I stood to stretch my aching back, and wiped at the sweat on my forehead, smearing mud on my face in the process. The sun was already sinking behind the steep slope of the tor.
“Isn’t this exciting, Dr. Saunders?” Amiee beamed up from her spot on the ground, where she was carefully cataloging the exact location of the tiny potshards, our only find so far.
Yeah, exciting. “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” I forced a smile. “This is just about as glamorous as the life of an archaeologist gets.” Shaking my head, I knelt back down. Amiee was my newest volunteer, a grad student with enough faith in a huge discovery to make backbreaking days of digging through heaps of clay with a toothbrush and a sifter seem “exciting.” I couldn’t be too hard on her though. There was a time I’d been just like her. Sure that I would be the one to make a huge discovery that would change the way we thought about grant money as it was about “discovery.” Before I figured out that those huge discoveries were rarer than rare. The truth was most of us spend our years making grids, cataloging fragments too small to display, and shoveling them into storage bins somewhere. Eventually, I’d figured it out, and Amiee would too.
“Okay, gang. We’re losing the light. Let’s pack up and call it a day.” I squinted up at the setting sun with a grateful sigh. I could hear a warm shower and a soft pillow calling my name, back at the inn. Two more days, and then this dig would wrap up and I’d be back in my own bed.
As soon as our small group had secured our equipment and properly covered the dig site, we piled in our vehicles. Of course, Amiee slid in beside me, but it was a short trip to the tiny inn, so I didn’t mind, really. “So, Dr. Saunders, did you know that Glastonbury Tor is one of the suggested locations for Avalon?”
Avalon? Aren’t you a little old to believe in King Arthur? My incredulity must have shown on my face, because her cheeks flushed. “Of course, you knew that. You’re the head archaeologist on the dig. But, on break this morning, I climbed to the top. You can still see where the land around the base used to be flooded, so I completely understand how it could have looked like an island at one time, instead of just a hill.”
“Is that so?” I navigated into one of the inn’s tiny parking spaces, and shut off the engine.
“Yeah. And according to legend, King Arthur was buried there after he received a mortal wound in a battle against his nephew.”
“Mordred.” I couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “Who may or may not have also been his son, and who had kidnapped his queen, whom he tried to take as his own wife. Modern soap operas had nothing on those guys.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Amiee giggled. “I didn’t know you were into Arthurian lore. I love it. Honestly, that’s why I wanted to come on the Glastonbury dig.”
“Amiee,” I sighed, holding open the door. “You do know we’re looking for Celtic-era weaponry, like the sword found at the bottom of the tor, not the bodies of mythological kings, right?”
She didn’t falter for a second. “Oh, I know. The government just wants to make sure there are no precious artifacts before they restore St. Michael’s tower and turn the whole place into a tourist stop.”
“Exactly.” I smiled tiredly. “And since the grant runs out in two days, and all we’ve found is a broken pot, I’d say the sword the farmer dug up was a fluke, and they’re in the clear.”
“Probably,” Amiee’s green eyes sparked, “but did you know that the first mentions of King Arthur place him as a warrior in the Celtic time period, not the Christianized king most people think of today? Let me buy you dinner, and I can tell you my own theories.”
I forced back a groan. As tempting as a free meal sounded, the last thing I wanted was to spend my evening listening to tales of magical swords and mythical warriors. As a kid, I’d loved the stories, but reality is what you can see and touch. Thinking beyond that just leads to disappointment. “Thanks for the offer, Amiee, but I’m not as young as I used to be. I need my beauty sleep if I’m going to be up on time tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay.” A note of disappointment slipped in her voice. “That’s probably for the best. I’m a bit of a fanatic anyway. Once I get going, I don’t know when to stop. Night Dr. Saunders!” She called as I made my way up the narrow, wooden stairs, ignoring a twinge of guilt.
I hadn’t lied. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out cold. But, thanks to Amiee, I dreamt of uncovering full suits of armor, conveniently inscribed with the names of Gawain, Lancelot, and the other knights of the round table. Next, Amiee discovered a huge statue of King Arthur, complete with a Celtic shield and the same sword that was discovered at the bottom of the tor last year. When my alarm finally jolted me awake, I had to shake my head to clear the images away. Even as I tugged on my boots, a woman’s voice chanted in my skull. Believe. Remember and Believe.
One conversation about Avalon and I’m dreaming about mythical places again? “Amiee, you’d better have the coffee made.” I grumbled, trudging down the stairs to the quiet lobby.
“Good morning, Dr. Saunders.” Amiee pressed a foam cup in my hand, instantly earning forgiveness for her too-chipper tone. “The others are dragging their feet this morning, but I’m ready if you want to head out. They said they’d follow after breakfast.”
I miss the days when I was allowed to drag my feet. Being in charge has its disadvantages. I tossed Amiee my keys and slid in the passenger seat. The trip out to the tor was blessedly quiet, and by the time Amiee shut off the engine, I was mostly awake.
“Hey, I have an idea!” Amiee slammed her door closed, making me wince. “The fog is pretty thick this morning. Climb up with me and we’ll see if the tor looks like an island now.”
I really wanted to say no. But a small part of me remembered what it was like on my first digs. Having the head archaeologist take an interest would have made my day. Besides, the fog really was thick. We’d have to wait for it to burn off before we could do anything productive. “Sure, why not?”
Amiee practically skipped up the terraces, leaving me to stomp along behind her. By the time I made it to the top, the sun was glinting off the ruins of St. Michael’s tower. It really will be impressive, if they restore it correctly. Turning my back to the tower, I glanced down. Amiee was right. From up here, the fog seemed to cut us off from everything. I squinted, trying to make out our dig site, or even the car, but all I could see was rolling fog.
“Amiee, did you happen to bring a camera?” Suddenly, I had the ridiculous feeling that I was the only human for miles. “Amiee?” I called again.
“No, I left it today.” She sighed, coming up beside me. “Of course, I would have left it today of all days. I’d love to have a picture of this. Just look at the fog! It’s almost like it’s moving toward us, instead of burning off. I wonder why it’s so thick this morning.”
“It is a little odd.” I nodded, refusing to believe what my eyes were telling me, that the tor was almost completely consumed by fog. “The weather report didn’t say anything about unusual fog coverage, did it?”
A loud, low rumble cut off Amiee’s answer, and suddenly the ground felt like it had disappeared beneath me. I dimly registered Amiee’s startled squeak before my back connected with the dirt and all the air rushed out of my lungs.
Apparently, I lost consciousness, because when I forced my eyes open, the sun was shining brightly. The fog had vanished. Groaning, I pushed myself up on the plush grass, gingerly checking for injuries. My bones seemed intact, but the jolt must have done something to my vision. Colors were almost unbearably bright. The grass looked like it had been drawn with markers. The blooms on the trees were—Were there trees on top of the tor this morning?
I shook my head, willing it to clear, just as I heard a moan to my left. “Amiee, are you okay?” I glanced over as she sat up, rubbing her eyes. “I think we just experienced an earthquake. Do you think you can walk?”
Amiee gasped, whether from pain or shock, I couldn’t tell. “Dr.…Dr. Saunders, I don’t think that was an earthquake. Something…else must have happened.” Her voice literally bubbled with excitement. “There were no trees on the tor.” Before I could blink, she was on her feet, spinning in a circle. “Look! The tower is gone. And over there. That’s an apple orchard, I’ll bet anything!”
She was bouncing by the time I got to my feet. “Dr. Saunders, do you know where we are?” She rushed on, not waiting for an answer. “I think we’re on Avalon. It’s really here!”
“Amiee,” I forced back a sigh. “We’ve both suffered an injury. There is a perfectly logical explanation for this. We are not on—” The words died in my mouth as a woman topped the hill, holding a basket of the largest apples I’d ever seen.
“Greetings, weary travelers.” Her voice floated musically toward us. The voice from my dream. No. That’s not possible. “Do not be frightened.” She approached us almost like wild animals. “My name is Glitonea. Will you ladies take refreshment?” She motioned toward the basket on her hip.
“Glitonea.” Amiee repeated, reverently. “You’re one of the nine sisters, aren’t you?”
“I am.” Glitonea arched a perfect, dark eyebrow. “But few recognize my name.”
“I’m a bit of a fanatic.” Amiee blushed as red as the apples.
“And what of you?” Glitonea turned her kind gaze on me.
“I hit my head, and am having a very strange dream. My companion, however,” I motioned toward Amiee, “believes we have found the isle of Avalon.”
“More correctly, Avalon found you.” Glitonea’s eyes danced with secret amusement. “Why do you not believe?”
“Because I’ve spent decades travelling all over this country. I’ve worked hard my entire life, and I’ve seen my fair share of stress and heartache. But no magic. No mystical islands.” I sighed, rubbing my forehead.
“Perhaps that is because you stopped looking.” Glitonea’s voice was so soft I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. “Tell me, does the food often taste like this in your dreams?” She tossed an apple toward me and I caught it without thinking. As soon as my teeth broke the apple’s flesh, flavor exploded in my mouth. It was the sweetest, juiciest fruit I’d ever tasted.
I looked up to see two pairs of eyes, watching me expectantly. “Well,” I said slowly, “if this is a dream, it’s the most vivid one I’ve ever had. Can we explore?”
“I am your guide.” Glitonea bowed gracefully.
It felt as if we walked for miles. We passed huge orchards of every imaginable fruit, gardens of the most beautiful vegetables I’d ever seen, and several pools of crystal clear water, fed by underwater springs. But not once did I see anyone tending to the wonderful crops. Finally, the archaeologist in me could take it no longer. “What tools do you use to work your fields? Do you have an irrigation system in place? How often do you have to move your crops?”
“Deidra, my dear, these are things you used to know.” Glitonea’s rich laugh startled me almost as much as her use of my name. “We do not care for Avalon. Avalon cares for us. Do you not remember?”
“Of course I remember.” I protested, conscious of Amiee hanging on our every word. “There was a time I practically lived on the old tales. But those were just—”
“Just stories?” She finished.
“Well, yes.” I mumbled, far less sure of myself than I would have liked. “Aren’t they?”
“With all due respect, Dr. Saunders,” Amiee cut in, laughing, “does this look like just a story to you? The fruit, the fact that this place is at least twice the size of the tor, not to mention having one of the nine sisters who rule Avalon acting as our personal guide?”
I found myself sinking down in the grass, staring at my mud-caked boots. If this was a fantasy, I would be wearing better shoes. For some reason that, more than anything, convinced me. “How?” I couldn’t force my brain to form a more complete thought.
“I don’t know.” Amiee sat beside me, trying to mask her excitement. “But not everything has to have a logical explanation.” She glanced at Glitonea, who nodded approval. “Maybe some things are beyond logic. This place exists by its own rules.”
“The magic of our world, and yours, didn’t cease to exist, simply because you stopped believing, Deidra.” Glitonea smiled sadly.
“I am a rational, intelligent, adult.” I suddenly felt the need to defend myself. “I didn’t choose to stop believing. I grew up. Only children seriously think—” I stopped short, remembering Amiee beside me.
“That is what my mum says too.” Amiee laughed, clearly not offended. “But I’ve always known our world is just too big for us to say for sure what does or doesn’t exist. It’s a little egotistical to believe we know everything, isn’t it?”
“You’ve been blessed with a unique understanding, Amiee.” Glitonea seemed to glow. “It is probably what allowed the veil between worlds to open for you.”
“Veil?” I struggled to recall the stories I used to love. “So, we’re not still on the tor?”
“That is correct. The tor is not Avalon, as some believe. But it is a gateway.”
“I knew it!” Amiee inhaled deeply. “The air even smells differently here.”
As soon as she mentioned it, I knew that she was right. The colors, food, even the air. This was really and truly real. Before I could stop to think about it, I flung myself backward in the thick grass, rolling and laughing like I hadn’t done since I was a girl. I was on Avalon.
Tears of laughter dancing in my eyes, I sat up. “So, what is next? Will you teach us some of your ballads, or introduce us to the rest of your sisters?” I was full of more energy than I’d felt in years.
“Most of my sisters are away,” Glitonea laughed, and it may be many years as you count them before they return. I could try to teach you one of our ballads, although Merlin was much better at it than I.”
“You knew Merlin?” If Amiee became any more excited, I was sure she would burst. “He’s always been one of my favorite people to read about, but I wasn’t sure he truly existed.” She said the last part as if confessing a sin.
“Yes, child. Merlin did exist and he was every bit as eccentric as the old tales claim.” Glitonea’s eyes lit up. “Would you like to spend the remainder of your time here with King Arthur?”
I literally felt my jaw drop. “He’s here?” I was on my feet in an instant. “What are we waiting for?”
“Perhaps I spoke carelessly.” Glitonea’s perfect brow creased in a frown. “Arthur had a mortal wound when he was brought to us, one beyond even Morgan’s skill to mend.”
“Oh, of course.” My spirit deflated a bit. I knew that. “But being able to see the actual grave of King Arthur will be amazing.” I quickened my pace to keep up with Amiee and Glitonea’s long stride.
“It is not much further to the place where he sleeps.” Glitonea smiled softly.
I’m not sure what I expected. An elaborate tomb, inlaid with gold and jewels, or an impressive stone monument to mark the place where the greatest king of all time was laid. But, somehow, the simple wooden casket with delicate carvings, placed under a small pavilion, looked more regal than anything I could have imagined. When Glitonea nodded, I stepped on the slightly raised platform to get a better look at Arthur’s final resting place. At the head of the casket, I noticed a carving, deeper than the decorations around it.
Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam rexque futurus.
“Here lies Arthur, once and future king.” I translated under my breath. “So, Mallory was right.”
“I guess he really is gone.” Amiee murmured from over my shoulder. Even on Avalon, she managed to sound a little disappointed.
“Gone?” Glitonea spoke up from a shade tree, just beyond the pavilion. “No, he’s not gone. At least, I don’t believe he’s gone forever.”
“So, the legend is real?” Without turning my head I could sense Amiee’s rising excitement. “Do you believe he’ll come back one day?”
“Only time will tell.” Glitonea motioned for us to sit in the shade beside her. “But Merlin was correct about so many other things, I believe the odds are in our favor.”
“I have so many questions to ask you!” Amiee squealed, reminding me of a child at Christmas time. While I listened to the two of them talk, I leaned back in the thick grass and closed my eyes, taking it all in. I wanted to commit every detail to memory, from the scent of the breeze to the shadows of the leaves dancing across my face.
Lying there, more relaxed and, well, happy, than I had been in years, something kept tickling the back of my mind. When I finally grasped it, I shot up. “Amiee!” I interrupted her in mid-sentence. “The tor was once surrounded by water, right?”
“Yes.” Amiee wrinkled her brow, obviously not sure where this was leading.
“Do you remember the legend about Excalibur? Before Arthur came here, he had Sir Bedivere throw it in the water, returning it to the Lady of the Lake!”
“What are the odds of finding a perfectly preserved Celtic sword in a former lakebed, in an area where there is little other evidence of Celtic inhabitants?” Amiee’s voice cracked with excitement when she understood my thoughts. “If Glastonbury Tor was a gateway to Avalon, it would make sense that Arthur’s sword would be nearby. Do you think it’s possible?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Amiee, today, I think anything is possible.”
“If Excalibur has been found,” Glitonea spoke slowly, “it could mean the king’s time is near.” She paused, tilting her head to the side, as if listening to someone. “It is still early in the day in your world, but the rest of your party will arrive soon. I’m afraid our time together is over, for now.”
I knew it would have to end, but hearing the words felt like a punch to my stomach. Now that I was here, I never wanted to leave, and I didn’t need to see Amiee’s face to know she felt the same way. “Please do not be troubled.” Glitonea smiled. “If what you suspect is true, we will see each other again.”
Closing my eyes, I felt her lips brush my forehead in farewell. I kept them shut as long as possible, holding on to the scent of her perfume, before I was ready to see the top of the tor once again. Even when the air around me grew heavy again, and the light from the sun dimmed, I held on to Avalon with my mind, hoping it would still be there when I opened my eyes.
“We’re back.” Amiee sighed, breaking the spell. Instantly, my mind started formulating excuses, reasoning away what I knew had just happened. Fortunately, Glitonea appeared to have anticipated my reaction. When I moved to stand, two of the largest apples I’d ever held tumbled out of my lap. Handing one to Amiee, we made our way down to the dig site, just as the rest of our team pulled up.
“So, Amiee,” I said before we reached the others, “when this dig wraps up I’m going to pull some strings and get that Celtic sword for examination. I believe I’ll need an Arthurian fanatic on my team. Are you interested in the job?”
From an early age, Keshia has been fascinated by the magic of a good story. She loves history, fantasy, and the power of “what if.” She has authored several short stories, and one novel, which you can find out about here. https://www.goodreads.com/
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I climbed the Glastonbury Tor twice, on two separate visits. Alas, the ground never opened up beneath me ! but it is one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited. You convey the atmosphere in a lovely way.
It brings another association to mind–the legend of Childe Rowland, which involves the Tor that leads into Elfland. It is not an orchard that opens up, but a vast room. Still, there is a resonance.