A blonde, a redhead, and a brunette were all lost in the desert. They found a lamp and rubbed it. A genie popped out and granted them each one wish. The redhead wished to be back home. Poof! She was back home. The brunette wished to be at home with her family. Poof! She was back home with her family. The blonde said, “Awwww, I wish my friends were here.”
The banqueting hall was impressive, large, high-ceilinged and airy. Heavy oak panelling predominated on each wall, its darkness alleviated by two large, four-paned sash windows overlooking the drive. Twice as long as it was wide, the room held three tables, two running parallel to the long walls, each able to seat at least forty people. The third, placed across the heads of the other two, stood on a raised dais so that the occupants could see and be seen by everyone present.
The long mahogany head table groaned under the weight of food of all descriptions. Bowls of fresh oranges, pineapples and bananas evenly spaced along the dark, polished surface, accompanied at intervals with freshly segmented melons, yellow and green. Platters of newly baked manchet bread, cheese trenchers and bowls of nuts added to the rich aroma of roast mutton, beef and chicken. All was lit by two elaborate glass candelabra suspended from the ceiling on silver chains, the light reflecting off the solid silver tableware.
Portraits of Portolans past and present, hung along the walls, the faces with stern expressions except for the only painting of a female suspended directly above the fireplace in the long wall opposite the windows. The sunshine streaming through the glass during the day, would serve to emphasize the very happy scene that must have delighted artist, model and onlooker. The lady depicted was a very fat woman, with deep laughter lines around her eyes, dressed in a long green gown and wearing a large pendant in the shape of a griffin, on her chest. She was sitting upright in an armchair, her hands in her lap, smiling affectionately at someone who must have been looking over the artist’s shoulder. In the place of honour behind the head table, hung a portrait of a man who bore a striking resemblance to the seneschal although it was of a much thinner man.
When Beatrix and Anders entered at the back of the room with their heavy tureens, the steward was pouring wine into silver goblets. Seneschal Portolan sat in a high backed chair in the centre of the high table, to his right sat Lady Cornelia, on his left, Lord Tragen, and on the other side of the wizard sat Captain Locklear. But the seneschal’s eyes were concentrated to his right watching Cornelia helping Mistress Barbat to settle Thaddeus between them.
Cornelia, proving now why the Princess of Mantovar trusted her so completely with the upbringing of her daughter, was talking animatedly with the nurse. The seneschal and the wizard were fascinated. Portolan with the fact that this very attractive stranger seemed so comfortable with his mentally abnormal son, a boy that he spent all his waking hours – and a lot of the hours of darkness – protecting from the world. And Tragen by how Lady Cornelia, without realizing it, had utterly beguiled their host.
Dinner progressed with small talk, Seneschal Portolan continually distracted by Cornelia taking her turn at feeding his son and in keeping his chin clean of spilled food. And what was more important to Lodovico Portolan, and did more than anything else to unreservedly charm him, Cornelia did not ignore Thaddeus, did not treat him as a dummy but talked to him as if nothing was amiss.
Tragen asked the harbourmaster during a lull in the conversation about the gentleman in the portrait behind him.
‘He is my brother, Paul…The Portolan, leader of our clan.’
‘Will I have the pleasure of meeting him while I’m here?’
‘I shouldn’t think so, he is away at present, and not expected home for some weeks,’ he answered, dabbing his mouth with his napkin. The hard look lifted by Cornelia’s treatment of his son returned, his glacial eyes seemingly intent on unpleasant memories.
‘And the lady in that portrait, who is she?’ Cornelia indicated the painting above the fireplace.
‘She is my wife, or rather was,’ he continued, staring at the painting his eyes softening. ‘She died of head injuries a few moments before giving birth to Thaddeus. Unfortunately, I am told by wizards,’ and he looked at Tragen, ‘that nothing can be done for him. He was birthed by the physician having to take him directly from his mother’s womb shortly after her death. Wizards tell me that although Thaddeus is physically well, only his body came forth…not his soul. Thus he is as you see him.’
‘By the Gods…never!’ Cornelia said, shocked to her very core. ‘I do not believe it.’ She looked at Thaddeus and cupping his chin in her hand, she stared into his eyes. ‘If he had no soul he would be totally wicked, this boy is not evil…never evil,’ and tears welled in her eyes as she stroked his face.
The seneschal, surprised at her vehemence, stared at her for a moment. ‘Nonetheless,’ and he sighed, the despair of years in that murmur, ‘that is what I have been informed. Do you concur with your colleagues, Lord Tragen?’ He placed his napkin beside his plate, attempting to keep the anguish, and the hope, out of his voice and not quite succeeding.
‘I could not possibly say without examining him. Will you allow me time alone with him, maybe tomorrow?’ Tragen now realized why the presence of a wizard was so important to the man.
‘Yes, of course. I will send my coach for you in the morning,’ Lodovico Portolan composed himself and supped his wine. ‘And now, Captain Locklear, I am remiss, tell me of this storm.’
Locklear glanced at Tragen wondering whether to divulge the knowledge of malign sorcerers being the cause. Tragen, understanding the look, imperceptibly shook his head. Locklear, beckoning Anders to refill his goblet, paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and to put them in the right order. Staring at his host he spoke in terms understood by seafarers all over the world. He told of the intensity of the tempest and their consequent battle to survive. He described the height of the waves, the strength of the winds and the lack of visibility leading to loss of position. Locklear, a born storyteller when imbibing good liquor – they were drinking Tragen’s gift – went on for over half an hour. He brought to life the terror and peril of those days, and he finished with the description of Tragen’s shield spell which had saved them. He did not mention Aidan.
‘And your immediate requirements, what are they?’ The seneschal asked coolly as he used his small, razor-sharp, food knife usually kept in his belt when not eating, to cut a sliver of mutton, before dipping the roast meat into a small salver of pungent sauce.
‘A dry-dock, if you have one?’ At the seneschal’s nod, he went on. ‘We also require timber and caulking, ropes and canvas as well as food and water. And, we desperately need new masts.’ Locklear sat back in his chair and again beckoned Anders to replenish his goblet.
‘The dry-dock is going to be a bit of a squeeze. When we built it we did not envisage a ship as large as yours having need of it. But, with care it should suffice. Nevertheless, it is going to be a devil of a job to move your Grim into place, my dock-master is going to have his work cut out,’ he smiled wryly.
‘We can supply everything except masts,’ the seneschal nibbled a small wedge of cheese and continued. ‘We have no trees suitable on Griffin thanks to the Montetors tearing down the forests for their mines. Our masts have to be imported, now. You can always sail to the Onyx Isles for them, of course, a journey of some weeks I’m afraid. Should you have luck and fine weather, you might make it easily, otherwise…’ and he shrugged his shoulders. ‘But I think you should wait here while we send for them,’ he glanced at Cornelia, a strange intensity in his eyes, ‘they should only take a few months to arrive. I’m sure you know the reputation of those islands, Milord, I wouldn’t be happy with the thought of your niece coming within a hundred leagues of those brigands.’
‘I agree with you, Seneschal, Hugo has told me a great deal of those barbarians. But it is time that we’re short of, we need to get home without any further delay,’ answered Tragen.
‘Then I don’t know what you should do…you need masts, Onyx has them in abundance.’
‘Can’t we obtain new masts on Sanctity, that island is only days away, after all?’ Locklear enquired, wondering why their host had not mentioned his neighbour.
Shocked silence greeted this request. Mistress Barbat gasped and put her hand to her neck as if she was suffering a constriction. The footman standing next to Anders nearly dropped the platter he was holding.
‘I am sorry, Captain, but no-one is allowed to visit Sanctity without permission of the brethren who live there. And they never give consent to strangers.’
The seneschal, visibly shaken, abruptly placed his napkin on the table, the hard man’s voice now barely disguising fear. ‘It is late I’m afraid and I must see my son to bed. Lord Tragen I will see you in the morning. Captain, I will send an aide to you, he will assist you with the dockworkers.’
Rising from the table, he turned to Cornelia. ‘My Lady, you must forgive and excuse me. Would you care to accompany your uncle in the morning? It would give me great pleasure if you would, and then maybe Thaddeus and I can show you our home.’
‘Of course, I’d be delighted, Seneschal, and I thank you for a wonderful evening.’ Cornelia smiled, careful not to show her astonishment at such an end to the conviviality.
Back in the coach long before they expected to be, Locklear turned to Tragen. ‘Well, my friend, I did not expect that reaction.’
‘No, he was terrified of something and I know not what. Could it be this torturer of Aidan’s visions? It would certainly account for his fear. Perhaps Cornelia and I can ferret out an explanation from the nurse tomorrow,’ he closed his eyes and leant back against the seat. ‘Cornelia, you had a remarkable effect on the seneschal, did you not?’
‘Did I? I didn’t notice I was too busy with that poor boy—no soul indeed!’ She stared at her feet, a slight colouring in her face, not admitting that the man had had quite an effect on her. ‘Have you a possible diagnosis of the boy’s problems?’
‘Again we’ll have to wait until morning. I don’t hold out much hope, though, if the boy’s brain is damaged, or again if the boy truly has no soul, then I know of no cure. But, of course, there’s always Aidan…who knows? It does explain Portolan’s worn appearance, the boy’s condition must call for many a sleepless night.’
Above them on the hind seat, Anders and Beatrix listened to every word, knowing they would be closely questioned on their return. They looked at each other, gripping each other’s hands tightly, neither wishing to acknowledge their growing trepidation. What on earth was on Sanctity? And how could anyone be born without a soul?
As soon as they arrived back aboard the Grim Locklear gave instructions for the morrow. He had come to the decision to lighten the ship to facilitate entry into the cramped dock. The ship needed to float higher on the water and, to enable this, the holds would be emptied, an immense operation that could take all day. Not many ports had a dry-dock the purpose of which, besides being a place to build new ships, was also to enable the hulls of older ships to be repaired or careened without the ship having to be heaved on to its side. In the dock, the ship would be propped upright in a cradle with the keel on supports. With the water pumped out of the dock there would be less abnormal stress on the hull and work on that part of the ship usually submerged, could be carried out swiftly and efficiently.
Locklear moved off with Hopper and Trumper to discuss the complex arrangements. It would be the first time that the Grim’s hull had ever undergone repair to such a great extent and the opportunity to careen would also be taken. The three men wished to prepare for all eventualities.
Tragen, espying Aidan called him over, inevitably Augusta, Beatrix and Anders followed. The four were inseparable now and the wizard smiled…at least a part of his plan was working.
‘Aidan, we have a strange ailment to diagnose and I want you to mull it over before Cornelia and I leave in the morning to return to the harbourmaster’s home…’
‘Can I come?’ Aidan asked eagerly.
‘Not yet, we still need to keep you and Augusta concealed, but if I do not succeed in discovering a cure, a way must be found for you to examine the boy.’
‘Wait, and stop interrupting, we have had a long night,’ he paused. ‘Tell me; is it possible for a baby to be born without a soul?’
‘Bloody hell…what a question!’
‘Well,’ Tragen gave one of his mean looks which boded ill for his apprentice if he did not reply quickly.
He hurriedly answered. ‘Of course not, whatever gave you that idea?’
‘Never mind,’ Tragen said. ‘I expect your friends will tell you. When they have, I will appreciate your advice. Now goodnight to you all,’ and he moved off escorting Lady Cornelia to her cabin.
‘When you retire please do it silently, I do not want to be disturbed I have a lot to ponder on.’ Cornelia said as she arrived at the door to step below. But she impulsively turned to Aidan and this time she implored. ‘Please, Aidan, think on it well. It is imperative you come up with a diagnosis and a cure, the boy is suffering terribly and perhaps his father more so. Goodnight.’
‘You two,’ Augusta ordered Beatrix and Anders, waving her finger at them, ‘to our cabin immediately. We want to know everything and I mean everything.’
‘What! You really mean that the seneschal fancies Lady Cornelia?’ Aidan asked, stifling a laugh.
Augusta poked him in the shoulder. ‘And why not? Cornelia is a lovely person, warm and sincere and she is no idiot like some men I could mention. And, what’s more, the concern she expresses inclines me to think that she may have taken a shine to the seneschal…she definitely has to his son.’
Beatrix and Anders had been closely questioned for nearly an hour. A very harrowing experience, Augusta and Aidan taking turns at battering them with questions.
‘The seneschal’s wife looked very much the same as Lady Cornelia…you know, big and fat and he talked of her with great affection,’ Anders said.
‘Please, Lady Cornelia’s love life is not the most important thing here, the boy is and whatever is on Sanctity.’ Beatrix said, highlighting the immediate problems.
‘Sorry, Beattie, you’re right. His mother died just before giving birth, eh! I wonder what the cause of her head injury was. He never said?’ Aidan asked. The two shook their heads.
‘Have you any idea what could be wrong with him?’ Augusta asked.
‘Not really, I’d only be guessing. I’ve seen babies born in the same circumstances before…you know from a dead mother. And they’ve always been brain damaged because they couldn’t start breathing in time. They’re murder to heal. It sometimes takes weeks because I’d have to heal each symptom in turn. And they have symptoms like drooling, slurred speech, and quite often, they are unable to use their limbs or raise their heads. Moreover, the healing has to be in a particular order, different in each victim. If I heal one thing in the wrong order then it may reappear later as another unhealed symptom affects it.’ He paused and the others, not interrupting, watched as he pondered the situation.
‘No,’ Aidan continued, ‘I can’t understand this illness. He is physically well, but does not talk, do anything for himself except swallow and he acknowledges no-one. I can’t diagnose this without seeing him.’
‘And Sanctity? What troubled Seneschal Portolan about that place? Has anyone any ideas?’ Beatrix asked.
‘You’re sure he was frightened?’ Augusta asked.
‘He was shocked rigid when Captain Locklear mentioned the island, and so were the others in the room,’ said Beatrix.
‘Aye,’ added Anders, ‘no-one wanted to know. The manservant standing beside me wouldn’t even look my way!’
‘So it seems likely that Beattie’s assertion was right, that the storm was used to entice us here,’ said Aidan worriedly. ‘Whoever, or whatever, is on Sanctity that scares the harbourmaster so much could very well be the creator of the storm.’ He looked around at everyone gravely. ‘He could be the torturer I saw. When we reach Sanctity, none of us is to be alone at any time. We look out for each other, all right!’
That night Aidan and Anders talked well into the night, Aidan continuing to pump Anders of all that he’d heard at the Portolan’s. But despite the cabin boy’s unusual ability to perceive the deceptions behind people’s facades, Anders could not discover the reason for the harbourmaster’s fear.
Eventually Aidan gave up and both boys settled to sleep. It took them a long time and, unknown to each other, for more or less the same reason. Aidan recalling his time alone with Augusta, his arm around her shoulder on the poop deck earlier that evening. And Anders smiling idiotically as he dreamt of Beatrix—he could still feel Beattie’s fingers entwined in his.
Two blondes fell down a hole. One said, “It’s dark in here isn’t it?” The other replied, “I don’t know; I can’t see.”
Have a nice day!