards me. He sobbed, “You’ve found it.” He snatched the torque from around my neck and placed it around his own. “My dear lady, how can I thank you?”
I stared at him. “You can tell me what the hell’s going on. Who are you?”
He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and bowed. “If you’re English you would know me as Merlin Ambrosias. If you’re Welsh I’d be Myrddin Emrys. If you’re Scottish, who knows? You might call me Jock.”
This was a dream, I thought, but if it distracted me from my sense of loss I’d go with the flow. “You’re Merlin? King Arthur’s Merlin?”
“I’d prefer to say he was my Arthur, but yes, and who are you?”
“My name’s Maxine Reece. I’m an archaeologist. How did you get here? How did I get here? I know where it is but I don’t know when it is.”
He pulled me to my feet. “It’s a long story, Lady Maxine. We are in the year known to you as 2500BC. Step inside my house and I’ll explain.” He led me down into the dwelling. “I believe I have two cans of Newcastle Brown that I brought back in 1985 from one of Oliver Reed’s weddings. I love the stuff. You can keep your fancy wines and spirits. Give me Newkie Brown anytime.” We sat on the stone floor. He opened the cans and passed one to me.
“Is it still drinkable after all those years?” I said.
He winked. “The torque carries me through time, My Lady. We were celebrating Ollie’s nuptials only last month.”
He took a large swallow of his tipple. “After Arthur and Mordred killed each other Nimue warned me that I should make a getaway. The politics were volatile and Mordred’s revolutionary hounds were baying for my blood.”
“I thought Nimue stole your power and imprisoned you in a crystal cave,” I said, to let him know I was familiar with the legend and he couldn’t bullshit me.
He laughed and shook his head, “Nim had enough power of her own. She didn’t need mine. The crystal cave nonsense was her idea to throw them off the scent. While they were sniffing around the Mendips I re-fashioned Arthur’s sword into a time-and-place-travelling torque, and I did a runner, back three thousand years, to a cosy community in the North country.”
“Arthur’s sword? You mean Excalibur?”
No, definitely not. Excalibur belongs to the Goddess. When Arthur was dying he made sure it was returned to her.”
“The Lady of the Lake?”
“The lady of anywhere she likes. She’s the Triple Goddess, Niniane, my mother, Vivian, my sister, and Nimue, my lover and alleged nemesis. They wouldn’t let me mess with their artefacts. I used the Toy Town sword that Arthur pulled out of the stone.”
I took another sip of Newkie Brown to help me get into the spirit of this insanity. “You might be able to solve an historical mystery, Merlin. This village appears to have been abandoned. What happened to the folk who lived here?”
“I’m afraid that was my fault. They were terrified of me. I tried to be friendly, but to them I was a wicked sorcerer. They gave me a house left empty by the former occupant’s death, and placed food outside for me, but they kept their distance.” He frowned, and then shrugged. “I awoke one morning to find that they’d run away, leaving me alone in Skara Brae, but I admit that I revelled in the solitude.”
“Not enough to keep you away from Oliver Reed.”
Well, I need to eat and drink, Lady Maxine, and there’s always a party or a festival going on somewhere. The hippy era is particularly amenable. Many of the gentlemen look like me, so I blend in and I’m always made welcome. That’s how I lost the torque.”
“You left it at a party? The same thing happened to my favourite Adele CD, but how did you get back here without it?”
He wagged his finger at me. “Who’s telling this story? Shut up and listen or I’ll turn you into a toad.”
“Sorry.” I didn’t believe he’d do that and I realised that for the first time since Gareth died I was enjoying myself.
He continued. “I attended the Glastonbury festival in 1971.”
“Did you visit Arthur’s grave while you were there?”
“No point. He isn’t in it, but that’s another story. Now, where was I?
“Right. Various substances were being passed around and I was as high as Uther Pendragon’s armpits. While I was head-banging to Hawkwind the torque fell off. I picked it up, and in a brief moment of clarity I acknowledged that it was time to go home. The torque responded and brought me back here.” He patted the torque as if it were a pet dog. “I remember carrying it into the house, but shortly afterwards I passed out and it was some time before I awoke and discovered that it was no longer in my possession, but I knew if it were not trapped in stone it would come back to me. Where did you find it, My Lady?”
I pointed to the narrow passage leading from the living room. “Those walls had collapsed on top of it.”
He nodded. “That explains it. I must have dropped it down the privy.”
I shuddered to think I’d put it around my neck. “I suggest you give it a wash and take better care of it in future, and you’re too old for head-banging.”
“Not as old as some of the members of Hawkwind.” He stood up and helped me to my feet. “Come, Lady Maxine. I’ll escort you back to your own time.”
The adventure, hallucination, or whatever, was about to end. My grief for Gareth flooded back and Merlin must have seen it in my eyes. “For whom do you mourn?”
“Gareth, the man I loved.”
“How did he die?”
“He was also an archaeologist and he was excavating the remains of a maze in the area that was once the grounds of Woodstock Palace, not the Woodstock with which you’re no doubt acquainted.”
He chuckled. “I understand. You mean the one in Oxfordshire. Henry II built a love nest within the maze for his assignations with his mistress, Rosamund Clifford. I’ve met her.”
“Of course you have. Anyway, Gareth was kneeling in a trench examining a piece of jewellery he’d uncovered, when the wall behind him collapsed and killed him.”
“It seems fair Rosamund was disinclined to give up her jewels.”
“I was disinclined to give up my man but neither of us had a choice. I returned to work the day after the funeral because I couldn’t endure the days alone in our house.”
Merlin grasped my hand. “How long ago did he die?”
His roar of laughter echoed through the stone chamber. “The Goddess has smiled upon you. It is within one lunar cycle so we can go back and save him without causing any disastrous historical anomalies. Let’s go.” He touched the torque and I closed my eyes against the explosion of light.
When I opened them we were standing at the edge of a narrow ditch. Gareth was kneeling in it with his back to us. I tried to run to him but Merlin held me back and whispered. “Don’t let him see you. I dislike complicated explanations. Let’s keep it simple.”
He pushed me behind a heap of rubble and he called to Gareth, “Look out. The wall’s crumbling.” Gareth leaped to his feet. I watched in horror as a section of the ancient maze began to fall. Merlin shouted, “Take my hand.”
They reached out to each other and the old man pulled him to safety with seconds to spare. Gareth clung to him. “Thank you,” he said. “You saved my life. Who are you, a New-Age Druid?”
“Something like that. Look, here come your friends.”
Gareth turned to face his team as they ran towards him. While he was distracted Merlin jumped to my side, touched the torque and brought us back to Skara Brae.
“When are we?” I said.
“The day Gareth died, but now he didn’t.”
I sobbed with relief and he offered me his sleeve to dry my eyes. When I’d composed myself he pointed to a kneeling figure examining fragments of ancient pottery. It was me. She appeared to be melting and I experienced a tingling in my skin as she disappeared.
“What just happened?” I said.
“Don’t ask me. You were two, now you’re one. Something to do with electrons. Best leave them to the quantum physicists or you’ll get a headache. Now, I’m getting hungry. Time to find a party to gatecrash.”
I grasped his arm. “Before you go, tell me, is the legend of King Arthur true?”
“Yes and no. Myths and legends are a mixture of true lies and false lies. Arthur’s story is one of many that tell of the Triple Goddess and the Sacred King. For him the Goddess is Igraine his mother, Guinevere his wife, and Morgan, his sister and alleged nemesis.” He sighed, “Now I suppose you want to know what Lancelot has to do with it.”
I laughed, “No. Didn’t Chretien de Troyes invent him in the twelfth-century?”
“Spot on. If you want a manuscript to bring you fame and fortune, chuck in a dabble of adultery.”
“But will Arthur really come back when we need him? Is he the Once and Future King?”
“If not Arthur, someone similar. When a Divine Trinity sees that humans need help it sends a guide that in time becomes the subject of legend, then myth, made up of fables, allegory and metaphor, and not to be taken literally.”
“True and false lies?”
He nodded. “Folk who believe the true lies get the help they need, but those who believe the false ones start killing each other. That’s humans for you.”
“So we’re a hopeless case.”
He took both his hands in mine. “No, My Lady. Go home to your young man, make each other happy and spread the happiness around. As long as enough of you do that, there’ll always be hope.” He hugged me, and then he touched the torque and vanished.
BIO: Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 127 stories and poems accepted by paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 Alban Lake published an anthology of her stories, ‘Whispers of Magic’. She also writes song lyrics, mainly humorous political satire. Her husband sets these to traditional melodies and he has performed them in folk music clubs throughout the UK. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare and cats.