Empire State (Part Three) - The Devil in Tintagel
Beltane is a Greater Sabbat celebrated on May Eve. It is one of the four Sabbats that are cross-quarter days. These form the Wheel of the Year. Only the initiated can participate.
It had been six months since that fateful trip to New York. I never did buy the receptionist’s story about a light show. There was something unnerving about Sam. He was a good friend but the whole, white witch thing was just a bit weird. I hadn’t given it too much thought since flying back to the UK having spent a couple of eventful days in the Big Apple. I had called Sam on Messenger after arriving home. He was suitably vague about everything, of course. Sam would drop into conversation that he was Wicca but then invariably laugh it off. I don’t think I was meant to know that he was a practising mystic; it was all very Freemason.
It was a Spring day in April that we finally got together again. There was a cherry blossom-infused optimism in the air with warmer weather and longer days ahead. Winter was consigned to history once more before visiting again later in the year. Sam had said to meet him at Costa Coffee in the centre of Summertown. As I passed along the coffee cup-stencilled store window, I could see the shop was busy with tables taken by business men with laptops out, families chatting in between checking their mobile phones and the odd loner; of which Sam was one.
As I approached, Sam rose from his chair. We exchanged a brief hug; Sam flashed a faint smile.
“How are you? I asked. “Long time, no see.”
“All good. Looking forward to new ventures. What are you having?”
Sam disappeared to the counter to order us both coffees. I watched as Sam flirted with the teenage girl serving him. She smiled, appreciating his boyish good looks. He oozed casualness in his Greenpeace t-shirt and multi-coloured bead bracelet. As he sat down again, doling out a cappuccino and Americano with milk, we simultaneously examined our coffee froth looking for shamrocks.
We chatted for what was maybe an hour. Sam wanted to know what I had been up to; I caught up on the gossip surrounding our mutual friends. People came and went around us.
It was during an exchange about friends of ours in Sam’s home town of Oxford that I noticed a tall, elegant man approaching us. I looked up as he came to a standstill. “Hello Sam.” He declared reaching out to politely shake Sam’s hand. “And this is?”
“This is my friend, Steve. We’ve known each other for aeons.”
He swivelled, almost clicking his heels together like an SS officer from the war. He held out his hand and we also shook, his grip weak, almost apologetic.
“I thought you might be here. I just dropped by to let you know everything is organised as planned.” He spoke in an upper class manner, all steely blue eyes and blonde haired authority. His casual jacket belied the sartorial image I had already conjured from a first impression.
“Thanks for letting me know, Mr Carter” (I couldn’t help but pick up on the Mister).
With that he turned a left in a swirl and a quickstep (in my mind it was a goosestep) to the exit.
“Fancy a trip?” Sam’s smile was back. I resisted rolling my eyes.
“Glastonbury at dawn or Stonehenge by sun up?”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the sun go down at dusk.”
Sam glanced around at the other folks at the different tables, focusing on a couple of middle-aged woman who were both leaning forward, whispering conspiratorially. He clenched his left hand and held it to pursed lips.
“Tintagel” he announced.
I was border line, fatalistic about spending time with a covert druid. Sam was a childhood friend and, despite the shenanigans in New York, I had enjoyed my time there. And he had paid, after all. We had driven across country to hole up overnight at a bed and breakfast in Barnstaple. The plan was to hit the road the following afternoon and take the Atlantic Highway (otherwise known as the A39) along the North Devon coast crossing into Cornwall and on to Tintagel. The route came with a spectacular, cliff top view of Bideford Bay and the sea.
The night was spent at one of the pubs in the centre of town. On entering, the residents had stopped their chatter and collectively stared at the pair of us. I wondered whether we had chosen to drink at “The Slaughtered Lamb” remembering that the sign definitely said “The Carpenters Arms” on the stanchion outside. An amiable din recommenced after a few seconds as though nothing had happened and we spent the rest of the evening drinking John Smith’s at a small, round table in the corner. A tall, scruffy man with a goatee playing darts would glance across at us in between throws. He may have had us down as more than friends. That was our business, of course. For the record, we were just mates. Sam said that he would suffer from the Law of Threefold Return. I think he meant Karma.
It was a late start the following day. Sam settled the bill and we headed for his motor. The car of choice for any self-respecting druid is an MGB roadster - at least it was in Sam’s case. The two-seater soft-top was MG green with a manual four speed gearbox with overdrive. It could shift. By now it was late afternoon; the sun making its way to its daily denouement around 8pm. We had prevaricated with a tour of the seaside resort, needless to say, ending with a meal and another couple of beers at one of the taverns.
The drive along the winding roads of the Atlantic Highway was an experience. With the sea on our left and rolling countryside to our right, the route took us through village after village. At one point, sea mist rolled in, reducing visibility to just a few yards. The winding road in front ran to metres before being enveloped in thick fog. It was exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. Sam slowed down, switching fog lamps on and peering with eyes squinted to avoid colliding with unsuspecting road users.
The drive itself was a couple of hours, enough time to drift off into reverie. I recalled a hot, summer’s day. Sam had wanted to take a picnic to some nearby woods.
I can hear the birds tweeting in the trees, I see a wood in the background and a narrow river flowing serenely at the meadow’s edge. I see Sam in a clearing, eyes closed, walking in a circle. He’s chanting under his breath. He takes out candles from a bag and places them at five points. In the middle of the patch of grass he has just been pacing, he places a chalice. He ushers me to sit with him inside the circle. I close my eyes. I smell incense. I open my eyes. He is gone. I get up and look for him. I turn around but he’s not there. I search for what seems minutes. And then I feel cupped hands on my eyes. I flinch and jerk violently. I spin around. Sam is smiling at me.
“Should be a lovely sunset.” Sam broke my thoughts.
“Remind me why we are going to visit a castle again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”
“Not just any castle. Home to Merlin and the legend of King Arthur. Tintagel Castle was a major trading port back in the 5th Century.”
“Is there a pub there?”
“Tintagel village has some places we can have a drink. You may get to see The Summerland.”
“Summerland? I queried.
He shifted the gear stick into forth and glanced across at me in the passenger seat.
“All in good time, my man.”
We arrived at the Castle as the sun was heading for the horizon. The castle ruins loomed over the crashing rocks below, cliffs looking on stoically. I opened the car door and hopped out. Sam casually slammed his car door shot and locked it. We ambled towards the cliff edge. Blue sky was filled with roaming clouds, the burning orange of the sun streaming out auburn light, left and right. The landscape was getting dark, shadows appearing. Sam looked out at the Cornish Sea. He leaned back, his chest bowed as he threw out his arms. Closing his eyes, he started to murmur. It sounded like he mentioned a Book of Shadows. Here we go again, I postured.
As I gazed out, I could see what looked like ships, sails billowing as they glided in from the sea. There was a small fleet of them. I could see oars rowing, breaking the white-crested waves. They were heading inland. Small figures milled about on the decks. I watched their progress as they neared their destination. Minutes passed. The sun went down.
With the last shafts of sunlight, the ships faded away. As they disappeared, the shapes of hooded figures swam into view. As my eyes refocused, I saw that I was surrounded and in the middle of a large circle of what, at first, seemed to be cowled monks, their robes tied with cords at the waist. Sam had gone. They were motionless with their arms tucked into their sleeves in an arms folded pose. I slowly panned around the gathering and counted twelve of them. With me that made thirteen – unlucky for some and, I believe in the bits I had read about stuff like this – a coven.
One of the figures, stepped forward. Pulling his hood back over his head, I expected it to be Sam with another one of his parlour tricks. It wasn’t Sam – It was Mr Carter.
He looked at me, unsmiling.