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http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/latest-jokes

A blonde and a redhead have a ranch. They have just lost their bull. The women need to buy another, but only have $500. The redhead tells the blonde, “I will go to the market and see if I can find one for under that amount. If I can, I will send you a telegram.” She goes to the market and finds one for $499. Having only one dollar left, she goes to the telegraph office and finds out that it costs one dollar per word. She is stumped on how to tell the blonde to bring the truck and trailer. Finally, she tells the telegraph operator to send the word “comfortable.” Skeptical, the operator asks, “How will she know to come with the trailer from just that word?” The redhead replies, “She’s a blonde so she reads slow: ‘Come for ta bull.'”

 

 

EPSON MFP image

Does anyone else think this is Johnny Depp? I purchased the image from dreamstime.com who have assured me it is not  and consequently I have used it as the cover on my second book. I’m still a little apprehensive though!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seventeen

At dusk, Aidan and Augusta stood at the head of the brow watching the invited guests descend to the wharf.

Several ships had been forced to move and berth at the shorter jetties to make room for the giant ship. This had taken time and the hours had been utilized to bring up a whole flotilla of small boats to push the Grim alongside the wharf.  There had been no shortage of help from the dockworkers—all it seemed wished to have hands on in securing the biggest ship they would ever see in their lives.t dusk, Aidan and Augusta stood at the head of the brow watching the invited guests descend to the wharf.

A closed carriage pulled by four powerful, jet black horses their long manes curled with red ribbons, had drawn up on the quayside at precisely the time the first dog watch ended at six o’clock. The coachman climbed down and held the door ajar for Tragen to assist his niece to climb the steps.

Lady Cornelia, her broken ankle healed completely, and still not quite believing that the ‘old sickness’ in her bones had also disappeared, was determined to enjoy the rigours of being conveyed in a horse drawn vehicle—an experience that previously would have resulted in a shattered spine. She fairly loped into the carriage, grinning widely, although being a very large woman she slumped heavily onto the seat, the leaf springs groaning as she did. Tragen glanced quickly back up at Aidan and Augusta and winked reassuringly.

Locklear paused and shook Hopper’s hand before climbing the few steps onto the brow. ‘Beware of all not of the Grim and keep a double watch posted until I return. No stranger is to come aboard unless they have my written permission.’ Glancing at Augusta standing nearby, he continued. ‘You know whose safety is paramount. If it comes to a choice…you know which one to make.’

‘Sir, if I may keep you a moment. When I was here before it was common knowledge that the seneschal never entertained in company with his son. In fact he never ever introduced his boy to anyone. The seneschal’s wife died giving him birth and something about that time has been hidden, her death was unusual—maybe even unnatural. I cannot think of any reason that the subject should crop up in conversation, but if it does…beware.’

Locklear paused for a moment, thinking on his words. ‘Are you saying that there was something strange about the boy, that he was deliberately hidden from sight?’

‘Aye, sir,’ the mate nodded.

‘Thank you, Hopper; I will heed your advice.’ Locklear descended the brow as the bo’sun’s mate shrilled the captain’s salute on his pipe.

Hopper, Aidan and Augusta watched in silence as the carriage sped into motion, the coat of arms on the door shining bright, the captain ensconced inside with the wizard and the lady-in-waiting. The two servants, Anders and Beatrix, riding up on the hind seat waved across to them as the coach disappeared around a corner of a long, black warehouse.

‘This is going to be the worst part, Aidan,’ Augusta looked at her companion with mixed emotions, ‘waiting.’

Subdued, he stared at her. ‘Everyone is worried for your safety, Augusta, everyone. How can you bear to live the way you do knowing that people wish you harm?’

Augusta shrugged. ‘I grew up with it…I’m used to it,’ and she added, ‘I try never to think on it. You’ve learned to live with the fact that wizards are never trusted, haven’t you? So, come on, cheer up and teach me some more magic.’

She put her arm through his and dragged him to the poop deck to await the return of their friends. She was determined to take full advantage of this opportunity of being alone with him, to find out a little more of his life—and perhaps his family.

 

The carriage wound through narrow backstreets over the cobblestones between warehouses, shoddy dockworkers’ homes and even grubbier taverns. Beatrix couldn’t help but compare the quality of the many buildings. The warehouses seemed well cared for, but the houses and the inns this near the waterfront, were definitely not. The slum dwellings, some three and four storeys high, tumbled against each other, each needing the support of the next to remain upright. Each roof of the wooden dwellings leant precariously toward its neighbour across the street blocking out overhead sunlight, giving rise to suspicious shadowed niches and sordid alleys. And yet most had washing lines strung from eave to eave across the road.

But the deeper into the town they travelled, so the buildings improved and they discovered a seemliness that displayed an exotic affluence. The occasional house painted in bright cheerful colours, others with sturdy frontages. And, although smelling sometimes overwhelmingly at intersections, the sewers were covered, the drains disappearing below ground.

The town behind the docks was far larger than it appeared from the sea and was far more prosperous away from the seafront. Long, wide thoroughfares crossed each other at odd intervals, giving glimpses of richer homes and cleaner shops. The coach rattled on its way passing through large open squares home to ornamental fountains and small trees, some having benches for the local residents to take their ease.

Anders, who had found it strange that four horses had been needed to pull the coach, discovered the reason before long. The carriage progressed along the first of many steep winding roads through the richer end of the town, leading to the plateau above. Here the style of dwellings changed from one house to the next, no two the same, showing a difference in cultures, denizens from many other countries had settled in Griffin Town. Some even had small gardens planted with dogs tooth violets, nicotiana and orange calendula, with roses climbing the whitewashed fronts, dazzling in daylight.

Beatrix sitting on the swaying seat above and behind the passengers was looking forward to bringing Aidan and Augusta with them on the morrow. It was going to be fun exploring the town, all four together. But the exotica she espied in the shop windows would require a large purse, excitement already making her stomach churn. She glanced out of the corner of her eye at Anders. Would he accept a gift?

From her vantage point she watched as the townspeople went about their business, not all the inhabitants were poor dockworkers. Beatrix identified professional people wearing silk stockings and wide brimmed hats, married women wearing bonnets carrying parasols and rush baskets in their hands, and well-dressed children running about between the coaches and street stalls as youngsters did everywhere. The overall impression was of the well-to-do businessman in the western end of the town, with the poverty stricken dockworker mainly in the east, and in between the hard-working artisans upon which every commercial venture relied.

‘Much like towns in Mantovar,’ said Anders.

‘Yes, smells different though,’ replied Beatrix, ‘but, have you noticed, not many people are smiling?’

‘They do seem a bit glum, don’t they?’

The horses eventually reached the crest of the last slope and picked up speed across the headland above the harbour. The view out over the sea was magnificent even at dusk. The lights of the town sparkled, their brilliance mingling with the lights displayed on the many ships and boats at anchor, alongside the jetties and out in the bay. The beacon, though, illuminating the rocks below, outshone all from the eastern headland directly across the lagoon from their destination.

The home of Seneschal Portolan and his family was set in a large country estate, a high timber fence running for leagues around fields and woods. The wheels of the coach hummed along on the well-kept scarlet maple- and white poplar-lined avenue leading to the home estate. Uniformed sentries, standing at several vantage points along the winding driveway, watched the visitors’ progress. These were hard men, well-armed with swords, crossbows and even large cudgels.

The home estate stood behind ten-foot high stone walls which abutted onto dense woods growing at the rear of the house. Through the woods ran a high fence patrolled at intervals by militiamen. The iron-gated entrance in the south wall opened onto a circular drive leading up to the main building, a large three-storey structure built of blocks of grey stone. Several chimneys stood proudly in line along its roof, one or two spouting black smoke almost invisible in the growing dusk. The front of the house boasted three lines of windows all fitted with glass and showing light. A narrow road led around to the rear of the house, presumably to the stables and servants quarters. A covered portico at the front led up a flight of steps to a set of heavy mahogany double-doors, and these were swung open to greet the visitors as the carriage drew to a halt.

A footman ran to open the carriage door and to unfold the steps for the passengers to descend. Anders and Beatrix were motioned down by the coachman and they stood at the rear awaiting further orders. Both were a little nervous, Anders more so as he had never attended a function such as this before. But Beatrix used his lack of experience as an excuse to hold his hand—Anders didn’t mind.

Three people walked through the high doors to welcome their guests. Seneschal Portolan, although hatless, was resplendent in full uniform sporting a red cummerbund stretched very tightly across his ample waist.

Standing alongside him was a young, overweight boy with shoulder length brown hair. Taller than the harbourmaster, he looked about the same age as Anders and Beatrix. He was wearing tight dark-blue trousers to the knee, long white socks disappearing into black shoes with silver buckles, a white shirt ruffled at the neck and frilled at the wrists. Over all, he wore a coat of black watered silk again embroidered with the Griffin coat of arms. The whole magnificent effect somewhat marred by the vacant expression on the boy’s face. His blue eyes stared straight ahead, seeing nothing.

The third person, a woman standing behind the boy giving the impression that she was the boy’s bodyguard – which in reality she was – looked to be in her forties, small and motherly. Dressed a little dowdier than her companions she had an air of authority that the visitors only understood later.

Locklear, resplendent in his dark-blue Mantovarian uniform, minus his sword, etiquette barring guests from wearing arms in their host’s home, descended the coach first followed by Tragen wearing a green robe, his staff in hand. The wizard turned back to the carriage to assist Lady Cornelia as she alighted. She was dressed in the height of fashion, a long green and white gown with a diamond necklace at her throat.

The seneschal stepped forward extending his hand to the wizard. ‘Welcome, Lord Tragen, to my home,’ he said, looking around the wizard, unable to take his eyes from Cornelia. ‘This must be your lovely niece,’ he said, strangely tense as he turned to her. Taking her hand he bowed over it.

‘This is indeed my niece, Seneschal,’ Tragen was somewhat surprised by the affect the lady-in-waiting seemed to have on the harbourmaster. ‘Allow me to introduce Lady Cornelia.’

‘It is years since this house welcomed such a beautiful lady, I am honoured.’ He turned to Locklear, reluctantly releasing his hold on Cornelia’s hand. ‘Ah, Captain Locklear you also are welcome of course. Please allow me to introduce my son, Thaddeus.’

Cornelia, nearly losing her composure with the unexpected compliment, joined Tragen and Locklear in staring at the young boy. Tragen made to shake his hand—to have it completely ignored; the boy continued looking ahead as if he saw no-one in front of him.

‘Unfortunately, Lord Tragen, Thaddeus has a medical problem. He has been unwell since his birth and is in constant need of care. This is supplied by me and his nurse, Mistress Barbat,’ he indicated the third member of the welcoming party. ‘Nevertheless, Thaddeus always joins me for dinner and I see no reason to exclude him this evening.’ The harbourmaster gazed at his guests, his hard eyes daring them to contest his decision.

‘Of course he must,’ Cornelia replied. ‘It is an honour for us to meet him, and what an apt name to give him. You know its meaning of course, Uncle?’ Tragen shook his head. ‘It means “gift of the Gods” does it not, Seneschal Portolan? A lovely name, for a lovely young man,’ and the large woman strode to the boy’s side and took his arm in hers. There was no reaction at all from Thaddeus as he automatically accompanied Cornelia indoors.

Lodovico Portolan watched bemused, his response a picture of unremitting pleasure he was unable to cease smiling, his eyes softening as he followed Cornelia whose whole attention was now taken up by the boy.

All six moved into the main entrance hall of the house and ascended the dark oak-lined main staircase winding up from the left immediately behind the front doors.

Beatrix and Anders, of course, were not allowed to follow them up the main stairs and instead were taken to the right, through a side door into the kitchen. A small boy sat to the side of the fire turning a spit, roasting the huge joint of lamb suspended in the oval basket, fat dripping and spitting in the flames. The smell made Anders’ mouth water and he earned a nudge from Beatrix as he licked his lips in appreciation. The cook/housekeeper, a miserable looking woman with a perpetual scowl on her face, led them on through another door recessed in the corner, into the servants’ hall. Here they were told in no uncertain terms that they were to help carry the hot food up the side stairs directly into the banqueting hall.

Beatrix was surprised, as the servants of guests they also should have been treated as guests in the servants’ hall. Nevertheless, she was used to seeing deplorable treatment of servants in big houses and she took it in her stride. She smiled at Anders encouragingly before he was tempted to complain.

‘Tragen was right,’ Anders whispered as they carried the hot soup tureens up the narrow stairs. ‘I could never see Augusta putting up with being spoken to like that!’

‘Quiet on the stairs!’ the cook shouted from below.

Anders poked his tongue out and made a face nearly making Beatrix drop the tureen as she struggled not to laugh.

 

‘That man you mentioned before, the Abbot of Sentinel, tell me about him,’ asked Aidan, ‘I only ever saw him now and then, and that was at a distance.’

Augusta shivered and settled herself more comfortably alongside him in their favourite place on the poop deck, the lights on the after-jigger shining down on them. Hopper was below on the quarterdeck, standing at the forward rail, his head continually turning, both to watch the activities on land and the business of the ship. The crew had been refused shore leave until the captain returned with more knowledge of the situation in the port. They went about their duties glancing occasionally up at the quarterdeck or over on the quayside, sharing the mate’s apprehension.

‘He’s head of the monastery on Sentinel,’ replied Augusta quietly, ‘you know that island in the estuary of the river Mantovar. He’s a tyrant. He rules the monks with a rod of iron; they aren’t even allowed to talk with anyone outside the order. Abbot Cumbria’s eyes are much the same as Seneschal Portolan’s…cold and calculating,’ she paused and bit at her bottom lip. ‘The abbot’s tall and very thin, he’s bald, his cheekbones are almost sharp and they protrude alarmingly and he sneers all the time. But it’s his eyes…they really are horrible.’ She shuddered and leant a little nearer Aidan, nudging his shoulder. ‘Perhaps I do Seneschal Portolan a disservice by likening his cold eyes to the abbot’s. The seneschal is clearly a hard man but I don’t think he’s cruel; Cumbria is—he is brutal. I’ve managed to avoid him most of my life, only meeting him once or twice a year when my duties forced me to.’

Aidan put his arm around her comforting, her distress obvious. ‘Where did he come from?’

‘No-one is quite sure, some say from Drakka, others from the east…I mean from the far side of the Scissor Mountains. One man I know said he was from Enzore in the southern mountains in Qula, but I don’t think he’s from there, everyone I’ve ever met from Enzore has been pleasant…Cumbria is certainly not. One or two whisper that he’s from the north, but they won’t say how far north.’ She trembled again and Aidan held her closer.

‘If he’s that terrifying why did your father appoint him,’ Aidan asked, puzzled.

‘I don’t know,’ Augusta shrugged and turned her face to look at him and as she did her hair brushed his mouth.

They both swiftly became aware of how close she was being held and they separated a little, embarrassed. Aidan removed his arm from her shoulders and clasped his hands in his lap to halt the small tremor in his fingers. He had butterflies in his stomach, his feelings in turmoil he stared up at the headland, his master’s destination. Augusta smiled to herself, she well knew the effect she was having on him, and then she realized he was having the same effect on her.

‘The Abbot of Sentinel very rarely comes to the castle; he spends his time at the monastery when he’s not travelling. When he does attend on my father it is always at night. The little I’ve met him makes me want to scream, those eyes of his…when he stares at me my skin crawls. I don’t want to cross him.’ Augusta sucked her finger in the corner of her mouth for a moment and then continued. ‘You know something I don’t think my father knows where the abbot is from. He turned up about twenty years ago, I believe, and has led the monks ever since.’ She fell silent.

‘Now it’s your turn,’ she said, changing the subject, she didn’t want to think of the abbot any more. ‘Tell me of your family,’ and she nudged him playfully, ‘and why you don’t know your age.’

Aidan looked at her, her sparkling green eyes enticing; he smiled apprehensively, would she think less of him? It was no good lying to her she’d see through him straight away and anyway he didn’t want to be untruthful. All her friends were of the aristocracy and would say what she wanted to hear, he didn’t want such an obsequious relationship. But it was only the accident of having magical ability that would elevate him to the peerage when he finished his training—or when Tragen died. He shivered; he didn’t want to even think on that. But he had still come from abject poverty and if Tragen hadn’t found him he would probably still be living in the gutter. Would she think any the less of him if he told her? He knew her opinion of him mattered a great deal.

Thinking of the wizard he closed his eyes and thought back to the day he had first met his mentor. He’d been one small member of a gang of orphaned children in the large town of Miskim, a border settlement way to the north of Castle Mantovar. It had grown up on the edge of the Great Forest, in the foothills of the Scissor Mountains, the eastern border of the principality. The market town was frequented by travellers from all points of the compass, by mountain men and plainsmen as well as the local farmers and drovers.

Occasionally a lone mystic ended up in the town after journeying many hundreds of leagues, not one of them knowing the reason for their visit, eventually leaving the town sometimes weeks later, confused and somehow bereft.

Aidan had lived on his wits and his unusual abilities. He’d no clear idea then how long his life had consisted of stealing from stallholders, running from irate innkeepers and sleeping rough in smelly hovels. Not that any so-called “victim” wished to punish him, for he had healing hands even though he was accident prone. People thanked the God, Tarria, for any encounter with him—once they’d cleaned up his mess.

But it had been a year after his mother died when Tragen caught him.

Aidan smiled. He remembered his mother as a warm, comfortable feeling, her long black hair smelling of lavender, always falling across his face when she cuddled him. Although he could no longer picture her face in his mind the fact did not seem to bother him. She had met her end after leaving him playing in the small lean-to they shared adjacent to The Scourge, an ancient tavern, across the road from the Moot Hall. His mother had been an enchantress of small ability, a hedge-witch usually employed to charm warts and other minor, unsightly disfigurements. She had gone to ply her trade in the local market and had never returned. His father he had never known although he vaguely remembered a light-haired man.

His life had changed dramatically when the old wizard caught him red-handed using magic to make a large, florid-faced man look the other way so that he could steal one of the newly baked pies off the stall in front of one of the only two bakeries in the town.

He didn’t know he’d used magic. All he did was wave his hands about and sing and, lo and behold, he appeared invisible to the stallholder—or so he thought.

But he was still visible to the wizard. Tragen had seized him, and instead of turning him over to the village watchmen – who unknown to Tragen would have released him anyway, it being an unspoken agreement in the town that the boy should always be kept fed and clothed – he had purchased two of the large and very hot meat pies, one for himself and one for the small boy.

But he had been cautious. As young as he was then, he had learned to run from strangers, especially strange men. But he was also insatiably curious and very hungry. He had never seen a wizard before let alone actually converse with one. And the man did look very funny in his long green robe and strange pointed hat, its brim ragged and flopping down around his face. With a long white beard that he had to keep flinging over his shoulder whilst eating – a ludicrous habit that had fascinated him and even now ten years later still brought a smile to his face – he and the old man had sat together on a bench in a corner of the main square. He had listened to the wizard’s proposal as the succulent, thick gravy dripped down his chin, ending up splattering his already dirty, ragged clothes. And after a long discussion, and another pie, he’d agreed to apprentice to the wizard.

He was too young to realize what he was getting into, of course. He had never heard of apprenticeships and did not understand what they entailed. But at the promise of regular food and a warm bed, he thought he’d give it a try. Why not, if he didn’t like it he could always leave.

But the watchmen had been called by concerned citizens and they would not allow him to leave until Tragen had satisfied them of his motives…a fact that had surprised the wizard no end. There were many damp eyes watching the boy walk the road south.

‘Aidan? What is it?’ Augusta asked.

He breathed deeply and told her all of it.

His words shocked her, she’d had no idea. She stared at him, coming to understand now why he was so different to other boys she’d met.

‘Tell me more of your mother?’

Aidan smiled; he always did when he thought of her. ‘My mother was lovely…and warm and kind and always smelled of flowers,’ he paused, staring into space.

‘Go on…can you tell me what happened to her or would you rather not talk of it?’ Augusta asked apprehensively, staring at his face she realized how very handsome he was even though he needed a shave.

‘It’s all right, it’s just I don’t know…I think she was murdered.’

‘Murdered! Good God, Aidan,’ and she put her arm through his and held him tight. ‘How? I mean…I don’t want to know,’ she squeezed his arm against her and held his hand. ‘Your father, do you know anything of him?’

‘Only what my mother told me. For some reason she always cried when she talked about him. I remember that because I asked her once why she was always sad when I asked. She told me he was ill and that it was her fault. I asked her where he was, because if he was ill he should be in bed. She said he had to stay away from us because of the nature of the disease, I never understood that at the time. But I’ve thought it over many times since, and it could only have been some sort of highly infectious ailment, you know, like the plague,’ he paused as she squeezed his arm again, comforting him. ‘She loved him very much, though, everyone used to tell me they were joined at the hip…I’m not sure what they meant by that.’ Why was he telling her all this? He’d never told anyone before.

‘Why was it her fault that he was ill?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ Aidan stared off into space. ‘But she said something else which makes me think it may not have been the plague.’

‘What was that?’

‘Something very strange…she said his illness made him forget me.’

Augusta was shocked, staring at him she didn’t know what to think. ‘What ailment makes you forget your son?’

‘I don’t know. Anyway, I went to live with Tragen, when I was five, I think.’

‘So, little wizard, you come of age next year the same as me.’

‘I suppose so, what difference it’ll make, though, I don’t know. Tragen allows me to make most decisions that affect me, already. It’s only where magic is concerned that he treats me like a kid.’

‘You love him, don’t you?’

‘Of course I do…he’s my dada, not that one back in Miskim.’

‘Do you think he’s dead?’

‘He has to be. I know there were plague victims dropping dead about then. We used to come across their bodies when we were hiding from the watchmen.’

She shivered at that and changed the subject again. ‘Tell me about the storm. It must have been a very powerful wizard to create it. Why couldn’t Tragen counteract it with his own spell of calming?’

‘He wanted to, I think, but he realized the storm was far too great. So he decided to use a different spell…the shield. But he had to use his staff to aid him, and even that wasn’t enough. It could not protect him fully as you saw when he fell; neither could it calm the storm sufficiently. To create a tempest that vast, several sorcerers must have combined the power of their staffs. Tragen and his staff alone were not enough to beat them. And…and the more I think on it…’ he paused, frowning, ‘the more I think on it convinces me that he should not have been able to block the storm as he did.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s almost as if he was allowed to succeed—and that’s what I meant to tell Tragen before he left.’

Augusta scared even more by this knowledge, held on to Aidan’s hand tighter as they watched the sun go down.

For some reason he could not understand, Aidan was very happy then…just sitting there, arm in arm, her hand in his.

 

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/latest-jokes

Teacher: “Which book has helped you the most in your life?”
Student: “My father’s check book!”

Have a nice day!

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/family-jokes

A man kills a deer and takes it home to cook for dinner. Both he and his wife decide that they won’t tell the kids what kind of meat it is, but will give them a clue and let them guess. The dad said, “Well it’s what Mommy calls me sometimes.” The little girl screamed to her brother, “Don’t eat it. Its an asshole!

c/o dreamstime.com Is he a nice guy or a bad one? You'll have to read the trilogy to find out.

c/o dreamstime.com
Is he a nice guy or a bad one? You’ll have to read the trilogy to find out.

Sixteen

Leash knew youngsters, knew they were insatiably curious and loved exploring new places. If the town was large enough, isolating Aidan would be child’s play, he’d done it before with others. All he had to do was follow them, and wait.eash overheard everything, with eyes glinting and his brain churning, he saw many possibilities in using the feud. Having failed to kill the boy on the ship he would slay him somewhere on the island, after all, there was always more opportunity to arrange an “accident” ashore. It was common knowledge that docks were notoriously dangerous places, and if he played it right the Montetors and Portolans would be blamed.

He only wished he could somehow let the wizard know the reason for the boy’s death…seeing Tragen demented with self-loathing and grief would be a memory sweet beyond measure. And then Leash blinked tears away—it would never erase his own loneliness. He went to his bunk that night happy. Chuckling, he climbed into his cot, his fellow crewmates keeping well away from him.

But as he fell into his happy dream expecting relief from misery, he detected an air of disquiet—she disapproved.

The following morning was a replay of the morning before. Not a spare space anywhere along the rails, everyone wishing to examine the island, and the closer they came to it the more heavily was it inspected.

Griffin was an enormous island stretching for many leagues east and west, a reef on the south side enclosing the harbour, protected the large town behind it. The hinterland, only glimpsed at this distance, was immense, it had twin peaks, one twice as high as the other. A veritable forest of short growth trees covering the foothills of the higher of the mountains with thinner growth towards the summit; the other mountain was bare rock.

The deep valley between them was occasionally hidden by sporadic black and grey smoke with the odd flash of bright light amidst the fumes issued by the many foundries belonging to the Montetors. The mantle of pollution was hiding a rabbit warren of red dust-laden houses, the inhabitants equally as grimed.

Hopper pointed out some of the sights of the town. It sprawled over high cliffs in the west where a huge house had been built overlooking the ocean; this was the home of the harbourmaster, his manorhouse. Spreading eastwards, the town continued around and over a large promontory on which a beacon was maintained. Below the beacon the evidence for its existence was plainly seen…a frothing, foaming mass of water breaking over large rocks encroaching far into the sea.

The harbour was wide and deep, a broad looping lagoon. Many jetties protruded into the harbour from a common wharf, myriad vessels of all shapes and sizes tied up alongside. But the western end below the manorhouse was kept for their navy—warships, large and small were moored there, although there were not many.

Waterfront warehouses, most long, black and ugly stretched the length of the wharf, but as one sailor was overheard to say, iron and coke were not a pretty sight. The wharf was strong and sturdy, cargo piled neatly at intervals waiting to be loaded for export to other exotic destinations. Even more stockpiles of goods were being landed from ships, the whole dockyard one hive of activity.

To the west of Griffin Town, a couple of leagues down the coast, a fishing village plied its trade. Small fishing boats sailing to and from the jetty jutting into the small bay in front of it. Seabirds in abundance were swooping over the village pilfering the seething catches at the slightest lapse in vigilance. Gulls screeching and the occasional lonely petrel overflying the Grim added a certain magic to the exotic spectacle. A single fishing boat beating its way home, passed close to the Grim, its fishermen ceasing work to give a wave and stare open-mouthed at the huge, damaged ship.

The morning wore on and Beatrix rejoined Augusta and Aidan on the poop, she had been below to tend to Lady Cornelia. As she lowered herself to sit alongside Aidan, Anders returned from his duties in the captain’s cabin and he slumped down heavily beside her.

‘How much longer before we dock do you think, Anders?’ Augusta asked, bending forward to peer at him around Aidan and Beatrix.

‘A couple of hours that’s all, this opposing current is slowing us up a bit.’

‘Argh!’ Augusta abruptly screamed, leaping to her feet and staring at her tunic. ‘Those bloody birds have had me!’

‘Augusta, please, your cursing is getting as bad as Aidan’s,’ Beatrix chided and at the same time wrinkled her nose in disgust at the sight on her mistress’ tunic.

‘You’d swear as well if it happened to you. Stop laughing,’ she shouted at the boys as she aimed a kick at Aidan who was closest.

‘Ah well, they do say it’s lucky for a bird to crap on you,’ Aidan laughed, quickly rolling out of the way.

‘Lucky! I’ll give you lucky you come near me. Ooh…Beattie, help me clean this will you?’ Augusta implored.

‘You know what Dolly calls seagulls? No?’ Anders, receiving puzzled looks for an answer, continued. ‘He calls them airborne rats…nothing but scavenging, crapping…’

‘All right…all right, no need to give any more details, we get the picture,’ said Beatrix, stopping him in mid flow. ‘Come on, Augusta, let’s go to the cabin and clean it off.’

‘We can’t be long; I don’t want to miss anything.’

Aidan stopped giggling as the girls moved to pass him. ‘Hey, wait a minute. Clean it here…with magic!’

Augusta almost convulsed—spinning around she stared at him. Even the idea of her using magic caught at her soul. Her eyes wide and bright she stalked back to the young wizard.

‘Sh…show me,’ she stuttered losing control. ‘Please, Aidan,’ she begged.

He smiled. ‘Okay, calm down and sit down. You don’t need to close your eyes for this. You know what the fabric beneath the crap looks like.’ They all stared intently as he continued. ‘Now with your hand just above it, move it in a circular motion as if you are actually washing the filth with a cloth. That’s it.’

As Augusta moved her hand she could see the mess rolling into a small pellet—a small tight ball!

‘Now…flick it away,’ ordered Aidan.

And she did, leaving the fabric of her tunic cleaner than it was before, she had also removed the grime beneath the crap. Augusta laughed. ‘I did it…look!’ She held the cloth out towards Beatrix and Anders for their inspection. ‘Oh, I could have killed that bird.’

Aidan paled, the smile wiped from his face. ‘Don’t say things like that, Augusta. Never threaten to kill.’

Augusta looked up, startled. ‘Why on earth not?’

‘You are learning to be a wizard…wizards can kill by just wishing it.’

Augusta paled. ‘You mean I can actually kill a bird just by wishing it?’

‘More or less…but you can also kill people.’

‘By the Gods, I never realized that. Can you do it, Aidan? I mean…can you kill?’ Augusta asked, intrigued and also frightened.

‘I’ve killed in the past, yes, but only animals for food, and then just enough to eat. I’ve never killed more than necessary.’

‘And people?’ Augusta persisted, unable to hide her ghoulish nature, the macabre fascinated her.

‘Never! I could never harm another’s soul and neither should you.’

‘But surely that’s nonsense, Aidan. You have to kill your enemies, don’t you?’ Augusta asked, troubled greatly by what she was hearing. ‘My father has had to do it many times. What is wrong with that? He’s been protecting Mantovar.’

‘Augusta, when a man passes over, his soul goes on to Paradise where it rests for a while before being called to live another life. But souls as well as bodies can die! When you kill, you inflict damage on your own soul, you weaken it. And if you kill often, then your soul’s chance of an afterlife is gradually chipped away until it has not the strength to survive. It enters Oblivion then where hopefully it will die…if not a worse fate…’ and he shuddered, unable to complete his thoughts. ‘Killing people is always wrong!’

‘But what if it’s your life in danger, Aidan? I mean, what if it’s you or them. You have to kill them before they kill you, don’t you?’ Beatrix asked tensely, her arm through Anders’, clinging to him tightly. ‘Otherwise, if you give up and not fight back, surely that’s a form of suicide, isn’t it? And I’ve always been taught that suicide is wrong.’

Aidan stared at her his facial muscles twitching; his eyes had a far away, unfathomable look. ‘I haven’t worked that one out yet…I haven’t got all the answers. All I know is I cannot knowingly kill anyone.’

They were struck silent at that, their thoughts their own as they pondered on Aidan’s strange outlook on life and death.

‘Aidan, what is worse than dying in Oblivion?’ Augusta asked.

Aidan replied, fear filling his voice. ‘Many things, but enough for now, I’ll tell you some other time.’

‘But…’ Augusta was interrupted by a shout from down in the waist of the Grim.

‘Captain, can we allow the bumboat alongside, sir?’

‘Aye, aye, watch he doesn’t scrape the paintwork, Trumper,’ shouted Locklear, smiling pensively. He also had overheard Aidan and had no idea what to make of it all.

The men on the deck below laughed and jeered as they eagerly watched the boat full of local produce come alongside, the two men in the boat shouting up to those on the enormous ship offering fresh melons and limes for sale.

Anders was grateful for a distraction from the dark mood into which Aidan’s words had plunged him. He jumped up and led the two girls in a race down the ladder to the starboard side of the waist.

Aidan, bringing up the rear, followed a little slower, trying to shake off the depression, and the fear, brought on by Augusta’s last question.

As the Grim limped through the entrance in the reef and advanced into the sheltered harbour in front of Griffin Town in the middle of the very hot afternoon, the hubbub of the harbour hit them like a blow in the face. Bellowing sailors, the creak of timbers, the flapping of unfurled canvas and the bawling of orders on the dock, assaulted the ears. And above it all, they savoured the numberless other sounds and exotic, spicy smells floating across to them from the town. Excitement gripped the four friends anxious to get ashore to explore an island none of them had ever heard of before this voyage.

An ornate barge oared by six men in uniform left the quayside and, wending its way between the warships, came out to meet them. Standing in the bows was a short fat man wearing a very large brimmed, floppy hat presumably to protect his face from the sun. This, Hopper informed Locklear waiting on his quarterdeck, was the harbourmaster, Seneschal Lodovico Portolan. Standing alongside him also graven faced was a very tall man, both men wearing a very plain blue uniform.

As the harbourmaster’s barge drew alongside, the rope ladder was lowered for the party to climb aboard. On orders from Trumper, all men were told to show the utmost respect. It was anticipated that this short, fat man climbing the ladder, would inevitably result in a very comical display of seamanship.

Trumper rounded on the crew as they awaited the spectacle. ‘Woe betide any man who laughs, sniggers or even smiles at the harbourmaster. Be warned, this man is dangerous, he has the power of life and death in this port—and he exercises it ruthlessly and often.’ Trumper turned back to the rail ready to help the harbourmaster come aboard as Hopper arrived at his elbow to escort the seneschal to the quarterdeck.

Lodovico Portolan, despite his bulk, did not seem in the least bit perturbed by the rope ladder. For a man of his size and shape he exhibited a nimbleness that could have put many a sailor to shame. Climbing over the rail to the sounds of the bo’sun’s call, the saluting whistle, he straightened his long, plain blue, immaculate coat embroidered with a multi-coloured coat-of-arms – a griffin rearing on hind legs in a crown above two stylized peaks – on his left breast.

Even though he was grossly overweight he did not appear to sweat more than usual. He had a handsome, clean-shaven face though his eyes were sunk deep above dark bags giving him the appearance of a man suffering from lack of sleep. But his manner denied this as he stared around at the crew now standing at attention. He smiled thinly, he knew that he had surprised and disappointed them…robbing them of their merriment.

Following him over the rail was his companion, a giant of a man, again immaculately uniformed in blue and carrying an enormous straight sword at his waist. This man, like the seneschal, wore no jewellery; neither man gave the impression of needing any show of frippery. The crew needed no urging to remain silent—they stared at two strangers who were harder than any men they had ever seen on any waterfront.

Touching his forelock Hopper stepped forward and greeted the harbour’s tyrant. ‘Welcome aboard the Grim, Seneschal Portolan. The Master, Captain Hugo Locklear, is on the quarterdeck and awaits your pleasure.’

The seneschal stared at Hopper, coldly assessing the second in command of the ship, finding him formidable. ‘You are the first mate?’ he asked, his words carrying just a smidgeon of sweet wine fumes, he had indulged a glass of red Cornia at lunch.

‘I am, sir, if you will kindly follow me, please.’ Hopper turned and led the way aft along the waist.

The harbourmaster slowly glanced around the upper deck, noting the damage. Accompanied by his very tall companion, he strode after Hopper, not sparing a look for the four youngsters lounging at the foot of the quarterdeck steps. The tall man did though, and his look seemed to pierce their very souls. Not much passed by this man, thought Anders.

Aidan, astonished, turned to the others as the three men climbed on to the quarterdeck. ‘Bloody hell, did you see the size of that man? He must be seven foot if an inch! What do you reckon, Anders, his bodyguard?’

‘Aye, he must be. Did you notice his shoulders? They’re wider than the Bear’s! We have to watch ourselves here…this port is not a happy place, methinks.’

‘The harbourmaster reminds me a bit of the Abbot of Sentinel,’ said Augusta, chewing her index finger.

‘Does he?’ Aidan asked, surprised

‘He has the same cold, calculating look,’ she shuddered, ‘yes, most everyone I know is wary of the abbot—they all stay well away from him if they can,’ whispered Augusta as she joined the others in listening to the conversation just above their heads. ‘That big man though is a handsome devil, isn’t he Beattie?’ And at Aidan’s scowl she poked her tongue out and laughed.

‘Good afternoon, Seneschal Portolan. I am honoured and very glad to meet you,’ said Locklear cheerfully shaking the fat hand. ‘Let me introduce my friend, Lord Tragen,’ and he waved his arm in the wizard’s direction.

For a moment, there was a flicker of consternation or perhaps speculation, in the eyes of the harbourmaster. ‘A wizard…we have not seen any of your brethren in this part of the world for many a long year, Milord.’

‘No, Seneschal, and my niece and I did not expect to be here now, unfortunately the storm…’ said Tragen shrugging, he glanced at Locklear. If there were no wizards in the Griffin Islands could the torturer be a monk, perhaps on Sanctity?

‘Yes…the ship has suffered, you have a great deal of damage, Captain,’ The seneschal said, turning away from the wizard at last, making the point of not introducing the tall man standing quietly at his shoulder. ‘You have stopped in for repairs, I take it. We can supply most things usually but we are awaiting deliveries from all points. We have other ships expected, of course, some are overdue by weeks. Perhaps the same storm has delayed them…or the brigands of Onyx, of course.’

Aidan and his friends listened to every word and when Tragen mentioned his niece, Anders was shushed into silence before he could ask.

Hopper, standing to one side keeping a surreptitious eye on the tall bodyguard, was unsurprised at this mention of delays. It was the usual opening gambit in negotiations for the seneschal’s payment. The mate had already figured out what this would be. Lodovico Portolan liked wine, good wine, and there was bound to be a shortage of Qula’s excellent offering on this island, if memory served him.

Because of the island realm’s distance from the eastern continent trade was very inconsistent between them. But the smuggling of wine, brandy and tobacco from many parts of the world was a thriving industry on Griffin Island even though the penalty, if caught, was always death. The Portolans demanded their taxes be collected promptly on all imports into the south of the island. And the Montetors extracted the same revenue on trade crossing the border into the north, or by whatever was brought ashore in the small inlets dotted around the northern end of the island. The Montetors, unlike the Portolans, did not enjoy the amenities of a deep water harbour, but both clans shared the facilities of the south, for trade.

Tragen had a hoard of the grape juice from the temperate regions of Qula, a very popular and rare vintage, very expensive. The wizard’s pained expression was frank evidence of his reluctance to part with even one bottle…Hopper smiled.

‘Nevertheless, Seneschal, we can surely help you in your endeavours to assist us,’ said Locklear. A seaman arrived just then with a carafe and the best silver goblets of the very wine Hopper had in mind.

Taking a sip the seneschal’s eyes lit up. ‘Ha! Qula…Enzore region I believe. The Enzoreans are true masters of their craft,’ he smacked his lips in appreciation. ‘What I wouldn’t do for a bottle of this,’ he smiled for the first time, though the smile did not reach his eyes.

‘Oh, I’m sure we could spare more than one bottle for your table, Seneschal,’ said Hugo. Tragen wilted. The harbourmaster’s smile grew broader, and he wandered to the forward rail to assess the visible damage and to speculate on the unseen.

‘We can discuss the supplies you will require over dinner, Captain. Please be my guest ashore tonight. I will send a carriage for you and your two passengers. I hope your niece will accompany you, Lord Tragen,’ Seneschal Portolan asked glancing at the wizard. ‘It is not often that my son and I entertain. Now, I must take my leave…until later, gentlemen.’ He swallowed the remains of his wine and handed the goblet back. Nodding his head curtly to Locklear and Tragen, he left the quarterdeck followed closely by his giant of a retainer. The tall man’s eyes continually roved over the ship, not missing a thing, assessing the crew as he disembarked.

At the foot of the steps, the four friends waited silently until they heard the bo’sun’s call and saw the harbourmaster step over the rail and descend, just as nimbly, to the awaiting barge. And then they made a mad scramble up onto the quarterdeck, Aidan anxious to tackle Tragen about his ‘niece’.

Say nothing, yet…wait,’ Tragen mindmelded, anticipating the questions. ‘Join us in the captain’s cabin, we have plans to make.

‘Hugo, let us indulge ourselves with what little of my wine remains. If you wouldn’t mind I need a word in your cabin.’ Hugo glanced quickly at the departing barge and, followed by the youngsters, he and Tragen went below.

Hopper strode to the starboard rail and watched the harbourmaster heading for the wharf. His son’s health must have improved, he thought; it was unusual for the seneschal to receive guests with his son present. At least, years ago it would have been strange. Circumstances must have changed over the last twelve years, how old had the boy been then…three, perhaps four years old? Hopper recalled the stories of the poor mother’s death, dying in that manner and nearly taking her son with her, perhaps she should have, it would have been a blessing. A bad business, mused Hopper—tragic. Had the boy recovered? Hopper paced the boards and stared at the very busy wharf across a narrowing gap of water. There were a large number of the dockworkers staring up at the Grim, none of them ever having seen a five-masted ship let alone one that had sustained such severe damage and still made port. The captain had proved all the doubters wrong…this ship could sail in any weather, but there again Hugo Locklear was an exceptional seaman.

Tragen, greatly disturbed, silently studied Aidan and his friends. The wizard sat in the chair to one side of Hugo’s desk, Hugo in his usual chair behind with his back to the stern gallery. The four youngsters, having found available perches around the largest cabin on board, made the room appear overcrowded. Anders took it upon himself to open wider the windows in the stern gallery. Fresh air, even if it was imbued with the slight smell of brimstone drifting on the breeze, made their meeting place far more amenable.

Tragen stared deep into his wine goblet for a moment before saying anything. ‘Lady Cornelia will now masquerade as my niece whilst we are here. We could not possibly keep her hidden from the seneschal…too many people know there is a woman of importance in that cabin, and when the dockworkers come aboard to facilitate repairs, the harbourmaster will wonder…’

‘Aye, Tragen,’ replied Hugo, ‘but the crew believe it is their princess. How do you propose to get around that?’

‘They must be exhorted to remain silent where she is concerned…they must not speak of her to anyone!’

‘I do not trust that Leash,’ Beatrix said.

‘Why not?’ Tragen asked.

‘He always seems to be hanging around us,’ and she hunched her shoulders, ‘he watches us, especially Aidan,’ she finished lamely, not quite sure of her feelings.

‘He’s a very good helmsman, Tragen,’ said Hugo, dismissing her opinion.

‘Nevertheless, Beatrix has already proved she has remarkable mental insight. We shall all keep an eye on him, Beatrix,’ Tragen assured her, he believing in women’s intuition even if Locklear did not. ‘Now the arrangements for this evening…we will be expected to have our own servant accompany us, Hugo. You agree, Augusta?’

‘Yes, of course, we must stand behind you whilst you are seated at dinner and see to your needs.’ She perked up a little at the thought of going ashore and acting as companion to her lady-in-waiting, overhearing the talk at the table.

‘We dare not allow Augusta to act as maid to Lady Cornelia, Tragen. However hard she’ll try she will never pass it off for a whole evening, the Portolan’s servants will soon discover she is an impostor.’ Hugo stated flatly.

‘He is right, Highness,’ forestalling Augusta’s objection. ‘Think about it for a moment. If one of their servants says anything to disparage Lady Cornelia, or a little scullery maid speaks to you in a manner that you think is inappropriate, you will not be able to stop yourself. You will react in a way that will ensure they realize you are no ordinary maid. And that we cannot have. We cannot risk this harbourmaster and his family discovering your identity. No, you must stay here and Beatrix will go as my niece’s body servant. Anders will accompany his master and also double up as my servant…’

Aidan spoke up indignantly. ‘I’m your servant, I should accompany you!’

‘You are not a servant—you are my apprentice. When it comes to performing a servant’s duties at table you will encounter the same problems as Augusta and not be able to hide your magical abilities. We are all agreed that we should also keep you hidden as well.

‘Seneschal Portolan is a very shrewd man and for some reason desires the company of a wizard at dinner. It is not normal for a man in his position to ask an unknown sea captain to partake of his hospitality. He believes himself, rightly or wrongly, to be above such people. But he could not invite me and my niece alone. He would be insulting Hugo needlessly and he hopes to make a lot of money out of repairing this ship.

‘The seneschal needs me for some unknown purpose and until I know what that is, I do not want him to know there is a second wizard on board—or even a third,’ he glanced at Augusta. ‘Besides, I need you to remain here with Augusta. Under no circumstances is she to be left alone in these waters. There have never been any formal diplomatic ties between Griffin and Mantovar, therefore I do not have any idea how the seneschal will react if he knows the heir to Mantovar is in his country. Any problems and both of you can mindmeld with me; the distance should not be too great. You understand, my boy?’

‘Aye, I suppose,’ Aidan said, deflated, his disappointment obvious. ‘But you take care, there is something else happening here I don’t understand.’

‘What is that?’

‘I’m not certain, but it’s something to do with the storm…I need to think on it. But his manservant, the giant, he is not what he seems, either.’

Tragen disturbed at Aidan’s words reached over and ruffled his hair forgetting for a moment that Aidan’s contemporaries were watching. ‘If you need to discuss the matter of the storm come to me immediately. As for the giant, I marked him well, my boy, and I agree. Hopper has already informed us that the man is the commander of the seneschal’s militia. He will need careful watching. I must go now and inform my niece to ready herself. I expect she’ll be very happy to get out of her prison for a few hours.’

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/family-jokes

After picking her son up from school one day, the mother asks him what he did at school. The kid replies, “I had sex with my teacher.” She gets so mad that when they get home, she orders him to go straight to his room. When the father returns home that evening, the mother angrily tells him the news of what their son had done. As the father hears the news, a huge grin spreads across his face. He walks to his son’s room and asks him what happened at school, the son tells him, “I had sex with my teacher.” The father tells the boy that he is so proud of him, and he is going to reward him with the bike he has been asking for. On the way to the store, the dad asks his son if he would like to ride his new bike home. His son responds, “No thanks Dad, my butt still hurts.”

Have a nice day!

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/relationship-jokes

A child asked his father, “How were people born?” So his father said, “Adam and Eve made babies, then their babies became adults and made babies, and so on.” The child then went to his mother, asked her the same question and she told him, “We were monkeys then we evolved to become like we are now.” The child ran back to his father and said, “You lied to me!” His father replied, “No, your mom was talking about her side of the family.”

 

 

A medieval church (St Fagans Castle)

A medieval church
(St Fagans Castle)

Fifteen

 

Aidan was sitting in a chair in Locklear’s cabin his head in his hands nursing a pounding headache, when Beatrix and Augusta arrived. He had breakfasted a little on his usual burgoo and Dolly had sent up some of his sweet biscuits because he had heard of the boy’s trauma. But Aidan couldn’t hide the ravages of the night, he still looked haggard and worn out.

            ‘What now, can’t they leave him be for five minutes?’ Anders asked angrily when Beatrix told Aidan he was wanted. ‘He needs time to get over this,’ and then he realized who was speaking. ‘I’m sorry, Bea, it’s been a long night.’ Aidan was not the only one suffering from lack of sleep. Anders had hardly closed his eyes whilst keeping vigil.idan was sitting in a chair in Locklear’s cabin his head in his hands nursing a pounding headache, when Beatrix and Augusta arrived. He had breakfasted a little on his usual burgoo and Dolly had sent up some of his sweet biscuits because he had heard of the boy’s trauma. But Aidan couldn’t hide the ravages of the night, he still looked haggard and worn out.

‘It’s all right, Anders, I’m fine now. I could do with a breath of fresh air and so could you, come on,’ and Aidan, rising slowly to his feet, pulled Anders along with him.

‘What does he want?’ Aidan asked.

‘I’d rather he told you!’ Beatrix replied smiling nervously.

Augusta said nothing and commenced chewing her lower lip to bits.

Tragen studied his apprentice’s face for the first few moments of him arriving on the quarterdeck and, although worried by what he saw, smiled his welcome.

‘You have recovered a little, I see,’ Tragen said, unable to keep the lie and the concern from his voice.

‘He has not rested enough, Milord,’ Anders interrupted, still angry.

‘Enough, Anders, please? I’m all right; I can’t stay in bed all day.’ Aidan playfully punched Anders’ shoulder and turned to Tragen. ‘What’s up?’

Tragen nervously tugged at his beard. Aidan loved calling on the animals of this world, he found it exciting. And, of course, quite often it was—but not in the way that either of them expected.

‘Um…Aidan…I need to send a message to the prince, with some immediacy now. We have to apprise him of our situation and ask for his aid.’ Tragen swallowed and paused for a moment with fingers crossed beneath the cuffs of his sleeves. ‘We need a bird. What do you think?’

‘Ah,’ Aidan, his headache instantly disappearing, gazed wide-eyed at his master. ‘What sort of bird?’

‘Obviously one that can fly a long way, it’s no good calling a bird that’s going to fall into the ocean halfway home!’ said Tragen, visibly agitated.

‘A seabird then,’ Aidan did state the obvious sometimes. He looked around the horizon with his hands on his hips, ignoring his master’s sarcasm. ‘This is going to take some calling, there’s absolutely nothing in sight. Still…something is bound to turn up.’

‘Aidan, please be careful. We do not need any unwanted creatures appearing.’

‘Master, you’re always the same…have faith in me,’ Aidan admonished. ‘Don’t forget you taught me this, you’ll only have yourself to blame if things go wrong.’

‘I know, I know…may the Gods give me strength,’ and the wizard stepped quickly to the rear to shelter beneath the overhanging poop deck. Locklear followed hurriedly seeing the strangled look on Tragen’s face.

‘Talbot secure the helm and get back here with me,’ ordered Locklear, he didn’t want his chief helmsman hurt. And as Talbot complied, Anders thinking the same as his master, grabbed Beatrix. They both followed until all except Augusta were in comparative safety behind the apprentice.

Augusta remained with Aidan at the front of the quarterdeck. She couldn’t understand why everyone was showing so little trust and was determined to show her loyalty by not leaving his side.

Aidan hadn’t taken a blind bit of notice of anyone moving away and he continued to stare around the empty ocean. ‘We must have a bird that lives off the open sea, not one of the coastal birds. How about a gannet, Master…they’re big and strong?’

‘Whatever you say, Aidan,’ Tragen said, now crossing his toes in his sandals.

Aidan smiled at Augusta as he raised his arms, his fingers spread wide. He closed his eyes and then emitted an ear splitting screech. Augusta jumped in surprise, and closing her eyes in pain, clapped her hands to her ears as did everyone else in earshot. Aidan continued to screech, his voice seeming to stretch over the horizon so powerful was the tone. And then when they all thought they could bear the noise no longer he ceased.

Aidan opened his eyes and stared forward searching the skies ahead and to either side. ‘Damn, nothing yet. I’ll give it a couple of minutes and then try again.’

But a couple of moments later he frowned. ‘That’s strange; it’s gone a bit dark hasn’t it?’ They all opened their eyes to see what he was talking about and stared forward, a shadow seemed to be hanging over the quarterdeck.

Augusta, standing in front of Aidan, and facing him when he started his call, opened her eyes and glanced over his shoulder towards the stern. She immediately fumbled for Aidan’s arm as her body spasmed, her eyes popped in her head and her mouth fell open. The others hiding beneath the poop stared at her, completely baffled by the look of utter panic on her face.

‘Ow, Augusta, you’re hurting me, stop squeezing,’ Aidan said, and then he noticed her face. ‘Hey, what’s wrong…why are you staring like that?’

Because she sees me, human.’

‘What the hell! Who’s mindmelding?’ Aidan said swinging around looking at everyone behind him still hiding beneath the poop deck.

‘What do you mean? Nobody’s mindmelding,’ said Tragen. Seriously worried now, he knew that the expected contrariness of Aidan’s spell-casting had occurred again. Something had gone awry with the calling.

I am not mindmelding, human…only you can hear me.’

‘What the…’ Aidan looked around frantic. Where was the source of this voice, it was near he knew—he could feel it, like something breathing heavily on his neck, he shivered. He looked at the girl beside him. ‘Augusta, do you know…’ and he stopped.

Augusta was standing as rigid as a pole, not moving at all, mouth open, eyes still popping wide and staring—upwards.

‘Augusta what’s the matter, what can you see?’ He turned and followed her gaze…and the breath on his neck was explained. He was utterly lost for words.

I repeat…she sees me, human.’

Resting on the poop deck, directly above the heads of the people sheltering beneath, was the biggest bird he had ever seen in his life. Its body was a lot longer than two tall men and it was extremely fat. It had brilliantly white plumage and appeared to have very long wings folded tight to its body. With black patches at the end of its wings and tail, flesh coloured legs and feet, and smallish black eyes it stared unblinkingly straight at him over a long, hooked, pink beak.

‘Oh boy…oh boy…oh boy,’ Aidan said astounded, returning the bird’s gaze.

Is that all you can say, human?’

‘What is it Aidan?’ Anders asked, venturing forth gingerly to look up on to the poop. It took a few seconds for it to sink in what he was seeing. ‘By the Gods, it can’t be…it’s something out of a story!’

Tell him I am no story,’ ordered the bird.

‘He said to tell you he’s no story, Anders,’ said Aidan, his voice returning accompanied by a look of pure rapture.

Anders looked at his friend bewildered. ‘What do you mean he said…can you speak with him?’

‘Aye, I hear him,’ and he beckoned everyone from the rear of the quarterdeck. ‘Come and have a look,’ he cried, ecstatic he bounced up and down on his toes.

Tragen, Locklear and Talbot looked up and found their faces almost at a level with the bird’s massive webbed feet. Beatrix ran to Augusta just recovering her senses.

‘What is it?’ Augusta asked.

‘It’s a Great Albatross,’ replied Anders, awestruck at the sight.

Tell him I am no Great Albatross, human…I am a Giant Albatross…a Wandering Albatross. There are not many of us left,’ the bird added.

‘Anders, he says he is a giant wandering albatross…’

No human, I am not a giant wandering albatross…I am a Wandering Albatross of the Giant Albatross family! Oh, never mind! Just tell me why you called me,’ he was getting ratty.

‘I’m sorry, albatross; I thought I was calling a gannet to carry a message home.’ All on the quarterdeck were watching and, although listening to a one-sided conversation, somehow still managed to follow what was being said.

Tragen interrupted as Aidan finished speaking. ‘Ask it if it will carry the message, Aidan.’

It…it! Who is that old human calling “it”? Tell him I am male, human, or he’ll feel my beak,’ said the albatross.

Aidan laughed. ‘Ooh, Master, don’t call him an “it”, he is a male bird, and a very angry male bird.’

Tragen looked from Aidan to the albatross. He was now completely mesmerized at the turn events had taken. ‘All right, Aidan. Master Albatross I humbly apologize.’ He bowed low to the bird whilst his companions looked on amazed.

The albatross grunted. ‘Where is the destination of this message?’

‘We wish you to take it to Mantovar, to the prince, if you wouldn’t mind,’ said Aidan.

And what do I get in return?’ The albatross asked staring into the apprentice’s eyes.

Aidan, puzzled, squinted against the sun. ‘What do you get in return…what is it you want?’

I want a voice,’ the albatross stated without any hesitation. ‘You have the power to give me the ability to speak, I see it in you.’

Aidan was struck dumb again and his mouth fell open.

‘What does he want, Aidan?’ Tragen asked staring at him. ‘Tell me.’

Aidan turned to his master, ecstasy alight in his eyes. ‘Watch this all of you,’ he said, peering around to include everyone. ‘Captain, lift me on to the poop I have to touch our new friend.’ Locklear gasped. ‘It’s all right, he won’t hurt me.’ Locklear bent down and Aidan stepped into his hands to be hoisted and deposited at the feet of the giant albatross.

Standing so close Aidan could smell the sea in the albatross’ newly preened feathers, almost taste the fish on the bird’s breath, and admire the razor-edged beak that was lowered to a level with his mouth. The Giant Albatross of the Wandering Albatross family bent its head to get a closer look at Aidan. They stared intently into each other’s eyes. Unlike most animals this bird did not treat a direct stare as offensive—at least, not from Aidan.

As the apprentice stepped closer to touch the bird, the albatross warned. ‘Mind my feet they are not made to be stood on.’

‘Okay, Master Albatross, let’s see what I can do,’ and Aidan placed both his hands around the throat of the giant bird, his fingers stretching to encompass the short temples either side of the bird’s head. Aidan smiled into the small black eyes of the albatross towering over him. Six sets of eyes stared up from below, Beatrix emitting a nervous whimper in the strained silence.

They seemed to stand still forever, the black eyes of the bird gazing into the brown eyes of the boy, its long neck in the boy’s hands. Aidan returning the stare and grinning wide as he sang a very weird sounding chant. Augusta described it later as a sort of sea-weedy, plopping noise. A tremor worked its way through the bird from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail via the curled up webbed toes. And all of a sudden a small lump sprouted in the neck between Aidan’s hands—a prominent Adam’s apple had formed. The albatross opened its beak and yawning wide he nearly knocked Aidan on the head.

‘Thank you,’ he said loud and clear.

His words reached those in the waist, the deck now full of the crew, all of them drawn to this phenomenal bird. A talking bird! No-one would ever believe them back home.

Aidan jumped into the air shaking his arm, giving a loud cheer—and promptly came back to earth landing on the bird’s foot. The bird screamed, his feathers sticking up all over as if they’d been combed the wrong way. He opened his wings and flew straight up, the backdraft knocking Aidan to the deck. He circled once, bringing his webbed foot up close to his underbelly, his toes curling in pain.

‘Ah! You stupid bloody boy…agh…my foot!’ And the bird promptly landed in the ocean alongside the ship and waggled his bruised limb in the water. ‘Ooh, that’s better,’ the bird sighed, closing his eyes, his feathers settling once again.

To say that all who watched were stunned was an understatement. Everyone watched the albatross floating on the sea, its vast wingspan, at least forty feet of it, spread wide and resting on the surface of the ocean.

Aidan was the first to recover. Rising from the deck he rushed to the side of the ship. ‘I’m sorry, honest, it was an accident.’ The bird ignored him as it busily soothed its aching toes.

The others ran to the rail and peered over at the giant bird, their senses in turmoil. ‘Aidan, that bird swore exactly as you do,’ said Augusta, looking up at him. ‘Why does he curse like you?’

‘Because he gave me my voice, little girl,’ said the bird.

‘Who are you calling a little girl, you…’ shouted Augusta taking umbrage, she hated being called little.

‘All right, don’t you dare start arguing, he’s only just learned to speak,’ said Beatrix. ‘Have you a name, Master Albatross?’ She asked formally, the only way she could think of to talk to a bird.

‘I have,’ the albatross replied, ‘but your tongue could never say it. You will have to give me a human name,’ his voice uncannily similar to Aidan’s.

At that chaos reigned all over the ship. Locklear, uncharacteristically allowing excitement to have the upper hand, shouted names at Talbot. Talbot shouted names at Anders, the girls shouted names to everyone, the crew shouting enough to drown out everyone’s suggestions. Tragen, stared at his boy, they were the only quiet ones in amongst the furore.

‘Well, Aidan, you’ve excelled yourself this time, haven’t you?’ He smiled as he helped Aidan down from the poop.

‘He’s lovely, Master, just look at him!’ Aidan was enraptured. ‘He can fly anywhere, and he’s strong enough to fly for weeks.’

‘Yes, but will he carry our message to the prince?’

‘Of course he will. I’ve given him what he’s always wanted. He can speak! Oh yes, he’ll do anything we want.’

‘As long as you don’t stand on my toes again, little wizard,’ shouted the albatross. His hearing was very acute, even managing to hear their conversation above all the hubbub, which he found very strange, for an albatross his hearing had always been poor. ‘Now give me a name…you all have one, I want one.’

The commotion died on the quarterdeck and five faces looked at the two wizards expectantly. There was still bedlam in the waist as the crew, taking heed of the bird’s request, again volunteered names, unfortunately some were rather indecent and those men received a look of utter contempt from the albatross.

‘Why not let the ladies name him, Aidan?’ Tragen suggested.

‘Yeah, well…okay. Augusta you saw him first, got any ideas?’

Augusta stared at the albatross. ‘You are truly a magnificent albatross,’ she told him as she curtsied.

‘Thank you, I agree, there has never been another like me,’ he paused, his expression sad. ‘I dwarf all other albatrosses.’

‘Then you must have a name that suits your stature in the avian world. Give me a moment, please.’ Augusta studied the bird as she sucked her finger in the corner of her mouth. He seemed very depressed at his size, perhaps he was bullied for being so big, she thought. Well she wouldn’t name him anything to do with being a giant. He’d said there were not many of his kind, could she use that? No, she decided—he was the first albatross able to speak; he was then definitely a first amongst his kind.

‘I have it…Ryn! You will be known as Ryn, which means leader.’

‘I accept…now tell me yours,’ ordered Ryn

Augusta glanced quickly at Aidan and Tragen and said. ‘I am called Nellie.’

‘That is not your true name, but if that is what you wish me to call you then I will.’ Ryn gazed at her.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Augusta hurriedly.

‘Well little wizard, I know your true name is Aidan, tell me of this message.’ Ryn chose to ignore her.

‘My master, Lord Tragen, can tell you more,’ and Aidan indicated the wizard.

‘I have written it on parchment, Ryn,’ and he showed the bird the smallish roll in his hand. ‘Can I attach it to you in any way?’

‘You may hang it around my neck, Lord Tragen, and then Aidan can show me my destination.’

‘Show you, how?’ Tragen asked puzzled, descending the ladder into the waist so that he could reach the bird.

‘I can enter Aidan’s mind, so he must picture my route that I may see it through his eyes,’ answered Ryn, swimming closer to the ship to accept Tragen’s missive.

The wizard having made a large loop in the twine tied around the parchment, bent over the rail and dropped the loop over the beak and head so that it slipped down the stretched neck of the bird. When it had settled comfortably against his chest, Ryn ruffled his feathers quickly and the missive disappeared, hidden among the pure white down, he then swam a little farther out from the boat so that he could see Aidan up on the quarterdeck.

‘Are you ready, Ryn,’ asked Aidan, and at the bird’s nod, Aidan closed his eyes and visualized the stars in the sky above Mantovar, the river into Mantovar and the route upriver to the castle.

‘I have it, little wizard, now picture the prince,’ he ordered.

Aidan searched for his princess. ‘Mindmeld with me Augusta, you have a clearer image of your father than I do,’ and he held her hand to maximize contact.

So that’s her real name, why don’t you use it?

That is a long and secret story…too long for now,’ Aidan replied

Very well, I like hearing secrets, tell me when I return.’

You are coming back then?’ Augusta asked.

Yes, but how come you understand me when I am in Aidan’s mind?’ Ryn was puzzled, something more had happened than being given a voice—there were side-effects of the boy’s magic that he couldn’t figure out.

When we mindmeld Aidan and I become one mind…because you are in his, so you are in mine,’ answered Augusta.

‘I go now—I am confused,’ said the Wandering Albatross of the Giant Albatross family as he flexed his wings causing an enormous ripple on the surface of the water. ‘I will see you again in a few weeks.’

And before anyone could say goodbye, he gave two flaps of his enormous wings to gain height and he was airborne, his wings locked in place to enable him to ride the thermals with no strain on his body and soon he was soaring above the three remaining masts and flying northeast.

 

That evening the ship continued to cruise south-westwards in ideal weather conditions, and Augusta commenced her lessons in serious magic. Both she and Aidan were sitting on the poop deck facing aft, their backs resting against the after-jigger. Augusta, her full attention directed on Aidan, listened eagerly as he went through the rudiments of the art.

‘Remember, magic is formed of the mind, along with chanting and hand movements. Sometimes all three are required, on occasion maybe just one or two…depending on the type of spell, the difficulty in creating the spell and the strength of the spell-caster,’ he instructed as they sat side by side cross-legged. ‘The more powerful you are at conjuring dictates how much energy you use—the stronger you are the better. Don’t forget, the more complex the spell is, the greater the energy needed and the more tired you’ll become at the end of it. You understand?’

‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘but you said magic is of the mind, yet I’ve overheard Tragen say that your magic comes from healing…why is mine different to yours?’

‘I don’t know…can you heal?’ Aidan asked.

‘Don’t be silly, you know I can’t.’

‘Right, then we’ll assume your magic is the same as everyone else’s—based on the mind. Shall we continue or are you going to keep interrupting?’

‘One more thing,’ she said nudging him with her elbow, ‘you said that spell-casting burnt up energy, yet you didn’t rest much after creating the spell for drinking-water yesterday, did you? And you seemed a long time creating that one.’

‘A lot of that was theatricals it just seemed longer than it actually was. But I am used to magic and can control my energy usage…besides it was a simple spell. Hopefully by the end of today you’ll be able to conjure water from the air. Wait,’ he said as she went to interrupt, ‘not yet, at the end of the day, I said. Okay, ready?’ She nodded excitedly and he continued. ‘Right, look around you at the sea…and I mean look at all the parts of it.’ As she did, Aidan studied her face checking her concentration and suddenly realized that she was a very pretty girl and not half as horrible as she used to be—in fact he liked her a lot. She turned her head to him and caught him staring.

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing,’ and he looked away embarrassed. And then his heart turned over, he’d have to watch his thoughts, if she mindmelded at an inappropriate moment…’ ‘Close your eyes…now, show me the ocean,’ he mindmelded.

And returning his mindmeld, she showed him her interpretation of the sea.

A bit blurry isn’t it?’

Well, I suppose it is, a bit.’

Okay, open your eyes. You must visualize to the best of all your senses, not just sight but smell, taste, touch and sound. Look at the ocean again,’ Aidan said, ‘and describe it to me.’ The lesson continued in this manner for an hour or more, he describing the meaning of each movement that she made.

‘Stand up and stretch your arms out in front of you. Good,’ he said as Augusta complied, and he rose with her to stand shoulder to shoulder. ‘Now spread your fingers wide, and wiggle them.’

‘Like this?’ And she waved her hands around at the same time.

‘No…careful, you must always think of what you’re going to do before you do it!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well,’ he wondered if she’d remember, ‘I once made a girl’s nose bleed accidentally. She’d upset me and I stuck my finger up to her while I was thinking nasty thoughts. Her nose bled off and on for days…so I heard later.’

‘Ooh, that happened to me once, years ago. I remember going out in the carriage with my father and…it was you! You made my nose bleed…with magic?’

‘I’m sorry, it really was an accident and I’ve never done anything like it since,’ he stared into her eyes as green as the ocean, he liked her eyes. ‘Do you forgive me?’

‘Tell me first how I upset you.’

‘Well…it was my first day in the castle,’ he said remembering the occasion vividly. ‘You were so…so magnificent in that carriage, so beautiful, so much like a dream. I’d never seen anything like you in my life. My mother used to tell me stories of beautiful princesses and their caring, wonderful ways. You captivated me. I’d have done anything just for you to notice me,’ he smiled ruefully. ‘And then when you did, what did you do? You stuck your tongue out at me and shattered the dream. You were still beautiful but…well you still are, but back then I thought you were horrible.’

She returned his stare; he’d called her beautiful and meant it. She felt herself sinking into his eyes and then as the ship lurched slightly, enough to break eye contact, it brought them both back from they knew not where.

‘You mean you can hurt as well as heal?’

‘Aye, but do you forgive me?’ For some reason her answer was very important.

‘Of course I do, but you must also forgive me. I was a thoughtless, spoilt brat then.’

He laughed the relief palpable. ‘I thought you still were.’

‘Aidan!’ And she nudged him even harder as they both laughed. ‘Let’s get back to the magic, okay?’

‘All right, this time I want you to visualize the ocean as a whole, sway your arms to copy the motion of the swell and remember, keep in mind these sensations when your eyes are closed. Now, recall the vibrations of the ocean, not only in your arms but also in your whole body and in your mind. When you are satisfied that you can call up these feelings again, I want you to close your eyes. This time, you will see the ocean as it is not as you think it is. Okay?’

She nodded, her total being absorbed in the task. And then she closed her eyes and Aidan entered her mind to share her enlightened perception. And he was pleased at what he found.

Very good, Augusta,’ he mindmelded, ‘now keep these feelings. Whoa, slow down keep the pace. If you move faster than the present speed of the ocean, then you will cause the sea to move faster, and we’ve had enough of storms to last a lifetime. Now look towards the horizon ahead of you. Do you have the same impressions of the ocean there as here?’

Yes, I have never seen the horizon so clear before.’

In magic most things become clearer. Now you are going to look over the horizon.’

She did not hesitate. She was now facing aft with her arms outstretched waving in front of her and her wrists, hands and fingers making intricate movements in the air. Augusta found it fascinating and felt she was soaring in the skies much as the albatross this afternoon. And thinking of Ryn her mind found him, flying high and straight, his huge wings spread wide and, unlike other birds, his wings not flapping as he rode the air currents. He flew directly away from her.

Do you see him?’ She asked, awestruck.

Aye, practise and you’ll be able to follow him for longer. Now leave him and turn your head. I want you to look around.’

First, she looked to her right and saw nothing but the ocean, she turned and looked left and espied a small squall far off. Then turning her whole body and staring forward of the bows she found a small island.

Aidan!’

I know, keep looking,’ and Aidan cast around for Tragen. ‘Master, can you see the island Augusta has found?

Yes, come away both of you. I’ll be with you shortly…I’ll bring the captain.’

 

Aidan and Augusta waited, Augusta ecstatic that her first real foray into magic had been so successful. She was so happy in fact that sitting alongside him she put her arm through his and held it tight until Tragen called them down onto the quarterdeck.

‘How far away is the island? I estimate a day. Do you agree?’

‘Probably…at the earliest we’ll reach it at lunchtime tomorrow, but we’ll see it well before then, possibly not long after sunrise.’

‘Can you see any details of the place, Tragen?’ Hugo asked.

‘None yet, my friend, we are too far away.’ Turning to Augusta, he added, his satisfaction evident. ‘Well done, Highness,’ and he smiled, ‘the more you practise, the more you will see. We will now leave it until the morning when I hope we will discover more. I want you to stay away from the island until then, we do not wish to alert anyone, unknowingly.’

 

At dawn the following morning, Aidan and his friends arrived on deck to find most of the crew already taking advantage of every observation point, some even straddling the bowsprit. All were facing forward, peering ahead of the bows. Arranging themselves comfortably on the poop deck and sitting with their feet swinging over the forward edge, they found that Tragen and Locklear were standing directly below and just forward of them.

On the horizon ahead was a vertical column of high white cloud in the otherwise clear blue sky. Anders explained that this cloud hovered over a land mass in the midst of the ocean. He added that before long they could expect turbulence in the sea in front of the island as they approached it.

‘What do you think we’ll find there?’ Augusta asked.

‘Nothing much, I fear. It’s not a very large island. It’s probably home to turtles and small rodents, probably terns and gulls are nesting there.’

Just before noon seagulls were flying overhead and details of the island, now only ten or twelve leagues away, were discernible below the hanging cloud. Mid-afternoon saw them in the midst of the turbulence. The ship’s heading was changed to sail south of the island.

‘Well there’s nothing much there wizard, unless you fancy turtle for dinner,’ said Locklear.

‘I have never acquired a taste for that particular mammal, but their eggs are something else,’ Tragen salivated at the thought.

Locklear laughed. ‘We cannot waste this light by tarrying here, my friend. We must wait and see what our new acquaintances will offer us.’

‘If we are welcome,’ said Tragen.

As the island passed on the starboard side, they could see it more clearly. It appeared to be a low hump in the middle of the ocean, a small hill bearing low scrub, prickly pears and the occasional short, sunflower trees. Turtles were slowly plodding across the small white beach, gulls and smaller birds screeching above them.

Rounding the island a vast panorama of other islands appeared, all as smudges on the horizon except for one. Closer to the Grim a huge land mass stretching for leagues across the bows of the ship, grew out of the sea about a day’s sailing away.

‘Hopper,’ shouted the captain across the quarterdeck ‘is that Sanctity?’

‘No, that is Griffin, sir; Sanctity is many leagues farther west again.’

Aidan turned and searched for sign of Sanctity and found instead a darkening of the sea in that direction. ‘What is that on the water, Captain?’

‘I don’t know; have you any idea, Hopper?’

‘I can’t make it out, sir.’

‘How about you, Tragen,’ Locklear asked.

Tragen peered west for what seemed ages. ‘It’s all right; it’s just a large patch of seaweed floating on the surface…wait a minute! That’s strange…it’s just disappeared.’

‘It’s just dropped below the surface, Milord,’ interrupted Anders squinting through narrowed eyes.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Locklear.

‘What I said…it’s still there only you can’t see it.’

‘How can you see it, then,’ Hopper asked, mystified.

‘I’ve always been able to see things that others can’t.’

‘Well, never mind. Are the militia on Griffin likely to bother us, Hopper?’ Locklear asked.

‘I don’t believe so, but perhaps I should explain a bit more about the enmity between the two clans. The Montetors and the Portolans have been at loggerheads for years and I believe we should do all in our power to avoid their quarrel, we don’t want them turning on us,’ replied Hopper staring at the vast island. ‘We’ll need to be constantly aware of the ill-feeling between them, it erupts into violence quite often, or it did when I was here years ago.’

‘Their quarrel, Hopper…can you tell us the reason for it?’ Tragen asked beckoning both the captain and mate to the relative privacy beneath the poop. Unfortunately, this area happened to be directly beneath the four friends now hanging over the edge listening intently.

‘Not the reason, no, but both clans have an arrangement of sorts. Open warfare had not yet been declared then as both sides knew that neither could survive without the other. I have heard rumours of the islands over these last years and nothing seems to have changed. The dispute manifests itself in a series of tit-for-tat incidents.’

‘How do you mean?’ Locklear asked.

‘Well,’ Hopper continued, ‘a particularly nasty incident occurred when I was here. A Montetor drove a wagon of iron ore over the legs of a Portolan dockworker who was calculating the weight of the ore deposited in a ship’s hold. The following day that Montetor driver fell into the harbour off the pier and was crushed between the ship and the wharf.’

‘Of course, both clans insisted that both events were accidents. But I was told later that the dockworker had molested the daughter of the ironworker,’ Hopper took a breather.

‘Then justice was served,’ added the captain.

‘Not quite,’ said Hopper grimacing. ‘The ironworker is reputed to have assaulted the wife of the dockworker a few months previously. And so it goes on, and has done for what must be fifteen or twenty years now. I was here about ten or twelve years ago, and the feud had been running a few years then.’

Hopper paused and stared at his companions. ‘The death of the crushed ironworker was blamed on an itinerant drunken beggar fast asleep some way along the pier. He awoke as the Montetor man screamed and he crawled over to the edge of the wharf to search out the noise. The Portolans found him looking, accused him of attempting to rob the ironworker, and strung him up on the jetty before he could be questioned by anyone else. There is a permanent gibbet on the wharf which serves as a reminder to all. The Portolans are the law on the docks as the Montetors are the law in the hills.’

‘So we have to make certain we are never present at any unpleasantness between these people,’ stated Tragen. ‘Hugo, no-one must be allowed to wander alone on this island.’

‘I agree,’ replied the captain. ‘You eavesdroppers above…do you understand?’

Anders jumped in surprise. ‘Aye, aye sir!’

‘But, Captain, why are we stopping here, the mate has already said there are no suitable trees to supply a new mast?’ Augusta asked, prodding Anders in the side to move him over. Her elbow was becoming a lethal weapon.

‘Highness, we need a variety of other things, metal fastenings, candles, ropes, canvas, food and many other supplies, including fresh drinking water. I do not wish to be drenched again by wizards’ apprentices.’

Locklear moved off smiling to himself, he was getting used to seeing these four young people together—it was as if they were meant to be.

 

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/relationship-jokes

After Brian proposed to Jill, his father took him to one side. “Son, when I first got married to your mother, the first thing I did when we got home was take off my pants. I gave them to your mother and told her to try them on, which she did. They were huge on her and she said that she couldn’t wear them because they were too large. I said to her, ‘Of course they are too big for you, I wear the pants in this family and I always will.’ Ever since that day, son, we have never had a single problem.” Brian took his dad’s advice and did the same thing to his wife on his wedding night. Then, Jill took off her panties and gave them to Brian. “Try these on,” she said. Brian went along with it and tried them on, but they were far too small. “What’s the point of this? I can’t get into your panties,” said Brian. “Exactly,” Jill replied, “and if you don’t change your attitude, you never will!”

 

 

Have a nice day!

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/political-jokes

Politicians and diapers have one thing in common: they should both be changed regularly… and for the same reason.

 

 

A grisly murder happens here in my fourth book (Blacksmith's shop St Fagans Castle)

A grisly murder happens here in my fourth book
(Blacksmith’s shop St Fagans Castle)

Fourteen

 

Later that same afternoon Trumper and his team commenced work on jury-rigging the mainmast. From a jumble of spars and ropes piled alongside it, a somewhat narrower and flimsier upright was lashed to the stump of the mainmast.

At the same time, Augusta found herself up to her armpits in suds, scrubbing in a large tub, the clothes of herself, Beatrix and Lady Cornelia—a very new experience for her. Grumbling continually she kept an eye on Beatrix kneeling alongside her who was also washing clothes…for those of the boys, the captain and Tragen. As Anders and Aidan had explained, the blisters on their hands inflicted by gutting the fish the day before, at Augusta’s insistence they reminded her, had still not healed.

They stood to one side at the rail keeping the girls company, occasionally giving uncalled for advice when Augusta got in a knot. At one point Augusta and Beatrix, losing their temper, had ordered the boys to clear off but Aidan had explained that Tragen would do his nut if they disappeared and left the girls alone—they had to perform their duty of care. Anders was again practising knife-juggling techniques while Aidan was whittling away at a length of wood, the girls not realizing that the boys were gripping their knives in hands that showed no signs of soreness.

But they were not the only ones catching up with their laundry. Lines were slung all over the ship and clothes were hanging to dry giving the impression that the ship was festooned in multi-coloured banners. Even sailors who disliked soap and water for personal cleansing had to follow Locklear’s orders when he told them he’d had enough of their clothes stinking.

That is everyone except Leash, he, being on duty at the helm had missed the fun in the morning. Not that he cared; he didn’t much like fun. Nevertheless, he was optimistic a chance was bound to come about at the forthcoming festivities. He stared at Aidan. Smiling slyly, he savoured the different methods he could use on the boy, bludgeoning, drowning—strangling would be nice, he would be able to feel the life leaving the boy’s body. He liked that idea. But then he smiled wondering for a moment if, perhaps, he could employ his infection’s method. Looking at Aidan, he yearned to use it but knew it would be too risky—decapitation would jog Tragen’s memory. If that happened, then Leash was a dead man walking, but then he grimaced, he was that already.

 

Tragen walked past the girls scrubbing diligently and noticed his green robe in Beattie’s tub. He stopped by the two boys enjoying themselves at the rail.

‘Why are they washing our clothes, my boy?’

Aidan and Anders raised their hands for the wizard’s inspection, the lesions from the day before hardly visible.

‘We have to keep these blisters dry to aid the healing, Master, so Beattie and Au…Nellie offered to do ours.’

‘Offered…nagged into it, you mean!’ Augusta said, very disgruntled.

‘Oh come, you know they can’t do it with their hands in that state. Besides, it gives you practise,’ said Beatrix, wiping suds from her nose.

‘Practise…practise! What do I need practise for? I’m not doing this when we get home…ever!’

‘When we agreed that you were to masquerade as a maid, I never meant for you to carry out each and every task of a domestic if there’s no need.’

‘Milord, there is every need for clean clothes,’ Beatrix said, scandalized.

Aidan, preparing for flight, grabbed Anders’ arm making him drop the knife he was about to launch at the mast. ‘The Bear is calling you.’

‘Watch out! I could…’ Anders started to say as Tragen halted them with his staff raised across their path.

‘Aidan, I wish you to help the young ladies accomplish this task,’ he ordered, ‘or shall I ban you from this evening’s frivolities?’ Tragen wondered if this boy would ever carry out mischief successfully and he struggled to keep a straight face.

‘He can’t, Milord, his…’ Beatrix stopped as Tragen put his finger to his mouth to silence her.

‘Well, Aidan?’ Tragen waited.

‘You said I wasn’t to do magic on board,’ he said, looking everywhere but at the girls.

‘You know full well that I said “in enclosed spaces”.’

Aidan caved in. ‘All right…stand away from the tubs you two.’ And they looked on bewildered, water dripping from their arms and dirty suds clinging to their shirts and britches, their faces bright red from the exertion of scrubbing clothes for the last hour. Aidan lifted both his hands over the tubs and intoning a chant, curled his fingers and moved his wrists in another complicated series of gestures.

The clothes in the tubs took on a life of their own and leapt from the water perfectly clean. And, as Aidan directed them with his hands, they draped themselves over the line alongside the wet clothes already drying in the sun. Aidan then turned his attention to the mound of dirty clothes dumped on the deck between the tubs and these dipped in the water on their way to the drying line…also as clean as a whistle.

‘Thank you Aidan, I’ll leave you to it now,’ said Tragen, walking away grinning. ‘Should we call a truce, Aidan?’

Aidan watched his mentor’s shoulders shaking with suppressed mirth. He laughed and turned back to the girls, it was only then he realized his dilemma.

‘Now ladies, he only did that to have his own back on me for soaking him.’ The grin fell from his face as the girls grabbed him. ‘Don’t take it to heart, will you, I mean…’

For the second time that day, Aidan was drenched. The girls dumped him into the nearest tub of foul-smelling water.

 

They left their cabins and, climbing up to the waist at sunset, joined the throng of resting seamen already congregating and vying for a place near the musicians. Forming a circle, with the main hatch at the centre, the crew left an area around it for the dancing, usually exuberant when performed by relaxing, drunken sailors and marines at sea. Sitting in pride of place on the hatch cover and being feted as the principal entertainer of the evening, was Jason and his fiddle, alongside him was a small man almost hidden by a large drum. A third man, Bartholomew, a tall, gangly, red-faced sailor was striking up a tune on his reed pipe. And one particularly sozzled sailor, his long pigtail swinging behind him, was already giving an impromptu rendition of a very bawdy sea shanty whilst swigging from a large tankard.

Several rum and ale casks were in place, as was a makeshift table groaning with pies. Dolly standing guard alongside the results of his labour, had every reason to be proud of his skills, the smell making saliva flow in many a mouth.

The weather could not have been more conducive for reducing tension, the evening warm with a slight breeze carrying the scent of the sea, a clear sky and a rising full moon, a myriad stars twinkling in the heavens.

A league or so from the ship the first blue whales seen for over a week were making their presence felt. Their voices were a welcome sound and the spouts from their blow holes a magnificent sight, except to Dolly of course who studiously kept his back to them.

Aidan and Anders flanked both the girls, all four sitting with their backs against the starboard rail. Augusta and Beatrix breathed a sigh of relief; at one point they thought they were going to miss the party. Earlier that afternoon they had been subjected to a long and tedious lecture given by Lady Cornelia. She not wanting them to attend, knowing exactly what sailors were like when drunk. But having been told by Tragen that it would look extremely odd to the crew if the maids did not attend, and that he’d be there to keep an eye on them anyway, the lady-in-waiting gave in grudgingly.

‘There, I told you he was the good-looking one didn’t I?’ Augusta said, nodding towards the minstrel tuning his fiddle.

‘Oh, yes, he is too,’ replied Beatrix not taking much notice, twitching in an effort to get comfortable on the hard deck, ‘we should have brought cushions.’

‘You two must be blind,’ said Aidan. ‘I’ve seen better looking whales. Look there’s one over there,’ and Aidan pointed over the rail at a spot directly behind Dolly.

‘Oh don’t, he’ll only think you’re laughing at him,’ said Beatrix.

‘Sh…you lot, the Bear’s going to say something,’ said Anders.

The captain, accompanied by Hopper and Tragen, stepped to the forefront of the quarterdeck and looked down at the crew milling about in the waist.

‘Before the party begins men of the Grim, I want to inform you of our present situation and my decisions on our future.’ Hugo Locklear was a giant of a man towering above them. ‘But first I must offer my sincerest thanks to you all for your courage and extraordinary exertions over these past days. If it was not for your excellent seamanship, your stamina and your trust, the Grim would have been lost and us along with it. I am immensely proud of you all and I give you a toast,’ the captain and his two companions held up a mug of spirits to the men and then supped deep.

Locklear continued, his beard wet from spilled brandy, he wiped it quickly with his hand. ‘Unfortunately, we lost four of our shipmates in fighting the storm, and although I have been assured that they are safe in Paradise,’ here he glanced at Aidan before going on, ‘we will still miss them amongst us. So stand and bow your heads in remembrance and ask your Gods to care for them.’

Locklear resumed his speech a moment later. ‘The tempest was the worst I have ever endured in all of my forty years at sea. There was a reason for it being so severe,’ he paused and pulled at his beard. ‘It was not a natural storm but one created by malign beings.’ He paused again, his crew quizzical, unable to grasp the meaning of his words. ‘Aye, you may look puzzled. I was until Lord Tragen explained that sorcery was behind the storm. We do not know its origin or its purpose, but we have come through its onslaught relatively safely. However, we have sustained critical damage which must be rectified sooner rather than later.’

Aidan and Anders glanced at each other both surprised that magic had been mentioned, though the suspected purpose behind the storm had not been. Aidan was of the opinion that if the attempt to capture Augusta was ever voiced in public then that would very likely bring on the outcome they dreaded. He continued to stare up at the captain, on pins awaiting his next words.

‘It is only fair that I tell you of the sorcery as I wish to retain your trust in the times ahead.’ Locklear pulled at his beard and took another sup from his mug. ‘The storm has blown us about four weeks off course and we are at present approaching the Griffin Islands. Some of you may have heard of these isles, others have not. Suffice it to say that wherever we make landfall we must all be on our guard. The enemy may be behind us, or he may very well be on the island at which we provision. Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain we need to make repairs to our hull and step new masts. Without these tasks being completed we will not survive our journey home. And let me assure all of you,’ Locklear raised his voice and slammed his fist on the rail before him. ‘It is my intention to get home and take you all with me. I calculate that we are seven weeks from Mantovar and a couple of days from Griffin. The quicker repairs are made, the earlier we will reach home and our loved ones.

‘Men of the Grim enjoy yourselves this evening you have earned it, and for those of you worried that we will run out of grog, calm yourselves. Lord Tragen has assured me that he can cast a spell that will produce everlasting supplies of rum. And he has also promised he will not let his apprentice anywhere near it.’ Anders joined in the laughter and thumped Aidan’s back.

‘Captain,’ a voice from near the bows shouted, ‘I wouldn’t mind being drowned in grog.’

‘Aye, and from what I’ve heard,’ Locklear replied recognizing the voice, ‘drowning is what you need, Nobber.’ Once again, there was uproar, except from Leash standing at the starboard rail glaring at the back of Aidan’s head.

 

A few hours later in the midst of the merriment, Anders decided to show the two girls how to dance. Unfortunately, he and Aidan had been supping ale almost continuously since the party started and it showed. ‘Come on, little wizard,’ Anders slurred quite happily, rising from the deck where he had been sitting, as always, alongside Beatrix. He grabbed Aidan and pulled the smaller boy to his feet.

‘Not now, Anders, you’re drunk and I’m…hic…tired, I’ll sit here watching you…hic…and point out the good details of your performance…hic…if there are any,’ he smiled drunkenly, holding on to Augusta’s shoulder to keep upright.

‘Afraid are you? Let’s show them I can dance better than you, boy, drunk or not, come on.’

Aidan and Anders tottered into the centre and calling to Bartholomew to set up a reel, both boys stood patiently in the centre of the deck, arms crossed at shoulder height staring at each other. The crew gradually quietened and prepared to watch the boys’ performance; both had a reputation for dancing the hornpipe second to none and very often engaged in a contest of skills. Bets were already being laid to see who would stick the pace and remain standing at the end.

Augusta and Beatrix watched enthralled for despite being the worse for drink both boys danced expertly. And as Bartholomew increased the tempo on his reed pipe so the boys skipped and stamped their bare feet faster and louder.

Beatrix couldn’t help but show her pride for Anders and urged him on, but looking around at the crew cheering and placing even bigger bets, she noticed Leash staring very strangely at Aidan from his place at the larboard rail.

Leash had been drinking non-stop since he’d finished his stint at the helm and he’d grown surlier as the evening wore on. Though nowhere near drunk – alcohol had no effect on him – his patience was coming to an end. All evening he’d been waiting for Aidan to walk off alone and it had not happened, the boy had even gone to the heads accompanied by the captain’s brat. It seemed he’d have to reconcile himself to the fact that he was not going to get a chance at the boy this night.

Beatrix, a cold shiver running up her back, nudged Augusta, nearly slopping her ale down her front.

‘Careful, Beattie, for God’s sake I’m enjoying this,’ she said unable to hide the slur in her voice.

‘Look at that man over there by that rack of belaying pins, the helmsman, I don’t like the way he’s staring at Aidan,’ Beatrix said, ignoring Augusta’s warning.

Augusta followed her gaze and at that moment Aidan finally gave up the contest and fell to the deck, the ale had got the better of him, Anders’ supporters cheering wildly as they collected their winnings. Leash, his manic black eyes even blacker, sneered, and Augusta, suddenly fearful and not knowing why, wanted to hurt the helmsman to protect Aidan. She stared at the belaying pins alongside him and wished that she could hit him with one, like Dolly’s mother had wished to do to her husband. Feeling guilty for wishing to commit violence for no discernible reason, she turned quickly away and went to help Aidan stand. The next thing she heard was an outraged shout from behind her, someone had really hit Leash with one of the pins. Nobber, just before he fell down drunk, had insisted that the pin had swung through the air on its own—like magic.

Augusta thought no more about it, she and Beatrix went on enjoying themselves up until Aidan vomited over their legs. Utterly disgusted, the girls ordered the boys to bed. And such was the level of inebriation, the boys did not dream of arguing.

 

Aidan dreamed of laughter again.

And Anders awoke when Aidan screamed. He leapt from bed and did the only thing he could think of—he clasped the distraught boy to his chest. Aidan struggled violently, his hysteria only calming when Anders would not relinquish his hold.

He opened his terrified eyes. ‘Go get Tragen…quick!’

Anders ran through the captain’s cabin, shouting an explanation to Locklear already preparing to leave his bed. He left the Grim’s master to keep watch over Aidan. He raced down the passageway bellowing for the wizard, waking Augusta and Beatrix as he did so. The girls were not long flinging on their clothes and racing to Aidan.

Tragen pushed past Locklear to Aidan’s side and sat on the bed with him. There was a slick sheen of sweat covering the boy’s face and neck and he stroked his boy’s brow, reassuring him.

‘Oh, my boy, my boy, what was it, hey? Are you feeling better now? Tell me what happened. I’m sorry; I have to ask now while it’s still fresh in your mind.’ Tragen beside himself with worry gripped Aidan in an embrace near to choking him.

Aidan was in a very sorry state. He had a hangover worse than any in his past; his skull felt as if it was home to an anvil being hammered by a very energetic blacksmith, and coupled with it he had recollections of a terrible dream, a nightmare he could not unravel.

‘Nothing happened at all that makes much sense. Ah…my head is pounding,’ he replied, pushing his head into Tragen’s shoulder. ‘Anders, get me some water, will you?’

Aidan pushed himself upright, taking the water he swallowed deeply. Refreshed, his head still felt as though drums were pounding between his ears.

‘You’re right, I have to tell you now before I forget,’ he paused, and the others leant forward in the doorway to hear his low voice.

‘Someone or something was hanging from…I don’t know, I couldn’t quite make out what it was,’ Aidan shuddered. ‘Anyway…a man was standing in front of it with a spear in his hands, there were red chains, and…and the man appeared to be dressed in a red robe, and…and he was laughing. And then…’ Aidan stopped and looked into the mug in his hands and tears rolled down his face unable to speak of the incident, the revolting sight he’d witnessed.

‘Take your time, my boy; take as long as you need. I’m here…here with your friends. You’re safe now,’ and as Tragen said this he remembered that this was the second time he’d said these words in the last few days. What was happening to Aidan—why him? ‘Come, drink some more, you’ll feel better.’

‘As the man dressed in red laughed, the thing hanging there…screamed, and it could not stop screaming.’

The apprentice passed the mug to Anders and lay back down on his bed. ‘It scared me, scared me silly. I didn’t know what to do, what to think, I couldn’t do anything. All I could do was stand there, watching. For a moment I almost appeared to be the man in red, and…’ Aidan trembled violently for a moment. ‘He was evil, Master, truly evil he didn’t seem human…I felt sick!’ He shuddered again. ‘God! I…I can’t remember any more.’

‘Rest, my boy, rest, Anders will you stay with him for a while?’

‘I will never leave him, Milord, he knows that.’

As Tragen rose from the bedside Aidan spoke again, his voice muffled in his pillow. ‘Master, there was one other thing,’ and Tragen turned to him. ‘As the man was laughing, he said…he kept saying “wait for the wizard, wait for the wizard”!’ Aidan lifted his head and stared at Tragen with despairing eyes. ‘You are in grave danger, Master,’ he turned over and faced the wall and Anders moved to his side determined to stay awake the rest of the night.

Tragen joined Hugo, Augusta and Beatrix – drying her eyes on the sleeves of her shirt – around the captain’s desk.

‘Drinks, we all need a drink,’ said Locklear and he brought assorted mugs and a carafe of wine from his bedside table. He poured for all as he spoke. ‘I know the time seems wrong for this. It’s either very early in the morning or very late at night; however, I have never needed one so badly.’

‘Milord, have you any explanation?’ Augusta asked softly, staring into the untouched mug of heady, red wine.

All three stared at him awaiting his reply. Tragen gazed out of the stern gallery, seeing very little except the occasional lonely star, the moon now obscured by clouds, evidence there’d be rain before long.

The wizard sighed and turned from his musings at the window. ‘The thing hanging and screaming could only be a man, I suppose…’

‘Or a woman,’ interrupted Beatrix.

‘Yes, or a woman,’ agreed Tragen. ‘Whoever it was, he or she was being tortured, hence the spear and the chains.’

‘Why were they red chains, though?’ Augusta asked him, the use of torture not coming as too much of a surprise. She had heard that her father used it in his dungeons, but never having come into actual contact with it she had never really given it much thought. He was the lawmaker and protector of Mantovar; she was his daughter and had never been asked whether or not she condoned its use.

‘The chains were covered in blood,’ said Beatrix, almost in a whisper, shocked to her very marrow. ‘Aidan actually witnessed a torturer at work.’

Augusta blanched. The full implication of what the practise entailed, sinking in. No, she thought, my father could never do that to anyone…could he? Augusta nearly retched.

Locklear broke the silence. ‘The man with the chains, Tragen, was he wearing a red robe or was it red because of the blood?’

‘I won’t even pretend to know the answer to that, my friend,’ he paused and resumed pulling at his beard. ‘A red robe may denote the wearer is a sorcerer, but I know of monks that wear the same colour. But if it was red because of the blood then there must have been an inordinate amount to have coloured him completely. What did my boy overhear “wait for the wizard” was it not?’ Locklear and Augusta nodded and he continued, Beatrix sitting silently staring into space. ‘Now Aidan believes me to be in grave danger—have we got it wrong? Could it possibly be me this being is hunting? My boy is convinced it’s me. This man does not even seem to know of Aidan and Augusta.’

‘He has not mentioned her which does not mean he is ignorant of her. On that point we must keep an open mind.’ Locklear replied, he stood and took his own turn in the gallery. ‘If it is you he’s after how does he know of you? Or is he seeking any wizard, and if it is any wizard then why not Aidan as well?’

‘He hasn’t detected Aidan has he, Milord?’ Beatrix asked anxiously.

‘No, I don’t think he has. But why hasn’t he is the question…why not?’ he pondered.

‘Could it be because you are the more powerful wizard?’ Locklear asked.

‘I am more powerful than Aidan that is true, but only in magic based on the mind which is the usual form magic takes. Aidan’s magic is unique—I know of no other practitioner of his art. His magic stems from healing and in that he is far, far more powerful than I am. No, there has to be another explanation he has remained undetected. And there must also be another reason that he is not receiving these visions every night. We must think on it.’

 

They all thought of nothing else as they lay in their beds attempting sleep for the remainder of the night left them. All were denied their rest, of course, except Aidan who, because he lay with his face to the bulkhead, soon fell asleep and aped his master, snoring loud enough to keep the fish awake.

When they finally admitted defeat and rose from bed not long after sunrise, Augusta and Beatrix went in to update Lady Cornelia, as they had before retiring. As the three, very sad and concerned ladies considered impossible options, Tragen joined them.

‘Have you come to any sort of conclusion?’ Cornelia enquired sadly.

‘I am still mulling over consequences of certain actions, Cornelia. There is only one decision to be made at this time though, and it has priority over everything—we have to discover some way of informing the Prince of Mantovar of all that has happened.’

‘Will he be able to send us aid all the way out here?’ Cornelia asked.

‘I will certainly request that in the message I send him. Unfortunately, I have a further problem in pursuing that aim, I must seek Aidan’s aid as exhausted as he is, though he can be somewhat unpredictable in what he delivers.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’ Augusta bristled, coming to Aidan’s defence.

‘Yes, how can you possibly say that? Are you saying you can’t depend on him?’ Beatrix retorted.

‘Cease ladies. Let me explain, please,’ and he smiled at each of the three in turn, taking immense pleasure in Aidan’s friends.

‘Aidan has a certain knack with animals and birds. He has a greater affinity with them than I do, it may be because he can heal them, I don’t know. Whatever, my boy is more adept with dealing with fauna than I will ever be. The trouble is, when he calls for a specific animal another is quite likely to appear,’ Tragen chuckled and went on to clarify.

‘There was a very memorable occasion, two summers ago; we needed a sheepdog to bring in a flock of lambs from a hillside being plagued by a wolf. The shepherd had been injured by this particular animal but had managed to chase it away. Aidan and I were staying overnight at the local inn after a long journey on the border of the Great Forest, and it being a warm evening and the tavern room very hot and restful, we were imbibing a little alcoholic beverage…just to cool us down, you understand. Well, more than a little of it if I remember correctly,’ Tragen paused, smiling sheepishly.

‘Well, this shepherd rushed into the inn and asked for our help. We could not refuse, so Aidan and I helped each other rise from the table…we were very tired, you know,’ the wizard said, winking. ‘We stood at the bar of the tavern and, Aidan being better with animals than me, I allowed him the conjuration. Poor boy, poor me, I should have remembered.’ Tragen couldn’t stop grinning; the event had been so ludicrous and, as it turned out, highly dangerous.

‘What…’ said Cornelia, ‘what happened?’

‘Aidan created the necessary enchantment for the calling of an animal which entailed picturing the required creature in his mind. The one problem being, and what I should have realized is, that when you’re drunk, a dog and a wolf have a similar appearance.’

‘Oh, oh!’ Augusta interrupted, laughing. ‘I get it; a wolf appeared instead of a sheepdog, is that it?’

‘You are perfectly correct, my dear. A wolf did appear…a very large wolf…a very large and very wild wolf. The same wolf in fact which had savaged the shepherd on the hillside. It appeared right in front of us, in amongst the tables in the middle of the tavern. There was utter pandemonium,’ Tragen halted, a silly grin on his face.

‘Go on…what happened next?’ Beatrix asked, not quite believing her ears.

‘The whole village turned up eventually, as we were extricating ourselves from a haywain parked outside the broken window of the main room of the inn. There seemed to be a lot of men sitting in trees as I recall, and there was not a window left whole in any wall of that tavern. We were unceremoniously marched out of the village, which was a bit silly as we’d offered to repair the damage free of charge as drunk as we were—we usually ask for a small fee for that kind of work. But for some reason they did not want to trust us again. We never did find out what happened to those lambs…or that wolf.’

‘Lord Tragen,’ Cornelia said, after she managed to stop laughing. ‘You jest surely, that was not a true occurrence, surely?’

‘Unfortunately, every word was the truth. Now do you see the problem? If I allow Aidan to call a creature, I do not have any idea what may turn up. As I have no patience with animals if I attempt the calling ninety-nine times out of a hundred the one I summon will also be impatient. It will undoubtedly be totally unsuitable, highly dangerous, and everything will turn into a disaster.’ Tragen tugged hard at his beard.

‘Then we must rely on Aidan, shall I see if he’s awake, Milord?’ Beatrix asked, her eyes red, this time with tears of laughter.

‘Aye, young Beatrix, ask him if he is well enough to join us on the quarterdeck.

 

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/political-jokes

Three contractors are bidding to fix a broken fence at the White House. One is from Chicago, another is from Tennessee, and the third is from Minnesota. All three go with a White House official to examine the fence. The Minnesota contractor takes out a tape measure and does some measuring, then works some figures with a pencil. “Well,” he says, “I figure the job will run about $900. $400 for materials, $400 for my crew, and $100 profit for me.” The Tennessee contractor also does some measuring and figuring, then says, “I can do this job for $700. $300 for materials, $300 for my crew, and $100 profit for me.” The Chicago contractor doesn’t measure or figure, but leans over to the White House official and whispers, “$2,700.” The official, incredulous, says, “You didn’t even measure like the other guys! How did you come up with such a high figure?” The Chicago contractor whispers back, “$1000 for me, $1000 for you, and we hire the guy from Tennessee to fix the fence.” “Done!” replies the government official. And that, my friends, is how the new stimulus plan will work.

 

Have a nice day!

 

 

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/popular-jokes

A husband and wife are trying to set up a new password for their computer. The husband puts, “Mypenis,” and the wife falls on the ground laughing because on the screen it says, “Error. Not long enough.”

 

Could this be Lord Tragen choosing a Christmas present?

Could this be Lord Tragen choosing a Christmas present? c/o dreamstime.com

 

Thirteen

 

On the quarterdeck, Locklear paced slowly. It was a beautiful evening, the skies clear, an abundance of stars beginning to show, the moon waxing. A gentle breeze was blowing just enough for the Grim to make headway. Cruising weather Locklear thought as he looked over his ship, a ship silent except for the occasional creak of a board or a wave lapping the hull. The storm was now far behind them and he mused on its aftermath, studying the splintered ends of the broken masts reflecting the moonlight he hoped for luck in finding replacements. But Locklear took heart from what Hopper had said earlier, there were plenty of trees on Sanctity, he prayed there’d be no trouble acquiring them. With the weather now settled, on the morrow after Tragen had filled the water barrels, he would have Trumper rig a jury mast to increase speed.

Below, in Cornelia’s cabin, Tragen was again keeping the lady company, drinking tea that he had conjured from empty air. It still tasted fresher than tea from the galley, he thought, and Cornelia seemed to be enjoying it. The porthole was open and the light evening breeze stirred the air.

‘You truly believe that Augusta has been given the gifts of wizardry?’ Cornelia asked, worriedly.

‘I do.’

‘Well, I honestly don’t know what her mother and father will think of that. How could it possibly have happened?’

Tragen shrugged and settled himself more comfortably in a chair that he had also conjured from thin air as there had only been one in the cabin.

‘It is a complete mystery to me. It has never been known before for a wizard’s abilities to suddenly appear like this—I’m completely baffled. I just hope that Aidan doesn’t go overboard in his teaching of the art. They both appear to have the same sense of, how shall I put it…delicacy in handling sensitive matters?’

‘I agree, Tragen, they are both rapscallions,’ she chuckled. ‘So we make for the Griffin Islands,’ said Cornelia, holding a flower-patterned mug of tea in her hands.

‘We have no choice I’m afraid. You know of the Onyx Isles, we could never come near there with you and Augusta aboard. The ship would founder if we attempted to return to Mantovar through the storm. I have already made it clear to Hugo that I will foil any attempt to head straight north to reach the frozen wastes and follow the coast around to Mantovar. Without masts we would find it increasingly difficult to make the voyage to Drakka and it would be pointless, anyway, as we would in all probability encounter the storm again on leaving.’ He shrugged his shoulders and sighed. ‘I only hope we recognize the enemy when we meet him in Griffin.’

‘You believe Beatrix to be correct in her assumption then?’

‘Yes, unfortunately,’ he paused and sipped his tea. ‘I am very glad that young lady accompanies us for, I admit, I knew that the storm had been created to stop us entering Mantovar but it had not occurred to me that the storm’s purpose was also to entice us to his lair.’

‘She is a very able young woman, that one. Mind you, the princess speaks very highly of her mother. In fact Dotrice is suspected of being the princess’s chief advisor…in an unofficial capacity of course.’

‘Along with you!’

Cornelia blushed and changed the subject. ‘Have you estimated how long it will be before we reach home?’

‘No, at this time I have absolutely no idea, and that worries me. I have to find some way of informing the prince of what has transpired and that for now his daughter is safe and well.’ Tragen stretched his back, taking care that he did not spill his tea. ‘I could attempt to use a gull, of course, when one appears. However, they are not very dependable as they do not like flying more than ten or fifteen leagues from their nests, and we are hundreds of leagues from home. I think I will have to seek my young apprentice’s advice.’

‘You heed a lot of his advice?’ Cornelia enquired smiling fondly; the more she knew of the boy the more she was falling under his spell.

‘Yes,’ and he laughed, ‘at least some of his advice. In many respects, he is a normal, mischievous, lovable rascal with a heart greater than any I have ever known! However, he has an odd knowledge of the spirit world far more than I will ever know. Perhaps that is why he is of the opinion that it is his bounden duty to heal anyone suffering and I do mean anyone. I believe he would heal the hurts of his enemies without them asking.’

He rose from his chair. ‘Well we have plenty to think on tonight, Cornelia, and I shall leave you now. Sleep well, Milady,’ he said as he left.

‘Goodnight to you, my friend,’ Cornelia uttered quietly as Tragen closed the door behind him.

In Anders’ cabin, the two boys lay sleeping, silent except for the slight nasal noises Anders was making as he slept on his back. It was another night without a vision.

 

The next morning was glorious. A scorcher of a day in the offing as the sun crept up the sky. There was very little cloud cover, just feathers of high cirrus floating in the azure sky, the smell of ozone permeating the light breeze invigorating the senses. The Grim was carrying all possible sail on its three remaining masts and the ship glided slowly but purposefully south-westwards on the long swell of the Great Deep.

Collecting breakfast from the galley, Dolly informed Aidan and Anders in no uncertain terms that he was depending on them to ensure the galley barrels were full of ‘proper’ drinking water. What the cook meant by “proper” was anyone’s guess, but it would make a change to cook with water devoid of stench. He also gave Anders a long throwing knife called an anelace, and told him to practise with it. In answer to Beattie’s quizzical look, Anders told her he had a natural talent for the weapon, so Dolly said.

There was an air of suppressed excitement on board. Magic was well known throughout the empire but no one ever saw it often. This morning the Grim was preparing to witness another conjuration, the third in less than a week. This spell was not to be as spectacular as the shield enchantment, and not many people had seen the repairing of the stormsail but judging by the number of people already on deck, a lot more would watch this demonstration.

Leash again took his post at the helm, relieving Talbot at the end of his morning watch. The second helmsman still scheming, his eyes red-rimmed with lack of sleep, was determined that before the week was out the boy would be dead one way or another. He was holding together with great difficulty, wilder and riskier scenarios running through his head he could not take his eyes from Aidan. Caution was needed now, if he lost control of himself then his secret would be divulged and he would be a dead man in Purgatory, the wizard would see to that. But there was something about the boy, something was niggling in the back of his mind. The more he stared at the apprentice the more Aidan reminded him of someone, but of whom he couldn’t recall.

‘Nellie’ and Beatrix had carried out their duties for ‘Princess Augusta’ and left her consuming her inevitable pot of tea, musing at the way Augusta was settling in to her role as a companion and maid. Augusta was enjoying every minute of her new distractions despite the fact that she was worrying about the chore promised for later that day. Beatrix had earmarked it as their laundry day. She wanted to wash their clothes – their very dirty clothes – in suds, in a tub on deck. Aidan had promised to supervise her endeavours and only laugh occasionally. Augusta cursed. Meanwhile Anders was attempting to cajole Beatrix into doing his mountain of washing and was not succeeding at all well, but he was full of hope.

The girls, impatient for Tragen to arrive, were rebuffed by Aidan refusing to wake the wizard.

‘No way, Tragen is evil in the mornings. We’ll let him come around all by himself, thank you,’ he said, ‘and stop throwing that knife around, you’re making me nervous, Anders.’

‘Don’t be daft, little wizard. Dolly told me to practise the techniques he showed me…that man is really something with a knife,’ said Anders admiringly. Squinting through his blue eyes, he took another aim at the barrel at the foot of the mainmast, and carried on throwing the narrow bladed anelace.

‘Take care, Anders, you said last night that you won’t allow Aidan to heal you so please do not take out your eye, or mine,’ said Augusta, flinching.

‘Well, I think he’s pretty good with it,’ said Beatrix, though she did tend to lean away from him.

Just then, Trumper arrived. ‘Mind it you lot, you’re standing right in the place we’re stacking the casks.’ With that, half a dozen men trundled up rolling the water barrels, wooden, metal-hooped vessels of various sizes, colours and odours. One of the middling sized ones Beatrix recognized as always standing in the passageway outside her cabin door. She used it often and had noticed earlier that day that the residue in the bottom was beginning to pong.

They leant against the rail staring out to sea comfortable with their friendship. They were able now to remain silent in each other’s company without feeling anxiety, having no need to make small talk. The morning drifted by as they do at sea in the tropics, quietly and slowly, tension seeping away as they watched the gently swelling ocean. The day gradually getting warmer, the breeze soothing their nerves and lulling their senses, the storm already receding into their subconscious.

‘We’re having a party tonight, Dolly’s providing his special pies and Jason and some others are going to sing,’ Anders said, interrupting their thoughts, but not the sound of the occasional thud of the dagger as it sank into the timber of the broken mainmast.

‘Oh, I’ve never attended an entertainment on board a ship before,’ said Augusta.

‘Neither have I,’ added Beatrix. ‘What are Dolly’s “special” pies?’

‘Ah well, no-one seems to know and no-one has the courage to ask him, but he’s been seen messing about with rotten apples and old pork,’ answered Anders.

‘Ugh!’ both girls said in unison.

‘Jason…isn’t he that tall, blond, good-looking fellow?’ asked Augusta.

‘Oh, I don’t know about good-looking,’ replied Aidan feeling slightly peeved. ‘He’s a fair singer though and Anders and me, we’re going to dance.’

Augusta laughed. ‘Dance! I can’t imagine you two dancing a minuet around the deck.’

Anders nearly choked. ‘A minuet! We don’t dance all stiff with our noses in the air like you do, we do proper dancing…like the hornpipe.’

Augusta, slightly abashed at her gaffe, recovered quickly and glancing mischievously at Beatrix said. ‘I’ve heard of that…isn’t that the one where you do a lot of jumping on the spot waving your arms in the air?’

Anders was speechless, he was proud of his dancing. ‘Jumping…jumping…I’ll have you know…’ Just then, there was a flurry of activity from the quarterdeck and the captain came into the waist accompanied at last by Tragen.

‘Well, ladies and gentlemen,’ Tragen said, as if announcing an entertainment in front of gentry. ‘Welcome to one and all.’ He bowed with an elaborate flourish, the voluminous sleeves of his green robe flapping like a chicken held up by its legs, he grinned at all who caught his eye. Tragen may be an old aristocrat but he loved acting the troubadour, thought Aidan, joining his teacher at the stump of the mainmast.

‘Ah, Aidan, you are ready?’ Tragen asked, waving his arms and continuing to play to his audience.

‘Oh, yes, Master. I await your bidding,’ and Aidan, aping his mentor and bowing with an equally graceful flourish, beamed at all those around and about.

The crew were in high good humour, happily talking loudly, clapping hands, whistling and cheering in appreciation. For a long time the crew had been battling the fiercest tempest they were ever likely to meet and they were worn out, recovering from a nightmare. Despair had been commonplace amongst them for the long days and nights of the storm and now they had to look forward to even longer days and nights of hard, gruelling work sailing a five-masted ship with only three poles.

They needed light entertainment now to raise their morale. Tragen knew this, as did Locklear, and the wizard was fully prepared to perform outlandishly in order to fulfil their needs.

Aidan, of course, knew his master was in one of his playful moods and he was prepared to follow Tragen’s lead—up to a point! He recalled the last occasion his master had been this jolly—he had ended up the butt of Tragen’s jokes. This time he was going to get his own back, in front of everyone, and he grinned.

‘Form a circle my friends,’ Tragen commanded. And after much shuffling and juggling for position a circle he got, though a somewhat erratic one. Tragen, his dark green robe signifying he was a master wizard, stood in the centre his hand on Aidan’s shoulder. Silently he looked around at his audience and awaited their full attention.

‘Look at Aidan, Augusta! Look at him, that boy is shaming us; look at the state of his clothes! We must wash them later, we just have to,’ Beatrix whispered as Augusta paled, Anders smiled he’d got out of doing his laundry.

Augusta shut her eyes, pain on her face. ‘They’re boys, Beattie, boys…they’re always dirty they’re supposed to be. Sh! Let’s watch.’

Tragen continued. ‘A cask if you please! Thank you my good man,’ and he stepped aside as Jason rolled the first barrel into place and upended it in front of the two performers.

‘Wonderful, wonderful,’ said the wizard, prodding Jason in the nether regions with his staff as the unfortunate sailor turned his back. The crew roared.

Jason rubbed his backside ruefully and jostled his mates as he settled again to watch the goings-on.

Tragen entered into his full patter. ‘Now, here you see an empty cask,’ and he pointed with his staff. ‘But, gentlemen, you know and I know that an empty cask is no good to any man—unless, of course, you’re drowning,’ and he winked. ‘So…we had better fill it. Aidan, kindly give us a tinkle, please,’ he ordered.

‘I beg your pardon,’ Aidan couldn’t help it, he blushed, he was going to have to bear the brunt again he knew it. The crew fell about.

‘I could do with a tinkle myself,’ a voice shouted out from the back.

Tragen looked towards the voice and intoned. ‘Beware all ye who require tinkles, for once this miracle of enchantment begins, a fair torrent may flow…and not just into this barrel.’

‘By the Gods, out of my way I need the heads,’ Nkosi, panicking, shoved through his laughing mates and ran from the circle.

Augusta looking puzzled turned to Anders. ‘What is the matter with that man, and whose head does he need?’

Beatrix leant across, and grinning, whispered into her ear. ‘The heads is a sailor’s term for latrine.’

‘Oh,’ she paused, still looking puzzled. ‘Then why did the men laugh when Tragen asked Aidan for a tinkle?’

Beatrix stared at her, saying nothing. Anders nearly bit his tongue trying to stifle his laughter.

Augusta was nonplussed until comprehension swiftly dawned on her. Shocked, she put her hands to her scarlet face and turned back to watch the two clowns at the stump of the mast.

‘Come on, my lad. Have you forgotten how to tinkle?’ Tragen asked.

Aidan looked at him and if looks could kill Tragen was dead a thousand times. Just wait master, just wait! The apprentice raised his right arm and moved his fingers and wrist in a disjointed pattern. As he did the air in front of him thickened and darkened. Everyone ceased laughing and gazed at the boy, watching his every move. Aidan continued his gyrations and moved his hand over the empty cask. The air grew even thicker and Aidan commenced his singing.

Augusta, watching him, recognized the excitement and the love of magic shining in his eyes and heard it in his voice; he had a lovely voice, she could listen to it for hours. The magic gripped her. Ever since she had held the light she had felt such a yearning, it was agonizing to watch magic and yet not have the knowledge to use it safely. She needed to be part of this and was determined that things would be different at the next show, whether Tragen liked it or not—next time she was going to take part.

Aidan continued to sing and the audience, not quite knowing what to expect, eagerly watched his every move.

Anders, who had seen this spell often, was still intrigued at the interplay between his friend and his friend’s master. Grinning, he saw it was not going to go quite the way Aidan expected and, what’s more, it would not go quite the way Tragen imagined either and he gleefully awaited the outcome.

Augusta sat spellbound; she had never experienced anything like this. The visiting magicians to the Court of Mantovar never performed their arts in a jocular manner, they were far too serious. She gripped Beattie’s hand, not taking her eyes from the spectacle, loving every minute of her friend’s antics—she was so very proud of him.

Tragen, his long white beard trailing below his waist, stood tall alongside his shorter protégé and watched as Aidan’s enchantment released a spot of water no bigger than a raindrop, from the air in front of him. The first drop of water was followed by a second and then a third, the flow akin to rainwater dripping from the eaves of a roof at the end of a short shower.

Tragen looked around at his enthralled audience, spreading his arms wide he turned to his apprentice. ‘Is that the greatest tinkle you can manage, Aidan? Strain boy…strain!’ Laughter erupted again.

Aidan looked up at him, and grimacing he sang louder relishing his revenge. The flow of water now increased to a steady, if slow, trickle.

‘Well, gentlemen, there you see a boy’s tinkle,’ the wizard smiled. ‘Now I will show you a man’s,’ and lifting his staff he pointed the knuckle at the stream of water gently falling from thin air. Tragen broke into a song that was very similar to Aidan’s, but far stronger and deeper. And it had the desired effect. The gentle stream transformed into a veritable inundation as a ray of light shot from the staff and hit the flow. The waterspout poured into the cask, filling it to overflowing within minutes. The crew watched silently, completely bewitched. All of a sudden laughter erupted at the slight problem unforeseen by both the old wizard and the young.

When the water first cascaded into the barrel, Aidan had been rather slow in moving out of the way. The first outpouring drenched him to the skin.

‘Oh, bloody hell, Master, be careful will you,’ shouted the soaking wet apprentice.

‘Tch, tch, Aidan, you should not swear in front of ladies,’ shouted Augusta before she could stop herself.

Aidan made up his mind it was now or never, his turn for some fun now. ‘Master, we need more casks quickly. Shall I stop the water while we change barrels or shall I divert the flow instead?’

Tragen, loving the situation he had created, shouted over the roar of the spouting water, not thinking for a moment of the consequences. ‘Divert of course, Aidan, divert it, there’s no need to stop it there are plenty of barrels yet.’

Anders watched an evil gleam appear on Aidan’s face, looking at the girls nervously, he warned. ‘Watch out you two, he’s up to something,’

Augusta and Beatrix, surprised, glanced at Anders quickly and then studied Aidan as the apprentice took over the chanting. The tempo of the song changed to a slower, lighter sound.

Tragen walked in a circle around his apprentice, humming to himself and bowing to his audience and every now and then dancing a little jig his back to Aidan, completely oblivious to what was happening behind him.

The stream of water, ceasing to pour into the full cask, curled upwards as Aidan sang. The spout of water formed a u-shape in mid-air. Utterly bemused some noticed a strange, manic gleam on Aidan’s face and they wondered. Fidgeting nervously, the noise diminishing, they glanced at each other, instinctively knowing that something untoward was happening.

Tragen, not detecting any difference in their manner, carried on acknowledging their reducing applause.

The end of the waterspout quickly reached a level with the outpouring from the air and then recommenced following the laws of gravity. The heavy gush of water again fell.

Tragen turned at that moment finally becoming aware of the strange behaviour of his audience, frowning he stared at Aidan,

And the water fell—smack bang on the top of Tragen’s head.

There was appalled silence, men watching astounded as the water, pouring on the wizard like a river, soaked him to the skin.

Beatrix, mortified, grabbed Anders’ hand. Aidan had really done it this time, there was no way he was going to talk himself out of this.

Augusta stared at Aidan controlling the flow of the water. His face was a picture as he stood with his arm outstretched grinning delightedly at the dumbfounded wizard. The young apprentice was wreaking his sweet revenge with crazy delight. For a moment Augusta did nothing as she looked from a soaking wet apprentice to a soaking wet wizard. Then, unable to maintain self-control over the complete absurdity of what she was witnessing, she laughed and it bubbled from her. Standing up, she lost her balance and slipped on the water sweeping across the deck. She fell to the floor and slid along the boards coming up against Tragen’s legs, knocking him to the deck alongside her.

Locklear chuckled loudly and deeply until Aidan, with the devil fully entrenched, pointed his curled fingers at the captain and saturated him next with the deluge. And then there was absolute pandemonium as Aidan, spinning in a circle the spout of water following him, aimed the water into the audience and commenced drowning everyone in sight.

 

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The teacher asked Jimmy, “Why is your cat at school today Jimmy?” Jimmy replied crying, “Because I heard my daddy tell my mommy, ‘I am going to eat that p*ssy once Jimmy leaves for school today!'”

 

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As an airplane is about to crash, a female passenger jumps up frantically and announces, “If I’m going to die, I want to die feeling like a woman.” She removes all her clothing and asks, “Is there someone on this plane who is man enough to make me feel like a woman?” A man stands up, removes his shirt and says, “Here, iron this!”.

 

Banquetting Hall Caerphilly Castle

Banquetting Hall Caerphilly Castle

 

 

 

Twelve

 

‘Oh, my poor fingers!’ groaned Aidan, holding his sore hands in the air before him, shaking them slowly in an attempt to cool the inflammation. It was dusk and they all sat in a state of utter misery in the girls’ cabin.

‘Augusta, you have a big mouth,’ he said, as she sat dejected on the end of her bed.

‘Don’t blame her, we all went along with it,’ said Anders, nursing his own hurting hands. ‘I have never smelled so bad,’ he grumbled, sniffing his clothes.

‘Oh, I don’t know…I’ve had to share your berth these last few nights,’ said Aidan laughing.

Anders, forgetting his hands a moment, threw a cushion at him and then moaned in pain as he broke another blister. Even he had found the chore exacting. Being used to manual labour, he thought, did not mean you were used to gripping a knife for hours on end, and gutting fish was not an easy job. Poor Augusta was in a dreadful state…blisters as big as apples on her palms, her fingers red and aching. The only other one to cope reasonably well was Beatrix; her hands were a lot harder than those of her mistress.

The chore had been so mind-numbingly disgusting that they had not realized that they had paired off until later. Beatrix and Anders had shared the task, the labour coming as no shock to them. Being ignored by Augusta and Aidan was an added bonus, their young love grew as they became even closer and they found it quite easy to forget the presence of the other two.

At first she had struggled, Augusta not even knowing how to hold a knife, until Dolly had taken pity on her enough to show her how to use it. Then, as Augusta assisted Aidan, they both fell into mindmelding almost by accident. At first, it had been hard going, Augusta finding it increasingly challenging to concentrate on seeking his mind and at the same time cut a fish. Aidan’s lack of patience didn’t help—he had great difficulty keeping his irritation from showing. Nevertheless, as time went on, the easier mindmelding became because of their desperation to be distracted from the appalling stench. By the time they had cleaned the last fish, mindmelding had become almost second nature for Augusta. But being taught to hide her emotions enough to remain undetectable in Aidan’s head was a dilemma that she thought she’d never overcome. But Aidan had assured her that the ability would come with time and practise; he had also found it a formidable task when Tragen had first begun his training many years before.

One pleasurable side effect of their dabbling was the fact that they discovered a mutual sense of fun – what others would call irresponsibility – throwing fish heads at each other was not everyone’s idea of enjoyment, especially when a fish’s entrails ended up down someone else’s collar! But they did forget almost entirely that Anders and Beatrix were stood at the table with them.

‘Aidan, can you do something about these, they’re very bad?’ Beatrix asked, examining Augusta’s sore fingers.

Aidan ceased his moaning and kneeling before Augusta he cradled both her hands in his. He grinned up at her.

‘Relax now and watch closely, you’ll actually see the blisters dry up. In a couple of hours the dead skin will wear away.’

Holding back her tears she stared at the white blisters on top of white blisters, hardly able to stretch her fingers out straight. Watching silently – butterflies jumping in her stomach at the thought of more magic – she could see nothing unusual happening to begin with but as his chanting, at first very low, increased in momentum, the fluid within the blisters darkened. And within moments the pustules had dried forming hard calluses, her fingers lost their crumpled whiteness and returned to a normal colour and the pain disappeared.

Thank you,’ she mindmelded as she flexed her hands, wonder replacing the glistening in her eyes.

Aidan flinched at her thanks but said nothing and he turned to Beatrix. ‘Your turn next, young lady…let me have your hands.’

Beatrix raised them for him to hold. ‘Yours are worse than mine, you should be healing your own first,’ she said as his chanting began.

‘It’s all right Tragen has a salve me and Anders can use.’

‘Why don’t you heal Anders and yourself? Wouldn’t it be easier and faster if you did?’ Augusta asked as he finished with Beattie’s hands.

Aidan looked at her in horror and, without speaking a word, strode out of the cabin to retrieve the balm from the store in his locker.

Augusta, mystified, turned to Anders. ‘Now what have I said?’

‘Don’t you remember?’ Anders replied. ‘Aidan won’t heal himself.’

‘Oh hell, I’d forgotten.’

‘Augusta your language! You’re sounding more like Aidan every day.’ Beatrix turned to Anders still holding his hands out before him being very careful not to hurt them more. ‘Why didn’t he heal you, then? Why have you to use the salve?’ She ceased her rummaging around to stare at the boy she couldn’t bear being apart from. She was tidying as usual, unable to rest in the middle of a mess.

‘Ah well, Aidan and I have an agreement of a sort. If he doesn’t heal himself he’s not to heal me—unless it’s life threatening, of course.’ Anders looked at them and grimaced. ‘Don’t say that’s a stupid vow or ask me to change my mind, Aidan and I have been friends for a lot of years, now. I’ve seen him sustain cuts and bruises loads of times; he even broke his leg once in a fall off a horse. That time his leg was bound up for a couple of months before it healed on its own, Tragen was frantic worrying about him. He’s only now recovering from a broken arm. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t allow him to heal me unless he heals himself.’

‘Then he’ll never heal me again,’ said Augusta determinedly, wondering at the same time if she’d stick to it.

‘Or me,’ added Beatrix, keeping her fingers crossed in case she ever had to keep her promise.

‘You may not have the choice, ladies,’ said Aidan, overhearing the last as he returned with a pot of unguent. And as the girls started to protest he broke in on them. ‘I’m not listening—leave it alone!’

He walked over to Anders and they both rubbed the sweet-smelling, yellow salve into their hands from the open pot between them. An abnormal silence settled in the cabin the girls, not for the first time, contemplating Aidan’s very strange attitude where healing was concerned.

Tragen appeared at the door on his way to Lady Cornelia. He spent a lot of time keeping her company these days as she could not leave the cabin, having to remain hidden from the crew. Both were happy with each other’s friendship and relieved that her masquerade as Lady Augusta appeared so successful. No-one, as yet, had questioned the fact that their princess was still suffering seasickness.

He looked in at them puzzled over the lack of noise. ‘Hello, what have we here? Taking a well-earned breather from your chores I see.’

Receiving dirty looks he thought better than to wait for any retort. ‘Aidan, we have a job to do tomorrow,’ and four pairs of ears perked up. ‘Yes…we are going to replenish the drinking water; barrels are being checked as we speak. The captain has been worrying because the remainder of what we have will last only a few days more and that’s with rationing. So be ready in the morning and be well rested the incantation may have to last quite a while.’ With one last look he escaped swiftly before any questions were voiced.

Augusta and Beatrix gazed excitedly at Aidan, the atmosphere changing instantly.

‘Go on, tell us what you and he are going to do…how do you extract water, and from what?’ Augusta asked.

‘Oh, it’s dead easy that spell,’ Aidan replied, looking around smugly. ‘Tragen will either use his staff to create the spell and I’ll keep it going using my hands, or I’ll create it and he’ll keep it going,’ he paused, staring down at his fingers stretched out before him, evidence of their activities in the afternoon showing beneath his fingernails. He’d have to scrub them, he thought, before helping his master or the fish debris would contaminate the clean water.

Augusta punched him on his shoulder. ‘Come on, tell us the rest. Where does the water come from and what exactly have you to do. And why haven’t you got your staff yet?’

‘Ouch, that hurt,’ he said, rubbing his shoulder, ‘slow down and give me a chance.’

He waited until he could see suspense killing them before resuming. ‘Okay, Tragen will stand somewhere on deck and hold his staff out in front of him. He’ll chant the spell and water droplets will appear in the air. The droplets will form a cascade and he’ll pour it into the water barrels. Dead simple,’ he said, ‘once the water is falling into the barrels I’ll take over as the power of the staff won’t be needed any longer. I’ll make sure the flow doesn’t stop until all the barrels are full. Just like magic,’ he said smiling, rubbing his dirty fingernails against his shirt.

‘Aye, but don’t forget,’ added Anders, ‘the longer you have to keep the spell going, the more tired you’re going to get. So I suggest we all get to sleep before long.’

‘Wait a moment,’ interrupted Beatrix, who was now sitting on the floor her attention as fervent as that of Augusta. ‘You haven’t told us why you haven’t got a staff. I’ve noticed Tragen’s—it’s very beautiful. Why won’t he give you a staff or at least allow you to use his?’

‘It’s a long story, I’ll tell you in the morning.’

‘No way, you tell us now, or we won’t be able to sleep,’ ordered Augusta. ‘You are not going anywhere yet.’

Aidan looked at his three friends and thought of Tragen’s bewilderingly magical staff, recalling the dream he had nurtured now for almost ten years. For all of that time he had watched his master use the fabled wizard’s staff and had felt a hunger as acute as starvation to have his own.

‘Okay, listen up,’ he smiled and settled himself comfortably on the floor alongside Beatrix. Augusta curled up on her bed not taking her eyes off him. Anders, having heard the story many times before, sat the other side of Beatrix.

And as the story progressed Aidan brought to life his love of magic for them all to see. Augusta’s eyes gleamed.

He began with the teachings of Tragen’s old master, Herman, a wizard so old at the time of his demise that no one could remember who had been on the throne when he’d been birthed. Tragen had been devastated for months, and still talked of Herman as if he was still alive. Aidan, smiling at his master’s stories of his mentor, wanted to tell him that Herman’s spirit was still alive and well—on the other side of death. But he knew his master wasn’t yet ready to understand that.

The wizard, Herman, had shown great patience when teaching Tragen the intricacies of constructing his own staff. Indeed, Tragen was now showing the same patience over these intervening years in instructing Aidan.

The methods needed to create a staff required an extraordinary physical energy, and a prodigious mental strength. Both could only be acquired over years of an exhausting apprenticeship, a traineeship that sometimes lasted a lifetime. Each apprentice was taught that he and only he knew when to make his staff. The staff signified the end of the traineeship, the time when he must leave his master—although making the staff was not the end of learning. No wizard was the same and no wizard’s staff was the same.

The staff that became a wizard’s life companion was unique and colossally powerful. For not only was the staff a corporeal object it was also sentient; it held a part of its maker’s soul.

Memories of its forming flitted through it constantly—memories of its mother trees, and of the soil in which the trees grew. Recollections of the forests and woods and groves; and of the sunlight they stretched towards and the moonlight under which they rested. The staff remembered the life that dwelled in the mother trees, the sap that gave it life, the insects crawling beneath the bark, the birds nesting in the branches, and seeds grown to fly away in the wind to grow other trees. The staff recalled the winds and the rains, the droughts and the famines.

It also retained memories of its maker.

Aidan without warning stopped and looked up at his friends. ‘Am I boring you?’

‘No, get on with it,’ they chanted in unison.

Each wizard chanted a mantra as he searched for the mother tree’s location and, when discovered, each tree answered. The wizard sang his request of the tree; he sang as he made the incision taking no more and no less of the timber than was required, removing the sliver in one cut. He chanted his gratitude as he wrapped the piece to preserve it until the other woods were found.

Many different woods were required, the number dictated by the woods themselves. In Tragen’s staff had been melded woods from three trees found many leagues apart. Tragen had travelled to far Birkton to find the Tree of Horns growing high in the snow-capped Scissor Mountains. Chanting the spell whilst removing the paring had taken days, infinite care had been employed. Then there were the searches for the other two woods, Bellwood from Arken, and Spotsbush, which he had found eventually, after months of searching, not far from where he lived in Mantovar. It had been the red stained, yellow Spotsbush which had let Tragen know it was the last required.

The actual melding of the three woods into one indestructible stave had been a long process, intricate and totally astounding. Forming the knuckle at the top with just the heat of his hands had exhausted him more than anything else had as once the process of configuring its shape had started it could not be halted. He had persevered, undergoing a loving task with no time for food, only water sipped as he sang. Then he had the task of moulding the taper at the base of the staff—a taper that ended in a point so hard and keen no mortal means could ever blunt it. Tragen was skin and bone at the end of the staff’s creation—skin and bone, and ecstatic.

Aidan told of the staff memorizing the sound of its maker’s voice…the different cadences and rhythms as Tragen chanted. It learned the smell of its maker’s body, the taste of his sweat and the feel of its maker’s skin as he caressed the woods. It felt the love pouring into it and accompanying that love all the memories of its maker. The staff had become a spiritual being as it absorbed its maker’s entity. And it shared the wizard’s life not as a tool but as a partner.

It was an immensely powerful object and only Tragen could use it. No other wizard would even attempt to touch another’s staff as the unique force contained within, could send another into oblivion. Occasionally a wizard would allow a loved one, and only a loved one, to hold the staff as it would recognize its maker’s love bestowed on another. This was why Tragen had allowed Aidan to hold his staff during his spell-casting of the shield. Tragen and Aidan loved each other as father and son, and Tragen’s staff, recognizing this, had allowed Aidan to add his strength to that of his master.

Aidan concluded. ‘Now do you understand why I can’t use Tragen’s staff? He can give it to me to hold, or I can fetch it for him, but if I attempted to create a spell with it the power would kill me.’ The others nodded spellbound with his tale.

‘When will you be ready for your staff?’ Beatrix asked a few minutes later, staring wide-eyed at the nearly wizard, her friend.

‘I have no idea. It may be years yet, after all I don’t reach the age of manhood until next year…I think,’ he added as an afterthought.

‘Do you know how many woods you’ll need, because when you go searching I want to go with you?’ said Anders. ‘I want to watch you make your staff if I can.’

‘Aye, course you can, but you’d find it boring, though…I wouldn’t have time to talk to you when I’m actually making it. As for the number of woods, I won’t know until I’ve found the first, because the first will send me to another, and so on.’

‘Could you stop at one wood?’ Beatrix asked utterly enthralled.

‘There’s a legend that says a staff made from the wood of a certain single tree would be the most powerful in the world. No other staff would survive in a contest of wills. That wood is from the Tree of Paradise, which is a legend itself; no one has ever discovered the site of one.’ They sat silently, completely mesmerized by the story.

‘How come you don’t know your age, Aidan,’ asked Augusta out of the blue.

‘That’s another long story that will definitely keep for another day. I believe it’s now time for us to leave, I’m knackered.’

As Aidan and Anders left, Beatrix shouted after them smiling as she did so. ‘You are not supposed to swear in front of ladies. And do not say we are not ladies!’ Laughing she closed the door as the boys departed along the passageway to Anders’ berth.

‘I can’t wait for the morning, Beattie. I wonder if he’ll allow me to help,’ she hunched her shoulders, a calculating look in her eyes. ‘Well, he is supposed to teach me magic, isn’t he? I wonder if I’ll ever get to make a staff.

Beatrix said nothing, feeling very nervous all of a sudden.

 

Leash had just finished his duty at the helm and was lying in his ‘pit’ as sailors called their cot. He was still seething over his plans coming to naught. His hatred of the wizard was growing if that was possible. Every time he failed to hurt the boy, Leash loathed him the more. He often saw the wizard’s boy walking about the ship but the boy was never alone, at least one of the brats serving the prince’s daughter always accompanied him. If he could manage to catch the apprentice on his own then it would be no problem to throw him overboard after making sure he could not call for help. Lying in his bed and staring at the deckhead above him he thought about the several ways in which he could kill the boy—and anticipated immense pleasure in the actual act of slaying him. But because the boy had had the luck to survive his previous murderous attempts Leash began to hate the young wizard as much as he hated the old.

There was one distinct advantage in going after the boy, though, besides the boy’s size and age. Aidan had no staff. Leash was mortally afraid of Tragen’s staff. It had ruined his life, taken all his hope, his means of remaining safe – all that was precious – and that he could never forgive.

Leash lay on his bed tossing and turning. There had to be a way of getting the boy alone. He closed his eyes and turned over to sleep, settling to dream the same dream that he had every night—the one that made him feel safe—but she was not happy with him.

 

Anders had given in to his friend’s nagging and again given up his cot on the grounds that Aidan would probably have nightmares again through lack of sleep. The cabin boy had claimed blackmail but didn’t want him returning to his own berth, he’d not be able to keep an eye on him there.

Aidan, of course, didn’t want to return for his own reasons. Firstly, he had the knack of always being able to persuade Anders to fetch and carry for him. Anders, not realizing this, had stated many times that Aidan could charm the hind legs off a donkey but he would never fall for his tricks. Secondly, Aidan would have had to sleep on a bed with a hole in the middle of it, and last but not least—Tragen rattled the walls with his snoring.

Lying on his back Anders asked. ‘You did mean it didn’t you? You will take me when you search for your staff, won’t you?’

Aidan peered down at his friend. ‘Aye, I meant it. But what if we’re not friends when it’s time for me to leave?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ scoffed Anders, ‘we’ll always be friends.’ And he turned on his side—Aidan did irritate him on times.

A little while later Anders unable to sleep looked up at Aidan. ‘Hey, are you awake?’

‘No.’

‘If I ask you something I don’t want you saying anything to her … OK?’

Aidan turned over and stared down at his friend. ‘All right, you can bring her as well.’

‘You know then?’

‘What, that you’re nuts on Beattie? I think everyone knows.’

‘Oh, God, you don’t think she’s aware of it, do you?’ Anders asked, fear knotting his belly.

‘I expect so. Now go to sleep!’

God, Anders thought if she does, how am I going to face her in the morning?

But little did either of them know that Anders would be the first to discover the Tree of Paradise and when he did, Aidan and he would both be in a very strange association.

 

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How did the medical community come up with the term “PMS”? “Mad Cow Disease” was already taken.

 

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China, Russia, and Poland venture to space. China says they’ll go to Pluto because it’s the farthest. Russia says they’ll go to Jupiter because it’s the biggest. Poland says they’ll go to the Sun. Russia and China warn that they’ll melt. They reply, “We’ll go at night.”

A view through an arrow slit in Castle Mantovar (Castell Coch)

A view through an arrow slit in Castle Mantovar (Castell Coch)

Eleven

That night Anders lay awake on a palliasse on the floor, anxious, staring at the deckhead, the ceiling above him, waiting for the next vision, or portent, or nightmare whatever, to strike Aidan. He lay listening to every board creak alongside his head, jumping every time Aidan took a deep breath or snored. But exhaustion won in the end and in the small hours his young body succumbed to the need for sleep.

Anders left Aidan in bed and went to fetch Locklear’s breakfast and washing water. On returning, he found the apprentice had not risen. ‘Not getting up today?’            Aidan, at first, lay on the bed tossing and turning. He was tense and very afraid of contacting their enemy in his sleep. Debating with himself, he preferred to be aware of the unknown foe whilst awake; he’d have more control perhaps. Giving in to temptation he attempted to mindmeld, searching him out, a very dangerous strategy he could so easily be discovered—and he knew in his heart of hearts that he needed to keep his presence a secret. The enemy knowing of one wizard would take protective measures to nullify Tragen’s abilities. If the enemy succeeded in disabling Tragen then having another wizard nearby could seriously upset his plans. But, of course, there was now a third wizard on board and her safety was paramount—she had to be kept hidden at all costs. Aidan was restless far into the small hours, eventually falling asleep as dawn was breaking. He had no visions that night but his lack of sleep still meant he woke bleary eyed and still tired when Anders rose next morning.

‘Did I dream?’

‘No.’

‘Did you hear me say anything…anything at all?’

‘No, all I heard was you snoring.’ He paused and gazed at his friend. ‘Come on, me and the girls have got us all breakfast so move quickly or it’ll get cold. Mind you it was going cold anyway; Dolly was showing us his knife juggling tricks,’ Anders said, a look of pure pleasure appearing on his face. ‘That man is a true artist throwing the blades around, you know. He showed us this trick with a misericorde that was really amazing. He frightened the life out of Leash,’ his grin widening at the memory, ‘he threw one at him and it nearly parted his hair when it stuck in the pillar behind him. Everyone laughed, except Leash of course, he snarled and stormed off.’

‘What’s a misericorde?’

‘Oh, a small dagger used to finish off your opponent.’ Aidan asked, mystified. But his look changed to horror as Anders concluded.

‘It’s thrust into the neck to sever the windpipe.’

‘Bloody hell, Anders…no more!’ Aidan shuddered. ‘Leash, he’s the one who was near me when I fell the other day on the quarterdeck. Come to think of it he never made a move to help me, did he?’

‘Nah,’ said Anders, ‘he’s a very strange one he is. You know, I don’t think he has any friends at all.’

Aidan sat very pensive. ‘Aye, there’s something about that man that’s not quite right. Have you noticed his eyes? He’s always staring into space as if he’s seeing someone else and I’ve heard him talking to himself a lot.’

‘Agh…maybe he’s just very lonely,’ Anders shrugged, after all he was also guilty of just that lately, thinking of Beatrix. ‘He’s a loner sure enough. Now, come on shift, let’s see what the girls have planned for us today.’

What they had planned was lesson time, Aidan being the teacher, Augusta his pupil and the other two eavesdropping.

Strolling up on deck they encountered the sun for the first time in days. No rain or drizzle, bright sunlight, calm seas and a warm breeze greeting them as they settled themselves amidships at the foot of the demolished mainmast. Trumper had been busy and his work had thwarted their attempt to relax on the foc’s’le. The bo’sun had spread several canvases across the deck and was preparing to sew them together to make a larger sail to replace the mainsail. Not that the four wanted to be anywhere near the canvases—they were mouldy and smelled abominably having been submerged in the sail locker for days. As it was, a team of sailors were washing it down, sloshing buckets of seawater everywhere.

It wasn’t long before Aidan stretched out in his usual position, flat on his back with his head resting on Augusta’s lap, she didn’t seem to mind. Anders and Beatrix were also in their favourite position, seated together automatically reaching for each other’s hand. They savoured the balmy weather, relaxing silently just soaking up the sun and listening to the shrill voices of a family of dolphins swimming alongside, their sleek shiny bodies glistening as they leapt and dived amongst the shoal of herring that was providing them with nourishment.

They weren’t allowed to remain at peace for long, though; a flurry of activity disturbed them as a party of sailors flung a small net over the side to catch the remaining fish before they disappeared down the throats of the large mammals. The net went into the water twice more before the shoal took the hint and fled, along with the dolphins.

‘Frigging fish! I suppose that’s all we’ll live off for weeks now,’ moaned Dolly.

Aidan opened his eyes and looked around, noticing the ship’s cook for the first time. With a very forlorn look on his face Dolly stared as each heavy load of fish was swung inboard using a temporary davit.

On the quarterdeck, Locklear and Tragen also watched the fishing, so did Leash at the wheel, seething. His mind a turmoil, he’d just heard Locklear thank the Gods for this fresh food. Leash’s plans fell apart; hiding contraband food in the wizard’s cabin had been a pure waste of time. He was going to have to think of something else—maybe hide fresh water instead?

‘Catching enough fish to supplement the rations is a godsend, Tragen,’ said Locklear. ‘If we can make landfall within the next week, and if the shoals are as plentiful as this, we will have no fear of starving.’ He clapped Tragen on the shoulders, wearing the first smile on his face for days. ‘The only concern I have now is that the drinking water will not last.’

‘My friend, you can be very dense on times,’ he smiled. ‘Your best friend is a wizard, is he not? One of the easiest spells to conjure is that of extracting water from the very air we breathe. And just as easy is the conjuration to summon fish,’ he watched as comprehension dawned in Locklear’s eyes.

‘You mean I worry for naught?’ said Locklear.

‘Aye, my friend,’ and the wizard laughed. ‘There is no water or food shortage, I and my staff will see to that,’ and he tapped it as it lay snug against his neck. ‘Even Aidan can conjure the water, only at a slower pace as he has not yet his own staff. And he is quite adept at summoning fish, although he does tend to find the wrong kind. No, my friend, what we have to worry about is our destination.’

The ship shuddered as Leash’s hands convulsed on the wheel, disappointment a physical pain.

‘Careful helmsman, keep your mind on your job,’ chided the captain as he turned to the wizard. ‘Come; let us go to my cabin. We can discuss our course as we take refreshment. I’ll send for Hopper.’

‘Dolly, how come you hate fish so much?’ Aidan asked as the others sat idly by listening. Aidan stood beside the short, fat man and joined him in staring out over the clear blue ocean, the dolphins barely in sight at the horizon.

The cook glanced at the young boy and wondered if he could trust him. Dolly’s natural caginess when talking to wizards seemed to lift with this boy, this young one had never posed a threat. Yet Dolly knew that wizards should be avoided until needed, at least the ones he’d met previously. But Aidan had an open face, no guile in his manner and moreover his reputation for healing was the best. Dolly sighed, his need to talk of it after all this time, overwhelming. He had bottled it up for years and it was eating him up inside. This young healer and his friends had always shown him kindness; never ridiculed him…did they have a sympathetic ear? There was only one way to find out and perhaps speaking of the tragedy would help ease his pain.

He said very seriously, tears started welling in his eyes. ‘My ma…she was et by a fish…years ago.’

The four friends stared at the cook disbelieving their hearing but as the import of his words sunk in Beatrix had to kick Anders to stop him laughing out loud. Augusta stood; biting her lip to stop smiling she went and stood the other side of the little man.

‘What do you mean, Dolly…et…I mean eaten…by a real fish?’ Augusta asked.

‘Aye, o’ course it were real!’ he paused. ‘It were a whale as big as our ship what did eat her. I saw it when I were little. I saw it gobble her up and…and ever since, every time I handle a fish, every time I get ready to gut it I expect to find bits o’ me ma inside.’ And the little cook stared into Augusta’s face the tears now brimming in his eyes. ‘I never told anyone afore,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘They all think I’m barmy cos I don’t like fish,’ and he rubbed his eyes with his rough red hands, ‘an’ I don’ wan’ them to know, alrigh’.’

‘Okay, we won’t let on,’ said Aidan, having great difficulty in keeping a straight face. ‘But how did it happen?’

Dolly gazed around at them through watery eyes, and he sniffed. ‘I blame me da…it were his fault he…he shouldn’t have asked her how many candles she’d bought that week.’

‘Candles…’ said Anders, his mouth agape. ‘What’s it to do with candles?’

‘Well it were coming on to night and he needed more light to cook by in the galley. He always did the cooking. He taught me all I know about it, did me dada, see. So, this one night, he stuck his head up through the hatchway and asked me ma how many candles she’d bought cos he wanted to light an extra one. Well that did it…me ma did her nut.’ He turned his head for a moment and spat phlegm over the side.

Beatrix trying not to grimace at the cook’s gross behaviour couldn’t help but ask. ‘What has that got to do with your ma…I mean your mother being eaten by a fish?’

‘Ah, she were drunk on account of feeling a bit guilty, see, and she were in a bad mood cos of it. She shouted at me da and asked him what he meant by that remark. Well me da was truly flummoxed at that. Cos what he didn’t know, but as everyone else did…me ma was getting more than candles off the candlemaker. If you know what I mean,’ and he winked.

‘Go on Dolly, what happened next?’ Augusta asked intrigued and puzzled at the same time…what else did candlemakers sell? The others were no longer laughing either, all totally immersed in the emerging story.

‘Well, there was me da, his head sticking up out of the hatchway…a perfect target, so me ma musta thought. She picked up a belaying pin alongside her and took a huge swing at his head,’ as he said this Dolly started weeping again. ‘Me da saw the pin coming and ducked…and that’s when it happened. Me ma couldn’t stop her swing and she lost her balance, slipped and fell overboard.’ He put his hands over his face and continued, bereft. ‘There was this enormous great whale swimming alongside us, and…and she fell straight into its mouth.’ He sniffed and looked up at the four friends. ‘We never saw her again.’

Aidan looked at him, astounded at the thought of someone having the extraordinary bad fortune to fall to such an unbelievable death. And he was bewildered at how Dolly thought it was his father’s fault.

‘I’m sorry Dolly but I don’t understand…how was your father to blame?’

‘He shouldn’t have ducked! Her swing would have stopped if he hadn’t dropped his head. Instead…’ and he burst into tears again.

Augusta and Beatrix put their arms around his shoulders, comforting him and at the same time trying not to look at each other in case they burst into laughter. The boys turned away desperately attempting to keep silent but turned back sharply when Augusta spoke.

‘Dolly, we’re so sorry. I tell you what…we’ll help you. We’ll gut the fish and you can cook them, all right?’

The ship’s cook looked at her with a glimmer in his eyes, and then stared around at the others. ‘Would you really…I could manage if you did that.’

Aidan, Anders and Beatrix were aghast but it was already too late to get out of it.

Augusta what are you saying. That’s a horrible, stinking job. It’s backbreaking and we’ll smell for days and days,’ Aidan complained.

Oh, she replied, ‘I never thought of that. Still, we’ll manage…the poor man!’ She continued loudly so all could hear. ‘We don’t mind Dolly, we understand how you feel. You just tell us when you want us to start and we’ll be there.’

‘Good,’ he said, and pulling himself together, he smiled. ‘You had better start right away. The fish will need cleaning as soon as possible or they’ll go off. I have to salt them before they go into the bins…come on.’

And before the friends knew it, they were up to their armpits in fish guts, everyone else keeping their distance, and sharks swimming alongside making a feast of the entrails.

Tragen and Hopper, sitting opposite Locklear in his cabin, were imbibing Locklear’s best Gilian. The stern gallery window was open and a cooling sea breeze played amongst the captain’s papers, riffling them gently, not enough to blow them to the floor.

‘Hugo, do you have any idea now of where we are?’ Tragen asked, relaxing for the first time in days.

‘Aye, man,’ replied Hugo, his deep-set eyes twinkling, as he sipped the brandy. ‘Ah, that’s good!’ He rolled it around his mouth anticipating the warm feeling he would get as it trickled slowly down his throat to hit his stomach. ‘Hopper and I took sightings of the stars as soon as they appeared last night. We confirmed our position at noon, today. We are a very long way off course somewhere to the south and west of Drakka. Aye, my friend,’ he said to the dismayed Tragen. ‘We are now farther from home than when we set out.’

Hopper broke in. ‘And in answer to your next question we have estimated we are now about four weeks normal sailing from where the storm first hit us. And if we can turn about and make it back to that point we would still have another three weeks to the river into Mantovar.’

‘By the Gods,’ Tragen pulled at his beard. ‘Seven weeks from home and we still have to make landfall first to affect repairs. I never thought the storm would have driven us at such a speed.’

‘Neither did I, ‘said the captain, ‘but Hopper and I are agreed on our position. It confirms what we thought at the outset…our unknown antagonist must be very powerful indeed.  We have pulled the charts, such as they are for this area, and we have several options before us.’

Hugo rose from his chair carrying his brandy and walked to the chart table, the others followed. A large, mostly blank parchment, held open at each corner by various objects from Hugo’s desk, lay on the table. Their destination, the river mouth in Mantovar, was inked in at the top right hand corner easily recognizable. A little way south of there a heavy line was drawn, its direction southwest. The line started at a point just off the coast of Drakka in the east where a large cross indicating the point at which they’d encountered the storm had also been inked in. There were islands situated in the bottom left hand corner and midway to the north, opposite the coast of Mantovar another smaller set of islands, these looked to be at an equal distance from Mantovar as the Grim was now. Taking all the space at the top of the chart was the land of the frozen desert, a vast area dwarfing Mantovar and Drakka. All three men bent over the map taking in its lack of detail.

‘This is the course we have been blown along,’ said Hugo, running his finger along the line south-westwards from the storm. ‘To the east of us lies the southern coast of Drakka, to the north of Drakka is Mantovar. Between us and home is the storm.’ He looked up at his companions. ‘We obviously cannot attempt Mantovar in the ship’s present state.’

‘These islands ahead of us, Hugo, what are they?’ asked Tragen.

‘They are the Griffin Islands…Hopper knows them better than me.’

‘I’ve only been there once, Milord, for a period of a few weeks, the ship I was on stopped in for repairs.’ Hopper grimaced and went on, not very happily. ‘There are about forty or fifty islands scattered over about a thousand leagues. The vast majority of the islands are too small for people to live on but there are other, larger islands that are inhabited. There are fisher folk on most of the islands, of course, and some of the larger are home to farmers and also to ironworkers. The largest island, Griffin, is huge and has its own iron mines and foundries. Surplus ore and raw iron is exported to markets all over the world.

‘There is a monastery on Sanctity, the next largest island. The monks from there used to roam all over the isles, they were the local healers, but for some reason they ceased their travelling and I never knew why,’ Hopper frowned. ‘There is talk of islands disappearing and then reappearing. I could not get to the bottom of that tale and I must admit I did not heed the stories much; they seemed to be used as a threat to get children to behave. But people do disappear on Griffin and each time there is a link to green devils. Who they are I’ve no idea…it’s probably just another local superstition.’

‘Green devils? I wonder if they mean the Green People,’ interrupted Tragen, scratching his head.

‘Who are they?’ asked Locklear.

‘I can’t, for the life of me, remember anything much about them, except that they were supposedly the guardians of nature and that they disappeared from the face of the earth along with the elves.’

‘Are any islands wooded, Hopper?’ asked Locklear, losing interest.

‘There are trees suitable to supply many masts. They are all on Sanctity.’

‘Good, good,’ Locklear’s eyes gleamed, ‘if we agree on the Griffin Islands as our destination then we’ll head for Sanctity as soon as possible.’

‘How about these islands to the north,’ Tragen prodded the point on the map to the west of Mantovar, ‘are these the Onyx isles?’

Hugo nodded. ‘Those we both know, eh Hopper?’

‘Aye, the isles of plenty…plenty of wine and women. The Pleasure Isles some name them.’

‘Home to brigands, a nastier, more terrible set of pirates you could not meet anywhere else in the world.’ Locklear straightened his back and paced the floor a moment before returning to stare at the chart. ‘I have fought them many times, they are a relentless foe. The worst of them are led by Captain Jos Osvaldo in his ship the Lobos. They do not surrender…ever, but they will to the Grim—one day. Once Osvaldo is engaged in conflict, it is a battle to the death…the death of the ship. The victims, whatever’s left of them, are overpowered and taken into slavery and the ship disappears, sunk or taken for purposes of their own, its name changed. We have fought him many times and he has always found us too strong, but it doesn’t stop him wanting the Grim.’ He looked at Tragen, purposefully. ‘That is the last place we should make for with the Grim in this condition, and with Augusta aboard.’

‘Where then, return to Drakka and await the storm’s ending?’

‘How do we know it hasn’t ended already? How do we know that it’s not awaiting our next move home?’ The ship’s master was troubled. ‘Besides, Drakka is as far away as Mantovar. No, Tragen, we gain nothing by returning there.’

‘Unless we were to take Augusta home on the overland trek up the Great Northern Road,’ said Tragen, ‘it is an option that is also open to us.’

‘Aye, but that would mean passing through the Drikander and the inhabitants of that forest have no love for the emperor. Besides it wouldn’t solve the problem of getting the Grim to Mantovar, and I will not leave my ship behind,’ stated Locklear in no uncertain terms.

‘Where then? You’ve ruled out Mantovar and Drakka, you say the Onyx Isles are too dangerous for Augusta. I rule out the frozen wastes of the north…’

‘Why do that, Milord? If we proceed from Griffin straight north to the frozen desert, we avoid the brigands and the storm. We can sail southwards from there following the coast and enter the river from the north. I know it will take us months once we have our masts, but it seems the safer route to me,’ Hopper said, staring curiously at the wizard.

Tragen stared out of the cabin window at the ship’s white wake, it was a pleasing sight after the black violence of the previous days…a pity his thoughts weren’t so pleasant. Should I tell them all of it, he reflected. The frozen desert frightened him to death, not because of what it was, but because of what was hidden there.

On the shores of the cold north lived the greatest warriors in the known world. They were giants, an ancient people, older than the elves and dragons and green people. The giants and their families followed the more peaceful occupations of whalers and seal hunters, but they never forgot their primary purpose. They patrolled the rugged terrain from one end of the coast to the other, continuously. Working out of harbours that froze solid in winter the Giants were a people that thrived in isolation, making contact with the outside world only to trade for grain and metal goods. They did not welcome strangers in their homeland and were truly savage when riled.

The giants, though, did not scare the wizard; they weren’t the reason for his anxiety. He could handle them easily enough after all the wizards had placed them there originally, though it was so long ago most wizards had forgotten it.

However, leagues inland in the midst of the glaciers and broken ice plateaux, was a place he could never handle. He shuddered remembering the legends. Legends he knew to be true.

He turned from the window and looked at the two big men for a moment. ‘No, my friends, the cold north holds something that no mortal man should even acknowledge exists let alone approach. It is the habitat of the Ringwold.’

Hopper sucked breath through his teeth. ‘They are a tale of nightmares surely…stories to frighten children. Are you saying that it really exists?’ he asked, incredulously.

‘Ah, my friends, it seems that I must confirm your worst fears concerning wizards.’ At their quizzical looks he continued. ‘Wizards have always been highly secretive and this makes us doubly suspicious in your eyes,’ he paused a moment to collect his thoughts.

‘I must tell of a responsibility that wizards took upon themselves without thought of consulting others. An action that we deemed so vital to protect the earth that we dared not trust anyone else, except for the elves as we needed the dragons. We arrogantly thought ourselves to be so superior there was no need to inform those of lesser abilities…a belief that has, inevitably, led to our downfall. No-one trusts us now.’ He went and sat in his seat at Hugo’s desk.

‘Exasperated mothers, to quell the noise made by their offspring, have often used the Ringwold as a deterrent. I don’t know why this is so, I have never been able to understand how frightening a child to death will bring that loving child comfort. The tales are horrendous of course, bogeymen, witches, trolls and demons, “they will all come and eat you up if you don’t go to sleep”. By the Gods, how can anyone sleep if they know of those vile creatures?’

Tragen sat in his chair and with his elbows resting on the arms he placed his fingertips together and pursed his lips in thought. ‘Legends are born from facts that have become distorted over the centuries, and if no new concepts emerge then old ideas become even more coloured. This suited us wizards we used it to ensure your safety.’ He stared at his friends’ consternation.

‘We had to find a means to ensure that mortals stayed away from the interior of the icy wastes. Aeons ago we asked volunteers to live on the shores of the desert. These volunteers would live by hunting and fishing the great mammals that abounded there. The main objective of these people however, was to turn all others away…deter any who wished to journey inland. The only ones to come forward were the giants, unsurprising really as they love the sea and are impervious to the cold. Apparently this strategy has succeeded so well that the volunteers have now become indigenous to that part of the world. They have settled in so deeply that their purpose of deterrence has become ingrained. No-one can get past them.’

‘Aye, that’s true enough,’ said Locklear, ‘I know men that have tried…they barely escaped with their lives.’ He gazed at the troubled wizard. ‘All right, you have told us that we should not go there. I know something of what’s up there, or at least dark rumours of the place, enough to worry me profoundly, can you tell us more? Can you tell us of the Ringwold inhabitants?’

‘I wish I could but I cannot. Wait!’ and he waved his hands to silence both his companions. ‘Please let me explain before shouting me down…I am talking of a thousand years ago…or more. The sorcerers of that time knew the Ringwold intimately.’ He blanched at how well they did know it. It had been the Black Sorcerers that had created the place; the White Wizards – with the help of dragons – had enclosed it. He could never tell these the whole truth.

‘We have known, for what seems forever, that knowledge of the inhabitants was too dangerous to document and so the lore was handed down by word of mouth, wizard to wizard. We know now that was also a mistake. The time has now been so long that even we wizards have forgotten the salient facts.

‘Except for one unassailable truth—if the inhabitants of the Ringwold ever come south then the world as we know it ends.’

Tragen stood and stared long and hard at both of his comrades. ‘We must never think of going north to the wastes. If you do, then I will do all in my considerable power to stop you.’

Hugo stared up at him silently; he had never heard that tone from the wizard in all their years together. ‘Then you believe all these nightmare figures of trolls and bogeymen, goblins and ghouls, to be true, my friend?’

‘Not as stated in threats by irate mothers, no…but they are based on indisputable fact. Whatever is in the Ringwold is devastating for mankind.’

‘But surely,’ Hopper interrupted, ‘we need not go that far north. I’m not on about making landfall; I’m talking about following the coastline.’

‘We do not know for sure the origin of this storm. If it stems from the Ringwold then it would be likely we’d encounter the storm again in that region. We may even be forced to land. We cannot risk it!’ Tragen, his stare implacable, silenced them both.

‘Then that makes the decision easier, I suppose,’ and at their looks Locklear continued. ‘There is only one option…the Griffin Islands. Let us hope and pray that young Beatrix is wrong and that whoever created that storm is not before us. What else can you tell us of the islands, Hopper?’

‘Before I do, you haven’t mentioned Blackfire, that’s only five days sailing due south of here.’

‘I would rather not go anywhere near the Siren with only three masts. If we were rigged as we should be I’d take a chance. But, of course, if we were there’d be no need to consider the option at all. The Griffin islands are our best bet, they’re roughly the same distance, and they have food, water and masts. We’ll leave Blackfire as a last resort.’ Locklear sighed, tugging at his beard he stared out the open window.

‘Tell us of the islands, Hopper,’ Tragen asked breaking the silence.

‘The only one I landed on was Griffin. It has an enclosed deep-water harbour, very busy, mainly used by the large ocean-going vessels carrying iron-ore and coke. But it also has a very healthy trade in other goods, usually those from farther west; they also trade in fertilizer and some say slaves from the south, the Dark Continent, I believe…not that I ever saw any of those poor people. But like all successful ports it has a cross-section of people, a fair share of them on the seedier side of life. There are two clans on that island and they, if not in actual open warfare, carry out a clandestine violence—they detest each other and people do die.’

‘Do they have any military?’ Locklear asked.

‘Not as such, armed militia certainly and a small, highly professional navy is needed to protect against the brigands from the north and to deter smugglers…it is rife. The Portolans, the clan in the south, have full control over both the militia and the navy and they have a giant of a man leading them. The Montetors of the north have their own forces, from what I could gather at the time, more covert than overt.’

‘Do we have cause to worry, if we ask for aid?’ Tragen asked.

‘I believe not, Milord. But circumstances can change in ten years.’

‘Then we will play it by ear,’ and with that Locklear took up the flagon of brandy and poured them all a new and larger mug of the amber nectar.

Tragen mulled over these new concerns, and then his mind recalled the worries that Beatrix had voiced. Was she correct? Was the foe on Griffin or perhaps on Sanctity or any other of the smaller islands? If she was right—he had no idea how to proceed.

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/national-jokes

A Polish man, a German guy, and an American dude, climb a mountain because they each want to make a wish from the genie on the top. When they make it to the top, they find the lamp and all rub it. The genie appears and says, “For your wish to be granted, you must yell it out while you are jumping off of this mountain.” So the German jumps off and yells, “I wish to be a fighter plane!” “So be it,” the genie says, and the German becomes a plane. The American jumps off and yells, “I wish to be an eagle!” “So be it,” the genie says, and the American becomes an eagle and flies away. The Polish man runs to the edge, accidentally trips on a rock, and yells, “I wish to b- oh S**t!”

Have a nice day!

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