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Plague for free

EPSON MFP imagePlague is free on Kindle for the next 5 days. Enjoy! (and this is NOT Johnny Depp).

c/o dreamstime.com Castle of Mantovar

c/o dreamstime.com
Castle of Mantovar

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.

Just playing about I, with the help of you tube video creator, came up with a short (very short) video of my three books. Nobody was more surprised than me when it came out looking like this!  see it at https://youtu.be/3dInq2xaDgg It is entitled ‘fantasy trilogy the search’.

EPSON MFP imageEPSON MFP image

For those who may be interested in fantasy novels I have placed my first novel free on Kindle. Enjoy on me.

 

Just a quickie!

The boating lake in Aberdare Park

The boating lake in Aberdare Park

 

For those of you have been wondering where I’ve been these last weeks. I have got stuck into my fourth novel and its’s taking up what spare time I have. I am using the working title ‘Riverton’ and I am posting the second draft of the first chapter while I carry on with chapter six. I hope it is of interest, however, keep in mind the first draft of chapter one in my first novel, ‘The Gateway’, ended up in the middle of my third book.

One

It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs as Sir Tomos of Southcote rode along the well-trodden road rapidly turning to mud beneath his horse’s hoofs. Tomos, the Steward to Earl Horsa of Swanston, grimaced, out of sorts, he hated being out in the rain. However, he’d had no option this time, though he couldn’t get rid of the thought that desperation led many times to acute forms of discomfort – and fear. Anxiety furrowed his brow as he bent his head against the cold wind blowing almost into his face. It was dusk now, rapidly approaching full dark and he didn’t want to be stuck riding home through the night. Though he knew the road well it was still not easy avoiding the potholes even in the moonlight, and there was no moon as yet and unlikely to be later. This meeting should have been held in his office in the castle not in this neglected village of Korn, a hamlet barely touching the outskirts of the large town of Swanston. But it did border the Great Forest, the foothills of the Scissor Mountains still many leagues to the east and that is where the boy had fled.

His brown cloak was now soaked through, the hood clinging to his thin face, and he was tired. Since the murder he’d hardly slept, apprehending the culprit and keeping him safe was all that mattered. Extreme puzzlement was another reason for his dour expression. Why on earth did the boy do it? If she had to die then someone else should have been the slayer, leaving the boy free as his time had not yet come.

However, Tomos’ other responsibilities meant early risings, long hours and late nights toiling at his liege lord’s corporate affairs, this had contributed to his weariness though he should be used to it by now. Long hours because the earl was demanding and hot-tempered. The nobleman was also not a very pleasant man, nor overly intelligent which Tomos thought was a blessing on times. He could be easily manoeuvred into discussing aspects of his estates that were not quite so important to Tomos’ interests, distracting the large man from those that were. More concerned in hunting with his hounds and hawking, the earl was slothful where business was concerned. Hard to please he kept reiterating that all Tomos had to do to ensure his continuing stewardship, and easy life, was to make sure that the earl’s revenue appeared on due date. The steward had not failed yet but had often come close to it. The Earl could never understand that corn could not be reaped in bad weather or when there was a shortage of labour.

But this meeting in Korn was more to do with the Steward’s own interests than those of the irascible lord, one of many such nobles within the society of rural Drakka.

Tomos halted outside the small, drab inn, run by Egbert Trout, an innkeeper of some forty years of age, the inheritor of his family’s once very successful tavern rundown now because of Egbert’s idleness and inebriation, though it was situated  in an ideal spot on the main road into Swanston.  With one quick look around in the gloom he dismounted onto the road and handed the reins of his black palfrey to a small boy who appeared, like magic, from around the side of the melancholic two-storey building. The innkeeper’s only son touched his forelock, at the same time being careful not to meet the Steward’s eye.

Tomos hated anyone looking at his empty eye socket. The right was perfectly normal but the left was missing, taken by a sword cut in an attack in years past. On that occasion he had been defending his charge, this same one, from being abducted – and now that boy had run – totally unexpected. Tomos had to wear an eye-patch in the castle. His lordship, although used to it, had insisted as the sight of the empty eye socket upset his stomach. But the patch was very uncomfortable giving him a headache and he quite often went without it in the town, especially when it rained – the water ran down behind the leather and made the socket sore. Although every townsman knew of the steward’s affliction most ignored it, but the superstitious always crossed the road when he was sighted. The nonsensical reaction always put him in a bad mood and then he’d smile. The peasants knew nothing – if they did, would they run?  Nevertheless, was it the lack of an eye or the vivid red scar that ran from it down to the corner of his mouth and on to his chin that caused anxiety in the people? The lesion pulled his mouth into a mirthless grin. But the grin had its uses. The expression frightened people and Tomos employed it often for just that precise purpose.

Tomos bent his head and walked through the uninviting, weatherworn door in the timber-framed building and into the taproom of the Spirited Hawk, the name a gross misnomer for the establishment. Lowering his hood he scanned the faces that looked up as he entered – and at the one head that didn’t rise – the one he’d come to meet. He removed his cloak and hung it on the hook behind the door as men returned nervously to studying their drink. His cloak would be quite safe; no thief would dare steal it, the Southcote monogram on the shoulder evidence enough of its owner. The Steward was a quiet man usually speaking to people with respect, but he was also a man to be avoided when he was in a bad mood, as was plain now on his face. God help a felon if he came up before the earl’s law court when the steward was discomposed, although most people agreed he was generally fair in his sentencing of miscreants. Turning away from the occupants and brushing his long, wet brown hair from his eyes he made his way through the small number of tables and benches and up to the bar, a plank laid across two barrels.

‘Evening, Steward, a dirty night.’ Egbert, a fat, short man wearing a grubby apron tied around his waist waddled over with a tankard of ale and placed it on the board in front of his lord’s estate manager. He then walked away not expecting a reply or payment.

Tomos took it absentmindedly and blew another wayward hair from his mouth. His drinks were always on the house. Given the choice he would never have purchased the sour ale anyway, though it did satisfy his thirst even if he did grimace every time he took a sip. It was only by the grace of his God, and the Steward, that Egbert held the license to his inn. Displeasing either could end Egbert’s livelihood.

Tomos was of middle height, lean and fit. He was a tough, determined man, sly of eye perhaps, but maybe this was just bdown to his affliction. Nevertheless he rarely ever missed anything of the goings-on in the town and surrounding countryside – or forgot anything he’d heard whether trivial or not. His phenomenal memory seemed to compensate for his lack of full vision. He was the power in the town. He knew every freeman, tradesman and serf by name – and those of the earl’s family, close and distant.

Tomos was apprised of all that went on in the town and surrounding villages. He was told of those not pulling their weight in the fields, who were hiding produce in their shops to evade his lordship’s taxes, and who were butchering and selling unclean meat and the like misdemeanours. He was also informed of whose wife, or husband for that matter, was playing away and therefore posing a risk to the peace of the town. He was privy to the machinations of the two religious sects in Swanston, as well. There was overt distaste, and covert hatred, shared by the monks of Kaneshi in their black robes living in their dark-walled monastery at the north end of Swanston, and the white-robed sisters of the followers of Tarria who had their domicile and hospital in the large whitewashed convent at the southern end. Over the years the Steward had become adept in playing one faction against the other; his own ends calling for it on occasion for both groups had their fanatical followers roaming the countryside offering pardons – or threats depending on your circumstances.

His agents roamed wide always listening to rumours and reporting on the temper of the people. Tomos relayed a few things to Earl Horsa, those matters Tomos thought he should know, but he never informed his master of what was intrinsic to the Steward’s own plans. Plans which the unsuspecting Horsa had no knowledge of, for they took precedence over any of the earl’s interests. Ostensibly Tomos was his master’s intelligence gatherer, but he was also something else, a secret only one or two knew. His many spies ranged far afield, into the plains to north and south, the port towns and shipping lanes in the west, and occasionally into the Drikander far off in the east. His men searched now for the fugitive and would go even as far as the capital city of Abferkarn in the north if the need arose.

Tomos’ eyes again roved over the five tables in the room and he was perturbed to notice that Selwyn Beaver, Korn’s only blacksmith, was in his cups again, still suffering, barely able to hold up his head. He’d been like it ever since he’d returned home from trading in Blessing, a village about ten leagues west of Korn, and found his wife, Myrna, dead in their home, their son standing over her with a knife in his hand – her blood dripping from its tip. She’d been beaten and stabbed to death. But no-one knew why the boy had done it, the reason for her death. The son had fled as soon as he saw his father standing utterly shocked behind him, the horror on his face and a scream of hate rising on his lips. The hue and cry had been raised immediately but the villagers weren’t quick enough to catch the boy before he’d taken refuge in the forest. No-one knew where he was now, though there were never-ending rumours. Tomos sighed, he’d known the boy, had watched closely as Cearl grew into his teens, had observed clandestinely his upbringing waiting for the boy to show the first signs. But puzzlement had resulted – why did the boy commit matricide? Was this a foretaste of what was to come?

The Steward had investigated the murder immediately, his interests demanded it. He had known the woman and her husband very well, though others did not know that. As far as the townspeople of Swanston and the villagers of Korn knew, to all intents and purposes the family had been immigrants displaced by the last demons’ war. Selwyn’s skill had earned him the second smithy for the village and town fifteen years earlier when the boy had been a baby. At that time Earl Horsa and Swanston had been in sore need of another blacksmith. A perfect placement for the boy’s family or so Tomos had thought – their concealment complete. But had they now been found? There was no reason for Cearl to kill his mother, at least not one that could possibly be discovered by the townspeople. So Tomos had set this lone man across the room to lead the hunt for the murderer.

Tomos sighed. Selwyn’s work had understandably fallen off since the tragedy. Tomos had borne the brunt of blame from Selwyn for his wife’s death. If they hadn’t agreed to the steward’s plans then they needn’t have hidden the boy in Korn. It had taken all Tomos’ cunning to coax him around and ensure his silence, the blacksmith’s death would have served no purpose and he yet may be needed in the future. Nonetheless, grief had driven the man to drink. But grief didn’t last long in Swanston or in the country as a whole, early death was more or less commonplace – even murder. Nevertheless, Selwyn had to resume his employment quickly to ensure the future prosperity of Swanston and Earl Horsa. But more importantly the blacksmith had to forget why he’d been placed in Korn, what the primary object of the move up from the south was. If he didn’t recover, Tomos’ plans would have to be changed. Selwyn could never be allowed to divulge the secret, the little of it that he knew. But Tomos was more than concerned about the boy, he’d nearly panicked when he’d found what the boy had done. Over the intervening nights he had woken in a cold sweat several times after dreaming of the boy’s death, an event which would place their plans at extreme risk of failure. But in the cold light of day he knew the boy was still alive, there were no signs yet of his demise for assuredly there would have been and Tomos had breathed a sigh of relief. Or was it desperation that made him think that? Who of their enemies knew where Cearl had been placed for safety?

On the next table were another two of Swanston’s tradesmen, Cedric the miller, a heavy man strong in the arm, and Robert the baker, shorter than his companion but equally as tough. They were Swanston’s most prominent citizens, both on the Town Council as was Selwyn Beaver – for the present. All three were freemen, all three in contention for the new position of mayor in the forthcoming elections. The miller and baker often worked together as their business interests coincided but tonight they had their heads together, speaking low, plotting a price cut in wheat, no doubt, or their strategy to oust Selwyn from the race. They seemed to think that meeting to discuss their affairs could be kept secret in this small suburb on the edge of the town, some of whose cottages were built encroaching on the Great Forest. However, Tomos was not concerned; any change in prices would have to come to him first to be sanctioned, their mayoral intentions he’d ascertain before they’d realise it. He grimaced; perhaps that was why they’d looked away so hastily when he’d entered, neither man could hide their dealings from him; their faces were an open book. Besides, he knew his visage unsettled them.

Sitting at the table next to Tomos’ agent the steward was disappointed to see old Hengist, a forester by trade, short and wiry he was also a gossip by inclination. His tattling and scandal-mongering came from spending long hours alone among the trees; the only company the voles, squirrels, the occasional wild boar and, of course, the earl’s deer. Some of Swanston’s folk were convinced that Hengist could talk the animals to death for he was never short of meat on the table even in the vilest of weather, though he never owned up to eating venison. Venison was only served at the table of the earl. But whatever he caught in his traps, or with his crossbow, the castle had to be supplied first. In return the forester was allowed a small surplus to pay his wages, the earl never paid in coin if he could help it. However, being a gossip was going to seriously prove tiresome for the Steward. He didn’t want his meeting with his agent talked of elsewhere. Looking around he saw no-one else in the room and he wondered who his agent had fetched him to meet.

Tomos looked over at the man and, feeling his gaze on him, the man raised his head and caught Tomos’ only eye. The Steward nodded slightly towards the stairs and the man stood and followed his master. Tomos always used Egbert’s living quarters for such surreptitious meetings. It wasn’t the first to be held at the Spirited Hawk, though they were few and far between, the innkeeper made sure no-one interrupted, or eavesdropped.

The stairs were old and creaked loudly as Tomos climbed, carrying his tankard to the living quarters above the bar. There were only two habitable rooms of the half dozen found there, the others had long become victim to poor management and ultimately the weather when rain seeped in through warped exterior walls remaining in disrepair. The nearest room, that being Egbert’s as he and his wife slept separately, had a bed along one wall, a table and two chairs and a chest, presumably for Egbert’s clothes. Tomos wondered again at the presence of the second chair, he could not understand anyone wanting to socialize with the innkeeper in his living quarters, even the whores turned their noses up at him, his wife and his son doing the same long ago. It was not exactly an inn in which a traveller would wish to spend a night, they always moved on into the town. The room was like its owner, dirty and unkempt. But it served for Tomos as its very unsavoriness ensured discretion. However, no-one realized that whenever there was a meeting held there Egbert’s wife, listening at a gap in the wall between her room and her husband’s, heard everything. And she was expert in keeping secrets…and in using them to her advantage.

Tomos crossed the room and looked out of the grimy window and over the rooftops of the buildings close by. He watched as the trees in the forest bent and swayed in the ferocity of the wind, for the storm was getting worse. He didn’t turn around when he heard his agent walk in behind him and close the door. Waiting only moments until he heard the scrape across the floor of one of the two chairs he turned as the man sat down. The agent’s features belied the poorness of his attire, the ragged britches, smock, and the dark sacking he wore as a cloak. Sir Oswald of Breem was clean of face, broad of shoulder, tall with long black hair. The disguise was perfect for a spy of the steward wanting to roam freely; at least it would have been if the man had had a dirty complexion. He was a handsome man who looked at this moment like a knight down on his luck, though he was still in possession of his own sword, the hilt just visible when he opened his cloak to sit comfortably.

Tomos stared at the weapon, the silver skull on the pommel prominent. It was a very memorable hilt and he’d told the man this. But Oswald always laughed. Those who were subjected to its use were never ever able to speak of it later – and there had been many, usually at the behest of Earl Horsa’s steward.

Tomos left the window and sat in the other chair opposite him at the small table and placed his tankard of ale on its grubby top, careful to keep hold of it until the rickety table settled. ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘what information have you brought? I hope it’s important those downstairs may talk of us meeting.’

‘Aye, but there’s one downstairs certainly won’t – the forester.’

‘Hengist?’

Oswald nodded and laughed nervously. ‘Strange, I’ve never before heard of a forester scared stiff of the forest and he certainly is.’

‘Did he give a reason?’ Tomos asked surprised.

‘A fire! He said he’d been sleeping on the edge of some place called the Sorcerer’s Dell when shouting and the smell of burning wood woke him. He looked down into the dell and,’ Oswald hesitated knowing his next words would sound absurd. ‘he said he didn’t see any trees! When he’d fallen asleep everything was normal, the glade almost unseen for trees growing there. But when he woke up they had all disappeared. Dear God, the things I hear on my travels,’ and Oswald laughed nervously stress evident in his low voice. He was expecting to be accused of naivety, with Hengist’s story unbelievable, and to be criticized for abandoning the search temporarily. The reason for this meeting though, Oswald thought significant.

Tomos remained unspeaking, his face giving nothing away and Oswald licked his lips for this quiet manner usually presaged trouble for whoever was the object of the Steward’s attention. And Sir Tomos of Southcote was a very dangerous man.

‘I know Sorcerer’s Dell; I could hardly walk through it when I was there last. It’s the wildest part of the forest in this region; the trees seem to fight each other there for space.’ Tomos, speaking at last, found he was somewhat intrigued…and suddenly anxious for he felt fear flicker in his gut. Hengist was an experienced forester, second to none and although prone to blather he never usually came out with something that didn’t have at least a modicum of believability. ‘If he didn’t see trees, what did he see?’

‘Perhaps you’d better ask him…you know, hear it first-hand. He’s the one I’ve asked you here to meet.’

Tomos bristled. ‘You’ve called me here to meet the foulest gossip in Swanston? Are you serious?’

‘Anything untoward you said. Any strange happenings in the forest you wanted to hear about immediately. Besides he refused to pass this place, he was in urgent need of something to calm his nerves, and the only way I’d have been able to shift him afterwards was at the point of my sword and he’d have clammed up immediately. You’d never have been able to get anything out of him.’ Oswald shifted on his seat, clasped his hands on the table top and continued. ‘I was searching there at the dell, or as near as my mount would take me. It shied about half a league from the place and I wondered at that. So I dismounted and had a look around, I thought maybe the boy was there, hiding, and had somehow spooked my horse. But he wasn’t, at least I saw no sign of him. But I’m telling you, Tomos, my hair stood on end the nearer I approached the place.’ He licked his lips, his eyes far away, fear on his face, the look very strange on a face that always laughed as he fought. ‘I couldn’t walk to the edge of the Dell, something stopped me, it…it was like a wall, hard, impervious, though I saw nothing but trees in front of me,’ he paused and shook himself. He looked again at his employer. ‘I returned to my horse and rode away. An hour later I bumped into Hengist rushing out of the forest. He was jabbering nineteen to the dozen, scared witless. He even thought I was chasing him and attempted to flee from me. I took him in hand and brought him here for you to question.’ Breem didn’t mention that he, himself, had also run from the Dell in panic and also needed something to calm his own nerves.

‘Fetch him,’ Tomos said perturbed. Information on anything untoward he’d ordered brought to him sure enough, but was this one of the expected signs?

Minutes later Hengist was standing in front of the table nervously ringing his hat in his hands. Oswald stood at the door behind him not taking his eyes from both men.

‘Go on, man, what did you see?’ asked Tomos frowning at the clearly frightened forester. He’d sat through the first part of the forester’s blustering tale and was losing patience.

‘My Lord, I…I saw a woman being burned at the stake by a man wearing a black robe,’ Hengist whispered.

‘Are you sure or had you been drinking and were still dreaming?’ asked Tomos.

‘No, Milord, I’m positive. I could hear her laughing at the man and see the flames, though I…’ Hengist paused and lowered his eyes, his hat almost unrecognizable, crushed in his hands.

‘What?’

‘Well, it was odd…’

‘What was?’ asked Tomos his gut tightening.

‘I couldn’t feel any heat from the flames…and I should have at that distance. Instead I…I was cold, milord, very cold.’

Tomos leant back in his chair, perturbed. ‘Did either of them see you?’

‘I don’t think so, milord. Leastwise the man didn’t he never turned round – his back was to me all the time. But the woman looked up at me from among the flames and…and when she did I ran,’ Hengist said sweat beading his forehead, his face ashen.

‘Why?’

‘It was her eyes, sir; her eyes were huge and seemed to look right through me. I had to tear my eyes from her quick like, she was drawing me in.’

‘What did she look like?’

‘I didn’t get much of a look of her face, milord, I was too scared. She looked young…’ he paused, ‘and old, but her eyes were even older…older than…I don’t know. She had long black hair, I remember that.’

‘She looked young and old at the same time?’ Tomos glanced over at Oswald fidgeting at the door and then back at the forester. ‘Can you tell me anything of the man…was he tall or short?’

‘He was tall, and oh yes he had a staff in his hand, that’s all I know, milord. That’s all I seen ‘cause I run.’

‘Go Hengist,’ and as the man hurried to the door the steward added. ‘Never breathe a word of what you’ve seen or of your meeting with me. Beware, that man was a devil, you speak of him again and he’ll come for you, if he does—pray that I kill you first.’ Tomos nodded and Hengist ran from the room.

‘You really think the man was a devil, Tomos?’ asked Oswald his voice unable to hide a tremor.

‘I don’t know, but I don’t want it spoken of outside these walls. The threat of a devil may be enough to keep him quiet.’

‘The woman…was she a witch?’ Oswald asked as he resumed his seat at the table. ‘Hengist thought so,’ he shuddered. ‘It’s never a pretty sight seeing a witch burn. I saw one once… but if that man wasn’t a devil he may have been a sorcerer. That was evil magic I felt as I approached the Dell and the place is named after a sorcerer, isn’t it?’

‘Why would a sorcerer burn a witch? They follow the same creed; and yet she was laughing at the man. What kind of woman would find amusement in a man burning her alive? Still it may all have been a figment of his imagination. Nonetheless, I think you both fell under some sort of spell.’ Tomos paused and rubbed his empty eye socket, it was becoming sore again. ‘To the search,’ he changed the subject, ‘what is taking you so long, I assume you haven’t found him as he’s not with you?’

‘Not yet, he must still be wandering lost in the forest or perhaps he heard us and fled deeper into the woods. He knows he’ll be hanged for the murder if he’s caught. But there are plenty of places we haven’t looked yet. You can rely on me, my men and I will find him.’

‘You had better find him before anyone else,’ warned Tomos his voice steely, ‘you were there to watch over the boy. You may have saved him from imminent death at the hands of Selwyn with your intervention, but you couldn’t stop the boy fleeing, could you? We now have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to apprehend him. Do all your men know the boy must be taken alive and kept secret?’ Tomos glared at the knight.

‘Come off it, Tomos, he was lucky to escape,’ Oswald pleaded. ‘I couldn’t fight off Selwyn and hold the boy. I had no choice I had to stop the blacksmith killing him. And yes, my men know he must be taken alive and unharmed and brought to you.’ Oswald’s voice rose, no longer entreating, as he went on. ‘If Selwyn had seen reason and stopped trying to kill Cearl we may have been able to save Myrna, though it was probably a vain hope. She died in Selwyn’s arms without regaining consciousness.’ Oswald paused until his breathing returned to normal. It was unusual for him to lose his temper with Tomos, but the implied recrimination hurt. ‘I shouted loud enough after Cearl to say I was a friend but he can’t have heard me or was too afraid of the consequences of what he’d done. No, he was hell bent on running and didn’t believe me. Who is the one the boy is supposed to look for? Will he know? I shouted out his name once but couldn’t shout it again there were too many people around. I was taking a chance on saying I was his friend as it was.’ asked Oswald, curious now.

‘Never you mind – and forget you ever knew the name. Now, have you more news?’

‘I’ve been over to Skelmerstown and the news I bring you from there is not pleasing. The local hue and cry was called out three days ago to a disturbance in the forest – outlaws they believed raiding smallholdings and foresters’ cottages. Several folk were killed by the marauders, some were found hanging over their own hearths,’ Oswald paused and looked over at the window, the rain teeming down. Tomos sat silently waiting for the rest. ‘One body was strung up above a sign on the floor – a circle with some writing in the middle of it.’

Tomos sat up, stunned. ‘You are sure? You saw it yourself?’

‘I did. No-one I was with knew what it meant which is not surprising because some fool had smudged it when they took the man down and I couldn’t read it all. But as you’ve told me in the past to keep a lookout for such things, I decided to return to you. I took the opportunity to continue searching the forest between there and here as it hadn’t been done. It was on my way here with the tidings that I found Hengist.’

‘What was it you could read?’

‘Well, it made no sense to me. The first bit and the last had been smudged; the number “4” was all I could make out. It was four people we found dead, perhaps that’s what it meant.’

‘You did right. Go have your supper. I need time alone to think before I decide your next move.’ Tomos stood and walked over to the window as the knight left the room. He stared through the glass seeing nothing but his thoughts and the indelicate reflection of his sore eye socket. But he trembled—it had started.

 

Over on Grub Street in Swanston, a narrow row of two- and three-plan houses with the occasional shop squeezed in between, another tragedy was about to unfold. The figure in black blended in well with the shadows cast by the gable end of the foundry belonging to another blacksmith. It and the blacksmith’s home were adjacent to a stretch of derelict land separating it from old Feaver’s one room cottage across the way. The land itself had attracted all sorts of rubbish most of it reeking to high heaven. But that was no different to the channels running along in front of each row of houses, channels that were used for the illicit discarding of nightsoil and other sundry waste products of man and animal.

The figure watched closely as Torbut, a huge man, the sleeves of his tunic cut short to avoid the flames and hot materials he worked with, left his smithy. Hanging his stiff, burn marked, leather apron on the hook behind the door he slammed it shut after him and turned the key in the lock. Stretching his back muscles he massaged his lumber region and breathed deeply of the cooler night air, the last of the rain moving east. His nose registered the smells from the road and ignored them. The rain had caused the overflow of the effluent from the channels and now there were stinking pools littering the walkway. He scowled and followed the same routine as he did every night he left his forge. He looked over the road and nodded a farewell to Norbert, the rat-catcher, setting off on his nightly forage, following his unsavoury occupation of destroying the rodent population, or at least keeping it down to a manageable level. Since the directive from the central government about rodents carrying the plague received a few weeks before by the earl, Norbert’s productivity had increased due to the improved bounty for each dead rat brought to the castle for payment. Torbut wished him well; it was not a job he would have liked. He was a blacksmith and good at his job, the same as Selwyn Beaver over in Korn.

The figure in black followed in the dusk, his head bowed against the occasional recalcitrant rain shower, his hood offering little protection from the elements. His boots barely kept his feet dry when he walked through an unseen rancid puddle his attention focused on the man in front. Torbut turned the corner out of sight but the figure did not change his pace, he knew where the man was headed. This was the fourth night he’d watched and followed Torbut in the dusk. During the day he had watched Torbut’s family of wife and two sons until he knew the habits of each one. They never varied in the hard-working family.

Torbut, being a creature of habit, had brought up his sons to be the same. Each night at seven o’clock, the blacksmith finished his labour and joined them in the Dirty Duck for three ales and then all three returned to their home adjoining the foundry for their supper. Razpar was pleased to see that Torbut’s routine had again not changed this night and he waited on the corner of Grub Street behind a tall beech out of sight of passing residents shuffling their way home after a day of hard toil. Sure enough half an hour later the huge man and his two sons left the Dirty Duck and walked towards the hidden Razpar. The boys were much of an age, one maybe two years older than the other, the younger awaiting his fourteenth birthday the following week. Razpar, having overheard the boys’ mother talking the previous day, smiled—a pity, the boy would never see it. He waited and watched as the three walked into their home and closed the door behind them. They had not seen Razpar or even suspected they were being observed and they sat down to a lamb stew, happy at the end of their day’s labour.

Razpar smiled, it was now time to conclude the task before him even if he didn’t know which son was the one. But it didn’t matter he’d kill both.

Later that night, when they’d all settled down to sleep and all the lanterns in the many windows of the houses in the road were extinguished Razpar crossed over and crept unseen around the back of the blacksmith’s house. Opening the gate silently he walked up the path to the back door and jammed it shut by pushing in a series of wedges around the jambs. For extra measure he lifted a heavy log he’d previously seen in the garden and leant it against the door. He placed a heavy rock at the foot of the log. There were three hulking great men in that house but none were going to leave their home through the back door. And no-one was going to surprise him by walking in on him in the midst of his business – not this time. When he’d completed this he’d have to resume the search just in case this wasn’t the right family. But just in case he’d mistaken which blacksmith’s boy he was to kill, he’d end the lives of all this family.

He crept out of the garden and returned to the street. Studying the other buildings in the road he saw no sign of anyone out and about. In the aftermath of the atrocious weather even the whores had stayed inside. He walked up to the front door of Torbut’s home, halting he listened for any movement from within. Hearing nothing he again smiled and taking the bunch of oddly shaped steel tools from his pocket he used a picklock on the old lock. He opened the door gently and crept in. He waited for the barest of moments to see if he’d been detected, content in the silence, he took from another pocket in his cloak a fist-sized pewter jar. Ensuring the soft-wood stopper was firmly in place first, he quickly placed it in the embers of the banked-up kitchen fire and tilted the pot until it rested on its side. The stopper started to smoulder. Razpar hurriedly exited the house and quickly placed wedges in the jambs of the front door.

He was back at the corner of Grub Street when there was an almighty explosion. He grinned as the blacksmith’s home went up in flames the foundry next door following shortly after, debris flying everywhere. No-one could have possibly escaped from the huge conflagration. He left as the neighbours came out into the road completely bewildered.

 

Sir Tomos Southcote descended the rickety stairs in the Spirited Hawk and beckoned to Sir Oswald Breem. His agent, leaving the remains of what looked like an unsavoury pie, stood and followed him out of the taproom.

‘Come with me to the castle,’ he said quietly. ‘In the morning I want you to withdraw your men, discontinue the search.’

‘But the boy, Tomos, you said he must be found,’ Oswald demurred.

‘If you haven’t taken him by now, you’ll never find him. He has friends in the Great Forest who will aid him, though he doesn’t know it yet. He will turn up eventually. I want you to disperse your men to every town and village bordering the forest. They are to keep a low profile and await his reappearance. But first I want you to take a missive for me. Someone else needs the knowledge you have brought me.’ Tomos’ face was grim as he took the reins of his palfrey and mounted. ‘Hurry, get your horse.’

 

Have a nice day!

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Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

 

I fell in love with this garden. The rose garden at St Fagans Castle

I fell in love with this garden. The rose garden at St Fagans Castle

Nineteen

 

In hindsight people said it was an accident waiting to happen—that it should have been foreseen was without question.

The crew were hard at work emptying the forward cargo hold when Anders and Aidan came on deck the following morning. This hold, being the closest to the bows was the one that had suffered the most damage, boards had sprung in several places allowing water to pour in, ruining a substantial amount of the cargo. Although pumping had kept the water level manageable, wooden packing cases and canvas wrapped bails were still standing in water. A hoist had been rigged directly above the hold and men were removing the very heavy containers. Using slings, these loads were lifted on to the deck prior to transferring them to the dock using the derrick on the wharf. Leash was sat on the coaming supervising the two men below and the team above.

The two boys approached to watch the unusual activity and heard the shout from below that a crate on the hoist had burst open. The contents, which seemed to belong to the captain, were spilling out.

Leash called a halt leaving the crate suspended in its sling about twenty feet above the floor of the hold. Ever the one to take advantage of an opportunity to put Aidan in danger, he said. ‘You, cabin boy, you and your friend better get down there and sort something out before the captain loses his belongings.’

‘I’ll have to see what’s up, salvage what I can, wait here for me I’ll go and have a look,’ said Anders, rushing at once to the ladder down into the hold.

‘Hang on, I’m with you,’ and Aidan trooped after him, both boys still bleary from their late night. If they hadn’t been they may have had second thoughts.

Leash’s eyes gleaming as he watched the boys descend into the chaos below, wondered if this could be it—could this be the chance for which he’d been praying?  Could this be turned into an opportunity to kill the apprentice? Glancing at the very insecure load on the hoist, he smiled, every nerve tingling in his body. On tenterhooks, every muscle humming with tension, he studied every man within sight on deck. Satisfied that his team were taking advantage of the stoppage to skive, he again stared at Aidan.

All he needed was good timing and a bit of luck.

Anders arrived on the floor of the hold and sloshed about thigh deep in the cold water, Aidan a little way behind. Both boys looked up at the broken crate swinging gently above them. The iron straps girding the crate had pulled through the rotten timbers, opening gaps for canvas wrapped bundles to fall through.

‘Some of these are the Bear’s journals, some his spare clothes…God, there’s even a few charts here,’ said Anders, ‘quick, pick them up before the water destroys them.’

Wading around in the dim light, the two boys wandered back and forth beneath the overhanging crate not realizing the danger above them.

Leash, bending over the hatch coaming watching them, bided his time his eyes burning into Aidan’s back. Every muscle in his body was at breaking point with the stress, this time he was going to succeed—he could feel victory in his bones, and he relished the agony that was about to befall his enemy.

Revenge was going to be so sweet, all these years of loneliness and despair, of unutterable grief—all caused by the wanton actions of an old man. Before Tragen had come along life had seemed, if not exactly normal, at least safe and loving. Oh, he’d loved—deeply and passionately and had been loved equally in return. But now he was condemned to eternal damnation, everlasting abandonment and isolation. If only the old wizard had waited—just a few more moments! But it was no good looking back “if” was a big word, a big, useless word. His life now was full of danger, being discovered by law abiding people a perpetual risk. The wizard had doomed him to a hopeless, demonic existence.

No-one else was taking any notice of what was happening in the hold, those men on deck not holding the rope were taking a breather, they didn’t care about the hold-up, it was Leash’s job to control the hoist. The man in the hold who had shouted earlier had his back to the boys and with his mate was busy inspecting another crate in the far corner, preparing it for lifting.

The two boys continued their salvage operation, clambering amongst the cargo, struggling in the brackish water. Leash had to be very careful now; Aidan and Anders were wearing identical shirts and britches—their difference in size indistinct from up on deck. But this didn’t worry Leash; he had not taken his eyes off Aidan for more than half a second the whole time. From the moment Aidan stepped over the coaming and descended the ladder, to watching him retrieve the sodden possessions, Leash, obsessed with retribution, awaited his chance.

But self-preservation was also very important to Leash. If what he was about to do was witnessed by another! He had to check where his team were and what they were doing before he could take advantage of the situation. He hurriedly glanced around; the nearest men on deck had no line of sight into the hold. He looked up into the rigging; the only men aloft were working on the jigger mast farther aft, again he was unobserved. He sighed as mania – and something else – glinted in his eyes, he was satisfied he could do the deed and no-one the wiser.

But in the moments his eyes were off the boys, Aidan and Anders had changed places.

‘All right, you lot,’ Leash ordered the men on the end of the rope, ‘secure the line while they recover the captain’s property.’

Leash held his hand near the rope as if he was preparing to steady the load while the men tied it to the rail. But, as the second helmsman knew, the rope was bound to swing a little, and when it did Leash feigned his grasp on the rope.

Afterwards witnesses, even those who were very wary of him, swore on oath that Leash’s intentions were to halt the movement. But in actual fact, by grasping the rope, Leash caused the load to rock even more—the broken crate shook in the sling and it fell apart.

The contents and the crate fell directly on top of Anders. An iron strap struck the cabin boy across the temple knocking him senseless, and as he fell to the floor his head slid below the water. Debris rained down on him, crushing his body, holding him submerged.

There was pandemonium from above as Leash ordered men below to assist, and in the hold mayhem as Aidan and the two sailors working in amongst the cargo, rushed to Anders’ aid.

Aidan managed to get to him first, and kneeling amongst the wreckage he plunged his hands below the surface and raised his friend’s face clear of the putrid water. Placing his hands either side of Anders’ head, at his temples, he held his friend’s face clear.

Frantic shouts and pounding feet on the deck brought Augusta and Beatrix from their cabin. As they arrived on deck, Trumper shouted up to Locklear on the quarterdeck that one of the boys had been seriously injured. Augusta and Beatrix raced to the hold and, desperate to ascertain the circumstances, pushed crew members out of their way and peered over the coaming into the murkiness below.

‘Who is it? What’s happened?’ Augusta shouted. ‘Will someone please tell me…please?’ She was afraid, mortally afraid that something had happened to Aidan, an icy lump formed in her chest, she could hardly breathe. The fact that her friend Anders could possibly be in danger never even crossed her mind.

Beatrix, pushing around Augusta, grabbed hold of Jason, the ship’s minstrel making his way down the ladder to help. ‘Jason, who is it, tell me please, it’s not Anders is it? Please tell me it’s not, I…’ her voice getting shriller by the minute. She, like Augusta, never thought of the other.

The veteran sailor looked up at her, his face grim, he breathed deeply afraid to tell her. ‘Aye, Miss, it be young Anders,’ and the panic in her face spread, her body trembling from head to foot. ‘A crate fell on him, his body is…his body is beneath the full weight of it, and he’s been knocked unconscious. But the wizard’s boy has saved him from drowning,’ he paused and put his hand over hers. ‘Be brave, Miss,’ he said quietly, and releasing her, he descended the ladder.

‘No!’ She screamed. ‘No! I have to see him, out of my way.’ She charged roughly past another man who was about to climb down. Taking his place, she was quickly followed by Augusta, feeling relieved that Aidan was not the victim and desperate because Anders was.

And as they descended the ladder, Tragen and Locklear arrived both wasting no time in following the girls.

The scene in the hold was a nightmare. Lanterns hung from the deckhead or were held in swaying hands, shedding a wavering light on the two boys in amongst the wooden crates and canvas bails.

Aidan was sitting up to his chest in the water, cradling Anders’ head and shoulders, the boy still unconscious. Water was occasionally lapping at the lower part of Anders’ face, swilling around his mouth whilst men struggled to remove the debris holding his body trapped. Blood, seeping from the cut on his forehead where the strap had hit him, was dripping down over closed eyes.

Beatrix knelt to one side of the boy she adored, and took on the task of mopping the blood from his head with her kerchief, at the same time gripping his hand tightly. With tears running down her face, Augusta, kneeling the other side of him, kneaded Anders’ other hand trying to bring warmth into freezing fingers.

‘Heal him, Aidan, please heal him,’ Beatrix kept repeating over and over, the litany almost hypnotic, tears streaming from her red eyes.

‘Can you, Aidan?’ Augusta asked, as desperate as her companion. ‘You healed Cornelia; you must be able to do the same for Anders,’ and when he didn’t answer, she shouted, despairing. ‘Come on, do something please, don’t just sit there.’

‘Leave him be, girl,’ said Tragen standing over her. ‘That is what he is doing. Look at Aidan’s eyes, he’s not with us…he’s with Anders.’

Silently they watched while Aidan, ignoring all around him, concentrating his whole being on his best friend, palpated Anders’ temples, his lips moving soundlessly. After moments that seemed like hours, the apprentice wizard inhaled sharply and looked up at the people surrounding him. ‘His skull has been fractured and there was bleeding into his brain, it’s sorted now,’ he stared at his stricken friend, her grief and misery almost making the tears flow in his own eyes. ‘Be very careful now not to move him until I’ve checked for crush damage to his body,’ he said to the men around him. ‘Beattie, he’s feeling a lot easier now, honestly.’

‘Remove those timbers gently, boys. We do not want any more accidents to befall him,’ ordered Locklear, the normally impassive man allowing his emotions to get the better of him. ‘I have had the care of my cabin boy, for three years now…I do not want another in his place, yet.’ This was the nearest he had ever come to expressing fond feelings for his nephew.

‘Hey, Aidan, did he nearly say that he liked me, then,’

Aye, I think he means he loves you, you idiot, so don’t…bloody hell you’re mindmelding!’ Aidan exclaimed out loud, utterly shocked. ‘Master, did you hear him?’

‘Yes, I can’t believe it,’ Tragen said, astonished.

Hey, don’t ignore me, you two. Can you hear me, Augusta?

Yes, Anders. Yes! Oh, Anders, how are you feeling?’

Can Beattie hear me?’

‘Can you, Beattie?’ Augusta turned to her.

‘Can I what?’

‘You can’t hear Anders mindmelding, can you?’ Aidan asked.

‘Is that what he’s doing? But he can’t mindmeld, he’s…he’s never been able to,’ and then she realized what it meant. ‘Oh, my God! Ask him if he’s all right, I have to know…please,’ she begged, roughly drying her eyes on her wet sleeve.

‘You ask him, he can hear you even if you can’t hear his answer.’ Aidan looking at her, knowing how desperately she needed to hear him, suffered with her.

‘Tell her I’m feeling a lot better now with that weight off my chest…hell, I could hardly breathe.’

‘Are you in pain?’ Augusta asked aloud, so that Beatrix could hear.

Not so much now. Go on, tell Beattie, I don’t want her to cry anymore,’ said Anders.

‘He’s getting better now, Beattie, he’s giving us orders again,’ and at the doubtful look in her face, Aidan added. ‘Really, he’s in a lot less pain. I’m only keeping him unconscious so that he doesn’t move before I say it’s okay. I’m going to check the rest of him now, once I’ve done that we’ll take him on deck, all right?’

‘He’s going to live…truly?’ Beatrix asked, tears continuing to fall unashamedly.

‘Aye, now leave me alone so I can get on with it.’ Aidan again placed his arms around Anders’ chest, spreading his fingers to cover as much of Anders’ rib cage as possible.

An hour later, Aidan had examined all of Anders’ injuries and had caused the healing to commence in each. Locklear arranged for a board to be placed alongside and Anders was lifted gently and strapped to this. Extreme care was taken in bringing him up from the hold and lowering him gently to the deck alongside the broken mainmast.

Beatrix and Augusta again sat either side of the prone boy holding his hands. Both girls, red eyed from their weeping, now feeling a lot happier with Anders at last in daylight and in the dry. Everyone waited for Aidan’s next move, no-one wanting to leave the cabin boy until he had woken.

And, as the moments passed in silence, Augusta realized that Aidan was not doing anything, making no attempt to wake Anders. She looked up at the boy who had worked so hard to save the life of his best friend—and saw tears streaming down his ashen face.

‘What is it, Aidan?’ Augusta asked softly, very puzzled. Getting no answer from him, she repeated her question. But this time she sensed something she knew she didn’t want to hear. ‘Please, Aidan, please you’re frightening me again,’ and everyone turned to look at him. ‘Aidan what is it? What’s wrong?’ She stood up and moved closer to him. But when she put her arm around his shoulders he shuddered and nearly fell. He leant against her shoulder for a moment and his trembling made her shake.

I want you to wake me, Aidan. I must speak to Beattie, and I want the Bear,’ Anders implored. ‘I know what’s happening to me, Aidan, and I must speak to them now…you know I don’t have long.’

‘What is he talking about?’ Tragen asked softly, foreboding in his mind.

Aidan stared at his master and his friends, catching Locklear’s eye he knew he was about to devastate all those close to Anders. Locklear, the man who looked on his nephew as the son he never had, Beatrix who very clearly adored him, and Augusta, their princess, who had also come to love him as a very close friend. And Tragen—who loved Anders simply because he was Aidan’s closest friend.

Aidan’s voice broke. ‘Master, why are the Gods so cruel?’

Tragen stared at his boy, realizing at last the dreadful outcome. ‘We do not know their purposes, my boy,’ he answered softly. He placed his palm to Aidan’s face and stroked gently, feeling the beginnings of adolescent bristles. ‘Although strange purposes they have without a doubt…some we will come to understand in time, many we will not,’ he continued gently.

Hurry, Aidan, tell them and wake me,’ ordered Anders.

Aidan tore himself from their arms and knelt beside Anders. Placing both his hands over the eyes of the comatose boy he chanted under his breath and Anders awoke.

Aidan, resting back on his haunches, watched as Beatrix, bewildered, smiled through fresh tears. ‘You’re going to be fine, Anders,’ she said, cupping his face in her hands and sniffing. ‘Aidan has healed you, now. Everything’s going to be fine…rest now. Oh, Anders, my love, I was so worried; I thought you were going to die, but you’re going to be all right now,’ and crying, she leant forward and hugged him.

‘Sh! Beattie, no more tears…please.’ Anders said, holding her tight and caressing her back while looking up at Aidan. ‘And you, Aidan…cease your weeping. You know I’ll be safe.’

‘Aye, so you will be.’ Aidan’s voice broke again. ‘But I won’t be with you,’ he moaned and didn’t attempt to hide the tremble wracking his body. Utterly distraught he stared down at his friend, unwilling to take his eyes off Anders’ face.

Tragen knelt alongside him and again put his arm around Aidan to comfort him, the wizard understanding and despairing at his boy’s abject grief.

‘What do you mean?’ Augusta asked a dreadful premonition taking root she also fell to her knees alongside them and reached over to grasp Anders’ hand.

Anders took his eyes from Beatrix for a moment and smiled at his prince’s daughter, a friendly aristocrat…one that saw him and, unlike the others of her class, did not look through him, a friend that he loved dearly. And then he gazed up at the man who he looked upon as a second father, perhaps an even better father than his first—his uncle, the man he had most admired in all of his very short life.

Hugo returned his gaze, mortified he also suspected the dreadful outcome.

‘Uncle Hugo,’ Anders said, taking his hand from Augusta’s and holding it up to grasp Locklear’s.

Locklear, not wanting to believe what he was seeing and hearing, knelt alongside Augusta, tears welling in the big man’s eyes. ‘Ah, Anders, it’s come to this, eh! I’m sorry, my boy, so sorry. We have not had enough time together, have we? I wish there was more.’

‘But the time we have had has been magic. I’ve loved every bit of it, I would not have missed it for anything,’ he paused to take a breath and to hold back on his own tears. ‘I am the luckiest boy ever, to have had a captain such as you. I do love you, Uncle, never forget that!’

‘And I, Anders, I love you…I’ll miss you so much,’ Locklear fought his tears unsuccessfully.

‘What is going on?’ Beatrix shouted desperately, her face ravished she had no more tears to shed. ‘Anders, Aidan has healed you. Why are you talking as if he hasn’t? Stop it! Stop it, now!’

Anders stared into her eyes and grasped her hand even tighter as he brought it to his lips. ‘My dear, Beattie…I love you…there,’ he smiled up at her, ‘I actually found the courage to say it.’

‘Anders…my dear, dear Anders, I love you too, you know that please stop this talk, you’re scaring me!’ Beatrix begged.

The prone boy inhaled deeply and stared into her eyes. ‘My Beattie, you are right, Aidan healed me. He did all that he possibly could, and eventually I would have been as good as new, but…’ he gulped as he looked at the only girl he had ever loved. ‘He could not prolong my life Beattie—my time has come.’

‘No, Anders,’ she giggled hysterically. ‘No, Anders, you’re being silly, stop it, stop talking like this…we have years yet, we’re only young, please…I mean…’

‘Beattie, my only love,’ and he cradled her face in his hands, interrupting her protestations. ‘Beattie, Aidan is not a God however much he wishes it at this time. No, my love, please…promise me…promise me that you will not grieve for too long.’ He stroked her face, losing himself in her eyes. ‘Thank the Gods I’ve had the time to tell you I love you,’ and he kissed her, putting all his pent up emotion in that, their first kiss.

The others looked on silently, in appalling misery.

‘Aidan, there really is nothing to fear, is there?’ Anders asked apprehensively; fear taking momentary hold he glanced quickly at his friend.

‘Nothing at all, Anders, you will be welcomed into Paradise with open arms,’ Aidan replied, still unable to halt his weeping or keep his voice from shaking. ‘I thought we’d always be together, Anders,’ he said, giving in to his despair.

‘Aidan, remember the first day we met? You asked me how long we’d be friends.’ Aidan nodded, unable to speak.

‘Ask me again, Aidan.’

Aidan stared at him not caring who heard him crying. ‘Anders…Anders, how long…how long are we going to be friends?’

‘Forever, Aidan!’ And with that Anders pulled Beatrix to him, held her tightly in his arms and for the second time kissed her.

And breathed his last.

 

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A teacher wanted to teach her students about self-esteem, so she asked anyone who thought they were stupid to stand up. One kid stood up and the teacher was surprised. She didn’t think anyone would stand up so she asked him, “Why did you stand up?” He answered, “I didn’t want to leave you standing up by yourself.”

 Have a nice day!

 

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A blonde, a redhead, and a brunette were all lost in the desert. They found a lamp and rubbed it. A genie popped out and granted them each one wish. The redhead wished to be back home. Poof! She was back home. The brunette wished to be at home with her family. Poof! She was back home with her family. The blonde said, “Awwww, I wish my friends were here.”

 

st fagans castle (20)

 

Eighteen

 

The banqueting hall was impressive, large, high-ceilinged and airy. Heavy oak panelling predominated on each wall, its darkness alleviated by two large, four-paned sash windows overlooking the drive. Twice as long as it was wide, the room held three tables, two running parallel to the long walls, each able to seat at least forty people. The third, placed across the heads of the other two, stood on a raised dais so that the occupants could see and be seen by everyone present.

The long mahogany head table groaned under the weight of food of all descriptions. Bowls of fresh oranges, pineapples and bananas evenly spaced along the dark, polished surface, accompanied at intervals with freshly segmented melons, yellow and green. Platters of newly baked manchet bread, cheese trenchers and bowls of nuts added to the rich aroma of roast mutton, beef and chicken. All was lit by two elaborate glass candelabra suspended from the ceiling on silver chains, the light reflecting off the solid silver tableware.

Portraits of Portolans past and present, hung along the walls, the faces with stern expressions except for the only painting of a female suspended directly above the fireplace in the long wall opposite the windows. The sunshine streaming through the glass during the day, would serve to emphasize the very happy scene that must have delighted artist, model and onlooker. The lady depicted was a very fat woman, with deep laughter lines around her eyes, dressed in a long green gown and wearing a large pendant in the shape of a griffin, on her chest. She was sitting upright in an armchair, her hands in her lap, smiling affectionately at someone who must have been looking over the artist’s shoulder. In the place of honour behind the head table, hung a portrait of a man who bore a striking resemblance to the seneschal although it was of a much thinner man.

When Beatrix and Anders entered at the back of the room with their heavy tureens, the steward was pouring wine into silver goblets. Seneschal Portolan sat in a high backed chair in the centre of the high table, to his right sat Lady Cornelia, on his left, Lord Tragen, and on the other side of the wizard sat Captain Locklear. But the seneschal’s eyes were concentrated to his right watching Cornelia helping Mistress Barbat to settle Thaddeus between them.

Cornelia, proving now why the Princess of Mantovar trusted her so completely with the upbringing of her daughter, was talking animatedly with the nurse. The seneschal and the wizard were fascinated. Portolan with the fact that this very attractive stranger seemed so comfortable with his mentally abnormal son, a boy that he spent all his waking hours – and a lot of the hours of darkness – protecting from the world. And Tragen by how Lady Cornelia, without realizing it, had utterly beguiled their host.

Dinner progressed with small talk, Seneschal Portolan continually distracted by Cornelia taking her turn at feeding his son and in keeping his chin clean of spilled food. And what was more important to Lodovico Portolan, and did more than anything else to unreservedly charm him, Cornelia did not ignore Thaddeus, did not treat him as a dummy but talked to him as if nothing was amiss.

Tragen asked the harbourmaster during a lull in the conversation about the gentleman in the portrait behind him.

‘He is my brother, Paul…The Portolan, leader of our clan.’

‘Will I have the pleasure of meeting him while I’m here?’

‘I shouldn’t think so, he is away at present, and not expected home for some weeks,’ he answered, dabbing his mouth with his napkin. The hard look lifted by Cornelia’s treatment of his son returned, his glacial eyes seemingly intent on unpleasant memories.

‘And the lady in that portrait, who is she?’ Cornelia indicated the painting above the fireplace.

‘She is my wife, or rather was,’ he continued, staring at the painting his eyes softening. ‘She died of head injuries a few moments before giving birth to Thaddeus. Unfortunately, I am told by wizards,’ and he looked at Tragen, ‘that nothing can be done for him. He was birthed by the physician having to take him directly from his mother’s womb shortly after her death. Wizards tell me that although Thaddeus is physically well, only his body came forth…not his soul. Thus he is as you see him.’

‘By the Gods…never!’ Cornelia said, shocked to her very core. ‘I do not believe it.’ She looked at Thaddeus and cupping his chin in her hand, she stared into his eyes. ‘If he had no soul he would be totally wicked, this boy is not evil…never evil,’ and tears welled in her eyes as she stroked his face.

The seneschal, surprised at her vehemence, stared at her for a moment. ‘Nonetheless,’ and he sighed, the despair of years in that murmur, ‘that is what I have been informed. Do you concur with your colleagues, Lord Tragen?’ He placed his napkin beside his plate, attempting to keep the anguish, and the hope, out of his voice and not quite succeeding.

‘I could not possibly say without examining him. Will you allow me time alone with him, maybe tomorrow?’ Tragen now realized why the presence of a wizard was so important to the man.

‘Yes, of course. I will send my coach for you in the morning,’ Lodovico Portolan composed himself and supped his wine. ‘And now, Captain Locklear, I am remiss, tell me of this storm.’

Locklear glanced at Tragen wondering whether to divulge the knowledge of malign sorcerers being the cause. Tragen, understanding the look, imperceptibly shook his head. Locklear, beckoning Anders to refill his goblet, paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and to put them in the right order. Staring at his host he spoke in terms understood by seafarers all over the world. He told of the intensity of the tempest and their consequent battle to survive. He described the height of the waves, the strength of the winds and the lack of visibility leading to loss of position. Locklear, a born storyteller when imbibing good liquor – they were drinking Tragen’s gift – went on for over half an hour. He brought to life the terror and peril of those days, and he finished with the description of Tragen’s shield spell which had saved them. He did not mention Aidan.

‘And your immediate requirements, what are they?’ The seneschal asked coolly as he used his small, razor-sharp, food knife usually kept in his belt when not eating, to cut a sliver of mutton, before dipping the roast meat into a small salver of pungent sauce.

‘A dry-dock, if you have one?’ At the seneschal’s nod, he went on. ‘We also require timber and caulking, ropes and canvas as well as food and water. And, we desperately need new masts.’ Locklear sat back in his chair and again beckoned Anders to replenish his goblet.

‘The dry-dock is going to be a bit of a squeeze. When we built it we did not envisage a ship as large as yours having need of it. But, with care it should suffice. Nevertheless, it is going to be a devil of a job to move your Grim into place, my dock-master is going to have his work cut out,’ he smiled wryly.

‘We can supply everything except masts,’ the seneschal nibbled a small wedge of cheese and continued. ‘We have no trees suitable on Griffin thanks to the Montetors tearing down the forests for their mines. Our masts have to be imported, now. You can always sail to the Onyx Isles for them, of course, a journey of some weeks I’m afraid. Should you have luck and fine weather, you might make it easily, otherwise…’ and he shrugged his shoulders. ‘But I think you should wait here while we send for them,’ he glanced at Cornelia, a strange intensity in his eyes, ‘they should only take a few months to arrive. I’m sure you know the reputation of those islands, Milord, I wouldn’t be happy with the thought of your niece coming within a hundred leagues of those brigands.’

‘I agree with you, Seneschal, Hugo has told me a great deal of those barbarians. But it is time that we’re short of, we need to get home without any further delay,’ answered Tragen.

‘Then I don’t know what you should do…you need masts, Onyx has them in abundance.’

‘Can’t we obtain new masts on Sanctity, that island is only days away, after all?’ Locklear enquired, wondering why their host had not mentioned his neighbour.

Shocked silence greeted this request. Mistress Barbat gasped and put her hand to her neck as if she was suffering a constriction. The footman standing next to Anders nearly dropped the platter he was holding.

‘I am sorry, Captain, but no-one is allowed to visit Sanctity without permission of the brethren who live there. And they never give consent to strangers.’

The seneschal, visibly shaken, abruptly placed his napkin on the table, the hard man’s voice now barely disguising fear. ‘It is late I’m afraid and I must see my son to bed. Lord Tragen I will see you in the morning. Captain, I will send an aide to you, he will assist you with the dockworkers.’

Rising from the table, he turned to Cornelia. ‘My Lady, you must forgive and excuse me. Would you care to accompany your uncle in the morning? It would give me great pleasure if you would, and then maybe Thaddeus and I can show you our home.’

‘Of course, I’d be delighted, Seneschal, and I thank you for a wonderful evening.’ Cornelia smiled, careful not to show her astonishment at such an end to the conviviality.

Back in the coach long before they expected to be, Locklear turned to Tragen. ‘Well, my friend, I did not expect that reaction.’

‘No, he was terrified of something and I know not what. Could it be this torturer of Aidan’s visions? It would certainly account for his fear. Perhaps Cornelia and I can ferret out an explanation from the nurse tomorrow,’ he closed his eyes and leant back against the seat. ‘Cornelia, you had a remarkable effect on the seneschal, did you not?’

‘Did I? I didn’t notice I was too busy with that poor boy—no soul indeed!’ She stared at her feet, a slight colouring in her face, not admitting that the man had had quite an effect on her. ‘Have you a possible diagnosis of the boy’s problems?’

‘Again we’ll have to wait until morning. I don’t hold out much hope, though, if the boy’s brain is damaged, or again if the boy truly has no soul, then I know of no cure. But, of course, there’s always Aidan…who knows? It does explain Portolan’s worn appearance, the boy’s condition must call for many a sleepless night.’

Above them on the hind seat, Anders and Beatrix listened to every word, knowing they would be closely questioned on their return. They looked at each other, gripping each other’s hands tightly, neither wishing to acknowledge their growing trepidation. What on earth was on Sanctity? And how could anyone be born without a soul?

 

As soon as they arrived back aboard the Grim Locklear gave instructions for the morrow. He had come to the decision to lighten the ship to facilitate entry into the cramped dock. The ship needed to float higher on the water and, to enable this, the holds would be emptied, an immense operation that could take all day. Not many ports had a dry-dock the purpose of which, besides being a place to build new ships, was also to enable the hulls of older ships to be repaired or careened without the ship having to be heaved on to its side. In the dock, the ship would be propped upright in a cradle with the keel on supports. With the water pumped out of the dock there would be less abnormal stress on the hull and work on that part of the ship usually submerged, could be carried out swiftly and efficiently.

Locklear moved off with Hopper and Trumper to discuss the complex arrangements. It would be the first time that the Grim’s hull had ever undergone repair to such a great extent and the opportunity to careen would also be taken. The three men wished to prepare for all eventualities.

Tragen, espying Aidan called him over, inevitably Augusta, Beatrix and Anders followed. The four were inseparable now and the wizard smiled…at least a part of his plan was working.

‘Aidan, we have a strange ailment to diagnose and I want you to mull it over before Cornelia and I leave in the morning to return to the harbourmaster’s home…’

‘Can I come?’ Aidan asked eagerly.

‘Not yet, we still need to keep you and Augusta concealed, but if I do not succeed in discovering a cure, a way must be found for you to examine the boy.’

‘What boy?’

‘Wait, and stop interrupting, we have had a long night,’ he paused. ‘Tell me; is it possible for a baby to be born without a soul?’

‘Bloody hell…what a question!’

‘Well,’ Tragen gave one of his mean looks which boded ill for his apprentice if he did not reply quickly.

He hurriedly answered. ‘Of course not, whatever gave you that idea?’

‘Never mind,’ Tragen said. ‘I expect your friends will tell you. When they have, I will appreciate your advice. Now goodnight to you all,’ and he moved off escorting Lady Cornelia to her cabin.

‘When you retire please do it silently, I do not want to be disturbed I have a lot to ponder on.’ Cornelia said as she arrived at the door to step below. But she impulsively turned to Aidan and this time she implored. ‘Please, Aidan, think on it well. It is imperative you come up with a diagnosis and a cure, the boy is suffering terribly and perhaps his father more so. Goodnight.’

‘You two,’ Augusta ordered Beatrix and Anders, waving her finger at them, ‘to our cabin immediately. We want to know everything and I mean everything.’

 

‘What! You really mean that the seneschal fancies Lady Cornelia?’ Aidan asked, stifling a laugh.

Augusta poked him in the shoulder. ‘And why not? Cornelia is a lovely person, warm and sincere and she is no idiot like some men I could mention. And, what’s more, the concern she expresses inclines me to think that she may have taken a shine to the seneschal…she definitely has to his son.’

Beatrix and Anders had been closely questioned for nearly an hour. A very harrowing experience, Augusta and Aidan taking turns at battering them with questions.

‘The seneschal’s wife looked very much the same as Lady Cornelia…you know, big and fat and he talked of her with great affection,’ Anders said.

‘Please, Lady Cornelia’s love life is not the most important thing here, the boy is and whatever is on Sanctity.’ Beatrix said, highlighting the immediate problems.

‘Sorry, Beattie, you’re right. His mother died just before giving birth, eh! I wonder what the cause of her head injury was. He never said?’ Aidan asked. The two shook their heads.

‘Have you any idea what could be wrong with him?’ Augusta asked.

‘Not really, I’d only be guessing. I’ve seen babies born in the same circumstances before…you know from a dead mother. And they’ve always been brain damaged because they couldn’t start breathing in time. They’re murder to heal. It sometimes takes weeks because I’d have to heal each symptom in turn. And they have symptoms like drooling, slurred speech, and quite often, they are unable to use their limbs or raise their heads. Moreover, the healing has to be in a particular order, different in each victim. If I heal one thing in the wrong order then it may reappear later as another unhealed symptom affects it.’ He paused and the others, not interrupting, watched as he pondered the situation.

‘No,’ Aidan continued, ‘I can’t understand this illness. He is physically well, but does not talk, do anything for himself except swallow and he acknowledges no-one. I can’t diagnose this without seeing him.’

‘And Sanctity? What troubled Seneschal Portolan about that place? Has anyone any ideas?’ Beatrix asked.

‘You’re sure he was frightened?’ Augusta asked.

‘He was shocked rigid when Captain Locklear mentioned the island, and so were the others in the room,’ said Beatrix.

‘Aye,’ added Anders, ‘no-one wanted to know. The manservant standing beside me wouldn’t even look my way!’

‘So it seems likely that Beattie’s assertion was right, that the storm was used to entice us here,’ said Aidan worriedly. ‘Whoever, or whatever, is on Sanctity that scares the harbourmaster so much could very well be the creator of the storm.’ He looked around at everyone gravely. ‘He could be the torturer I saw. When we reach Sanctity, none of us is to be alone at any time. We look out for each other, all right!’

 

That night Aidan and Anders talked well into the night, Aidan continuing to pump Anders of all that he’d heard at the Portolan’s. But despite the cabin boy’s unusual ability to perceive the deceptions behind people’s facades, Anders could not discover the reason for the harbourmaster’s fear.

Eventually Aidan gave up and both boys settled to sleep. It took them a long time and, unknown to each other, for more or less the same reason. Aidan recalling his time alone with Augusta, his arm around her shoulder on the poop deck earlier that evening. And Anders smiling idiotically as he dreamt of Beatrix—he could still feel Beattie’s fingers entwined in his.

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

Two blondes fell down a hole. One said, “It’s dark in here isn’t it?” The other replied, “I don’t know; I can’t see.”

Have a nice day!

 

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!”

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