The answering machine
Have you heard about the latest machine on the pier at Llandudno?
You put ten pence in and ask it any question and it gives you a true answer.
One holiday maker from Cardiff tried it last week.
He asked the machine “Where is my father?” The machine replied:
“Your father is fishing in South Wales.”
Well, he thought, that’s daft for a start because my father is dead.
“Where is my mother’s husband?”
Back came the reply, “Your mother’s husband is buried in Cardiff but your father is still fishing in South Wales.”
A view from the courtyard of Castle Mantovar (as seen in Castell Coch)
‘My God, Tragen, when I saw you fall my heart stopped. What happened?’ Locklear asked worry over the last hours had etched deep lines in his face. Both men were taking their ease in the captain’s cabin sharing a bottle of his best Gilian brandy, a present off Tragen. The wizard, exhausted, and pulling at his beard, needed his bed more but he could not go to sleep without sharing the ominous knowledge he alone had discovered.
‘Ah, Hugo, again I heard it and this time I nearly succumbed. If not for Aidan and his healing of my mind, I…I would have been lost.’
He leaned his back against the hard, brown leather of the chair, crossed his long legs at his ankles and propped his elbows on the ornate arms. With a mug in one hand and the other holding his staff to his body as if afraid he’d lose it, he continued, knowing he had no answers yet.
‘Laughter, Hugo…the same manic laughter and this time like a fool I forgot everything and went searching for it.’
‘And did you find it?’ Locklear alarmed, leant forward across his desk.
Tragen was again looking his centuries-old age. ‘I confirmed my fears,’ and he stared into his mug, gently swirling the deep amber liquid. Distracted momentarily by the light reflecting off its richness, he understood why Aidan and Anders had yielded to its potency. ‘Oh Hugo, I touched its mind, and the horror I sensed there seemed to steal my wits. It drew me to it.’
‘So, whatever it is, now knows of you?’
‘That’s the strangest thing I do not believe it does. I felt no change as I perceived its mind, if a mind it was…it may just have been its emotions. The laughter altered not even one iota, which it would have if it had known I was there. No, it continued its insane merriment.’ Tragen swallowed another mouthful of the Gilian and allowed the warmth to sustain him as it found its way to his stomach. The fleeting silence his remarks brought to the cabin, making him anxious, he gulped the rest of his brandy and clutched the empty mug in his tired hand.
Locklear sat up straight, staring at the wizard. ‘Did you glean any more of its purpose?’ He stretched across and replenished the wizard’s empty mug.
Tragen shook his head. ‘All I sense is its single-minded malevolence with us as the object of its hate.’
Locklear turned sideways in his chair and peered out the gallery window at the storm, the huge waves towering above the stern obliterating what little light there was. He stroked his full black beard and sighed.
‘Well, with luck, my friend, we will soon be free of this tempest. Whoever, or whatever, is behind this cannot keep it going for much longer. And the greater the distance between us and this evil thing the better we’ll feel.’ Looking again at the wizard, he said. ‘But just in case there are other unforeseen events, I think it best if we continue to keep the young lady hidden.’
Tragen nodded. ‘It would be ideal if she remained masquerading as a member of the crew, as she is now.’
‘Should we tell her of our fears?’
‘I do not believe there is need to, Hugo…at least not yet, there is no need to frighten her. There is a friendship developing between her and the others, one I never expected. I say we leave it progress normally for now. And besides,’ lifting his mug to be refilled for a third time and taking another larger swallow of brandy, he continued, ‘she seems quite taken with wearing britches.’ He chuckled, lifting the sombre mood briefly. ‘But Lady Cornelia should be informed of the whole situation, I know her personally and her reputation for protecting the princess is formidable. She is a very determined lady and has the full support of Augusta’s mother in whatever action she deems necessary for the safety and upbringing of her charge. Cornelia will not be very happy at seeing Augusta improperly dressed and running around with servants. She will have grave doubts for the girl’s welfare and will order her to resume her normal attire, and her proper station in life…unless we can persuade her otherwise, of course.’
‘But, Highness, it is not seemly. He is nothing but a young scoundrel…you, yourself have always said so! We don’t even know anything of his family, if he has any. How can you possibly allow him to be so familiar? Not even I call you by your name and I’ve grown up with you! Lady Cornelia will never approve, neither will your father, and your mother will be shamed.’
‘You are nagging me, Beattie, desist. I have made my decision. Aidan will use my name and if it makes you feel better I give you permission as well. No…I order you to use my name, which will help you get used to hearing it from Aidan. Cornelia will not criticize me for long,’ and she smiled, conceit written all over her face. ‘You know I can twist her around my little finger.’
‘You think so,’ Beatrix said looking sidelong at her, could she dare use her name?
‘And talking of being familiar, what is going on between you and Anders?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Beatrix, flummoxed and blushing like mad.
‘No? I’ve seen you holding hands and you couldn’t get much closer to him if you tried. But never mind that, Cornelia will have to realize that when Aidan comes to the end of his training he will gain his peerage, then he’ll be deemed a suitable friend by everyone…so why wait! Besides, he did heal her and she’ll be very grateful for that, won’t she?’
‘But the completion of his schooling is a long time off yet and…and what will she say of these clothes?’ Trying another tack, Beatrix was becoming truly desperate, whatever she said her mistress appeared to be heading for trouble. ‘You can’t tell me she will approve of us wearing britches and going barefoot. And these clothes are not even clean now,’ she wrinkled her nose in disgust.
‘Then we must ensure that nothing else is available,’ Augusta countered firmly, and saying this, a wicked grin stretched her mouth wide.
‘Oh no! What are you thinking of now?’ Beattie’s stomach lurched; she had plenty of experience of this particular look.
She and Augusta had known each other since birth; both had been born on the same day, fifteen years before in the huge Castle of Mantovar. Beattie’s mother, Lady Dotrice, besides being the princess’ favourite lady-in-waiting along with Lady Cornelia, was also her closest confidante and friend. And the two girls had literally grown up together, usually sleeping in the same nursery. It had always been an accepted fact that when Augusta went south into Drakka to further her education at the emperor’s court, Beatrix would accompany her as her companion and share her lessons. But this look on Augusta’s face always boded ill for them both; she had a knack for instigating wild schemes which usually had an outcome quite unexpected.
There had been one remarkable experience a while back and the outcome of that was still a mystery. She and Beatrix lived under strict orders never to leave the confines of the castle unless accompanied by an armed escort, but the year before leaving for Drakka a carnival had arrived in the town. Excitement had gripped everyone and the whole town and castle erupted with delight. Augusta and Beatrix couldn’t wait to experience the sights and sounds of the shows and, dressed as peasant girls, had for the first time sneaked past the castle guards. Relishing the freedom from bodyguards, the two young girls dawdled in the marketplace of the town sampling the wares from several of the local trades’ people.
But as the morning progressed eventually they arrived at the meadow where the troubadours had set up camp. They were utterly captivated. The travellers had pitched their myriad stalls and tents in a haphazard fashion throughout the large field. A kaleidoscope of colours greeted them reds, yellows, greens, browns, you name it there was a splash of the colour somewhere in the meadow. The two girls spent hours wandering through, tasting the goods on a variety of stalls, staring wide-eyed at the performers inside and outside of brightly striped tents.
In due course, they had found themselves outside a small white tent, on the edge of the encampment. A very pretty, middle-aged woman was sitting alone in its doorway, but everyone was walking past her, ignoring her as if she was invisible. It was her dazzling smile more than anything that intrigued them. It was very unusual in a peasant to have pure white teeth for they usually had mouths full of broken, black or yellow teeth, very often none at all. The lovely smile, along with her long black tresses and the lingering smell of lavender attracted the two girls and they went over to talk to her and discovered she was a seer. But what she told the girls was such a lot of nonsense that they soon left her and returned home to find the castle in an uproar. Their absence at luncheon had been noticed and a search had been mounted for them, Prince Cedric and his wife frantic, worrying for their safety. Their punishment had lasted a month.
But when the troubadours performed at the castle in front of Augusta’s parents later that week, the girls questioned the travellers about the woman, but not one knew of her. In fact, they denied all knowledge of travelling with a seer. One even smiled indulgently, explaining that a white tent would never be used by any member of the carnival—the colour never attracted customers. The girls were mystified and despite searching amongst the crowds they failed to find any sign of her.
They had wanted to ask her to explain further about what she meant when she said they would aid a son to find his father. Her disappearance had been very puzzling.
‘You will be carrying wash-water to Cornelia in a moment,’ Augusta said, interrupting Beattie’s thoughts. ‘When we are attending her you will have an accident and tip the water over the clothes in my wardrobe that are not already ruined by the sea.’
‘There will not be sufficient in that bowl to soil all those, that’s not going to work.’
‘Then let’s see if the boys can help. Kindly go and fetch them, and hurry, I do believe I hear Cornelia stirring,’ she said, imperiously waving her companion out the door.
Beatrix obeyed reluctantly, muttering beneath her breath.
Anders, who was nearer, opened the door when she knocked and was unceremoniously pushed into the room when she rushed in, the door rebounding loudly against the bulkhead.
‘What the hell…’ he asked, falling promptly onto the burned bed. Aidan startled, looked round, a wet shirt in his hands.
‘You must help me…now! My mistress is demanding your aid for a mischief that will only succeed in causing terrible trouble. I can feel it! You have to stop her, come quickly and DO NOT DO as she asks!’
The two boys stared at each other in amazement. Beatrix ran out and down the passage, Anders raced after her. Aidan flung his shirt on the floor and promptly fell over it. Cursing, he rose, and rubbing his knee he followed, catching up with the two of them as they arrived in Beattie’s cabin.
Augusta, only just managing to avoid the swinging overhead lantern, was pacing the short distance within, her eyes almost closed and her index finger in the corner of her mouth. Beatrix watched as the plot developed in her mistress’ mind. The plan almost visible behind her flashing eyes when she opened them wide to stare at the new arrivals.
‘Highness, what is it now?’ Aidan asked, worried.
‘Right, Aidan…yes!’ She stopped her pacing and stared at the apprentice wizard. ‘I want you to ruin the rest of my clothes,’ and seeing the shock on his face, added. ‘I don’t mean for good, just for a few days, until Cornelia gets used to me wearing britches.
‘Why? I mean, why on earth do you still want to wear our clothes?’ Anders asked.
‘You obviously don’t know what it’s like to wear a gown on board a ship, do you?’
‘Of course I don’t,’ replied Anders, very indignant.
‘Mind you, he wouldn’t tell you if he did,’ smirked Aidan.
‘Shut it! You’re the one who wears a robe, not me.’ Anders retorted.
‘Quiet, the pair of you! Take it from me…it is very uncomfortable in this weather. And climbing ladders is an abomination.’
‘Well, as a temporary measure we could soak them again, I suppose. We can use this bowl of water, it might help for a little while,’ Aidan said dubiously, stirring the contents of the large washbowl rather vigorously with his hand.
‘No, we’ve thought of that. Beattie says there’s not enough and she’s probably correct. No, you’ll have to think of something else,’ Augusta said, smacking Aidan’s hand to stop his splashing.
The relief on Anders’ face was short-lived when he realized that Aidan was contemplating the use of magic. Aidan’s face, on the other hand, was gleaming at the prospect.
‘And I gave you permission to call me Augusta, didn’t I?’
‘You did, yes Highn…Augusta.’
‘Good! Now then, little wizard…how will you do it?’
Perplexed, Aidan paused, scratching his head. ‘Hang about; I have to think it through, first. I can’t just conjure any old spell for a job like this; it takes a lot of thinking about.’
‘You haven’t got long, Cornelia is waking up. I’m sure this will only need a little spell,’ she said impatiently, standing over Aidan who was now stretched out on the bottom bunk, his hands behind his head.
Anders burst in desperately. ‘Highness, he has express orders from Lord Tragen that he isn’t to cast spells in confined spaces.’
‘He only means warming spells!’ And at Augusta’s enquiring look, and ignoring the yelp of fear from Beatrix, Aidan went on. ‘Tragen has the stupid idea I have accidents with spells involving heat. Anders will tell you that it was his fault last time when I burned the bunk. Now where are your clothes, Highness…sorry…Augusta?’
Just then, there was an anxious cry from the cabin over the way. Lady Cornelia had awoken to find herself ensconced in her mistress’s cot, with her ankle swathed in linen.
‘Augusta,’ she shouted, ‘Augusta where are you? What am I doing here?’
‘Quickly Beattie, go and calm her. Tell her I’ll be right along.’ As she ran out, shaking her head and muttering that all hell was about to break loose, Augusta turned to Anders.
‘You, grab that bowl, pretend it has water in it for washing Lady Cornelia and take it in to Beattie. Aidan have you had any more thoughts? He shook his head. ‘Come on hurry up I have to go in and see her she’s not going to wait much longer.’
‘Well, she can hardly get out of bed to come and get you!’
‘Aha! I know that,’ she said sarcastically. ‘But she’s going to smell a rat if I don’t get in there before long.’
‘A spell of fragrance should do it,’ he pondered. ‘Yes, I can cast an enchantment to make your gowns smell,’ and he grinned evilly at her, ‘smell absolutely foul.’
‘Yes!’ she laughed. ‘Yes that should do it. That’s a wonderful idea. I should have thought of that myself.’
Aidan preened, rubbing his fingernails on his chest. ‘You need a smart mind like mine for that.’
‘Huh,’ she said disparagingly, ‘don’t push it. Wait, nothing can go wrong, can it?’ She gave him a worried look remembering the wizard’s restrictions on heat spells.
‘Don’t panic, of course nothing will go wrong. Now where did you say these clothes were?’
‘They’re hanging in the chest next to my cot.’
‘Awkward, I’ll have to create the spell alongside her. You’ll have to distract her.’ He looked at her confidently. ‘But first things first, you have to get me in there.’
‘That’s easy, I’ll tell her you are there to help remove my wardrobe to this cabin. And once I inform Cornelia how you healed her, she’ll want to convey her gratitude personally and will not suspect a thing.’ Grinning, she pulled him by the hand from the bottom bunk and into the passage.
‘Whoa!’ he shouted bumping the doorjamb as he went through. At the door of Cornelia’s cabin Aidan stopped, abruptly jerking Augusta to a halt he held her hand tight. ‘You are not to tell her that I healed her.’
‘Why ever not?’ Augusta asked puzzled, brushing her black hair out of her eyes.
‘Never mind why…I don’t want you to, Okay? Promise me, now, or I won’t help you…I mean it.’ Aidan was adamant, a tremor in his voice.
‘All right, if that is what you wish,’ she said frowning, not understanding his strange attitude. ‘But she’ll find out anyway.’
‘Aye, but not when I’m around…okay?’ and he released her hand.
When Augusta and Aidan entered, Beatrix was washing Cornelia’s face using a facecloth dipped into the bowl held steady in Anders’ strong hands. She was that flustered, she hadn’t noticed the water was dirty. Beatrix and Anders glanced at each other nervously wondering what madcap scheme had been dreamed up.
Cornelia looked up when Augusta appeared in the cabin. ‘I’m sorry, Augusta, for being in your bed. I…I don’t know what has happened to me. Please, if you can obtain assistance for me, I will remove myself immediately.’
‘Nonsense, Cornelia, it is me who is moving out. Aidan here has kindly consented to help me in moving my wardrobe into Beattie’s cabin. I will use your bed until you are fully healed.’
Without warning the purple-faced lady-in-waiting screamed. ‘Augusta…Augusta, what are you wearing? Oh, my God, your father will flay me alive!’ And the large lady made as if to rise and then, as the cot swung wildly and she grabbed hold of its sides to avoid falling out, she noticed that she was not wearing any outer garments. ‘Agh!’ she said with a strangled shout. ‘Get these boys out of here, I cannot be seen like this,’ and she drew the blankets up to her neck.
‘Come, come, Cornelia,’ she said comfortingly, patting the lady’s podgy hand. ‘Please, do not fret, you will make yourself ill. My own clothes have been ruined by the storm. These are the only suitable clothes we could find and as you see Beatrix refused to allow me to wear such clothing alone.’
Beatrix stared at Augusta, disbelief playing on her face, biting her bottom lip to stop herself blaring out the truth.
‘Suitable?’ Cornelia said, noticing Beattie’s clothes for the first time, the further shock making her tremble. ‘Oh Augusta, can we not find other raiment for you?’
Aidan, taking advantage of the lady’s distraction opened the chest door and peered inside. ‘Oh boy,’ he muttered, ‘this is going to be simple.’ Excited, he glanced around, caught Anders’ eye, and winked.
Anders knew the wink, and he mouthed desperately, ‘No, don’t,’ and grabbed Beattie’s hand.
Aidan ignored him and once again turned to the open wardrobe.
Beatrix returning Anders’ frantic grip, followed his gaze, both of them forced to watch as Aidan commenced his incantation. The song was very low and quiet, hardly discernible half a foot away. They watched his hands, his fingers describing intricate patterns inside the doors. And in less than a moment he had finished. He looked around at the others a look of pure innocence on his face and awaited gleefully the result of his spell-casting.
Cornelia continued imploring her charge. ‘Perhaps there is more dignified wear in my own wardrobe or in Beattie’s. Please, Augusta, you must search.’
‘We both have and if these boys had not come to our rescue we may have had to remain in wet clothes for days. I might well have caught a chill.’
‘Yes, my dear Cornelia in that she is correct.’ Tragen interjected at the door, seeming to appear from nowhere to give his totally unexpected support. ‘Forgive me, Highness, but I need a word with your lady-in-waiting and…’ his voice trailed away as he looked around the cabin sniffing, the pimple on the end of his long nose quivering.
‘Agh! What is that smell?’ Lady Cornelia exclaimed, holding her blankets tightly over her small nose, her face ashen. ‘I am going to be ill!’
A stench had gradually arisen in the room, a smell like no other. Aidan looked around, his hands to his face. ‘God, it smells like rotten meat, like something’s died. It’s coming from this chest. What on earth is in here?’
Augusta screamed convincingly. ‘Quickly, my gowns are in there, they’ll be ruined.’
Aidan grabbed a few. ‘Too late, Augusta,’ he said, not thinking, ‘they already are.’
‘Agh!’ for the third time Lady Cornelia nearly strangled. ‘He called her by her name! Punish him, Lord Tragen…punish him severely. Get out of here you evil boy!’
Aidan, not realizing his mistake, made to apologize even though he was only following orders…anything for a quiet life. Then an even worse odour overwhelmed the stench of rotting meat. Beatrix, Augusta and Anders, along with Lady Cornelia, started gagging.
Augusta, her hands up to her mouth, stared at Aidan and unmistakeably her look said enough was enough.
Aidan was in a quandary, he couldn’t tell her that he had finished the spell without divulging her part in the deceit, besides he didn’t know what had gone wrong, although this new sickly aroma seemed familiar.
Panicking, Aidan grabbed Anders and pulled him towards the door, flight appearing the appropriate action. Unfortunately, being so close to the appallingly sweet and obnoxious tang on Aidan caused Anders’ stomach to rebel. He vomited into the bowl he was holding. Aidan, taken completely by surprise, accidentally jogged the bowl and spilled its contents over Cornelia’s bedclothes.
Lady Cornelia screamed somewhat hoarsely, she was now losing her voice. Luckily, the contents landed on her abdomen and not on her injured ankle.
Augusta jumping clear of the spray collided with Beatrix who, rushing to help Anders crashed into Tragen at the door.
Utter pandemonium reigned for minutes before the wizard shouted and restored a modicum of peace and order.
‘Aidan, you are reeking,’ stated Tragen, again wrinkling his nose in disgust.
And before his mentor could continue, the irate apprentice interrupted. ‘I know, I know,’ he shouted, ‘it’s this bloody balm on my neck and legs! I didn’t know that would be affected as well, did I?’ and then he cringed as Tragen, raising an eyebrow, stared at him.
‘I am going to teach you, my boy, if it’s the last thing I do!’ He raised his hand in the air and made small rippling movements with his fingers, enunciating at the same time a countering spell. The stench of rotting cadaver and foul balm vanished from the cabin and a cool refreshing breeze blew through, clearing the heads of both Cornelia and Tragen.
Augusta, her plan a dismal failure, made an unconscious decision that was to have far reaching consequences for her, resulting in a cementing of a friendship began the day before. Instinctively, she knew that Aidan could not be allowed to shoulder the blame alone, but before she could utter a word, her lady-in-waiting spoke.
‘My Lord Tragen, I do not know what is going on here, but I would appreciate it if you could relieve me of this…vileness on my bed.’
‘Of course,’ and his fingers glided through the air and the obnoxious mess rolled up into a ball and disappeared. ‘If I may take up some of your time in a moment, I hope to alleviate a little of your ignorance of these past few hours.’
He stared at all four culprits, for he knew that to a greater or lesser degree they were all at fault. ‘I should leave now if I was you…and Aidan,’ he grabbed his apprentice’s shoulder as he rushed past, ‘you will all wait for me in the ladies’ cabin.’ And glaring at her severely, he bowed to Augusta as she scurried after them.
‘Thank you, Tragen,’ vastly relieved at now having clean bedding again, Cornelia smiled weakly. ‘Please, be seated and tell me all, since I opened my eyes I have been subjected to bewildering behaviour. Start with my ankle if you will, I recall falling, but nothing else.’
He sat in the vacant chair, his exhaustion cherishing the brief silence, and went through the events of the last twenty-four hours. As he did, the lady, from reclining comfortably as he commenced his tale, at the end was sitting bolt upright, even more agitated and bemused. He began with her accidental trip on Aidan’s robe, and the subsequent healing of her fractured ankle.
Here she stopped him. ‘You mean that boy has the gift, Tragen? And there was me thinking he was trouble through and through.’
‘Far from it, Cornelia,’ Tragen’s pride in his boy, obvious in his tone, ‘he has a truly wondrous power of healing—his is an extraordinary gift. He can actually see a malady within a body and, whereas I heal from the outside in, he heals from the inside out. A method that is far superior to mine,’ he paused, regarding her for a moment, wondering if further comment was needed.
‘As for his mischief-making, his causing of trouble, you would say. I believe it to derive from the goodness in his heart.’ He held up his hands before she could speak. ‘I know it may seem malicious, but I assure you it is not. He just happens to be very accident prone, and it is he who usually ends up being the injured party.’ Tragen stroked his beard, thinking back over the years, and the loneliness in his life before Aidan had come along. He continued with a little of the boy’s background.
‘He is a young boy whose life used to consist of surviving in the gutters for that is where he was when I met him first. Now, he is an honest young man learning a different form of survival, a way to live amongst decent people.’ He rubbed his weary eyes. ‘I do not mean to excuse his bad behaviour but I am convinced his purpose in spell-casting here had a sound reason…at least to those four it would seem sound. He is growing up and like all adolescents he makes mistakes. I ask you to forgive every one of them for I suspect the involvement of Augusta as the primary force in this latest prank.’
Lady Cornelia closed her eyes, considering the wizard’s words for a moment. ‘Very well, but I have no choice anyway I have to forgive him, do I not? After all, I would be in a great deal of pain right now,’ she sighed and lay back against her pillows. ‘You know I have the sickness of the old in my bones, Tragen, and I am prone to fractures.’ She looked up, tears in her eyes, despair in her quiet voice, meeting his sympathetic gaze. ‘This…’ and she pointed at her bound ankle, ‘could have happened at any time, and will occur, unfortunately many times in the future.’
Tragen smiled, knowing his next words were going to utterly astound her. ‘You did have the sickness of the old, Cornelia. My Aidan has set the healing process in place for that illness as well as for your fractured ankle.’
She stared at him, stunned, the truth of his words taking her breath. ‘You are telling me that I no longer need fear breaking my bones? I need no longer be afraid of trips and falls and…and open doors?’
He nodded his assent.
Loud sobs bubbled from the very depths of her being, her body shaking violently, her face in her hands. Tragen leant over and grasped her hands, bringing them from her tear wracked face, comforting her with his presence.
‘My God, I have lived with the fear of it most of my life. No other healer has been able to help me, even you tried once.’ She paused, thinking back over the pain filled, ever so careful, years.
‘My mother died quite young, you know; she accidentally banged her head in a doorway.’ Using the blanket, she dried the tears rolling down her face and, breathing deeply, she composed herself before continuing. ‘It was only a small tap, nothing really, but because she had the malady the bang fractured her skull. We could not find a healer in time. It was then my father told me of the “old” sickness and that I was expected to come down with it. He was right!’
She leant forward to emphasize her next words. ‘You will not punish that boy…I mean it. You are not to even think of it. To heal me of that horrible, terrible illness,’ she shuddered. ‘I must reward him.’
‘He would not accept one. In fact he would be seriously offended if you were to offer him anything. Be advised by me…never speak your gratitude, he hates being thanked.’
‘He hates it? Well…he needs money, does he not? He is not from a rich family, is he? Is there any way I can endow him without his knowledge?’
Tragen shook his weary head and managed to stifle the yawn that had been coming on him in the last few moments. ‘I do not know his family but he has all he needs from me. If he wishes more, he knows to ask and he will get it. There is no need to provide anything.’ He smiled his thoughts fully on his boy…his love for his adopted son. ‘He is a very unusual young man, Cornelia.’
‘Yes,’ she nodded, tears again glistening in her eyes. ‘You are fond of him, I see.’
‘Yes, very much so, he is the son I never had, and I am enormously proud of him.’
‘So you should be. Tell me, the boy could be famous and command untold influence. Why have I never heard of him?’
‘He demands secrecy from all those he heals. I expect him to extract that promise from you, ere long. You see, he sees his power of healing as a bounden duty. It is his nature to heal—anyone or anything; he also heals the maladies in animals. Even the ability he has for creating magic is based on healing, not as mine…on the mind. But there are two conditions when he cannot, or will not, heal.’
‘What are those?’ Intrigued, she wanted to know everything about the young wizard, the young man, who had given her hope for a normal future.
‘The first are those maladies affecting people whose time is at an end.’
‘What does that mean? I don’t understand.’
Tragen peered at her, he was very tired now, the energy expended creating the shield wall had been phenomenal, and the alcohol he had just consumed with Locklear was not helping him to stay awake. His eyes were drooping and he still hadn’t broached the subject that was his purpose in coming to her.
‘He can see and communicate with the dead, just as easily as you or I speak with each other. He knows when a person’s allotted time in this world is at an end because he can see the aura of death surrounding them. If he meets someone whose time is coming to a close – when they are near death – but are in pain, you know what he does? He eases their passing by removing that pain and he does not leave them to die alone…he remains with them, comforting them, until they have passed over safely. Is that not remarkable?’
‘I…I can hardly believe it,’ she said astounded. ‘The second condition you mentioned, what is that?’
‘Ah! To me it is the strangest thing of all about him, even stranger than when I actually witness him in contact with the ghosts of those who have gone on. He will not heal himself or allow another healer to use magic to cure his maladies. Although he will use nature’s remedies.’ Tragen, a puzzled look on his face, shrugged his weary shoulders. ‘He believes it to be improper and grossly selfish. The gift is for others he says, not for himself. That is why he uses that balm you smelled earlier. He has burns on his body and will not let me heal him with magic.’
‘My God, Tragen, that boy is truly special!’
‘He is also very modest and would never acknowledge that he is different to his peers. That is why there is such a close friendship between him and Anders. Anders, bless him, accepts Aidan as an ordinary boy and yet respects his abilities. As I said earlier, Aidan actually gets very upset if anyone expresses their gratitude. And if you persisted he would probably never talk to you again, he would be highly embarrassed.’ He grimaced. ‘I do not pretend to understand his reasoning; his outlook on life and death unnerves me quite often. But like I said, he truly does have a heart of gold and the mistakes he makes in growing up are the same as those of any other young man his age.’
This time Tragen could not withhold the yawn. ‘I’m sorry, Cornelia, but now I must talk of another matter…the reason I came to see you this evening.’
‘What is it, my friend? I apologize I see that you are weary, be quick then and tell me.’
‘We need to hide Augusta,’ he said, more abruptly than he intended, extreme exhaustion his excuse.
‘What!’ Cornelia lost all colour and gasped. ‘Why?’ she said, clasping her hands across her chest.
‘It seems that we have been found by someone whose intent is malicious,’ Tragen paused again. ‘This tempest is not normal; it appears to have been created by a force that has been searching for us.’ As he examined her face, he wondered if she would be able to understand. ‘I do not know the identity of the hunter, or why he is hunting us. As for where he is at this time, I have no idea. I can only assume he is now far behind us as the gale now blows from the stern. How far, we should have an idea in the morning. If the storm lessens by then, I believe we can safely assume that we have succeeded in escaping.’
‘And if the weather does not improve?’
He scratched his beard. ‘We will cross that bridge when we come to it.’
‘You believe whoever it is, is after Augusta?’
‘If she is taken it will have untold consequences for Mantovar. And I honestly cannot see a power as mighty as this being used just to steal your jewellery.’
‘I agree, but how can we possibly hide her on this vessel…it may be a huge ship, but for this purpose it’s far too small?’
He smiled at her. ‘I think she is already doing it for us. Who would dream of finding Mantovar’s female heir dressed as a common sailor? She is running around the ship in company with three other youths of the same age. If, God forbid, we are taken, she will blend in quite nicely as part of the crew.’
Lady Cornelia lay back on her pillow, her lips pursed, silent for a moment thinking of the consequences. ‘The rest of the crew will they not know who she is? After all, everyone knows that your purpose for being on this voyage was to bring the heir home. How will you deal with that?’
Tragen breathed a sigh of relief, this woman was no fool. ‘I have thought of a plan Cornelia. What say you, if you assume her place? I know,’ and he raised his hands again to halt her interjection, ‘what you are about to say. You are a lot older; you could not possibly be mistaken for her. But think a moment. We have only been at sea for five days and for two of those we have suffered this storm. The first three days Augusta spent in her cabin suffering seasickness, am I correct?’ Cornelia nodded. ‘So, very few on board have actually seen her. If you stay in here, in this cabin, everyone else will assume that she is still ill and no-one will be surprised, this storm has made even seasoned sailors sick to their stomach. Stay here until we deem it safe, and we swear all who have seen her, to secrecy. Then there should be no problem, and Augusta can masquerade as your companion along with Beatrix.
‘Waited on…by my charge! Now that would be a novelty,’ Cornelia chuckled. ‘She must change her name; we cannot have her called Augusta if the Princess Augusta is ill in bed,’ she said as Tragen rose to leave.
‘I am sincerely relieved to have your cooperation in this Cornelia. Let us hope these precautions are a waste of time.’
The wizard stepped across the narrow passageway and found all four youths waiting silently in Beattie’s cabin. The lantern, still swinging overhead, shone light on four very agitated countenances.
‘It was not Aidan’s fault, it was mine,’ said Augusta, jumping to her feet immediately he came through the door. ‘If anyone is to be punished it should be me, it was my idea.’
Aidan hunching his shoulders even more knew it was pointless her taking the blame; he was the one who had conjured the spell. How could he have been such an idiot not to realize that everything nearby would be affected. His unguent was still emitting a sickly sweet odour but nowhere near as bad as it was, at least Anders was no longer gagging.
Anders, staring at his hands in his lap, was sitting on the floor at Beattie’s feet; she sat bedraggled on the bed biting her bottom lip. She was feeling decidedly nervous as she peered up at the wizard and she unconsciously shifted closer to Anders, her leg now pressed against his arm.
‘Very well, Highness, I can well believe it was your idea.’ Tragen appeared to consider his next move although he knew that Aidan would be next to open his mouth.
‘Come off it, you know full well it’s my fault. There’s no need to punish these others. The blame is mine; none of them were actively involved.’ Aidan said utterly dejected, he was about to receive his worst punishment to date and was dreading it.
‘No, we knew you were going to do something, so if one is punished all should be punished.’ Beatrix said surprising herself. She was now emulating her mistress in being protective of him and not understanding why, instinctively knowing though that it was right.
Anders nodded his blond head, agreeing with her, as far as he was concerned Beatrix could never be wrong.
‘Don’t listen to them, I ordered them to aid me in this and now I am ordering you to exact punishment only on me,’ said Augusta.
‘My dear lady, your father gave me this mission to bring you home. At the same time he ordered me to do as I thought best to keep you safe from harm. I consider your orders to these three in that context. Ordering an invocation in a confined space is dangerous—you were therefore in peril. Aidan knows this as does Anders. Beatrix as your companion should have known it; she’s been around magic long enough. Therefore you will all be disciplined, whether you dispute it or not. Highness, from this moment Lady Cornelia and I have decided that she will assume your identity until we reach home.’
‘What! How dare you, wizard?’ She spluttered, aghast at his words, the others staring at her, mouths agape. Aidan had never before heard anyone use that tone of voice to his master.
‘I dare, madam, as the person with overall responsibility for your welfare.’ He continued before she could catch her breath. ‘Lady Cornelia will remain in your cabin until such time as we deem fit. You will take up the task of her companion and will fetch and carry for her.’
‘I will not!’ Augusta shouted, her green eyes blazing, hands on hips.
‘You will, Your Royal Highness,’ the wizard using her formal title to stress the seriousness of his threat, ‘or I will inform your father on our return that not only did you disobey my instructions, you actively put yourself in danger. Do you understand?’
Augusta quailed; the thought of news of this escapade reaching the Prince of Mantovar terrified her, he was a very loving father, but also a very strict disciplinarian. It wouldn’t be the first time he had punished her for disobeying the orders of his people. Her shoulders slumped, and nodding, she acquiesced grudgingly.
‘You, Beatrix, will have to teach her the duties of a companion and, as you haven’t got one, those of a maid as well.’ A horrified feeling came over Beatrix at the thought of instructing her mistress on how to scrub the cabin floor. ‘And I am warning the pair of you,’ he looked from one to the other of the silent girls, ‘you are to put your heart and soul into the deception. You are to be convincing at all times, whether it be in public or privately here in your cabin. Beatrix, do not be afraid to quarrel with your mistress over this, it is very important that the deception is believed. As for your attire, ladies, you will continue as you are in these clothes.’
‘But, Milord, I have proper clothes she can wear,’ said Beatrix, interrupting.
Tragen pretended not to see the well-aimed kick from Augusta. ‘Ah, yes! Your name, Highness,’ he said, as Beatrix grimaced.
‘What about it,’ confused, Augusta could not now take her eyes from his face, dreading his next words, although the strange order to continue wearing Aidan’s clothing came as a pleasant surprise.
‘You must have another name. Yes…we’ll call you Mabel, I think,’ Tragen now had a twinkle in his eye which Aidan, not quite believing these strange orders, was the only one to see.
Aidan and Anders both burst out laughing at the horror on Augusta’s face.
‘You cannot be serious, Milord! Please, I absolutely abhor that name,’ Augusta said, her consternation bringing her very close to tears.
‘Beatrix,’ he asked, ignoring the desperation in his princess, ‘how many servants in the castle do you know with the name Mabel?’
Meekly, Beatrix replied. ‘Quite a few, Milord.’
‘Very good, then I am correct, it is a very apt name. From this moment, all of us will address you as Mabel. Do you agree?’
Augusta glared at her friends, daring them to laugh. Aidan, of course, could not help himself and he did again, uproariously. The thought of calling this sometimes very snooty girl by the common name of Mabel, was hilarious.
‘You may find it amusing, Aidan, but I have not yet come to your punishment,’ said Tragen, instantly silencing the young wizard.
‘Now, Anders, what am I to do with you. Not only did you know beforehand that Aidan was going to cast a spell, when that spell went wrong you vomited all over the poor lady ill in bed!’
‘Milord, it was an accident I couldn’t help it.’ The cabin boy, incensed at the injustice of the complaint, for the first time in his life voiced an objection to a statement made by the wizard.
‘If the spell had not been cast, you would not have had an accident and Lady Cornelia would not have had a lap full of the contents of your stomach. You, from this day, besides having your present duties for the captain, will also have the duty of care of both Beatrix and Mabel,’ Augusta winced but said nothing. ‘You are to accompany them whenever they leave this cabin and are to aid them if required, but you are not to replace Mabel in her duties.’
Anders was utterly confused it occurred to him that he was already doing just that. He sat mute, staring at the wizard and again he couldn’t help noticing the pimple on the end of Tragen’s nose. It was getting larger.
‘And now, Aidan,’ Tragen pulled at his beard. ‘You seem not to understand that spells must not be cast in small rooms. You are obviously competent at casting the spells of flame, fragrance and light. But think about it, the only spell you cast that did not have grave consequences was that of light which took place out of doors. The other two resulted in accidents. Do you agree?’
‘Yes, I understand, but I’m going to have to create spells indoors sometimes.’
‘Not for practical jokes, my boy! Now it will be your task, along with Anders, to keep Mabel safe from harm. You will carry on teaching her rudimentary magic and report to me each week on her progress.’ Augusta perked up at this. ‘You are not to instruct her in high magic but you may reveal as much of the history of the art as you think appropriate. You understand?’
Aidan nodded waiting for the axe to fall.
‘It is late now, you are all to partake of your supper and retire. Aidan, you will again sleep in Anders’ berth but this time you will have the floor and he the bed.’ As he reached the door, he wished them a goodnight and left four very perplexed teenagers to mull over his punishments.
That same night Anders was again woken by Aidan talking in his sleep.
The man continued to scream long after the spear entered his eye. It took its time, eking out the man’s agony for as long as possible.
‘Master,’ a voice uttered from behind, ‘you sent for me.’
It withdrew the spear and turned to look on its minion. ‘We have a wizard in our net!’
‘You are sure? The storm has ensnared an enchanted one?’ the servile one asked excitedly, wringing his hands.
‘Yes! I have espied him in the scry using his staff. The stave holds immense power. It may even be enough!’ It hissed its sibilant jubilation. ‘Our time is near at hand…O Lord,’ he intoned raising his arms in supplication. ‘O Lord, a wizard comes! You will be free!’
‘What do you mean “a wizard”? There is more than one coming for you,’ Aidan said, threateningly, before falling quiet for the rest of the night.
Anders lay awake for hours afterward—confused and a little frightened.
“I hear Evan Morgan broke the world 100 metre record wearing mining boots.”
“How did he manage that?”
“He fell down the shaft.”
Have a nice day!