Ten Lords A'Leaping cover

Excerpt of Ten Lords A'Leaping

It was then that Tom felt the first intimation of impending trouble.  The crackle of disturbed foliage stopped almost as soon as it started, but the rest of nature seemed to rise up in sympathy. Protesting birds streaked noisily into the sky in dark plume of distraction, scattering to the trees. A jackdaw sounded its high, squealing distress call. And then, as abruptly, a kind of restorative peace settled on the landscape, but a false one, Tom felt in his bones. Something or someone had surely violated the perfection of the topiary wall. Was he to encounter another creature, a more fearsome one than a cat, on the path to the centre? Or had some more fearsome creature retreated from the Labyrinth and padded silently away? Mind arrested from his own worries, concerned now that misadventure awaited, Tom limped his way more quickly along the coiled intestine of the labyrinth, alert to further disturbances in the calm of dawn. Glancing over the top of the penultimate ring, he thought he saw a blemish in the smooth topiary wall of the outermost ring, and when at last he looped around, he saw with sinking heart a dark scattering of leaves and bits of twig along the pale path ahead. In a moment, he was in front of the vandalisation itself, an ugly, ratted gash through the hornbeam wall, the dark tangle of snapped branches a latticework now of dawn’s first light. And yet the top remained inviolate. Someone—surely no animal would do this—had burrowed below its tidy trimming to escape. Fear? Panic? A labyrinth was not a maze. There was no reason here for the claustrophobic dread some suffered at Hampton Court.

Or was it a deliberate desecration?

Tom looked over the hedge toward Eggescombe’s park, misting faintly as the sun, now half a crimson ball, stirred heat into the air. Here, at the farthest point from the  entrance, the labyrinth revealed its purchase on a soft mound which sloped gently to the lawn below, to the ha-ha, and to the purpled silhouette of majestic trees in the middle distance piercing the shimmering grey sky. Nearer, his eyes settled on an ancient oak the mighty limbs of which embraced a marvelous white tree house that glowed softly in the new light. And nearer still, the pinnacled bulk of Eggescombe Hall, mullions turning glittering diamonds. It was as magnificently timeless as it has been yesterday. Only unpeopled. Utterly unpeopled. No sound, no motion suggested anyone but himself in this Arcadian landscape.

With new concern, he shifted awkwardly on his crutch and shifted his gaze to the coils of the labyrinth. Though he had yet again swung to the farthest reaches of the eleven circuits, he had come a good distance. In a few short turns, he knew, he would be ushered into the labyrinth’s sacred heart, where, presumably—according to the most ardent fans of such things—he would experience a kind of rebirth, though the fanciful notion that a minotaur, half-man, half-beast, lay in waiting crept into his mind. He snorted at the absurdity, the sound preternaturally loud in his ears. He continued on down the path, alert to other breaches to the peace of the Lord’s day, but none came, for which he was grateful.

Around the last bend, the path straightened, resolving into a short corridor into the labyrinth’s green nucleus. Tom’s eyes were drawn to a pale silhouette emerging from the black bath of shadow along the lawn, the nucleolus of this nucleus, the goal, presumably, of this microcosmic pilgrimage. He knew what it was or at least sensed what it might be in an early swing past the centre, and wanted to resist its spell, but the head’s fine features and slim neck—more discernible now as he pushed forward—seemed to drink in the dawn light and gleam gently, as if lit from within. The face wore none of the mournful piety typical of such statues; the posture, he noted now that he was fully in the core of the labyrinth, suggested nothing of the torment to come. The sculptor—Roberto, presumably—had rendered with sublime skill, the sweetness of mother and child bound in love. The chubby-limbed child fairly gurgled with bliss; the slim mother, her youthful body draped in classic modesty, rejoiced at her son. Her upturned mouth, her delicate nose, her large, wide-set eyes were so finely rendered that she seemed less a symbolic representation of the feminine, than a highly individuated woman, captured in a moment of pure maternal joy. He sighed a little, earlier trepidation vanished, affected not only by the loveliness of this exquisite representation of Madonna and Child, but by a small sense of his own loss. Mary had been his first adoptive mother’s name. Had she ever held him like that? And what of his natural mother? Had she? Or had he been torn from her minutes after his birth? Liverpool, Marguerite had slipped him a clue to his natural parentage. Liverpool. How … odd.

He put the thought aside, and glanced past the statue to the bordering hedge, deeply scalloped here, each cool shadowy lunation embracing a rounded wooden bench, suited to rest after the journey, and to contemplation. He had thought centres of labyrinths ought best be holy absences, places to fill with one’s own thoughts, and wondered a little at Lord Fairhaven’s conspicuous expression of his Roman Catholicism. Was it even a good marketing strategy in a nation of nominal Protestants? But the sculpture held a irresistible power he was sure others felt. He forgave the denominational dedication, and turned his thoughts to Morning Prayer, the General Confession slipping easily onto his tongue:

   Almighty and most merciful Father,
   We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
   We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
   We have offended against thy holy laws,
   We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
   And we have done those things which we ought not to have done …

Tom paused in his recitation, the last words sinking like stones into his soul. And we have done those things which we ought not to have done,” he intoned again, his voice this time fallen to a murmur. He shifted his weight on his crutch and continued:

   And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.

Tom paused again, the severity of the avowal—there is no health in us—reminding him, with a ridiculous literalness, of his ankle. Twenty minutes of hobbling with crutches was wearing. He would sit to finish Morning Prayers.

He made to twist around to move to the nearest bench, one behind him, which sat in the deepest shadow. Six lunations, he counted as his eyes circled past, a rosette pattern. What delightful symmetry! His eyes fell first on a torch left on the ground, switched on still, its feeble light casting a pallid arc no match for the rising sun’s. And then his eyes travelled to what seemed at first glance a large grey heap marring the perfection of the scene. Puzzled, fears rekindled that some creature had indeed penetrated the labyrinth by defiling its boundary, he moved closer, steeling himself for some sort of unpleasant confrontation, and peered into the gloom at the base of the bench. It was no animal, but a man by length and breadth. Oliver, he realised with a shock when he peered closer, noting the rumple of red hair, the idiosyncratic needlework at the neck of his shirt. One arm was wedged against the base of the bench, the other flopped forward, the kufi hat just beyond the reach of clawed fingers. Tom gazed upon the sight unbelievingly for the time it took another jackdaw to sound his alarm, battling a wave of nausea. Oliver fforde-Beckett, 7th Marquess of Morborne, wasn’t sacked out, sleeping off some night of drunken debauchery. No snores, no guttural snorts, competed with the bird’s call. Lord Morborne wasn’t asleep at all.