As an airplane is about to crash, a female passenger jumps up frantically and announces, “If I’m going to die, I want to die feeling like a woman.” She removes all her clothing and asks, “Is there someone on this plane who is man enough to make me feel like a woman?” A man stands up, removes his shirt and says, “Here, iron this!”.
‘Oh, my poor fingers!’ groaned Aidan, holding his sore hands in the air before him, shaking them slowly in an attempt to cool the inflammation. It was dusk and they all sat in a state of utter misery in the girls’ cabin.
‘Augusta, you have a big mouth,’ he said, as she sat dejected on the end of her bed.
‘Don’t blame her, we all went along with it,’ said Anders, nursing his own hurting hands. ‘I have never smelled so bad,’ he grumbled, sniffing his clothes.
‘Oh, I don’t know…I’ve had to share your berth these last few nights,’ said Aidan laughing.
Anders, forgetting his hands a moment, threw a cushion at him and then moaned in pain as he broke another blister. Even he had found the chore exacting. Being used to manual labour, he thought, did not mean you were used to gripping a knife for hours on end, and gutting fish was not an easy job. Poor Augusta was in a dreadful state…blisters as big as apples on her palms, her fingers red and aching. The only other one to cope reasonably well was Beatrix; her hands were a lot harder than those of her mistress.
The chore had been so mind-numbingly disgusting that they had not realized that they had paired off until later. Beatrix and Anders had shared the task, the labour coming as no shock to them. Being ignored by Augusta and Aidan was an added bonus, their young love grew as they became even closer and they found it quite easy to forget the presence of the other two.
At first she had struggled, Augusta not even knowing how to hold a knife, until Dolly had taken pity on her enough to show her how to use it. Then, as Augusta assisted Aidan, they both fell into mindmelding almost by accident. At first, it had been hard going, Augusta finding it increasingly challenging to concentrate on seeking his mind and at the same time cut a fish. Aidan’s lack of patience didn’t help—he had great difficulty keeping his irritation from showing. Nevertheless, as time went on, the easier mindmelding became because of their desperation to be distracted from the appalling stench. By the time they had cleaned the last fish, mindmelding had become almost second nature for Augusta. But being taught to hide her emotions enough to remain undetectable in Aidan’s head was a dilemma that she thought she’d never overcome. But Aidan had assured her that the ability would come with time and practise; he had also found it a formidable task when Tragen had first begun his training many years before.
One pleasurable side effect of their dabbling was the fact that they discovered a mutual sense of fun – what others would call irresponsibility – throwing fish heads at each other was not everyone’s idea of enjoyment, especially when a fish’s entrails ended up down someone else’s collar! But they did forget almost entirely that Anders and Beatrix were stood at the table with them.
‘Aidan, can you do something about these, they’re very bad?’ Beatrix asked, examining Augusta’s sore fingers.
Aidan ceased his moaning and kneeling before Augusta he cradled both her hands in his. He grinned up at her.
‘Relax now and watch closely, you’ll actually see the blisters dry up. In a couple of hours the dead skin will wear away.’
Holding back her tears she stared at the white blisters on top of white blisters, hardly able to stretch her fingers out straight. Watching silently – butterflies jumping in her stomach at the thought of more magic – she could see nothing unusual happening to begin with but as his chanting, at first very low, increased in momentum, the fluid within the blisters darkened. And within moments the pustules had dried forming hard calluses, her fingers lost their crumpled whiteness and returned to a normal colour and the pain disappeared.
‘Thank you,’ she mindmelded as she flexed her hands, wonder replacing the glistening in her eyes.
Aidan flinched at her thanks but said nothing and he turned to Beatrix. ‘Your turn next, young lady…let me have your hands.’
Beatrix raised them for him to hold. ‘Yours are worse than mine, you should be healing your own first,’ she said as his chanting began.
‘It’s all right Tragen has a salve me and Anders can use.’
‘Why don’t you heal Anders and yourself? Wouldn’t it be easier and faster if you did?’ Augusta asked as he finished with Beattie’s hands.
Aidan looked at her in horror and, without speaking a word, strode out of the cabin to retrieve the balm from the store in his locker.
Augusta, mystified, turned to Anders. ‘Now what have I said?’
‘Don’t you remember?’ Anders replied. ‘Aidan won’t heal himself.’
‘Oh hell, I’d forgotten.’
‘Augusta your language! You’re sounding more like Aidan every day.’ Beatrix turned to Anders still holding his hands out before him being very careful not to hurt them more. ‘Why didn’t he heal you, then? Why have you to use the salve?’ She ceased her rummaging around to stare at the boy she couldn’t bear being apart from. She was tidying as usual, unable to rest in the middle of a mess.
‘Ah well, Aidan and I have an agreement of a sort. If he doesn’t heal himself he’s not to heal me—unless it’s life threatening, of course.’ Anders looked at them and grimaced. ‘Don’t say that’s a stupid vow or ask me to change my mind, Aidan and I have been friends for a lot of years, now. I’ve seen him sustain cuts and bruises loads of times; he even broke his leg once in a fall off a horse. That time his leg was bound up for a couple of months before it healed on its own, Tragen was frantic worrying about him. He’s only now recovering from a broken arm. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t allow him to heal me unless he heals himself.’
‘Then he’ll never heal me again,’ said Augusta determinedly, wondering at the same time if she’d stick to it.
‘Or me,’ added Beatrix, keeping her fingers crossed in case she ever had to keep her promise.
‘You may not have the choice, ladies,’ said Aidan, overhearing the last as he returned with a pot of unguent. And as the girls started to protest he broke in on them. ‘I’m not listening—leave it alone!’
He walked over to Anders and they both rubbed the sweet-smelling, yellow salve into their hands from the open pot between them. An abnormal silence settled in the cabin the girls, not for the first time, contemplating Aidan’s very strange attitude where healing was concerned.
Tragen appeared at the door on his way to Lady Cornelia. He spent a lot of time keeping her company these days as she could not leave the cabin, having to remain hidden from the crew. Both were happy with each other’s friendship and relieved that her masquerade as Lady Augusta appeared so successful. No-one, as yet, had questioned the fact that their princess was still suffering seasickness.
He looked in at them puzzled over the lack of noise. ‘Hello, what have we here? Taking a well-earned breather from your chores I see.’
Receiving dirty looks he thought better than to wait for any retort. ‘Aidan, we have a job to do tomorrow,’ and four pairs of ears perked up. ‘Yes…we are going to replenish the drinking water; barrels are being checked as we speak. The captain has been worrying because the remainder of what we have will last only a few days more and that’s with rationing. So be ready in the morning and be well rested the incantation may have to last quite a while.’ With one last look he escaped swiftly before any questions were voiced.
Augusta and Beatrix gazed excitedly at Aidan, the atmosphere changing instantly.
‘Go on, tell us what you and he are going to do…how do you extract water, and from what?’ Augusta asked.
‘Oh, it’s dead easy that spell,’ Aidan replied, looking around smugly. ‘Tragen will either use his staff to create the spell and I’ll keep it going using my hands, or I’ll create it and he’ll keep it going,’ he paused, staring down at his fingers stretched out before him, evidence of their activities in the afternoon showing beneath his fingernails. He’d have to scrub them, he thought, before helping his master or the fish debris would contaminate the clean water.
Augusta punched him on his shoulder. ‘Come on, tell us the rest. Where does the water come from and what exactly have you to do. And why haven’t you got your staff yet?’
‘Ouch, that hurt,’ he said, rubbing his shoulder, ‘slow down and give me a chance.’
He waited until he could see suspense killing them before resuming. ‘Okay, Tragen will stand somewhere on deck and hold his staff out in front of him. He’ll chant the spell and water droplets will appear in the air. The droplets will form a cascade and he’ll pour it into the water barrels. Dead simple,’ he said, ‘once the water is falling into the barrels I’ll take over as the power of the staff won’t be needed any longer. I’ll make sure the flow doesn’t stop until all the barrels are full. Just like magic,’ he said smiling, rubbing his dirty fingernails against his shirt.
‘Aye, but don’t forget,’ added Anders, ‘the longer you have to keep the spell going, the more tired you’re going to get. So I suggest we all get to sleep before long.’
‘Wait a moment,’ interrupted Beatrix, who was now sitting on the floor her attention as fervent as that of Augusta. ‘You haven’t told us why you haven’t got a staff. I’ve noticed Tragen’s—it’s very beautiful. Why won’t he give you a staff or at least allow you to use his?’
‘It’s a long story, I’ll tell you in the morning.’
‘No way, you tell us now, or we won’t be able to sleep,’ ordered Augusta. ‘You are not going anywhere yet.’
Aidan looked at his three friends and thought of Tragen’s bewilderingly magical staff, recalling the dream he had nurtured now for almost ten years. For all of that time he had watched his master use the fabled wizard’s staff and had felt a hunger as acute as starvation to have his own.
‘Okay, listen up,’ he smiled and settled himself comfortably on the floor alongside Beatrix. Augusta curled up on her bed not taking her eyes off him. Anders, having heard the story many times before, sat the other side of Beatrix.
And as the story progressed Aidan brought to life his love of magic for them all to see. Augusta’s eyes gleamed.
He began with the teachings of Tragen’s old master, Herman, a wizard so old at the time of his demise that no one could remember who had been on the throne when he’d been birthed. Tragen had been devastated for months, and still talked of Herman as if he was still alive. Aidan, smiling at his master’s stories of his mentor, wanted to tell him that Herman’s spirit was still alive and well—on the other side of death. But he knew his master wasn’t yet ready to understand that.
The wizard, Herman, had shown great patience when teaching Tragen the intricacies of constructing his own staff. Indeed, Tragen was now showing the same patience over these intervening years in instructing Aidan.
The methods needed to create a staff required an extraordinary physical energy, and a prodigious mental strength. Both could only be acquired over years of an exhausting apprenticeship, a traineeship that sometimes lasted a lifetime. Each apprentice was taught that he and only he knew when to make his staff. The staff signified the end of the traineeship, the time when he must leave his master—although making the staff was not the end of learning. No wizard was the same and no wizard’s staff was the same.
The staff that became a wizard’s life companion was unique and colossally powerful. For not only was the staff a corporeal object it was also sentient; it held a part of its maker’s soul.
Memories of its forming flitted through it constantly—memories of its mother trees, and of the soil in which the trees grew. Recollections of the forests and woods and groves; and of the sunlight they stretched towards and the moonlight under which they rested. The staff remembered the life that dwelled in the mother trees, the sap that gave it life, the insects crawling beneath the bark, the birds nesting in the branches, and seeds grown to fly away in the wind to grow other trees. The staff recalled the winds and the rains, the droughts and the famines.
It also retained memories of its maker.
Aidan without warning stopped and looked up at his friends. ‘Am I boring you?’
‘No, get on with it,’ they chanted in unison.
Each wizard chanted a mantra as he searched for the mother tree’s location and, when discovered, each tree answered. The wizard sang his request of the tree; he sang as he made the incision taking no more and no less of the timber than was required, removing the sliver in one cut. He chanted his gratitude as he wrapped the piece to preserve it until the other woods were found.
Many different woods were required, the number dictated by the woods themselves. In Tragen’s staff had been melded woods from three trees found many leagues apart. Tragen had travelled to far Birkton to find the Tree of Horns growing high in the snow-capped Scissor Mountains. Chanting the spell whilst removing the paring had taken days, infinite care had been employed. Then there were the searches for the other two woods, Bellwood from Arken, and Spotsbush, which he had found eventually, after months of searching, not far from where he lived in Mantovar. It had been the red stained, yellow Spotsbush which had let Tragen know it was the last required.
The actual melding of the three woods into one indestructible stave had been a long process, intricate and totally astounding. Forming the knuckle at the top with just the heat of his hands had exhausted him more than anything else had as once the process of configuring its shape had started it could not be halted. He had persevered, undergoing a loving task with no time for food, only water sipped as he sang. Then he had the task of moulding the taper at the base of the staff—a taper that ended in a point so hard and keen no mortal means could ever blunt it. Tragen was skin and bone at the end of the staff’s creation—skin and bone, and ecstatic.
Aidan told of the staff memorizing the sound of its maker’s voice…the different cadences and rhythms as Tragen chanted. It learned the smell of its maker’s body, the taste of his sweat and the feel of its maker’s skin as he caressed the woods. It felt the love pouring into it and accompanying that love all the memories of its maker. The staff had become a spiritual being as it absorbed its maker’s entity. And it shared the wizard’s life not as a tool but as a partner.
It was an immensely powerful object and only Tragen could use it. No other wizard would even attempt to touch another’s staff as the unique force contained within, could send another into oblivion. Occasionally a wizard would allow a loved one, and only a loved one, to hold the staff as it would recognize its maker’s love bestowed on another. This was why Tragen had allowed Aidan to hold his staff during his spell-casting of the shield. Tragen and Aidan loved each other as father and son, and Tragen’s staff, recognizing this, had allowed Aidan to add his strength to that of his master.
Aidan concluded. ‘Now do you understand why I can’t use Tragen’s staff? He can give it to me to hold, or I can fetch it for him, but if I attempted to create a spell with it the power would kill me.’ The others nodded spellbound with his tale.
‘When will you be ready for your staff?’ Beatrix asked a few minutes later, staring wide-eyed at the nearly wizard, her friend.
‘I have no idea. It may be years yet, after all I don’t reach the age of manhood until next year…I think,’ he added as an afterthought.
‘Do you know how many woods you’ll need, because when you go searching I want to go with you?’ said Anders. ‘I want to watch you make your staff if I can.’
‘Aye, course you can, but you’d find it boring, though…I wouldn’t have time to talk to you when I’m actually making it. As for the number of woods, I won’t know until I’ve found the first, because the first will send me to another, and so on.’
‘Could you stop at one wood?’ Beatrix asked utterly enthralled.
‘There’s a legend that says a staff made from the wood of a certain single tree would be the most powerful in the world. No other staff would survive in a contest of wills. That wood is from the Tree of Paradise, which is a legend itself; no one has ever discovered the site of one.’ They sat silently, completely mesmerized by the story.
‘How come you don’t know your age, Aidan,’ asked Augusta out of the blue.
‘That’s another long story that will definitely keep for another day. I believe it’s now time for us to leave, I’m knackered.’
As Aidan and Anders left, Beatrix shouted after them smiling as she did so. ‘You are not supposed to swear in front of ladies. And do not say we are not ladies!’ Laughing she closed the door as the boys departed along the passageway to Anders’ berth.
‘I can’t wait for the morning, Beattie. I wonder if he’ll allow me to help,’ she hunched her shoulders, a calculating look in her eyes. ‘Well, he is supposed to teach me magic, isn’t he? I wonder if I’ll ever get to make a staff.
Beatrix said nothing, feeling very nervous all of a sudden.
Leash had just finished his duty at the helm and was lying in his ‘pit’ as sailors called their cot. He was still seething over his plans coming to naught. His hatred of the wizard was growing if that was possible. Every time he failed to hurt the boy, Leash loathed him the more. He often saw the wizard’s boy walking about the ship but the boy was never alone, at least one of the brats serving the prince’s daughter always accompanied him. If he could manage to catch the apprentice on his own then it would be no problem to throw him overboard after making sure he could not call for help. Lying in his bed and staring at the deckhead above him he thought about the several ways in which he could kill the boy—and anticipated immense pleasure in the actual act of slaying him. But because the boy had had the luck to survive his previous murderous attempts Leash began to hate the young wizard as much as he hated the old.
There was one distinct advantage in going after the boy, though, besides the boy’s size and age. Aidan had no staff. Leash was mortally afraid of Tragen’s staff. It had ruined his life, taken all his hope, his means of remaining safe – all that was precious – and that he could never forgive.
Leash lay on his bed tossing and turning. There had to be a way of getting the boy alone. He closed his eyes and turned over to sleep, settling to dream the same dream that he had every night—the one that made him feel safe—but she was not happy with him.
Anders had given in to his friend’s nagging and again given up his cot on the grounds that Aidan would probably have nightmares again through lack of sleep. The cabin boy had claimed blackmail but didn’t want him returning to his own berth, he’d not be able to keep an eye on him there.
Aidan, of course, didn’t want to return for his own reasons. Firstly, he had the knack of always being able to persuade Anders to fetch and carry for him. Anders, not realizing this, had stated many times that Aidan could charm the hind legs off a donkey but he would never fall for his tricks. Secondly, Aidan would have had to sleep on a bed with a hole in the middle of it, and last but not least—Tragen rattled the walls with his snoring.
Lying on his back Anders asked. ‘You did mean it didn’t you? You will take me when you search for your staff, won’t you?’
Aidan peered down at his friend. ‘Aye, I meant it. But what if we’re not friends when it’s time for me to leave?’
‘Don’t be silly,’ scoffed Anders, ‘we’ll always be friends.’ And he turned on his side—Aidan did irritate him on times.
A little while later Anders unable to sleep looked up at Aidan. ‘Hey, are you awake?’
‘If I ask you something I don’t want you saying anything to her … OK?’
Aidan turned over and stared down at his friend. ‘All right, you can bring her as well.’
‘You know then?’
‘What, that you’re nuts on Beattie? I think everyone knows.’
‘Oh, God, you don’t think she’s aware of it, do you?’ Anders asked, fear knotting his belly.
‘I expect so. Now go to sleep!’
God, Anders thought if she does, how am I going to face her in the morning?
But little did either of them know that Anders would be the first to discover the Tree of Paradise and when he did, Aidan and he would both be in a very strange association.
How did the medical community come up with the term “PMS”? “Mad Cow Disease” was already taken.
Have a nice day!