A Welsh headmaster had died and there were many applicants for the post.
While the dead man was awaiting burial one of the applicants buttonholed the chairman of the education committee and asked “Would you have any objection to my taking the place of the headmaster?”
“No,” replied the chairman, “not at all. Go and see the undertaker about it.”
Tragen was in the captain’s cabin with Hugo Locklear. Ignoring the disarray caused by the storm and, walking either side of the after-jigger mast, the fifth mast, which pierced the centre of the cabin, they stood facing each other across the large desk overlooked by the sloping window in the stern gallery. A window that now showed in the lightning flashes, a very angry sea as waves tore away aft and disappeared leaving the ship to ride the violence.
Locklear, who looked even larger in the confines of his own cabin, studied his friend for a moment before breaking the silence. ‘I cannot leave the quarterdeck for long, my friend. Now speak of what you know. Who is trying to take the Grim?’ He leaned towards the wizard, his huge hands on the desk before him.
Tragen wondered if he’d be believed, in the relative peace of the cabin he almost doubted it himself. He sighed, and stumbling as the ship abruptly keeled over and just as swiftly righted itself again, he upended a chair that had fallen nearby.
‘You are not going to like this, Hugo…we have been found,’ he said sitting down.
‘Found? I didn’t know we were hiding,’ as Tragen looked fixedly at his hands, Locklear went on. ‘Come man. What ails you that you trouble to tell me? I must return to my quarterdeck, no responsible captain leaves his command in rough weather.’
‘This storm is not a normal storm…’
‘I am aware of that,’ he interrupted, perplexed, not understanding the wizard’s reticence. ‘I have been at sea a long time now and have never encountered one such as this. This storm seems to have a mind of its own, as if it’s deliberately attacking us. Your statement implies I am correct’
‘Yes, Hugo, I am convinced we are under attack.’
‘Then tell me who threatens us. What do you know, man?’
‘Did you see me looking to mindmeld with Aidan? It went nowhere at my first attempt; the storm’s ferocity ensured my failure,’ he rubbed his eyes. ‘But on the second attempt I utilized more power in my staff and…and I seemed to meld with the storm, an occurrence I have never heard of before.’ He stared at his friend, helplessly. ‘In the storm I discovered someone else.’ He looked down at his hands in his lap; they were trembling ever so slightly, another unique occurrence.
‘Who…who did you discover?’
‘I do not know who, but I know what I felt. I heard laughter, Hugo, terrible laughter. I felt his malevolence, his malign glee and I do not know whence it came. All I know is that he was delighted he had found us and I knew that the storm, and I mean the whole purpose of the storm, was to ensnare us.’
The captain stared at the wizard for a moment and then looked around for his own chair, replacing it behind his desk he sat down. ‘Do you know why he wants us?’
‘No, I was afraid to keep in contact for long in case he, or they, discovered me listening.’
‘Is that a good thing? That they do not know you’re here.’
‘My instincts told me then, as they tell me now, whoever they are should not become aware of my presence.’
Locklear, who always combed his beard with his fingers when he was seriously worried, did so now and water dripped onto his desk to be ignored. He stared at his friend.
‘How powerful are they? It has to be someone who can wield an extremely potent force, if what you fear is true. Have you any idea who may be looking for us?’
‘Oh, by all the Gods, Hugo,’ and he rubbed his weary eyes again, ‘ideas? I have several…all of them frightening. ‘You are correct, the power needed to create this storm rule out a great many. But of those that remain the first that springs to mind is the Magus, Brenin of the Guild of the Brethren of Wisdom and his deputy, Drudwynn. If it’s they then the storm will become even more powerful the closer we get to shore. The magus is the most formidable sorcerer in the world I could never beat him alone. But, as in all magic, the more potent the spell the more energy it takes to cast and consequently the more exhausted will the conjurors become. And for this tempest, I cannot for the life of me imagine that they can possibly maintain the barrage for long.’
‘How long is long?’
‘How long is a piece of twine, Hugo? I don’t know. It must be taking tremendous resources to cast the spell this far from shore, which is why I suspect more than one behind it. We are at the edge of the storm so we must almost be at the limit of their range. But even ten…twenty spell-casters must rest eventually.’
‘I suppose so. But what is their purpose? Unless of course…’ and Hugo’s eyes opened wide, ‘it is Princess Augusta they’re after.’
‘It’s the only possible reason that comes to mind Hugo. Her father’s many enemies may very well recruit the Guild, and the Guild has its own reasons for not wanting her at home.’
‘Do you know what they are?’
‘I have an idea but it could only be conjecture at this time, nothing is certain as yet. But her father’s and my suspicions are enough to warrant her return.’
‘You mentioned other possibilities?’
‘Those scare me even more, Hugo.’
‘Go on…enlighten me.’
‘There are always the dwellers in the Ringwold.’
‘Dear God, from the stories I’ve heard of those we do not want to get entangled with them,’ Hugo shuddered. ‘But I thought they were demons not spell-casters? And they are well over a thousand…maybe two thousand leagues away, surely too far to affect us here?’
‘True, the Ringwold is way up in the frozen north. But whatever or whoever resides in that bleak spot is powerful beyond measure. I have not heard of them being active in the outside world for a thousand years and more, yet…whether they can influence events after all this time I’m not sure. But it’s inconceivable they can reach us here and I know of no reason that they would want Augusta. No…only the Gods are omnipotent, Hugo.’
‘Could it be them?’ he asked, his voice trembling just at the thought of those fickle beings hunting them.
‘The Gods you mean? I do not believe they would bother themselves with the politics of mere mortals they are too busy fighting amongst themselves. At least I do not want to believe it.’
‘Do you rule them out? You seem unsure.’
‘I rule out no-one in this. That dreadful laughter I heard really was inhuman.’
Both men silently took refuge in their own thoughts as they examined the consequences of each scenario, any of which would mean the end of the Grim and its occupants. If it was the infernal Ringwold, it meant the end of civilization as they knew it—demons would run amok once again in the world. If it was the Gods, then their souls were forfeit as well. Terrible though it was, it seemed the least evil were the very powerful black sorcerers of the Guild of Brethren.
‘What do you suggest we do? If I understand you correctly, moving towards home will bring us closer to the Guild and the nearer we get the more severe the storm will become. I was hoping to keep to schedule and have Augusta at home within the week. However, if what you suspect comes to pass then I can forget that. Augusta will be late getting home I’m afraid. Looking at the situation logically and not as I would wish it to be then I must change my plan,’ he sighed. ‘It must be obvious we cannot sustain much more damage. Damn it! Heaving-to in this weather will be very dangerous but not impossible perhaps; and if we do stay here it cannot be for long, we all have to rest.’ Hugo stroked his beard and again tapped his chin. ‘Hopper tells me the holds have been partially flooded, we have sustained sprung boards and the wells are filling. We desperately need to pump the bilges. Can you help us in this?’
‘Whatever magic I use now to repair the ship will result in extreme fatigue for me, Hugo. I will need to rest often and for longer periods each time. And I am afraid that I may be incapacitated at the very moment need of my help would be critical. No, my friend, I had better hold off until there is dire need—I must remain the last resort.’
Locklear stared at the wizard, acknowledging the sense of his argument. ‘We can perhaps run before the storm, I suppose, but that will take us farther from home and into uncharted waters; not taking into account, of course, that turning the ship in weather such as this will be an absolute nightmare.’
Tragen gazing at his friend went through the options in his mind. ‘Let us go for the easiest until we know more. Let us wait them out until the morning. Whoever has created this storm may well be exhausted by then and if there is a lull we can take appropriate action at that time.’
‘All right, we’ll heave-to, I’ll…’ Hugo halted at the sound of hammering on the door. ‘Enter,’ he shouted.
Anders, distinctly dishevelled, opened the door and peered around the jamb. ‘Excuse me sir, I have an urgent message for Lord Tragen.’
Screwing his eyes in puzzlement at the state of the usually clean Anders, he nodded. ‘Then by all means, deliver it.’
The cabin boy, breathing deeply to steady his nerves, entered and stood before the old wizard and couldn’t help but notice a small cyst on the end of Tragen’s nose. For a moment Anders thought it looked like a nose growing on a nose and he nearly burst out laughing, recovering quickly he delivered Aidan’s request for help.
‘I’m sorry, Milord, but Aidan needs…needs you,’ all at once he stuttered to a halt. Tragen always got very irritated when Aidan was involved in an accident, even if it wasn’t his fault. And what’s more he, Anders, usually got dragged into it, suffering the same penalty as his friend.
‘Aidan is all right, isn’t he?’ The wizard asked jumping up from his chair and grasping the cabin boy’s shoulders, concern etching deep lines in his brow.
‘Yes, he’s fine, Milord, but he wants you to attend on the Lady Cornelia in Princess Augusta’s cabin.’ Panicking at having Tragen stare at him so closely, he went on, a tremor in his voice. ‘He said to tell you it is definitely her ankle and he is keeping her…sedated, I think is the word he used, sir.’
‘What is definitely her ankle young man? What has happened?’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, Milord, she…’ and he gulped, ‘she tripped over Aidan and fell down and broke it, sir.’
‘My God, that boy is going to be the death of me yet,’ he said to no-one in particular, as he moved to leave. ‘Why, on the God’s earth, did I choose an apprentice so very accident prone?’
Halting at the door, Anders following behind nearly bumping into him, Tragen turned to the ship’s master. ‘You will take the necessary action, as we agreed?
‘Aye man, it seems to be the most sensible option at present.’
Still agitated, Anders followed the tall, thin wizard as he made his way to Augusta’s cabin. The companionway down to the main passenger cabins was very dark but Tragen didn’t seem to have any trouble negotiating the passage. Anders glimpsed the captain behind them making his way to the quarterdeck. His uncle was not a very happy man, the Bear was weary and definitely out of sorts, as if he had something on his mind other than the storm.
When Locklear reached the quarterdeck, Talbot was back on duty at the wheel accompanied this time by Nkosi, a huge black seaman from the Dark Continent way to the south of Drakka. Hopper was at the forward quarterdeck rail peering at the bows through the gale, trying to make out the details there with the aid of the intermittent lightning strikes.
Hugo strode over and shouted over the top of the screaming wind. ‘How goes it Hopper, are we coping?’
‘Aye, aye sir, we are for now.’
‘Are we making any sort of headway?’
‘A little perhaps, but my instincts tell me the storm is about to get worse.’’
‘All right, we’ll heave-to until the morning, maybe the storm will ease. Set sea anchors, Hopper, and then get some rest, I’ll remain here now.’
Hopper touched his forelock and set off to find Trumper.
Hugo looked about him. Had the wind increased? His first mate was positive it was going to. Locklear trusted his first mate, had learned to over the years they’d served together, Hopper’s feelings were rarely wrong. But now he had other things preying on his mind. He sighed, those problems had to be put to the back of his mind for now, there were far more pressing matters to deal with first. He stared into the clouds through the teeming rain concentrating on the nuances of the storm. It was getting even darker, but was that because it was getting on for nightfall, or was there some other dark reason?
He had to be careful now; they had been battling this storm since before dawn. Exhaustion was setting in. This was the time when trivial errors had a habit of turning into major setbacks, especially when the only means of communication was by touch or signing. He was going to have to send men to rest, which meant that those remaining on duty would need to exert themselves even more. Hugo well knew the effect that the constant buffeting would have—confusion would set in, minds stupefy and minor injuries become major. In the following days and nights movement would become instinctual. And survival would depend on whatever nourishment could be doled out by Dolly, the ship’s cook, hopefully something hot during lulls in the storm. But hot food was going to be nothing more than a fantasy in this weather.
Hugo’s thoughts returned to Tragen’s tidings. How were they to discover the identity of the creator of this storm? Confronting someone who could command nature’s violence was not a prospect that instilled much confidence of success. No, they’d have to flee, find a safer haven before they even thought of retaliating. He shuddered at the thought of turning about in this weather; it would be a diabolical task.
The Grim was Locklear’s life, the only ship in the world able to bear five masts. Veterans of the sea maintained that a ship bearing more than four was intrinsically unsafe, but Locklear had proved them all wrong. His skills had brought the Grim through ferocious seas many times in the past. From the very first day plans of the ship had been proposed, he had been involved in the design. His experience had been invaluable and he had overseen the building of her from the hour the massive keel had first been laid. The Grim was his baby; he knew her moods and her capabilities. If the storm’s intensity remained at this level, the ship would be fine, but if the weather deteriorated even more?
But if the worst came to the worst, the safety of Augusta was paramount; boats would need to be prepared with extra provisions stowed. Locklear combed his beard again as he strode his quarterdeck staring up at the topgallants, the spars at the top of the masts, bare now of their sails. The thought of his princess in a small boat on these seas terrified him.
Meanwhile, Tragen had reached his destination with a distinctly worried Anders in tow. The nearer they came to Augusta’s cabin, the closer they were to that of Aidan’s. And in the passageway there was a distinct smell and bitter taste of old smoke, which had not yet dispersed because of the tightly closed hatch. Tragen sniffed ominously as he hurried.
The old wizard peered into the gloomy cabin and studied the almost silent scene. Beatrix was sitting on the floor against the bulkhead at the head of Augusta’s cot, one hand in her lap the other keeping the cot – suspended from the deckhead, the ceiling, by ropes in each corner – from nudging Aidan’s back. Tragen smiled quickly at the young girl, he noticing her blonde wavy hair had kept its bounce despite being wet. Augusta was sitting in the only chair at the other end, nearest the door. She was also using one hand to fend off the swinging bed, her index finger on her other hand stuck in the corner of her mouth. Both girls looked the worse for wear, soaking wet from their earlier fight with the porthole, their gowns a mess. They were both staring at Aidan, wonderment on their faces, concern for the lady-in-waiting clouding their eyes.
Aidan was still sitting on the deck, his head bent over the recumbent body of Lady Cornelia, her foot protruding from beneath the blanket. The boy was stroking her forehead rhythmically and gently and his brown eyes were closed. He was chanting the lullaby of sleep, quietly and melodiously, his whole attention centred on the unconscious woman.
Tragen stared intently at the wound. Blood was seeping slowly from a break in the white skin where the ragged edge of a bone could just be seen poking through the surface of her fleshy limb. Aidan continued his chant without a break even though he sensed the presence of his master.
Ignoring everyone else, including Anders standing just inside the doorway watching avidly, Tragen spoke gently. ‘You are doing well, my boy, she is not suffering.’
Aidan opened his eyes and, staring at his mentor, he slowly ceased his singing. ‘The fractures are bad, very bad,’ he continued his tender stroking of Cornelia’s forehead.
‘Can you see all the injury?’
‘Yes, there’s more than one splinter, she…’
Augusta, shaken out of her torpor by Aidan’s answer, interrupted. ‘What do you mean, Lord Tragen? How can he possibly see more than one?’ She swallowed quickly as she looked at the foot. ‘I can see but one bone protruding.’
‘Highness, my young apprentice has a unique talent,’ and he smiled at Aidan. ‘He is a most extraordinary healer. He can sense the impairment beneath the flesh of a maimed body and detect its maladies, not only by touch and smell, but also with sight. I, on the other hand, am but an ordinary mender of bodies. It’s the gift of common sense he lacks!’
‘Master!’ Aidan replied taking umbrage.
‘I’m sorry, my boy, my great age does make me flippant on times. Haven’t you noticed?’ he grinned.
‘You mean to say that he can see the bones inside her leg?’ Augusta asked, astonished, not understanding their banter she was becoming more anxious.
The wizard gazed at Augusta. ‘I do, and if you will forgive us, Highness, we must now decide on a course of action,’ he turned once more to Aidan. ‘What do you suggest?’
‘Well, she also has the sickness of the old in her bones to complicate matters.’
‘And her weight will not help, hey?’
‘No. It is difficult to see the actual breaks through so much flesh.’
‘You wish us to change places, I sing the song of sleep and you repair the fractures?’
They did not speak as they changed ends. Tragen knelt at Cornelia’s head as Aidan slid out and replaced his master at her feet.
‘The “old” sickness is very deep-seated; I will need to deal with that as I repair the bones.’ Meeting Tragen’s smiling eyes he grinned in response. ‘I’ll need someone to help while I manipulate the bones.’ He looked around at his audience. ‘You’ll do, Anders. Sit beside me and do as I say.’
Anders nodded, very nervous and it showed.
‘Don’t worry; you won’t hurt her as long as you listen to me.’
‘Beatrix take that blanket off the cot and fold it, please,’ Aidan looked at the jittery girl and smiled. ‘Now place it under her leg as we raise it.’
And while Tragen chanted the song of sleep in a somewhat deeper voice than his pupil, Aidan set to work. He took his time. All his movements slow and well considered before actually being carried out, contending with the lurching floor as he did so. There was silence from all except Tragen chanting, Anders obeying his every command, Augusta and Beatrix totally absorbed in his every action. As Aidan worked, the bone disappeared below the surface and back into place, the ruptured tissue closing.
Time seemed to pass very slowly as Tragen continued to sing, taking great pride in his apprentice. Even after ten years of watching Aidan at work, he was still astounded at the boy’s power.
Aidan glanced up at the girl sitting on the chair beside him. ‘I need strips for binding and something to use as splints.’
Augusta jumped up with alacrity and searched the room taking care not to stumble near those on the floor. She tore a cotton sheet into long lengths for him as Beatrix came back from her cabin with slats of wood. Aidan gently wrapped the bindings and the splints in place.
‘Done, now we lay her in bed for the healing to continue,’ Aidan sighed with relief.
‘It will be very difficult to carry her to her cabin; we’ll never get her through the door. You had best place her in my cot here,’ Augusta ordered, immediately standing to rearrange the bedding.
‘But where will you sleep?’ Beatrix, immediately alarmed, enquired.
‘I will take Cornelia’s bed and share the cabin with you while she recovers.’
Beatrix paled; the thought of her mistress in the same cabin unnerved her more than she was comfy with. Augusta was a lot like Aidan…a veritable affliction.
Tragen, using magic, helped the two boys lift the heavy woman and they settled her into Augusta’s cot, the ropes in each corner creaking audibly as they took the strain.
‘Well done, my boy,’ said Tragen, beaming. But all of a sudden his face lost its look of pride and he peered closely at both boys, a very stern expression now on his face.
‘Well, Highness, we will leave you and your companion to disrobe Lady Cornelia and make her comfortable while I and these two repair to my own cabin for a long discussion on the whys and wherefores of accidents.’
With a bow, he departed through the door and the boys followed very reluctantly, remembering what Tragen would find at his destination.
‘One of you bring the lantern,’ the wizard called over his shoulder.
Augusta wondered where her seasickness had gone. And if she but knew it, Aidan and Anders did not wonder why all of a sudden they felt sick.
The Chairman of a Welsh education committee called one of his junior officials into his office at County Hall.
“How are you getting on now?” he asked him kindly. “Is everybody treating you well in the office and are you fitting yourself for better things?”
“Oh, I think so,” said the young official modestly.
“Well,” said the great man, “I’m going to make you Director of Education. What do you think of that?”
“I’m quite overwhelmed”, said the youngster. “It really is good of you Dad.”