One glorious midsummer morning, the Reverend Jacob Ryland, the celebrated author of The Round Table and the Lost Giants of America, Montsalvache and the Lost Tomb of Merlin, and The Mysteries of Avalon, arrived with his new bride in the village of Dynan's Clove in order to explore the steep cliffs and mossy cataracts of the gorge for which the town had been named. A keen amateur naturalist as well as an antiquarian, Ryland had set aside his scholarly inquiries for the duration of his honeymoon, preferring to devote his time to rambling the Catskills in search of wildflowers. His bride was, by all accounts, as eager to set out as her husband as they packed a pony cart with their botanizing tools - a pressing frame, a waterproof pen and paper, and a tube for collecting specimens - as well as a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, in its original Latin, and a cold collation in a wicker luncheon basket.
Only the pony was destined to return - careening wild-eyed and lathered down the steep tracks of the Clove, dragging the broken traces of the cart behind him. Search parties were sent out, but no-one found a trace of either Jacob Ryland or his new bride - save the remains of the wicker luncheon basket that was eventually fished from the foot of one of the Clove's many wild waterfalls, the remains of the book sodden to illegibility inside. Then, six months later, in the dead of winter, a gaunt stranger, barely recognizable as the man who had set out so cheerfully on his honeymoon, appeared in a charity ward up in Albany, clutching a botanizing tube filled with freshly blooming oak, broom, and meadowsweet. When questioned, Ryland could give no account of where he had found those flowers, or what had happened to him in Dynan's Clove. Nor could he explain what had become of his new bride. In fact, when pressed, he vehemently denied that she had ever existed, despite the evidence of the crumpled bridal veil wreathed with orange blossoms that had been stuffed in the bottom of Ryland's botanizing tube.
And so began the sad last chapter in the story of a man who had once been referred to as the American Schliemann. The man who had been tapped for a joint appointment in Theology and Archaeology at Harvard died in an asylum, scribbling endless prophecies of Merlin on scraps of paper which he secreted all around his cell. For as long as she could remember, Nina Malory had scoured archives and pored over the yellowed manuscripts penned in a madhouse, trying to discover what could possibly have happened to cause such a terrible decay in such a brilliant mind. But now that she had finally arrived at Dynan's Clove to explore the site of the tragedy for herself, she was beginning to worry a lot more about what had just happened to her.
All she had done was walk across a bridge - pausing briefly to gaze down into the placid pool that was the outlet of the tumbling creek and rocky cataracts that had carved out the Clove millennia ago, before she turned toward what had once been known as the Clove Road House, but was now, according to the peeling sign that hung from its front porch, a Bed and Breakfast run by an organization called the Temple of the Mother, who also, according the peeling sign, sold Fresh Eggs, as well as Antiques and Collectibles - the "i" in the latter hastily emended from an "a."
Little else had changed from the hand-colored postcards depicting the place in its heyday. But much had faded. The House's front was still two stories of matching shaded and shuttered windows rising above a gracious verandah - except the shutters hung at odd angles, and the neat row of matching rockers had been replaced by a hodgepodge collection of castoff lawn chairs and wooden tables that were apparently the antiques being offered for sale. The door was shuttered, the clock face with the store hours unreadable at this distance. There was no sign anyone was there to welcome her, beyond the window that stood open, its white curtains fluttering in the summer breeze, looking oddly like a bridal veil...
Or was that a flutter of white in the quiet brook beneath the bridge?
Even more strangely, was that a flower?
Funny, she thought, shivering against the raindrops that were rapidly plastering her hair to her forehead. It was far too chilly for a window to be open. Then again, as the old adage went, if you didn't like the weather in the Catskills, just wait fifteen minutes, and it would change. Someone must have forgotten about the open window; she'd make sure to tell them as soon as she got inside. Ducking against the whipping rain, she hurried toward the shelter of the verandah...
Only to feel a hand on her arm, stopping her.
"But where have you been?" a woman breathed, her face a mixture of concern and puzzlement. "We've all been so dreadfully worried."
Nina pushed back the drenched sleeve of her peasant dress to check her rain-spattered watch. "I'm sorry?"
"We've been looking for you everywhere. They even had the dogs out."
The woman was peculiarly ageless, her long snow-white hair at odds with her unlined face and wide blue eyes. Scarves and crystal necklaces seemed to fly in every direction. Another Hudson Valley hippie who had never escaped the sixties. Nina blinked at her, wondering how daft she really was. "I just got off the bus..."
But even as she turned to point at the bus that should have been pulling away in a cloud of exhaust on the other side of the bridge, she registered the rain that was pounding down from every side. And remembered the white curtain that had been fluttering in the breeze... In the sunlight. The same light that had been glinting off the water where she thought she had seen a flower...
But that was... impossible.
The woman studied Nina, her vague eyes suddenly narrow with concern. "Oh, dear," she said. "Oh, dear, dear, dear. By all the Old Ones what is Fisher planning now?"