Second August dawned wet and dreary, with more of the same predicted all week for South Wales and beyond. With no nagging and hardly any prompting from Megan, strangely believe it, Gareth and Neil got themselves properly done up—polished shoes, clean fingernails, neckties and all. For herself Megan chose a pale lime green chiffon thing she’d worn only once, to someone else’s wedding. Mari still fit in her fluffy pink frock from Easter. That was good. There would be no need to go out and spend money on another fancy dress for what surely was going to turn out to be some kind of joke.
Mother and daughter almost got into a real hair-puller when Mari insisted on adding a silly pretend tiara, left over from Halloween, because “I might meet a princess. It could happen. No, Mam, really.” Extracting it at this late date would mean re-doing Mari’s hair, and anyway Megan was sick of arguing with her.
Megan doubted Howell would mind, anyway; he wasn’t one to be put off by a pink and white tiara, not even at his own wedding (probably be wearing one himself, she thought, rolling her eyes)—if “wedding” what this really turned out to be. The entire affair was probably going to be all hippies and riff-raff, anyway. Oh, why had she fallen for this? Why did he always have to go and drag them into some—
The doorbell rang. Noon sharp. It was time. Neil, already restless in his good clothes, rushed to get it. From their separate corners of the house, Gareth, Megan, and Mari all appeared.
“Hallo there! The Parrys, I believe?” A tall and quite large fellow with grey-tinged reddish hair came striding in. Though Megan couldn’t have told you later what he was wearing, he seemed very well-dressed. He made her think of a grown-up version of that handsome youngster Ioan Gruffudd she’d seen on the television and hadn’t been able to forget.
He was shaking hands with Gareth and with Neil like they were old mates from school. Then he took Megan’s hand and bowed over it. “Benjamin Sullivan,” he said. “Honoured to meet you.”
Seriously? Megan thought. “Me too, I mean you too,” she stammered.
Lastly he took Mari’s hand, and as he bent over it Mari curtseyed prettily. “Prynhawn dda, syr,” she said.
“Prynhawn dda, Mari,” Sullivan replied with exaggerated politeness. “Sut dych chi?”
“Iawn, syr, diolch. Braf cwrdd â chi.”
“Braf cwrdd â chi hefyd, Mari.”
Megan was about to stamp her foot with impatience, but Ben snapped out of it just in time. “Well, then,” he said. “I have a car waiting out front. Once we’re tucked in I’ll attempt to explain where we’re going.”
With Ben and the driver holding umbrellas over them, they hurried out to what turned out to be a limo, a black Bentley that stretched from here to there and back. Inside was all grey leather, and there were beer taps and spigots and gleaming bar glasses in rows like ships at sea.
“Phwar!” Neil gasped.
“Yes, well, we have time, I think, for a toast to the bride and groom,” Ben said, and after Megan had said a few words about not spilling anything on the car or their clothes on pain of death, they all got quite merry: the kids on ginger beer, Ben and Gareth on what Gareth said was some excellent ale, Megan herself on Tanqueray.
Though Megan couldn’t have told you how long it took to get there, the car drew up at Caerphilly Castle sooner than later, just as a brief spate of sunshine broke out and a brilliant great rainbow appeared off over Cardiff and the Channel. Mari, gazing out the window, giggled and clapped her hands. “That’s where we’re going!” she said.
Megan hoped Mari was talking about the Castle and not the rainbow, but Megan was beginning to have doubts. Big doubts.
But she couldn’t deny she was feeling very important as the driver came round and let them all out at the head of the car park. Ben led them over the causeway, then turned—not toward the green but the other way, straight at the ramparts frowning sheer over the water. Just when Megan thought they’d all end up in the moat, Ben slipped through a narrow slot in the stone wall, and they followed him into some kind of cargo lift.
Megan, who’d been to the Castle dozens of times, didn’t remember this part of it. She didn’t think they let the public in back here. Ben must have connexions at the National Trust.
Silently, the lift door slid shut. The interior was richly panelled in dark wood. On one wall there was a bank of glowing orange buttons. How Ben knew which one to press was beyond Megan, because there were no numbers or marks of any kind.
The lift began to move. Megan could have sworn they were going sideways. This was disturbing. And it was dark, so dark she couldn’t see Ben, or Neil or Gareth or Mari—oh, God, where had Mari got to?
Just then she felt Mari’s small hand sliding into hers. “We’re almost there, Mam,” Mari whispered. Oh, the relief! “Thank you, luv,” Megan said., pulling her close.
Once again, Megan couldn’t have told you how long it took that sideways lift to get there, except that they way was much farther and longer than going down those mine shafts on the colliery tours.
All at once they stopped moving. Then they had to turn right around, because the lift door slid silently open opposite the side they came in on.
It was so bloody bright out there they all were blinking like owls.
But Ben was at hand, helpful and reassuring. “As soon as your eyes have got used to the light, we’ll proceed,” he said. “I should mention that you will find some things a bit changed here.”
“And just where is here?” Megan said.
They’re not coming, Howell thought. This whole thing—the wedding, his family, all of it—was worse than the worst stage-fright ever. He’d spent an hour trying cosmetic spell he could think of to get rid of the ghastly bags under his eyes—he’d not slept a wink the night before, or the night before that, or the night before that—until he’d had to give it up. With the way his hands were shaking he knew he’d better quit before he turned his eyelids into frogs, or worse.
A stiff drink would have been bloody helpful—all he had to do was ring, and anything in Mr. Sacheverell Smith’s extensive liquor cabinet was his for the asking—but to seek courage in a bottle on the day of your own wedding was idiotic. Talk about missing out on the moment—!
Assuming the moment ever came. Assuming the bride arrived at his side at the appointed time. Assuming the bride wasn’t halfway to Rashpuht by now. Which is where he would have been, in her place.
Oh, God, what had he done, inviting all these people here, throwing Mr. Smith’s formerly placid estate into an uproar, planning all this party-dinner-and-dance business just to be left standing at the altar, humiliated?
“Such drama,” Calcifer remarked, breezing in through the open window of the bedroom where Howell was dressing. “And such delectable irony. Sophie’s at the other end of the house, with her mother, her sisters, and Annabel Fairfax having fits all around her. Yet she is utterly serene, while here you are, having got yourself in a royal twist all unaided.”
“Sophie’s here? In the house?”
“Of course she is. Where else would she be?”
“High Norland, of course. Or Alberia. Or even Tsapfan; who knows?”
“Silly fool. You think Sophie’s going to stand you up, don’t you?”
Calcifer’s laughter was a flurry of sparks and purple teeth. “Not a bit of it. In fact, she’s already hired the entire constabularies of the Chipping and Folding Valleys, the Royal Inglish Army and Navy, and a gang of pirates led by some bloke named Roberts to go after you when you don’t show up.”
“Sophie really believes I’d slither out at this late date?”
“Well, she knows you better than anybody, including me.”
“Oh, that hurts, Calcifer. That really hurts.”
Calcifer hooted with derision, then flew off out the window.
Her eyes ought to be used to the brightness by now, but Megan didn’t want to open them. She was no fool. She wasn’t born yesterday. She was beginning to figure things out.
And oh lord, the things she was figuring out. Howell Jenkins, what have you got us into this time? What have you—
“It’s all right, Mam,” Mari said. “You can look now.”
They all stood looking out through the doorway of a castle, but it wasn’t Caerphilly. Beyond it stretched a sweet rolling countryside of copses, fields, and hedgerows. The sky was blue and fair, the clouds brilliant, the sunshine warm.
And before her was a golden coach with six white horses and a jaunty driver up top, who touched his plumed hat to her.
They were all settled in the rose-coloured velvet seats when the coach started up. Mari crawled over Gareth and pulled herself up on her knees, gazing out the round window. Her little face was filled with wonder and delight, as if all the stories Howell had ever told her were true.
Oh, God. What if they were?
It certainly looked like they were in something out of a book, with thatched cottages off here and there, and glorious gardens, and everywhere butterflies and birds, and not a car nor a telegraph pole in sight. Megan looked questioningly at Ben. Gareth and Neil did the same. Only Mari, happy and content, went on gazing out at the fairy-tale going by.
“Quantum theory,” Ben began. “Perhaps you’ve read about it?”
Gareth looked as puzzled as Megan felt, but Neil instantly brightened up. “Yes!” he cried, triumphantly pumping his fist. He’d actually learned something at school—would wonders never cease? “Split-off universes,” he said. “Parallel worlds. Right?”
“Right,” Ben said. “Your Uncle Hywel always said you were a smart lad.”
“He did?” Neil exclaimed, as gobsmacked to hear it as were Megan and Gareth.
“He did. This universe and our own parted ways either at the end of the last Ice Age or during the first few centuries after Rome fell, possibly both. Scholars disagree on the why and on the exact when. We only know that this one went off in one direction, our home universe in another.”
“Brilliant!” Neil cried.
“Ben—” Megan said, tentatively because she was afraid she was not going to know what to do with the answer to her question, “Howell said that you and he work together. Um, what is it that you do?”
“We are wizards, by appointment, to His Majesty the King of Ingary.”
Read Full Post »