Enter The Realm of the Pendragon
The heavens opened. They looked up into the threateningly black sky and felt the large heavy raindrops fall on their flimsy summer clothes. Just a few yards in front of them was the covered shopping area, a safe haven from this ruthless torrent of rain. They ran quickly with the other tourists as well as locals who also sought shelter there, huddling in the entrances and blocking the way through.
"Excuse me please, I'd like to get past?" The woman just looked at her but was unable to move, hemmed in on all sides as she was. The two young women glanced at each other in desperation; the doorways were packed, there was no room for them to shelter here. A rumble of thunder sounded uncomfortably close. They gasped and glanced around for another alternative, not knowing the layout of the small Cornish town they had chosen for their holiday.
"Look! Over there!" She tugged at her friend's arm and pointed over to the left. A small wooden sign, which ended in a pointing hand, bore the words The Ginnel in faded copperplate. The stone archway it indicated was narrow but sunlight could clearly be seen through it, shimmering with hundreds of spiralling dust motes.
Holding her handbag over her head to protect her hair, her friend followed as she ran, dodging puddles and people going in the opposite direction who tutted at them in disgust for daring to get in their way. They headed towards the archway and disappeared through the gap.
Sheltering in the narrow covered passageway, one of the young women patted ineffectively at her rain-spattered clothes and smoothed down her dampened blonde hair. The other paid no heed to her attire, instead she glanced over to see where the passageway led and found a small street where the dry pavement was dappled with patches of sunlight.
"How odd," she stated softly, making her companion look up. "It's not raining out there." They both looked back the way they had come to where the rain still fell heavily. "It's so strange, it's almost as though it leads to another world."
Her friend sighed at the dreamy expression she wore and shook her head. "That's hardly realistic," she stated and stepped forward into the street. With a shrug, the second woman followed and they took in the quiet antiquated scene before them. Compared to the bustle of the main market area, it was silent with not even the occasional peals of thunder to startle them. The way the houses bowed forwards above them, they could be forgiven for thinking they were actually under cover; the black timbered buildings were crammed together, leaning on each other as though for support and solidarity.
"Oh, look at this place, it's so quaint!"
"It's probably the old part of the town, you know, look at these buildings."
"That probably explains why it's so quiet here; it's off the tourist track."
They wandered slowly down the cobbled street, admiring the architecture and its dilapidated and forgotten air. Moving from shop to shop, they peered in the windows at the goods on display though most products seemed strange to their eyes. It was like peering into a display case in a museum full of antiquated items that only made sense to an archaeologist. They reached a dark secluded corner where most of the shops were gloomy giving the appearance of being closed or empty. The young women were loitering outside what appeared to be a butcher's shop of some kind, trying to decipher all the unfamiliar animals in the window, when the door opened with the 'ting' of a shop bell and an old woman stepped out into the street. Dressed from head to foot in unrelenting black, the only colour on her came from her eyes. They shone a brilliant green in her pale face, even shadowed as it was by a fine example of the milliner's craft complete with obligatory bird. She strode off down the street with tiny rapid steps as though her ankle-length skirt prevented her from taking larger strides. The tapping of her heels sounded loud in the still air.
One of the pair stifled a giggle and tugged on her friend's arm. "That bird thing on her head wouldn't look out of place in this shop window," she whispered.
Her friend looked over and realised what she meant. "Jayne!" She tried to look scandalised but failed miserably due to the smile in her eyes.
Jayne just shrugged with a grin. "Come on, Belinda, admit it!"
"Shh, she'll hear you!"
Jayne looked over to the old woman who was engrossed in a nearby shop window. As they watched, the bird ornament perched atop the black hat very definitely turned its head to glare back at them.
"Oh my God- "Jayne gasped, unable to tear her gaze away from those beady black eyes.
"I told you she'd hear you," Belinda hissed. "Quick, hide in here!" She pulled her friend into the nearest shop where the banging of the door behind them broke the silence.
The interior was dimly lit and very little light came through the grimy window. They gazed round in surprise as a gentle glow slowly filled the shop.
"Oh, look at these!" Belinda exclaimed, examining a rail of clothes in jewel bright colours embroidered with gold or silver thread. "I've never seen anything quite like them before."
Jayne's attention had been captivated by trays of jewellery: necklaces of woven silver, fine as thread; rings embellished with sparkling jewels, and bangles engraved with swirls and curlicues. Both of them were so engrossed that neither saw the shopkeeper appear as if by magic at the back of the shop.
"Good afternoon, ladies," he greeted, with a foxy smile revealing many small uneven teeth.
"Good afternoon," Belinda responded politely. The shopkeeper nodded his head at her and then spied Jayne standing over by the jewellery. She noticed him moving in her direction and suppressed a small shudder. Something about him just made her spine prickle uneasily and she instantly decided not to buy anything from him, no matter how appealing. "Talk about out of the frying pan, into the microwave," she muttered under her breath.
"Is there anything I can help you with, miss?" he asked.
Jayne raised her head briefly and bestowed upon him a small polite smile. "No, that's all right. I'm just looking, thanks." She instantly regretted the smile, feeling him appraising her. She turned her attention back to the jewellery, furtively glancing at him out of the corner of her eye and wishing he wouldn't stand quite so close. She found his hands distracting; in perpetual motion, they rubbed against each other continuously, the long bony fingers twisting and twining in a way that reminded her of a nervous habit. She looked up again to find him staring at her with an intense gaze, strangely at odds with his pale blue eyes.
"Yes," he nodded, though no one had asked him a question. "I know the perfect thing for you."
Jayne frowned but the man turned away and started rummaging through a wooden chest of drawers at the side, rapidly opening and closing each one, searching for the item he had in mind. "It can't hurt to at least look," she found herself thinking, "I don't have to buy it."
The man slowly turned back to her, holding something she couldn't see in his cupped hands. He licked his thin lips quickly, an expression of satisfaction on his sallow face. With great deliberation, he carefully laid the object on the glass countertop with the air of a magician going 'tada!' at the end of his trick. Jayne cast her eyes down, prepared to see nothing particularly special and so was unable to hide the little "oh!" of surprise that burst from her.
"What is it?" Belinda asked, coming up and looking over her shoulder until she too gasped in delighted surprise. "Oh, Jayne, that's lovely!"
On the glass in front of them lay a necklace. A fine silver chain made of tiny links sparkled under the light and upon it was a pendant of simple design but no less beautiful for that. Two silver fish placed nose to tail encircled a round, perfectly smooth stone, no larger than a five pence piece. The attention to detail in the engraving was apparent, right down to the individual marking of every scale, making the fish look so realistic that Jayne almost expected them to wriggle about any second.
Without knowing quite why, Jayne reached out a tentative finger and gently touched the stone only to retract it the second she made contact with a cry of dismay.
Jayne studied her finger to ensure it was unharmed and resisted the urge to stick it in her mouth. "It shocked me," she explained. "Like static."
Belinda gingerly picked up the necklace without any adverse effects. "It really is rather pretty," she commented, examining it closely. "It looks like the fish are swimming round a tiny lake."
"Huh?" Jayne looked puzzled. "But the stone's clear, how can that look like a lake? A drop of water maybe, but not a lake."
"No, it's blue," Belinda corrected her and showed her the pendant as proof.
"I could have sworn it wasn't a second ago." In confusion, Jayne took the necklace from her friend's hand.
"It's like your birthsign," Belinda pointed out as she turned it over in her hand.
"It is, isn't it?" Jayne studied the necklace thoughtfully, the stone shining a brilliant sapphire blue. "I wonder how much it would cost."
At those words, the shopkeeper stepped forward, smiling all over his thin face. "Thank you, miss," he grinned hungrily. "I knew it would be perfect for you."
"No, I don't want - I mean, I wasn't going to - it'll be too expensive - "
"Please miss, I think that you will find the price quite acceptable."
When she thought about it later, Jayne couldn't understand why she allowed the shopkeeper to bully her so but at the time, the only thought in her head was that she had to have that necklace. It was very strange as she was resolute in her decision not to buy anything, or at least she had been, but now it seemed too difficult to think of anything else.
Pulling her purse out of her bag, she duly handed some money over to the shopkeeper. He smiled at her, a lurid grin that didn't quite reach his eyes and the cash disappeared somewhere in his clothing. Belinda took the necklace and fastened the chain round her neck. It felt cool and slithery, brushing against her skin as she moved and making her constantly aware that it was there.
"Thank you," Jayne murmured to both Belinda and the shopkeeper. Belinda nodded her head to the shopkeeper and then looped her arm through her friend's.
"Are we all done then?" she asked in an unnaturally bright voice that didn't sound at all like her own. "Good. Let's move on." Jayne was unable to do more than nod and let herself be pulled out of the shop.
As they stepped out of the door, they were dazzled by the bright sunlight outside which made them blink furiously. They looked at each other in bemusement, each feeling slightly dazed and something not unlike jetlag.
Jayne gazed through strangely heavy eyelids and frowned. "Is that the shopping centre?" Shaking off the sleepy feeling, she stared thoughtfully at the building before them.
"It looks like it," Belinda agreed.
"How did we end up here? The shop was behind the centre, wasn't it? Down the alleyway ..."
Belinda tutted impatiently. "You know what these old towns are like, they're rabbit warrens. You don't always come out the same place that you went in."
"Generally though, you tend to come out on the same road that you were on beforehand," Jayne retorted. Glancing around, she noticed what looked like a weather-beaten piece of wood nailed to the wall to her right. Studying it carefully, she could just about make out some long since faded lettering. "The Ginnel," she whispered to herself and turned around in the direction of the pointing hand. The entrance to a small narrow alleyway was behind them, the way barred by a large black wrought iron gate. "Like another world," she said under her breath and felt a shiver run down her spine.
Belinda tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Well, I don't know about you, but I think I'm done here. I'm going to go back to the cottage. Besides, the sun is really bright now and I don't have my sunglasses. I don't want to get wrinkles from screwing my eyes up."
"Mm, yes," Jayne responded automatically. Still deep in thought, she followed her friend's lead out of the market town and onto the country lane that took them back to their holiday home. They hadn't taken more than a few steps when Belinda called a halt.
"Ouch, I think I have something in my shoe." She slipped her shoe off and stopped to rub at one stockinged foot whilst balancing precariously on the other. Jayne halted as well, comparing her comfy but grubby trainers with Belinda's simple navy court shoes. Personally she was surprised that Belinda's feet hadn't taken a battering; she doubted if Belinda actually walked anywhere if her choice of footwear for sightseeing was anything to go by. She was definitely one of those women who went everywhere in the car.
"We're nearly at the cottage," Jayne assured her, "it's only round the next bend."
Belinda slipped her shoe back on. "I'm going to have to soak my feet for an hour at least tonight. I hope I have enough left in my pedicure set. I don't want to have horrible red feet when I go to Rhodes."
"I have a big symposium in two weeks time in Rhodes. I hope I'll be ready for it."
"Oh, you lucky thing."
"It's work, Jayne."
"Right, of course it is. You won't get chance to go to the beach or see the sights or anything, just like you didn't three months ago when you went to Greece. Somehow you still managed to come back with a tan. I'm pretty sure that all of the ouzo you brought back with you wasn't bought from the hotel either." Belinda just smiled enigmatically. "And now Rhodes!" Jayne felt a familiar surge of envy and fiercely swung the carrier bags she held, feeling them bash against her legs.
"Simon should be there too, which will be lovely," Belinda smiled as she thought of her attractive work colleague.
"Is he the tall one with the sports car or the blond with the flat by the river?"
"No, Simon is the one whose parents have the yacht."
"I can never keep up with the men you have," Jayne grumbled, kicking at a stone on the path. "I don't even have one and you have half a dozen."
Jayne swallowed down her envious feelings, fiddling once more with the necklace. It glinted in the sunlight and caught Belinda's eye.
"Didn't I say that stone was blue when we were in the shop? How odd, it's practically emerald now."
"Is it? Most strange." Jayne tried to look down at it, but the chain was too short and prevented her from doing so. "Come on, I thought you wanted to get out of the sun." She sighed as they sauntered along. "It's hard to believe we've only got tomorrow left." Carrier bags swayed at her side with every step while her other hand played with the pendant at her throat.
"It'll be nice to get back to work," Belinda said as she tottered along behind her friend, treading carefully on the uneven stone path.
"Maybe for you, I'm just going back to the reception desk; same old, same old."
"A break is all very well and good, Jayne, but I have so much to do. I imagine my desk will have exploded, there'll be so much catch up on. I expect I'll be doing some late nights to get back on top of it all."
"You shouldn't have to do that, Bel, it's not right."
"Well, it's either that or I take it home."
"No, you shouldn't be expected to do that either."
"I bet my diary will be chockfull with meetings as well, I really don't know how I'll have the time for it."
"Neither do I," muttered Jayne, knowing full well that Belinda never got into work before 10 and always seemed to leave about 3. Somehow she must have managed to cram more work into those five hours than most people got through in a week.
As they strolled along back to the cottage, she allowed herself to indulge in her favourite fantasy, the one where she had the same lifestyle as Belinda: one that would result in jetting off across the world all in the name of work, where she would be as beautiful and desirable with the same poise and men would demand she grace them with her attention. She glanced at her reflection in a shop window as Belinda studied the display within and appraised herself, knowing that she would evaluate herself on the standards of her friend and would therefore be found lacking. She pulled a face and turned away, but not before the sparkle of the pendant around her neck caught her eye. She noticed how the blue of the stone now appeared to be more green in hue but didn't give it a second thought as Belinda tutted in disgust over the products on sale and they moved away.
As they walked together, Jayne noticed the looks of passers-by and felt the familiar sensation of jealousy. Her friend was so tall and curvaceous that she felt dumpy standing next to her, even though she was comparatively slender. With pale blonde hair that reached just past her shoulders in a sleek waterfall, bright blue eyes and peachy smooth skin, Belinda quite often drew attention to herself. She tended to wear smart, classic outfits in varying shades of black, white and blue that made her look older than her 26 years. Wherever they went, her bearing demanded respect from those attending to her needs and without fail, she got it.
Jayne couldn't have been more different. Her hair was a dark mousy brown with golded highlights if the sun hit it right and she wore it in a jaw-length bob; her eyes were a green-blue that seemed unable to make up their mind exactly what colour they should be. She wore flowing skirts to her ankles, matched with loose fitting tops in a variety of colours and fabrics that put one in mind of another age. She tended to make her own jewellery, stringing together brightly coloured beads into bracelets and necklaces which she teamed with many silver bangles so she looked like a kind of medieval gypsy. The only thing that didn't match her image was her name.
"I just don't feel like a Jayne," she occasionally complained to her friend, "even if it is spelt with a 'y'. And Smith? Why couldn't I have a more glamorous name? Something exciting that conjures up images of tall slender females with long white blonde hair, big blue eyes and porcelain skin, like in romance novels."
"Because this is real life, Jayne," Belinda would respond in her take-no-nonsense manner, "No one looks like that. At least, not without some small effort." She would tuck a strand of smooth blonde hair behind her ear with precision, her perfectly painted nails reflecting the light dancing along their surface; her face made up in that way which enhanced her classic features and brought out the blue of her eyes - yet without looking like she was wearing any make up at all. Jayne would inwardly sigh and try to turn her thoughts to more cheering matters but all the while knowing that compared to her friend, she felt as dowdy as a chicken standing next to a peacock.
Later that evening, Jayne was sat out on the patio deeply engrossed in one of the novels she'd brought with her, enjoying a glass of wine. The fresh breeze which wafted across her face brought with it the scent of lavender from pots that edged the paved area. Belinda stepped out of the French windows onto the flags, wrapped in her dressing gown with a towel turbaned on her freshly washed hair. Jayne peered up at her over the top of her sunglasses.
"You look peachy," she observed.
"I look what?"
"Peachy. You must have caught the sun this afternoon, you've got some colour in your cheeks."
Belinda immediately stepped back inside the house to check her reflection in the mirror. When she came back out, she looked horrified. "It's all blotchy."
"Look!" Belinda was aghast. "It's awful."
Jayne tipped up her sunglasses and studied the face of her friend. "Wow, you're right. It goes down your neck as well."
"Perhaps it's just a reaction to something. Have you used a new product today? Like sun cream or after sun? Maybe it was the alcohol in your perfume."
Belinda shook her head. "No, I've just used the same things I normally do."
Jayne frowned. "Well, I don't think it's uncommon to get a reaction to something you've used before. It's not normal, but I'm pretty sure it's possible." Belinda was smoothing her fingers over her neck and peering into her dressing gown to check how far the blotchiness had spread. "I think I brought some calamine with me," Jayne said. "It's good for sunburn and skin complaints. Let me get it and you can see if that helps any."
Belinda muttered something that sounded like an affirmative response so Jayne went inside to the bathroom where she found her toiletries bag on the floor near the sink. She rummaged in it and found the calamine cream. As she moved to stand up and leave, she glanced towards the bath.
"Bel?" she called over her shoulder as she took one step closer to the tub.
"Did you find it?" Belinda entered the bathroom behind her.
"Oh yes, it's here." She held up the ointment, still examining the bathtub. "Is this yours?"
"Is what mine?"
"This hair." Jayne glanced over her shoulder, her eyes straying to her friend's towel-wrapped head. Belinda knit her brow in bemusement but looked where Jayne indicated.
"What the - ?" she started and her eyes opened wide in shock. Strewn along the bottom of the white porcelain was an unusual amount of long strands of hair. Although dark in colour due to being wet, there was no doubt where it had come from.
"You could have cleaned up after yourself, Bel," Jayne admonished, "I don't want to get in there when it's full of your sheddings."
"But that can't all be mine!"
"Whose else is it? You've the one that's just had a shower."
"There's so much of it though," Belinda raised her eyes to Jayne's. "How can that all be mine?"
Jayne looked thoughtfully back in the tub. "I suppose there is rather a lot." She turned back to her friend and once more glanced at her head. Belinda caught the unspoken question and slowly raised her hands to remove the towel. Jayne was surprised to see the slight tremor there; she knew Belinda was vain but she had no idea she would be so affected.
Belinda turned to face the mirror over the bathroom sink as the towel slid from her head and into her hands. As it fell, generous strands of long blonde hair fluttered down to land on her shoulders and the floor where she stood. Her lips opened in a silent scream but no sound left her mouth. Jayne, standing behind her, saw how dull and sparse the once shiny blonde locks had now become and stared in amazement.
Her eyes caught those of her friend in the mirror. Belinda's skin was pale, making the red blotches stand out as though someone had slapped her. Her large blue eyes moved to stare at Jayne's own hair, which shone from the overhead electric light. It appeared to have been dramatically lightened by the sun and was run through with light blonde streaks, not unlike the colour of Belinda's own. Jayne now looked at her own reflection and was pleasantly jolted by the sight which greeted her. She swallowed in surprise, making the pendant at her throat react with the motion and her eyes followed the movement.
The two silver fish sparkled in the harsh unforgiving glare, but it wasn't that which demanded her attention. The stone that they encircled had now, unmistakeably, taken on the exact shade of a blood red ruby.
Unless otherwise specified.