Authors: Rhys Bowen
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This book is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Margery Lee (née Rees). Her passing has left a dark void in my life. I’ll miss her love, her companionship, and, above all, her laughter.
The Legend of Beddgelert
Prince Llewellyn had a faithful dog called Gelert. One day he went out hunting, leaving his dog to guard his young son. On his return he found the baby’s cradle empty and the dog covered in blood. In rage and despair he took out his sword and struck down Gelert. It was only as the dog lay dying that Llewellyn noticed the carcass of a huge wolf lying on the floor and the little prince, safely asleep in the corner. He ran to Gelert, but it was too late. The dog died in his arms.
In the dog’s honor he erected an impressive tomb, which can be seen today in the village that bears the name of Beddgelert—Gelert’s Grave.
This dramatic legend is now thought to have been created by an enterprising nineteenth-century innkeeper. Scholars now think that the name referred to an early saint, not Llewellyn’s dog.
Colonel Arbuthnot strode out over the springy turf, his cheeks puffed out as trombone-like sounds popped from his pursed lips. The music was just recognizable as “Men of Harlech.” Sheep glanced up from their grazing and scattered, alarmed at the strange sounds coming from the colonel’s lips, and at the rhythmic thwacking of his silver-tipped cane against clumps of gorse and bracken.
Although he was approaching eighty, the colonel was an imposing figure, with an upright bearing and a purposeful stride. He had been a handsome man in his day and still liked to think that the ladies found him attractive. He sported a neat little moustache, but heavy jowls now sagged on either side of it and his once fearsome eyebrows stuck out like prawns over faded watery eyes. Even though it was midsummer, the colonel wore his habitual tweed jacket with a canary yellow waistcoat beneath it, a checked shirt, and a silk paisley cravat around his neck. His only concession to the season was a faded panama straw hat which he wore whenever possible to keep the sun off his bald spot. The village children of Llanfair imitated the colonel’s distinctive gait, but never to his face.
A stiff mountain breeze blew in Colonel Arbuthnot’s face. He paused and breathed deeply.
“Ah,” he said, thumping his chest. “That’s more like it.”
He felt alive for the first time in months. God, it was good to get away from that dreary London flat. All those interminable days of silence, broken only by brisk walks to the library to read newspapers he could no longer afford to buy, or, on fine days, a constitutional twice around the pond in the park. Fortunately he had bought a life membership to his club in his more affluent days, but he hardly ever went there any more. There seemed little point in it since old Chaterham had died last year. He was now the only one of his generation left and the young fellows weren’t interested in what he had to say. They thought he was an old codger and made excuses to hurry off somewhere—always in a hurry, the younger generation seemed to be. Constantly at the mercy of those damned portable phones. No time to enjoy life. Colonel Arbuthnot pitied them. At least he’d known the good life once. He’d been on tiger shoots and dined with maharajahs and made love to pretty women in marble palaces. The young knew nothing about sport or conversation or romance. No manners and no time, the colonel decided, savagely decapitating a large thistle.
Clouds raced overhead, opening up brief tantalizing vistas of mountains, lakes and steep meadows dotted with sheep. He hadn’t realized how high he had climbed. Not bad for a senior citizen, he told himself. He’d wager those young weaklings at the club couldn’t keep up with him, for all the time they claimed to spend keeping fit at their health clubs.
Below him the village of Llanfair lay like a row of doll houses, bordering the road as it climbed the pass and skirted around Mount Snowdon. The colonel looked down at it fondly. With its plain, slate-roofed cottages, it could hardly compare in beauty to one of the quaint, cozy English villages with their thatched roofs and cottage gardens. But its setting, high on the pass with peaks soaring on either side, was spectacular.
At the far end of the village he picked out the larger shape of the Red Dragon pub, its painted sign swinging in front. Just how a pub should be, he told himself, as he nodded in satisfaction. Always enough chaps around with time for a chat, women usually confined to the lounge where they could be seen and not heard; just how he liked things to be. Lovely creatures, women, but inclined to babble on meaninglessly unless curbed—except for Joanie. She had never babbled. She’d listen to his stories with a gentle smile on her lips and always laughed at his jokes. God, he still missed her so much …
At least they were polite enough to listen to his stories at the pub here in Llanfair. They even pretended to be interested. “So, did you ever shoot a tiger, colonel?” they’d ask and he’d be able to answer, “Shoot a tiger? I can tell you about the time I bagged three tigers in one day. We had to pretend that the maharajah had shot them, of course. Protocol demanded it. But it was really my bullet each time that finished them off. One was a great brute eight feet long. I’ve got a picture of it on my mantelpiece at home…”
The colonel smiled in anticipation of being asked to tell that story again. They were good chaps here in Llanfair—simple Welsh villagers of course, but they made him feel welcome. He knew this was quite different from the way they treated most foreigners. He’d watched them switch into Welsh in midconversation when tourists walked in. But he supposed that his Welsh wife had made him somehow acceptable.
He remembered the first time Joanie had taken him to Wales when they were home on leave together. He hadn’t realized until then that Wales was a foreign country. Hearing her chatting in a language he couldn’t understand had amazed and impressed him—it was a side of her he had never suspected. Thinking of Joanie now brought back the leaden feeling to his heart. It was amazing that one could miss a person for so long. She had been dead for ten years and he still felt it as if it was yesterday.
He had come to Wales the summer after Joanie’s death, trying to make sense of things, and had been healed and charmed by the silent, rugged beauty of the mountains of Snowdonia. By sheer luck he had seen an advertisement for summer accommodation at Owens’ farm above Llanfair. His gaze moved beyond the village to the square whitewashed farmhouse, protected by a stand of windswept trees. Answering that advertisement had been one of the luckiest things he’d ever done, and he’d certainly had lucky moments in his life—like the time a charging rhino had run right past him or when Charlotte’s husband had shot at him and missed as he leaped from the houseboat window into the lake at Kashmir.
Mrs. Owens spoiled him shamelessly, making his favorite meals and encouraging him to have seconds and thirds of everything his doctor had strictly forbidden. She did his washing and ironing and kept his room spotless without fussing over him. His days were free to be spent in the good fresh air, tramping over the hills, trying to identify wild flowers or birds, or pursuing his real passion, archaeology. He’d been a keen amateur archaeologist from the age of eight when he uncovered a Roman coin in a field near his home in Yorkshire. He had been awestruck that objects two thousand years old were lying at his feet, waiting to be rediscovered. If he’d come from a different family, he might have gone to Oxford or Cambridge to study ancient history, but the Arbuthnots always went into the army. He sighed.
His passion for archaeology was one of the reasons that drew him back to Wales. He wanted to be the one to prove, beyond a doubt, that King Arthur had actually existed. There were enough local legends to support it, of course. Up on Mount Snowdon there was the Bwlch y Saethau (the Pass of Arrows) where Arthur was mortally wounded while about to defeat Mordred. Excalibur was said to have appeared from Llyn Llydaw, the lake that nestled on the flanks of Snowdon. He could see it now, glistening in bright sunlight. Even the peak of Snowdon itself was called Yr Wyddfa, meaning burial site, by the locals. Only a great king would have been buried on the highest mountain peak in Wales. If only he could find something definitive to prove Arthur’s existence. That was what kept him going these days.
He sat on an outcropping of rock and took out his binoculars. There had once been a Bronze Age fort guarding the pass. If he could find evidence of that, it would be a good start.
His gaze swept from the summit of Snowdon, across the other peaks whose names he had forgotten, and down to the village again. They were good binoculars, made in Germany back in the old days when things were built to last. He picked out a figure sitting on the humped stone bridge that spanned the noisy little mountain stream. It must be that idiot postman, he decided—the one they called Evans-the-Post. He always sat and read the mail before he delivered it. Funny how nobody seemed to mind … His gaze moved up the street. He saw the young policeman making his afternoon rounds. He liked Constable Evans—good-looking young chap, sturdily built like a rugby player, not like some of the effeminate young men these days with their dreadful earrings. Colonel Arbuthnot had often consulted him about the best hiking trails or the identity of a certain bird or flower. Of course the young fellow had landed himself an easy job, running a police substation in a village like Llanfair. Hardly a hotbed of crime, the colonel decided, taking in the empty street and the children playing in the school yard.
He adjusted his focus, hoping to get a glimpse of the schoolteacher. A pretty young filly, slim and graceful. She reminded him of Joanie when they had first met at that garden party in Delhi. He heard the faint ringing of a bell and the children immediately formed two lines and began to file back into the building.
The colonel’s gaze moved on. The last two buildings in the village were both chapels, one on either side of the street. He’d never been able to understand why a village the size of Llanfair needed two places of worship—but of course the Welsh did love their religion. They sat through interminable sermons and sang hymns on any excuse. Fine singing too, not the halfhearted muttering of the All Saints Church parishioners at home in Kensington.
The binoculars swept idly over the village again and then the colonel stiffened, blinking his eyes to bring one figure into focus. “Extraordinary!” the colonel said out loud. “It can’t be.” Someone was standing in the middle of the village street, looking around with interest. It almost seemed to the colonel that their eyes met, although he knew that was impossible. But he felt the keen gaze lingering in the direction of the rock where he now sat. Then the person turned and disappeared into the shadow between two cottages.
The colonel let out a sigh and shook his head. His eyesight must be failing him in his old age. He had just seen someone who couldn’t possibly be here. It was absurd. His eyes were playing tricks on him.