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 Seventeen of The Gateway (and a laugh or two).

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

A blonde and a redhead have a ranch. They have just lost their bull. The women need to buy another, but only have $500. The redhead tells the blonde, “I will go to the market and see if I can find one for under that amount. If I can, I will send you a telegram.” She goes to the market and finds one for $499. Having only one dollar left, she goes to the telegraph office and finds out that it costs one dollar per word. She is stumped on how to tell the blonde to bring the truck and trailer. Finally, she tells the telegraph operator to send the word “comfortable.” Skeptical, the operator asks, “How will she know to come with the trailer from just that word?” The redhead replies, “She’s a blonde so she reads slow: ‘Come for ta bull.'”

 

 

EPSON MFP image

Does anyone else think this is Johnny Depp? I purchased the image from dreamstime.com who have assured me it is not  and consequently I have used it as the cover on my second book. I’m still a little apprehensive though!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seventeen

At dusk, Aidan and Augusta stood at the head of the brow watching the invited guests descend to the wharf.

Several ships had been forced to move and berth at the shorter jetties to make room for the giant ship. This had taken time and the hours had been utilized to bring up a whole flotilla of small boats to push the Grim alongside the wharf.  There had been no shortage of help from the dockworkers—all it seemed wished to have hands on in securing the biggest ship they would ever see in their lives.t dusk, Aidan and Augusta stood at the head of the brow watching the invited guests descend to the wharf.

A closed carriage pulled by four powerful, jet black horses their long manes curled with red ribbons, had drawn up on the quayside at precisely the time the first dog watch ended at six o’clock. The coachman climbed down and held the door ajar for Tragen to assist his niece to climb the steps.

Lady Cornelia, her broken ankle healed completely, and still not quite believing that the ‘old sickness’ in her bones had also disappeared, was determined to enjoy the rigours of being conveyed in a horse drawn vehicle—an experience that previously would have resulted in a shattered spine. She fairly loped into the carriage, grinning widely, although being a very large woman she slumped heavily onto the seat, the leaf springs groaning as she did. Tragen glanced quickly back up at Aidan and Augusta and winked reassuringly.

Locklear paused and shook Hopper’s hand before climbing the few steps onto the brow. ‘Beware of all not of the Grim and keep a double watch posted until I return. No stranger is to come aboard unless they have my written permission.’ Glancing at Augusta standing nearby, he continued. ‘You know whose safety is paramount. If it comes to a choice…you know which one to make.’

‘Sir, if I may keep you a moment. When I was here before it was common knowledge that the seneschal never entertained in company with his son. In fact he never ever introduced his boy to anyone. The seneschal’s wife died giving him birth and something about that time has been hidden, her death was unusual—maybe even unnatural. I cannot think of any reason that the subject should crop up in conversation, but if it does…beware.’

Locklear paused for a moment, thinking on his words. ‘Are you saying that there was something strange about the boy, that he was deliberately hidden from sight?’

‘Aye, sir,’ the mate nodded.

‘Thank you, Hopper; I will heed your advice.’ Locklear descended the brow as the bo’sun’s mate shrilled the captain’s salute on his pipe.

Hopper, Aidan and Augusta watched in silence as the carriage sped into motion, the coat of arms on the door shining bright, the captain ensconced inside with the wizard and the lady-in-waiting. The two servants, Anders and Beatrix, riding up on the hind seat waved across to them as the coach disappeared around a corner of a long, black warehouse.

‘This is going to be the worst part, Aidan,’ Augusta looked at her companion with mixed emotions, ‘waiting.’

Subdued, he stared at her. ‘Everyone is worried for your safety, Augusta, everyone. How can you bear to live the way you do knowing that people wish you harm?’

Augusta shrugged. ‘I grew up with it…I’m used to it,’ and she added, ‘I try never to think on it. You’ve learned to live with the fact that wizards are never trusted, haven’t you? So, come on, cheer up and teach me some more magic.’

She put her arm through his and dragged him to the poop deck to await the return of their friends. She was determined to take full advantage of this opportunity of being alone with him, to find out a little more of his life—and perhaps his family.

 

The carriage wound through narrow backstreets over the cobblestones between warehouses, shoddy dockworkers’ homes and even grubbier taverns. Beatrix couldn’t help but compare the quality of the many buildings. The warehouses seemed well cared for, but the houses and the inns this near the waterfront, were definitely not. The slum dwellings, some three and four storeys high, tumbled against each other, each needing the support of the next to remain upright. Each roof of the wooden dwellings leant precariously toward its neighbour across the street blocking out overhead sunlight, giving rise to suspicious shadowed niches and sordid alleys. And yet most had washing lines strung from eave to eave across the road.

But the deeper into the town they travelled, so the buildings improved and they discovered a seemliness that displayed an exotic affluence. The occasional house painted in bright cheerful colours, others with sturdy frontages. And, although smelling sometimes overwhelmingly at intersections, the sewers were covered, the drains disappearing below ground.

The town behind the docks was far larger than it appeared from the sea and was far more prosperous away from the seafront. Long, wide thoroughfares crossed each other at odd intervals, giving glimpses of richer homes and cleaner shops. The coach rattled on its way passing through large open squares home to ornamental fountains and small trees, some having benches for the local residents to take their ease.

Anders, who had found it strange that four horses had been needed to pull the coach, discovered the reason before long. The carriage progressed along the first of many steep winding roads through the richer end of the town, leading to the plateau above. Here the style of dwellings changed from one house to the next, no two the same, showing a difference in cultures, denizens from many other countries had settled in Griffin Town. Some even had small gardens planted with dogs tooth violets, nicotiana and orange calendula, with roses climbing the whitewashed fronts, dazzling in daylight.

Beatrix sitting on the swaying seat above and behind the passengers was looking forward to bringing Aidan and Augusta with them on the morrow. It was going to be fun exploring the town, all four together. But the exotica she espied in the shop windows would require a large purse, excitement already making her stomach churn. She glanced out of the corner of her eye at Anders. Would he accept a gift?

From her vantage point she watched as the townspeople went about their business, not all the inhabitants were poor dockworkers. Beatrix identified professional people wearing silk stockings and wide brimmed hats, married women wearing bonnets carrying parasols and rush baskets in their hands, and well-dressed children running about between the coaches and street stalls as youngsters did everywhere. The overall impression was of the well-to-do businessman in the western end of the town, with the poverty stricken dockworker mainly in the east, and in between the hard-working artisans upon which every commercial venture relied.

‘Much like towns in Mantovar,’ said Anders.

‘Yes, smells different though,’ replied Beatrix, ‘but, have you noticed, not many people are smiling?’

‘They do seem a bit glum, don’t they?’

The horses eventually reached the crest of the last slope and picked up speed across the headland above the harbour. The view out over the sea was magnificent even at dusk. The lights of the town sparkled, their brilliance mingling with the lights displayed on the many ships and boats at anchor, alongside the jetties and out in the bay. The beacon, though, illuminating the rocks below, outshone all from the eastern headland directly across the lagoon from their destination.

The home of Seneschal Portolan and his family was set in a large country estate, a high timber fence running for leagues around fields and woods. The wheels of the coach hummed along on the well-kept scarlet maple- and white poplar-lined avenue leading to the home estate. Uniformed sentries, standing at several vantage points along the winding driveway, watched the visitors’ progress. These were hard men, well-armed with swords, crossbows and even large cudgels.

The home estate stood behind ten-foot high stone walls which abutted onto dense woods growing at the rear of the house. Through the woods ran a high fence patrolled at intervals by militiamen. The iron-gated entrance in the south wall opened onto a circular drive leading up to the main building, a large three-storey structure built of blocks of grey stone. Several chimneys stood proudly in line along its roof, one or two spouting black smoke almost invisible in the growing dusk. The front of the house boasted three lines of windows all fitted with glass and showing light. A narrow road led around to the rear of the house, presumably to the stables and servants quarters. A covered portico at the front led up a flight of steps to a set of heavy mahogany double-doors, and these were swung open to greet the visitors as the carriage drew to a halt.

A footman ran to open the carriage door and to unfold the steps for the passengers to descend. Anders and Beatrix were motioned down by the coachman and they stood at the rear awaiting further orders. Both were a little nervous, Anders more so as he had never attended a function such as this before. But Beatrix used his lack of experience as an excuse to hold his hand—Anders didn’t mind.

Three people walked through the high doors to welcome their guests. Seneschal Portolan, although hatless, was resplendent in full uniform sporting a red cummerbund stretched very tightly across his ample waist.

Standing alongside him was a young, overweight boy with shoulder length brown hair. Taller than the harbourmaster, he looked about the same age as Anders and Beatrix. He was wearing tight dark-blue trousers to the knee, long white socks disappearing into black shoes with silver buckles, a white shirt ruffled at the neck and frilled at the wrists. Over all, he wore a coat of black watered silk again embroidered with the Griffin coat of arms. The whole magnificent effect somewhat marred by the vacant expression on the boy’s face. His blue eyes stared straight ahead, seeing nothing.

The third person, a woman standing behind the boy giving the impression that she was the boy’s bodyguard – which in reality she was – looked to be in her forties, small and motherly. Dressed a little dowdier than her companions she had an air of authority that the visitors only understood later.

Locklear, resplendent in his dark-blue Mantovarian uniform, minus his sword, etiquette barring guests from wearing arms in their host’s home, descended the coach first followed by Tragen wearing a green robe, his staff in hand. The wizard turned back to the carriage to assist Lady Cornelia as she alighted. She was dressed in the height of fashion, a long green and white gown with a diamond necklace at her throat.

The seneschal stepped forward extending his hand to the wizard. ‘Welcome, Lord Tragen, to my home,’ he said, looking around the wizard, unable to take his eyes from Cornelia. ‘This must be your lovely niece,’ he said, strangely tense as he turned to her. Taking her hand he bowed over it.

‘This is indeed my niece, Seneschal,’ Tragen was somewhat surprised by the affect the lady-in-waiting seemed to have on the harbourmaster. ‘Allow me to introduce Lady Cornelia.’

‘It is years since this house welcomed such a beautiful lady, I am honoured.’ He turned to Locklear, reluctantly releasing his hold on Cornelia’s hand. ‘Ah, Captain Locklear you also are welcome of course. Please allow me to introduce my son, Thaddeus.’

Cornelia, nearly losing her composure with the unexpected compliment, joined Tragen and Locklear in staring at the young boy. Tragen made to shake his hand—to have it completely ignored; the boy continued looking ahead as if he saw no-one in front of him.

‘Unfortunately, Lord Tragen, Thaddeus has a medical problem. He has been unwell since his birth and is in constant need of care. This is supplied by me and his nurse, Mistress Barbat,’ he indicated the third member of the welcoming party. ‘Nevertheless, Thaddeus always joins me for dinner and I see no reason to exclude him this evening.’ The harbourmaster gazed at his guests, his hard eyes daring them to contest his decision.

‘Of course he must,’ Cornelia replied. ‘It is an honour for us to meet him, and what an apt name to give him. You know its meaning of course, Uncle?’ Tragen shook his head. ‘It means “gift of the Gods” does it not, Seneschal Portolan? A lovely name, for a lovely young man,’ and the large woman strode to the boy’s side and took his arm in hers. There was no reaction at all from Thaddeus as he automatically accompanied Cornelia indoors.

Lodovico Portolan watched bemused, his response a picture of unremitting pleasure he was unable to cease smiling, his eyes softening as he followed Cornelia whose whole attention was now taken up by the boy.

All six moved into the main entrance hall of the house and ascended the dark oak-lined main staircase winding up from the left immediately behind the front doors.

Beatrix and Anders, of course, were not allowed to follow them up the main stairs and instead were taken to the right, through a side door into the kitchen. A small boy sat to the side of the fire turning a spit, roasting the huge joint of lamb suspended in the oval basket, fat dripping and spitting in the flames. The smell made Anders’ mouth water and he earned a nudge from Beatrix as he licked his lips in appreciation. The cook/housekeeper, a miserable looking woman with a perpetual scowl on her face, led them on through another door recessed in the corner, into the servants’ hall. Here they were told in no uncertain terms that they were to help carry the hot food up the side stairs directly into the banqueting hall.

Beatrix was surprised, as the servants of guests they also should have been treated as guests in the servants’ hall. Nevertheless, she was used to seeing deplorable treatment of servants in big houses and she took it in her stride. She smiled at Anders encouragingly before he was tempted to complain.

‘Tragen was right,’ Anders whispered as they carried the hot soup tureens up the narrow stairs. ‘I could never see Augusta putting up with being spoken to like that!’

‘Quiet on the stairs!’ the cook shouted from below.

Anders poked his tongue out and made a face nearly making Beatrix drop the tureen as she struggled not to laugh.

 

‘That man you mentioned before, the Abbot of Sentinel, tell me about him,’ asked Aidan, ‘I only ever saw him now and then, and that was at a distance.’

Augusta shivered and settled herself more comfortably alongside him in their favourite place on the poop deck, the lights on the after-jigger shining down on them. Hopper was below on the quarterdeck, standing at the forward rail, his head continually turning, both to watch the activities on land and the business of the ship. The crew had been refused shore leave until the captain returned with more knowledge of the situation in the port. They went about their duties glancing occasionally up at the quarterdeck or over on the quayside, sharing the mate’s apprehension.

‘He’s head of the monastery on Sentinel,’ replied Augusta quietly, ‘you know that island in the estuary of the river Mantovar. He’s a tyrant. He rules the monks with a rod of iron; they aren’t even allowed to talk with anyone outside the order. Abbot Cumbria’s eyes are much the same as Seneschal Portolan’s…cold and calculating,’ she paused and bit at her bottom lip. ‘The abbot’s tall and very thin, he’s bald, his cheekbones are almost sharp and they protrude alarmingly and he sneers all the time. But it’s his eyes…they really are horrible.’ She shuddered and leant a little nearer Aidan, nudging his shoulder. ‘Perhaps I do Seneschal Portolan a disservice by likening his cold eyes to the abbot’s. The seneschal is clearly a hard man but I don’t think he’s cruel; Cumbria is—he is brutal. I’ve managed to avoid him most of my life, only meeting him once or twice a year when my duties forced me to.’

Aidan put his arm around her comforting, her distress obvious. ‘Where did he come from?’

‘No-one is quite sure, some say from Drakka, others from the east…I mean from the far side of the Scissor Mountains. One man I know said he was from Enzore in the southern mountains in Qula, but I don’t think he’s from there, everyone I’ve ever met from Enzore has been pleasant…Cumbria is certainly not. One or two whisper that he’s from the north, but they won’t say how far north.’ She trembled again and Aidan held her closer.

‘If he’s that terrifying why did your father appoint him,’ Aidan asked, puzzled.

‘I don’t know,’ Augusta shrugged and turned her face to look at him and as she did her hair brushed his mouth.

They both swiftly became aware of how close she was being held and they separated a little, embarrassed. Aidan removed his arm from her shoulders and clasped his hands in his lap to halt the small tremor in his fingers. He had butterflies in his stomach, his feelings in turmoil he stared up at the headland, his master’s destination. Augusta smiled to herself, she well knew the effect she was having on him, and then she realized he was having the same effect on her.

‘The Abbot of Sentinel very rarely comes to the castle; he spends his time at the monastery when he’s not travelling. When he does attend on my father it is always at night. The little I’ve met him makes me want to scream, those eyes of his…when he stares at me my skin crawls. I don’t want to cross him.’ Augusta sucked her finger in the corner of her mouth for a moment and then continued. ‘You know something I don’t think my father knows where the abbot is from. He turned up about twenty years ago, I believe, and has led the monks ever since.’ She fell silent.

‘Now it’s your turn,’ she said, changing the subject, she didn’t want to think of the abbot any more. ‘Tell me of your family,’ and she nudged him playfully, ‘and why you don’t know your age.’

Aidan looked at her, her sparkling green eyes enticing; he smiled apprehensively, would she think less of him? It was no good lying to her she’d see through him straight away and anyway he didn’t want to be untruthful. All her friends were of the aristocracy and would say what she wanted to hear, he didn’t want such an obsequious relationship. But it was only the accident of having magical ability that would elevate him to the peerage when he finished his training—or when Tragen died. He shivered; he didn’t want to even think on that. But he had still come from abject poverty and if Tragen hadn’t found him he would probably still be living in the gutter. Would she think any the less of him if he told her? He knew her opinion of him mattered a great deal.

Thinking of the wizard he closed his eyes and thought back to the day he had first met his mentor. He’d been one small member of a gang of orphaned children in the large town of Miskim, a border settlement way to the north of Castle Mantovar. It had grown up on the edge of the Great Forest, in the foothills of the Scissor Mountains, the eastern border of the principality. The market town was frequented by travellers from all points of the compass, by mountain men and plainsmen as well as the local farmers and drovers.

Occasionally a lone mystic ended up in the town after journeying many hundreds of leagues, not one of them knowing the reason for their visit, eventually leaving the town sometimes weeks later, confused and somehow bereft.

Aidan had lived on his wits and his unusual abilities. He’d no clear idea then how long his life had consisted of stealing from stallholders, running from irate innkeepers and sleeping rough in smelly hovels. Not that any so-called “victim” wished to punish him, for he had healing hands even though he was accident prone. People thanked the God, Tarria, for any encounter with him—once they’d cleaned up his mess.

But it had been a year after his mother died when Tragen caught him.

Aidan smiled. He remembered his mother as a warm, comfortable feeling, her long black hair smelling of lavender, always falling across his face when she cuddled him. Although he could no longer picture her face in his mind the fact did not seem to bother him. She had met her end after leaving him playing in the small lean-to they shared adjacent to The Scourge, an ancient tavern, across the road from the Moot Hall. His mother had been an enchantress of small ability, a hedge-witch usually employed to charm warts and other minor, unsightly disfigurements. She had gone to ply her trade in the local market and had never returned. His father he had never known although he vaguely remembered a light-haired man.

His life had changed dramatically when the old wizard caught him red-handed using magic to make a large, florid-faced man look the other way so that he could steal one of the newly baked pies off the stall in front of one of the only two bakeries in the town.

He didn’t know he’d used magic. All he did was wave his hands about and sing and, lo and behold, he appeared invisible to the stallholder—or so he thought.

But he was still visible to the wizard. Tragen had seized him, and instead of turning him over to the village watchmen – who unknown to Tragen would have released him anyway, it being an unspoken agreement in the town that the boy should always be kept fed and clothed – he had purchased two of the large and very hot meat pies, one for himself and one for the small boy.

But he had been cautious. As young as he was then, he had learned to run from strangers, especially strange men. But he was also insatiably curious and very hungry. He had never seen a wizard before let alone actually converse with one. And the man did look very funny in his long green robe and strange pointed hat, its brim ragged and flopping down around his face. With a long white beard that he had to keep flinging over his shoulder whilst eating – a ludicrous habit that had fascinated him and even now ten years later still brought a smile to his face – he and the old man had sat together on a bench in a corner of the main square. He had listened to the wizard’s proposal as the succulent, thick gravy dripped down his chin, ending up splattering his already dirty, ragged clothes. And after a long discussion, and another pie, he’d agreed to apprentice to the wizard.

He was too young to realize what he was getting into, of course. He had never heard of apprenticeships and did not understand what they entailed. But at the promise of regular food and a warm bed, he thought he’d give it a try. Why not, if he didn’t like it he could always leave.

But the watchmen had been called by concerned citizens and they would not allow him to leave until Tragen had satisfied them of his motives…a fact that had surprised the wizard no end. There were many damp eyes watching the boy walk the road south.

‘Aidan? What is it?’ Augusta asked.

He breathed deeply and told her all of it.

His words shocked her, she’d had no idea. She stared at him, coming to understand now why he was so different to other boys she’d met.

‘Tell me more of your mother?’

Aidan smiled; he always did when he thought of her. ‘My mother was lovely…and warm and kind and always smelled of flowers,’ he paused, staring into space.

‘Go on…can you tell me what happened to her or would you rather not talk of it?’ Augusta asked apprehensively, staring at his face she realized how very handsome he was even though he needed a shave.

‘It’s all right, it’s just I don’t know…I think she was murdered.’

‘Murdered! Good God, Aidan,’ and she put her arm through his and held him tight. ‘How? I mean…I don’t want to know,’ she squeezed his arm against her and held his hand. ‘Your father, do you know anything of him?’

‘Only what my mother told me. For some reason she always cried when she talked about him. I remember that because I asked her once why she was always sad when I asked. She told me he was ill and that it was her fault. I asked her where he was, because if he was ill he should be in bed. She said he had to stay away from us because of the nature of the disease, I never understood that at the time. But I’ve thought it over many times since, and it could only have been some sort of highly infectious ailment, you know, like the plague,’ he paused as she squeezed his arm again, comforting him. ‘She loved him very much, though, everyone used to tell me they were joined at the hip…I’m not sure what they meant by that.’ Why was he telling her all this? He’d never told anyone before.

‘Why was it her fault that he was ill?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ Aidan stared off into space. ‘But she said something else which makes me think it may not have been the plague.’

‘What was that?’

‘Something very strange…she said his illness made him forget me.’

Augusta was shocked, staring at him she didn’t know what to think. ‘What ailment makes you forget your son?’

‘I don’t know. Anyway, I went to live with Tragen, when I was five, I think.’

‘So, little wizard, you come of age next year the same as me.’

‘I suppose so, what difference it’ll make, though, I don’t know. Tragen allows me to make most decisions that affect me, already. It’s only where magic is concerned that he treats me like a kid.’

‘You love him, don’t you?’

‘Of course I do…he’s my dada, not that one back in Miskim.’

‘Do you think he’s dead?’

‘He has to be. I know there were plague victims dropping dead about then. We used to come across their bodies when we were hiding from the watchmen.’

She shivered at that and changed the subject again. ‘Tell me about the storm. It must have been a very powerful wizard to create it. Why couldn’t Tragen counteract it with his own spell of calming?’

‘He wanted to, I think, but he realized the storm was far too great. So he decided to use a different spell…the shield. But he had to use his staff to aid him, and even that wasn’t enough. It could not protect him fully as you saw when he fell; neither could it calm the storm sufficiently. To create a tempest that vast, several sorcerers must have combined the power of their staffs. Tragen and his staff alone were not enough to beat them. And…and the more I think on it…’ he paused, frowning, ‘the more I think on it convinces me that he should not have been able to block the storm as he did.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s almost as if he was allowed to succeed—and that’s what I meant to tell Tragen before he left.’

Augusta scared even more by this knowledge, held on to Aidan’s hand tighter as they watched the sun go down.

For some reason he could not understand, Aidan was very happy then…just sitting there, arm in arm, her hand in his.

 

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

Teacher: “Which book has helped you the most in your life?”
Student: “My father’s check book!”

Have a nice day!

Chapter Fifteen of The Gateway and a smile

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

A child asked his father, “How were people born?” So his father said, “Adam and Eve made babies, then their babies became adults and made babies, and so on.” The child then went to his mother, asked her the same question and she told him, “We were monkeys then we evolved to become like we are now.” The child ran back to his father and said, “You lied to me!” His father replied, “No, your mom was talking about her side of the family.”

 

 

A medieval church (St Fagans Castle)
A medieval church
(St Fagans Castle)

Fifteen

 

Aidan was sitting in a chair in Locklear’s cabin his head in his hands nursing a pounding headache, when Beatrix and Augusta arrived. He had breakfasted a little on his usual burgoo and Dolly had sent up some of his sweet biscuits because he had heard of the boy’s trauma. But Aidan couldn’t hide the ravages of the night, he still looked haggard and worn out.

            ‘What now, can’t they leave him be for five minutes?’ Anders asked angrily when Beatrix told Aidan he was wanted. ‘He needs time to get over this,’ and then he realized who was speaking. ‘I’m sorry, Bea, it’s been a long night.’ Aidan was not the only one suffering from lack of sleep. Anders had hardly closed his eyes whilst keeping vigil.idan was sitting in a chair in Locklear’s cabin his head in his hands nursing a pounding headache, when Beatrix and Augusta arrived. He had breakfasted a little on his usual burgoo and Dolly had sent up some of his sweet biscuits because he had heard of the boy’s trauma. But Aidan couldn’t hide the ravages of the night, he still looked haggard and worn out.

‘It’s all right, Anders, I’m fine now. I could do with a breath of fresh air and so could you, come on,’ and Aidan, rising slowly to his feet, pulled Anders along with him.

‘What does he want?’ Aidan asked.

‘I’d rather he told you!’ Beatrix replied smiling nervously.

Augusta said nothing and commenced chewing her lower lip to bits.

Tragen studied his apprentice’s face for the first few moments of him arriving on the quarterdeck and, although worried by what he saw, smiled his welcome.

‘You have recovered a little, I see,’ Tragen said, unable to keep the lie and the concern from his voice.

‘He has not rested enough, Milord,’ Anders interrupted, still angry.

‘Enough, Anders, please? I’m all right; I can’t stay in bed all day.’ Aidan playfully punched Anders’ shoulder and turned to Tragen. ‘What’s up?’

Tragen nervously tugged at his beard. Aidan loved calling on the animals of this world, he found it exciting. And, of course, quite often it was—but not in the way that either of them expected.

‘Um…Aidan…I need to send a message to the prince, with some immediacy now. We have to apprise him of our situation and ask for his aid.’ Tragen swallowed and paused for a moment with fingers crossed beneath the cuffs of his sleeves. ‘We need a bird. What do you think?’

‘Ah,’ Aidan, his headache instantly disappearing, gazed wide-eyed at his master. ‘What sort of bird?’

‘Obviously one that can fly a long way, it’s no good calling a bird that’s going to fall into the ocean halfway home!’ said Tragen, visibly agitated.

‘A seabird then,’ Aidan did state the obvious sometimes. He looked around the horizon with his hands on his hips, ignoring his master’s sarcasm. ‘This is going to take some calling, there’s absolutely nothing in sight. Still…something is bound to turn up.’

‘Aidan, please be careful. We do not need any unwanted creatures appearing.’

‘Master, you’re always the same…have faith in me,’ Aidan admonished. ‘Don’t forget you taught me this, you’ll only have yourself to blame if things go wrong.’

‘I know, I know…may the Gods give me strength,’ and the wizard stepped quickly to the rear to shelter beneath the overhanging poop deck. Locklear followed hurriedly seeing the strangled look on Tragen’s face.

‘Talbot secure the helm and get back here with me,’ ordered Locklear, he didn’t want his chief helmsman hurt. And as Talbot complied, Anders thinking the same as his master, grabbed Beatrix. They both followed until all except Augusta were in comparative safety behind the apprentice.

Augusta remained with Aidan at the front of the quarterdeck. She couldn’t understand why everyone was showing so little trust and was determined to show her loyalty by not leaving his side.

Aidan hadn’t taken a blind bit of notice of anyone moving away and he continued to stare around the empty ocean. ‘We must have a bird that lives off the open sea, not one of the coastal birds. How about a gannet, Master…they’re big and strong?’

‘Whatever you say, Aidan,’ Tragen said, now crossing his toes in his sandals.

Aidan smiled at Augusta as he raised his arms, his fingers spread wide. He closed his eyes and then emitted an ear splitting screech. Augusta jumped in surprise, and closing her eyes in pain, clapped her hands to her ears as did everyone else in earshot. Aidan continued to screech, his voice seeming to stretch over the horizon so powerful was the tone. And then when they all thought they could bear the noise no longer he ceased.

Aidan opened his eyes and stared forward searching the skies ahead and to either side. ‘Damn, nothing yet. I’ll give it a couple of minutes and then try again.’

But a couple of moments later he frowned. ‘That’s strange; it’s gone a bit dark hasn’t it?’ They all opened their eyes to see what he was talking about and stared forward, a shadow seemed to be hanging over the quarterdeck.

Augusta, standing in front of Aidan, and facing him when he started his call, opened her eyes and glanced over his shoulder towards the stern. She immediately fumbled for Aidan’s arm as her body spasmed, her eyes popped in her head and her mouth fell open. The others hiding beneath the poop stared at her, completely baffled by the look of utter panic on her face.

‘Ow, Augusta, you’re hurting me, stop squeezing,’ Aidan said, and then he noticed her face. ‘Hey, what’s wrong…why are you staring like that?’

Because she sees me, human.’

‘What the hell! Who’s mindmelding?’ Aidan said swinging around looking at everyone behind him still hiding beneath the poop deck.

‘What do you mean? Nobody’s mindmelding,’ said Tragen. Seriously worried now, he knew that the expected contrariness of Aidan’s spell-casting had occurred again. Something had gone awry with the calling.

I am not mindmelding, human…only you can hear me.’

‘What the…’ Aidan looked around frantic. Where was the source of this voice, it was near he knew—he could feel it, like something breathing heavily on his neck, he shivered. He looked at the girl beside him. ‘Augusta, do you know…’ and he stopped.

Augusta was standing as rigid as a pole, not moving at all, mouth open, eyes still popping wide and staring—upwards.

‘Augusta what’s the matter, what can you see?’ He turned and followed her gaze…and the breath on his neck was explained. He was utterly lost for words.

I repeat…she sees me, human.’

Resting on the poop deck, directly above the heads of the people sheltering beneath, was the biggest bird he had ever seen in his life. Its body was a lot longer than two tall men and it was extremely fat. It had brilliantly white plumage and appeared to have very long wings folded tight to its body. With black patches at the end of its wings and tail, flesh coloured legs and feet, and smallish black eyes it stared unblinkingly straight at him over a long, hooked, pink beak.

‘Oh boy…oh boy…oh boy,’ Aidan said astounded, returning the bird’s gaze.

Is that all you can say, human?’

‘What is it Aidan?’ Anders asked, venturing forth gingerly to look up on to the poop. It took a few seconds for it to sink in what he was seeing. ‘By the Gods, it can’t be…it’s something out of a story!’

Tell him I am no story,’ ordered the bird.

‘He said to tell you he’s no story, Anders,’ said Aidan, his voice returning accompanied by a look of pure rapture.

Anders looked at his friend bewildered. ‘What do you mean he said…can you speak with him?’

‘Aye, I hear him,’ and he beckoned everyone from the rear of the quarterdeck. ‘Come and have a look,’ he cried, ecstatic he bounced up and down on his toes.

Tragen, Locklear and Talbot looked up and found their faces almost at a level with the bird’s massive webbed feet. Beatrix ran to Augusta just recovering her senses.

‘What is it?’ Augusta asked.

‘It’s a Great Albatross,’ replied Anders, awestruck at the sight.

Tell him I am no Great Albatross, human…I am a Giant Albatross…a Wandering Albatross. There are not many of us left,’ the bird added.

‘Anders, he says he is a giant wandering albatross…’

No human, I am not a giant wandering albatross…I am a Wandering Albatross of the Giant Albatross family! Oh, never mind! Just tell me why you called me,’ he was getting ratty.

‘I’m sorry, albatross; I thought I was calling a gannet to carry a message home.’ All on the quarterdeck were watching and, although listening to a one-sided conversation, somehow still managed to follow what was being said.

Tragen interrupted as Aidan finished speaking. ‘Ask it if it will carry the message, Aidan.’

It…it! Who is that old human calling “it”? Tell him I am male, human, or he’ll feel my beak,’ said the albatross.

Aidan laughed. ‘Ooh, Master, don’t call him an “it”, he is a male bird, and a very angry male bird.’

Tragen looked from Aidan to the albatross. He was now completely mesmerized at the turn events had taken. ‘All right, Aidan. Master Albatross I humbly apologize.’ He bowed low to the bird whilst his companions looked on amazed.

The albatross grunted. ‘Where is the destination of this message?’

‘We wish you to take it to Mantovar, to the prince, if you wouldn’t mind,’ said Aidan.

And what do I get in return?’ The albatross asked staring into the apprentice’s eyes.

Aidan, puzzled, squinted against the sun. ‘What do you get in return…what is it you want?’

I want a voice,’ the albatross stated without any hesitation. ‘You have the power to give me the ability to speak, I see it in you.’

Aidan was struck dumb again and his mouth fell open.

‘What does he want, Aidan?’ Tragen asked staring at him. ‘Tell me.’

Aidan turned to his master, ecstasy alight in his eyes. ‘Watch this all of you,’ he said, peering around to include everyone. ‘Captain, lift me on to the poop I have to touch our new friend.’ Locklear gasped. ‘It’s all right, he won’t hurt me.’ Locklear bent down and Aidan stepped into his hands to be hoisted and deposited at the feet of the giant albatross.

Standing so close Aidan could smell the sea in the albatross’ newly preened feathers, almost taste the fish on the bird’s breath, and admire the razor-edged beak that was lowered to a level with his mouth. The Giant Albatross of the Wandering Albatross family bent its head to get a closer look at Aidan. They stared intently into each other’s eyes. Unlike most animals this bird did not treat a direct stare as offensive—at least, not from Aidan.

As the apprentice stepped closer to touch the bird, the albatross warned. ‘Mind my feet they are not made to be stood on.’

‘Okay, Master Albatross, let’s see what I can do,’ and Aidan placed both his hands around the throat of the giant bird, his fingers stretching to encompass the short temples either side of the bird’s head. Aidan smiled into the small black eyes of the albatross towering over him. Six sets of eyes stared up from below, Beatrix emitting a nervous whimper in the strained silence.

They seemed to stand still forever, the black eyes of the bird gazing into the brown eyes of the boy, its long neck in the boy’s hands. Aidan returning the stare and grinning wide as he sang a very weird sounding chant. Augusta described it later as a sort of sea-weedy, plopping noise. A tremor worked its way through the bird from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail via the curled up webbed toes. And all of a sudden a small lump sprouted in the neck between Aidan’s hands—a prominent Adam’s apple had formed. The albatross opened its beak and yawning wide he nearly knocked Aidan on the head.

‘Thank you,’ he said loud and clear.

His words reached those in the waist, the deck now full of the crew, all of them drawn to this phenomenal bird. A talking bird! No-one would ever believe them back home.

Aidan jumped into the air shaking his arm, giving a loud cheer—and promptly came back to earth landing on the bird’s foot. The bird screamed, his feathers sticking up all over as if they’d been combed the wrong way. He opened his wings and flew straight up, the backdraft knocking Aidan to the deck. He circled once, bringing his webbed foot up close to his underbelly, his toes curling in pain.

‘Ah! You stupid bloody boy…agh…my foot!’ And the bird promptly landed in the ocean alongside the ship and waggled his bruised limb in the water. ‘Ooh, that’s better,’ the bird sighed, closing his eyes, his feathers settling once again.

To say that all who watched were stunned was an understatement. Everyone watched the albatross floating on the sea, its vast wingspan, at least forty feet of it, spread wide and resting on the surface of the ocean.

Aidan was the first to recover. Rising from the deck he rushed to the side of the ship. ‘I’m sorry, honest, it was an accident.’ The bird ignored him as it busily soothed its aching toes.

The others ran to the rail and peered over at the giant bird, their senses in turmoil. ‘Aidan, that bird swore exactly as you do,’ said Augusta, looking up at him. ‘Why does he curse like you?’

‘Because he gave me my voice, little girl,’ said the bird.

‘Who are you calling a little girl, you…’ shouted Augusta taking umbrage, she hated being called little.

‘All right, don’t you dare start arguing, he’s only just learned to speak,’ said Beatrix. ‘Have you a name, Master Albatross?’ She asked formally, the only way she could think of to talk to a bird.

‘I have,’ the albatross replied, ‘but your tongue could never say it. You will have to give me a human name,’ his voice uncannily similar to Aidan’s.

At that chaos reigned all over the ship. Locklear, uncharacteristically allowing excitement to have the upper hand, shouted names at Talbot. Talbot shouted names at Anders, the girls shouted names to everyone, the crew shouting enough to drown out everyone’s suggestions. Tragen, stared at his boy, they were the only quiet ones in amongst the furore.

‘Well, Aidan, you’ve excelled yourself this time, haven’t you?’ He smiled as he helped Aidan down from the poop.

‘He’s lovely, Master, just look at him!’ Aidan was enraptured. ‘He can fly anywhere, and he’s strong enough to fly for weeks.’

‘Yes, but will he carry our message to the prince?’

‘Of course he will. I’ve given him what he’s always wanted. He can speak! Oh yes, he’ll do anything we want.’

‘As long as you don’t stand on my toes again, little wizard,’ shouted the albatross. His hearing was very acute, even managing to hear their conversation above all the hubbub, which he found very strange, for an albatross his hearing had always been poor. ‘Now give me a name…you all have one, I want one.’

The commotion died on the quarterdeck and five faces looked at the two wizards expectantly. There was still bedlam in the waist as the crew, taking heed of the bird’s request, again volunteered names, unfortunately some were rather indecent and those men received a look of utter contempt from the albatross.

‘Why not let the ladies name him, Aidan?’ Tragen suggested.

‘Yeah, well…okay. Augusta you saw him first, got any ideas?’

Augusta stared at the albatross. ‘You are truly a magnificent albatross,’ she told him as she curtsied.

‘Thank you, I agree, there has never been another like me,’ he paused, his expression sad. ‘I dwarf all other albatrosses.’

‘Then you must have a name that suits your stature in the avian world. Give me a moment, please.’ Augusta studied the bird as she sucked her finger in the corner of her mouth. He seemed very depressed at his size, perhaps he was bullied for being so big, she thought. Well she wouldn’t name him anything to do with being a giant. He’d said there were not many of his kind, could she use that? No, she decided—he was the first albatross able to speak; he was then definitely a first amongst his kind.

‘I have it…Ryn! You will be known as Ryn, which means leader.’

‘I accept…now tell me yours,’ ordered Ryn

Augusta glanced quickly at Aidan and Tragen and said. ‘I am called Nellie.’

‘That is not your true name, but if that is what you wish me to call you then I will.’ Ryn gazed at her.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Augusta hurriedly.

‘Well little wizard, I know your true name is Aidan, tell me of this message.’ Ryn chose to ignore her.

‘My master, Lord Tragen, can tell you more,’ and Aidan indicated the wizard.

‘I have written it on parchment, Ryn,’ and he showed the bird the smallish roll in his hand. ‘Can I attach it to you in any way?’

‘You may hang it around my neck, Lord Tragen, and then Aidan can show me my destination.’

‘Show you, how?’ Tragen asked puzzled, descending the ladder into the waist so that he could reach the bird.

‘I can enter Aidan’s mind, so he must picture my route that I may see it through his eyes,’ answered Ryn, swimming closer to the ship to accept Tragen’s missive.

The wizard having made a large loop in the twine tied around the parchment, bent over the rail and dropped the loop over the beak and head so that it slipped down the stretched neck of the bird. When it had settled comfortably against his chest, Ryn ruffled his feathers quickly and the missive disappeared, hidden among the pure white down, he then swam a little farther out from the boat so that he could see Aidan up on the quarterdeck.

‘Are you ready, Ryn,’ asked Aidan, and at the bird’s nod, Aidan closed his eyes and visualized the stars in the sky above Mantovar, the river into Mantovar and the route upriver to the castle.

‘I have it, little wizard, now picture the prince,’ he ordered.

Aidan searched for his princess. ‘Mindmeld with me Augusta, you have a clearer image of your father than I do,’ and he held her hand to maximize contact.

So that’s her real name, why don’t you use it?

That is a long and secret story…too long for now,’ Aidan replied

Very well, I like hearing secrets, tell me when I return.’

You are coming back then?’ Augusta asked.

Yes, but how come you understand me when I am in Aidan’s mind?’ Ryn was puzzled, something more had happened than being given a voice—there were side-effects of the boy’s magic that he couldn’t figure out.

When we mindmeld Aidan and I become one mind…because you are in his, so you are in mine,’ answered Augusta.

‘I go now—I am confused,’ said the Wandering Albatross of the Giant Albatross family as he flexed his wings causing an enormous ripple on the surface of the water. ‘I will see you again in a few weeks.’

And before anyone could say goodbye, he gave two flaps of his enormous wings to gain height and he was airborne, his wings locked in place to enable him to ride the thermals with no strain on his body and soon he was soaring above the three remaining masts and flying northeast.

 

That evening the ship continued to cruise south-westwards in ideal weather conditions, and Augusta commenced her lessons in serious magic. Both she and Aidan were sitting on the poop deck facing aft, their backs resting against the after-jigger. Augusta, her full attention directed on Aidan, listened eagerly as he went through the rudiments of the art.

‘Remember, magic is formed of the mind, along with chanting and hand movements. Sometimes all three are required, on occasion maybe just one or two…depending on the type of spell, the difficulty in creating the spell and the strength of the spell-caster,’ he instructed as they sat side by side cross-legged. ‘The more powerful you are at conjuring dictates how much energy you use—the stronger you are the better. Don’t forget, the more complex the spell is, the greater the energy needed and the more tired you’ll become at the end of it. You understand?’

‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘but you said magic is of the mind, yet I’ve overheard Tragen say that your magic comes from healing…why is mine different to yours?’

‘I don’t know…can you heal?’ Aidan asked.

‘Don’t be silly, you know I can’t.’

‘Right, then we’ll assume your magic is the same as everyone else’s—based on the mind. Shall we continue or are you going to keep interrupting?’

‘One more thing,’ she said nudging him with her elbow, ‘you said that spell-casting burnt up energy, yet you didn’t rest much after creating the spell for drinking-water yesterday, did you? And you seemed a long time creating that one.’

‘A lot of that was theatricals it just seemed longer than it actually was. But I am used to magic and can control my energy usage…besides it was a simple spell. Hopefully by the end of today you’ll be able to conjure water from the air. Wait,’ he said as she went to interrupt, ‘not yet, at the end of the day, I said. Okay, ready?’ She nodded excitedly and he continued. ‘Right, look around you at the sea…and I mean look at all the parts of it.’ As she did, Aidan studied her face checking her concentration and suddenly realized that she was a very pretty girl and not half as horrible as she used to be—in fact he liked her a lot. She turned her head to him and caught him staring.

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing,’ and he looked away embarrassed. And then his heart turned over, he’d have to watch his thoughts, if she mindmelded at an inappropriate moment…’ ‘Close your eyes…now, show me the ocean,’ he mindmelded.

And returning his mindmeld, she showed him her interpretation of the sea.

A bit blurry isn’t it?’

Well, I suppose it is, a bit.’

Okay, open your eyes. You must visualize to the best of all your senses, not just sight but smell, taste, touch and sound. Look at the ocean again,’ Aidan said, ‘and describe it to me.’ The lesson continued in this manner for an hour or more, he describing the meaning of each movement that she made.

‘Stand up and stretch your arms out in front of you. Good,’ he said as Augusta complied, and he rose with her to stand shoulder to shoulder. ‘Now spread your fingers wide, and wiggle them.’

‘Like this?’ And she waved her hands around at the same time.

‘No…careful, you must always think of what you’re going to do before you do it!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well,’ he wondered if she’d remember, ‘I once made a girl’s nose bleed accidentally. She’d upset me and I stuck my finger up to her while I was thinking nasty thoughts. Her nose bled off and on for days…so I heard later.’

‘Ooh, that happened to me once, years ago. I remember going out in the carriage with my father and…it was you! You made my nose bleed…with magic?’

‘I’m sorry, it really was an accident and I’ve never done anything like it since,’ he stared into her eyes as green as the ocean, he liked her eyes. ‘Do you forgive me?’

‘Tell me first how I upset you.’

‘Well…it was my first day in the castle,’ he said remembering the occasion vividly. ‘You were so…so magnificent in that carriage, so beautiful, so much like a dream. I’d never seen anything like you in my life. My mother used to tell me stories of beautiful princesses and their caring, wonderful ways. You captivated me. I’d have done anything just for you to notice me,’ he smiled ruefully. ‘And then when you did, what did you do? You stuck your tongue out at me and shattered the dream. You were still beautiful but…well you still are, but back then I thought you were horrible.’

She returned his stare; he’d called her beautiful and meant it. She felt herself sinking into his eyes and then as the ship lurched slightly, enough to break eye contact, it brought them both back from they knew not where.

‘You mean you can hurt as well as heal?’

‘Aye, but do you forgive me?’ For some reason her answer was very important.

‘Of course I do, but you must also forgive me. I was a thoughtless, spoilt brat then.’

He laughed the relief palpable. ‘I thought you still were.’

‘Aidan!’ And she nudged him even harder as they both laughed. ‘Let’s get back to the magic, okay?’

‘All right, this time I want you to visualize the ocean as a whole, sway your arms to copy the motion of the swell and remember, keep in mind these sensations when your eyes are closed. Now, recall the vibrations of the ocean, not only in your arms but also in your whole body and in your mind. When you are satisfied that you can call up these feelings again, I want you to close your eyes. This time, you will see the ocean as it is not as you think it is. Okay?’

She nodded, her total being absorbed in the task. And then she closed her eyes and Aidan entered her mind to share her enlightened perception. And he was pleased at what he found.

Very good, Augusta,’ he mindmelded, ‘now keep these feelings. Whoa, slow down keep the pace. If you move faster than the present speed of the ocean, then you will cause the sea to move faster, and we’ve had enough of storms to last a lifetime. Now look towards the horizon ahead of you. Do you have the same impressions of the ocean there as here?’

Yes, I have never seen the horizon so clear before.’

In magic most things become clearer. Now you are going to look over the horizon.’

She did not hesitate. She was now facing aft with her arms outstretched waving in front of her and her wrists, hands and fingers making intricate movements in the air. Augusta found it fascinating and felt she was soaring in the skies much as the albatross this afternoon. And thinking of Ryn her mind found him, flying high and straight, his huge wings spread wide and, unlike other birds, his wings not flapping as he rode the air currents. He flew directly away from her.

Do you see him?’ She asked, awestruck.

Aye, practise and you’ll be able to follow him for longer. Now leave him and turn your head. I want you to look around.’

First, she looked to her right and saw nothing but the ocean, she turned and looked left and espied a small squall far off. Then turning her whole body and staring forward of the bows she found a small island.

Aidan!’

I know, keep looking,’ and Aidan cast around for Tragen. ‘Master, can you see the island Augusta has found?

Yes, come away both of you. I’ll be with you shortly…I’ll bring the captain.’

 

Aidan and Augusta waited, Augusta ecstatic that her first real foray into magic had been so successful. She was so happy in fact that sitting alongside him she put her arm through his and held it tight until Tragen called them down onto the quarterdeck.

‘How far away is the island? I estimate a day. Do you agree?’

‘Probably…at the earliest we’ll reach it at lunchtime tomorrow, but we’ll see it well before then, possibly not long after sunrise.’

‘Can you see any details of the place, Tragen?’ Hugo asked.

‘None yet, my friend, we are too far away.’ Turning to Augusta, he added, his satisfaction evident. ‘Well done, Highness,’ and he smiled, ‘the more you practise, the more you will see. We will now leave it until the morning when I hope we will discover more. I want you to stay away from the island until then, we do not wish to alert anyone, unknowingly.’

 

At dawn the following morning, Aidan and his friends arrived on deck to find most of the crew already taking advantage of every observation point, some even straddling the bowsprit. All were facing forward, peering ahead of the bows. Arranging themselves comfortably on the poop deck and sitting with their feet swinging over the forward edge, they found that Tragen and Locklear were standing directly below and just forward of them.

On the horizon ahead was a vertical column of high white cloud in the otherwise clear blue sky. Anders explained that this cloud hovered over a land mass in the midst of the ocean. He added that before long they could expect turbulence in the sea in front of the island as they approached it.

‘What do you think we’ll find there?’ Augusta asked.

‘Nothing much, I fear. It’s not a very large island. It’s probably home to turtles and small rodents, probably terns and gulls are nesting there.’

Just before noon seagulls were flying overhead and details of the island, now only ten or twelve leagues away, were discernible below the hanging cloud. Mid-afternoon saw them in the midst of the turbulence. The ship’s heading was changed to sail south of the island.

‘Well there’s nothing much there wizard, unless you fancy turtle for dinner,’ said Locklear.

‘I have never acquired a taste for that particular mammal, but their eggs are something else,’ Tragen salivated at the thought.

Locklear laughed. ‘We cannot waste this light by tarrying here, my friend. We must wait and see what our new acquaintances will offer us.’

‘If we are welcome,’ said Tragen.

As the island passed on the starboard side, they could see it more clearly. It appeared to be a low hump in the middle of the ocean, a small hill bearing low scrub, prickly pears and the occasional short, sunflower trees. Turtles were slowly plodding across the small white beach, gulls and smaller birds screeching above them.

Rounding the island a vast panorama of other islands appeared, all as smudges on the horizon except for one. Closer to the Grim a huge land mass stretching for leagues across the bows of the ship, grew out of the sea about a day’s sailing away.

‘Hopper,’ shouted the captain across the quarterdeck ‘is that Sanctity?’

‘No, that is Griffin, sir; Sanctity is many leagues farther west again.’

Aidan turned and searched for sign of Sanctity and found instead a darkening of the sea in that direction. ‘What is that on the water, Captain?’

‘I don’t know; have you any idea, Hopper?’

‘I can’t make it out, sir.’

‘How about you, Tragen,’ Locklear asked.

Tragen peered west for what seemed ages. ‘It’s all right; it’s just a large patch of seaweed floating on the surface…wait a minute! That’s strange…it’s just disappeared.’

‘It’s just dropped below the surface, Milord,’ interrupted Anders squinting through narrowed eyes.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Locklear.

‘What I said…it’s still there only you can’t see it.’

‘How can you see it, then,’ Hopper asked, mystified.

‘I’ve always been able to see things that others can’t.’

‘Well, never mind. Are the militia on Griffin likely to bother us, Hopper?’ Locklear asked.

‘I don’t believe so, but perhaps I should explain a bit more about the enmity between the two clans. The Montetors and the Portolans have been at loggerheads for years and I believe we should do all in our power to avoid their quarrel, we don’t want them turning on us,’ replied Hopper staring at the vast island. ‘We’ll need to be constantly aware of the ill-feeling between them, it erupts into violence quite often, or it did when I was here years ago.’

‘Their quarrel, Hopper…can you tell us the reason for it?’ Tragen asked beckoning both the captain and mate to the relative privacy beneath the poop. Unfortunately, this area happened to be directly beneath the four friends now hanging over the edge listening intently.

‘Not the reason, no, but both clans have an arrangement of sorts. Open warfare had not yet been declared then as both sides knew that neither could survive without the other. I have heard rumours of the islands over these last years and nothing seems to have changed. The dispute manifests itself in a series of tit-for-tat incidents.’

‘How do you mean?’ Locklear asked.

‘Well,’ Hopper continued, ‘a particularly nasty incident occurred when I was here. A Montetor drove a wagon of iron ore over the legs of a Portolan dockworker who was calculating the weight of the ore deposited in a ship’s hold. The following day that Montetor driver fell into the harbour off the pier and was crushed between the ship and the wharf.’

‘Of course, both clans insisted that both events were accidents. But I was told later that the dockworker had molested the daughter of the ironworker,’ Hopper took a breather.

‘Then justice was served,’ added the captain.

‘Not quite,’ said Hopper grimacing. ‘The ironworker is reputed to have assaulted the wife of the dockworker a few months previously. And so it goes on, and has done for what must be fifteen or twenty years now. I was here about ten or twelve years ago, and the feud had been running a few years then.’

Hopper paused and stared at his companions. ‘The death of the crushed ironworker was blamed on an itinerant drunken beggar fast asleep some way along the pier. He awoke as the Montetor man screamed and he crawled over to the edge of the wharf to search out the noise. The Portolans found him looking, accused him of attempting to rob the ironworker, and strung him up on the jetty before he could be questioned by anyone else. There is a permanent gibbet on the wharf which serves as a reminder to all. The Portolans are the law on the docks as the Montetors are the law in the hills.’

‘So we have to make certain we are never present at any unpleasantness between these people,’ stated Tragen. ‘Hugo, no-one must be allowed to wander alone on this island.’

‘I agree,’ replied the captain. ‘You eavesdroppers above…do you understand?’

Anders jumped in surprise. ‘Aye, aye sir!’

‘But, Captain, why are we stopping here, the mate has already said there are no suitable trees to supply a new mast?’ Augusta asked, prodding Anders in the side to move him over. Her elbow was becoming a lethal weapon.

‘Highness, we need a variety of other things, metal fastenings, candles, ropes, canvas, food and many other supplies, including fresh drinking water. I do not wish to be drenched again by wizards’ apprentices.’

Locklear moved off smiling to himself, he was getting used to seeing these four young people together—it was as if they were meant to be.

 

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

After Brian proposed to Jill, his father took him to one side. “Son, when I first got married to your mother, the first thing I did when we got home was take off my pants. I gave them to your mother and told her to try them on, which she did. They were huge on her and she said that she couldn’t wear them because they were too large. I said to her, ‘Of course they are too big for you, I wear the pants in this family and I always will.’ Ever since that day, son, we have never had a single problem.” Brian took his dad’s advice and did the same thing to his wife on his wedding night. Then, Jill took off her panties and gave them to Brian. “Try these on,” she said. Brian went along with it and tried them on, but they were far too small. “What’s the point of this? I can’t get into your panties,” said Brian. “Exactly,” Jill replied, “and if you don’t change your attitude, you never will!”

 

 

Have a nice day!

Chapter Eleven of The Gateway (and a couple more giggles)

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

China, Russia, and Poland venture to space. China says they’ll go to Pluto because it’s the farthest. Russia says they’ll go to Jupiter because it’s the biggest. Poland says they’ll go to the Sun. Russia and China warn that they’ll melt. They reply, “We’ll go at night.”

A view through an arrow slit in Castle Mantovar (Castell Coch)
A view through an arrow slit in Castle Mantovar (Castell Coch)

Eleven

That night Anders lay awake on a palliasse on the floor, anxious, staring at the deckhead, the ceiling above him, waiting for the next vision, or portent, or nightmare whatever, to strike Aidan. He lay listening to every board creak alongside his head, jumping every time Aidan took a deep breath or snored. But exhaustion won in the end and in the small hours his young body succumbed to the need for sleep.

Anders left Aidan in bed and went to fetch Locklear’s breakfast and washing water. On returning, he found the apprentice had not risen. ‘Not getting up today?’            Aidan, at first, lay on the bed tossing and turning. He was tense and very afraid of contacting their enemy in his sleep. Debating with himself, he preferred to be aware of the unknown foe whilst awake; he’d have more control perhaps. Giving in to temptation he attempted to mindmeld, searching him out, a very dangerous strategy he could so easily be discovered—and he knew in his heart of hearts that he needed to keep his presence a secret. The enemy knowing of one wizard would take protective measures to nullify Tragen’s abilities. If the enemy succeeded in disabling Tragen then having another wizard nearby could seriously upset his plans. But, of course, there was now a third wizard on board and her safety was paramount—she had to be kept hidden at all costs. Aidan was restless far into the small hours, eventually falling asleep as dawn was breaking. He had no visions that night but his lack of sleep still meant he woke bleary eyed and still tired when Anders rose next morning.

‘Did I dream?’

‘No.’

‘Did you hear me say anything…anything at all?’

‘No, all I heard was you snoring.’ He paused and gazed at his friend. ‘Come on, me and the girls have got us all breakfast so move quickly or it’ll get cold. Mind you it was going cold anyway; Dolly was showing us his knife juggling tricks,’ Anders said, a look of pure pleasure appearing on his face. ‘That man is a true artist throwing the blades around, you know. He showed us this trick with a misericorde that was really amazing. He frightened the life out of Leash,’ his grin widening at the memory, ‘he threw one at him and it nearly parted his hair when it stuck in the pillar behind him. Everyone laughed, except Leash of course, he snarled and stormed off.’

‘What’s a misericorde?’

‘Oh, a small dagger used to finish off your opponent.’ Aidan asked, mystified. But his look changed to horror as Anders concluded.

‘It’s thrust into the neck to sever the windpipe.’

‘Bloody hell, Anders…no more!’ Aidan shuddered. ‘Leash, he’s the one who was near me when I fell the other day on the quarterdeck. Come to think of it he never made a move to help me, did he?’

‘Nah,’ said Anders, ‘he’s a very strange one he is. You know, I don’t think he has any friends at all.’

Aidan sat very pensive. ‘Aye, there’s something about that man that’s not quite right. Have you noticed his eyes? He’s always staring into space as if he’s seeing someone else and I’ve heard him talking to himself a lot.’

‘Agh…maybe he’s just very lonely,’ Anders shrugged, after all he was also guilty of just that lately, thinking of Beatrix. ‘He’s a loner sure enough. Now, come on shift, let’s see what the girls have planned for us today.’

What they had planned was lesson time, Aidan being the teacher, Augusta his pupil and the other two eavesdropping.

Strolling up on deck they encountered the sun for the first time in days. No rain or drizzle, bright sunlight, calm seas and a warm breeze greeting them as they settled themselves amidships at the foot of the demolished mainmast. Trumper had been busy and his work had thwarted their attempt to relax on the foc’s’le. The bo’sun had spread several canvases across the deck and was preparing to sew them together to make a larger sail to replace the mainsail. Not that the four wanted to be anywhere near the canvases—they were mouldy and smelled abominably having been submerged in the sail locker for days. As it was, a team of sailors were washing it down, sloshing buckets of seawater everywhere.

It wasn’t long before Aidan stretched out in his usual position, flat on his back with his head resting on Augusta’s lap, she didn’t seem to mind. Anders and Beatrix were also in their favourite position, seated together automatically reaching for each other’s hand. They savoured the balmy weather, relaxing silently just soaking up the sun and listening to the shrill voices of a family of dolphins swimming alongside, their sleek shiny bodies glistening as they leapt and dived amongst the shoal of herring that was providing them with nourishment.

They weren’t allowed to remain at peace for long, though; a flurry of activity disturbed them as a party of sailors flung a small net over the side to catch the remaining fish before they disappeared down the throats of the large mammals. The net went into the water twice more before the shoal took the hint and fled, along with the dolphins.

‘Frigging fish! I suppose that’s all we’ll live off for weeks now,’ moaned Dolly.

Aidan opened his eyes and looked around, noticing the ship’s cook for the first time. With a very forlorn look on his face Dolly stared as each heavy load of fish was swung inboard using a temporary davit.

On the quarterdeck, Locklear and Tragen also watched the fishing, so did Leash at the wheel, seething. His mind a turmoil, he’d just heard Locklear thank the Gods for this fresh food. Leash’s plans fell apart; hiding contraband food in the wizard’s cabin had been a pure waste of time. He was going to have to think of something else—maybe hide fresh water instead?

‘Catching enough fish to supplement the rations is a godsend, Tragen,’ said Locklear. ‘If we can make landfall within the next week, and if the shoals are as plentiful as this, we will have no fear of starving.’ He clapped Tragen on the shoulders, wearing the first smile on his face for days. ‘The only concern I have now is that the drinking water will not last.’

‘My friend, you can be very dense on times,’ he smiled. ‘Your best friend is a wizard, is he not? One of the easiest spells to conjure is that of extracting water from the very air we breathe. And just as easy is the conjuration to summon fish,’ he watched as comprehension dawned in Locklear’s eyes.

‘You mean I worry for naught?’ said Locklear.

‘Aye, my friend,’ and the wizard laughed. ‘There is no water or food shortage, I and my staff will see to that,’ and he tapped it as it lay snug against his neck. ‘Even Aidan can conjure the water, only at a slower pace as he has not yet his own staff. And he is quite adept at summoning fish, although he does tend to find the wrong kind. No, my friend, what we have to worry about is our destination.’

The ship shuddered as Leash’s hands convulsed on the wheel, disappointment a physical pain.

‘Careful helmsman, keep your mind on your job,’ chided the captain as he turned to the wizard. ‘Come; let us go to my cabin. We can discuss our course as we take refreshment. I’ll send for Hopper.’

‘Dolly, how come you hate fish so much?’ Aidan asked as the others sat idly by listening. Aidan stood beside the short, fat man and joined him in staring out over the clear blue ocean, the dolphins barely in sight at the horizon.

The cook glanced at the young boy and wondered if he could trust him. Dolly’s natural caginess when talking to wizards seemed to lift with this boy, this young one had never posed a threat. Yet Dolly knew that wizards should be avoided until needed, at least the ones he’d met previously. But Aidan had an open face, no guile in his manner and moreover his reputation for healing was the best. Dolly sighed, his need to talk of it after all this time, overwhelming. He had bottled it up for years and it was eating him up inside. This young healer and his friends had always shown him kindness; never ridiculed him…did they have a sympathetic ear? There was only one way to find out and perhaps speaking of the tragedy would help ease his pain.

He said very seriously, tears started welling in his eyes. ‘My ma…she was et by a fish…years ago.’

The four friends stared at the cook disbelieving their hearing but as the import of his words sunk in Beatrix had to kick Anders to stop him laughing out loud. Augusta stood; biting her lip to stop smiling she went and stood the other side of the little man.

‘What do you mean, Dolly…et…I mean eaten…by a real fish?’ Augusta asked.

‘Aye, o’ course it were real!’ he paused. ‘It were a whale as big as our ship what did eat her. I saw it when I were little. I saw it gobble her up and…and ever since, every time I handle a fish, every time I get ready to gut it I expect to find bits o’ me ma inside.’ And the little cook stared into Augusta’s face the tears now brimming in his eyes. ‘I never told anyone afore,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘They all think I’m barmy cos I don’t like fish,’ and he rubbed his eyes with his rough red hands, ‘an’ I don’ wan’ them to know, alrigh’.’

‘Okay, we won’t let on,’ said Aidan, having great difficulty in keeping a straight face. ‘But how did it happen?’

Dolly gazed around at them through watery eyes, and he sniffed. ‘I blame me da…it were his fault he…he shouldn’t have asked her how many candles she’d bought that week.’

‘Candles…’ said Anders, his mouth agape. ‘What’s it to do with candles?’

‘Well it were coming on to night and he needed more light to cook by in the galley. He always did the cooking. He taught me all I know about it, did me dada, see. So, this one night, he stuck his head up through the hatchway and asked me ma how many candles she’d bought cos he wanted to light an extra one. Well that did it…me ma did her nut.’ He turned his head for a moment and spat phlegm over the side.

Beatrix trying not to grimace at the cook’s gross behaviour couldn’t help but ask. ‘What has that got to do with your ma…I mean your mother being eaten by a fish?’

‘Ah, she were drunk on account of feeling a bit guilty, see, and she were in a bad mood cos of it. She shouted at me da and asked him what he meant by that remark. Well me da was truly flummoxed at that. Cos what he didn’t know, but as everyone else did…me ma was getting more than candles off the candlemaker. If you know what I mean,’ and he winked.

‘Go on Dolly, what happened next?’ Augusta asked intrigued and puzzled at the same time…what else did candlemakers sell? The others were no longer laughing either, all totally immersed in the emerging story.

‘Well, there was me da, his head sticking up out of the hatchway…a perfect target, so me ma musta thought. She picked up a belaying pin alongside her and took a huge swing at his head,’ as he said this Dolly started weeping again. ‘Me da saw the pin coming and ducked…and that’s when it happened. Me ma couldn’t stop her swing and she lost her balance, slipped and fell overboard.’ He put his hands over his face and continued, bereft. ‘There was this enormous great whale swimming alongside us, and…and she fell straight into its mouth.’ He sniffed and looked up at the four friends. ‘We never saw her again.’

Aidan looked at him, astounded at the thought of someone having the extraordinary bad fortune to fall to such an unbelievable death. And he was bewildered at how Dolly thought it was his father’s fault.

‘I’m sorry Dolly but I don’t understand…how was your father to blame?’

‘He shouldn’t have ducked! Her swing would have stopped if he hadn’t dropped his head. Instead…’ and he burst into tears again.

Augusta and Beatrix put their arms around his shoulders, comforting him and at the same time trying not to look at each other in case they burst into laughter. The boys turned away desperately attempting to keep silent but turned back sharply when Augusta spoke.

‘Dolly, we’re so sorry. I tell you what…we’ll help you. We’ll gut the fish and you can cook them, all right?’

The ship’s cook looked at her with a glimmer in his eyes, and then stared around at the others. ‘Would you really…I could manage if you did that.’

Aidan, Anders and Beatrix were aghast but it was already too late to get out of it.

Augusta what are you saying. That’s a horrible, stinking job. It’s backbreaking and we’ll smell for days and days,’ Aidan complained.

Oh, she replied, ‘I never thought of that. Still, we’ll manage…the poor man!’ She continued loudly so all could hear. ‘We don’t mind Dolly, we understand how you feel. You just tell us when you want us to start and we’ll be there.’

‘Good,’ he said, and pulling himself together, he smiled. ‘You had better start right away. The fish will need cleaning as soon as possible or they’ll go off. I have to salt them before they go into the bins…come on.’

And before the friends knew it, they were up to their armpits in fish guts, everyone else keeping their distance, and sharks swimming alongside making a feast of the entrails.

Tragen and Hopper, sitting opposite Locklear in his cabin, were imbibing Locklear’s best Gilian. The stern gallery window was open and a cooling sea breeze played amongst the captain’s papers, riffling them gently, not enough to blow them to the floor.

‘Hugo, do you have any idea now of where we are?’ Tragen asked, relaxing for the first time in days.

‘Aye, man,’ replied Hugo, his deep-set eyes twinkling, as he sipped the brandy. ‘Ah, that’s good!’ He rolled it around his mouth anticipating the warm feeling he would get as it trickled slowly down his throat to hit his stomach. ‘Hopper and I took sightings of the stars as soon as they appeared last night. We confirmed our position at noon, today. We are a very long way off course somewhere to the south and west of Drakka. Aye, my friend,’ he said to the dismayed Tragen. ‘We are now farther from home than when we set out.’

Hopper broke in. ‘And in answer to your next question we have estimated we are now about four weeks normal sailing from where the storm first hit us. And if we can turn about and make it back to that point we would still have another three weeks to the river into Mantovar.’

‘By the Gods,’ Tragen pulled at his beard. ‘Seven weeks from home and we still have to make landfall first to affect repairs. I never thought the storm would have driven us at such a speed.’

‘Neither did I, ‘said the captain, ‘but Hopper and I are agreed on our position. It confirms what we thought at the outset…our unknown antagonist must be very powerful indeed.  We have pulled the charts, such as they are for this area, and we have several options before us.’

Hugo rose from his chair carrying his brandy and walked to the chart table, the others followed. A large, mostly blank parchment, held open at each corner by various objects from Hugo’s desk, lay on the table. Their destination, the river mouth in Mantovar, was inked in at the top right hand corner easily recognizable. A little way south of there a heavy line was drawn, its direction southwest. The line started at a point just off the coast of Drakka in the east where a large cross indicating the point at which they’d encountered the storm had also been inked in. There were islands situated in the bottom left hand corner and midway to the north, opposite the coast of Mantovar another smaller set of islands, these looked to be at an equal distance from Mantovar as the Grim was now. Taking all the space at the top of the chart was the land of the frozen desert, a vast area dwarfing Mantovar and Drakka. All three men bent over the map taking in its lack of detail.

‘This is the course we have been blown along,’ said Hugo, running his finger along the line south-westwards from the storm. ‘To the east of us lies the southern coast of Drakka, to the north of Drakka is Mantovar. Between us and home is the storm.’ He looked up at his companions. ‘We obviously cannot attempt Mantovar in the ship’s present state.’

‘These islands ahead of us, Hugo, what are they?’ asked Tragen.

‘They are the Griffin Islands…Hopper knows them better than me.’

‘I’ve only been there once, Milord, for a period of a few weeks, the ship I was on stopped in for repairs.’ Hopper grimaced and went on, not very happily. ‘There are about forty or fifty islands scattered over about a thousand leagues. The vast majority of the islands are too small for people to live on but there are other, larger islands that are inhabited. There are fisher folk on most of the islands, of course, and some of the larger are home to farmers and also to ironworkers. The largest island, Griffin, is huge and has its own iron mines and foundries. Surplus ore and raw iron is exported to markets all over the world.

‘There is a monastery on Sanctity, the next largest island. The monks from there used to roam all over the isles, they were the local healers, but for some reason they ceased their travelling and I never knew why,’ Hopper frowned. ‘There is talk of islands disappearing and then reappearing. I could not get to the bottom of that tale and I must admit I did not heed the stories much; they seemed to be used as a threat to get children to behave. But people do disappear on Griffin and each time there is a link to green devils. Who they are I’ve no idea…it’s probably just another local superstition.’

‘Green devils? I wonder if they mean the Green People,’ interrupted Tragen, scratching his head.

‘Who are they?’ asked Locklear.

‘I can’t, for the life of me, remember anything much about them, except that they were supposedly the guardians of nature and that they disappeared from the face of the earth along with the elves.’

‘Are any islands wooded, Hopper?’ asked Locklear, losing interest.

‘There are trees suitable to supply many masts. They are all on Sanctity.’

‘Good, good,’ Locklear’s eyes gleamed, ‘if we agree on the Griffin Islands as our destination then we’ll head for Sanctity as soon as possible.’

‘How about these islands to the north,’ Tragen prodded the point on the map to the west of Mantovar, ‘are these the Onyx isles?’

Hugo nodded. ‘Those we both know, eh Hopper?’

‘Aye, the isles of plenty…plenty of wine and women. The Pleasure Isles some name them.’

‘Home to brigands, a nastier, more terrible set of pirates you could not meet anywhere else in the world.’ Locklear straightened his back and paced the floor a moment before returning to stare at the chart. ‘I have fought them many times, they are a relentless foe. The worst of them are led by Captain Jos Osvaldo in his ship the Lobos. They do not surrender…ever, but they will to the Grim—one day. Once Osvaldo is engaged in conflict, it is a battle to the death…the death of the ship. The victims, whatever’s left of them, are overpowered and taken into slavery and the ship disappears, sunk or taken for purposes of their own, its name changed. We have fought him many times and he has always found us too strong, but it doesn’t stop him wanting the Grim.’ He looked at Tragen, purposefully. ‘That is the last place we should make for with the Grim in this condition, and with Augusta aboard.’

‘Where then, return to Drakka and await the storm’s ending?’

‘How do we know it hasn’t ended already? How do we know that it’s not awaiting our next move home?’ The ship’s master was troubled. ‘Besides, Drakka is as far away as Mantovar. No, Tragen, we gain nothing by returning there.’

‘Unless we were to take Augusta home on the overland trek up the Great Northern Road,’ said Tragen, ‘it is an option that is also open to us.’

‘Aye, but that would mean passing through the Drikander and the inhabitants of that forest have no love for the emperor. Besides it wouldn’t solve the problem of getting the Grim to Mantovar, and I will not leave my ship behind,’ stated Locklear in no uncertain terms.

‘Where then? You’ve ruled out Mantovar and Drakka, you say the Onyx Isles are too dangerous for Augusta. I rule out the frozen wastes of the north…’

‘Why do that, Milord? If we proceed from Griffin straight north to the frozen desert, we avoid the brigands and the storm. We can sail southwards from there following the coast and enter the river from the north. I know it will take us months once we have our masts, but it seems the safer route to me,’ Hopper said, staring curiously at the wizard.

Tragen stared out of the cabin window at the ship’s white wake, it was a pleasing sight after the black violence of the previous days…a pity his thoughts weren’t so pleasant. Should I tell them all of it, he reflected. The frozen desert frightened him to death, not because of what it was, but because of what was hidden there.

On the shores of the cold north lived the greatest warriors in the known world. They were giants, an ancient people, older than the elves and dragons and green people. The giants and their families followed the more peaceful occupations of whalers and seal hunters, but they never forgot their primary purpose. They patrolled the rugged terrain from one end of the coast to the other, continuously. Working out of harbours that froze solid in winter the Giants were a people that thrived in isolation, making contact with the outside world only to trade for grain and metal goods. They did not welcome strangers in their homeland and were truly savage when riled.

The giants, though, did not scare the wizard; they weren’t the reason for his anxiety. He could handle them easily enough after all the wizards had placed them there originally, though it was so long ago most wizards had forgotten it.

However, leagues inland in the midst of the glaciers and broken ice plateaux, was a place he could never handle. He shuddered remembering the legends. Legends he knew to be true.

He turned from the window and looked at the two big men for a moment. ‘No, my friends, the cold north holds something that no mortal man should even acknowledge exists let alone approach. It is the habitat of the Ringwold.’

Hopper sucked breath through his teeth. ‘They are a tale of nightmares surely…stories to frighten children. Are you saying that it really exists?’ he asked, incredulously.

‘Ah, my friends, it seems that I must confirm your worst fears concerning wizards.’ At their quizzical looks he continued. ‘Wizards have always been highly secretive and this makes us doubly suspicious in your eyes,’ he paused a moment to collect his thoughts.

‘I must tell of a responsibility that wizards took upon themselves without thought of consulting others. An action that we deemed so vital to protect the earth that we dared not trust anyone else, except for the elves as we needed the dragons. We arrogantly thought ourselves to be so superior there was no need to inform those of lesser abilities…a belief that has, inevitably, led to our downfall. No-one trusts us now.’ He went and sat in his seat at Hugo’s desk.

‘Exasperated mothers, to quell the noise made by their offspring, have often used the Ringwold as a deterrent. I don’t know why this is so, I have never been able to understand how frightening a child to death will bring that loving child comfort. The tales are horrendous of course, bogeymen, witches, trolls and demons, “they will all come and eat you up if you don’t go to sleep”. By the Gods, how can anyone sleep if they know of those vile creatures?’

Tragen sat in his chair and with his elbows resting on the arms he placed his fingertips together and pursed his lips in thought. ‘Legends are born from facts that have become distorted over the centuries, and if no new concepts emerge then old ideas become even more coloured. This suited us wizards we used it to ensure your safety.’ He stared at his friends’ consternation.

‘We had to find a means to ensure that mortals stayed away from the interior of the icy wastes. Aeons ago we asked volunteers to live on the shores of the desert. These volunteers would live by hunting and fishing the great mammals that abounded there. The main objective of these people however, was to turn all others away…deter any who wished to journey inland. The only ones to come forward were the giants, unsurprising really as they love the sea and are impervious to the cold. Apparently this strategy has succeeded so well that the volunteers have now become indigenous to that part of the world. They have settled in so deeply that their purpose of deterrence has become ingrained. No-one can get past them.’

‘Aye, that’s true enough,’ said Locklear, ‘I know men that have tried…they barely escaped with their lives.’ He gazed at the troubled wizard. ‘All right, you have told us that we should not go there. I know something of what’s up there, or at least dark rumours of the place, enough to worry me profoundly, can you tell us more? Can you tell us of the Ringwold inhabitants?’

‘I wish I could but I cannot. Wait!’ and he waved his hands to silence both his companions. ‘Please let me explain before shouting me down…I am talking of a thousand years ago…or more. The sorcerers of that time knew the Ringwold intimately.’ He blanched at how well they did know it. It had been the Black Sorcerers that had created the place; the White Wizards – with the help of dragons – had enclosed it. He could never tell these the whole truth.

‘We have known, for what seems forever, that knowledge of the inhabitants was too dangerous to document and so the lore was handed down by word of mouth, wizard to wizard. We know now that was also a mistake. The time has now been so long that even we wizards have forgotten the salient facts.

‘Except for one unassailable truth—if the inhabitants of the Ringwold ever come south then the world as we know it ends.’

Tragen stood and stared long and hard at both of his comrades. ‘We must never think of going north to the wastes. If you do, then I will do all in my considerable power to stop you.’

Hugo stared up at him silently; he had never heard that tone from the wizard in all their years together. ‘Then you believe all these nightmare figures of trolls and bogeymen, goblins and ghouls, to be true, my friend?’

‘Not as stated in threats by irate mothers, no…but they are based on indisputable fact. Whatever is in the Ringwold is devastating for mankind.’

‘But surely,’ Hopper interrupted, ‘we need not go that far north. I’m not on about making landfall; I’m talking about following the coastline.’

‘We do not know for sure the origin of this storm. If it stems from the Ringwold then it would be likely we’d encounter the storm again in that region. We may even be forced to land. We cannot risk it!’ Tragen, his stare implacable, silenced them both.

‘Then that makes the decision easier, I suppose,’ and at their looks Locklear continued. ‘There is only one option…the Griffin Islands. Let us hope and pray that young Beatrix is wrong and that whoever created that storm is not before us. What else can you tell us of the islands, Hopper?’

‘Before I do, you haven’t mentioned Blackfire, that’s only five days sailing due south of here.’

‘I would rather not go anywhere near the Siren with only three masts. If we were rigged as we should be I’d take a chance. But, of course, if we were there’d be no need to consider the option at all. The Griffin islands are our best bet, they’re roughly the same distance, and they have food, water and masts. We’ll leave Blackfire as a last resort.’ Locklear sighed, tugging at his beard he stared out the open window.

‘Tell us of the islands, Hopper,’ Tragen asked breaking the silence.

‘The only one I landed on was Griffin. It has an enclosed deep-water harbour, very busy, mainly used by the large ocean-going vessels carrying iron-ore and coke. But it also has a very healthy trade in other goods, usually those from farther west; they also trade in fertilizer and some say slaves from the south, the Dark Continent, I believe…not that I ever saw any of those poor people. But like all successful ports it has a cross-section of people, a fair share of them on the seedier side of life. There are two clans on that island and they, if not in actual open warfare, carry out a clandestine violence—they detest each other and people do die.’

‘Do they have any military?’ Locklear asked.

‘Not as such, armed militia certainly and a small, highly professional navy is needed to protect against the brigands from the north and to deter smugglers…it is rife. The Portolans, the clan in the south, have full control over both the militia and the navy and they have a giant of a man leading them. The Montetors of the north have their own forces, from what I could gather at the time, more covert than overt.’

‘Do we have cause to worry, if we ask for aid?’ Tragen asked.

‘I believe not, Milord. But circumstances can change in ten years.’

‘Then we will play it by ear,’ and with that Locklear took up the flagon of brandy and poured them all a new and larger mug of the amber nectar.

Tragen mulled over these new concerns, and then his mind recalled the worries that Beatrix had voiced. Was she correct? Was the foe on Griffin or perhaps on Sanctity or any other of the smaller islands? If she was right—he had no idea how to proceed.

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

A Polish man, a German guy, and an American dude, climb a mountain because they each want to make a wish from the genie on the top. When they make it to the top, they find the lamp and all rub it. The genie appears and says, “For your wish to be granted, you must yell it out while you are jumping off of this mountain.” So the German jumps off and yells, “I wish to be a fighter plane!” “So be it,” the genie says, and the German becomes a plane. The American jumps off and yells, “I wish to be an eagle!” “So be it,” the genie says, and the American becomes an eagle and flies away. The Polish man runs to the edge, accidentally trips on a rock, and yells, “I wish to b- oh S**t!”

Have a nice day!

Chapter Ten of The Gateway (and a joke or two)

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

A man was driving and saw a truck stalled on the side of the highway that had ten penguins standing next to it. The man pulled over and asked the truck driver if he needed any help. The truck driver replied, “If you can take these penguins to the zoo while I wait for AAA that will be great!” The man agreed and the penguins hopped into the back of his car. Two hours later, the trucker was back on the road again and decided to check on the penguins. He showed up at the zoo and they weren’t there! He headed back into his truck and started driving around the town, looking for any sign of the penguins, the man, or his car. While driving past a movie theater, the truck driver spotted the guy walking out with the ten penguins. The truck driver yelled, “What are you doing? You were supposed to take them to the zoo!” The man replied, “I did and then I had some extra money so I took them to go see a movie.”

 

The winch room atop the portcullis (Castell Coch)
The winch room atop the portcullis (Castell Coch)

 

Ten

 

‘What’s wrong, Anders, you look terrible?’ Beatrix asked, her concern for him unconsciously making her grip his hand harder. They were both in her cabin sitting on the bottom bunk waiting for the other two to bring breakfast. Anders’ face was very drawn, his scruffy clothes even scruffier and he could hardly keep his eyes open. ‘You look as if you’ve been up all night.’

‘I have…I think,’ and he sighed deeply. ‘I haven’t slept much at all,’ staring at her through bleary, red eyes, he went on. ‘Aidan is worrying me silly…I don’t know what’s going on…what’s happening to him, but he’s scaring me bonkers.’ He sat on the edge of the bunk and stared at her hand in his, taking strength from the coolness of it.’What’s wrong, Anders, you look terrible?’ Beatrix asked, her concern for him unconsciously making her grip his hand harder. They were both in her cabin sitting on the bottom bunk waiting for the other two to bring breakfast. Anders’ face was very drawn, his scruffy clothes even scruffier and he could hardly keep his eyes open. ‘You look as if you’ve been up all night.’

‘Why…what’s he done this time?’

Anders looked down at her, admiring her pretty face for a moment, and combed his long hair with the fingers of his other hand, not even contemplating releasing her delicate fingers. His hair was lighter than hers, reflecting the morning light pouring through the porthole. He was desperately anxious and seeing the concern on her face discovered the need to speak of it. Aidan’s nightmares were even more frightening now, and although his friend could not recall their content, they were having a malign effect on him. Aidan, always lean, was looking even thinner, his face paler, the black bags beneath his eyes even more pronounced. Anders sighed; maybe Beatrix would know what to do.

He took a deep breath. ‘Aidan has been talking in his sleep for the last three nights, saying things that puzzled me at first…now they really scare me.’

‘Go on,’ she urged, when he paused showing no signs of continuing, ‘tell me.’

‘Well,’ and he took another deep breath, ‘the first night he woke me, he was talking about someone laughing.’

‘That doesn’t seem very much,’ she frowned.

‘No, but I got the impression it was not pleasant laughter,’ he squeezed her hand. ‘Then night before last, he woke me sounding as if he was threatening somebody. He was shouting about wizards going somewhere. I don’t know where and honestly, the way he spoke sent shivers up my back.’

‘And last night…what happened last night?’ She was afraid to ask seeing Anders tremble, she grasped his hand even tighter in both of hers. ‘Come on tell me, it can’t be that bad, can it…I mean it was only a dream, wasn’t it?’

‘I don’t know,’ he swallowed. ‘He screamed…long and loud. It’s a wonder no-one else heard him; the Bear must have been on deck. He said…he said something about everywhere being red and someone was hurting him.’

‘What was red? Who was hurting him?’

He shook his head. ‘I don’t know, but it frightened him as well as me.’

‘Have you asked him about these dreams?’

‘Aye, all I get is a look that says I’m an idiot. He doesn’t remember a thing, so he says…or perhaps he doesn’t want to remember.’

Silent, anxiety creasing both their faces, she stared down at their hands intertwined in her lap and then realized she was alone in her cabin, holding the hands of the very young man she was besotted with.

She jumped up nervously, their grip lingering until she started pacing the small cabin. ‘Do you think we should tell Lord Tragen? After all, if these aren’t dreams they could very well be portents, they sound like it.’

‘They do? I don’t know…let’s wait, pick our time and both of us tackle Aidan, hey?’

Beatrix nodded as she heard Aidan and Augusta come down the passageway, the sounds of their laughter preceding them.

It had been Augusta’s first ever visit to a ship’s galley and she had been beguiled by Dolphin. She found it a strange name for a funny little man and she had nearly burst out laughing in front of him when Aidan called him “Dolly”, Aidan kicked her just in time. He had then informed her of Dolly’s prowess with a knife and that no man ever ridiculed the cook and survived without being cut. She wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not but looking at the man wielding the ladle she had been fascinated by his enormous belly. It seemed to have a life of its own as it danced about above his rope belt its loops holding assorted knives.

While they had waited their turn, Augusta – pretending to be a maid – peered around into the steamy, hot atmosphere, the closeness of the crew assailing her nose with a variety of not very pleasant smells. The men were at their ease and savouring both the hot food and their brief respite before returning to duty. Now that two masts had been lost, the ship needed an even closer watch kept; no-one would be getting much rest until landfall was made. And they would only rest then once repairs had been made.

As Augusta and Aidan were leaving the galley with the burgoo and tea, Leash watched them from behind a pillar. He was sitting on the deck close to the stove, alone even amongst the crowd. He was sweating because of the radiant heat—he didn’t mind, it was the cold he hated. He stared expressionless but was smiling inside. They were to hump stores from the forward hold that morning; or rather, the men he would be supervising would do the toting while he watched. He had already made sure that bails and casks had been stowed right outside the wizards’ cabin. The opportunity for his plan had presented itself earlier than he expected. All he had to do now was obtain the second sack of food and his scheme would be up and running. There would be no problem planting the evidence.

As Aidan and Augusta negotiated the dark passageway, now obstructed with boxes and sacks, the ship rolled down a steep sea and Aidan banged his shin against a protruding corner.

‘Bloody hell, if I get another bruise I’ll be black and blue all over!’ he complained.

‘Don’t you know you’re not supposed to swear in front of ladies, little wizard,’ laughed Augusta, repeating her companion’s words.

‘I didn’t know there were any ladies present, Nellie,’ he retorted rubbing his leg vigorously.

‘Watch it, boy!’ she threatened, ‘or I’ll kick your other leg, you won’t notice the difference then.’ She laughed and they entered what had now become her cabin as well as Beattie’s. The first thing that struck her was the silence, the second, the strained expressions on the faces of Beatrix and Anders.

‘What’s wrong with you two?’ But before either could answer, Lady Cornelia having been woken by the noise from the passage, shouted through for her breakfast.

‘Ooh! She has no patience that woman…she must get it from you, Augusta,’ said Aidan teasing her.

‘I’m never like that…Beattie, tell him.’

Beatrix didn’t answer but gave a telling look. ‘I’ll take her breakfast in while you share ours out.’

‘Beattie, I’m not like that…’ she shouted bad-temperedly, the boys grinned as Augusta shared out the porridge mumbling all the while. When Beatrix returned, Augusta sat on her bed and stared at Aidan.

‘When are you going to start teaching me?’

‘What? Oh yes, magic…I haven’t forgotten, I’ve been a little preoccupied lately, what with one thing and another,’ he replied, nearly choking as his food went down the wrong way. Augusta slapped his back.

‘Ouch! Don’t hit so hard, will you?’

‘I didn’t…big baby!’

‘You are not teaching her here,’ interrupted Anders, unnerved. ‘Tragen said you’re not to do magic in small rooms, remember?’

‘Okay, I’m not going to…so stop nagging!’ He looked at his friend and grimaced. ‘For some reason I don’t feel up to it today, anyway.’

‘Why is that?’ Beatrix asked, looking pointedly at Anders. ‘You don’t appear well; aren’t you sleeping?’

‘I didn’t last night, I had a…wait a minute, have you been talking, Anders?’

‘I mentioned it, yeah. I’m worried about you. After all it’s not every night I have to listen to my best friend’s nightmares—just the last three!’ Anders stared at Aidan daring him to deny it; he turned and smiled quickly at Beatrix glad that she had brought it out into the open.

‘What are you lot talking about?’ Augusta asked her spoon balanced precariously half way to her mouth.

Beatrix answered. ‘He’s been having dreams…horrible dreams.’

Augusta looked at Aidan a mixture of concern and curiosity on her face. It was then she noticed the drawn, pale look he had about him, the black bags under his eyes looking as if they’d been painted with kohl. Not concentrating on holding her bowl she slopped a little onto the floor as the ship climbed up and over the crest of another high wave. She settled herself in a more comfortable, and safer for everyone, position.

‘Are you having nightmares?’

‘Well, I don’t know about the other nights, but I’m beginning to remember something from last night.’ He paused and rubbed his suddenly sweaty hands on his britches. ‘It was scary. Don’t ask me what…I don’t know myself yet. All I know is, I didn’t like it,’ and he stopped speaking, lying back in his usual position on the bottom bunk.

‘So, you may have been dreaming the other nights and don’t remember.’ Augusta turned to Anders. ‘Tell me about these dreams.’

‘Night terrors, more like it!’ And he did, explaining at the same time that they were getting worse each night. ‘I think Beattie had it right, just now. She said that these may be portents not dreams.’

‘Portents! You mean he’s seeing things in the future?’ Augusta asked, now fascinated, intrigued and more than a little troubled. She thought of the seer she and Beatrix had met once before and come away confused and worried. She turned to look at Aidan on the bed, his arms behind his head. ‘Are you…are you seeing the future?’

He thought for a moment and, bringing his arms forward, he rubbed his eyes. ‘No, I don’t think it is…the future I mean.’ He stared at them blearily and then looked at his feet stretched out before him. ‘I have the feeling that whatever it is, it’s happening as I see it.’

They stared at him uncomprehending. Aidan continued. ‘It’s like a mindmeld Augusta. When you join with me or Tragen it’s in the present…you are seeing and hearing events that are happening at the instant we join.’ He grabbed her hand. ‘When you become more experienced at mindmelding you will get this special feeling. I can’t describe it…it’s a knowing in your head, an acceptance of what the other person understands.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘And that’s the feeling I’m getting, I can’t recall what the dream was, but I can remember the sensation. I was mindmelding with someone—someone who frightens the life out of me.’

They stared at him in silence, all three apprehensive.

‘I thought you couldn’t mindmeld with someone unless they allowed it.’ Anders said, breaking into their thoughts. ‘And if you have, whoever it is will know of you now.’

‘Not necessarily.’ A voice said from the door. Unknowingly Tragen, walking in his usual silent manner, had come to the door and overheard their discussion.

Moving into the cabin accompanied by Lady Cornelia supported on his arm, Tragen repeated. ‘Not necessarily,’ and he added, ‘I believe the same has happened to me. Now, Aidan, if you will kindly get up from there, and you Augusta move over, Lady Cornelia can sit on the end of the bed.’

The lady-in-waiting struggled over to what had once been her bed, and lowering her heavy bulk to sit, she turned to Aidan. ‘Well, my young wizard, my ankle has healed, but I am still a little shaky. I could not stay abed any longer those four walls are playing on my nerves, besides, I would only get crotchety and end up making your lives a misery.’

‘Crotchety, Cornelia…never let anyone dare say that!’ Augusta said, tongue in cheek. ‘You are looking a lot better now, though.’

‘Yes, but I’m afraid you cannot have your cabin returned just yet, my dear. We all feel you have to stay in hiding, at the very least until we reach land.’

Augusta looked up at the wizard standing alongside her. ‘Lord Tragen, can you tell us now all you know…or think you know, as you promised?’ She raised her eyebrows quizzically, reminding everyone present that she was the heir apparent to Mantovar. It was then that Locklear appeared in the doorway looking rested after his long ordeal on deck.

‘Hugo, my friend, it seems that Aidan has been having the same experiences as me. He has mindmelded with the same being, I believe, in his dreams.’

Locklear opened his eyes wide in surprise and gazed at Aidan. ‘Does this mean he is known?’

‘Not necessarily.’ The wizard repeated for a third time. Stroking his beard, he continued. ‘I suppose I had better try and explain the fundamentals of mindmelding, but it is extremely difficult to understand for those who are unaccustomed to the art. But I believe now, as Aidan does, that anyone can use the skill if it is awakened in them.’

He turned to his boy. ‘You know more of the intricacies of the human brain and use plain words better than me…you explain.’

Aidan looked up at the wizard and smiled weakly. ‘Very well, Master. Your brain, Milady,’ he spoke to Lady Cornelia, ‘contains many compartments…like this ship. Many of the compartments are used all the time and remain open, like the galley and that bit of your brain that controls your speech or your sight.’ He stared at his friends, not knowing how to simplify matters so that the uninitiated could understand. This was something that had taken him years of training to come to terms with. ‘Some compartments are only opened now and then; access to the bilges is an example of those, as is the ability to read. But, there are other compartments that are closed…hidden…dark places that only the rats know.’

He looked up as Beatrix gave a small shriek, and he smiled reassuringly. ‘No, Beattie, don’t be afraid, perhaps I’m not explaining things properly…rats also need warm spaces in which to sleep and rear their young.’

‘Are there rats on this ship, Captain?’ asked Augusta, interrupting Aidan’s flow, shivering at the thought of the brown rodents creeping around her cabin while she was sleeping.

‘There are rats on every ship, Highness. But rest easy, they live very low down in the ship…in the bilges, the bottom of the ship, as Aidan says,’ replied Locklear.

‘The secret places in your brain are much the same…warm and comfortable,’ Aidan continued. ‘Although there are other compartments not so nice, but we can speak of those some other time.’

He gazed around at his listeners, their ears seeming to flap; he warmed to his subject. ‘There are many lovely spaces as well that most people don’t know about. Wizards and healers are born with these already opened, and that is why they have magical abilities. All people have the same abilities but can’t use the special ones…the magical ones, because the doors to those particular compartments are closed and always will be. At least I always thought they’d be,’ he glanced at Augusta and wondered…how on earth does she have the ability now?

‘Is that what’s happened to me, Aidan? Is that why I can mindmeld and do magic now?’ Augusta asked him, reading his glance if not his mind.

‘It must be,’ he shrugged his shoulders. ‘Some part of your brain that was previously inaccessible is now no longer blocked and your magical abilities have been freed. Why, I don’t know.’

Beatrix noticed that whenever Aidan spoke of magic, his voice changed and the manner and tone of his speech sounded more mature, as it was now. He sounded years older than he was. Is that what magic does to you, she wondered—make you old before your time.

‘And now I must break the code of wizardry,’ Tragen spoke as Aidan finished. ‘I have to share a secret with you and I ask that you do not divulge it to anyone. It is a fallacy spread by wizards over the centuries that you cannot mindmeld with someone who is not willing,’ he grimaced. ‘Not true! Wizards have hidden this ability for obvious reasons…it comes in very handy if you can be in your enemy’s mind with him completely unaware of it,’ he looked at Locklear. ‘But those wizards of an impeccable nature, those who follow the white arts, never invade the minds of people without their permission, unless they feel threatened for some reason. And we never enter the minds of our friends unbidden. However, there are rogues in any profession, wizards are not unique—we have our dark side, practitioners of the black elements.’ This last comment he stated very firmly, catching the eye of everyone present.

‘But we can and do infiltrate the minds of enemies without them being aware of our presence. And we can do this at any time…awake or sleeping.’ He breathed deeply before continuing. ‘I believe this is what Aidan and I have been doing. Me, when I am awake, Aidan when sleeping. And we have been mindmelding with the same person.’

Aidan stilled at the words, his mouth dry, he had not known for sure that he was mindmelding and didn’t know, of course, that Tragen had been doing the same. The listeners were stunned; knowing their minds were open to any wizard, at any time, and not being able to do anything about it came as a great shock.

Augusta, blushing, turned to Aidan. ‘You have not been in my mind without me knowing, have you?’

‘No, of course not, you’re my friend. Why?’ Aidan asked puzzled, not noticing the colour in her face.

‘Nothing, nothing,’ she said and turned away. God, she thought to herself, I do have to be careful.

Tragen went on with what he was saying. ‘There is only one way of detecting another’s presence in your mind,’ and this captured their attention again. ‘Your sensations can be felt! When you are as one in a mindmeld, you experience the emotions of each other. Therefore, it is very important for us to remember to suppress our feelings when we mindmeld so that the other does not sense us. Only with practise can this be achieved,’ and he looked at Augusta. ‘Take this time to learn with Aidan. You must attain the ability to enter your foe’s mind and at the same time protect your own from all. You are our liege lord’s daughter, our princess…it would not do to have Mantovar’s state secrets divulged to your enemies,’ he said gravely.

Beatrix stared with wide eyes, frightened for her mistress she had not realized how vulnerable Augusta was. She moved closer to Anders, entwining her fingers in his, she felt safer being near him.

 

‘You still haven’t told us why you’re hiding Augusta,’ said Aidan.

‘This young man does not forget anything,’ said Cornelia, smiling.

‘Only when to wash behind his ears,’ Tragen said laughing, the mirth increasing when Aidan automatically put his fingers to his ears to check and then went red as everyone looked at him.

‘Master, enough,’ he said, ‘tell us.’

Tragen became serious again. ‘On that first day of the storm I mindmelded searching for you, Aidan, for you did not reappear from your errand at the mainmast. That was when I made the initial contact. I failed to find you and instead I heard terrible laughter and felt its evil. That same night, Anders heard you mention laughter in your sleep, and he did not like it. Correct, Anders?’ the cabin boy nodded and Tragen moved on. ‘The second day, when I was casting the shield spell, I felt it again. And that time the feeling of malice in the laughter was so great it took me over and I collapsed. I, and the captain, knew at that time that someone was hunting us, and that night you dreamed of wizards going somewhere. But your mindmeld last night of seeing red and it hurting you worries me. I do not know how it fits in. But Captain Locklear, Lady Cornelia and I all agree on one thing. Whoever created this storm is chasing the Grim, and the only motive we can think of is because Augusta is on board.’

‘The storm has abated now and should disappear within the next few hours,’ said Locklear, who had remained silent until now. ‘We seem to have reached the limits of the storm and are now running out of the range of the devil. Hopefully, we can now look forward to a period of calm before we turn for home and possibly meet it again. But if we do encounter this storm or this being again, at least we will now be prepared…and Princess Augusta will be well hidden.’ He summed up. ‘My first priority is to make landfall so we can carry out repairs to the hull and the masts. If we meet this tempest again before these repairs are completed, the Grim is unlikely to survive.’ Locklear turned to leave but halted with his foot over the storm sill when his friend stopped him.

‘A moment, my friend,’ said Tragen, ‘before you go, I must emphasize to our young friends here the need to keep Augusta’s identity secret, her life may very well depend on you. If we do meet this being in the future we do not want any of the crew knowing who she is. The less who know the safer she will be. So enjoy your freedom, Nellie, while you may and remember the lessons that my young apprentice will teach.’ He moved to leave with Locklear, and as he put out his arm to help Lady Cornelia to rise, Beatrix spoke.

‘Wait!’ she shouted, and she reddened when everyone looked at her. Nervously, she said quietly, ‘I’m sorry, but I think there is something you may have missed.’ She gripped Anders’ hand for support; she had never spoken in such a manner to such people of high station before and wondered if they’d believe that a mere companion could possibly have anything of importance to relay. ‘I mean…oh I told these earlier,’ and she indicated her friends, ‘they dismissed it then, but I don’t think we can ignore the possibility any longer,’ she said in a rush, looking down now at her feet and clinging to Anders.

‘What is it, Beatrix? Come, don’t be nervous,’ Tragen smiled at her, ‘believe it or not, we are all friends here.’

She looked up at him, this old, very stately man. The thought of him naming her a friend nearly struck her silent. Then feeling Anders squeeze her hand, she continued. ‘I don’t think this “being” you believe is chasing us,’ with a voice gaining more confidence as she spoke, ‘is behind us…I think he’s in front of us.’

Tragen looked at her puzzled. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘In his mindmeld with the creature, Aidan said that there was not “a wizard going” but there were “wizards coming”. Don’t you understand,’ she said exasperated, ‘“coming” he said, not “going”!’ And at their still puzzled looks, she continued. ‘That storm you assume was created in Mantovar, could it not have been conjured here…on this side of the storm? May not the creator’s intention be to lure us to him, to stop us getting home to Mantovar? And what about Aidan’s third vision, he said everything was “red and hurting”, not necessarily hurting him, it may have meant someone else was hurting and…and he saw it, and…and that is what is waiting for us!’ She finished abruptly and held her breath waiting for their reaction, every bone in her body telling her it was true.

They were going towards the danger not away from it.

Tragen stared silently. Locklear ran his fingers through his black beard, tugging hard, his mouth pursed tightly. Cornelia sitting back down on the bed clasped her hands together and gazed into space thinking of the ramifications. Augusta was scared and wished she could hold Aidan’s hand as Beatrix was holding Anders’.

Aidan felt her fear. ‘Don’t be frightened, Augusta, we’re all here, we’ll look after you,’ he mindmelded comfortingly.

Oh, Aidan, she’s right isn’t she?

‘It never occurred to me but I do believe Beatrix may be correct,’ Tragen broke into their mindmeld and into the heavy silence in the cabin.

Beatrix breathed easier and smiled nervously up at Anders holding her tight, now she would not have to worry on her own.

‘It seems we have a lot more thinking to do, Hugo, Cornelia,’ and he turned to include the lady-in-waiting. ‘Although I do not think we should panic quite yet. Yes, if young Beatrix has it right then whoever is behind the storm has very cleverly hoodwinked us.’

‘And if that’s the case the cessation of the tempest has lulled us into a false sense of security,’ added Locklear.

‘And what’s more important,’ Tragen paused a moment tugging his beard while he thought, ‘it means that I have been discovered. Aidan heard this being talk of a wizard coming and then Aidan threatened him with more than one,’ he paused. ‘It means that I have been identified and it has sought fit to hide the fact from me. Nevertheless, this being has yet to discover Aidan’s presence. Why did he not detect my boy if we both mindmelded with the same creature? That is a puzzle! Anders, you must keep a close watch on Aidan tonight and every night, if anything about him worries you inform me immediately whatever time it is. You are to interrupt me whatever I am doing.’

As each and everyone looked from one to the other, Cornelia said. ‘We must leave each other to our own thoughts and meet again, Tragen. As you say, we do not need to panic yet, and we ought not to make any unreasoned countermoves. If he is enticing us to him, then we must be very careful when we sight land for that may very well be the place this evil being is at.’ She struggled to her feet. ‘Come let us leave it at that for now. And as for you, young Beatrix,’ she smiled, ‘I can’t see you remaining just a lady’s companion for much longer.’

And that really did flummox young Beatrix.

 

After their meeting, the four went up on deck to clear their heads. They avoided the quarterdeck and went up forward on to the foc’s’le. The storm had subsided, the drizzle had stopped and, although the sun had not yet reappeared, it was warm. Tomorrow promised to be a clear day.

The ship’s superstructure was in a chaotic state with broken rigging needing securing some in great need of repair. It was going to be a mammoth job to splice the necessary lines and both broken masts were in a very sorry state, sharp slithers poking to the skies from the tops of the stumps. However, sails could fly on the foremast, jigger and after-jigger and the captain had already ordered them set. Despite the ship’s obvious handicap, the vessel was proceeding at a fair speed, despite the difficulty in controlling the steering. Where the ship was going they were still not sure, the overcast denying them their position.

The four friends settled in the bows staring out to sea. Quiet for the moment, their thoughts on what had transpired in their discussion.

Beatrix, although relieved at having persuaded her companions to her way of thinking, was very troubled at the danger her mistress now found herself in and along with her, of course, all of them were now in serious peril. Moreover, what had Lady Cornelia meant with her parting comment? Beatrix had been trained from a very early age to be Augusta’s companion. Her mother was the princess’ favourite lady-in-waiting and both had grown very close their friendship lasting years. Beatrix was very proud to carry out the same duties for Augusta, although up until these last few days, their relationship had not seemed to be as strong. Beatrix smiled; their friendship had certainly blossomed on this voyage. She continued to contemplate the direction her life had taken recently, her thoughts leading her everywhere, most of them frightening and looking at Anders her heart skipped a beat, her feelings made even less sense where he was concerned.

Anders was a worried young man standing at the rail close to Beatrix. What were they getting into? Aidan’s visions scared him; mindmelding with an evil being took some believing. And Aidan’s actual sightings, of the Gods knew what, really frightened him. He peered around at his friends, silent with their own thoughts. A lump came to his throat, so many friends. He’d only ever been close to Aidan, and like Aidan he’d never had female friends and now, as he glanced at Beatrix, it seemed that he had more than a friend in her. He hoped so. He smiled. What would his six older brothers say to that? Being the youngest in his family had its advantages; his mother always spoiled him. But it had its disadvantages as well, especially when you were fifteen years younger than the next brother. He’d always had to fight for his father’s attentions, and been made to feel slightly inferior to all of them; tolerated was the word. But here he was now, an equal, friends with royalty and wizards; and in love with Beatrix. It must be love, he thought, otherwise he wouldn’t have enormous butterflies in his stomach every time he looked at her. We have to be very, very cautious; I want nothing to harm any of us, he thought. Moving closer to Beatrix and rubbing shoulders with her, they both studied the ocean, each very conscious of the nearness of the other.

Augusta, usually carefree, was now thinking very seriously of what was ahead. All her life she had known that she had enemies and that they would love to deny her Mantovar, some would feel it their duty to kill her. She was used to being in danger and used to having bodyguards. Her parents, and her teachers, had always drummed it into her that she had to be very circumspect when choosing her friends. They should always be from “proper” families, those very loyal to her father. She knew that her future husband would be chosen for her from that clique, probably within the next year. Then her heart flipped, was that the reason for her early recall home? Had her parents decided already? The thought of that made her very miserable. Up until this voyage she had not had second thoughts about being married to someone she didn’t know, it was her duty. But now, and she looked at her friends, she shuddered at all thoughts of betrothal to a stranger. She sighed and stared over the rail at a dolphin swimming nearby. Look at me now, the only real friends I have ever had are these three – a lady’s companion, a cabin boy and a wizard’s apprentice – hardly members of a “proper” family, except for Beatrix of course. These three would be more loyal to her and far better friends than any members of the aristocracy of Mantovar, or those of Drakka. She felt safe with these despite the unknown enemy chasing her. And then she smiled, she was now a wizard, she had the ability to mindmeld and do magic. She would be the first ever monarch to practise the magic arts, could she also be the first ever monarch to choose her own husband? Then another thought made her anxious; would a wizard be allowed the throne, someone had tried once before and failed.

Aidan on the other hand was nervous. A responsibility unlooked for had fallen on his young shoulders. He had to teach a member of the monarchy the intricacies of mindmelding and of magic. He was under no illusion as to the complications of this course of action. The prince would be astonished that his daughter had the ability; suspicious as to how she had acquired the art and mistrustful of this young apprentice teaching her how to use it. He would not like his daughter falling under the influence of a wizard even though his best friend was one. There were many in the principality, and indeed the empire, dubious of the powers held by these mysterious people. Wizards, and in some cases Adepts, although welcomed in many places, were always treated with extreme caution. Indeed, in the case of the Guild of the Brethren of Wisdom, a mysterious sect of black sorcerers based in the south of Drakka, fear was the ruling factor—ordinary people avoided them like the plague. He looked around at his companions and marvelled. He had only ever had one friend before – Anders – but now he had three. He smiled, regardless of all that was ahead he was happier than he had ever been before in his young life.

 

Leash watched them from his position at the helm. He also was happy. He had hidden the contraband sack of food in the wizard’s cabin. Looking back it had been so easy. His task of toting provisions from the forward hold and stacking them in the dry, in the passenger corridor, had given him the opportunity. When Tragen and the others had been in the maid’s cabin that morning, he had stolen the food from that in the passageway. He had then secreted it under the boy’s clothing in the trunk behind the door of the wizard’s cabin. He had not even had to rush, there had been nobody around to see him enter or leave the berth. Now, when everyone was starving, as they all would be in the next week or so, he would arrange for its discovery. He smiled, it would be the end of the boy – the crew would be hard-pressed not to lynch him – and the wizard would be gutted. Leash only had to wait.

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

A child asked his father, “How were people born?” So his father said, “Adam and Eve made babies, then their babies became adults and made babies, and so on.” The child then went to his mother, asked her the same question and she told him, “We were monkeys then we evolved to become like we are now.” The child ran back to his father and said, “You lied to me!” His father replied, “No, your mom was talking about her side of the family.”

 

Have a nice day!

Another Quickie

I’ve just started book 4 with a working title of Riverton. Hopefully I’ll finish it by June (if ‘er indoors finds someone else to take her touring the aisles in Asda).

Here’s a view of the leaning tower of Caerphilly Castle

Caerphilly Castle 146

and here’s the giant holding it up!the giant
And I thought I had a hard job! Happy days.

Just a quickie!

He's looking heavenwards because he forgot to drop his britches.
He’s looking heavenwards because he forgot to drop his britches.
As the title states. I could not resist this when I visited Caerphilly Castle recently. The guidebook says this is the communal lavatory for the garrison in the thirteenth century. The sound effects were horrendous! Guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most miserable visitor. Don’t ask what the ball is between his shins!