Just a quickie!

The boating lake in Aberdare Park
The boating lake in Aberdare Park

 

For those of you have been wondering where I’ve been these last weeks. I have got stuck into my fourth novel and its’s taking up what spare time I have. I am using the working title ‘Riverton’ and I am posting the second draft of the first chapter while I carry on with chapter six. I hope it is of interest, however, keep in mind the first draft of chapter one in my first novel, ‘The Gateway’, ended up in the middle of my third book.

One

It was raining the proverbial cats and dogs as Sir Tomos of Southcote rode along the well-trodden road rapidly turning to mud beneath his horse’s hoofs. Tomos, the Steward to Earl Horsa of Swanston, grimaced, out of sorts, he hated being out in the rain. However, he’d had no option this time, though he couldn’t get rid of the thought that desperation led many times to acute forms of discomfort – and fear. Anxiety furrowed his brow as he bent his head against the cold wind blowing almost into his face. It was dusk now, rapidly approaching full dark and he didn’t want to be stuck riding home through the night. Though he knew the road well it was still not easy avoiding the potholes even in the moonlight, and there was no moon as yet and unlikely to be later. This meeting should have been held in his office in the castle not in this neglected village of Korn, a hamlet barely touching the outskirts of the large town of Swanston. But it did border the Great Forest, the foothills of the Scissor Mountains still many leagues to the east and that is where the boy had fled.

His brown cloak was now soaked through, the hood clinging to his thin face, and he was tired. Since the murder he’d hardly slept, apprehending the culprit and keeping him safe was all that mattered. Extreme puzzlement was another reason for his dour expression. Why on earth did the boy do it? If she had to die then someone else should have been the slayer, leaving the boy free as his time had not yet come.

However, Tomos’ other responsibilities meant early risings, long hours and late nights toiling at his liege lord’s corporate affairs, this had contributed to his weariness though he should be used to it by now. Long hours because the earl was demanding and hot-tempered. The nobleman was also not a very pleasant man, nor overly intelligent which Tomos thought was a blessing on times. He could be easily manoeuvred into discussing aspects of his estates that were not quite so important to Tomos’ interests, distracting the large man from those that were. More concerned in hunting with his hounds and hawking, the earl was slothful where business was concerned. Hard to please he kept reiterating that all Tomos had to do to ensure his continuing stewardship, and easy life, was to make sure that the earl’s revenue appeared on due date. The steward had not failed yet but had often come close to it. The Earl could never understand that corn could not be reaped in bad weather or when there was a shortage of labour.

But this meeting in Korn was more to do with the Steward’s own interests than those of the irascible lord, one of many such nobles within the society of rural Drakka.

Tomos halted outside the small, drab inn, run by Egbert Trout, an innkeeper of some forty years of age, the inheritor of his family’s once very successful tavern rundown now because of Egbert’s idleness and inebriation, though it was situated  in an ideal spot on the main road into Swanston.  With one quick look around in the gloom he dismounted onto the road and handed the reins of his black palfrey to a small boy who appeared, like magic, from around the side of the melancholic two-storey building. The innkeeper’s only son touched his forelock, at the same time being careful not to meet the Steward’s eye.

Tomos hated anyone looking at his empty eye socket. The right was perfectly normal but the left was missing, taken by a sword cut in an attack in years past. On that occasion he had been defending his charge, this same one, from being abducted – and now that boy had run – totally unexpected. Tomos had to wear an eye-patch in the castle. His lordship, although used to it, had insisted as the sight of the empty eye socket upset his stomach. But the patch was very uncomfortable giving him a headache and he quite often went without it in the town, especially when it rained – the water ran down behind the leather and made the socket sore. Although every townsman knew of the steward’s affliction most ignored it, but the superstitious always crossed the road when he was sighted. The nonsensical reaction always put him in a bad mood and then he’d smile. The peasants knew nothing – if they did, would they run?  Nevertheless, was it the lack of an eye or the vivid red scar that ran from it down to the corner of his mouth and on to his chin that caused anxiety in the people? The lesion pulled his mouth into a mirthless grin. But the grin had its uses. The expression frightened people and Tomos employed it often for just that precise purpose.

Tomos bent his head and walked through the uninviting, weatherworn door in the timber-framed building and into the taproom of the Spirited Hawk, the name a gross misnomer for the establishment. Lowering his hood he scanned the faces that looked up as he entered – and at the one head that didn’t rise – the one he’d come to meet. He removed his cloak and hung it on the hook behind the door as men returned nervously to studying their drink. His cloak would be quite safe; no thief would dare steal it, the Southcote monogram on the shoulder evidence enough of its owner. The Steward was a quiet man usually speaking to people with respect, but he was also a man to be avoided when he was in a bad mood, as was plain now on his face. God help a felon if he came up before the earl’s law court when the steward was discomposed, although most people agreed he was generally fair in his sentencing of miscreants. Turning away from the occupants and brushing his long, wet brown hair from his eyes he made his way through the small number of tables and benches and up to the bar, a plank laid across two barrels.

‘Evening, Steward, a dirty night.’ Egbert, a fat, short man wearing a grubby apron tied around his waist waddled over with a tankard of ale and placed it on the board in front of his lord’s estate manager. He then walked away not expecting a reply or payment.

Tomos took it absentmindedly and blew another wayward hair from his mouth. His drinks were always on the house. Given the choice he would never have purchased the sour ale anyway, though it did satisfy his thirst even if he did grimace every time he took a sip. It was only by the grace of his God, and the Steward, that Egbert held the license to his inn. Displeasing either could end Egbert’s livelihood.

Tomos was of middle height, lean and fit. He was a tough, determined man, sly of eye perhaps, but maybe this was just bdown to his affliction. Nevertheless he rarely ever missed anything of the goings-on in the town and surrounding countryside – or forgot anything he’d heard whether trivial or not. His phenomenal memory seemed to compensate for his lack of full vision. He was the power in the town. He knew every freeman, tradesman and serf by name – and those of the earl’s family, close and distant.

Tomos was apprised of all that went on in the town and surrounding villages. He was told of those not pulling their weight in the fields, who were hiding produce in their shops to evade his lordship’s taxes, and who were butchering and selling unclean meat and the like misdemeanours. He was also informed of whose wife, or husband for that matter, was playing away and therefore posing a risk to the peace of the town. He was privy to the machinations of the two religious sects in Swanston, as well. There was overt distaste, and covert hatred, shared by the monks of Kaneshi in their black robes living in their dark-walled monastery at the north end of Swanston, and the white-robed sisters of the followers of Tarria who had their domicile and hospital in the large whitewashed convent at the southern end. Over the years the Steward had become adept in playing one faction against the other; his own ends calling for it on occasion for both groups had their fanatical followers roaming the countryside offering pardons – or threats depending on your circumstances.

His agents roamed wide always listening to rumours and reporting on the temper of the people. Tomos relayed a few things to Earl Horsa, those matters Tomos thought he should know, but he never informed his master of what was intrinsic to the Steward’s own plans. Plans which the unsuspecting Horsa had no knowledge of, for they took precedence over any of the earl’s interests. Ostensibly Tomos was his master’s intelligence gatherer, but he was also something else, a secret only one or two knew. His many spies ranged far afield, into the plains to north and south, the port towns and shipping lanes in the west, and occasionally into the Drikander far off in the east. His men searched now for the fugitive and would go even as far as the capital city of Abferkarn in the north if the need arose.

Tomos’ eyes again roved over the five tables in the room and he was perturbed to notice that Selwyn Beaver, Korn’s only blacksmith, was in his cups again, still suffering, barely able to hold up his head. He’d been like it ever since he’d returned home from trading in Blessing, a village about ten leagues west of Korn, and found his wife, Myrna, dead in their home, their son standing over her with a knife in his hand – her blood dripping from its tip. She’d been beaten and stabbed to death. But no-one knew why the boy had done it, the reason for her death. The son had fled as soon as he saw his father standing utterly shocked behind him, the horror on his face and a scream of hate rising on his lips. The hue and cry had been raised immediately but the villagers weren’t quick enough to catch the boy before he’d taken refuge in the forest. No-one knew where he was now, though there were never-ending rumours. Tomos sighed, he’d known the boy, had watched closely as Cearl grew into his teens, had observed clandestinely his upbringing waiting for the boy to show the first signs. But puzzlement had resulted – why did the boy commit matricide? Was this a foretaste of what was to come?

The Steward had investigated the murder immediately, his interests demanded it. He had known the woman and her husband very well, though others did not know that. As far as the townspeople of Swanston and the villagers of Korn knew, to all intents and purposes the family had been immigrants displaced by the last demons’ war. Selwyn’s skill had earned him the second smithy for the village and town fifteen years earlier when the boy had been a baby. At that time Earl Horsa and Swanston had been in sore need of another blacksmith. A perfect placement for the boy’s family or so Tomos had thought – their concealment complete. But had they now been found? There was no reason for Cearl to kill his mother, at least not one that could possibly be discovered by the townspeople. So Tomos had set this lone man across the room to lead the hunt for the murderer.

Tomos sighed. Selwyn’s work had understandably fallen off since the tragedy. Tomos had borne the brunt of blame from Selwyn for his wife’s death. If they hadn’t agreed to the steward’s plans then they needn’t have hidden the boy in Korn. It had taken all Tomos’ cunning to coax him around and ensure his silence, the blacksmith’s death would have served no purpose and he yet may be needed in the future. Nonetheless, grief had driven the man to drink. But grief didn’t last long in Swanston or in the country as a whole, early death was more or less commonplace – even murder. Nevertheless, Selwyn had to resume his employment quickly to ensure the future prosperity of Swanston and Earl Horsa. But more importantly the blacksmith had to forget why he’d been placed in Korn, what the primary object of the move up from the south was. If he didn’t recover, Tomos’ plans would have to be changed. Selwyn could never be allowed to divulge the secret, the little of it that he knew. But Tomos was more than concerned about the boy, he’d nearly panicked when he’d found what the boy had done. Over the intervening nights he had woken in a cold sweat several times after dreaming of the boy’s death, an event which would place their plans at extreme risk of failure. But in the cold light of day he knew the boy was still alive, there were no signs yet of his demise for assuredly there would have been and Tomos had breathed a sigh of relief. Or was it desperation that made him think that? Who of their enemies knew where Cearl had been placed for safety?

On the next table were another two of Swanston’s tradesmen, Cedric the miller, a heavy man strong in the arm, and Robert the baker, shorter than his companion but equally as tough. They were Swanston’s most prominent citizens, both on the Town Council as was Selwyn Beaver – for the present. All three were freemen, all three in contention for the new position of mayor in the forthcoming elections. The miller and baker often worked together as their business interests coincided but tonight they had their heads together, speaking low, plotting a price cut in wheat, no doubt, or their strategy to oust Selwyn from the race. They seemed to think that meeting to discuss their affairs could be kept secret in this small suburb on the edge of the town, some of whose cottages were built encroaching on the Great Forest. However, Tomos was not concerned; any change in prices would have to come to him first to be sanctioned, their mayoral intentions he’d ascertain before they’d realise it. He grimaced; perhaps that was why they’d looked away so hastily when he’d entered, neither man could hide their dealings from him; their faces were an open book. Besides, he knew his visage unsettled them.

Sitting at the table next to Tomos’ agent the steward was disappointed to see old Hengist, a forester by trade, short and wiry he was also a gossip by inclination. His tattling and scandal-mongering came from spending long hours alone among the trees; the only company the voles, squirrels, the occasional wild boar and, of course, the earl’s deer. Some of Swanston’s folk were convinced that Hengist could talk the animals to death for he was never short of meat on the table even in the vilest of weather, though he never owned up to eating venison. Venison was only served at the table of the earl. But whatever he caught in his traps, or with his crossbow, the castle had to be supplied first. In return the forester was allowed a small surplus to pay his wages, the earl never paid in coin if he could help it. However, being a gossip was going to seriously prove tiresome for the Steward. He didn’t want his meeting with his agent talked of elsewhere. Looking around he saw no-one else in the room and he wondered who his agent had fetched him to meet.

Tomos looked over at the man and, feeling his gaze on him, the man raised his head and caught Tomos’ only eye. The Steward nodded slightly towards the stairs and the man stood and followed his master. Tomos always used Egbert’s living quarters for such surreptitious meetings. It wasn’t the first to be held at the Spirited Hawk, though they were few and far between, the innkeeper made sure no-one interrupted, or eavesdropped.

The stairs were old and creaked loudly as Tomos climbed, carrying his tankard to the living quarters above the bar. There were only two habitable rooms of the half dozen found there, the others had long become victim to poor management and ultimately the weather when rain seeped in through warped exterior walls remaining in disrepair. The nearest room, that being Egbert’s as he and his wife slept separately, had a bed along one wall, a table and two chairs and a chest, presumably for Egbert’s clothes. Tomos wondered again at the presence of the second chair, he could not understand anyone wanting to socialize with the innkeeper in his living quarters, even the whores turned their noses up at him, his wife and his son doing the same long ago. It was not exactly an inn in which a traveller would wish to spend a night, they always moved on into the town. The room was like its owner, dirty and unkempt. But it served for Tomos as its very unsavoriness ensured discretion. However, no-one realized that whenever there was a meeting held there Egbert’s wife, listening at a gap in the wall between her room and her husband’s, heard everything. And she was expert in keeping secrets…and in using them to her advantage.

Tomos crossed the room and looked out of the grimy window and over the rooftops of the buildings close by. He watched as the trees in the forest bent and swayed in the ferocity of the wind, for the storm was getting worse. He didn’t turn around when he heard his agent walk in behind him and close the door. Waiting only moments until he heard the scrape across the floor of one of the two chairs he turned as the man sat down. The agent’s features belied the poorness of his attire, the ragged britches, smock, and the dark sacking he wore as a cloak. Sir Oswald of Breem was clean of face, broad of shoulder, tall with long black hair. The disguise was perfect for a spy of the steward wanting to roam freely; at least it would have been if the man had had a dirty complexion. He was a handsome man who looked at this moment like a knight down on his luck, though he was still in possession of his own sword, the hilt just visible when he opened his cloak to sit comfortably.

Tomos stared at the weapon, the silver skull on the pommel prominent. It was a very memorable hilt and he’d told the man this. But Oswald always laughed. Those who were subjected to its use were never ever able to speak of it later – and there had been many, usually at the behest of Earl Horsa’s steward.

Tomos left the window and sat in the other chair opposite him at the small table and placed his tankard of ale on its grubby top, careful to keep hold of it until the rickety table settled. ‘Well,’ he asked, ‘what information have you brought? I hope it’s important those downstairs may talk of us meeting.’

‘Aye, but there’s one downstairs certainly won’t – the forester.’

‘Hengist?’

Oswald nodded and laughed nervously. ‘Strange, I’ve never before heard of a forester scared stiff of the forest and he certainly is.’

‘Did he give a reason?’ Tomos asked surprised.

‘A fire! He said he’d been sleeping on the edge of some place called the Sorcerer’s Dell when shouting and the smell of burning wood woke him. He looked down into the dell and,’ Oswald hesitated knowing his next words would sound absurd. ‘he said he didn’t see any trees! When he’d fallen asleep everything was normal, the glade almost unseen for trees growing there. But when he woke up they had all disappeared. Dear God, the things I hear on my travels,’ and Oswald laughed nervously stress evident in his low voice. He was expecting to be accused of naivety, with Hengist’s story unbelievable, and to be criticized for abandoning the search temporarily. The reason for this meeting though, Oswald thought significant.

Tomos remained unspeaking, his face giving nothing away and Oswald licked his lips for this quiet manner usually presaged trouble for whoever was the object of the Steward’s attention. And Sir Tomos of Southcote was a very dangerous man.

‘I know Sorcerer’s Dell; I could hardly walk through it when I was there last. It’s the wildest part of the forest in this region; the trees seem to fight each other there for space.’ Tomos, speaking at last, found he was somewhat intrigued…and suddenly anxious for he felt fear flicker in his gut. Hengist was an experienced forester, second to none and although prone to blather he never usually came out with something that didn’t have at least a modicum of believability. ‘If he didn’t see trees, what did he see?’

‘Perhaps you’d better ask him…you know, hear it first-hand. He’s the one I’ve asked you here to meet.’

Tomos bristled. ‘You’ve called me here to meet the foulest gossip in Swanston? Are you serious?’

‘Anything untoward you said. Any strange happenings in the forest you wanted to hear about immediately. Besides he refused to pass this place, he was in urgent need of something to calm his nerves, and the only way I’d have been able to shift him afterwards was at the point of my sword and he’d have clammed up immediately. You’d never have been able to get anything out of him.’ Oswald shifted on his seat, clasped his hands on the table top and continued. ‘I was searching there at the dell, or as near as my mount would take me. It shied about half a league from the place and I wondered at that. So I dismounted and had a look around, I thought maybe the boy was there, hiding, and had somehow spooked my horse. But he wasn’t, at least I saw no sign of him. But I’m telling you, Tomos, my hair stood on end the nearer I approached the place.’ He licked his lips, his eyes far away, fear on his face, the look very strange on a face that always laughed as he fought. ‘I couldn’t walk to the edge of the Dell, something stopped me, it…it was like a wall, hard, impervious, though I saw nothing but trees in front of me,’ he paused and shook himself. He looked again at his employer. ‘I returned to my horse and rode away. An hour later I bumped into Hengist rushing out of the forest. He was jabbering nineteen to the dozen, scared witless. He even thought I was chasing him and attempted to flee from me. I took him in hand and brought him here for you to question.’ Breem didn’t mention that he, himself, had also run from the Dell in panic and also needed something to calm his own nerves.

‘Fetch him,’ Tomos said perturbed. Information on anything untoward he’d ordered brought to him sure enough, but was this one of the expected signs?

Minutes later Hengist was standing in front of the table nervously ringing his hat in his hands. Oswald stood at the door behind him not taking his eyes from both men.

‘Go on, man, what did you see?’ asked Tomos frowning at the clearly frightened forester. He’d sat through the first part of the forester’s blustering tale and was losing patience.

‘My Lord, I…I saw a woman being burned at the stake by a man wearing a black robe,’ Hengist whispered.

‘Are you sure or had you been drinking and were still dreaming?’ asked Tomos.

‘No, Milord, I’m positive. I could hear her laughing at the man and see the flames, though I…’ Hengist paused and lowered his eyes, his hat almost unrecognizable, crushed in his hands.

‘What?’

‘Well, it was odd…’

‘What was?’ asked Tomos his gut tightening.

‘I couldn’t feel any heat from the flames…and I should have at that distance. Instead I…I was cold, milord, very cold.’

Tomos leant back in his chair, perturbed. ‘Did either of them see you?’

‘I don’t think so, milord. Leastwise the man didn’t he never turned round – his back was to me all the time. But the woman looked up at me from among the flames and…and when she did I ran,’ Hengist said sweat beading his forehead, his face ashen.

‘Why?’

‘It was her eyes, sir; her eyes were huge and seemed to look right through me. I had to tear my eyes from her quick like, she was drawing me in.’

‘What did she look like?’

‘I didn’t get much of a look of her face, milord, I was too scared. She looked young…’ he paused, ‘and old, but her eyes were even older…older than…I don’t know. She had long black hair, I remember that.’

‘She looked young and old at the same time?’ Tomos glanced over at Oswald fidgeting at the door and then back at the forester. ‘Can you tell me anything of the man…was he tall or short?’

‘He was tall, and oh yes he had a staff in his hand, that’s all I know, milord. That’s all I seen ‘cause I run.’

‘Go Hengist,’ and as the man hurried to the door the steward added. ‘Never breathe a word of what you’ve seen or of your meeting with me. Beware, that man was a devil, you speak of him again and he’ll come for you, if he does—pray that I kill you first.’ Tomos nodded and Hengist ran from the room.

‘You really think the man was a devil, Tomos?’ asked Oswald his voice unable to hide a tremor.

‘I don’t know, but I don’t want it spoken of outside these walls. The threat of a devil may be enough to keep him quiet.’

‘The woman…was she a witch?’ Oswald asked as he resumed his seat at the table. ‘Hengist thought so,’ he shuddered. ‘It’s never a pretty sight seeing a witch burn. I saw one once… but if that man wasn’t a devil he may have been a sorcerer. That was evil magic I felt as I approached the Dell and the place is named after a sorcerer, isn’t it?’

‘Why would a sorcerer burn a witch? They follow the same creed; and yet she was laughing at the man. What kind of woman would find amusement in a man burning her alive? Still it may all have been a figment of his imagination. Nonetheless, I think you both fell under some sort of spell.’ Tomos paused and rubbed his empty eye socket, it was becoming sore again. ‘To the search,’ he changed the subject, ‘what is taking you so long, I assume you haven’t found him as he’s not with you?’

‘Not yet, he must still be wandering lost in the forest or perhaps he heard us and fled deeper into the woods. He knows he’ll be hanged for the murder if he’s caught. But there are plenty of places we haven’t looked yet. You can rely on me, my men and I will find him.’

‘You had better find him before anyone else,’ warned Tomos his voice steely, ‘you were there to watch over the boy. You may have saved him from imminent death at the hands of Selwyn with your intervention, but you couldn’t stop the boy fleeing, could you? We now have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to apprehend him. Do all your men know the boy must be taken alive and kept secret?’ Tomos glared at the knight.

‘Come off it, Tomos, he was lucky to escape,’ Oswald pleaded. ‘I couldn’t fight off Selwyn and hold the boy. I had no choice I had to stop the blacksmith killing him. And yes, my men know he must be taken alive and unharmed and brought to you.’ Oswald’s voice rose, no longer entreating, as he went on. ‘If Selwyn had seen reason and stopped trying to kill Cearl we may have been able to save Myrna, though it was probably a vain hope. She died in Selwyn’s arms without regaining consciousness.’ Oswald paused until his breathing returned to normal. It was unusual for him to lose his temper with Tomos, but the implied recrimination hurt. ‘I shouted loud enough after Cearl to say I was a friend but he can’t have heard me or was too afraid of the consequences of what he’d done. No, he was hell bent on running and didn’t believe me. Who is the one the boy is supposed to look for? Will he know? I shouted out his name once but couldn’t shout it again there were too many people around. I was taking a chance on saying I was his friend as it was.’ asked Oswald, curious now.

‘Never you mind – and forget you ever knew the name. Now, have you more news?’

‘I’ve been over to Skelmerstown and the news I bring you from there is not pleasing. The local hue and cry was called out three days ago to a disturbance in the forest – outlaws they believed raiding smallholdings and foresters’ cottages. Several folk were killed by the marauders, some were found hanging over their own hearths,’ Oswald paused and looked over at the window, the rain teeming down. Tomos sat silently waiting for the rest. ‘One body was strung up above a sign on the floor – a circle with some writing in the middle of it.’

Tomos sat up, stunned. ‘You are sure? You saw it yourself?’

‘I did. No-one I was with knew what it meant which is not surprising because some fool had smudged it when they took the man down and I couldn’t read it all. But as you’ve told me in the past to keep a lookout for such things, I decided to return to you. I took the opportunity to continue searching the forest between there and here as it hadn’t been done. It was on my way here with the tidings that I found Hengist.’

‘What was it you could read?’

‘Well, it made no sense to me. The first bit and the last had been smudged; the number “4” was all I could make out. It was four people we found dead, perhaps that’s what it meant.’

‘You did right. Go have your supper. I need time alone to think before I decide your next move.’ Tomos stood and walked over to the window as the knight left the room. He stared through the glass seeing nothing but his thoughts and the indelicate reflection of his sore eye socket. But he trembled—it had started.

 

Over on Grub Street in Swanston, a narrow row of two- and three-plan houses with the occasional shop squeezed in between, another tragedy was about to unfold. The figure in black blended in well with the shadows cast by the gable end of the foundry belonging to another blacksmith. It and the blacksmith’s home were adjacent to a stretch of derelict land separating it from old Feaver’s one room cottage across the way. The land itself had attracted all sorts of rubbish most of it reeking to high heaven. But that was no different to the channels running along in front of each row of houses, channels that were used for the illicit discarding of nightsoil and other sundry waste products of man and animal.

The figure watched closely as Torbut, a huge man, the sleeves of his tunic cut short to avoid the flames and hot materials he worked with, left his smithy. Hanging his stiff, burn marked, leather apron on the hook behind the door he slammed it shut after him and turned the key in the lock. Stretching his back muscles he massaged his lumber region and breathed deeply of the cooler night air, the last of the rain moving east. His nose registered the smells from the road and ignored them. The rain had caused the overflow of the effluent from the channels and now there were stinking pools littering the walkway. He scowled and followed the same routine as he did every night he left his forge. He looked over the road and nodded a farewell to Norbert, the rat-catcher, setting off on his nightly forage, following his unsavoury occupation of destroying the rodent population, or at least keeping it down to a manageable level. Since the directive from the central government about rodents carrying the plague received a few weeks before by the earl, Norbert’s productivity had increased due to the improved bounty for each dead rat brought to the castle for payment. Torbut wished him well; it was not a job he would have liked. He was a blacksmith and good at his job, the same as Selwyn Beaver over in Korn.

The figure in black followed in the dusk, his head bowed against the occasional recalcitrant rain shower, his hood offering little protection from the elements. His boots barely kept his feet dry when he walked through an unseen rancid puddle his attention focused on the man in front. Torbut turned the corner out of sight but the figure did not change his pace, he knew where the man was headed. This was the fourth night he’d watched and followed Torbut in the dusk. During the day he had watched Torbut’s family of wife and two sons until he knew the habits of each one. They never varied in the hard-working family.

Torbut, being a creature of habit, had brought up his sons to be the same. Each night at seven o’clock, the blacksmith finished his labour and joined them in the Dirty Duck for three ales and then all three returned to their home adjoining the foundry for their supper. Razpar was pleased to see that Torbut’s routine had again not changed this night and he waited on the corner of Grub Street behind a tall beech out of sight of passing residents shuffling their way home after a day of hard toil. Sure enough half an hour later the huge man and his two sons left the Dirty Duck and walked towards the hidden Razpar. The boys were much of an age, one maybe two years older than the other, the younger awaiting his fourteenth birthday the following week. Razpar, having overheard the boys’ mother talking the previous day, smiled—a pity, the boy would never see it. He waited and watched as the three walked into their home and closed the door behind them. They had not seen Razpar or even suspected they were being observed and they sat down to a lamb stew, happy at the end of their day’s labour.

Razpar smiled, it was now time to conclude the task before him even if he didn’t know which son was the one. But it didn’t matter he’d kill both.

Later that night, when they’d all settled down to sleep and all the lanterns in the many windows of the houses in the road were extinguished Razpar crossed over and crept unseen around the back of the blacksmith’s house. Opening the gate silently he walked up the path to the back door and jammed it shut by pushing in a series of wedges around the jambs. For extra measure he lifted a heavy log he’d previously seen in the garden and leant it against the door. He placed a heavy rock at the foot of the log. There were three hulking great men in that house but none were going to leave their home through the back door. And no-one was going to surprise him by walking in on him in the midst of his business – not this time. When he’d completed this he’d have to resume the search just in case this wasn’t the right family. But just in case he’d mistaken which blacksmith’s boy he was to kill, he’d end the lives of all this family.

He crept out of the garden and returned to the street. Studying the other buildings in the road he saw no sign of anyone out and about. In the aftermath of the atrocious weather even the whores had stayed inside. He walked up to the front door of Torbut’s home, halting he listened for any movement from within. Hearing nothing he again smiled and taking the bunch of oddly shaped steel tools from his pocket he used a picklock on the old lock. He opened the door gently and crept in. He waited for the barest of moments to see if he’d been detected, content in the silence, he took from another pocket in his cloak a fist-sized pewter jar. Ensuring the soft-wood stopper was firmly in place first, he quickly placed it in the embers of the banked-up kitchen fire and tilted the pot until it rested on its side. The stopper started to smoulder. Razpar hurriedly exited the house and quickly placed wedges in the jambs of the front door.

He was back at the corner of Grub Street when there was an almighty explosion. He grinned as the blacksmith’s home went up in flames the foundry next door following shortly after, debris flying everywhere. No-one could have possibly escaped from the huge conflagration. He left as the neighbours came out into the road completely bewildered.

 

Sir Tomos Southcote descended the rickety stairs in the Spirited Hawk and beckoned to Sir Oswald Breem. His agent, leaving the remains of what looked like an unsavoury pie, stood and followed him out of the taproom.

‘Come with me to the castle,’ he said quietly. ‘In the morning I want you to withdraw your men, discontinue the search.’

‘But the boy, Tomos, you said he must be found,’ Oswald demurred.

‘If you haven’t taken him by now, you’ll never find him. He has friends in the Great Forest who will aid him, though he doesn’t know it yet. He will turn up eventually. I want you to disperse your men to every town and village bordering the forest. They are to keep a low profile and await his reappearance. But first I want you to take a missive for me. Someone else needs the knowledge you have brought me.’ Tomos’ face was grim as he took the reins of his palfrey and mounted. ‘Hurry, get your horse.’

 

Have a nice day!

Chapter Fourteen and a giggle

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/political-jokes

Politicians and diapers have one thing in common: they should both be changed regularly… and for the same reason.

 

 

A grisly murder happens here in my fourth book (Blacksmith's shop St Fagans Castle)
A grisly murder happens here in my fourth book
(Blacksmith’s shop St Fagans Castle)

Fourteen

 

Later that same afternoon Trumper and his team commenced work on jury-rigging the mainmast. From a jumble of spars and ropes piled alongside it, a somewhat narrower and flimsier upright was lashed to the stump of the mainmast.

At the same time, Augusta found herself up to her armpits in suds, scrubbing in a large tub, the clothes of herself, Beatrix and Lady Cornelia—a very new experience for her. Grumbling continually she kept an eye on Beatrix kneeling alongside her who was also washing clothes…for those of the boys, the captain and Tragen. As Anders and Aidan had explained, the blisters on their hands inflicted by gutting the fish the day before, at Augusta’s insistence they reminded her, had still not healed.

They stood to one side at the rail keeping the girls company, occasionally giving uncalled for advice when Augusta got in a knot. At one point Augusta and Beatrix, losing their temper, had ordered the boys to clear off but Aidan had explained that Tragen would do his nut if they disappeared and left the girls alone—they had to perform their duty of care. Anders was again practising knife-juggling techniques while Aidan was whittling away at a length of wood, the girls not realizing that the boys were gripping their knives in hands that showed no signs of soreness.

But they were not the only ones catching up with their laundry. Lines were slung all over the ship and clothes were hanging to dry giving the impression that the ship was festooned in multi-coloured banners. Even sailors who disliked soap and water for personal cleansing had to follow Locklear’s orders when he told them he’d had enough of their clothes stinking.

That is everyone except Leash, he, being on duty at the helm had missed the fun in the morning. Not that he cared; he didn’t much like fun. Nevertheless, he was optimistic a chance was bound to come about at the forthcoming festivities. He stared at Aidan. Smiling slyly, he savoured the different methods he could use on the boy, bludgeoning, drowning—strangling would be nice, he would be able to feel the life leaving the boy’s body. He liked that idea. But then he smiled wondering for a moment if, perhaps, he could employ his infection’s method. Looking at Aidan, he yearned to use it but knew it would be too risky—decapitation would jog Tragen’s memory. If that happened, then Leash was a dead man walking, but then he grimaced, he was that already.

 

Tragen walked past the girls scrubbing diligently and noticed his green robe in Beattie’s tub. He stopped by the two boys enjoying themselves at the rail.

‘Why are they washing our clothes, my boy?’

Aidan and Anders raised their hands for the wizard’s inspection, the lesions from the day before hardly visible.

‘We have to keep these blisters dry to aid the healing, Master, so Beattie and Au…Nellie offered to do ours.’

‘Offered…nagged into it, you mean!’ Augusta said, very disgruntled.

‘Oh come, you know they can’t do it with their hands in that state. Besides, it gives you practise,’ said Beatrix, wiping suds from her nose.

‘Practise…practise! What do I need practise for? I’m not doing this when we get home…ever!’

‘When we agreed that you were to masquerade as a maid, I never meant for you to carry out each and every task of a domestic if there’s no need.’

‘Milord, there is every need for clean clothes,’ Beatrix said, scandalized.

Aidan, preparing for flight, grabbed Anders’ arm making him drop the knife he was about to launch at the mast. ‘The Bear is calling you.’

‘Watch out! I could…’ Anders started to say as Tragen halted them with his staff raised across their path.

‘Aidan, I wish you to help the young ladies accomplish this task,’ he ordered, ‘or shall I ban you from this evening’s frivolities?’ Tragen wondered if this boy would ever carry out mischief successfully and he struggled to keep a straight face.

‘He can’t, Milord, his…’ Beatrix stopped as Tragen put his finger to his mouth to silence her.

‘Well, Aidan?’ Tragen waited.

‘You said I wasn’t to do magic on board,’ he said, looking everywhere but at the girls.

‘You know full well that I said “in enclosed spaces”.’

Aidan caved in. ‘All right…stand away from the tubs you two.’ And they looked on bewildered, water dripping from their arms and dirty suds clinging to their shirts and britches, their faces bright red from the exertion of scrubbing clothes for the last hour. Aidan lifted both his hands over the tubs and intoning a chant, curled his fingers and moved his wrists in another complicated series of gestures.

The clothes in the tubs took on a life of their own and leapt from the water perfectly clean. And, as Aidan directed them with his hands, they draped themselves over the line alongside the wet clothes already drying in the sun. Aidan then turned his attention to the mound of dirty clothes dumped on the deck between the tubs and these dipped in the water on their way to the drying line…also as clean as a whistle.

‘Thank you Aidan, I’ll leave you to it now,’ said Tragen, walking away grinning. ‘Should we call a truce, Aidan?’

Aidan watched his mentor’s shoulders shaking with suppressed mirth. He laughed and turned back to the girls, it was only then he realized his dilemma.

‘Now ladies, he only did that to have his own back on me for soaking him.’ The grin fell from his face as the girls grabbed him. ‘Don’t take it to heart, will you, I mean…’

For the second time that day, Aidan was drenched. The girls dumped him into the nearest tub of foul-smelling water.

 

They left their cabins and, climbing up to the waist at sunset, joined the throng of resting seamen already congregating and vying for a place near the musicians. Forming a circle, with the main hatch at the centre, the crew left an area around it for the dancing, usually exuberant when performed by relaxing, drunken sailors and marines at sea. Sitting in pride of place on the hatch cover and being feted as the principal entertainer of the evening, was Jason and his fiddle, alongside him was a small man almost hidden by a large drum. A third man, Bartholomew, a tall, gangly, red-faced sailor was striking up a tune on his reed pipe. And one particularly sozzled sailor, his long pigtail swinging behind him, was already giving an impromptu rendition of a very bawdy sea shanty whilst swigging from a large tankard.

Several rum and ale casks were in place, as was a makeshift table groaning with pies. Dolly standing guard alongside the results of his labour, had every reason to be proud of his skills, the smell making saliva flow in many a mouth.

The weather could not have been more conducive for reducing tension, the evening warm with a slight breeze carrying the scent of the sea, a clear sky and a rising full moon, a myriad stars twinkling in the heavens.

A league or so from the ship the first blue whales seen for over a week were making their presence felt. Their voices were a welcome sound and the spouts from their blow holes a magnificent sight, except to Dolly of course who studiously kept his back to them.

Aidan and Anders flanked both the girls, all four sitting with their backs against the starboard rail. Augusta and Beatrix breathed a sigh of relief; at one point they thought they were going to miss the party. Earlier that afternoon they had been subjected to a long and tedious lecture given by Lady Cornelia. She not wanting them to attend, knowing exactly what sailors were like when drunk. But having been told by Tragen that it would look extremely odd to the crew if the maids did not attend, and that he’d be there to keep an eye on them anyway, the lady-in-waiting gave in grudgingly.

‘There, I told you he was the good-looking one didn’t I?’ Augusta said, nodding towards the minstrel tuning his fiddle.

‘Oh, yes, he is too,’ replied Beatrix not taking much notice, twitching in an effort to get comfortable on the hard deck, ‘we should have brought cushions.’

‘You two must be blind,’ said Aidan. ‘I’ve seen better looking whales. Look there’s one over there,’ and Aidan pointed over the rail at a spot directly behind Dolly.

‘Oh don’t, he’ll only think you’re laughing at him,’ said Beatrix.

‘Sh…you lot, the Bear’s going to say something,’ said Anders.

The captain, accompanied by Hopper and Tragen, stepped to the forefront of the quarterdeck and looked down at the crew milling about in the waist.

‘Before the party begins men of the Grim, I want to inform you of our present situation and my decisions on our future.’ Hugo Locklear was a giant of a man towering above them. ‘But first I must offer my sincerest thanks to you all for your courage and extraordinary exertions over these past days. If it was not for your excellent seamanship, your stamina and your trust, the Grim would have been lost and us along with it. I am immensely proud of you all and I give you a toast,’ the captain and his two companions held up a mug of spirits to the men and then supped deep.

Locklear continued, his beard wet from spilled brandy, he wiped it quickly with his hand. ‘Unfortunately, we lost four of our shipmates in fighting the storm, and although I have been assured that they are safe in Paradise,’ here he glanced at Aidan before going on, ‘we will still miss them amongst us. So stand and bow your heads in remembrance and ask your Gods to care for them.’

Locklear resumed his speech a moment later. ‘The tempest was the worst I have ever endured in all of my forty years at sea. There was a reason for it being so severe,’ he paused and pulled at his beard. ‘It was not a natural storm but one created by malign beings.’ He paused again, his crew quizzical, unable to grasp the meaning of his words. ‘Aye, you may look puzzled. I was until Lord Tragen explained that sorcery was behind the storm. We do not know its origin or its purpose, but we have come through its onslaught relatively safely. However, we have sustained critical damage which must be rectified sooner rather than later.’

Aidan and Anders glanced at each other both surprised that magic had been mentioned, though the suspected purpose behind the storm had not been. Aidan was of the opinion that if the attempt to capture Augusta was ever voiced in public then that would very likely bring on the outcome they dreaded. He continued to stare up at the captain, on pins awaiting his next words.

‘It is only fair that I tell you of the sorcery as I wish to retain your trust in the times ahead.’ Locklear pulled at his beard and took another sup from his mug. ‘The storm has blown us about four weeks off course and we are at present approaching the Griffin Islands. Some of you may have heard of these isles, others have not. Suffice it to say that wherever we make landfall we must all be on our guard. The enemy may be behind us, or he may very well be on the island at which we provision. Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain we need to make repairs to our hull and step new masts. Without these tasks being completed we will not survive our journey home. And let me assure all of you,’ Locklear raised his voice and slammed his fist on the rail before him. ‘It is my intention to get home and take you all with me. I calculate that we are seven weeks from Mantovar and a couple of days from Griffin. The quicker repairs are made, the earlier we will reach home and our loved ones.

‘Men of the Grim enjoy yourselves this evening you have earned it, and for those of you worried that we will run out of grog, calm yourselves. Lord Tragen has assured me that he can cast a spell that will produce everlasting supplies of rum. And he has also promised he will not let his apprentice anywhere near it.’ Anders joined in the laughter and thumped Aidan’s back.

‘Captain,’ a voice from near the bows shouted, ‘I wouldn’t mind being drowned in grog.’

‘Aye, and from what I’ve heard,’ Locklear replied recognizing the voice, ‘drowning is what you need, Nobber.’ Once again, there was uproar, except from Leash standing at the starboard rail glaring at the back of Aidan’s head.

 

A few hours later in the midst of the merriment, Anders decided to show the two girls how to dance. Unfortunately, he and Aidan had been supping ale almost continuously since the party started and it showed. ‘Come on, little wizard,’ Anders slurred quite happily, rising from the deck where he had been sitting, as always, alongside Beatrix. He grabbed Aidan and pulled the smaller boy to his feet.

‘Not now, Anders, you’re drunk and I’m…hic…tired, I’ll sit here watching you…hic…and point out the good details of your performance…hic…if there are any,’ he smiled drunkenly, holding on to Augusta’s shoulder to keep upright.

‘Afraid are you? Let’s show them I can dance better than you, boy, drunk or not, come on.’

Aidan and Anders tottered into the centre and calling to Bartholomew to set up a reel, both boys stood patiently in the centre of the deck, arms crossed at shoulder height staring at each other. The crew gradually quietened and prepared to watch the boys’ performance; both had a reputation for dancing the hornpipe second to none and very often engaged in a contest of skills. Bets were already being laid to see who would stick the pace and remain standing at the end.

Augusta and Beatrix watched enthralled for despite being the worse for drink both boys danced expertly. And as Bartholomew increased the tempo on his reed pipe so the boys skipped and stamped their bare feet faster and louder.

Beatrix couldn’t help but show her pride for Anders and urged him on, but looking around at the crew cheering and placing even bigger bets, she noticed Leash staring very strangely at Aidan from his place at the larboard rail.

Leash had been drinking non-stop since he’d finished his stint at the helm and he’d grown surlier as the evening wore on. Though nowhere near drunk – alcohol had no effect on him – his patience was coming to an end. All evening he’d been waiting for Aidan to walk off alone and it had not happened, the boy had even gone to the heads accompanied by the captain’s brat. It seemed he’d have to reconcile himself to the fact that he was not going to get a chance at the boy this night.

Beatrix, a cold shiver running up her back, nudged Augusta, nearly slopping her ale down her front.

‘Careful, Beattie, for God’s sake I’m enjoying this,’ she said unable to hide the slur in her voice.

‘Look at that man over there by that rack of belaying pins, the helmsman, I don’t like the way he’s staring at Aidan,’ Beatrix said, ignoring Augusta’s warning.

Augusta followed her gaze and at that moment Aidan finally gave up the contest and fell to the deck, the ale had got the better of him, Anders’ supporters cheering wildly as they collected their winnings. Leash, his manic black eyes even blacker, sneered, and Augusta, suddenly fearful and not knowing why, wanted to hurt the helmsman to protect Aidan. She stared at the belaying pins alongside him and wished that she could hit him with one, like Dolly’s mother had wished to do to her husband. Feeling guilty for wishing to commit violence for no discernible reason, she turned quickly away and went to help Aidan stand. The next thing she heard was an outraged shout from behind her, someone had really hit Leash with one of the pins. Nobber, just before he fell down drunk, had insisted that the pin had swung through the air on its own—like magic.

Augusta thought no more about it, she and Beatrix went on enjoying themselves up until Aidan vomited over their legs. Utterly disgusted, the girls ordered the boys to bed. And such was the level of inebriation, the boys did not dream of arguing.

 

Aidan dreamed of laughter again.

And Anders awoke when Aidan screamed. He leapt from bed and did the only thing he could think of—he clasped the distraught boy to his chest. Aidan struggled violently, his hysteria only calming when Anders would not relinquish his hold.

He opened his terrified eyes. ‘Go get Tragen…quick!’

Anders ran through the captain’s cabin, shouting an explanation to Locklear already preparing to leave his bed. He left the Grim’s master to keep watch over Aidan. He raced down the passageway bellowing for the wizard, waking Augusta and Beatrix as he did so. The girls were not long flinging on their clothes and racing to Aidan.

Tragen pushed past Locklear to Aidan’s side and sat on the bed with him. There was a slick sheen of sweat covering the boy’s face and neck and he stroked his boy’s brow, reassuring him.

‘Oh, my boy, my boy, what was it, hey? Are you feeling better now? Tell me what happened. I’m sorry; I have to ask now while it’s still fresh in your mind.’ Tragen beside himself with worry gripped Aidan in an embrace near to choking him.

Aidan was in a very sorry state. He had a hangover worse than any in his past; his skull felt as if it was home to an anvil being hammered by a very energetic blacksmith, and coupled with it he had recollections of a terrible dream, a nightmare he could not unravel.

‘Nothing happened at all that makes much sense. Ah…my head is pounding,’ he replied, pushing his head into Tragen’s shoulder. ‘Anders, get me some water, will you?’

Aidan pushed himself upright, taking the water he swallowed deeply. Refreshed, his head still felt as though drums were pounding between his ears.

‘You’re right, I have to tell you now before I forget,’ he paused, and the others leant forward in the doorway to hear his low voice.

‘Someone or something was hanging from…I don’t know, I couldn’t quite make out what it was,’ Aidan shuddered. ‘Anyway…a man was standing in front of it with a spear in his hands, there were red chains, and…and the man appeared to be dressed in a red robe, and…and he was laughing. And then…’ Aidan stopped and looked into the mug in his hands and tears rolled down his face unable to speak of the incident, the revolting sight he’d witnessed.

‘Take your time, my boy; take as long as you need. I’m here…here with your friends. You’re safe now,’ and as Tragen said this he remembered that this was the second time he’d said these words in the last few days. What was happening to Aidan—why him? ‘Come, drink some more, you’ll feel better.’

‘As the man dressed in red laughed, the thing hanging there…screamed, and it could not stop screaming.’

The apprentice passed the mug to Anders and lay back down on his bed. ‘It scared me, scared me silly. I didn’t know what to do, what to think, I couldn’t do anything. All I could do was stand there, watching. For a moment I almost appeared to be the man in red, and…’ Aidan trembled violently for a moment. ‘He was evil, Master, truly evil he didn’t seem human…I felt sick!’ He shuddered again. ‘God! I…I can’t remember any more.’

‘Rest, my boy, rest, Anders will you stay with him for a while?’

‘I will never leave him, Milord, he knows that.’

As Tragen rose from the bedside Aidan spoke again, his voice muffled in his pillow. ‘Master, there was one other thing,’ and Tragen turned to him. ‘As the man was laughing, he said…he kept saying “wait for the wizard, wait for the wizard”!’ Aidan lifted his head and stared at Tragen with despairing eyes. ‘You are in grave danger, Master,’ he turned over and faced the wall and Anders moved to his side determined to stay awake the rest of the night.

Tragen joined Hugo, Augusta and Beatrix – drying her eyes on the sleeves of her shirt – around the captain’s desk.

‘Drinks, we all need a drink,’ said Locklear and he brought assorted mugs and a carafe of wine from his bedside table. He poured for all as he spoke. ‘I know the time seems wrong for this. It’s either very early in the morning or very late at night; however, I have never needed one so badly.’

‘Milord, have you any explanation?’ Augusta asked softly, staring into the untouched mug of heady, red wine.

All three stared at him awaiting his reply. Tragen gazed out of the stern gallery, seeing very little except the occasional lonely star, the moon now obscured by clouds, evidence there’d be rain before long.

The wizard sighed and turned from his musings at the window. ‘The thing hanging and screaming could only be a man, I suppose…’

‘Or a woman,’ interrupted Beatrix.

‘Yes, or a woman,’ agreed Tragen. ‘Whoever it was, he or she was being tortured, hence the spear and the chains.’

‘Why were they red chains, though?’ Augusta asked him, the use of torture not coming as too much of a surprise. She had heard that her father used it in his dungeons, but never having come into actual contact with it she had never really given it much thought. He was the lawmaker and protector of Mantovar; she was his daughter and had never been asked whether or not she condoned its use.

‘The chains were covered in blood,’ said Beatrix, almost in a whisper, shocked to her very marrow. ‘Aidan actually witnessed a torturer at work.’

Augusta blanched. The full implication of what the practise entailed, sinking in. No, she thought, my father could never do that to anyone…could he? Augusta nearly retched.

Locklear broke the silence. ‘The man with the chains, Tragen, was he wearing a red robe or was it red because of the blood?’

‘I won’t even pretend to know the answer to that, my friend,’ he paused and resumed pulling at his beard. ‘A red robe may denote the wearer is a sorcerer, but I know of monks that wear the same colour. But if it was red because of the blood then there must have been an inordinate amount to have coloured him completely. What did my boy overhear “wait for the wizard” was it not?’ Locklear and Augusta nodded and he continued, Beatrix sitting silently staring into space. ‘Now Aidan believes me to be in grave danger—have we got it wrong? Could it possibly be me this being is hunting? My boy is convinced it’s me. This man does not even seem to know of Aidan and Augusta.’

‘He has not mentioned her which does not mean he is ignorant of her. On that point we must keep an open mind.’ Locklear replied, he stood and took his own turn in the gallery. ‘If it is you he’s after how does he know of you? Or is he seeking any wizard, and if it is any wizard then why not Aidan as well?’

‘He hasn’t detected Aidan has he, Milord?’ Beatrix asked anxiously.

‘No, I don’t think he has. But why hasn’t he is the question…why not?’ he pondered.

‘Could it be because you are the more powerful wizard?’ Locklear asked.

‘I am more powerful than Aidan that is true, but only in magic based on the mind which is the usual form magic takes. Aidan’s magic is unique—I know of no other practitioner of his art. His magic stems from healing and in that he is far, far more powerful than I am. No, there has to be another explanation he has remained undetected. And there must also be another reason that he is not receiving these visions every night. We must think on it.’

 

They all thought of nothing else as they lay in their beds attempting sleep for the remainder of the night left them. All were denied their rest, of course, except Aidan who, because he lay with his face to the bulkhead, soon fell asleep and aped his master, snoring loud enough to keep the fish awake.

When they finally admitted defeat and rose from bed not long after sunrise, Augusta and Beatrix went in to update Lady Cornelia, as they had before retiring. As the three, very sad and concerned ladies considered impossible options, Tragen joined them.

‘Have you come to any sort of conclusion?’ Cornelia enquired sadly.

‘I am still mulling over consequences of certain actions, Cornelia. There is only one decision to be made at this time though, and it has priority over everything—we have to discover some way of informing the Prince of Mantovar of all that has happened.’

‘Will he be able to send us aid all the way out here?’ Cornelia asked.

‘I will certainly request that in the message I send him. Unfortunately, I have a further problem in pursuing that aim, I must seek Aidan’s aid as exhausted as he is, though he can be somewhat unpredictable in what he delivers.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’ Augusta bristled, coming to Aidan’s defence.

‘Yes, how can you possibly say that? Are you saying you can’t depend on him?’ Beatrix retorted.

‘Cease ladies. Let me explain, please,’ and he smiled at each of the three in turn, taking immense pleasure in Aidan’s friends.

‘Aidan has a certain knack with animals and birds. He has a greater affinity with them than I do, it may be because he can heal them, I don’t know. Whatever, my boy is more adept with dealing with fauna than I will ever be. The trouble is, when he calls for a specific animal another is quite likely to appear,’ Tragen chuckled and went on to clarify.

‘There was a very memorable occasion, two summers ago; we needed a sheepdog to bring in a flock of lambs from a hillside being plagued by a wolf. The shepherd had been injured by this particular animal but had managed to chase it away. Aidan and I were staying overnight at the local inn after a long journey on the border of the Great Forest, and it being a warm evening and the tavern room very hot and restful, we were imbibing a little alcoholic beverage…just to cool us down, you understand. Well, more than a little of it if I remember correctly,’ Tragen paused, smiling sheepishly.

‘Well, this shepherd rushed into the inn and asked for our help. We could not refuse, so Aidan and I helped each other rise from the table…we were very tired, you know,’ the wizard said, winking. ‘We stood at the bar of the tavern and, Aidan being better with animals than me, I allowed him the conjuration. Poor boy, poor me, I should have remembered.’ Tragen couldn’t stop grinning; the event had been so ludicrous and, as it turned out, highly dangerous.

‘What…’ said Cornelia, ‘what happened?’

‘Aidan created the necessary enchantment for the calling of an animal which entailed picturing the required creature in his mind. The one problem being, and what I should have realized is, that when you’re drunk, a dog and a wolf have a similar appearance.’

‘Oh, oh!’ Augusta interrupted, laughing. ‘I get it; a wolf appeared instead of a sheepdog, is that it?’

‘You are perfectly correct, my dear. A wolf did appear…a very large wolf…a very large and very wild wolf. The same wolf in fact which had savaged the shepherd on the hillside. It appeared right in front of us, in amongst the tables in the middle of the tavern. There was utter pandemonium,’ Tragen halted, a silly grin on his face.

‘Go on…what happened next?’ Beatrix asked, not quite believing her ears.

‘The whole village turned up eventually, as we were extricating ourselves from a haywain parked outside the broken window of the main room of the inn. There seemed to be a lot of men sitting in trees as I recall, and there was not a window left whole in any wall of that tavern. We were unceremoniously marched out of the village, which was a bit silly as we’d offered to repair the damage free of charge as drunk as we were—we usually ask for a small fee for that kind of work. But for some reason they did not want to trust us again. We never did find out what happened to those lambs…or that wolf.’

‘Lord Tragen,’ Cornelia said, after she managed to stop laughing. ‘You jest surely, that was not a true occurrence, surely?’

‘Unfortunately, every word was the truth. Now do you see the problem? If I allow Aidan to call a creature, I do not have any idea what may turn up. As I have no patience with animals if I attempt the calling ninety-nine times out of a hundred the one I summon will also be impatient. It will undoubtedly be totally unsuitable, highly dangerous, and everything will turn into a disaster.’ Tragen tugged hard at his beard.

‘Then we must rely on Aidan, shall I see if he’s awake, Milord?’ Beatrix asked, her eyes red, this time with tears of laughter.

‘Aye, young Beatrix, ask him if he is well enough to join us on the quarterdeck.

 

http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/political-jokes

Three contractors are bidding to fix a broken fence at the White House. One is from Chicago, another is from Tennessee, and the third is from Minnesota. All three go with a White House official to examine the fence. The Minnesota contractor takes out a tape measure and does some measuring, then works some figures with a pencil. “Well,” he says, “I figure the job will run about $900. $400 for materials, $400 for my crew, and $100 profit for me.” The Tennessee contractor also does some measuring and figuring, then says, “I can do this job for $700. $300 for materials, $300 for my crew, and $100 profit for me.” The Chicago contractor doesn’t measure or figure, but leans over to the White House official and whispers, “$2,700.” The official, incredulous, says, “You didn’t even measure like the other guys! How did you come up with such a high figure?” The Chicago contractor whispers back, “$1000 for me, $1000 for you, and we hire the guy from Tennessee to fix the fence.” “Done!” replies the government official. And that, my friends, is how the new stimulus plan will work.

 

Have a nice day!

 

 

Inspiration for another novel

The Blacksmith's shop and home
The Blacksmith’s shop and home
This will appear in my fourth novel. The blacksmith’s shop is one of the true-life exhibits at St Fagan’s Folk Museum in Cardiff, South Wales. It will be the scene of a grisly murder. Here is another exhibit that will also appear, the Merchant’s House.
The Merchant's House
The Merchant’s House
As Carrie Rubin says — I am lucky to live so near to such places.