It is obvious that I need to post on a regular basis, but not having much time I’ve decided to cheat a little. I’ll post one chapter per week of my first novel ‘The Gateway’ Book 1 of ‘The Search’ trilogy. This may serve two purposes, one, as I’ve said, to post regularly, the second may get my books noticed among the two million on sale at Amazon. However, in case people get bored I’ll start with a joke, one that takes the mickey out of the Welsh (for we do have a sense of humour) but be warned we can take it and dish it out!
A matter of life and death
Dai was watching a Six Nations game in Cardiff.
In the packed stadium there was only one empty seat, right next to him.
“Whose is that seat?” asked a man in the row behind.
“I got the ticket for my wife,” said Dai. “But she died in an accident.”
“So you’re keeping the seat vacant as a mark of respect?”
“No,” said the fan, “I offered it to all of my friends.”
“So why didn’t they take it?”
“They’ve all gone to the funeral.”
and now Chapter One
Just before full light on their fourth morning at sea, the old wizard woke up suddenly when Aidan’s blankets dragged across his face. The boy, who had been sleeping fast on the top bunk in the small cabin, had fallen off and bumped his master on his way to hitting the deck.
‘What in God’s name are you up to now you…you stupid boy, have you been at my brandy again? I’ve warned you!’ Lord Tragen had spent his entire life waking up irritable.
But then, throwing the blankets aside impatiently his stomach flipped—the ship had heeled right over alarmingly, and Aidan was looking like a child’s rag doll thrown in the corner.
‘I haven’t touched your bloody brandy, we couldn’t find it,’ came the muffled answer from the depths of the bedding covering his head.
‘I was only joking! Ouch my elbow, ah my head,’ complaining and rubbing both unnecessarily harshly Aidan was hoping to cover his gaffe as he surfaced, breathing hard.
He and his best friend, Anders, had been severely punished the last time they had sampled Tragen’s hoard of booze. It had taken them days to find the case of Gilian even though Aidan had employed a new form of magic to locate it. But both had blamed the wizard for not telling them of its almost lethal potency for they had fallen over in a drunken stupor at their liege lord’s feet.
Tragen, infuriated, had whinged for days at the shame of the two boys vomiting over the Prince of Mantovar’s boots. But Aidan suspected that his mentor had been more upset because his own spell of illusion had failed to hide the twenty bottles of best brandy from his apprentice.
Aidan, yawning now and peering about in the gloom of the cabin, took in his topsy-turvy world. ‘Hey, the ship’s not supposed to do this, is it?’
The aged wizard glared through sleep-filled eyes. ‘Get up quick, boy; of course it’s not.’
Tragen, bending his head so as not to bang it, swung his long legs over the edge of the bottom bunk and struggled into his second-best green robe.
Aidan, trying to extricate his own robe from amongst his tangled blankets, was getting nowhere fast. Tragen, exasperated, pulled the brown garment free of the jumble and threw it at him.
‘Come on boy, we’re needed now, not tomorrow.’ Barefoot, he made for the door, at the same time grabbing his staff leaning against the bottom of his bunk. He pushed it securely through his rope belt, the large knuckle at the top of the stave settling into its safe haven in the crook of the wizard’s neck and shoulder, its normal resting place when not being used. The staff, only five feet long, seemed to gather strength when it was in contact with its master’s skin and, though Tragen wouldn’t admit it, the feeling was reciprocated.
Aidan, muttering imprecations against the ship for waking him so abruptly, followed him. Struggling to don his robe and at the same time keep his balance on the heaving deck he stumbled against the bulkhead, the wall of the cabin, and again banged the same elbow.
‘Ow! Master, don’t go so fast will you,’ and, as he fell again, it suddenly came to him that this was a very dangerous situation. ‘Hey,’ he said, very scared, ‘are we sinking?’
‘Stupid boy, how in God’s name am I supposed to know when we’re down here?’
The wizard – his long white hair and waist-length white beard all awry – forced himself towards the crazily tilted doorway. He stepped over the foot high storm sill and pushed his way through into the passageway, holding the door ajar for Aidan to come after.
Turning for’ard they stumbled along the short, dark corridor to the hatchway and, climbing the ladder first, Tragen pushed up the heavy cover. Immediately a great gust of wind wrenched it from his grasp and it crashed to the deck almost smashing its hinges. A gale rushed through nearly blowing them both off the ladder, and a wash of seawater cascaded down over their heads. Tragen, quickly wiping his face with his hand and bending his head against the deluge, grasped the coaming tightly and poked his head up into the nightmarish storm and looked around the upper deck. They had surfaced in the waist of the huge five-masted warship.
Tragen blanched, the quarterdeck – the officer’s deck aft of the hatchway – seemed a terribly long distance away in that gale. The wind was blowing the Grim well over to larboard, the left-hand side of the ship as you looked towards the prow. The rails on that side were now being swamped continually by enormous grey waves. Tragen turned and looked for’ard to the mainmast and saw the outer end of the main yardarm above dipping in and out of the heavy seas, its enormous sail trailing half in the water. The bo’sun and the few sailors visible in the atrocious conditions were scrambling all over the mainsail lines wielding axes to cut free the huge canvas. Others were doing the same at the foremast, the first and shorter, mast at the front of the ship, but there it proved fatal for one man—he fell into the torrent and was swept along the hull.
Aidan stared at the body floating face down in the violent spume, the man’s tarred topknot sticking up incongruously from the top of the otherwise shaved, tattooed head.
Tragen held his breath when the boy all of a sudden raised his hand and pointed into the dripping sky above the drowned man. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘He was lost, so I showed him the way.’
The old wizard breathed deeply to disperse the lump in his throat. He could never get used to the way Aidan communicated with the dead—he’d never ever come across anyone before with the same inexplicable ability.
‘Come on, my boy,’ he smiled nervously as he heaved the hatch closed, ‘hang on to my belt. Let’s find the captain.’
They waited futilely for a wave that was not quite so threatening and fought their way aft. Climbing the ladder onto the quarterdeck, his long wet robe sticking to his body and with Aidan dragging heavily on his belt, Tragen eventually found his friend, one of two huge men in the darkness ahead of them.
Hugo Locklear, Master of the Grim, the largest sailing ship in the known world, and its chief helmsman, Talbot, were desperately grappling one of the wheels of the two-wheel steering chain controlling the rudder.
Tragen and Aidan groped their way to them. With Aidan’s hands still clinging to his belt, Tragen grabbed the second wheel to add his weight and strength to that of the seamen.
Locklear, whose long black hair and full beard were saturated and pouring water like the sea they were fighting, greeted them with a quick grimace. ‘Welcome!’
‘When did this start?’ the wizard asked.
‘Less than half an hour ago,’ the captain replied, leaning across to shout into Tragen’s ear. ‘A normal blow at first, or so I thought, but only the Gods’ know what happened then. The wind veered abruptly and came at us straight out of the east and we nearly broached. When I gave the order to furl the sails something went wrong on the main and foremast, the sheets tangled, I’ve never known that happen before,’ he paused, breathing deeply. He was talking about the ropes tethering the sails to the sides of the ship. ‘I have also never known a wind increase as speedily as this has done. If we don’t get that mainsail free soon and have it lying on the deck, we’ll turn turtle. Did you see how they were doing?’ With his very broad shoulders now bunching with the severe strain, Locklear was living up to his nickname of “the Bear”.
‘I did, the sail is trailing in the water pulling us over, but they’re working like hell to cut it free.’
‘Damn, I don’t want to lose that sail we have no other.’
The wizard, as tall as his friend, despite his great age was remarkably strong and his hold never wavered on the wheel. Aidan, standing at his side holding on for dear life, was only a young man fifteen years old. He was short and lean, dark and wiry, his own particular strengths more psychological than physical. Aidan inclined his head towards Locklear but could barely hear the captain’s words over the clamour of the storm.
‘Tragen, I’m worried. The stress on the helm is unbelievable I’m afraid it’ll fail and we’ll lose the rudder. If that happens we won’t have any way of steering and we’ll broach. Is there anything you can do to help?’
The wizard wiped water from his eyes and examined the pillar between the wheels for long moments. Making a decision he pushed his arm through the spokes and placed his hand on the central hub. ‘I can feel it, Hugo,’ he shouted in his friend’s ear, ‘you are correct the chains are almost at breaking point. I’ll keep my hand here and direct power into the helm to strengthen it. But we have a problem…no spell created in a tempest of this ferocity will last for long I’ll need to continually renew it. This I can do but I won’t be able to give you much aid in holding the wheel.’
‘Master, be careful, if the wheel slips it’ll take your arm off,’ Aidan warned, his eyes wide showing concern for the old man.
‘Boy, I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,’ Locklear snapped. ‘You make your way to the bo’sun and inform him that my orders are to retrieve the sail from the water. He is only to abandon it if the ship heels over farther. Tell him to send another man up here immediately to help at the helm and I will try and give him another hour to complete the task. We need that sail after this storm, boy, emphasize that.’
Aidan’s stomach clenched, mortally afraid he nearly lost control of his bladder, the thought of crossing the decks to the mainmast on his own in this weather turned his legs to jelly. He licked his lips nervously and, glancing at Tragen, he realized there was no way he could refuse. He’d never want his master to think he was a coward.
The wizard returned Aidan’s gaze, his own fright showing in his surprisingly young, grey eyes. He momentarily debated going himself and leaving Aidan here to strengthen the helm, but he knew it was not a viable option. The boy was simply not strong enough to sustain the spell for any prolonged length of time, especially in these stressful circumstances.
‘Do you understand why I cannot go instead of you?’
Aidan nodded and smiled faintly. ‘Aye, I know…you’re too old,’ the reply automatic, he was forever poking fun of Tragen’s age. ‘I’d better find you at this wheel when I return. I don’t want you doing anything heroic without me here to help.’
Trembling with fear, Aidan released his grip on Tragen’s belt and dropped to the deck. He slid across the boards to the larboard rail of the quarterdeck and looked towards the prow and his destination before the next wave swamped them.
Aidan climbed back down into the waist banging his ankle painfully on the bottom step of the ladder when he slipped. Gripping tightly with one hand he bent down and rubbed the soreness away, cursing all the while. Straightening, he glanced along the ship, quaking at the melee that met his eyes at the mainmast, he swallowed the bile rising in his gullet. He studied the starboard rail above him, tension starting a headache, he slithered his way up to it. Clinging desperately to the slick timber he dragged himself for’ard almost blinded by the torrential rain stinging his face.
The day was nearly as black as night although it was getting on towards mid-morning. It wasn’t long, though, before he was in dire straits, his arms and shoulders aching and his feet frantically scrabbling for a purchase on the heaving wet boards. He tried to ignore the thunder crashing above the wailing of the wind, the reverberations echoing in his head, the distraction slowing him down.
He was terrified of sliding into the sea almost directly below him, his progress along the deck unavoidably sluggish and erratic. He yelped with the pain of instantly bloody fingers where rapidly forming blisters burst. In the swiftly lowering light he glimpsed the fore-hatch coaming just for’ard of the mainmast. Coming up level with it he released his grip on the rail and slid down to relative safety.
He lay for a while, gasping against the raised wooden border of the hatch, easing the soreness in his arms and shoulders, recovering his strength as he sucked the broken skin on his hands. He moaned and swore under his breath using language that Anders would have been proud of.
He sat up and looked aft at the chaos surrounding the mainmast. Jason, bo’sun’s mate and sometimes ship’s minstrel was lying along the larboard yardarm with his legs in the ocean, using an axe to hack through the iron hard, tarred ropes. Others were securing lines flying loose in the gale and yet more were tugging free heavy wet canvas where it had become snagged.
Aidan, wiping the rain from his eyes, searched for the bo’sun quickly and espied the man at the foot of the mast, his back to him. His shout failing to attract the man’s attention in the screeching wind, he waved his arms in an effort to draw the man’s eye and again failed.
But he did attract the unwelcome attention of Leash. The tall, dark-haired sailor standing the other side of the bo’sun saw the boy gesticulating and, recognizing Aidan, he watched him through lidded eyes, saying nothing. But, inwardly, excitement rose and he tensed, four days at sea and finally an opportunity to kill the boy.
Between Aidan and the mast was a short open space with a clear drop to the ocean racing away below. Aidan sought for a way to get across the gap and glimpsed a rope hanging free from the main shrouds. He bided his time until a very strong gust brought the line to him and, clutching it desperately, he held it tight against his chest while he plucked up courage to leave the safety of the hatchway.
Leash perceived immediately the boy’s intention; he turned his head and scrutinized those working around him. None were looking his way, all frantically busy. His eyes flashed red and he smiled at the prospect of dealing a mortal blow to his enemy, he raised his axe.
With his heart in his mouth Aidan tugged the line to ensure it was secure. Satisfied, he lunged for the mast tearing the hem of his robe on the hatch bars at the same time. But moments after his feet left the deck he felt the rope running loose above him and he was slipping towards the ocean and oblivion. Closing his eyes he waited for the water to engulf him knowing there was no way he would regain the surface alive if he went under.
Leash rejoiced, the boy’s dying would undoubtedly devastate the wizard and, wanting just that, he had hacked at the other end of the rope. Smirking, he watched the boy plummeting to his death.
But Aidan was lucky. From the corner of his eye Trumper, the bo’sun, had glimpsed the line spring taut and then run free. Peering quickly through the dimness he glimpsed a body hurtling towards and then past him. He made a grab for the boy and pulled him into his arms.
Aidan opened his terrified eyes, blinked and swore profusely at the same time thanking all the Gods, and especially the bo’sun as he clung to him like a limpet.
‘Lad, what are you doing here?’ Trumper shouted disentangling himself with great difficulty from the boy’s embrace, neither of them noticing the abject disappointment on Leash’s face.
‘I have orders for you,’ panted Aidan, hardly believing he was still alive. Then, as he heard the snap of a line giving way and the rush of canvas across the deck he repeated Locklear’s orders quickly.
Morgan Trumper, a stocky man with a red, weather-beaten face and an extremely loud voice, pushed Aidan nearer to the mast so the boy could hold himself safe and then turned to Leash, the ship’s second helmsman.
‘Move it, Leash. Go like the devils of hell are after you, the captain needs you on your job.’
Bellowing, he ordered those men working nearby to secure the sail as it fell free. Terrified at falling into the sea, they set to with the backbreaking job of dragging half the sail from the ocean. But it wasn’t long before they realized the job was too much even for their combined strength.
‘We can’t do it Bo’sun, the sail is saturated, it’s too heavy,’ shouted Jason.
‘We’ve no choice, get your backs into it,’ Trumper ordered, his own back breaking with the strain.
But then Aidan had an idea and leaning over he gripped an edge of the sail and chanted. And, as the chant strengthened, droplets of water appeared on the surface of the canvas and rolled away leaving the fabric beneath as dry as a sunburned deck.
Trumper, Jason and the others looked on amazed until Aidan shouted. ‘Go on drag it out now, it’s a lot lighter. I’ve used a water-repellent spell, but it won’t last long in this rain.’
Trumper grinned. ‘Come on, you horrible lot, or are you going to deprive a young lad of his glory.’
With that the seamen accomplished the almost impossible task whilst avoiding swinging pulley blocks heavy enough to kill. As the last of the lines parted, the sail’s vast bulk was finally hauled inboard and the yardarm lifted from the water.
However, the Grim still heeled over abeam although by not nearly as much.
Trumper turned to Aidan. The bo’sun had, of course, seen the boy many times around the ship, usually in the company of the cabin boy when, nine times out of ten, mischief was usually the outcome of their reckless behaviour. He had on several occasions lost his temper with both of them, promising a severe beating if they didn’t behave.
‘Aidan,’ he shouted over the gale, ‘you’ve surprised me. I’ve always thought you a festering carbuncle on the hull of this ship…you and the cabin boy. But struggling here as you have and then helping us drag the sail from the sea has proved me wrong about you. Anyone who can exhibit that sort of bravery and think as quickly as you did can count me a friend.’
Aidan surprised, stared at him with eyes wide in disbelief. ‘Well, I don’t know about bravery, Bo’sun, but if the captain ever wants me to do anything like this again he can go jump in the bilges—I’ll be hiding.’ And Aidan trembled as he clung closer than an abscess to the teak mast.
Trumper laughed deeply. ‘You’ll do boy we’ll make a seaman of you yet, but take a bit of advice—never let the captain hear you voicing that sentiment. It smells of mutiny and he’ll clap you in the brig before you take another breath. But the Grim owes you. Now go, and on your way change your clothing, robes are not for storms. I don’t wish to repay the debt by pulling you out of the sea today.’
Aidan stared for a moment at the man who had often threatened to use the cat-o’-nine-tails on him, and he decided not to come out with another smart retort. ‘Don’t tell Tragen what I did.’
‘I’m not supposed to use those spells without permission. I might have burnt the sail,’ he shouted sheepishly.
On the way to his cabin he resumed his moaning and groaning, the pain in his back and legs almost taking his mind from the violence of the storm.
On the quarterdeck, the four men straining at the wheel instantly felt their task ease as the ship righted. They sensed the rudder and keel resume their proper places, once again fully immersed in the ocean.
Tragen looked to the man alongside him. Leash had arrived eventually, but steadying the helm had not seemed to get any easier with his help. He could not actually see the man malingering but he suspected it, the seaman’s sullenness not endearing him at all to the wizard.
Tragen frowned; he had seen Leash somewhere else before coming on this voyage, but just couldn’t place where. Leash was an enigma, a man who gave the appearance of being a landsman perfectly at home at sea. And yet he had no friends, no close acquaintances among the crew. He was a seaman alone amidst the two hundred or so sailors and two hundred marines that formed the complement of the Grim. Even so, Tragen felt drawn to the man, fascinated as a fly is mesmerized by the spider that has it trapped.
When the old wizard looked away, Leash, his lithe frame dripping water, his unruly brown hair plastered to his face, glanced over at him, his face showing complete and utter loathing. He took a swift peek at the staff held snugly in the wizard’s belt. Shuddering uncontrollably for a moment, Leash remembered the power of that stave having been a witness to its devastating effects years earlier—and he was petrified of being in its presence. His lack of effort was not because of indolence; his fear totally consumed him, denying thought for anything else.
‘The helm is easier now Tragen. Is it safe to remove your arm?
‘Aye, my friend,’ and Tragen drew his arm from between the spokes and gripped the wheel alongside Leash.
‘Now my boys we turn head to windward and we do it very cautiously,’ roared Locklear. ‘Wait for my word and then a last effort from you all, please!’ Ordering the unusual manoeuvre, for sailing ships usually fled before the wind in such weather, Locklear was attempting to keep to schedule. His passenger had to be returned to Mantovar with the utmost urgency.
The wind had not ceased howling since the storm’s onset, it setting everyone’s teeth on edge. The thunder continued to roll and crash and the lightning to flash, robbing every one of their sight the moment it left the heavens. With ears ringing, the rain beating on men and decks both, the captain and his three companions fought to bring the wheel up inch by slow inch, turning the bows into the wind. A painstaking task, it seemed to take forever but with muscles bulging, backs and legs straining, an hour later they had brought the ship around.
The monstrous waves that had previously inundated the ship from abeam threatening annihilation, now rolled beneath the keel from bows to stern, giving a more normal motion to the vessel. The very high waves still broke over the bows and water continued to flow through the scuppers, the drains, like rivers back into the ocean, but the crew now breathed a little easier as the danger of imminent sinking receded.
Locklear smiled his satisfaction. ‘Very good, my friends, let us hope the storm gets no worse. If it looks as if it’s going to we’ll have to turn about before it does. A nightmare of a task!’
Hopper, the ship’s first mate, brought men with him to the quarterdeck and they relieved the exhausted men at the helm. Talbot immediately dropped to the deck and sat with his back against the starboard rail his head bowed taking deep breaths. Leash slid down just along from him watching his arch enemy, his eyes again flashing strangely red until he’d regained control of his nerves.
Tragen gazed at the chaotic state of the ship, broken spars, loose ropes, weary men dropping where they stood. Groaning he stretched his aching back. His hands clutching the rail, his knees bending in time with the heaving deck he peered at the sail now lying in a heap at the foot of the mainmast—and promptly remembered Aidan.
‘Where’s my boy got to Hopper, have you seen him?’ Tragen asked agitatedly of the Grim’s second in command, grabbing his elbow and interrupting the mate’s reporting to his captain on the unhappy state of the ship.
Wearily Hopper glanced from his captain. ‘Your boy? I haven’t seen Aidan at all today.’
Tragen paled. ‘But you must have passed him as you came up here; he was with the bo’sun at the mainmast. You were working at the foremast weren’t you?’
‘Aye, Milord, I was and I spoke with Trumper on my way here. I didn’t see any sign of Aidan.’
Seriously worried, Tragen fought his way back to the for’ard rail and searched the ship ahead of him in the darkness.
‘I’ll never reach him in this weather,’ Tragen muttered, knowing he had no other option but to attempt it.
Jamming his body into the larboard corner of the quarterdeck, he removed his staff from his belt and held it in front of him in both hands. The stave tapering to a needle sharp barb at its base – a hardened spike that was used for more purposes than just magic – he braced firmly on the deck. The large knuckle of indeterminate form at the top of the staff – moulded by the heat of his hands – he placed beneath his chin.
Leash watching him, tensed, his mouth involuntarily twisting into a snarl as his eyes once more glared red. He bowed his head, scared witless at the wizard invoking the power in his staff.
Tragen calmed himself, endeavouring to ignore the wind tugging relentlessly at his robe, yanking viciously at his hips and legs, striving to make him fall. He closed his eyes, opened his mind and delved the ether in search of Aidan’s young mind.
The mindmeld was a very old tool of wizardry, possibly the oldest, and it could not be acquired as lore could be learned. Some in the wizarding world, those who could not communicate with their minds, contented themselves by becoming adepts in disciplines that did not require them to converse silently.
But Aidan had the aptitude and had used it frequently to survive as an orphan of the streets in his hometown of Miskim in the north of Mantovar. Tragen, discovering him there, had taken the urchin in hand. And while attempting to instil in him the correct moral virtues of a decent young wizard, and at the same time teaching him the different methods of controlling magic, he had discovered another overwhelming talent in the boy.
Correct behaviour incumbent on a young aristocrat – a station in life awarded to all wizards – was still a long way from realization in the hyper-active young man. But Aidan’s special talent begged forgiveness for his misdemeanours. And, of course, the threat of Tragen’s retribution quite often curtailed the youngster’s antics.
Tragen suffered a severe battering by the storm as he mindmelded for his apprentice. The screeching of the wind invading his thoughts, the biting rain in his face, and the violent motion of the ship inevitably distracted him and ensured his failure. He could not maintain his concentration in the midst of nature’s tirade.
He opened his eyes and looked ahead hoping for a glimpse of Aidan in the darkness, despair creeping up on him unawares at no sign of him. He closed his eyes for a second attempt, steadied himself, and calling up more power from his staff he again probed the airways.
And this time he connected—with something totally unforeseen. Tragen rocked on his feet. Opening his eyes he came back to himself feeling a terrible premonition take hold. He lifted his chin from the knuckle of the staff and, full of trepidation, he turned and stared white-faced at Locklear.
‘My friend, what ails you?’ Locklear asked, startled.
‘We need to talk and talk now.’ He steered the big man to the rear of the quarterdeck and sheltering below the overhanging poop deck, he whispered. ‘Let us go to your cabin, this is for your ears alone.’
‘Tragen, I cannot possibly leave my quarterdeck in this storm!’
‘You must, Hugo, you must come with me,’ whispered the wizard vehemently.
‘I will not leave my quarterdeck in bad weather, Tragen.’
‘Hugo,’ he drew himself up to his full height, ‘Hugo, someone evil is attempting to ensnare the Grim! We must talk.’
Locklear, startled, stared intently at the friend he’d implicitly trusted all his life.
‘Hopper, remain here until I return. I won’t be long,’ he said, vexed by Tragen’s stricken face.
‘Aye, aye sir…I’ll set the lifelines now.’
Locklear nodded his agreement, and he and the wizard withdrew, making their way down the aft companionway to the master’s cabin abaft and below the quarterdeck.
Leash, relaxing now that the wizard’s staff was leaving his immediate vicinity, watched them departing. He smiled slyly, his bloodshot eyes returning to normal, his snarl disappearing. Seeing the wizard troubled made him very happy.
The fact that the very powerful wizard was obviously deeply distressed in the midst of the worst storm he had ever encountered, worried Leash not at all.