As the sun set over the sea, an old man built a sandcastle. His old green anorak sagged around him, patched and salt stained from years spent on the coastline. The sun glinted from the waves, so bright it was almost blinding. Eyes closed tight against the glare, his hands moved over the sand, pressing the crenellations into shape one at a time.
“Avalon,” he whispered, feeling the sand firm beneath his fingers as he did so; the surface buzzing with static. “Avalon, Avalon, Avalon.”
He worked slowly, trying to ignore the pain in his fingers and the nagging fear in the back of his mind. How many times had he done this in the last few years? It had only been once or twice a decade at first; now it seemed that barely a month passed that didn’t find him kneeling on the sand, pressing the walls into shape beneath the waxing moon.
“How are you doing that, Mr. Bedwyr?” The old man flinched, letting out a gasp of dismay as the turret he was working on crumbled beneath his fingers.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the voice. “Did I ruin it?”
“It’s alright,” Bedwyr rasped, praying that he spoke the truth. He scooped up more sand and hurried to repair the turret, his heart drumming deep in his chest as he fought to control the rising panic. His hands moved as swiftly as his swollen joints would allow, shaping and reshaping until all trace of the damage was gone.
Finally, he smoothed away the last imperfection and turned to peer out from beneath heavy lids. Standing a few steps away was a young girl, bundled against the chill autumn wind. Polka-dot Wellington boots sprouted from beneath a blue woollen overcoat that covered her from neck to knee. Only her head was visible, a ruddy-cheeked ball submerged in brown curls.
“Is it ok now?” Her voice was small and muffled by the coat. Bedwyr dragged the lake of his memory until a name emerged. Ivy, Ivy Winters. Looking past the girl, he recognised her parents further up the beach; a woman hurling a stick for a grey-muzzled springer spaniel while a man held a toddler’s hands to steady him as he walked. Recalling his manners, he forced a smile.
“Yes, at least, I hope so,” Bedwyr replied. “What were you asking?”
“I just wanted to know how you were doing that. I mean, you did have your eyes shut…”
“It’s not so hard.” In spite of his weariness, Bedwyr felt a surge of pride as he spread his hands out before him. “My hands know their work.”
“What do you mean?” The girl frowned up at him. “I think you’re cheating.”
“Not at all,” said Bedwyr, raising an eyebrow. “I have made this castle many times.”
“I bet you haven’t,” said Ivy, gesturing towards the tide line with a sleeve that probably had a hand in it somewhere. “The sand’s all flat here. Do you know why that is?” Her tone was deadly serious, so serious that Bedwyr found himself amused in spite of his irritation at being interrupted.
“I’m afraid I don’t,” replied Bedwyr, his voice shaking as he fought to suppress a chuckle.
“I do,” she proclaimed. “It’s ‘cause the tide comes all the way up here. It’ll wash your castle away easy. If you’d made it before, you’d know that.” Her point made, she tried to cross her arms but had to settle for tucking one sleeve under the other.
“Is that so?” Bedwyr replied. “Maybe that’s why I’ve made it so many times.”
“Well that’s just silly, why not make it by the path?”
“Because young lady, there are others who need it.” The old man stared out over the water, squinting against the daylight. If he looked close enough, if the light struck the waves just so, he could see the crumbling walls.
“Fish don’t need castles,” said Ivy between giggles.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” replied the old man, his face creasing into a smile. “You see them in pet shops all the time. That’s by the by. I’m not making this for them.” He ran a finger along the base of the wall. “This castle needs to be fit for a king,” he whispered, more to himself than to anyone else, the tiredness creeping into his voice. “This one I make for Arthur.”
“Arthur? You mean, like… King Arthur? The one with Merlin and the sword in the stone?”
“The very same.” Bedwyr straightened up and eased himself back until he was able to sit with his legs stretched out. He looked out over the waves, breathing the sea air. “When I close my eyes, I can still see them. The boat was almost too small for them, if you can believe that. They had to crowd in like sardines.”
“Is that why you’re still here?” Ivy’s question was innocent enough, but a shadow passed over Bedwyr’s face.
“Someone has to keep the watch,” he whispered. “Someone has to hold the route open.” He rubbed his hands together, brushing damp sand from the calluses, then peered up at the sky. “There it is. You can’t quite see it yet, but it’s there. You know the moon’s larger than normal tonight?”
“Mum says it’s a special time,” replied Ivy, a grin spreading over her face. “She told me this morning. She said it makes the wall between the worlds go thin, then dad made a joke about plastering and she got angry.”
“Nothing funny about plastering,” Bedwyr grunted. “She’s not wrong about the moon either. This is a good night to build the castle.”
“Where’s the drawbridge?” Ivy was regarding the castle with a cat-like intensity. Bedwyr blinked.
“Castles have drawbridges,” Ivy insisted. “If it doesn’t have a drawbridge then it’s not a real castle.”
“This castle doesn’t,” replied Bedwyr, slightly sharper than he’d intended. He took a breath to calm himself. He was a knight performing a sacred task; he was not about to sully that by having a blazing row with a child. “This castle doesn’t have a drawbridge, and I’m not about to add one. It has to be made the same way every time.”
“Why?” Ivy’s face radiated innocence, but something in her tone suggested that this question was a well-honed weapon indeed. “I mean,” she continued. “If you always make the same castle, how do you know you’re doing it right?”
“I just… you see…” Bedwyr paused, trying to find the words to convey the sense of rightness when he completed the castle, that this was something that you felt rather than knew. The words wouldn’t come. Worse still, he could find no certainty that he was right; only the cruel edge of doubt that had shaded his thoughts over the past year. Bedwyr pushed it away; he was a knight, a warrior. He might be dressed in an anorak these days but some armour you never take off. He swallowed, steadying himself. “That’s… just the way it is.” The words felt hollow even as he said them.
“I’d want a drawbridge if I were the king.”
“Well, we both know that isn’t the case.” Bedwyr regretted the words immediately, but Ivy didn’t seem fazed by them.
“That’s just boring,” she mumbled.
“Boring has nothing to do with it,” Bedwyr snapped, fighting to control his outrage even though he knew how ridiculous he must look. Worse, the words had struck a nerve. Not boredom, whispered a voice in his mind. Fear.
Bedwyr’s hands balled into fists as the old memory surged into his mind. Once again, he remembered the sand caking under his nails as he traced new heraldry on the castle gate. Once again, he remembered the tide of panic that had engulfed him; the wave of fear that swept away the pleasure he took in his art. Try as he might, he couldn’t recall the details of the decoration he had tried to add to the gate all those years ago; only the jagged hillocks of wet sand that remained after he had torn his ill-considered artwork apart. How close had he come to disaster that day? If he had let his changes stand, would the enchantment have been broken? Would his folly have condemned his comrades to death?
Maybe, whispered the voice again. Maybe not. You don’t know what would have happened. And if it had failed, if it had brought it all crashing down, at least that would have been an end to it.
Bedwyr shook himself, relaxing his jaw. This is foolishness, he reminded himself. Nothing happened. You fixed it in time. You made it right. Besides, it had happened centuries ago, long before his skin wrinkled and his back ached. He looked down at his hands, scarred and swollen, remembering how they had itched to make something new, long before it hurt to move them. Is this punishment, he wondered? Had his desire to change the castle caused him to age so that he would be forced to carry out his duty with hands that barely obeyed him? He took a deep breath and pushed the thoughts away. If that was true, there was no changing it.
Abruptly, he realised that he had been silent for a long time and Ivy was staring at him. He unclenched his hands and gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
“This is my duty,” he explained, his voice calm once more. “The final task laid upon me by my wounded king.”
“Arthur got hurt?” The girl sounded more annoyed than shocked. “They didn’t put that in the film.”
“Well that’s films for you,” Bedwyr muttered, glad of the change of subject. “You don’t always get the full story.” The girl was quiet for a moment, staring down at her feet as she scraped her heel through the sand. When she replied, her voice was quiet.
“Will he get better?”
“Oh yes.” Bedwyr offered her a smile. “He has to come back, you see. One day when Britain is in peril, Arthur will return to save us.”
“But, won’t that be dangerous? There’s bombs and fighter jets now, he’ll get blown up.”
“Arthur will find a way, he must. It is the way of things.”
“Does he have a dragon? A dragon could protect him from the fighter jets.” Ivy was animated now, looking about wildly until her gaze settled on a stick about the length of her arm. She hurried over to it, pushed her hand free of her cuff and picked it up. Brandishing it like a wand, she leaned over and began to carve deep scratches into the sand in front of the castle.
Bedwyr was dumbstruck; he opened his mouth but no sound came out. Every instinct told him to reach over and seize the stick, that he had to put a stop to this immediately, but he couldn’t move. You want to see it, whispered a traitorous thought. You want to see what she makes.
Paralysed by indecision, he watched as the dragon took shape before him. It lay before the gate, thick-limbed and long-necked with vast wings arching overhead; as long as the fortress was wide. Ivy straightened up and stared down at her handiwork, then leaned over and added a few small circles rising from the dragon’s nose.
“What are…” Bedwyr’s voice failed him. The panic he had anticipated was absent, leaving him feeling numb and hollow. He coughed and made to ask again. She answered before he could speak.
“Bubbles.” The impish grin flashed from beneath the cloud of hair. “It won’t be breathing fire underwater.”
“I see.” Bedwyr swallowed, sensing that he could no more stop this than he could the rising tide. “What colour dragon is he? Is he red or white?”
“She’s purple.” The grin spread wider.
“That’s… unusual.” He replied, his voice hoarse.
“Or course she is, she’s a dragon.”
“Ivy!” Her mother’s voice cut through the conversation. “What have I told you about bothering people.”
“Sorry, Mum.” Ivy seemed to deflate, the stick drooping. Her mother, Bedwyr thought her name was Alice, hurried over and crouched in front of her daughter.
“We don’t interrupt people when they’re busy, do we?” Alice’s voice was quiet, but firm.
“No, Mum,” Ivy mumbled to her feet.
“That’s right. Now what do we say?” Ivy was quiet for a moment before shuffling over to Bedwyr.
“Sorry, Mr. Bedwyr.”
“That’s quite alright, young lady.” He raised his eyes to her mother and smiled. Alice seemed to relax a little, then let out an exasperated sigh when she saw her dog returning with what appeared to be a small tree clamped in its jaws.
“That’s not your stick, is it, Cobb?” Cobb didn’t acknowledge his mistress’ voice, though the end of his tail wagged as he lay down to gnaw his latest acquisition. Alice tried waving another, smaller stick under the dog’s nose. Cobb showed little interest, focusing all his attention on the branch; his eyes full of the fierce joy known only to dogs and drunkards.
Bedwyr watched them warily. It wouldn’t take much; one fleeting moment of interest and the dog might decide to inspect the castle. He had encountered set-backs before; this wouldn’t be the first time his handiwork had been demolished by an over-friendly hound. Only last year, a cocker spaniel had flattened half the walls and would have added a moat if the dog’s owner hadn’t intervened. He couldn’t afford that today. The hour was late, too late to rebuild, and as he reached his hand towards the dragon, he could feel the crackle of static. For better, for worse, it was done. The dragon was part of the castle.
Slowly, Alice coaxed the dog free of his prize and led him back down the beach. Ivy followed her mother, the empty cuff of her coat sleeve flapping as she waved goodbye. Bedwyr smiled as he waved back, feeling the tension ease from his shoulders as they disappeared from view.
He turned back to the sand-castle, taking in the unadorned battlements and the sinuous wyrm coiled before the gate. Something was missing. The dragon did not seem of a piece with the fortress, and Bedwyr sensed that to leave things that way would spell disaster. A large part of him still wanted to reach out and obliterate it, to try and salvage what was left of his castle, but it was too late. Bedwyr stared down at the castle for a long moment, then his face broke into a grim smile. It was simple now. When all routes of escape are gone, the only path left is forward.
Grunting as his joints protested, he rose to his feet and moved along the shoreline where a thin ridge of shells met the encroaching tide. He walked slowly, eyes fixed on the ground, stooping again and again until his pockets bulged with shells and pebbles. His hunt complete, he turned and strode back to the sand-castle.
The tide was close now; there was barely time to complete his task. Heart pounding in his chest, he dropped to his knees beside the dragon. With shell and stone and wet sand, he anointed the walls and the wyrm that lay before them, binding them together till they seemed kin to one another. As he laid the final shell, a glittering shard that brought life to the dragon’s eye, the sea reached the castle.
Bedwyr pushed himself away; his heels digging great divots in the wet sand. The water swept past the castle to pool around him, soaking his shoes and trousers. The sand around the dragon was pushed aside, the limbs, tail and wings rising and growing ever more life-like. The castle stood firm as the water receded, then the second wave came. Taller than the first and rose-tinted by the setting sun, it swamped the castle and its guardian. Sand sloughed away from the walls, billowing outwards in a great cloud to reveal glittering stone walls. The dragon writhed, tearing its head free of the sand. For a moment, Bedwyr found himself staring into a pair of eyes as old as the sea. Then the vision was gone. Fortress and dragon blurred together, then vanished as the water retreated, wiping out all trace of walls, turrets and dragon.
Bedwyr rolled onto his knees, then pushed himself to his feet, fingers sinking into the sand. He trudged up the beach till he was beyond the reach of the tide, then slumped on a mound of grass by the path to look out over the sea. As the sun sank below the horizon, a great band of gold appeared, reaching all the way to the beach.
Far below, Avalon slumbered, the great walls glittering in the light of the sun. Looking closer, Bedwyr could see that the walls had changed, now adorned with huge shell-like carvings and precious stones. A huge dragon lay curled before the gates, bubbles rising from its nostrils. Slowly, the golden band broke apart into individual patches of light and the vision of Avalon vanished. Bedwyr sighed, the weight of his isolation returning as the sea became opaque once more.
He closed his eyes, his head swimming, trying to grasp the enormity of what had transpired. He had built the same castle for centuries, duty and pride becoming tradition with the passage of time. It was as much a part of him as his hands or face, and yet he had allowed it to be changed on a child’s whim. He kneaded his forehead, feeling a few stray grains of sand grate against his skin as his fingers probed his temples. It was then that he realised that the pain in his hands was gone.
He folded his hands together, bending and flexing his fingers, marvelling at how easily they moved. Rising to his feet, he took a few steps towards the waves, testing the movement in his knees and back. His joints moved easily. For the first time in over a century the simple act of walking was painless. As the tide retreated, it revealed a hollow in the sand where the castle had been, now filled with sea water. Cautiously, Bedwyr approached the hollow and stared down into a face he hadn’t seen for a long time.
His cheeks were smooth, his eyes clear. Unbidden, Ivy’s words floated through his mind. If you always make the same castle, how do you know you’re doing it right? In a sudden flash of insight, he knew that it would be many years before he would feel the need to return and build the castle anew.
Picking up a flat pebble, he straightened up and watched the tide rolling in, savouring the feel of the stone as he rolled it between his fingers. He raised his arm and whipped it forward, sending the pebble skipping out over the surface of the water. His cheeks began to ache and he realised he was grinning. The new sense of freedom was so potent he felt almost dizzy, yet beneath it there was an odd sense of loss. Some part of him insisted that the castle he had built for so many years was gone forever.
No, the thought was a whisper, not gone, just different. The castle might have changed, but its walls were the same hard stone, its purpose just as important. Bedwyr turned his back on the sunset and walked up the beach to the path, his mind full of possibilities. He could go travelling, see the world as he had before. Better to go sooner rather than later, before people started asking questions. It was unlikely anyone would recognise him as old Mr. Bedwyr, but it wouldn’t hurt to be careful. For a moment, he wondered how long it would be before he would have to return. Then he shook his head; chiding himself. He would know when the time came.
Looking back over his shoulder, Bedwyr watched as the last light of the sun gilded the tops of the waves. Far overhead, a solitary gull cried out, the sound sharp against the hiss of water on sand. Bedwyr closed his eyes, listening. As the cry echoed amongst the clouds, he could almost believe it was a horn calling him home.