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Roland's Castle

 

Roland’s Castle

 

Becky York

 

 

 

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Copyright Notice

This original work remains the copyright of the author in all jurisdictions and the author retains the right to be identified with the work, in whole or in part, on all occasions. This edition, distributed by Shakespir, is currently available free for a period of time. During that period you may, in the spirit of lending, make free, whole, copies for your relatives and friends.

Please ask your local bookseller for a print edition, and get those to whom you lend it to do the same!

Chapter 1

 

The battle was lost.

The old enemy had returned, more powerful, more cunning, more ruthless than ever before. They had swarmed across the darkening sky, killing all in their way until the tower itself was at their mercy.

The sacred tower! The very cord of life!

The young woman stood on the ledge beside the breach. Her hands reached down as if to pick up the child who slept far below, the child she would never hold again.

“My poor boy!” she cried. Then she leapt…

 

Roland’s father had promised he would return “from the dawn”. Roland knew that it really meant from the east, but still he made sure that every day he watched at sun rise, hoping to see his father riding back across the meadows. The bold knight had been gone for over a year now. Roland’s mother had died when he was a baby and he had no brothers and sisters. At just ten years of age he was left as master of his own castle – or, at least, he was meant to be…

As usual, on a bright spring morning he leapt from his bed, dressed and quietly made his way from his bedroom up the winding staircase to the top of the tower. For a while now his bedroom had been in the oldest and smallest tower in the castle. It was draughty and cold but he didn’t mind. It was supposed to be a punishment but really he was very thankful that he was a long way away from his aunt and uncle. The tower was very old, so old that no one remembered why the staircase ended abruptly, with only the broken promise of more storeys above and only a steep drop beyond the topmost step. Whatever was meant to be up there had never been built, hence it was known as the Unfinished Tower.

From the top of the bit that had been completed Roland could peer out into the mists of the dawn, as he did every morning.

He sighed as he stared out at the hills beyond the castle, then down at the castle itself. It had once been beautiful, its towers gleaming proudly before the dawn, but now it was wrecked, broken, smashed as if a hurricane had passed through it – or a madman in a rage armed with some monstrous siege weapon. The madman bit was probably right – or at least half right – as Roland suspected that his uncle was half mad. Roofs had been torn off to expose secret rooms that didn’t exist, walls had been torn down to reveal secret passages that were no more real, the ground had been dug up to unearth secret chambers that had never been there in the first place.

Uncle Dagarth and Auntie Hildegrind had arrived almost the moment after Roland’s father had gone – to “check Roland was alright,” they said – they would “only stay a few days.” Those few days turned into a month and that turned into yet more months … Slowly, various members of their own retinue arrived together with Roland’s cousins, Dogwood and Dagwood. Dogwood and Dagwood were slightly older and rather bigger than Roland was, and rather nasty too.

From the moment he arrived Dagarth had begun to ask questions – actually only one question, but put many times, in many different ways. At first he had been subtle, or as subtle as he could be, which wasn’t really very subtle at all. He had become even less subtle, and quite overbearing, as time had gone on. The question was: “Where is the treasure?” or just “Where is it? Well! Come on!”

When he didn’t get the reply he wanted he threw a tantrum. He waved his arms about and shouted: “I know there is treasure here! I was sent away from here as a child before I could learn its secret – to stop me learning its secret! I was deprived of it! I was a deprived child!”

He asked everyone; Roland, the servants, the men-at-arms — and Firebrace, of course.

Firebrace had been vassal to Roland’s father, and his father before that. He had fought side by side with both in many campaigns. The old man had been left to look after Roland whilst his father was away, but he could do nothing to prevent Roland’s uncle from taking over the castle. Dagarth was a lord in his own right. Firebrace was a mere commoner. Firebrace had watched on as the usurper took over the castle as if it didn’t really matter and nothing important was happening. That infuriated Dagarth too, who got even more angry when he interrogated the old man. “Where is it? Where is the treasure?”

“It is not hidden,” Firebrace replied.

“Well, why can’t I find it then?” Dagarth thundered.

“Because you can’t see it,” Firebrace had responded, and Roland had stifled a giggle.

“I know that you idiot! If I could see it I would have found it wouldn’t I! Now tell me where it is so I can see it!”

“You could see it if you had eyes,” Firebrace said. “It is between the earth and the sky.”

“Everything is between the earth and the sky you old fool! You won’t have any eyes if you don’t tell me!”

And Dagarth tugged the end of the old man’s beard. In response Firebrace stared into his eyes with a look that made Dagarth stand back, fearful for a moment and more.

“Throw the old fool in the moat!” Auntie Hildegrind said, spouting the words out around a chicken drumstick clamped between her teeth. “Clap hot irons on him!”

Dogwood and Dagwood, took up the suggestion. “Yes! Clap hot irons on him! Set his beard on fire! We’ll do it! We’ll do it!”

They both ran to the roaring fire, pulled out burning sticks and ran around with them.

“I haven’t finished with you old man!” Dagarth growled in the most sinister of ways. He turned his back on Firebrace and walked back to his throne.

The throne was something that puzzled Roland. Why did Uncle Dagarth need one? Roland’s father had never had one –he had never found it necessary. He sat on the ordinary chairs like everyone else. Now there was a grand throne and the living room had become the throne room, a cold and cheerless place where once there had been warmth and laughter.

After the questioning had failed the demolition had started. men-at-arms had been ordered about with pick axes and shovels, rushing about like a scavenger hunt in full armour. It looked quite silly and Roland had laughed at it. Perhaps that was the final straw that had got him sent to the tower. It had been long coming, according to Auntie Hildegrind, as he was being so stubborn and defiant by not letting his poor cousins have their fair share of the family fortune. “Shame on you!” She had chided, “How selfish can you be? A few months in the Unfinished Tower might help you feel more charitable and giving…”

Roland had had a tough few months. As he continued to stare out from the top of the tower that spring morning he wondered why his father had left him to such a plight. How could his father have done this? Deciding not to dwell upon it, he went back to his room, washed and went to the hall for breakfast and the usual interrogation, with the usual question.

Roland was only allowed out of the tower for meals – and questioning, but on this day Auntie Hildegrind had other plans for him. It was time to commence knightly training – not his, but that of Dogwood and Dagwood. After breakfast-stroke-interrogation he reported to the courtyard where his auntie and cousins were waiting impatiently.

“Where have you been Roland?” Auntie demanded.

“Usual breakfast grill,” Roland replied.

“Well, you should have answered the question truthfully by now, then you wouldn’t have had to keep us waiting,” and she turned to her own sons. “Now boys, you mustn’t tease little Roland, just because you are strong and brave and he is the – almost certainly – illegitimate son of a proven, craven, coward who ran away and left him. Just because he is a little scoundrel who won’t share the fortune that is secreted somewhere in the walls of this castle – and won’t tell us where – it doesn’t mean that you have any right to be nasty to him…”

First Dogwood and Dagwood were to learn swordplay, and were given bright new swords forged by the castle’s blacksmith. Auntie Hildegrind handed them to her sons, and had then turned to Roland. “Now Roland, because you are never going to be any good at swordplay and you might hurt someone,” – and she looked at her own sons – “I am only going to give you a pretend sword,” and she pretended to hand Roland a pretend sword. Roland pretended to take it, and pretended to look at it.

“We must keep health and safety in mind at all times,” Auntie Hildegrind said.

Dogwood and Dagwood also had shiny new suits of armour also specially forged by the blacksmith. They looked very smart too, despite the fact that they clanked every time they moved.

“Roland,” Auntie Hildegrind insisted, “must have some protection. After all, one day he might be willing to tell us where the treasure is,” and she gave him another of her special issue inquiring glares.

An old chain mail tunic had been found for Roland. It was much too large for him, but he was glad of it as it protected him right down to his knees. It also had a few holes which he had had to darn for himself with some wire and a pair of pliers.

“We must make sure that you aren’t tempted to move during the exercises so I am going to tie this belt around your ankles,” Auntie Hildegrind said, making sure that it was nice and tight and that Roland was totally immobile, as if he had been glued to the spot.

“All we need now is a target,” Auntie Hildegrind said. She produced a round piece of cork with concentric rings on it to fix to Roland’s chest. “Now boys,” she said to her sons, “you know what to aim at!”

Dogwood and Dagwood did their best to miss the target and hit Roland instead. They took great pleasure in lunging and thrusting at his chest whilst he did his best to parry with his pretend sword. If they had been any good Roland would probably have been hurt, but even with an immobilised target their attempts to injure him were puny.

After the swordplay they moved on to jousting practice. This consisted of Roland running around with one of the boys on his back. Whichever one it was – Roland was beyond caring which – had a lance and the idea was that Roland carried them up to a target which they were supposed to hit with it. It wasn’t very successful as both of the boys took great pleasure in digging their spurs into his sides, causing him to wobble about.

“It really isn’t fair,” Auntie Hildegrind scolded. “Roland! How are my boys to have proper practise at jousting if you will not run in a straight line?”

After the knightly training was over Auntie Hildegrind left the boys to play by themselves for a while: “You boys play together nicely – and remember don’t tease little Roland, even if he is weaker than you and is never going to be anything noble or glorious or even fit to look after your horses! I am off to consume a pig with a very large plate a truffles followed by several roast chickens…”

After Auntie Hildegrind had waddled off Dogwood and Dagwood turned to Roland.

“So little cousin, why won’t you tell us where the treasure is?” Dogwood demanded.

“I don’t know where it is,” Roland replied, quite honestly.

“Our dad will get it out of you!” Dagwood said. “You’re weak and puny! I bet you fight like a girl – just like your dad! He ran off ‘cos he was too scared to defend the treasure and thought he would be killed for it!”

“It’s not true!” Roland said, “At least my dad isn’t crazy, going around whining and shouting all the time!”

Dogwood became angry and pushed Roland as Dagwood put out his foot to trip him. Roland fell backward into the mud. Dogwood laughed and told Roland, “Your dad wet his pants and ran away, so he could wet his pants another day!”

Dagwood added: “And now his son has wet pants too! Suits them both!” and they both laughed.

From the edge of the courtyard Firebrace watched on, his face growing red with anger.

Back in his room, clothes changed, Roland collapsed on his bed. He was exhausted, depressed and angry, especially about what Dog-poo and Dag-pee had said about his father. He clenched his fists but then tried to relax.

His eyes were tired, just like the rest of him. Maybe that was why he thought he saw the roof beams moving, very slightly, as if the centre of the ceiling was swelling and reaching down towards him. The walls also appeared to be moving. It seemed as if the whole tower was breathing. He thought he heard a voice, soft and faint, calling his name. Then he was aware that someone came into the room. He raised his head slightly to see Firebrace standing a short distance from the end of his bed. The old man’s face wore a fierce scowl. Roland’s first thought was; what have I done now? His second thought didn’t have time to enter his head as Firebrace started shouting: “You are broken and humiliated but you must not let your enemies conquer your pride or your will! This is the time you must be on your guard the most!” and with that he

drew a sword and threw it point first at the pillow beside Roland’s head. Roland quickly rolled off the bed onto the floor in time to avoid it. He looked up to see the sword buried in the pillow. But he didn’t have long to look at it as the old man was rounding the bed, still rattling on about how Roland was broken and humiliated but that this was the time he needed to fight.

“The strength is inside you and must be brought out.” Firebrace yelled, and grabbed the sword from the pillow and started waving it about in a most alarming manner. He thrust it at Roland who was forced to get out of the way – and to keep on getting out of the way as Firebrace followed up with further lunges. Roland leapt up on the bed and off it again on the other side, but the old man simply leapt right over the – very wide – bed in one go and landed rock steady on his feet, within an arm and a sword’s length of Roland. He had the most amazing strength and balance for a man of his age. With a swift sweep of his arm Firebrace tucked the point of the sword right beneath the tip of Roland’s nose. Roland went cross-eyed as he looked down at it.

Jeepers!

As if Roland hadn’t been through enough today already! Now his father’s oldest and most faithful servant had gone berserk and was trying to kill him! He dodged and ducked as Firebrace again thrust the sword at him and then put his hands up trying to plead for an end to it. “Health and safety! Health and safety! We must remember -Health and safety!” – he finished the sentence as he dived under a clothes chest to avoid a particularly close swing that nearly cut his forelock off. Health and safety was plainly not Firebrace’s thing – it just wasn’t his bag at all. He was an excellent fighter and Roland had the suspicion that if he really was trying to kill him he would already be dead. It was still terrifying though. Dog-poo and Dag-pee were quite pitiful compared to Firebrace. They hadn’t been able to hurt him much even when he was tied up like dinner on the spit. The old man had him dodging and ducking in fear for his life.

Roland stuck his head out from under the chest in the vain hope that the coast was clear. It wasn’t. Firebrace was still there, swinging his sword about, waiting for him to come out. The old man quickly lost his patience and shoved the chest away with a mighty kick leaving Roland exposed. Roland thought his time was up but instead the old man took hold of him, not roughly but gently, in a kindly way, and stood him up.

“It is time for you to learn. Your father and I put this off too long so that you might enjoy something of being a child. You must now learn to be a knight! You will make a fine knight!”

He guided Roland to the wall of the chamber where he pulled a tapestry aside and put his hand on a stone in the wall. The stone, and others around it, slid aside to leave a doorway. Roland gasped and looked inside.

“Is this the treasure room?” He asked.

“No,” Firebrace replied firmly, and strode inside. He turned and gestured for Roland to follow.

Roland entered with trepidation. He was now sure that the old man didn’t really want to kill him and hadn’t really been trying. It was just his way to shake him up a bit and put him on alert. It made sense, in a barmy kind of military way, Roland concluded. His heart was still pounding, though, and he was wary that more frightening surprises might lie ahead.

The room was enormous – and preposterous. Preposterous because Roland knew that the wall they had just passed through was an outside wall – they should be walking in air beside the tower now. Instead they were inside a huge chamber. If it was there – if it was always there – shouldn’t it be visible from outside? Roland knew it wasn’t. There was no such room visible from outside. There never had been, not today, not yesterday, not ever. There was no such room at all.

“This is your practice room,” Firebrace said.

The room was lit by torches as there were no windows. It was mostly empty with stone walls hung with tapestries. Yet even if there had been a carnival in progress Roland might well not have noticed. His attention was totally taken by just one thing. Before him, in the middle of the room, was the nastiest, most sinister looking suit of armour he had ever seen in his life. It was dark – very dark indeed. The only light coming from it was the reflection of the torches from the sheen of its metal. The workmanship was beautiful, but despite that it just looked plain nasty – evil, in fact.

As Roland looked at it he realised it was swaying gently, as if it were in a breeze. But there was no breeze. They were inside. The torches did not flicker. Then Roland realised – it was alive! He gasped, “Who is it?”

“Not who, what.” Firebrace replied. “It has no voice. It has no will of its own. It is your practice companion. It will follow your instructions as you practise combat with it. It will match you – test you. Every time you succeed against it, it will judge your performance and move up to a new level.”

“Why does it have to look so awful?” Roland asked.

“It is made in the form of one of our greatest enemies. Our enemies take many forms. Some of them seem foolish, but beware; they are not. Some expose their true colours in their clothing, their weapons, their armour. The worst of our enemies have no need for subterfuge…”

Firebrace clapped his hands and behind the Companion’s visor two eyes, up until now invisible, glowed and glowered. They were a grim, malevolent red. It advanced towards them and stopped just a few paces away. Roland felt a tinge of fear but Firebrace put a comforting hand on his shoulder. The Companion’s arms were by its side and out of its right arm a sword emerged, as if it just flowed out like oozing treacle. The sword hardened and dropped into the metal gauntlet below.

There was a rack of swords to their right. Firebrace took one and handed it to Roland. Roland took it cautiously. The Companion watched intently.

“It awaits your next move,” Firebrace said.

“I have to…?” Roland asked.

“Strike! Attack it!” Firebrace encouraged.

Roland did so. After all, fighting this opponent could be no worse than ducking and diving Firebrace’s sword. As he attempted to strike at it the Companion successfully avoided his attempts to land blows.

“Keep still!” Roland commanded. The Companion obeyed and Roland landed a blow on its chest which caused a dull, hollow clank.

Firebrace laughed. “That is cheating!” He commanded the Companion, “On guard!” and it immediately struck a defensive pose. He lunged towards it, striking out with a ferocious rain of blows. The Companion responded in equal measure and both were quickly involved in the fastest and most furious swordfight Roland could ever have imagined. It lasted a few minutes until Firebrace finally had the better of the Companion. He said to Roland, “Your turn.”

Roland braced himself and then copied what Firebrace had done, lunging at the Companion with a rain of blows. For him the Companion became an easier opponent, as Firebrace had said it would be, but it was still a proper test of skill. Firebrace encouraged him onwards and he fought until his arms finally grew tired. He was amazed at his own strength. He had felt exhausted after the session with Dogwood and Dagwood, but now he was fresh and strong again. Firebrace was right; he had great strength within him. It was only because he was feeling beaten that he had felt tired. Now he felt like he could fight – and win!

Firebrace eventually called an end to the session and congratulated him on his progress. You have already done better than your father in his first session – and he was one of the best! One day you will even be able to defeat me!”

Roland somehow doubted it, but was cheered by the encouragement. But one thing troubled him, of course. He asked. “Will I ever have to fight for real?”

“You are the rightful master of this castle. When the time comes you must take charge of its defence, in the name of your father and his father, and his father before him.”

Roland thought for a moment.

I don’t want to always be giving orders and shouting and upsetting people, like Uncle Dog Breath.”

Firebrace very nearly laughed at the nickname Roland had given his uncle. The old man did have a sense of humour, it seemed. Roland was pleased to see it. The old man said. “All that is really quite unnecessary for a person of true stature. You already have grace and magnanimity. People will do as you say because they respect you and not because they fear you. Those are different things, but some people get them confused!”

Then Roland asked a question he had long thought to ask. “Why didn’t Uncle Dagarth inherit this castle if he is older than my father? Why was he sent away?”

“Let us just say there was something wrong with the boy – something that still shows. You see the way he behaves. A madman cannot be allowed to command this castle. It is more than a castle – more than a kingdom! You will understand. For now you must rest, so you can practise fighting again!

 

Lying in bed Roland was glad that his sinister new friend with the scary eyes – with the scary everything – was on the other side of a wall. He just hoped it didn’t know how to use the door. For a moment he imagined it coming into the room and standing at the end of his bed.

Aaaaarrrrrrrrgh!

He pulled the covers up and over his face to hide, then, after a few moments, pulled them away again. It wasn’t there. He had fought it bravely earlier on but it was still a bit frightening to think of. Why did they have to make a practice opponent so scary? Roland knew the answer – to make it as realistic as possible.

He rolled over onto his side and began to relax. Soon he was lightly asleep. As he dozed he thought he heard a woman sobbing – softly, but distinctly… Was he dreaming, or was it real? He woke and sat up in bed, listening intently. He looked up at the ceiling and again it seemed to bow and bulge. Then, to his horror, it changed completely, as if it broke open and the beams became a pair of arms, with hands, reaching down as if to grab him. He rolled out of bed, just like he had done earlier to avoid Firebrace’s sword. As he did so he thought he heard a woman’s voice – no! His mother’s voice! – call out his name in hushed tones. “Roland!”

Landing on the floor woke him up completely. Just a dream – it must have been, surely…

It really was time he relaxed a bit more – got out a bit. They always say that being in the same room too long makes you strange. Perhaps he had tower fever? It was time for another adventure, with a real person. Tomorrow night, he promised himself, and rolled over and fell asleep again.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Uncle Dagarth had been disappointed – probably ever since childhood – that there was no torture chamber in the castle. “Call this a castle!” he had raged. “There should be wall to wall screaming, night and day, seven days a week, no time off on Sundays, birthdays, Christmas or Bank Holidays!”

He had set about putting this right by ordering new torture equipment from Horrids of Knightsford. It included a gleaming new de-luxe rack with all the optional extras – including automatic and fine control and a height (stretch) measurer in both metric and imperial. There was also a shedload of the very best quality iron maidens – all sizes and shapes to ensure that everyone got a nice snug fit. There were also absolutely tons of manacles, lots of chains, lots of horrible long pointy things and also a long screw thing which nobody understood how to use or dared to ask.

By the time it had all been delivered the castle had been torn apart so there was nowhere suitable for a full-size torture chamber. Instead it had all been dumped out in the courtyard. Uncle Dagarth actually rather liked this al fresco approach to torturing. “Leave it all on open display to terrify everyone,” he had chortled, walking about, admiring it all, relishing every nasty, craftsman designed feature, revelling in the pure wickedness of every item. The awful assortment had been placed at the base of the Unfinished Tower so that it was the first thing Roland saw whenever he came out of it. He knew it was on purpose.

As he sneaked out of the tower the next night the iron maidens looked like eerie spectators to his night-time escapade. They had never really worried him before but after being chased around by Firebrace and battling with his new found friend he really wasn’t bothered by them at all.

He was not supposed to leave the castle on pain of very nasty things being done to him and to anyone who let him, but as the men-at arms were hardly the brightest it wasn’t a problem. Roland usually had little trouble getting past them.

Tonight, as always in times of peace, the castle drawbridge was down. It was left that way even at night so that wayfarers might ask for shelter within the castle. Because Uncle Dagarth had now demolished large sections of the walls it hardly mattered anyway. Roland could simply have walked through the walls and swum the moat but it was much more fun to wind the guards up a bit and trick his way out.

Just two guards stood duty on the gate. Other sentries were posted on the walls but they looked out onto the surrounding country and not down on to the drawbridge.

The guards on gate duty were the special-issue idiots Bobblejob and Jubblebub, who, it was commonly joked, shared half a brain between them. They were usually given night duty as daylight tended to confuse them. The only person Roland really had to look out for was Serjeant Jankers. Roland knew that the Serjeant actually had a brain and wasn’t going to be tricked like the rest could be. He checked that the Serjeant wasn’t about, then took a deep breath and broke into a run, calling out “Quick! Quick! A giant man-eating quirrirrinx has landed on the castle! Flee for you lives!”

Bobblejob and Jubblebub panicked and ran into each other, bouncing back and falling onto their bums. Roland struggled not to laugh as he had to keep up the appearance of being terrified.

“Run!” he yelled, “Flee!”

The two chuckleheads picked themselves up then ran through the gate, out across the drawbridge and dived into the moat with two very loud splashes. After that there was nothing except for two streams of bubbles breaking the surface. They had jumped into the moat in chain mail armour and weren’t going to be floating or swimming to the surface anytime soon. At first Roland was horrified at what he had caused, then he thought quickly, grabbed a ladder and a torch from the gatehouse and rushed out on the drawbridge with them. He thrust the ladder down into the moat where the bubbles were coming up from and held the torch over them so the pair could see their way up. They both clambered up the ladder and flopped down on the planks, struggling and panting for breath.

“The quiri-thingey wotsit! Where is it?” Bobblejob gasped, looking around anxiously.

“Err.. that’s gone now,” Roland said, suddenly feeling very guilty.

“Thank goodness! We did exactly the right thing,” Bobblejob said, turning to Jubblebub.

“Exactly the right thing!” Jubblebub repeated.

“What did I always tell you?” said Bobblejob. “First sign of trouble – jump in the moat and then they can’t get you!”

“Right! Lesson learnt!” said Jubblebub.

They were still gasping for breath and too helpless to do anything else.

“I’ll just go and have a look around to make sure the quirrininx has actually gone,” Roland said, wishing to make a swift exit.

“Good idea,” said Bobblejob. “Just make sure it has actually gone.”

“Yes, please make sure its gone.” agreed Jubblebub.

“Okay,” said Roland. “Be back later then…”

“Okay.” said the idiot pair, waving at him as he went.

As soon as he was out of sight of the guards Roland broke into a run. He was excited at the prospect of a night’s adventure with his best friend and didn’t want to waste any time at all. He ran along the road into the village, down the main street and into a side street. Here the timbered houses leaned out towards each other so that the upper storeys almost touched over the centre of the road. He picked up a small loose cobble and threw it up at one of the shuttered windows above his head. It made a loud bang and fell down into the street. He picked it up and threw it again, this time making an even louder bang. He was about to do it a third time when Oliver stuck his head out of the window. On seeing Roland he waved and went to dress.

Oliver’s family were of the class that Roland’s father called “the best of men” and that his uncle called “loathsome peasants,” but to Roland Oliver was simply his friend. Oliver’s mother had originally come from Africa – a story in itself – and he had inherited her dark skin and black curly hair.

They had met one day when Roland had been out for a walk. He had to walk as his father and Firebrace wouldn’t allow him to learn to ride. Later his auntie and uncle also forbade it. Roland was annoyed by the fact that he was nine and a half – as he had been then – and was not allowed on a horse because of the “danger.” What danger? he thought. The danger I might ride out and see something of the world, find something out about it, perhaps? It was health and safety, as always…

As he had walked he had spotted a horse – without a rider but with full tack – on the path in front of him. He looked around but could see no one whose presence would explain it. It looked like his chance had come. Dare he actually ride a horse? Dare he ride someone else’s horse without their say-so?

He thought he would risk it. He approached it gently, put his foot in the left stirrup and swung himself up. He had seen adults do it and the motion came easily to him. He grasped the reins and was about to nudge the horse forwards with his knees – as he had seen adults do – when he heard a noise from down in the deep ditch beside the path.

He looked down to see a face staring up at him.

“What are you doing on my horse?” the face said.

Roland couldn’t think of anything that would explain the situation apart from ‘stealing it’, which he didn’t want to admit to. Instead he posed a counter question. “What are you doing down there?”

“Trying to get out,” said the face, now sounding annoyed.

“Why did you get down there in the first place?” Roland asked.

“Well I didn’t do it on purpose did I! I fell in! I tried to ride the horse and it threw me off and I landed down here. Now I suppose you are going to leave me down here and

steal my horse…”

Roland did not need to think about it. The choice between stealing someone’s horse or helping them was a natural one to him. He leapt down and offered his hand to help. A hand that belonged to the face appeared from the muddy slime and Roland pulled the face, and the rest of its owner, out.

“Thank you,” said the face, which Roland could now see belonged to a boy about his own age.

“I am Roland,” Roland said.

“Oliver. Again, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Roland said. “Are you from around this area?”

“I live in the village.”

“I live up there.” Roland said, and he pointed at the castle.

“Ah,” said Oliver, “Are you a kitchen boy? You don’t seem to be dressed like one – they must pay well up there!”

“Sometimes I wish I was – they have more freedom than I do.”

“What do you do then?”

“Not a lot. Learn stuff, get beaten up by my rotten cousins. My dad went away on a quest – he’s a knight.”

“Crikey!” Oliver said. “You’re the lord of manors son!” and he bowed. “I am sorry sire, I didn’t realise. I didn’t think that someone like you would rescue a humble villager like me… Thank you my lord…”

“Oh cut it out!” Roland said. “I hate all that stuff.”

“Seriously?” Oliver asked.

“Call me Roland. Call me sire again and I’ll scrag you!”

“Alright, sire,” Oliver said jokingly.

Roland playfully put his arm around Oliver’s neck and wrestled him to ground.

“Okay! Okay! I give in!” said Oliver, laughing. “You’re Roland! Never sire again! I promise!”

“I should think so too. Now, what about your horse?” Roland asked.

Well, its not mine actually – it’s my dad’s. I’m not very good at riding it – that’s why I fell off.”

“May I have a go?”

“Feel free. You pulled me out of the ditch. It’s the least I can do.”

Roland felt a burst of excitement as he remounted. He gripped the reins and gave the horse a nudge with his knees. It started quickly, so much so that he was almost thrown backwards, but he got his balance and took it for a short canter down the path and back again.

“You’re a natural!” Oliver said. “Wish I was. I’ve just been trying to balance on it for a month of Sundays and can’t even do that without getting queasy.”

“There’s nothing to it,” said Roland.

“Says you! It’s easy when you can!”

Roland dismounted and Oliver tried again with his help, holding on to the reins and leading. Roland could see that Oliver was definitely not a natural, and was not even comfortable on a horse. Yet there was hope, and Oliver clearly had the determination to improve.

“Practise,” said Roland. “Practise! You will get it.”

“Thanks for the encouragement, but I’m not so sure…”

“Nonsense!”

“Next time I’ll bring two horses, then we can both ride together – or you can ride and I can try!”

“Next time? Sounds good! When?”

“Tomorrow. Same time?”

The arrangement was made, and then for the day after, and for those following. Slowly Oliver got better at riding – not a great deal, but somewhat – and during the course of it the boys became friends. Tonight would just be the latest of many days and nights that they had spent together, riding the district, looking for adventure along the narrow winding lanes, in the woods and fields.

Oliver quickly dressed and squeezed out of the window, dropping onto the cobbles.

“So what’s up?” he asked.

“Same old, same old,” Roland said. “Uncle Dagarth is off his trolley, as usual, the twins are their normal dreadfulness, Auntie dearest is on my case as ever… Oh, and an entirely new development; Firebrace tried to kill me…”

Oliver gaped at that last one. “He what?”

“Tried to kill me. Threw a sword at me, waved it at me and other generally unsafe sorts of behaviour.”

“I always thought he was one of the more balanced people up there – quite stable in fact. Wouldn’t expect him to go off his rocker…”

“Uncle is enough to push anyone to their breaking point… I also have a new friend. He tried to kill me too. You can play with him if you like!”

“Oh thanks!”

“He is my training partner – Firebrace says if I am to become a knight I have to practise with him. Apparently I already have magna –something or another…”

“Magna Carta?”

“No, whoever she is. Anyway,” said Roland, “time is pressing on. To the Scary Oak?”

“To the Scary Oak!” Oliver agreed, and they slapped their right-hand palms together in a high five above their heads.

It was riding that had brought them together and they never lost an opportunity for it. Oliver was still nervous about mounting, but once seated could now keep up a fairly good trot. They fetched two horses from the stable owned by Oliver’s father and rode through the streets of the town. On the ridge, in the distance, the “Scary Oak “awaited them, its silhouetted, tangled twigs reaching up like so many fingers clutching at the starlit sky, as if clutching at life itself. It was a beautiful cloudless night lit only by the crystal brilliance of starlight. The boys felt the thrill of darkness and its trove of secret, wild adventures.

They rode across the meadows and through the woods and orchards, splashing through streams and negotiating hedgerows. They rode up to a scarecrow and grasped his hands, spinning him around and then rode on as he woke for a few moments – “What! What! Must have been a hurricane!” said his turnip head, and fell asleep again.

All the time the Scary Oak grew larger as they grew closer, a dark spidery shape standing out against the starlit night sky. Scary indeed!

Suddenly both boys came to a halt. They could now see that on top of the hill, near to the oak, a fire was burning. Occasionally the fire was eclipsed by what looked like figures walking around it. This needed to be investigated. Strangers at their favourite place! They rode closer, dismounted and tied their horses. They made their way on foot up the hill, quietly, taking care to remain concealed, keeping an eye on the strangers at the fire.

As they got closer they could see that there were two of them, one tall and very thin, the other short and fat. In an odd kind of way they complimented each other. They were pacing, arguing, laughing, throwing up their hands and generally behaving in several extraordinary ways all at once. As the boys reached the tree they saw another figure, sitting silently, ignoring the two men. It was a young girl, about their own age.

The tree had a secret that few knew – and the boys thought that only they knew it. It was hollow inside with a narrow entrance hidden by bushes. It was possible to climb up inside it and look down from high up. This is what the boys did, taking care not to be seen. From up there they could hear what the two men were saying.

“Get me my telescope!” The tall one demanded.

“Get it yourself!” The short fat one responded.

You are my servant and I am your master!” the tall one said.

“Oh really! Mr hoittey toittey pudding and rhyme!” the short one replied, in a sing-song voice. He stuck out his tongue at the tall one and let out a mad sounding cackle.

“I’ll get it myself!” The tall one said, striding towards some packs lying on the ground.

“Oh no you won’t!” the short one said. He ran toward the packs himself, overtaking the tall one and plucked a telescope out of one of the packs before the tall one could get there. The tall one threw himself on the short one and they both tumbled over, sending the telescope flying. The short one got up first and grabbed up the telescope again. The tall one tried to grab it but the short one turned his back and held it out in front of him, out of the tall one’s reach.

“You can’t get it! You wont get it!” cried the short one.

“Won’t I!” cried the tall one.

The tall one got the short one in a sort of bear hug, struggling to reach the telescope, but the short one then succeeded in breaking loose and ran towards the tree. The boys’ hearts raced as they were afraid of being discovered but the two maniacs were far too intent on their battle with each other. The short fat one climbed the branches whilst the tall one tried to grab at his legs, but had to give that up as the short one climbed out of his reach. Instead the tall one started shouting again: “Come down here at once! I order you as your lord and master! Come down here at once or I’ll pluck your eyes out!”

“Pluck my eyes out and put them in a pail

Steal the milk and go to gaol!” the short fat one sang.

He had clearly won the battle for the telescope as the tall one was obviously not going to lower himself by climbing up the tree. On seeing that his opponent had given up the short fat one said, “You can have the blasted thing then! See if I care!”

He threw the telescope down and let out another mad cackle. The tall one caught the instrument and inspected it for damage.

The two boys looked on amazed at seeing two grown men behave in such a way.

“They’re loonies!” Oliver said under his breath.

But Roland remembered Firebrace’s caution about people who seemed crazy – could these be the enemies he was talking about? There was something unnerving in their mania, as if their chaos would spread from them to everywhere.

All the time the young girl sat still and quiet.

The tall man strode some distance away and put the telescope to one eye, scanning the surrounding area. “I can’t see much in the dark.”

The short fat one leapt from the tree and ran up beside him.

“Told you!” The short fat one yelled.

“You did not!” The tall one shouted back, and the short one sing-songed back to him. “Did so! Told you! Warned you! Warned you what would happen but cloth ears wouldn’t listen and now he’s got a moddled cap, all of his own!”

You fool!” The tall one yelled, striking the short fat one around the back of his head. The short fat one didn’t seem to notice this. He sang in his sing-song voice once more…

“Fool’s a fool who tells a fool

Twice a fool who knows one!”

“Gibberish!”

“Jubberish!”

“Rubbish”

“Ribbish!”

And they started to fight again, wrestling each other to the ground and rolling over and over, the tall one yelling “I am your sovereign lord, you will do me obeisance,” whilst the short fat one continued with his cackling.

Roland and Oliver decided they had seen enough. With the bizarre pair distracted in their own battle it seemed like a good time to sneak off before they were discovered. They climbed down the tree but as they reached the bottom they came to an abrupt halt. The girl who had been sitting at the fire was now standing right by the trunk, staring at them. The boys froze, terrified that she would give the alarm, but instead she just stood still, staring. After a few very long seconds she spoke, in a whisper, so that the men could not hear her. “Be careful! They are much more dangerous than they seem!” and nodded toward the maniacs who were still engrossed in their fight with each other.

Roland and Oliver were stunned. Then they both felt the healthy impulse to run. They fled into the bushes and then ran and tumbled down the hill until they reached the horses. Both spurred their horses into a gallop, Oliver clinging on for dear life. They crossed the meadow at the speed of lightning and not even the scarecrow, lost in his dreams, registered their passing. They did not stop until they were safe back on the edge of the village.

They dismounted and got their breath back. Having calmed down for a minute or two they both started laughing, fulsomely and loudly, as if the funniest thing of their lives had just happened to them. They released all the anxiety of the previous minutes.

Oliver spoke first, “Well, we went for an adventure – the Scary Oak! It was scary this time!”

“Yip!” Roland agreed.

“Who were those maniacs?” Oliver asked.

“I don’t know but I hope I never find out. Now I have to get back to another lot. Such is life!”

“Well, if you need rescuing – I will have to come and rescue you. Like a damsel in distress, in her tower!”

“Knock it off!” Roland said, feigning a swipe at Oliver, then he said, seriously, “I would be grateful if you would come, when I need you. Strange things are about to happen, I think.”

Both went in their different directions to their homes. Roland had to trick his way past the twin twits again. What a trial!

Chapter 3

 

The next day Roland found himself the object of knightly practice, again. His aunt looked on proudly as her boys took out all their nasty and beastly tendencies on him.

“Boys, play gently,” she said, “I have to go off now as I’ve a hogshead of anchovies, a spit crammed with quail and a great swan pie awaiting me…”

But Auntie did not have time to retire to her repast; at that moment the castle’s lookouts blew their trumpets and cried “Strangers!”

The men-at-arms doubled to their posts and Roland and his cousins ran up to the battlements to see who was coming along the way. From the moment he set eyes upon the strangers Roland was horrified. It was the two madmen he and Oliver had seen at the Scary Oak just last night – and they were heading right for the castle! Both were on horseback and the girl was walking behind them. She looked tired and sad.

The Herald appeared on the battlements with his horn and blew the notes signifying that those approaching the castle had been identified as gentlefolk.

In the courtyard Auntie Hildegrind was frantically trying to organise everyone and everything to look at least a bit respectable. It was not easy, with chunks of masonry and half demolished buildings in most places, as well as assorted torture instruments scattered about. Still, she satisfied herself that she had done some sort of a job by the time that the two maniacs came riding through the castle gate to the sound of more notes from the Herald’s trumpet.

Uncle Dagarth, Auntie Hildegrind, Dogwood and Dagwood assembled themselves as a welcoming party with Roland tacked on the end like an afterthought. The two men dismounted and approached. The girl stayed by the horses. Only Roland, still grateful for not being given away the night before, paid her any attention whatsoever.

Auntie Hildegrind was the first to speak: “welcome to our h-h-h-h – errr castle.” she said, choking on the word “humble”. Then she couldn’t wait for the formal introductions before making excuses for the state of the place. “Sorry for the mess, but we are having some work done.”

“It’s usually the plumbing with these old places isn’t it?” the tall one said, making light of it. Auntie seemed relieved.

“I am Lord Brill-a-Brag,” the tall one continued, and then gestured towards the short fat one, “and this is Gloatenglorp, my seneschal.”

“Bless you!” Gloatenglorp said, and he saluted, clicked his heels together and did a little dance, then bowed.

“I’m the Lord Dagarth, and this is my Lady Hildegrind and my fine sons, Dogwood and Dagwood,” said Uncle Dagarth, ignoring Roland like a bad smell.

Bril-a-Brag approached and said, “My most dehumblegraded ingratiationments and flattertudes to you, my Lord,” and bowed deeply.

“And to your lumpish woman,” Gloatenglorp added.

“Whaaaaaaaat!” cried Auntie Hildegrind.

Bril-a-Brag continued. “We are pilgrims, on the way to Caunterbury, the holy blissful martyr for to seek. We come in peace and – ahhhhhh!” – his eye had suddenly been caught by Dagarth’s rack – “Is that a Mk V Superstretch I see? With all the optional extras including fine control and the stretch-a-matic feature?”

“You know your tortureware!” said Dagarth admiringly, his eyes brightening at the recognition of a kindred spirit.

“Oh yes indeed!” said Bril-a-Brag. “We’ve had simply hours of fun with our Mark IV. Before that we had a Stretchmaster, but I think it lacks the finesse of the Superstretch, don’t you?”

“Oh absolutely! Yes!” agreed Dagarth, “With fine control you can stretch out a good stretch to last much longer – and stretch them much taller all at the same time! We’ll be turning dwarves into giants yet – slowly but surely!”

“They should make that their slogan!” Bril-a-Brag said, and they both laughed.

Then Dagarth tested Bril-a-Brag. “Thumbscrews: iron or wood?”

“Oh, wood! Always!” Bril-a-Brag said. “The iron ones twist and bend and give up just when you get to the good bit!”

“Yes!” cried Dagarth, “Exactly!”

“Have you seen the latest range from Horrids?” Bril-a-Brag asked, and he pulled a well thumbed catalogue from his pocket and pointed to a page. “The blocks are oak and beautifully polished with walnut screws for that extra resilience. See how exquisitely the polish brings out the contrast of the woods?”

“Wonderful!” Dagarth exclaimed. “We really must sit down and have a good old natter about all of this! Meanwhile, welcome to our castle! I would like to say ‘our torture chamber is your torture chamber,’ but sadly we don’t have one just at the moment….”

“Ah! The plumbing!”

“Precisely! Anyway, come in and have a drink – why not a banquet! And of course, bring your seneschal!”

“Bless you!” Said Gloatenglorp, and again saluted, clicked his heels and did a little dance, followed by a bow.

Uncle Dagarth put his arm around Bril-a-Brag as if he were an old friend and guided him into what was left of the castle keep. Auntie, the twins and Gloatenglorp followed on behind. Only Roland was left in the courtyard – and the girl. They looked at each other, then Roland went up and spoke to her. “Thank you for not giving us away last night.”

“That’s alright,” she said. “I hate them.”

“Anyone who can get on with my uncle so quickly must be a bit dodgy…,” Roland agreed.

“I am supposed to be Brill-a-Brag’s ward, but he treats me like a slave.”

“I’m not exactly on top around here,” Roland said, then thought to introduce himself. “My name is Roland.”

“I’m Savitri.”

“Nice name.”

“It is Indian, where my family came from, originally. But they were killed in the war.”

“My mother is dead. My father gone on some quest or other. Would you like to come in?”

“I’d rather stay outside and keep away from them for a bit.”

“You can come to my room. It’s in a different building – that one by all the torture gear.”

Savitri’s upper lip curled in disgust at the sight of Dagarth’s collection.

“Its not so grim inside – don’t worry!” he reassured her.

Savitri followed him up the stairs to his room where she sat in a chair. Roland tried to think of something sensible to say but as he struggled with that she began to cry. “I’m so miserable,” she said, “I am fed up with being trailed around the place whilst they look for adventures and treasure…”

“Well, I’m sure it can’t be all that bad…” Roland said, trying to comfort her, knowing at once it was a stupid thing to say. He couldn’t think of anything but stupid things to say. He wanted to be kind but could only think of ways to make a fool of himself. Why does that always happen? He thought. Then he had an idea. Perhaps a display of swordplay would make her feel better? A bit of harmless excitement never hurt anyone, surely? He asked, “Can you keep a secret?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I trust you because you didn’t give us away last night,” Roland said. He pulled back the tapestry and opened the door that led to the practice room. He went inside and beckoned for her to follow. She did so.

The moment she entered she gasped, her eyes fixed on the Companion. She was plainly terrified of it. Things had gone from bad to worse – it was supposed to be cheering her up. Roland wondered if he could do anything right.

Savitri recovered slightly. She scanned the room and saw the rack of swords. She ran to it and quickly picked one out. The sword she chose was the finest one, Roland noted. The choice was not by accident either, even though she had made it speedily. She brandished the sword aggressively at the Companion.

“Its okay,” Roland said, briskly walking over to the Companion to show it was friendly. “It’s only a practice one – it isn’t a real one – whatever a real one is…”

“We call them the Spirus! They killed my family!” Savitri said.

“Well, it isn’t one of those – not really, just a practice companion made to look like one.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure.”

Savitri didn’t seem entirely convinced – at least she didn’t lower her sword.

“It obeys my commands,” Roland said. He told the Companion. “Raise your hand.”

The Companion did so. “Stand on one leg!” it did so. “Hop about a bit!” it hopped about a bit, and for a moment looked silly rather than scary.

Savitri laughed with relief. “It isn’t one – unless you are very good at training them!”

“I have never met a real one,” Roland said.

“You don’t want to,” Savitri said, and shuddered. “Not ever. Not even one, and certainly not an army.”

“Are there armies of them?”

Savitri nodded but said no more. Plainly it was not a subject she enjoyed talking about.

“As I say,” Roland said, “this is only a practice companion. You can use a sword?” he asked, having noted already how skilfully she was holding it.

“Oh yes! I warn you! I fight like a girl!”

“Right! Well, Let’s see what you can do…”

He turned to the Companion and instructed it. “Fight my friend here – on guard!”

And as soon as he spoke Savitri stormed in and landed a torrent of blows on the Companion. It immediately adjusted to her skill level and both became embroiled in a furious sword fight. Savitri was filled with rage and the Companion bore the brunt of it, its armour clanging loudly and often. She did not stop even when she was plainly exhausted and eventually Roland called a halt to it.

“Why did you stop me?” She demanded.

“You’re denting my companion!” he protested, with a smile.

“Sorry – I forgot it’s yours and not a real one.”

“No probs. I just want a chance to dent it myself once in a while!” and he grabbed a sword from the rack and challenged “On guard!”

He was well aware, as he fought, that he had a way to go before reaching Savitri’s standard – and he certainly lacked her rage.

“You did well,” she said when he finally lowered his sword, but he knew she was being generous and that she realised he was an inferior fighter to her. They took turns to practise and Savitri gave Roland some pointers.

Finally they had had enough and realised they had no idea of the time. Roland thought it was probably about time to find out what his uncle and his guests were planning. He had every faith that his uncle could quickly entangle them in some dastardly plot.

He went to the door but as it began to open he heard his uncle’s voice. Dagarth was in Roland’s bedroom – and so were Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp. Roland halted but listened to what was said from behind the tapestry.

Dagarth said, “Where has the little brat gone now? Like I say, I would have got the truth out of him by now but for fear of what his father would do to me if he ever returns. You, on the other hand…”

“It will be my pleasure to abduct the boy and extract the facts from him by the most enjoyable of means! No extra charge – we will still spilt the treasure fifty-fifty as we agreed at dinner however I help you find it!”

“Agreed! Now, where is he? We’ve looked everywhere for the treasure, don’t say we are going to have to start looking for him too.” and Dagarth looked under the bed.

“Are you sure you have looked everywhere for the treasure? Everywhere? Eliminated every possibility?” Bril-a-Brag inquired. “Don’t worry, we can still torture the boy after we find it, just for fun! What about this tower? It doesn’t seem to have had any walls ripped out…”

Dagarth protested, “But it is so small and old and insignificant. I never thought it could conceal anything of value. There is no sign of anything being added after it was built…”

“But you have looked everywhere else…” Bril-a-Brag pointed out.

And Gloatenglorp danced and sang:

“Take away what isn’t true,

Then it will be plain to you.

Whatever is still in your sight,

Must be left and must be right!”

“If this tower is the only place you haven’t looked then it must be here!” Bril-a-Brag pronounced. “We must search it!”

Roland’s heart pounded, but then Dagarth objected, “The best thing is simply to demolish it. It has no use. It is too late now but first thing tomorrow we will make a start. .”

“Good idea,” Bril-a-Brag said. “First thing tomorrow!”

Dagarth said, “I am afraid the guest rooms are in a bit of a mess at the moment… Why don’t you sleep here? It isn’t much but you will be able to wait for that little scoundrel in case he returns!”

“We are used to far worse!” Bril-a-Brag said, hanging up his cloak.

“Well goodnight then – and an early start!” Dagarth said.

And Gloatenglorp danced and sang:

“Get ahead and not a tail.

Out of bed and never fail!”

“What’s happening?” Savitri asked Roland.

“Looks like we are stuck here for the night – unless you wish me to be tortured.”

Savitri shook her head.

“Your masters are in my room,” Roland explained.

“They are not my masters!” and Savitri swung her sword in anger. “I will kill them now – now I have a sword!”

Roland moved to block her. “We are not killing anyone unless we have to. It will make a mess of the carpet and it is very – unknightly. We must give them a chance to capitulate and promise to mend their ways, then if they don’t…”

“We slice them into as many pieces as we can!” Savitri said, slashing about with the sword.

“Well, let’s slice, err, cross, that bridge when we come to it. There is something happening tomorrow I want to see, maybe stop it if I can. For now we’ll make ourselves comfy in here, although the fixtures and fittings might not be very relaxing….”

Savitri grabbed a tapestry off the wall and flung it over the Companion.

“How’s that?”

“A big improvement – remarkable! I didn’t know it could be improved so much.

Now let’s get some more tapestries down and make some beds. Before those two are awake I plan to sneak out and hide so we can watch the proceedings. Will you join me?”

Savitri nodded.

For a while they bedded down and dozed until they were as certain as they could be that Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp were asleep. They then they pushed aside the tapestry and entered Roland’s bedchamber. Fearing to light a candle in case it woke the two men, Roland led Savitri to the other door in the dark. They picked their way quietly, feeling in front of them with fingers and toes at every step so as not to trip over some obstacle. Savitri had grudgingly agreed to leave the sword behind in case it made a noise. Passing the end of the bed they could hear the sounds of snoring and someone turning restlessly. They held their breath for fear that even the sound of that might give them away. They did not breath again until they were near the door. At that point, however, Roland came to a dead standstill. He could feel someone else’s breath on his face. There was someone right in front of him. He stood still, petrified, until Savitri whispered. “What is it?”

“Someone’s right in front of us!” Roland whispered, wondering why the someone didn’t speak or give the alarm. Savitri had a tinder box and she lit it, giving a small and brief light. Roland saw that right in front of him was Gloatenglorp’s face, but upside down. Roland looked upwards to see that he was hanging from the inside of the door by his feet. He was fast asleep.

“He always sleeps hanging upside down,” Savitri whispered.

“It was meant to be trap,” Roland whispered back, “for me, coming in.”

Carefully he reached out for the handle of the door and pulled it, swinging it back as gently as possible and without breathing so as not to disturb the sleeper. At one point Gloatenglorp gave a grunt and huffed. Roland stopped moving the door and stopped breathing all over again, but it turned out Gloatenglorp was only dreaming. Roland got the door open wide enough for himself and Savitri to squeeze through, then gently – as gently as possible and without breathing at all – shut it again.

They passed down the stairway without incident and out into the moonlight.

With all the rubble and torture equipment there was plenty of stuff to hide behind but few places where they would not be seen by the sentries up on what was left of the walls. The best place was underneath the Mark V Superstretch – they just had to hope that Bril-a-Brag didn’t have a renewed bout of appreciation and want to look at the underside.

Uncle Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp were up at the very crack of dawn,

all three of them supervising men-at-arms and servants, giving orders three to the dozen so that nobody really knew what they were meant to be doing. Even if they did manage to do what they were meant to be doing they were then told by someone else to undo do it and then told to do it all over again. All activity was focused around the Unfinished Tower, of course. Scaffolding went up and then it came down. It went up again and this time it fell down. They then decided that there was no need for scaffolding as they would attack the tower at the very base – “If that fails, we will try undermining – a fine technique of siege craft,” Uncle Dagarth said.

And suitably sneaky, Roland thought, but did not say it.

The scaffolding was rebuilt as a grandstand so that Uncle Dagarth, Auntie Hildegrind and the visitors could sit and watch as events unfolded. Dogwood and Dagwood were now thoroughly bored with the whole affair so they played at sword fighting in the space beneath the grandstand.

It was nearly noon before anyone was actually ready to do anything to the tower itself. Roland and Savitri were already wondering if they were going to starve to death before anything happened. It didn’t help that there was plenty of food in front of them, but out of reach. A banquet had been served for Dagarth and his family and guests. There was only bread and ale for the men-at-arms and the servants, of course, but then they were only doing all the work.

The men-at-arms were doing much grumbling at being made to do physical labour, which they thought to be beneath them. They started to hit the base of the tower with hammers but weren’t very full-blooded about it. It was as if they expected masonry to come down on their heads and didn’t trust their flimsy tin helmets to protect them. They had learnt a thing or three – or even more – from the previous mishaps when taking the castle apart. Blowitt, the castle handyman, mocked them heartily. “You won’t get nowhere like that! We’ll be here ‘til Candlemas year after next! Here, I’ll show you!” And he grabbed up the hammer and gave the tower a mighty clout right at its base. There was a slight shudder in the ground as the blow struck, then a tremble afterwards, like a murmur of irritation. Surely the blow could not have been so severe as to cause an earthquake? He struck the tower again. There was a bigger shudder. Blowitt sensed that something was wrong, that he was displeasing someone or something that he oughtn’t.

“I don’t like this! I don’t like this at all! Some things was meant to stand a lifetime and more! What was meant to stand is meant to stand and no man’s meant to un-stand it.” and he threw down the hammer.

Uncle Dagarth had a fit of rage. He leapt out of his seat and ran down to the base of the tower. “By the stars I’ll do it myself!” he yelled, and picked up the hammer. He swung it around his head and landed the most powerful clout that any tower could ever have received. This time there most definitely was a reaction. The ground shook and the skies darkened. A most peculiar, dark cloud was gathering over the tower. It was circular with a hole in the middle, like a doughnut, as if it were surrounding something.

Uncle Dagarth paused for a second and looked up, then determination gripped him. He struck again. This time there was a deep and aggressive rumble of thunder. Uncle Dagarth stood back, his face creased with anger. He raised up the hammer to strike yet again. Then a bolt of lightning hit the head of the hammer causing it to explode. Dagarth was thrown backwards onto his bottom. What happened next was talked of in the locality for generations. The tower seemed to spin and buck, twisting and turning like a colt trying to break free from a harness. More lighting bolts were flung from the cloud right above it whilst thunder sounded. One of the lighting bolts blasted the grandstand to bits causing the spectators to be thrown out onto the cobbles. They hastily picked themselves up as more bolts of lighting landed at their feet. The bolts were very well targeted to terrify them into fleeing for their lives and that was what they did. Dagarth was still unsteady on his feet after being thrown backwards and as he ran across the cobbles he tripped and went sprawling. The impatient cloud zapped his bottom causing a shower of pretty sparks to fly up. He was encouraged to pick himself up and move even faster to the exit, pushing the men-at-arms out of the way as he went, yelling “Open the gates! For goodness sake! Let me out!” The guards at the gates hurriedly opened them and then fled themselves. The cloud chased them all off the premises like an angry dog.

With the cloud and its quarry gone Roland and Savitri emerged from their hiding place. The area looked like a battlefield. The wreck of the grandstand and the places where the lightning bolts had blasted the earth blended in with the ransacked castle. Despite the devastation Savitri laughed and danced. “Whoo-hoo! You know how to throw a party don’t you! That was good! Let’s do it again tomorrow!” and she danced around and laughed even more. “Hurrah! They’re gone! They re gone!

Roland laughed too but then he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned his head to see Firebrace.

“That was very stupid of them, wasn’t it?” Firebrace said. “A little bit of rejoicing! Good! That is right! We are rid of them for now, but they will return.” and he sighed and said “Fear is an instant and fleeting thing. Now they have seen the power of the tower that knowledge will overcome their fear and draw them back. We must be ready for them! They must not be allowed to take control again!”

“What can we do?” Roland said.

“We must gather our resources! We must make plans to defend this castle.”

“I think the tower can look after itself!” Savitri said, looking at it in admiration.

“Up to a point,” Firebrace said, “against a small party, taking them by surprise. But to defend the whole castle from an army, we must do more.”

“But the castle is in ruins,” Roland protested, “all the men-at-arms have fled.”

“And good riddance too!” Firebrace replied. “Ah! I think we have a compatriot coming to join our cause already!”

Firebrace indicated Oliver, who was running through the castle gate toward them. He ran up breathlessly. “What happened? We saw the whole kerfuffle from down below! Your uncle ran through the village with his bum on fire and everyone else chasing after him – is it a new sport?”

“They have just experienced the power of the tower,” Roland told him.

“The power of the tower eh? They say that the most powerful magic rhymes.”

“We need to make sure they don’t come back. We are going to defend the castle against them.”

“Sounds like fun. What do you want me to do?”

Roland said, “Could you have a look around to see who’s left – and try to work out whose side they are going to be on?”

“Alright,” and Oliver went off to see to it.

At that moment the debris that had been the grandstand seethed and erupted. A small, battered helmet poked out of the middle of it, followed by another. Both were covered in dust and muck. Crying and wailing was coming from inside both. Roland and Savitri climbed onto the debris and looked down on them.

“Who are these jellyfish?” Savitri demanded to know.

“I think they are my evil cousins, Dogwood and Dagwood.”

“They seem too flimsy even to be mildly irritating,” Savitri said. She had picked up a sword discarded in the panic and she bashed the top of the first helmet with it. The contents began to wail even louder. “Be quiet boy!” she scolded. She lifted the visor of the helmet with the tip of her sword and Roland saw that Dogwood was inside. Dogwood wailed even louder than before. Roland lifted the visor on the other helmet and confirmed it was Dagwood.

“They said I fight like a girl,” he said.

“And I bet it wasn’t a compliment either!” Savitri said. “Wait ‘til we get you out! I’ll show you what a girl really fights like!” and they both began to wail in terror.

“I think we ought to be gentle with them – they have been through a traumatic experience,” Roland said, magnanimously.

“Traumatic?! Not compared to what I will do to them!”

We must dig them out first,” Roland said, hoping that Savitri might have calmed down a bit by the time they had done that.

After Dogwood and Dagwood had been dug out it occurred to Roland to ask “What are we going to do with them?” He asked Firebrace. “Can we trust them?”

“You must make the decision yourself, Roland.” Firebrace replied. “They are your kinfolk, after all.”

“They are not mine,” Savitri said, but Roland gave her a look that indicated that he was making the decisions.

“Will you promise not to betray us?” He asked his cousins.

They both looked at Savitri, who was still brandishing her sword.

“Yes! Yes! Please! Just don’t let her near us!” they begged.

“I think we ought to put them under guard, just to be on the safe side,” Roland said, looking at Savitri and considering that it was more for their own protection than anything else.

At that moment Oliver returned and said “I only found these two in the gatehouse. They were asleep.”

Roland and Firebrace saw that Bobblejob and Jubblebub were behind him.

“Oh great!” Firebrace said in an exasperated tone.

Both the twins were wearing eye shades to prevent the confusing sunlight getting in their eyes.

“Reporting for duty sir!” They both said, and saluted.

Roland indicated Dogwood and Dagwood and asked Bobblejob and Jubblebub, “Can you guard these two?”

“I think we can.” Bobblejob said.

“I think we can too.” Jubblebub agreed.

“If we have some long pointy things.” Bobblejob said.

Some long pointy things were found and Dogwood and Dagwood placed under guard.

Once that was accomplished Firebrace said to Roland “We’ll have to delay taking stock of who and what else is left. It’s more important to get reinforcements right now.”

“But from where?” Roland asked.

“It is time you learned the secret of this castle,” Firebrace said.

“Not before we have something to eat, we haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Roland objected, indicating himself and Savitri.

Fortunately there was plenty of food left over from the banquet that had been served to the spectators. Savitri went around the table taking great pleasure in using the sword to slice and skewer pieces of meat, chunks of bread and various unfortunate vegetables and fruit. As they ate Oliver said to Roland “I saw those two nutters from the Scary Oak were with your uncle,” and with Savitri out of earshot he asked “What’s her story?”

“Ill-treated. Bitter. Angry. Very dangerous with sharp objects. Watch out.”

“Okay, Got it,” Oliver said.

And they watched Savitri stab a roast pullet with malicious intent.

Firebrace was impatient to be getting on and didn’t eat anything himself. With the meal over he simply said “follow me,” and strode ahead without looking back. He walked quickly for his age, and quicker than the three young people could easily manage to keep up with. He marched up to the Unfinished Tower and up its winding staircase right to the top. He went to the very edge of the highest step, and only then paused and looked back to check that Roland was following. For the first time he noticed that Savitri was with them and shot an enquiring glance at Roland.

Roland understood its meaning, “I will vouch for her. I have already shown her the secret room, and the Companion.”

“It is good to be trusting, sometimes,” Firebrace cautioned, “but you can be too trusting…”

He said no more but faced forwards again and put his foot out into thin air – or so it appeared. Instead of falling he just vanished. Roland looked over the edge of the step to see if he had fallen – but no, he was simply gone. Then Firebrace’s – apparently disembodied – arm reappeared and its hand gestured for Roland to follow. He stepped up to the topmost step and looked down. It seemed to be a long drop and he faltered. This was going to be a leap of faith. He looked up and saw the hand reaching out to him. He took it and stepped off of the step…

Chapter 4

 

Roland nearly tripped up as he had been unable to see the invisible step right in front of him and hadn’t raised his foot high enough. Now he did so and placed his foot firmly upon it. Then he took the next step up, and the next. He stopped and looked around. Firebrace was above him and now he could see that a winding staircase led upwards, enclosed by walls with flaming torches each side.

“Stepping off of tall buildings is not normally a good idea!” Firebrace cautioned.

Roland nodded agreement. He looked back and could see Oliver and Savitri looking up to where he was, wondering what was going on. He stuck his hand back over the threshold as Firebrace had done. They too took a deep breath and a hold on their courage, and each stepped up into the rest of the tower.

“Welcome to the finished tower!” Firebrace said.

He led the way up the winding staircase until they found it blocked by a huge door studded with nails. Firebrace raised his fist and gave three mighty knocks that practically shook the building. It took a while, but eventually someone answered. There was a small door inset within the main door, the top about Roland’s height so that a grown man had to stoop to pass through it. This door opened and a man poked his head out. He had a face like a V that pointed downwards and his hair was on upside down, a huge beard bushing out from his chin whilst the top of his head was bald. He didn’t even bother to look to see who had knocked but just told them “We’re somewhere else! Come back yesterday!” and the door was banged shut.

Firebrace looked peeved and knocked again. Shortly after the same face appeared.

“What do you want?”

“We are here to see the tower.” Firebrace told him.

“You can’t see it! It’s invisible! Every fool knows that!” And the door was banged shut again.

Firebrace banged the door very hard and kept on banging in a most insistent way. Eventually the man reappeared. “What is it now? You know how long you were banging on that door?”

“We want admission!” Firebrace fumed.

“Ah, well, admissions for adults is ten quid children and concessions seven concessions is with OAP bus pass letter of proof from doctor or passport or other official document which can include birth certificate or driving licence except for a provisional licence showing date of birth that in the case of OAPs must be sixty five years or more prior to the first day of the calendar month on which admission is sought or with children be not more than fourteen years prior to the first day of the calendar month on which entry is sought. Clear?”

“This is the owner of the tower!” Firebrace stormed, indicating Roland.

The man looked scathingly at Roland. “When you gonna do something about the plumbing? And the lift’s been out for seventy years – more!”

Roland decided to try to smooth things by showing a personal interest in the man. He introduced himself, offering a handshake, “My name is Roland – what’s yours?”

“Not that it’s really any of your business I don’t suppose but my names Botherworth – Mister Botherworth. The others call me a lot of things but this is a kid’s book so let’s not even go there.”

“This is Firebrace,” Roland continued.

“He definitely gets in as an OAP,” the man said.

“Oh get out the way!” Firebrace insisted angrily, shoving the man aside and stepping through the doorway. The others followed.

“Cor blimey! Rudeness!” The man said, “It’s all the same these days! I blame that social media – Tweetface or whatever it is! It was never like that in my day! There was a sense of public service back then, before they privatised the railway – that was the end of public service if you ask me. And then there was that Tony Blair…”

“What’s he talking about?” Roland asked.

Firebrace said, “I don’t know. Sometimes The Tower displaces people from one time to another; they get very confused and talk gibberish. Just ignore him or nod gently.”

Roland nodded to the man, then decided to ignore him.

Behind the door was a landing and beyond it yet more stairs. As they passed across the landing Roland noted there were doorways in the sidewalls. One of the small doors – presumably Botherworth’s lair – was marked “PRIVATE! NO ADMITTANCE TO YOU!”– and a larger one had a sign hung on it which read “OUT OF ORDER.”

They followed Firebrace up the stairway beyond, up and up as the staircase wound around until they really thought they were in the clouds. Roland noticed that the spiral was widening all the time as they got higher. The tower obviously got much broader and Roland wondered how the base could support it. But then, how come it was invisible from outside? It was time to stop trying to make sense of it all.

After quite a climb they came to a second door very much like the first. This one was also studded with nails, and also with a smaller doorway set into it. Again Firebrace knocked.

At this door the greeting could not have been more different from that at the door below. Both of the large doors were flung open and a short chubby man with open arms sprang forth. He was dressed in a bizarre combination of armour and a monk’s habit.

“Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! Good cheer to you and welcome! Come in! Come in! Come in and don’t tarry! We are all positively bursting to meet you!”

Behind him they could see that there was a vast space like the inside of a cathedral. The doors were at the front of a central aisle which stretched into the far distance. It was lined with columns that stretched upwards into darkness.

The man introduced himself, “I am Brother Goodwill. Brother Stalwart is occupied at the moment with a – a minor domestic emergency, let us say, but I am sure he will make time to see you! Do follow – please, please do follow, we are all eager to meet you!”

Brother Goodwill led them down the central aisle. As they walked they were aware that at the sides of the hall, in the far distance, there were many small, gloomy alcoves. From these people were watching them, shyly, as if they had not seen an outsider for many years. They didn’t seem at all keen to meet anyone, Roland thought, feeling that Brother Goodwill had rather exaggerated their friendliness.

“What is this place?” Roland asked Firebrace. “Who are these people? Have they been living above our heads all this time?”

Firebrace stopped and turned to Roland. Brother Goodwill also halted and waited patiently, looking on as Firebrace spoke, “This is the hall of the most noble creed of the knights Fortressers. They were once the boldest and proudest warriors on all the Earth. Their ferocity in battle was truly terrifying. They slew all who had the misfortune to oppose them! Over many years of fighting, and killing, they grew to be sickened by it and took an oath of peace, swearing never to kill another living thing. In exchange they were granted immortality. But if they should take another life – even one – they will become mortal again. Now they will build defences, but they will not fight. They built this tower long ago and when they had built it they retreated inside it to a life of contemplation and devotion. All but one of them. He sacrificed himself, remaining outside, sworn to kill in The Tower’s defence and thus to remain mortal. Your great great great great great grandfather, Roland. But The Tower is more, much more, than just their retreat – as I will explain at length later. Meanwhile, to Brother Stalwart, please, Brother Goodwill!

They left the Great Hall by a door on the far side and headed down a corridor, turned into another and then another, until all but Brother Goodwill were thoroughly confused. After passing through what looked like a banqueting hall they arrived at a kitchen and in it were two were men in the same odd mix of old battered armour and monks’ habits as Brother Goodwill. One of the men was at a sink, pulling the handle of a plunger whilst another was fiddling beneath it. As the visitors entered there was a loud slurrrrrrpp and the plunger gave way. The man who had been tugging at it fell backwards into a table covered with pots and pans sending them tumbling and crashing everywhere. At the same time a torrent of water burst out of the bottom of the sink drenching the man beneath it.

“Oh dear!” Brother Goodwill gasped, “Oh dear, oh dear!” and he rushed over to the

man who had fallen, made sure he was alright and then went to fetch a cloth. Meanwhile the man beneath the sink got out from under it. He wiped his face with the cloth brought by Brother Goodwill, thanked him, and then greeted the visitors.

“Firebrace my old friend,” he said embracing Firebrace with a mighty hug. Firebrace turned to the trio. “This is Brother Stalwart, fiercest, most feared warrior of the fiercest warriors ever to be feared! Victor of so many battles he has forgotten most of them and can’t be bothered about the rest.”

And Brother Stalwart added, “I am as you can see, temporarily humbled by the plumbing!” and laughed, “And these are, of course, Roland, Oliver and Savitri!”

“But how….?” Roland began to ask but then Brother Goodwill burst out: “Oh my goodness! I quite forgot that this is the first time they’ve met us and I should have asked for their names! From henceforth I shall be known as….. Brother Neglectious!” and he seemed to be saddened by this idea.

Brother Stalwart extended a wet hand to Roland. Roland took it and shook it.

“Welcome!” Brother Stalwart said.

“Yes!” Said Brother Goodwill, regaining his jollity, “Welcome, welcome, welcome!”

“Sorry about the plumbing,” Roland said, having got the message that it was his responsibility as landlord.

“Why are you sorry? We built the place!” Brother Stalwart laughed, “But its getting old. You cannot expect even the best pipework to last the test of centuries without occasional maintenance.”

“Mister Botherworth seemed to think it was all my fault,” Roland explained.

“Oh him! Don’t listen to him! He is merely our primary defence – there is nothing like a bad attitude to drive away unwanted visitors – not yourselves of course! The best defence is a strong offence, and Botherworth certainly gives offence – and some!” Brother Stalwart laughed and then asked Roland, “But you are not here about the plumbing. Are you here for your mother?”

“My mother?” Roland inquired

But Firebrace quickly interjected, “That fool Dagarth has torn the place apart downstairs and it must be rebuilt – quickly.”

“Easily said – and easily done,” said Brother Stalwart, throwing aside the cloth. “Brother Goodwill – gather the others in the Great Hall. We have work to do!”

Brother Goodwill bustled off to ‘gather the others’ whilst Brother Stalwart persuaded them all to have a cup of tea. It took him a little while to find a tea pot amongst a clatter of crockery that had also been dislodged when the plunger had given in but he found one, boiled some water and made some tea. It was good tea, too.

As they sipped the final sips a deep toned bell started to bong.

“They are all gathered – let us adjourn to the Great Hall.” Said Brother Stalwart.

He led them back to the hall that they had first entered. In it were now around fifty men, all wearing the same blend of worn old armour and monkish habits as Brother Goodwill and Brother Stalwart. Roland looked at them amazed by the different types of face; they were white, black, brown…, of many different shapes with different coloured hair. There were some of Savitri’s people from the land of Prester John, some that he believed came from even further east, from Cathay and Cypangu.

Oliver exclaimed, “Some of them are Saracens!”

“Yes, but not our enemies,” Brother Stalwart said, “After many years of fighting we tired of other men’s wars. We found that we had more in common with those we fought than those we fought for, so we founds friendship, comrades where previously we found enmity.”

And he spoke to the Fortressers, “My brothers, the castle below us has fallen into some disrepair, and as it is our occasional duty we must once more take up shovel and pick, trowel and hod, brick and stone and rebuild our sanctuary as it should be.”

And with that they formed an orderly line and marched out through the double doors and down the staircase. Roland started to follow, intrigued to see them at work and willing to help however he could, but Firebrace placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

“We have not finished here yet. There is much more to this tower.”

Firebrace led them through the door by which they had gone to Brother Stalwart, but took another turning. Before them was another staircase spiralling upwards.

“More stairs!” Oliver groaned

“The exercise will do you good,” Firebrace insisted.

They went upwards as Roland expected to come to another set of doors but instead the stairs led straight to a vast open space filled with a maze of bookcases. Firebrace led them through it.

“This is the Tower’s Library,” he said, “It is a repository of history and learning spanning thousands of years, backwards and forwards! There are histories here about things that haven’t even happened yet.”

They came to another staircase, this time made of iron and very tightly wound so that only one person at a time could go up it.

“They do love their spiral stairs don’t they,” Oliver said.

Firebrace led to the way upwards until they reached a balcony, then across that to another iron spiral staircase and up that, and then across another balcony to another spiral staircase. Each balcony ran alongside a wall lined with books. On the other side were iron railings guarding the steep drop to the floor below. From the floor the main bookcases reached up and still towered above them.

As they went Roland took the chance to read some of the spines. One was titled, “The Earth’s Course Around The Sun”

That doesn’t sound right, Roland thought, the sun goes around the earth, surely?

He read a couple more titles

“The Sky, The Earth And The Magic Of Nature”

“Amazon’s Conquest Of The Universe – Part LCVII

“Why Birds Don’t Tweet: Intellect and the Internet”

They had gone up several floors and still the main bookcases towered over them. Now they could see that up near the roof there was movement, flapping and fluttering – there were birds nesting right at the top of the stacks! Oliver remarked on it and Firebrace replied, “Of course, the birds are a vital part of the knowledge collection. Once you have learned to talk to birds, you have a source of enormous knowledge about the whole world!”

Then they saw that high above their heads there was a man on a trapeze. He was hanging by his legs and swinging back and forth whilst cradling a pile of books in the crook of his left arm whilst he placed the books on shelves with his right hand.

“It’s one of the librarians,” Firebrace explained, “they must use acrobatic skills to reach the highest shelves.”

As they watched the man transferred the books to between his feet, gripped the swing with his hands and then flew through the air to another trapeze. He caught it and then again hung himself from it by his legs, transferring the books back to the crook of his left arm.

The trio applauded, but then the man looked down at them, put his finger to his lips and went: “Shhhhhh!”

He started to place the books on the shelves as he had done previously. He had soon placed them all and then flew to another trapeze, another and another until be was out of sight

A librarian without a safety net,” Oliver said, “Not something you see everyday.”

They climbed up to yet another balcony and Firebrace headed towards a door at the end, then down another passage. They passed through a doorway and arrived at what appeared to be a shop counter. There was a bell on the counter and beside it a note saying “Ring for attendant”. Firebrace rang for the attendant.

A bumbling man who hadn’t dressed himself properly came out, at first he didn’t seem to know where he was but finally noticed he had visitors.

“The evidence of my eyes tells me that before me there are four individuals. But are there four individuals? How can I be certain?”

“We are,” Firebrace said.

“Yet the evidence of my ears tells me that me that I can only hear one voice. Can my eyes deceive me and my ears be right, or can my-”

“-There are four of us,” Firebrace insisted.

Can I believe you though, or could you be a deceiving demon, sent to trick me?

“How many of those have you had through here?” Roland asked, curious.

“Ah! A second voice! There are at least two of you, unless the deceiving demon is good at voices… The answer to your question is – I don’t really know how many deceiving demons we have had through here. As we may have been deceived by them, we can’t really be certain, can we?”

As he spoke someone else promptly descended from a trap door in the ceiling. He fell on all fours. He was dressed as a jester and had a pig’s bladder at the end of a stick. He did a cartwheel over to the attendant and gently but firmly beat him around the face with the bladder.

“Prithee nuncle, birds tell me – for birds are wise – that catastrophe awaits yet thou does prattle and ponder like a poltroon!” And he gently beat the man about the face again.

Firebrace was also losing patience. “We must talk to the venerable conceiver of strategies immediately.

“Right away!” the fool chided the man, who was still pondering.

“Oh! Yes! Right away!” and the man bustled off with the fool chasing after him to make sure he didn’t ponder on it all over again.

“How extraordinary!” Roland said. As they followed the man Firebrace took time to explain. “These are the Venerable Society of Cogitators – very wise – a wisdom not to be overlooked – yet their depth of thought is so much that they can become foolish without something, or someone, to bring them back to reality. Thus each of them is assigned a “fool” who does just that, who prompts them to engage with reality. Sometimes its hard to tell which is which.”

“So how many people are there in this tower?” Roland asked.

“A lot,” Firebrace said, “Many splendid things and people, gathered from across the world, taking sanctuary and being conserved in this place.”

Soon another man arrived along with another fool who came cartwheeling after him.

“This way please, “the man said, and showed them into a consulting room. He sat down and pondered, then said, “I am a… a, oh goodness, what am I?”

“Thou art a Venerable Conceiver Of Strategies, nuncle!” the fool reminded him.

“Oh yes!”

“The castle needs a defensive plan,” Firebrace said.

“Ah yes, well first off we must start at first principles – yes. Now is there a real castle, or is it merely a fantasy castle? A castle in the air, so to speak!” and the man laughed to himself. No one else saw the joke. “Is there a real enemy or just a make believe – an apparition?” he continued.

The fool beat him about the face with his pigs bladder, “Prithee nuncle, wouldst though stand before a charging knight, , and say to yourself ‘is this a knight I see charging right at me, about to plunge a lance deep in my chest, or is an apparition????’ If so, then I am the wise man and thou art the fool!”

The man thought on it and then started asking Firebrace detailed questions about the circumstances. Firebrace didn’t know all the answers, which irritated the man, but he tut-tutted and said, “We will make a start anyway.”

He rang for a scribe and started to dictate questions to be sent out to all the parties involved.

“Will the enemy be prepared to answer detailed questions?” He inquired innocently

“I wouldn’t think so,” Roland said, then he said to Firebrace, “Are you sure he knows anything about military strategy?”

But the man said, “We will have a plan for you – many ideas, many strategies! A surfeit of strategies!”

And the fool beat the Venerable Conceiver Of Strategies around the face again, this time, it seemed, just for the fun of it.

 

“Now we must see to an army,” Firebrace said.

He led the way back down through the library to the floor level and then through the maze of bookshelves to an exit door. Through this was a long corridor, at the end of which they made a left turn and then a right turn which led them to even more left and right turns until the trio were thoroughly confused all over again. Eventually they came to a chamber that seemed much more like a huge underground cavern. Inside were hundreds of figures in column after column, row upon row. They were covered in sheets to keep of the dust. Firebrace unsheathed one to reveal a gleaming suit of armour. It seemed empty and lifeless. Firebrace continued to pull the coverings off more of them talking and explaining as he did so, “Once, when the sun was young and strong, its rays struck out like warriors, banishing darkness with shards of light bringing life and warmth goodness and faith, justice and. But like everything they faded – the initial hope could not be sustained. These are amongst the last of the Warriors Of The Sun, they are beams of The Sun’s earliest light captured and enhanced with the best of armour, the best of weapons. They are not as strong as once they were, but they will put up a defence – strong enough let us hope!”

‘But we must use them sparingly, and only as a second to last resort…”

“What is the final resort?” Roland asked.

“He is down below. We have a Land Surveyor in captivity.”

“A land surveyor?” Oliver queried. Savitri looked very doubtful.

“What can a land surveyor do?” Roland asked.

“The whole point of a castle like this is to maintain the status quo,” Firebrace explained, “To keep the land organised and divided the way it is, the way the people who built the castle in the first place intended it to be. But then what happens is that some fool looks to improve things even further and invites a Land Surveyor…” – and the look on Firebrace’s face was one of disgust. “They come and if allowed to do their work they upset borders and boundaries and redefine everything so that very quickly no one knows what, who or where they are. Except for the Land surveyor, of course, and those he chooses to tell… therein lies their power, and their menace.

They cause such great disruption that most castles manage to stop them even if they are invited. Bureaucratic obstacles are placed in their way – the old department A department B trick….”

“What’s that?” Roland asked.

“They pretend that the castle has several departments, then claim that Department A summoned the land surveyor but that department B is responsible for him when he gets there. Then they claim that department B has never heard of him! It can be most amusing actually –you can run someone ragged for ages with that old one.

But many, including myself, think that land surveyors are too dangerous to fool around with. As a result other castles resort to more barbaric methods – like imprisonment. I am afraid we have stooped to that level for we hold such a gentlemen in a dungeon downstairs – along with his two assistants – right now. And all for wishing to do nothing more than their jobs…”

“That’s not very good,” Roland said.

“I must confess that I was responsible,” Firebrace said, “When a land surveyor turned up several months ago – probably summoned by your foolish uncle as part of his treasure search – I took the opportunity to have him diverted and imprisoned in the tower, along with his two assistants, just in case in he might be useful.”

“If he’s Dagarth’s creature, it is well done,” Oliver said.

“But what will he do for us?” Roland asked.

“If we release him it will be like unleashing the Kraken of old. He will change the whole landscape before our enemies’ eyes and – if we give him the proper inducements and imply certain consequences – furnish us with the plans. But it is a disastrous last option that we must only use if desperate. It may well confuse us and our allies as much as it confuses our enemies.”

‘As we are speaking of the terrain, there is just one more thing I will show you – for now,” and Firebrace led the way back down the corridors they had taken to the Sun Warrior’s cavern, back into the library and then through the labyrinth of bookshelves to another exit. This was a passage lined with bricks, like a brick tube. It was quite a distance before they reached a point where there was a trap door and a ladder that led downwards. The ladder had its feet on a wooden platform with no apparent means of support, another ladder reached up to this from the darkness below. As they descended they found a succession of ladder and platforms, seemingly just hanging by themselves in the darkness. They then came to a platform on which a ladder was placed ready to be lowered down. They lowered it and climbed down it until they realised they were in a hollow tube, like a pipe. At the bottom there was daylight coming through a hole. Roland was the first to the bottom and through the hole, followed by Oliver. They immediately recognised where they were. At the base of the Scary Oak!

 

Chapter 5

 

Emerging from the oak they were surprised to find that it was morning – a whole night had passed whilst they were in The Tower, although it did not feel like it. It was indeed a strange, strange place that tricked and played with your senses at every turn. In the bright sunshine they all had to blink and let their eyes adjust and it took a few minutes. When it was done the scene that greeted them was one of great beauty. The valley of the stream stretched before them and it the far side was the hill upon which Roland’s castle stood. It looked tranquil, as if it had lasted for many centuries and would last for many more. It was as if nothing in the world could disturb it from that perfect state.

Firebrace quickly scanned the area for hostile forces. Having assured himself they would be safe in the open he spoke: “The Fortressers, as you have seen, had the wisdom to put in a back door to the castle – just in case. This is the very best place from which to view the area surrounding the castle – and the best place from which to attack it! You must all have a good look and get acquainted with the terrain from the enemy’s point of view, then we will walk back to the castle across the fields – I think you know the way!” and he winked at Roland and Oliver. They had both assumed that their night-time excursions were secret and were surprised to find that Firebrace knew of them.

Savitri wandered over to the place where the fire had been, the place where only two days before she had been a captive. She gripped the sword in her hand and swung it around, enjoying the feeling of power it gave her.

They did as Firebrace bid them and studied the landscape. It was farming land and there were plenty of hedges, ditches and sunken lanes – easy places of concealment for an attacking army. It could all have been cleared for strategic purposes, but Roland knew why his forefathers had not done it. There is no sense in destroying the very thing you wish to defend in order to defend it.

They started to make their way down the hill of the Scary Oak. Walking back was quite a pleasure on the warm spring day and they all enjoyed the open air after being in the tower. As they walked they watched the Fortressers already at work on the battlements. Cranes were lifting massive blocks of stone, men in the odd mixture of armour and monks’ habits were climbing up and down ladders with hods full of bricks and mortar. The progress the Fortressers had already made was quite amazing. It gave them all hope and their sprits lightened.

Nearer to the castle they noticed something rather odd – two figures both struggling to conceal themselves behind a very small bush that couldn’t possibly hide one of them, let alone both. As they got yet closer they saw that it was Bobblejob and Jubblebub. Soon they were close enough to overhear what they were saying.

“It has been a long time, hasn’t it? Bobblejob said.

“A very long time,” Jubblebub agreed.

“I bet we’d be much better at finding them than they are at finding us,” Bobblejob giggled.

“Much better,” Jubblebub giggled in response.

“You go and hide and you’ll never find us,” that was what they said.

“That was what they said alright.”

“But I bet we could find them if we wanted to.”

“I’ll bet we could…”

“Oh! They’ve let Dogwood and Dagwood escape!” Roland said, at once feeling great disappointment that his cousins had not kept their word.

Realising that someone was behind them Bobblejob and Jubblebub both turned around.

“What are you doing?” Roland asked.

“Shhhh! We’re hiding!” Bobblejob replied, “The young masters told us to go and hide and they would come and find us. They’ve been looking for ages and haven’t found us yet!

“You imbeciles!” Firebrace said.

“I said to guard them, not play parlour games with them,” Roland said, “Probably good riddance anyway – it won’t tie up any competent men to guard them…” Then he had a naughty idea… He said to Bobblejob and Jubblebub, “I am sure my uncle made you swear an oath of loyalty to him, didn’t he?”

“Oh, yes, very keen on that he was,”

“Very keen.”

“Yes, well, has he released you from it yet?”

Bobblejob and Jubblebub thought for a minute.

“I don’t remember,”

“I don’t either.”

“Trust me, he didn’t. I’m sure,” said Roland, “According to the oath you should have followed him to wherever he went, and you haven’t.”

“No we haven’t,” admitted Bobblejob

“We have not,” agreed Jubblebub

“Then you are in breach of your oath,” Roland said.

They struggled to think about it.

“We are derelict in our duty,” Jubblebub confessed, shamefacedly.

“You can do something about it now – something to redeem yourselves,” Roland said.

“Can we?” Bobblejob asked, looking hopeful.

“Yes, Roland said, “Go and find him – join him. Find where he is and go to serve him.”

“But how do we find him?” Jubblebub asked.

Well, it’s like hide and seek, but for real. What will make it even easier is that Dagarth won’t actually be hiding!

“He won’t?”

“No, he won’t,” Roland insisted.

“Well, we should find him easily then,” said Bobblejob, “Err… Which way?”

“Anyway away from here will do for a start,” Roland said.

“Rightio!” Said Jubblebub.

“Off you go then!” Roland said.

And they both headed off,

“That got rid of them,” Roland said.

“That was very wicked! Oliver said, as Firebrace chuckled.

“Good riddance Savitri said. We need all the people we can get – but they can do far more damage on the other side.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Roland said.

 

Once back in the castle they all slept for a long time and once they had woken, and eaten a much welcomed meal, they were astonished at the progress that had been made. The Fortressers were still hard at work but now finishing off the rebuilding of the castle. How they must have worked! Where piles of rubble had stood beside gaping holes the walls now stood firm and robust, looking impregnable – indomitable. The walls were higher than before, the ramparts raised to give steep drops into a moat that looked deeper, darker and much more forbidding than it had previously. Roland looked down into it, then back at the keep and its accompanying buildings. They were the last to receive the Fortressers attention, yet already they looked strong.

“I had forgotten what this place use to look like without holes and rubble,” Roland said to Firebrace.

“It’s a revolution,” Firebrace agreed, “But walls are only part of a castle’s defence. We must be strong as well – and what is more, we must have a plan – and if possible, know theirs!”

Roland thought of the Venerable Conceiver of Strategies, still presumably hard at work. He did not have much faith in a man who needed to be struck around the face with a jester’s bladder just to keep his feet out of the clouds.

“There is little I can do but practise my swordplay,” he said.

“Yes,” Firebrace agreed.

Roland, Oliver and Savitri went to the practice room. They took it in turns to fight the companion whilst the other two practised against each other. Oliver had not used a sword before but started to get the hang of it and Savitri gave him some pointers. She showed herself again to be the most capable and when it was her turn launched a full blooded attack on the companion that caused it to clang like a bell and drew some pity from Oliver.

“The poor thing! What did it do to you?”

“It reminded me of someone!” Savitri said, and made it clang again.

“It is made to resemble the people who killed her family,” Roland said.

“Well, it looks hideous enough to have done something like that. You mean there are things like that running around out there, up to no good?”

Savitri, who overheard, stopped fighting and came over, “Believe it. They are savage. They have no pity, they have no fear, they only desire one thing; to fight and destroy.”

“Sound like the Fortressers, before they got religion,” Oliver said.

“The Spirus will never ‘get religion’,” Savitri said, and continued battling the companion.

“Maybe we ought to make your friend seem a bit more friendly, for his own sake, Oliver suggested to Roland, “Give it a name perhaps? Cutesy wootsey? Tickly wickly? Mr floppikins? We could give it some bunny ears!”

“No,” said Roland firmly, “We are not doing that. Fixing them on might scratch the finish.”

“Okay. I shall just call him Fred, then.”

Oliver grew serious. “Something has been worrying me. What happens to the people in the village – my parents, if there is an attack?”

“We will bring them inside the castle. Perhaps they will even fight with us,” Roland said.

“If they seek the protection of the castle, they should fight to defend it,” Savitri said.

“They can seek safety unconditionally. We will not make them fight if they don’t want to,” Roland said firmly. “You had better go and tell them Oliver – it would be better now than later on. We don’t know when hostile forces might get here.”

 

When the villagers had been brought into the courtyard Roland stood before them with Oliver and Firebrace at his side. He told them, “The people who are coming to attack this castle are also coming to attack your homes. Dagarth was a tyrant, as you know, and the people with him are no better. Who wishes to fight with us?”

There was an encouragingly strong show of hands for the idea.

“But what can they do?” Roland asked Oliver.

“Same as me,” Oliver said

Roland looked puzzled. “You are no swordsman!”

“I can’t use a sword, no, but try me with a bow!”

You never told me this!”

“Never came up. I am amongst the best in the village – and we won the area tournament three years running. We are the best archers in this part of the country – probably the whole country!”

The villagers had brought with them several chests which were now unpacked. An enormous number of bows, a ton of arrows and some cork targets were broken out. Roland noted that the bullseye’s of the targets were marked by a lot of holes. The outside rings had only a few point marks in them.

“We all have to start somewhere,” Oliver explained.

The villagers put on quite a display of their archery skills. For the first time Roland was actually beginning to think they stood a serious chance of winning a battle.

“Did you know the villagers were fine archers?” he asked Firebrace.

“Your forefathers encouraged the villagers!” Firebrace replied, “But they are naturals anyway. They would have found their way to this by themselves, I think.”

“It is all well done,” Roland said, “Now all we need is a strategy.”

At that moment there was a kerfuffle at the base of the tower and they turned to see that the Venerable Conceiver Of Strategies was rushing towards them along with his fool, who continued to beat his face with the pig’s bladder. As they got closer the fool reminded him, “Nuncle! thou needs to think of castles and not of clouds!”

Roland’s heart sank at the sight of them. To think they were to put their trust in such a man. He felt despondent once more.

“I have worked out a strategy” said the Venerable Conceiver Of Strategies.

“Err, yeah, that’s what you’re here for,” Roland said, doubtfully

But the fool took his masters cause, “It is a marvel wonderfully conceived and the more so for it is wonderfully conceived by a fool!” The fool said, and beat the cogitator about the face with the pig’s bladder for no other reason than the sheer joy of it

Roland, Firebrace, Oliver and Savitri gathered around one of the archery chests. The Venerable Conceiver Of Strategies unrolled his map on the top of it and explained his plan; “Here is the castle, newly repaired, and the moat running around it. Here is the hill nearby with what you young folk call The Scary Oak upon it. This is where the enemy will most likely gather, if they have any sense at all. Here is the valley they will have to cross to reach us, here are some trees, a lovely stream… it really is the most perfect view of an idyllic little spot, is it not?! Lovely!”

“Nuncle!” said the fool, beating him again with the pig’s bladder.

“Ah yes, the point, the point. Here, see, the stream feeds a pond, this feeds the moat here – the moat lets out into the stream here. It really is most tranquil isn’t it? You could set up a rod and line and dream away listening to the birds singing and the wind in the willows, the Piper at the Gates of….”

“Nuncle!”

“Yes! Yes! I come to it. Here between the pond and the moat, and the moat and the stream, are sluice gates, holding back the water…”

“I get it!” Roland said, “Any army must cross the moat, by rafts or boats…”

“And if we open both sluices at once, the moat becomes a fast flowing stream! The Venerable Conceiver Of Strategies said, triumphantly, and the fool jumped and did some cartwheels and handstands for the sheer joy of it.”

The strategist continued, “The attacking army will be in disarray, and will float past our battements…”

“And we can position archers at specific points to shoot them as they pass, concentrating their fire at specific points” Roland said, finishing the strategists thought.

If we have any archers, the strategist said, seeing the flaw in his plan.

“That we do!” Roland said, “We do indeed!”

The cogitator brightened again, “Wonderful! Wonderful! It would be such a shame to see this idyllic little spot fall into the wrong hands. We must defend it! Will you? Will you?” And he grasped Roland’s arm and looked at him pleadingly.

“We will,” Roland said, “We will.”

And a cheer went up that rang around the castle.

 

By the next morning Dagarth’s army had assembled itself upon the hill of The Scary Oak. It stretched all across the hill and far on both sides. It’s forces were much expanded by those of Brill-a-Brag. The castle sentries had reported movement in the night, the alarm had gone out and the drawbridge raised. In the dawn light Roland looked out the enemy forces with dismay, but Firebrace put a hand on his shoulder.

“It is the beginning, not the end.”

Soon after a shout went around the castle, “Enemy forces approaching!”

Roland and his friends ran to the battlements by the drawbridge where the shout had originated. All they could see were two figures, plainly dressed as men-at-arms, making their way up the road.

“Why only two?” Oliver asked, “It isn’t much of a fighting force.”

It did seem very odd.

As they got closer Roland recognised them. It was Bobblejob and Jubblebub!

They marched up to the edge of the moat where the drawbridge usually met the road and stopped and stood looking puzzled, as if they didn’t couldn’t work out what had changed. When they saw that people were watching them from the battlements they started waving hopefully.

“What are they doing back?” Roland asked. “Whatever it is they’ll get themselves hurt out there – send a boat across for them.”

Having landed at the gate house the two gave what passed for an explanation of their renewed presence.

“It was very confusing,” Bobblejob said.

“Very confusing,” Jubblebub agreed.

“We couldn’t find your uncle anywhere.”

I think he’s up there’ Roland said, pointing to the obvious armed ranks on the hill

“Ah! that’s where he is!” Jubblebub said.

“But how do you get there?” Bobblejob asked.

“We think our mistake was starting from here in the first place,” Jubblebub said, and they both nodded.

“How did you find your way back?” Roland asked, slightly puzzled.

The two looked at each other

“Well, we tried to get there….”

— “…and ended up back here.”

“You lost your way back!!!!”

“Yes.”

“Well, we can’t leave you two just wandering about. This is a war. You might get hurt. I’ll draw you a plan of how to get to the Scary Oak.”

Roland ordered some parchment and a quill be brought and set about drawing them a map.

“There you are – can you follow that?”

“It looks just like the back of my hand,” said Bobblejob, comparing them.

“Yes, well, just go careful….” And with that they were rowed back across to the other side of the moat and sent on their way.

With the idiot pair sent off again Roland and company returned to planning the castles defence, but it was not long before another shout of “enemy approaching” went around.

“They’re not back again are they?” Roland cursed, but this time it was not for Bobblejob and Jubblebub but a solitary rider coming across the fields from the hill. They went back up to the battlements and soon the rider was close enough for them to recognise him as Dagarth’s Herald. He stopped at the far edge of the moat and seeing that he had the attention of those in the castle, called out, “My lord Dagarth most generously offers a pardon in exchange for the surrender of this castle, it being rightly his and villainously taken from him. He is willing to overlook the whole thing if you just give it back.”

Roland took a breath to say ‘no, never’ in robust terms but Firebrace put his hand on his arm.

“We could still do with time to prepare. We are not quite ready yet. Let’s see if they will negotiate, just for the sake of time,”

Roland agreed, and shouted to the herald, “We have some conditions.”

“Let us hear them!” The herald said.

“What shall we say?” Roland asked the others. They huddled together.

“Ask them for time to think about it.” Oliver suggested.

“No. They might get the right idea,” Roland objected. “We need some conditions they will need to think about.”

“What about insisting your auntie goes on a diet,” Oliver suggested, “you could insist she goes on the Holy Healthy Hermit Plan.”

“What’s that?”

“The latest diet book. The monasteries can’t copy enough of them. It was written by this batty old nun who lives on like two walnuts and a blackberry a day. She celebrates Easter with the yolk of a hardboiled egg and gives up shaving for lent.”

“sounds awful,” Roland said, “I am sure auntie Hildegrind will love it – particularly the not-shaving bit. On that theme, let’s insist the rest of them suffer… , I think that Dogwood and Dagwood should be spanked once a week. And Dagarth should be forced to melt down his iron maidens and sell the metal for scrap to help the poor!”

“Yes, and the rack converted to a table so they can eat a hearty meal off of it!” Oliver added.

“And that ghastly throne broken up too,” Roland said, “Let’s tell the herald.”

The herald’s attention was called and the conditions read out. To their delight He shifted in his saddle rather uncomfortably, particularly at the suggestion regarding the torture equipment. He knew for sure the reception that that was going to get. He was sent on his way.

They expected there be some discussion in the enemy camp but the herald was soon back, and with some alternative proposals:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Auntie Hildegrind will go on a diet and will lose a stone before Michaelmas.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Dogwood and Dagwood to be spanked twice a month.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Half the iron maidens to be melted down and the scrap sold to feed the poor

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The rack to be put in storage in case it is needed in the future

*
p<>{color:#000;}. The throne to stay

“Hmmm,” said Roland. “Why didn’t he just accept our proposals right off? He doesn’t have to keep to them once he’s back in. It wouldn’t be like him to.”

“Perhaps he is playing for time too,” Oliver said.

“It’s Pride,” Firebrace said, “Pride. He doesn’t want to be seen to be backing down too far, even if he has no intention of keeping his word…”

“Well, it’s not good enough,” Roland said. “The throne has to go – that is non-negotiable.”

He told the herald: “We want the rack broken up and used as firewood and Dogwood and Dagwood to be spanked with planks from it four times a month. And auntie Hildegrind must lose three stone by Christmas. The throne must, repeat must, be thrown out!”

“That told him,” said Oliver, as the herald galloped away.

 

This time there was a longer pause, but sure enough a rider approached the castle from the direction of the hill. As he got closer they could see it was not the herald, and he was riding rather oddly, partly standing in his stirrups. When he got closer still they could see it was Dagarth himself. His saddle was padded but he could only sit on it for a few seconds at a time before he rose again with a pained look on his face.

“He s still got a sore bum from the lightning strike!” Roland and Oliver snickered. “Yes! Yes!” they cried, “Crucial!” and they high-fived.

“Now look here!” Dagarth yelled at the walls, “This has gone on long enough! I am the rightful master and heir of this castle by right of birth and I demand that you allow myself and my retinue back in! You are foul usurpers and traitors and if you do not let me back in,” – and he started to think about what he was saying – “well, I shall probably not be very happy about it at first but I shall swallow that and, well, I am sure I can get over it and we can all be friends just like it used to be…”

Oh yes, Roland thought – just like it used to be. He turned to Firebrace, “Whilst he’s here waiting for a reply there’s not much the army up there can do – we might as well leave him waiting out there for as long as possible.”

Firebrace nodded. “Well reasoned.”

“It’ll certainly wind him up,” Oliver said.

“We’re going to be fighting him anyway – he’s going to get a lot more wound up,” Roland said.

So Dagarth was left waiting for reply like a wet dog out in the rain whilst Roland and his friends went inside to discuss their response to Dagarth’s counter-offer.

“Lets stick to what we have already said,” said Oliver.

“We must give in to some points, otherwise he will not feel like he is making progress and just attack,” Roland said.

We also have to be careful he doesn’t accept, then he will have called our bluff,” Oliver pointed out.

“Good point,” Roland responded, “Lets see; the twins to be spanked – how many times did we get up to? Auntie Hildegrind to cut down on the fatty foods….”

“Auntie Aitch must be publicly weighed every month!” Oliver chipped in.

“Every week,” Roland insisted.

“And ducked in the moat if she hasn’t lost weight!” Oliver put in.

“Good!” Roland said, and added, “We must insist that all the cushions are removed from the chairs in the castle!

“And sandpaper for Dagarth to wipe his bum with in the privy!”

“Oh, now you’re just winding him up!” Roland laughed, and he and Oliver both high fived.

Suddenly Savitri burst out shouting, “Will you two stop being so childish! If Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp take over this castle you won’t think it so funny! They are experts at inflicting pain and misery and they are out there now with an army! We need to be serious!” She spoke directly to Roland, “And you, boy, need to toughen up if you are going to command the defence of this castle,” and she jabbed him in the ribs with her fingers.

“Sorry,” Roland said, taken aback by the outburst.

“And stop saying you’re sorry! Make them say they are sorry!” Savitri scolded.

When Roland looked at Firebrace he could tell he thought she was right. Firebrace was more patient, he was not angry at their pranks, but he too obviously thought they needed to take it more seriously. He said, “The very fact that Dagarth has come himself means that they are growing very impatient – already.”

“He always was impatient,” Roland pointed out

“Yes, and he has only grown more so,” Firebrace replied, “I don’t think anything we say will put off the evil moment much longer, but I have an idea that might just leave them squabbling with each other for a few more hours whilst we put the final touches to our defences…”

Back on the ramparts Roland attracted Dagarth’s attention and called out their latest condition. “We will only surrender in the presence of a neutral third party to ensure fair play. We nominate the Abbott of Wilmesbury.”

“The Abbot of Wilmesbury!” Dagarth spluttered, “that’s over fifty miles away!”

“And the Abbot’s further than that,” Firebrace whispered – “I happen to know he’s on pilgrimage to the Holy Land!”

“Them’s our terms!” Roland called out, “We want to ensure there are no dirty tricks.”

“Dirty tricks! Who do you think I am!!!!?????” Dagarth spluttered.

“My Uncle Dagarth!” Roland shouted back.

“Ach!” Dagarth exclaimed, and rode off in a right old huff.

It was barely an hour or little more when once more there were cries of “enemies sighted,” and the familiar experience of everyone doubling to battle stations.

The cry had come from sentries at the gatehouse, again, and Roland and his friends rushed to see who or what it as this time. Soon enough it became clear – Bobblejob and Jubblebub were making their way back to the castle.

“They must have lost their way all over again!” Roland said, “What are we going to do with them?”

Once more the hapless pair stood on the edge of the moat waving mournfully at the castle. Once more a boat was sent over for them.

“What are you doing back this time?” Roland asked.

“They didn’t want us,” Bobblejob said proudly.

“They said we woz too good for ‘em!” Jubblebub said, even more proudly

“Too good for ‘em we are!” said Jubblebub, even more proudly that Bobblejob.

“They said we should come to you!” Bobblejob said

“You really deserve us, they said,” Jubblebub said.

“And they drew you a map as well, I see,” said Roland, noting a different map from the one he had drawn in Bobblejob’s hand.

“Errrr, no sir,” Bobblejob said, and they both looked shamefaced. “Your map was to get us from here to there,” he explained.

“We needed one to get us from there to here,” Jubblebub explained further.

“We overheard them say this map would get them into the castle, so we took it when they weren’t looking,” Bobblejob confessed.

“It wasn’t stealing,” Jubblebub insisted, “We just borrowed it for a bit.”

“We’ll go back right now and return it to them if you want,” Bobblejob said.

“Let’s have a look at that map,” said Firebrace and took it from Bobblejob’s hand. “Are you sure they didn’t give this to you – you took it?”

“I wish we could say they did give it us sir, but I am ashamed to say we just took it! We just took it sir, and should be severely punished for doing so!”

“You took it without them knowing, or showing it to you?” Firebrace pressed.

“Without them knowing or showing it to us,” said Bobblejob, shamefully.

Firebrace turned to Roland, “It’s a complete battle plan for a siege on this castle where they are going to cross the moat, locations of trebuchets, the lot!”

“Really?” Roland said, looking at it himself.

“I am not sure we should trust it though. It has come to us rather to easily,” Firebrace cautioned.

“Would you trust these two to deliver false intelligence?” Roland asked.

“No,” said Firebrace.

“I think we have an advantage,” Roland said.

 

Chapter 6

 

The plans stolen by Bobblejob and Jubblebub were very detailed. The points where the attackers intended to cross the moat in rafts were all plainly marked. So too were the places where the attackers intended to erect the trebuchets – those fearful siege machines that could throw rocks and just about anything else at, and over, the castle walls. These were to be placed out of reach of the archers’ arrows but their own range was much greater. There was nothing the defenders could do about them except prepare for incoming missiles. Using such machines was just like his uncle though, Roland thought. The castle had only just been rebuilt after he had demolished most of it, now he was trying to ruin it all over again.

It still nagged at Roland, and probably at Firebrace and the others too, that the map might be a deception. That would be just like Dagarth, too. But then Bobblejob and Jubblebub were just too stupid too be involved in such a deception, weren’t they? wouldn’t they somehow manage to give it away, if they were? But then aren’t they just the kind of people you would want to involve in the perfect deception – so stupid that no one would believe they could be involved in such a deception? Roland checked himself. It was a spiral of thought that could trap you and paralyse you. But then Perhaps that was the devious plan all along?

Stop! I t didn’t bare thinking of, and thinking of it was pointless. All Contingencies that could be covered were covered. It was done now and could not be undone.

The attackers would have the morning sun in their eyes and it would not be until ealry in the afternoon that it moved around to their advantage. There was plenty of time for them to set up their devices. When it rose the sun was bright and strong, in a cloudless sky, on a lovely day that beckoned to all to simply wander across the landscape, pick flowers, listen to birdsong – enjoy! – enjoy!

But there was to be none of that.

There was no emissary from the enemy this morning – an ominous sign in itself. Shortly after bacon and eggs time there was movement from the hill. A group of carts moved down loaded with wood and other bits and pieces. They made their way to the sites indicated on the stolen map as the places where the trebuchets would be set up.

The defenders could only watch as wood and rope was unloaded from the carts and the process of assembling the engines began. It was a long process, even though the soldiers involved were clearly experts. Frames were erected and the wooden throwing arms placed within them and tied down, then Upon the ends were hung the weights that would pull down on them, thrusting the missiles high into the air and into the castle. Every hour the machines grew more complete, more threatening. It was like watching a gang of giants grow, hour by hour, right before you eyes but out of your reach, knowing that when they had grown enough they were going to come and attack you; and there was nothing you could do about it.

“I wish they would just get it over with,” Roland said.

Firebrace indicated the bright sun.

“I know, I know,” Roland said, “but I would much rather they attacked with that in our favour.”

“And they would rather they didn’t,” Firebrace chucked, “and the initiative is with them, I am afraid to say!”

Some time around noon a few testing shots were fired from the machines. The missiles landed closer and closer until one splashed into the moat. They had found their range and after that activity ceased again.

The main army remained on the hill, glowering over at the castle. Roland tried to glower back but didn’t feel terribly fierce. He wished he had Fred’s glowing eyes to make a better job of it.

Soon after lunch he watched as more carts came down the hill and stopped at points just out of range of archers. Again, it was at the very points marked by Bobblejob and Jubblebub’s plan for the placing of the rafts before they were taken to the moat. The rafts were unloaded and their deployment was practised together with a lot of shouting, yelling and general confusion.

Shortly after the rafts arrived the main army started to form up and slowly make its way down the hill to the positions marked on the map. Roland looked on, again wishing that they were going to get on with it but knowing that they were most likely just forming up for another long spell of waiting. They halted and, as he anticipated, the waiting began again.

“I would say about three o clock would be right,” Firebrace said, not perfect but the sun will put of their eyes and it will leave them some time to get something done before dusk.”

Three ‘o’ clock came and went without incident, but about a quarter past there was stirring in the enemy camp, troops were getting into line, men were beginning to grapple with the rafts. From the top of the hill some more riders rode down. Soon they were recognisable as Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag, Gloatenglorp and their aides. They came to a stop at a place close enough to the battle to observe it and give orders – but out of range of the castle’s arrows. They were all sitting proudly in their saddles, watching on (except for Dagarth of course, who standing in his stirrups, proudly, watching on!). They seemed certain of their victory, by the looks of them, and it gave Roland a sense of doubt. Firebrace sensed it. “The smug confidence of an attacking enemy – particularly those who aren’t in the immediate line of fire – ignore it!”

Roland felt a bit better, but not much. They had overwhelmingly more men than were in the castle. It seemed only right that they should win, as if it was a democratic contest.

Votes don’t count in war, he reminded himself. Only victory.

“I think they are making a start,” Firebrace said as Dagarth’s voice could be heard shouting an order and the men with the rafts started running towards the moat with their craft.

At about half past three the first barrage was triggered. The men at the trebuchets started to load them, slowly crank back the arms and then pull the triggers that unleashed their assault. “Incoming!” the castle look-outs yelled as the first deadly missiles rained down. The first hit the ramparts towards the east, the next in the middle. The third narrowly missed the “unfinished” tower.

 

Under the cover of the artillery the men-at-arms rushed forwards with the rafts and ladders and began to set them down in the water. Doubtless they had expected arrows to rain down upon them as they did so, but none came. Above them the archers waited foe the right time, for the right signal

Roland looked to the left and right at the sentinels who were ready to take his signals. Those signals would be relayed across the ramparts, then by flags down to the ground where other soldiers, carefully hidden, would pass them on. Waiting to receive them, north and south of the castle, were two teams, one at each of the weir gates that controlled the entry and exit of the water from the moat.

The men on the rafts were most of the way across the moat by now. It would be very hard for them to start back, but they hadn’t yet reached the point from where they could scale the walls.

At that moment it was drawn to Roland’s attention that Dogwood and Dagwood were amongst those on the rafts. They wore their gleaming armour and seemed very proud and were being very bossy, giving orders and managing to sow confusion into an operation whose purpose should have been clear enough.

Good, Roland thought. We might get to show them something. And he realised then just how angry he was with his cousins.

The attackers were all in the right positions now. Roland gave the signal. It would take a few seconds for it to reach the men at the weir gates. Roland waited.

At first nothing happened, but then it all seemed to happen at once. Roland had expected the flow to start slowly and speed up, but instead the moat turned into a fast flowing river almost instantly, like an upturned bottle with the cork removed.

Where there had been small confusion on the rafts before, now there was chaos. They bumped and ground into one another as the momentum of the water caught them and they were swiftly swept off course. Oars and poles were thrust out in desperation as those on board struggled to row or punt against the current and at the same time fight off other vessels about to collide with them. In this way the attackers were driven into a battle with each other just to avoid a swim.

The water was to be the least of their worries though. At this point that the archers began firing. They had been divided into groups along the western ramparts, each told to fire directly in front of them as targets floated by. The effect was awful as men bristling with arrows fell where they stood or dropped into the water. There was more panic on the craft and some men now plunged themselves into the water and swam for it to avoid the arrows.

It was soon clear that the attack had failed and the attackers were in disarray. Roland looked over at his uncle and his new-found friends. Their faces registered the dismay that only the vanquished can know. The smugness of a few minutes earlier was gone and chagrin had replaced it. Dagarth dismounted and stomped over to one of the trebuchets. Roland could tell from his body language that he was ordering one final salvo against the castle, just out of spite. He watched the terrible thing being cranked back and loaded and then drew in his breath as he waited for the rope to be pulled. Sure enough the missiles were thrust into the air and performed an arcing curve in the sky before striking the base of the “Unfinished Tower”.

“They’ve done it this time,” Firebrace said.

Instantaneously there was a rumble and a bolt of lighting struck out across the moat. The throwing machine was destroyed and its operators killed in a blinding flash and a bang. But Dagarth was not amongst the victims – Roland noted that his uncle had beaten a swift retreat from the trebuchet before it had fired. He had known what would happen if it hit its intended target.

Roland looked down to see what had happened to Dogwood and Dagwood. He hoped they hadn’t been killed. He wanted them to see that the attack had failed. He wanted to deal with them himself, too. At first he couldn’t see them and assumed they must have fallen in and that their armour had dragged them to the bottom of the moat. Once the noise and fury had died down a little, though, wails and cries could be heard coming from the base of the ramparts. Roland looked down to see that Dogwood and Dagwood were right at the base of the wall. One of the men at arms in their boat had managed to brace it against the wall with an oar. The two boys were crying in fear.

“We must do something,” Roland said, “get them up!”

“Oh let them drown,” Savitri said, “you are too soft hearted.”

But Roland really did want them to feel his wrath. Letting them die at the bottom of the moat was too easy.

“Lower ropes, we will haul them up,” Roland instructed.

Ropes were indeed lowered and a great deal of effort put into hauling the boys up. Once on the ramparts they started wailing, “We’re sorry!”

“We’re sorry!”

We’re really sorry! Please don’t kill us!”

They knelt down and pleaded for their lives, “Daddy said it would be so easy!” -

“Daddy said we would just go over the walls and you would be too stupid and puny to do anything to stop us…..” -

“We didn’t know you were so mighty!”

“No – we didn’t!” -

“Please forgive us, your lordship, we owe you our lives and our service, please spare us….!” -

“Yes! Please spare us!”

It really was pitiful and Roland felt disgust. He told them, “ You swear loyalty now – until the next time when you will betray us as before.”

“Oh no, oh no lord! We were wrong!”

“We did you wrong but now we owe you loyal service for sparing our lives!”

“That isn’t decided yet,” Roland said, and gave them a very good glower. They quivered.

“Get them out of my sight!” Savitri said.

“If we sent you back would you forswear taking up arms against us?” Roland asked.

“That wouldn’t be very clever Roland,” Oliver objected.

“Yes, we would!” “Yes, we would!” they pleaded.

“I don’t believe you,” Roland told them, “You are not gentlemen but scoundrels and in my heart I always knew it,” and Roland began getting into his stride on the subject, “You are your fathers spawn and thus unworthy of our mercy!” they shook again – “Yet I will let you live.”

“Oh thank you!” – “Oh thank you!”

“Take them away!” Roland commanded, and the villagers led them away at arrow point.

Roland turned to his friends and winked, “That got them going, didn’t it!”

“And some! You had them quaking in their metal boots!” Oliver said.

“Way to go!” Savitri said, and put a hand on his arm in approval.

Roland laughed. “It did the trick!”

He looked out on the moat, proud of the victory, but then he saw how many men were dead. Men who had been living just an hour before were now corpses floating in the water or lying on rafts, all with arrows sticking out of them.

“We did well, you did well,” Firebrace said.

“Yes, we did.” Roland agreed, feeling heartened, “But I don’t think they will give up that easily.”

“What else can they throw at us?” Oliver asked.

Firebrace was silent and Savitri looked at the ground.

“I am sure there is something else coming, something very nasty,” Roland said.

When the others had gone he looked out again at the dead men. He was angry at his uncle for the simple waste.

 

That night they celebrated. They found auntie’s other, other secret stash of food (they had already found the secret stash and the other secret stash). Like the first two, the other, other secret stash was vast – it was amazing it could all fit in the castle let alone the huge cellar it was put in. They all feasted, laughed and joked. The villagers and men-at-arms discussed the battle, retelling the story of the battle and joking about the greatest victory they had known.

“Did you see them panic!” said Old Balderguzzle.

“ Oh yes!” said Young Bodfrey.

“They would have run for their lives if they didn’t had to swim! Laughed Young Nodkin.

“ They didn’t swim very well did they?” laughed Old Nodkin.

Well, the were wearing breast plates – it don’t help with the floating much!” Laughed Balderguzzle

“Not at all!” Laughed Palfrey

And Dagarth – and Dagarth, did you see his face?” said Old Balderguzzle

“Oh yes!” said Pomfret

“Chagrin without the grin!” said Old Balderguzzle.

“It wiped the smile off and twice and thrice! Laughed Nodkin

“He wont be smiling again for a while, maybe not never!” Frenella said

“Not ‘til Lammas come doomsday, I don’t reckon , not ‘til Lammas come Doomsday!” Said Marden.

“Long live Roland – our leader and hero!” They all cried out.

And they all toasted, “Long live Roland victor of the battle!”

And the Fortressers began to sing to a stirring tune.

Splendid star!

Who’s evening rise

Turns night to day

And lights our way

Beneath holy skies

To a sacred place

And an ancient race

Sought by the holy and the wise

 

As they sang Roland sat by the fire, staring into the flames. He was sombre and did not feel like celebrating. He wished they would all stop. Firebrace knew his thoughts.

“You must allow them to celebrate,” he guided.

“We don’t know what else Dagarth is cooking up,” Roland said.

“No we don’t. All the more reason to keep up our spirits and look to what we have done, not to what we might do, might not do, or might see undone!”

“I don’t want to be undone!” Roland said with a smile.

Firebrace laughed. “Wonderful! Let’s make sure none of us are!”

 

When they awoke the next morning the opposing army was gone. Only the smouldering wreck of the lightning-struck trebuchet and a few embers of camp fires marked where they had been. The other siege weapons had been dismantled and taken away so there was little sign of the great threat that had menaced the castle’s walls the day before.

It was another fine morning and the joy of it filled the defenders and yet again made them enthusiastic about their victory. Before them the valley of the stream stretched out to the hill and they felt that it was undoubtedly, unquestionably theirs again. Roland, Oliver and Savitri decided to ride out on horses and look over the battlefield and see if they could spy where the enemy had got to. It was worth a risk for a look – they had to know what was afoot out there. Besides, it was time they practised riding – it would be a useful skill.

Roland had some experience on horseback, Unsurprisingly, Savitri could ride well. Oliver had very little experience and was shaky. He doubted he could fire an arrow from horseback.

Roland wanted to be sure he could use a lance when he needed to, so he picked up a branch to see if he could balance holding a weight on one side, pressing under his arm. It was difficult and he felt he had better practise riding a bit more first. Savitri was able to ride and wave a sword around in a quite terrifying manner. The only problem was making sure she didn’t decapitate the wrong people with it.

“I told you to watch out for her!” Roland called to Oliver.

“I don’t need telling twice. Come to think of it, I didn’t need telling once!”

They rode to the Scary Oak and looked out beyond the hill to the country beyond. There was no sign of the enemy.

Had they gone for good?

The fact that they were gone, that Roland didn’t know where they had gone, or when they might come back was actually more unsettling than when they had been here. Now they were merely a shadow, an unknown, out there somewhere, always lurking, always menacing, always having the potential to strike.

Roland resolved at that moment that the next time he had the chance he would get to know more of their plans, whatever it took. He had to know the mind of his enemy, all its plans, all its contingencies.

Chapter 7

 

Waiting is a cruel and relentless purpose, it saps the strength and addles the mind.

The defenders waited, and they waited. They had not expected Dagarth and his allies to return upon the instant but the waiting turned into a week, then a month. Each day they were tormented by the thought and fear of the next attack. One day a rider was spotted on the horizon with a spy glass. He stayed for an hour or so, making observations, then rode away. The defenders waited again.

Weeks later, one anticipated and much feared day, an army was back on the hill of the Scary Oak. Roland and his comrades looked out to see that it was much larger than the last time. Dagarth had found new allies. At first it was not clear who they were but scouts were sent out to spy from as near as they could get; they reported back with grim news. All of the new allies wore black armour they never seemed to take it off. They also had strange eyes, red and glowing.

Roland knew what it meant. The Spirus had arrived. Savitri heard the news too and reacted with silence. She flew into a fury, drawing her sword and hacking at anything in range.

Firebrace said to Roland, “Your uncle has chosen the wrong allies. They may defeat us, but whatever happens, your uncle will lose.”

It did not cheer Roland up much. He wanted his uncle defeated by his own hand. He looked at the hill where the enemy was gathered and remembered his resolution of a few weeks ago.

“We must find out what they are planning,” he said, “When Bobblejob and Jubblebub brought those plans back it gave us an advantage. “

“Yes it did,” Firebrace agreed, “but maybe not a crucial one. We might have won without it, with the cogitator’s plan.”

“Which we will not have as a surprise this time, making knowledge of their plans more important than ever. We must know what they are planning.”

“How?” Oliver asked, “are you planning on just going into their camp and asking them? Or perhaps just strolling in and nosing around?”

“It s not a bad idea.”

“I hope you’re kidding,” Oliver said.

“Look, the Scary Oak is a route right into there camp – we sneak in during the night, find out where they are hiding any plans, grab them and sneak out.”

“Then they will know they are missing,” Oliver objected.

“They didn’t notice that the plans Bobblejob and Jubblebub took were missing. “

“They probably did, it’s just that then they were so over-confident they didn’t care. Now things have changed. They are going to be more careful.”

“Then we have to be more careful and better prepared too.”

Oliver knew from experience that there was no talking Roland out of it, so he might as well try to be helpful. “How exactly are you going to get in there?” he asked.

“It would help very much to have some sort of disguise….”

“What?”

“A suit of armour.”

“You would have to lift up the visor at some stage, and they would see who you are.”

“The Spirus never lift their visors,” Savitri said. “Behind them there is only cold fire and hatred.”

“There we are! I disguise myself as one of those – go in at night.” Roland said.

“They are also tall,” Savitri pointed out, “You are too short to pass as one.”

“I shall walk on stilts. Now all we need is a suit of armour like the Spirus wear.”

“Well, we have one of those,” Oliver sighed resignedly, seeing where Roland was going with it.

“Precisely –– we dismantle Fred and use his armour!”

Then Firebrace spoke with anger: “I will have nothing to do with it; it is a foolish and dangerous enterprise.” And with that he left.

“was that a no?” Oliver asked.

“We will continue,” Roland said.

If Fred had really been alive he would have been surprised to be grabbed by both Roland and Oliver at once, but he did not flinch. The fact that he was about to be dismantled should have worried him, but it didn’t seem to. Oliver held the top of his right arm whilst Roland tugged at the fingers of the gauntlet, curious as to what was inside it. That, it turned out, was nothing. Nothing at all. Just thin air. Roland waved his hand through it. There was nothing there. They pulled off the rest of the arm’s armour to find the same amount of nothing. They removed the helmet to find yet more of the same. They looked inside it and found empty space.

“He’s brainless!” Oliver quipped.

The left arm and the legs came off and they too were empty. Finally they uncoupled the breast plate from the back plate. There, inside, was a glowing ball, little bigger than a plum. It floated around and seemed to want to escape. Roland cautiously caught hold of it, found it was very hot and let it go again with an “Ow!”

They found a small wooden chest and Roland, this time with his hand in a gauntlet, picked up the small ball, thrust it inside, and closed the lid.

“Is that all he was?” Oliver asked, disappointed.

“It seems so. The best things always come in oversized packages.”

“Overwrapping is the scourge of the age,” Oliver agreed.

“Now to see if I fit into the armour,” Roland said.

He put on the helmet. The red glowing “eyes” were still inside it, mounted in the visor but Roland could see through them. They gave the world a strange, red tinge. “Now the rest of it,” he said.

Savitri and Oliver helped Roland to put on the rest of the armour, leaving the boots until last.

The breast plate was too big for him and it reached down below his waist. As long as no one looked too hard. It might be alright, probably, he hoped.

The castle blacksmith made some extra shin pieces which were fastened onto the stilts. These would give Roland enough height and wouldn’t be too obvious – unless someone fell at his feet.

“That will happen after we win,” he said, trying to feign confidence.

The “boots” were the last parts to be fitted. They had no soles, the stilts simply went through them at the heel, so Savitri and Oliver simply tied them onto the stilts as best they could. They helped Roland up and he practised walking about. It was difficult and at first he could only walk in a series of jerks, but slowly he got more used to it.

“This is a crazy idea,” Savitri said.

“Do you have a better one?” he asked.

“Yes. Stay at home in bed.”

“I don’t feel tired,” he replied

He was surprised to find that even Savitri was against it. He had expected her to be determined to see it though. It gave him more than a moment of doubt.

There was no time for it. After a bit more practising it was time to be off. The evening had come and darkness had arrived. An attack could be due as ealry as first light – maybe even sooner, if uncle Dagarth was more sneaky than usual, and the Spirus of the same bent. It was time to get some spying done, and just hope that he could cope with the stilts.

“Why don’t you take them off until we are there?” Oliver asked.

“No,” Roland said “I can use the getting there for more practise walking on them.”

“Perhaps you need it,” Oliver said, and again he tried reason, “Look, do you really think this is a good idea?”

Roland did not reply, but simply put his best stilt forward.

To go down through the Scary Oak they needed to climb up the stairs of the tower. It was tough going on stilts but Roland was determined to make it even though he nearly fell backwards a couple of times. Once Savitri steadied him, “You are doing well,” she commended.

“Not such a bid idea after all then?” He asked.

“I didn’t say that,” she replied.

They arrived at the lower door and Roland removed the helmet so that Botherworth would know who he was. He then he banged on the door loudly. After a fairly long period Botherworth appeared in a – literally – moth eaten dressing gown and slippers that exuded a particular odour. He looked up at Roland’s face, obviously puzzled by his sudden growth spurt. “Do you know what time it is?” he demanded.

“Yes, “Roland said, “We can tell the time.”

“Well then, you should know better than to be around here annoying decent grown up folk. You should be in bed, all of you.”

“We aren’t tired,” Roland objected.

“You are taller,” Botherworth said, still puzzled.

Despite Savitri’s lecture on toughness Roland decided that maybe a softly-softy approach was worth one last go with Mr B. He could hardly say ‘Its good to see you again’ as it wasn’t, so instead he tried, “How are you, Mister Botherworth?” in the most charming tones he could manage.

Botherworth responded with, “Look, if I told you I had a pain in my neck, pains in my back, a crick somewhere or another that gets cricked a lot and a pain in my bum that, oddly enough, is actually right in front of me and not where you’d expect it to be, would you really be interested?”

“No,” Roland said honestly.

“Well, then, go away and mind your own business.”

Roland pushed the door open and shoved Botherworth out of the way.

“Good for you!” Savitri said to Roland, as Botherworth headed off to his lair muttering complaints under his breath – “Youngsters today! No respect! Its all the fault of leftie educationalists – bring back discipline! The cane! That never did me no harm! Except when it hurt. Made me into a useful member of society, not like these young layabouts…”

The trio continued up the stairs and knocked on the Fortressers’ door. It took a very short while for Brother Goodwill to spring to their service. He was deliriously gleeful to see them, as ever, “Good night, good night, good night – no! Not to mean you are leaving, of course! I mean it as a greeting – which it isn’t, I suppose…. Odd, that; good morning is a greeting – good night means goodbye – as in go away! We don’t want you to leave! No we don’t! Goodness no! Welcome, welcome – in!”

He opened the door so wide and welcomingly that it almost broke off its hinges. Goodwill didn’t even seem to notice that Roland was wearing a black suit of armour and was nearly two feet taller. Roland explained, “We have decided to undertake a bit of espionage. We are going to go into the enemy camp via the Scary Oak – this is why I am disguised.”

“Oh! How thrilling!” Goodwill enthused loudly. “A secret mission! I will wake all the brothers and they can accompany you and cheer and sing as you go on your way!”

“No!” Roland said, feeling panicked at the idea. “It’s a secret mission! We can’t have people coming with us and cheering and singing – it would give us away!”

“Oh yes, of course. Of course! It’s been so long… I have quite forgotten how these things are done. I have accomplished my share of secret missions in my time. Wonderful experiences they are, all the lovely people you meet!”

‘And deceive,’ Roland thought, wondering how many underhand secret missions Goodwill could really have accomplished with such a positive attitude.

Goodwill seemed to have got the message but as they walked through the hall Savitri suggested, “I think we should knock him over the head, tie him up and leave him somewhere just in case”

We can’t do that to him,” Oliver said, “he’s so… lovely.”

“Lovely enough to get us all killed,” Savitri said under her breath.

Brother Goodwill remained un-trussed and it was a good thing as the trio had forgotten how to get to the Scary Oak through the tangle of passages. They needed Goodwill as a guide.

It was at the point where Roland had to descend down the ladders and then through the tree that the impractically of the plan became obvious. Doing so in a suit of armour was all but impossible but with the stilts as well it was quite out of the question. Roland didn’t want to take the armour off only to have to put it on again in the midst of the enemy. He put his helmet on so that he didn’t have to carry it and Brother Goodwill bustled off to find some rope. With this they lowered Roland down each level before descending themselves, finally lowering him down through the trunk of the tree. Even then it was a squeeze to get out at the bottom of the trunk. Savitri had volunteered to go ahead and check that the coast was clear whilst Brother Goodwill and Oliver lowered Roland down the final stage. Goodwill was persuaded to remain behind “as a backup” (they told him) but really they were concerned that his enthusiasm for meeting and greeting people might give them all away.

The enemy were camped all around the Scary Oak, but at some distance from it. Probably this was due to them not wanting to set light to the overhanging branches with their camp fires. There was quite a wide space left all around the tree and there were no guards on duty around it. Why should there be? The trio had successfully got around – over – the perimeter with no fuss at all. It would make it much easier to pass through the camp unnoticed as everyone in it doubtless still had that comfortable feeling of impregnability.

Oliver and Savitri helped Roland onto the feet of his stilts. Now he found out yet more about the pitfalls of them. Walking around on a stone floor with them had been one thing but on the grass of the hill it was quite another. It was rough and tufted so that he found it all too easy trip. At other places it was soft and he found himself sinking into it. On several occasions he almost fell over and Oliver had to steady him. When he tried to stand still he found that the stilts became stuck as they sank down and he could only pull them out again with a slurp and almost falling over.

“I thought this would be easier, “Roland cursed.

“Which way are you going to go – presuming you can?” Oliver asked.

“From the castle I saw an important looking tent in that direction,” – he pointed – “You can bet that is where Dagarth and his friends will meet up to scheme their schemes.”

Oliver helped him turn in the direction he had pointed. Roland started walking unsteadily. Between him and the important tent were a number of smaller tents and a couple of camp fires where the human soldiers were busy eating and drinking and occasionally making a lot of noise, arguing and fighting.

He thought that the cause was lost straightaway. He walked up to the nearest tent and as he was about to pass it a Spirus came out and got right in his way. He came to a dead stop in front of it. For a few seconds it just looked at him. Then, From deep inside the thing, came a noise like a piece of metal being dragged over a gritty stone floor. It made Roland think of a broken bell crying out in agony. He quickly realised that that was how they spoke. He couldn’t possibly make a sound like that, not even with practise and certainly not right now so he just saluted instead, hoping that his gauntlet was tied on properly and that it didn’t fly off. It didn’t, but for a second he imagined it hitting the creature right in the visor.

The Spirus seemed a bit put out by the fact that Roland didn’t say anything, but nothing more. It shuffled off towards one of the other tents. Roland struggled to regain some momentum as by this time his feet were sinking into the wet turf but

Instead of moving off again he tripped and fell over. Within seconds he felt hands on him and thought it was all up, but then he heard Oliver’s voice. “What did that thing want?”

“Just wanted to chat about the weather I expect. I just hope they don’t know any good jokes – I wont know when to laugh.”

“Want to give up now?” Oliver asked, hopefully.

“No,” said Roland, “I can do this – we have come so far.”

“And the dangerous bit is still ahead,” Savitri pointed out.

“That Spirus didn’t cop me as an intruder – that means I have a good chance.”

“It was probably too drunk,” Savitri said

“Do they look like drinkers?” Roland asked.

“They don’t look like any teetotallers I’ve ever met either,” Oliver noted.

They got Roland back on his stilts and sent him off in the right direction again.

He managed to walk past the few tents and the camp fire without being noticed, although a drunken fight between two of the human soldiers nearly got in his way. He recognised the form of Serjeant Jankers rushing to put a stop to it and was glad there was a distraction.

As he approached the important tent he saw that it was not dark as he had hoped but instead was lit inside. He could hear familiar voices coming from it. Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp were up late, arguing over plans. Occasionally he also heard the metallic tortured bell sound that he had heard earlier from the Spirus. One of them was in there, presumably their leader, arguing its case with the rest of them. Roland got closer, hoping he might overhear something by edging closer to the side of the tent.

He had been standing there barely a minute when he was suddenly grabbed by both arms. Two of the Spirusses had seen him. They both emitted the tortured metal sounds and then rushed him in through the doorway of the tent. In there, Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag, Gloatenglorp and a Spirus all stood behind a table, staring right at him. One of the Spirusses who had brought him in “spoke” to the one behind the table, who presumably was their chief. Gloatenglorp turned to Dagarth and Bril-a-Brag. He could obviously understand their language as he translated, “This,” – and he indicated Roland – “is one of the scouts they sent out earlier.”

The chief Spirus said something to Roland. Gloatenglorp translated for the others, “He is asking him what he has found out.”

Roland didn’t know what to say and even if he had, and had said it, his voice would certainly have given him away. Right in front of him on the table was a map of the castle and its surroundings. He moved towards it, raised a gauntlet and started gesturing over it, pointing at nothing in particular.

“I don’t understand what it’s trying to indicate,” Dagarth said testily, “Can’t it speak?”

The other Spirus who had brought him in spoke, obviously trying to explain something. Gloatenglorp translated again, “They found him standing around outside. Judging from the dents in his armour they think he was attacked and may be in a daze.”

“Brain damaged more like!” said Dagarth.

Gloatenglorp looked at Roland and made sounds rather like the metallic sounds of the Spirus – as far as any human could make such sounds. Roland realised that Gloatenglorp was asking him questions directly. He started gesticulating over the map again, trying to distract attention from his silence.

“There must be something wrong with it,” Dagarth said, “Do they have gears or something? It must be broken.” and he moved toward Roland to rap him on the helmet with a stick. At that moment there were more metallic sounds from outside and another Spirus entered, saluted and spoke.

“This is another of the scouts they sent out,” Gloatenglorp interpreted.

Let’s hope this one makes a lot more sense,” Dagarth said.

It seems it did. It let rip with the most appalling sounds, like a whole load of metal scrap being dragged around a quarry. Once more Gloatenglorp translated, “He says that they have located the lower water gate. We should be able to take it and then we can drain the moat as we wish. It will not matter though as the – and Gloatenglorp made a sound like the Spirusses – presumably the word didn’t translate – can pass through water anyway. However, our troops will be able to pass through the castle walls after them with dry feet!”

“Grand,” said Bril-a-Brag.

“And this –“ and he tried to say that word that Gloatenglorp had tried to say, “this Zzzzzzarrrrrrrrblurrrrrrghzzzzzrrrrrr,” – his attempt to speak their language plainly caused pain to the Spirusses as it didn’t sound dreadful enough – “has it arrived yet?” Gloatenglorp asked the chief Spirus in Spirus noises. The chief Spirus replied, with Gloatenglorp translating once more, “It has. It is concealed on the far side of the hill.”

“Good,” Dagarth said, “Now I will show that little brat nephew of mine who is in charge around here. I’ll give him a whopping!”

The chief Spirus made the metallic grating sound again and all the other Spirusses turned about and walked out of the tent. Roland was left there with everyone else standing at him, expectantly. He gathered that the chief Spirus’ words had been an order of dismissal and he was supposed to have left with the others. That, however, was going to be a problem. Roland’s feet had by now sunk deep into the soft, wet turf and he found that he was unable to turn on the spot. As he struggled all he succeeded in doing was getting his feet pointed in opposite directions, with his legs crossed, whilst his body ended up sideways to the table.

As Dagarth and the others looked on in puzzlement he struggled to pull the other foot up whilst at the same time fighting to maintain his balance. It wasn’t easy, particularly as he had the weight of armour to try to balance as well. Gradually it started to give. Dagarth and crew continued to look on in increasing amazement and were even getting suspicious.

When Roland’s foot finally came out it did so suddenly. He found himself lurching towards the side of the tent and had to keep putting one stilt in front of the other to stop himself from overbalancing completely. He saw the side of the tent rushing up at him and ended going head first into it. He fell forwards and was wrapped in the canvas as he did so.

It took a few seconds for him to recover from the fall. Judging from the angry shouts and sounds of confusion that came from behind him he guessed that he must have pulled the tent down on the lot of them. He was on the outer edge of the fallen canvas whereas the others were struggling under the middle of it. Because of this he was able to get out first, crawling on his hands and knees. Dagarth and company were now guaranteed to investigate thoroughly the suspicious Spirus who had pulled down the command tent. Roland knew it was pointless to try and right himself with the stilts on so he quickly untied them and took them off, together with as much of the armour as he could. Meanwhile the shouts from under the canvas were inevitably attracting attention. He could hear his uncle shouting, “What the blazes! I thought they were warriors, not a troupe of clowns! When I get out of here I am going to have it’s armour melted down for scrap and whatever’s inside flayed on a rack!”

It was time to leave, and hastily.

Without the stilts Roland was now able to stand up. He did so and started to run as fast as he could back to the Scary Oak. Behind him he heard the sound of canvas ripping and guessed that those underneath it had worked out that the best way to escape was to cut their way out with swords. In a few seconds he heard Bril-a-Brag shouting, “There it goes and now! That must be it – its running away – but it’s shrunk! It’s two feet shorter than it was a minute ago! What on earth is going on?”

And Dagarth yelled, “It’s that boy! I don’t understand how but I know it is! The little scoundrel! when I get him by the scruff…”

With the rumpus of the command tent the rest of the camp were coming to action stations. The chase was on and Roland found himself ducking and weaving to avoid groups of solders trying to catch him. He dived under a cart and emerged the other side free of one group of pursuers, only to pick up another group. More were in front but he managed to evade them by throwing himself down the hillside and rolling into the bushes. There he was able to catch a few moments of breath whilst they searched for him. The noise and confusion in the camp was continuing and he could hear the voices of Bril-a-Brag, Dagarth and Gloatenglorp shouting orders and generally adding to the chaos. Eventually it went quiet and Roland thought – hoped – it would/might be safe to move again.

He fought his way through the bushes towards the Scary Oak. Once there the way seemed clear so he leapt out and ran across the clearing. In front of him were Oliver and Savitri standing by the Scary Oak. The moment Oliver saw Roland he yelled out, “Go back! It’s a trap!”

But it was too late. Savitri drew her sword and out of the nearby bushes sprang a group of Bril-Brag’s men. They wrestled Roland to the ground. The pursuers from the tent caught up and as they did so Savitri spoke, saying to Bril-a-brag, “I did as you commanded my lord. I have found out the secrets of the castle. I took this foolish boy into my confidence and he told me everything.”

“Well done Savitri, well done,” Bril-a-Brag said.

Chapter 8

 

Roland was surprised by how quickly they got the command tent up again. Only a few gashes in the canvas were left to show what had happened. They put the large table back as well, but without the map. This was clearly so that Roland and Oliver could not see any more of it as they were now tied to chairs nearby. It didn’t matter; Roland was sure he could remember the details.

With the map gone there wasn’t really much to look at in the tent. It was just the two boys, a table and a couple of Spirus guards. All Roland and Oliver had to do was await the inquisition in the inevitable form of Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp.

It came soon enough as they strode into the tent with an annoyingly triumphant spring in their step and smirks on their faces.

“Now let me assure you that you are going to tell us everything, absolutely everything, however long it takes,” said Bril-a-Brag.

“Hasn’t Savitri already told you everything?” Roland asked.

“Yes, but I want to hear it from you too. It’s so much more pleasurable that way. Let me explain; I am a creature of eclectic tastes. I enjoy the subtle pleasures of successful espionage – sending Savitri in to spy on you – but I also enjoy a thoroughly good torture session with lots of pleading and screaming.”

“For goodness sake hurry up and make him scream!” Dagarth said, “I‘ve waited long enough to hear it.”

Roland said with an insolent smile, “I really don’t understand what you have against me uncle.”

“Don’t you! You chucked me out of the castle that is rightfully mine by birth.”

“The castle rejected you,” Roland pointed out, nodding towards Dagarth’s burned bum, “why don’t you sit down and we’ll talk about it?”

Dagarth’s face distorted and reddened with rage, I’ll show you…!”

“Don’t you want to know how Dogwood and Dagwood are?” Roland asked, “We pulled them up out of the moat, wailing and sobbing…”

“Serves them right for being captured! A spell in a dungeon will toughen them up a bit. Come to think of it, probably not as you don’t know much about proper dungeons do you? Your idea probably involves cushions and room service.”

And yours involves loud screaming,” Roland said.

“And what is wrong with that? Bril-a-Brag interjected, “The enjoyment of organised sound is one of the great achievements of civilisation.”

“Only when everyone can enjoy it,” Roland said. “Look, Are you actually going to get on with it and torture us or just faff around, because I m getting bored. Or is that part of the torture?”

“An interesting idea, but no,” said Bril-a-Brag. “Look, why the rush? I prefer to start a torture session after a good night sleep and a hearty breakfast. You must wait eagerly – until tomorrow!”

“I’d prefer to get on with it right now ,” Dagarth said – clearly he and Bril-a-brag did have differences over torturing, after all.

“We really do need to get in some gloating as well,” Bril-a-Brag said, “We are villains after all. Gloating is what we do!”

“So this is where you tell us your dastardly schemes?” Roland asked.

“Dastardly – a good word! I wonder, if schemes can be dastardly, is there such a thing as a dastard?”

“Look in the mirror,” Roland said.

And why do you say that?”

“Because you want to steal our castle.”

“A castle that no doubt your ancestors stole from someone else, or were given by some thieving prince.”

“First, my ancestors were not thieves, second, two wrongs don’t make a right.”

“If evil does evil to evil, is that not good?”

“What about a third wrong? You’ll have to watch out that someone doesn’t do the same to you, then.” Roland objected.

“Of course. When a thief steals from a thief, the devil must work to keep his own wallet. When a murderer kills a murderer, the devil must make laws to protect himself.”

“So laws are the devils work?”

“By the devil done, for the devil to undo. Doesn’t Plato say that the strong are right to do what they want?”

“That wasn’t Plato, it was Thrasymachus, in a discussion with Socrates, in a book that was written by Plato. And anyway, Socrates proves he is wrong.”

“By a technicality I think. Socrates declares a foul in a game where he is both player and referee and Plato is writing the rules as he pleases. Now that’s what I call cheating!”

“So the man you agree with is a cheat?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“It’s what you meant.”

“You are mixing my words!”

“Your words match your intentions and your actions – all are at fault.”

“Ach!” Said Bril-a-Brag, “You won’t argue so well tomorrow,” and he stomped off.

Dagarth ruddled with frustration but could only raise his fist at Roland. He also said “Ach!” and stomped off, leaving Roland and Oliver with only the two Spirusses for companionship.

“Know any good jokes?” Roland asked them.

They remained silent.

“You just can’t think of one when you want to tell one, can you? Yet later on they all come back to you….”

The Spirusses continued to remain silent.

“At least they have the same problem remembering jokes as humans do.” Oliver said.

The Spirus were not great conversationalists either, They remained silent and Roland and Oliver found that they had little to say to each other given their situation. The most important thing was to try to escape without alerting their guards, which was a tall order with them right up close. Unfortunately the knots had been expertly tied. Even if the boys hadn’t had to conceal their attempts to undo them from their guards it would have been impossible. They may as well have been bound by iron and it started to feel like it.

Roland, of course, wanted to get back to the castle and play his role in its defence, not sit here as a helpless captive at the mercy of his enemies. He took his anger out on the ropes by attempting to stretch them but the pain in his wrists quickly made him regret it.

As they struggled the camp went quiet and they guessed that the armies were getting some sleep There was nothing to do except wait and try to work on the knots that bound them.

Some time had passed when there was a noise at the tent flap and through it rolled Fred’s head – or his helmet, at least. It rolled right up to the feet of the Spirusses, looking up at them with its red eyes, glowering as ever. The Spirusses looked down at it, looked at each other and then down at it again. One of them bent to pick it up, but then the helmet started back the way that it came, out through the door. All watched in amazement, but then Roland noticed that there was string tied to the helmet by which it was being drawn along.

The Spirus who had bent to pick it up followed it right out of the door, whereupon there was muffled clang and a sort of whooshing-rushing sound, then the sound of empty armour collapsing on the ground. Roland and Oliver looked at each other, then at the remaining Spirus.

A few seconds later the helmet of the Spirus that had followed Fred’s head out the doorway came rolling in through the door, right up to the remaining Spirus’ feet. He looked down at it, looked towards the door, and then slowly and cautiously went outside to look around. Again there was clang, a rushing-whooshing sound followed by the sound of empty armour collapsing. After a few seconds Savitri came through the tent opening.

“Quick!” she said, “We don’t have much time!”

“You!” Roland exclaimed.

“You traitor!” Oliver said.

“Yes, that is why I am here to rescue you, you idiots”

“Why did you turn on me and take me captive?” Oliver persisted, as Savitri worked at cutting though their ropes.

“We were about to be discovered and it just made sense for me to appear to be on their side so I could rescue you later. Otherwise I would be here tied up like you two.”

“Makes sense,” Oliver conceded.

“But Bril-a-Brag said you told them all my secrets,” Roland protested, only half believing Savitri’s story.

“I told them a load of rubbish. They think there is crock of gold deep under the castle keep. I made it all up!”

Roland felt relieved, in more ways than one. Obviously he had not wanted his secrets told to the enemy, but the idea that he had been betrayed by someone in whom he had placed so much trust had shaken him.

“Thank you,” he said to Savitri, pleased that his faith had been confirmed, “I am sorry I doubted you.”

“I am on your side,” she said, looking him right in the eye, “But I’m not your Asian sidekick. Now we have to get out of here,”

“We are in the middle of an armed camp with sentries all around. Nothing could be simpler,” Oliver said sarcastically.

Savitri told them, “I have arranged a little diversion which should be going off just about….. NOW!”

And there was an “aieeeeghhhh!” From a distant tent and then the sound of Gloatenglorp’s voice shouting at full volume, “Rats in my trousers!

Rats in my trousers!

Wet fish and pudding pie

All fall down and hope to die

Hail the midshipman

Windmills and daffodils

Jousting with giants

Mint juleps form hamster jam!

As he shouted this out, he emerged from his tent with his sword drawn and started running and leaping through the camp slashing at anything that moved. Others rushed from their tents fearing it was a surprise attack by an army, only to find that Gloatenglorp was a handful all on his own, spreading terror, chaos and confusion as people fled before him.

“I cut through the rope holding him up whilst he was sleeping,” Savitri explained, “just enough so that it slowly gave way and he fell on his head and woke up. It has happened before and when it does he goes berserk….”

Everyone was too busy fleeing for their lives to notice that the prisoners were escaping. As quickly and quietly as they could they made their way through the madness that had erupted. On one occasion Gloatenglorp came close to them, still yelling and shouting nonsense and brandishing his sword to the terror of all nearby. Bril-a-brag was nowhere to be seen and Roland suspected he knew when to make himself scarce when his servant was in that kind of mood. Probably has his head beneath the bedclothes, Roland thought. Good. The longer the better.

The escapees quickly found their way to the Scary Oak and climbed up inside the trunk. Brother Goodwill was waiting and ready to help them up through the trap door, “Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! What a wonderful adventure you must have had! And quite a long one too! You must tell me all about it and how thrilling it was, and about all the lovely people you met whilst having it!”

“He really needs to give it a rest,” Oliver said.

“It’s better than what we were in for below,” Roland replied.

“Point taken,” Oliver agreed.

Firebrace was not pleased when they returned to the great hall. Neither was he pleased to hear of their adventure, to hear that they had been captured, or to hear that they had nearly been tortured.

“I told you it was a foolish plan,” he said.

“But we got away with it – and we got some useful information,” Roland said.

“We did?” Oliver asked.

“Of course,” Roland said, “I think I did rather well. I got a good gawp at their plans plus When I was in their tent they were talking about something that would give them an advantage – Gloatenglorp couldn’t translate it but it is some kind of siege weapon, no doubt. We must find out what it is. “

You’re not thinking of going back!” Oliver gasped, and Firebrace looked like he was about to burst with fury and frustration.

“No,” said Roland, “I don’t think we can sneak back in again.”

“Don’t you?” Oliver said sarcastically.

“No, but we could really do with being able to see beyond the passage that leads to the Scary Oak – maybe climb out onto the branches and see if we can see any further.”

“There is always the inspection cradle,” said Brother Stalwart, who had been awakened by an excited Brother Goodwill anxious to tell everyone about the lovely adventure.

“Inspection cradle?” Roland asked.

It’s used to maintain the tower from the outside – and to clean the windows. It can be “projected out on a boom.”

“Right out to the back of the Scary Oak hill?”

“The brow of the hill is the perimeter of the tower. The boom will stretch the rest of the way, if we all hang on to the inside end and support it. There is just one problem…”

“That is?”

Once you are beyond the limit of the tower you will be visible. Anyone looking up “will be able to see you.”

“But they will not be able to reach me,” Roland objected.

“I really think we should send someone else, Roland,” Firebrace objected. “the captain of a ship should send a subordinate to a hostile shore.”

“He should also go down with it, and I have no intention of doing that either. Anyway, Who do I send? Someone to take the risks for me? I have been protected for long enough – the castle’s safety is my responsibility.”

Firebrace nodded reluctant agreement. He was concerned, but also proud.

“Get this cradle thing ready,” Roland said, “I am going to have another go at spying on our enemies!”

The cradle and the boom were found and Roland, Oliver, Savitri and the Fortressers manhandled it along the plankway that led out to the Scary Oak. Brother Stalwart opened the shutters on a window and Roland looked out and down to the topmost branches of the Scary Oak, far below. For a moment the height struck him and caused a giddy feeling. He stepped back.

“Still want to try this?” Oliver asked him.

“Yes. More than ever,” Roland said.

It was amazing that the Scary Oak, which looked so tall from below, now looked so small from above. Its branches reached up only a small part of the distance to the great sky above.

The cradle was attached to the end of the first beam and set upon the ledge of the window. It was very small, and Roland was barely able to cram himself into it. The next beam was attached and the cradle pushed out from the window. As each beam was attached to the end of the last the cradle moved further out from the tower, the brothers taking the strain of holding it up and also pushing hard. Roland looked over the edge of the wicker cradle and could see the camp where he had been the night before. The men below looked tiny and he was cheered by how small they looked. Surely it could not be so difficult to deal with such tiny creatures? He laughed and thought how he would look from this high up if he were on the ground. Even smaller, of course!

He looked back at the tower and could see nothing. Only the boom being paid out as if from nowhere. It was as if he were simply hanging in the air. It was amazing. It was at this point that he realised that he had no means to communicate with the brothers to tell them when to bring him in. It was a nuisance. He cursed and wished he had thought of it before. At that moment a sparrow landed on his shoulder and pecked his ear. He shrugged his shoulder in an attempt to get rid of it and then raised his hand to brush it away. The sparrow simply flew to the other ear and gave it a nip. “Go away!” he cursed, and tried to swipe it again. The sparrow flew off but then landed in front of him on the edge of the cradle and looked at him sideways with its left eye.

Suddenly Roland remembered about the birds nesting in the roof of the library and Firebrace’s mention of them as messengers.

He tried it. “Tell the brothers to pay me out about fifty more feet.”

The sparrow flew off with a few tweets and headed straight into the tower, becoming invisible as it did so. In a few seconds it returned and tweeted a few more tweets. The boom was paid out about fifty more feet and stopped.

“You know my language but I don’t know yours,” Roland said, “Sorry. Makes you wonder who is the real bird brain around here!”

And the sparrow made a noise that Roland interpreted as a laugh.

As he was pushed over the brow of the hill Roland saw what it had been obscuring. At first he thought his eyes must be mistaken. There was a huge – creature – with a smooth, dark polished shell. It was narrow at what Roland assumed was the front but it became wider and taller toward the rear. It had horns on what seemed to be its head, but apart from that it looked like a giant metal rat, except that there were legs sticking out of the sides – many of them, like a centipede’s – and tentacles, or feelers, sticking out from around what Roland assumed was its mouth, He shivered at the sight of it. Surely the castle could not withstand such a monstrosity. He had seen enough.

“Would you please ask them to pull me back in,” he said to the sparrow, and it flew off. Within a few moments he was being pulled back in.

“What did you see?” Oliver asked when Roland got out of the cradle.

“Some monster – I think it may even have been alive – like a horned beetle with many legs.”

Brother Stalwart spoke, “A scuttler! I’ve never actually seen one but I’ve heard of them. A prime weapon of the detested Spirus! Horrible things – they can take down a castle!”

“What are they? Are they alive?”

“They are creatures of sorts. Not so much like animals — more like aggressive vegetables, but they are very dangerous.”

“What can we do?” Roland asked.

“Try to defeat it,” Stalwart said, “What else?”

“What are the chances of that?” Roland asked seriously.

“We must do our best,” Brother Stalwart said grimly.

“I am going to attack it from the air. Get some bombs and pay me out again – I will drop them on it.”

“That I am afraid we cannot do,” Brother Stalwart said.

“What!?” Roland asked, “I will be taking the risk. It is my life.”

“You don’t understand. It is against our oath. If we aid you in such an attack it may result in us taking a life. It is against our oath to actively partake in violence.”

“The villagers will have no problem helping, I am sure,” Roland said with contempt, pushing past Stalwart.

Oliver organised the strongest of the villagers to take control of the boom and showed them how to use it. Roland asked them, “Can you speak sparrow?”

They looked at him as if he had gone off his rocker.

“Just keep pushing me out until I wave my – and he grabbled a neckerchief off of one of them – until I wave this and then bring me back in again quickly!”

“Do you have the bombs?” he said to Oliver. Oliver produce three bombs, like round black balls the size of large apples with fuses sticking out of them. They were hollow and contained gunpowder.

“I will need something to light them,” Roland said. Savitri produced her tinder box and gave it to him.

“Good! We are set!”

Roland was pushed out again. He looked downwards checking that he had not been spotted, but those down below were busy going about their business, quite unaware of what was above them. It was the ultimate sneak attack, worthy of uncle Dagarth himself, Roland thought, but he didn’t expect that his uncle would appreciate it.

When he was right over the scuttler he lit the tinder and picked up the bomb, placing the end of the fuse against the fire. It fizzled and sparkled. The fuses had been left long enough so Roland could use his judgement as to how long to wait until dropping them. It was a good thing too as the first one dropped onto of the creature long before exploding. It rolled down the smooth shell and didn’t explode until it hit the ground. Roland had counted the time between when it hit the scuttler and when it exploded so he would know how long to wait before dropping the next one.

The second one did indeed explode at the moment of contact, but there was little effect. By this time the men and Spirusses around the scuttler were aware that they were under attack and were looking around for where the missiles were coming from. They were scouring the horizon but didn’t think to look up – not at first.

The smoke from the second bomb cleared and Roland looked down to see that it, too, had been ineffectual. There wasn’t a dent or a scratch on the thing, not one that was visible from up here. He lit the fuse of the third bomb and dropped it.

It also exploded without effect. Beneath him the enemy had failed to identify an attacker on the ground and one of the men thought to look above him. He shouted and pointed at Roland who quickly realised it was time to retreat.

At the same time he began to smell something burning. At first he thought it was coming from down below but then he began to realise that he was getting a little too warm for that. There was fire right beside him – underneath him! He looked down to see that he had spilled the burning contents of the tinder box into the cradle and that it was now on fire. Meanwhile the archers below were pulling back their bows and taking aim.

Roland pulled the neckerchief to signal the others to pull him back in but that had caught fire as well. He dropped it as a flaming rag and started to signal with his hands. Meanwhile arrows started to rush past him and a couple hit the bottom of the cradle, one pushing its tip through the floor. Roland waved his arms frantically but by this time those in the tower had realised his distress and he was being pulled in quickly. The cradle was now well on fire and Roland began to wonder whether he would be burned to death, whether he would die as a result of falling when the bottom of the cradle burned through, or whether he would be killed by an arrow – or arrows.

It was about to get worse. Beneath him the scuttler had begun to stir. It was now making an aggressive roaring sound and a strange whirring. It did not sound good and Roland suspected that it was the build up to some sort of aggressive act. As he got closer to the tower he found out he was right. The scuttler reared up like a horse whilst it horns closed together and then drew apart again. Between them now was a bright, glowing string, like lightning. The horns pointed towards him and the lightning string formed into a missile which the creature shot towards him. It hit the tower just below the point where the boom projected from it.

Just For a moment Roland saw what the tower actually looked like. The energy from the scuttler’s missile spread across and through it, causing it to be visible and shine. It was like a tree of crystals with many branches and a gleaming trunk that stretched from the ground to the sky. Around it was wrapped a spiral which also shone. Roland was quite stunned by the sight of it, but was then jerked back to reality by the scuttler’s second missile, which came much closer. By that time he was very near the window. Seeing that the boom disappeared just a few feet in front of him he decided to leap for it. Grabbing up Savitri’s tinder box he placed a foot on the edge of the cradle and leapt into the air. He passed through the window and landed in a heap on the floor. Savitri and Oliver picked him up and made sure he wasn’t on fire.

“That was close!” he said.

“You are a risk taker,” Savitri said, “I think I underestimated you.”

“You think!?” Oliver said.

“I did no harm to that thing, whatever it is. It was useless,” Roland cursed angrily.

“You tried,” Oliver said.

“Trying is not succeeding, and we need to succeed. Dagarth only has to beat us once, and he can stay out there until Doomsday trying at it.”

“Unless we take it to him,” Savitri said, “Finish this now.”

“And divide our forces,” Roland said.

“We fought them off once before with the villagers, and we have another army – or have you forgotten those Sun Warrior things?” Savitri said.

“Of course!” Oliver said.

“I was hoping to hold them in reserve, until a time when we really needed them,” Roland objected.

Firebrace said, “I think that time may have come.”

 

The Sun Warriors were an eerie sight under their sheets. The only cheering thing about them was that they were on the side of the castle.

“Do they ride?” Roland inquired.

“Yes, they ride,” Firebrace said.

“They will need horses,” Roland said.

“They will have horses,” Firebrace said.

“But where from?”

“You will see. Now, raise your arm,”

Roland did so, and as he did the warriors reached up with their hands and removed the sheets that covered them. Before him were a hundred suits of glittering armour.

“Address one of them and you will address them all,” Firebrace said.

Roland tried it, “Right err, well, we need…,” he cleared his throat and tried to speak in the tones of a leader, “We need you to go out and fight against my uncle, but, well, I can’t send you out on your own and…. – I will lead you!

“Roland!” Oliver objected.

“Good for you!” Savitri said, “and I will ride out by your side.”

“Will you stay here,” Roland said to Oliver, “You can lead the defence of the tower in my absence, but use Firebrace to guide you, follow his advice.”

Back in the great hall Roland and friends pored over the maps of the castle and its surroundings once more.

“lets recap what we know,” Roland said. “We cannot defeat that Spirus scuttler thing and it will likely breach the castle walls. So, we must attack the people attacking with it. That means we must fight them hand-to-hand them in the field.”

“I like it,” Savitri said

“I thought you might,” Roland said. “Kind of your thing isn’t it?”

“Definitely,” Savitri agreed.

“I think we need another advantage – something else to ensure this strategy is a success.”

“What?” Oliver asked.

“The land surveyor,” Roland said. “It is time to bring all of our resources to bear. It is win or lose time. We get him out there with his clipboard and his theodo-ma-thingey-ma-jig and change the world beneath their feet, then go in for the attack with the sun warriors.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Savitri said.

“It is one,” Roland agreed, “Let’s just hope it is a good one.”

Chapter 9

 

Once more they were waiting. They waited all through the night until sunrise lit the view of their enemy on the hill. Very pretty they looked too, in their bright coloured tabards and shields, shiny armour and weapons. All expect the Spirus, that is, who were dark and grim.

Dagarth and friends were plainly in no hurry, no hurry whatsoever. The waiting lengthened and the shadows shortened as the defenders watched keenly for the inevitable attack. The scuttler was nowhere to be seen but its menacing presence was felt in the minds and hearts of Roland and his friends.

The afternoon came and the troops on the hill started to move down, as they had on the day of the first attack. This time there were no carts bringing trebuchets or rafts, just men who gathered into phalanxes ready to move forwards when the time came.

It was sometime after two o clock that an unearthly sound in the far distance, like a roaring rumbling sound combined with the faint chimes of a deep bell, could be heard. It seemed to rumble both through the earth and across the sky, all at once, shaking the castle and its defenders.

Roland and Firebrace stood together, watching from the battlements. Slowly the beast emerged from around the hill, painfully slow but impressive and powerful looking. Soon Roland could see its legs, all working together and rippling as they moved the beast towards the castle. An army of Spirusses followed it.

“Curse Dagarth for bringing such a monstrous thing to our home, “Roland said.

“Yes,” said Firebrace, “this alone proves that your grandfather was right about him.” The thing got closer. It took up a position in front of the castle, about a quarter of a mile from the moat.

Roland took a deep breath. “it must be nearly time,” he said.

“Yes,” Firebrace agreed, “nearly time.”

At that moment they could see three riders with escorts start out from the brow of the hill and make their way down to the fields beside the castle. It was Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp. Gloatenglorp now had a bandage around his head and Dagarth was still tender in the saddle area. At least we have affected two of them, Roland thought.

It was now time. He left the battlements and saddled up. In front of him the Sun Warriors, their armour gleaming in the bright afternoon sunlight, were still without mounts. As Roland yet again wondered about this a shout came from the battlements

“Enemy advancing!”

It was time to meet them in the field.

At the gatehouse two groups of men stood above a doorway. They were manning two wheels that when turned would raise a large door. Behind the door was the terrible weapon that the defenders had – most reluctantly – decided to unleash on the countryside they wished to defend. Using it meant sweeping away all the landmarks they knew. They just had to hope that something as good, maybe better, would take its place.

Roland hoped so. He raised him arm and gave the much feared order, “Release the land surveyor!”

A gasp went around the castle from those who had not been made aware of the plan. Could such a terrible thing really be about to happen? The unleashing of a land surveyor? A land surveyor!!!!!!! Free to do his awful work!!!!

The door was hauled upward, creaking and groaning, and the land surveyor and his two assistants stepped forward, blinking in the bright light of the day after the darkness of captivity.

Roland rode up to him, “You know what you must do?”

“Yes sire! And thank you sire for authorising me to do my work. It is a rare occasion when we are allowed to go about it – not just allowed, but positively authorised and encouraged by the lord of the manor himself! It is a rare treat indeed and we will not disappoint you sir!”

Those in ear shot trembled at his words. He cautioned Roland, “You must make sure that you stay close by me at all times during my task, otherwise you will not know where you are, or anyone is, or anything is, ever again!”

He and his assistants picked up their clipboards, notebooks and theod-a-me-thing-a-me-jigs and waited for the drawbridge to be lowered. Meanwhile Roland turned his steed and faced the sun warriors. He did as Firebrace had told him. He raised his arm and said, “Mount up.”

The moment he had spoken flurries of fire appeared between their legs. The fires grew in intensity and formed the shapes of horses. As they did so they lifted up the warriors up so that they were now mounted on steeds of fire with fiery mains, gleaming yellow eyes and steaming, flame-streaked breath.

Roland, Oliver and Savitri looked on, amazed.

“With such power, how can we lose?” Oliver gasped.

“The power is limited, sadly,” Firebrace said, “but it is good, and on our side, and may yet be good enough.”

Roland ordered that the portcullis be raised and the drawbridge lowered. He gave the command to move forwards. The land surveyor, his assistants and the sun warriors followed him to the entrance, but at the gatehouse they paused as a young couple approached Roland. The woman spoke to him, “My lord, we are a couple wishing to marry. You are now the lord and we need, and wish for, your blessing. Please give it us before you ride out.”

“Gladly,” Roland said. He waved his hand over them, “You have my blessing.”

Once they were across the drawbridge the Land Surveyor and his assistants set to work and the land started changing before their eyes. Fields and hedges, tracks and roads, all flickered out of existence whilst others flickered into existence elsewhere. Landmarks disappeared from one place to reappear in another. The landscape was indeed changing at dizzying speed.

The land surveyor had been instructed that some things had to remain; the castle, the river and the hill of the Scary Oak. The river was diverted here, there and back again, but always making its way to the castle in order to supply the moat. The castle and the hill of the Scary Oak remained as landmarks, but with the distance changing between them by the second.

The enemy was now finding the terrain changing under their very feet. Even the castle was moving away from them as the space was being stretched out to the maximum so as to give an advantage to the defenders. Dagarth and his pals would no longer know where they were, and that was the point!

With all the confusion going on it was hard to keep track of it all and Roland had to rely on the land surveyor. Roland now understood the Land Surveyor’s caution that he remain by his side. They had no chance of finding their way without him now. Roland watched the man working and resolved that he wouldn’t let him beyond a rein’s-length if he could help it. He smiled at the thought that Dagarth and company were without his guidance and must be getting peeved to find themselves thwarted.

Within a few minutes it was done. The land surveyor presented Roland with new maps showing the new terrain and also showing clearly where the enemy were. The defenders were now riding down a pleasant country lane. It was twisting and narrow, and it soon became clear that although it appeared to go somewhere it never actually went where it seemed to be going.

“What is this?” Roland asked, “We don’t seem to be able to go where we want to – where the map says.”

“Ah,” said the surveyor. “A clever mapmaker’s illusion, very clever if I may say so. The lane won’t go anywhere you need to go – and certainly not where it seems to! Ever wondered why so many people get lost even if they have a map! It conceals a surveyors’ snicket – a secret passage through the landscape only a surveyor can find!”

“And we can use it? My army?” Roland asked.

“Oh yes, with me as your guide. That’s what its meant for.”

“Very good. lead on!”

“Right! down here -” and the surveyor led them straight to some bushes that parted to reveal a dark hole with a rippling affect at the entrance. The entered and came out at the rear of the enemy, who seemed quite unaware of their presence. They now had a cracking advantage.

Roland saw the chance, unsheathed his sword and whirled it around his head. He was about to order, “Attack!” when everything changed again. There was a blinding flash and the scene was replaced on all sides by steep grassy slopes. Up on the brows of the slopes were the enemy, all around. Now they had the advantage.

“What happened!?” Roland demanded.

“There can only be one explanation,” the land surveyor said –“ I have an opponent on the other side. Another land surveyor! Quick!” he said to his assistants, “We must work! Quickly! Quickly!”

They got out their clipboards and theo-do-mething-a-mee-jigs again and surveyed the land once more. In a flash it was transformed into a low lying area of marshland. Roland and his entourage were on a causeway that ran across it but the enemy were now dumped up to their thighs in water and mud.

“That fixed them!” The land surveyor said, “But we will have to keep on working to maintain it – even now my adversary will be trying hard to change it again…”

The landscape of mire was sustained for a few minutes as Roland and his forces continued to close on the enemy, then suddenly it all changed again. Now they were in thick impenetrable forest.

“What good is this!” cried Roland.

“We have come to a stalemate,” the land surveyor said, gasping with the exertion of it, “This is what often happens in such a head-to-head between land surveyors , it ends up when no party can make a move. Just thank goodness it isn’t an ocean!”

“Can that happen?” Savitri asked.

“That’s why all land surveyors can swim – and their assistants.” The land surveyor said, “Swimming lessons are compulsory at surveying school.”

The surveyor struggled to undo the forest. With a flash another scene appeared; it was rich pasture with cows and sheep but few landmarks – perfect attacking territory.

“We need an advantage,” Roland said.

The land surveyor worked again and as a result they were on a small hill looking down on Dagarth and his forces, but then that was undone and they found themselves in a quarry with the attackers looking down on them.

Ah ha! “Surrender!” Dagarth commanded.

But before they could speak the land surveyor had waved his theod-a-ma-thingy-ma-jig and the armies were hundreds of yards apart again, with nothing but fields between them

“That was close,” Roland said. Then he noticed that the land surveyor was totally exhausted. The man was almost falling out of his saddle. It was all too much for him.

“I am sorry,” he said, “I can only think that they have more than one land surveyor on their side – possibly an army of them. I cannot stand against it much longer.”

Yet again he worked his magic to create a landscape on which the defenders had the advantage, positioned right above the attackers with a slope down towards them. Roland took his chance and cried, “Attack!”

The sun warriors fell upon Dagarth’s forces and there was the clash of steel on steel. Meanwhile the land surveyor fought to maintain the landscape he had created, but, finally, it changed again to the attackers favour. At this point the surveyor gave a cry of despair, the like of which Roland had never heard before. He fell from his horse and lay on his back, , his assistants leaning over him and looking bereft. Roland dismounted and also went to his side.

“I am sorry,” He said to Roland, “I have let you down.”

“No! I am sorry – very sorry,” Roland said, “I had no idea this would be so costly for you. You deserved better than to be caught up in this. You have done well.”

The surveyor grabbed Roland’s hand and pressed a new map into it, “Here,” he said, pointing to a mark on it, “This is the land as it is now. I cannot change it any more, but I have managed to put a snicket into it to enable you to escape to the Scary Oak and safety – here, see!”

“Thank you,” said Roland, “Thank you very much for all you have done,”

The man nodded an acknowledgment, and with that he died.

The landscape now belonged to the attackers and their own surveyors. Roland watched as the scuttler made its way to the castle, forded the moat and began to gnaw greedily on the stone walls. Meanwhile the sun warriors fought on, but were no match for the Spirus, who’s dark armour seemed to deflect every blow like a mirror deflects the rays of the sun. One after another the warriors of the sun crumbled beneath the blows of the Spirus, their armour simply folding as their fiery steeds stumbled and gave way. Now dull and decayed, each of the warriors fell to the ground and faded into the dust.

At the castle the villagers rained arrows down on the scuttler, but it was no good. It burst through the wall and into the courtyard. The attackers had been so confident they had not even bothered to drain the moat. The Spirus simply waded it with the water over their heads and followed the beast into the castle and Dagarth’s men waited for the drawbridge to be lowered and then marched in triumphantly.

There was no question that the battle was lost. Even Savitri knew it. She rode towards Roland. “We must get you to safety,” she said.

“No! I must fight on!” he shouted, feeling the anger in every bone and muscle, smelling the rage of ballet in his nostrils. He brandished his sword and reined in his horse to prepare for another charge at the enemy. Despite the defeat of his forces he was heady with the fumes of battle and was determined to seek victory at any cost.

“No!” Savitri yelled, grabbing the reins of Roland’s horse. “Victory belongs to us tomorrow! For now we must retreat!”

Roland started to see reason. If even Savitri was against fighting, then it was time to turn. he looked down again at the land surveyor, “He was a good man. I wish we had time to bury him.”

“We will in due course,” Savitri said, but now, I must take you to safety, my liege!

Soon they were on top of the hill of the Scary Oak and looking across at the castle. Once more it was a ruin, with fire and smoke rising up from it. Roland was choked with frustration at not being able to do anything about it.

“I wish I knew what was going on in there,” he said.

“Its nothing good,” Savitri said, “But we will have our revenge for this.”

“Say that again,” Roland said, “It makes me feel better!”

We will have our revenge for this!” Savitri repeated, more loudly, as she waved her sword aggressively.

“You do have a wonderful way with swords!” Roland said.

 

Roland and Savitri arrived back in the Fortressers’ Hall to be greeted by Brother goodwill, who was in a right old two-and-eight, “Oh my goodness! My goodness! How terrible! All the death and destruction! I wish I could see a positive side to it! I am sure I can! If only I could….”

“If he can’t see a positive side then there is a problem,” Savitri said.

“Perhaps it’s just that the most optimistic are the first to crumble,” Roland suggested, defiantly.

At that moment Oliver entered and rushed up to Roland, “thank goodness you are alright – and you too,” and he nodded to Savitri, who smiled back.

“Where is Firebrace?” Roland asked, looking around and not seeing him.

Oliver looked downwards, “He would not retreat into the tower when the scuttler came through the walls. Everyone else retreated into the tower but – he insisted on staying and fighting. He was angry – I have never seen anyone so angry. It was like he was possessed.”

“We must find out if he is alive or dead,” Roland said, “That must be our first priority.”

“You must rest first,” said Brother Stalwart. “It has been a long day, a terrible day.”

“I will not rest until I know Firebrace is safe,” Roland said. “And if he is hurt, I will have Dagarth’s blood on my sword by sunset – and the rest of them.”

He took a few steps towards the exit but tiredness bettered him. He staggered and almost fell.

“Perhaps you are right. I can do nothing like this,” and he cursed in frustration.

Roland dreamt deeply. At first he dreamt of the battle, reliving it as a nightmare in which he tried continually to fight his way back to the castle but was unable to do so due to an army of Spirusses that were in his way. There was a forest of them, like the forest that the enemy land surveyor had conjured. They stood firm, too strong to push aside, impervious to the blows of his sword.

With the impossibility of it his mind turned to other things. He dreamt of his mother. He could not remember anything of the time when she had been alive, he had been too young then, but he always felt that he knew what she had been like. It was if a part of her somehow remained for him, as if she was always here somewhere, with him, around him. He could not explain it. Now he dreamt of her hands reaching down from above, as if reaching into his cot to sweep him up.

At that moment he was awoken.

Savitri was saying, “If you want to see Firebrace now is the best time, we think. Dagarth’s soldiers have been celebrating but it is late, and they are asleep or off their guard.”

Back in the Fortressers’ Great Hall Roland and friends considered how he might find Firebrace.

“I can’t just go wandering about asking for him,” Roland said.

“If I might suggest, a disguise of some sort…” said Brother Goodwill.

“Been there, done that,” said Oliver

“They might not expect it again,” Savitri said.

“Why not?” asked Roland, “A case of try, try and try again. This time we do it better! We just need to decide which disguise.”

Brother Goodwill said, “In my experience someone bound not to stand out, who doesn’t attract attention or even get noticed.”

“Sounds like me,” Oliver said.

“I always notice you,” Roland said.

“Yes, but the rest of your lot don’t – the nobs, I mean. No one ever notices a humble servant.”

“Then I must be humble and serve!” Roland said.

“Great!” said Savitri.

“You will need to be dirty!”

“I have just been in battle,” Roland protested.

“No,” said Oliver, “Really dirty – like you have done a proper days work. Smuts and dirt streaks on your face, a torn jerkin and some holey hose, a whiff of the kitchen about you. You will make a great kitchen boy!” He went to the fire and brought back some soot, “Here, try some of this l on your face,” He rubbed it on. “Fantastic! You are beginning to look the part of a downtrodden serf – just like Dagarth’s people look!”

“Ever so humble to serve you,” Roland said, in a serflike voice, and tugged his forelock.

“Great!” Said Oliver, “Just remember not to look the guards in the eye – they won’t expect you to and they might recognise you if you do. The more cowed and subservient you are, the better your disguise will work.”

“I still don’t know how I am going to find Firebrace. They could be holding him anywhere.”

“There is no alternative to searching, I suppose,” Oliver said: “If you are asked what you are doing, just say you are lost, you arrived with the attackers and don’t know your way around yet. Lots of people will be in the same position so no one will think it odd.”

“Here’s an even better idea,” Savitri said “– say you are taking some food to the prisoner – the old prisoner – and ask for directions.”

“I will need some food to take,” said Roland.

“One meal fit only for a detested enemy prisoner coming up!” said Brother Goodwill, “I shall even spit in it myself!” and he bustled off to cook it.

“Just don’t ask anyone who might recognise you – or even go near them!” Oliver warned.

“I think I got that,” Roland said.

The meal was cooked – and spat in. Meanwhile Roland had been garbed as an ever-so-humble kitchen boy. With his face blackened and his clothes torn and dirtied, he made his way to the bottom of the unfinished tower. He took care that no one noticed him coming out of the tower and even circled around a bit to make it look like he had come from the kitchens.

In the courtyard the ghastly scuttler was now at rest in the centre. Groups of soldiers were standing around, shouting and joking and being boisterous. Roland took a deep breath and approached the nearest group, but before he could reach them they saw him, “Hey! You lad! You brought our supper?” one called out.

Roland averted his eyes as advised, “No sir, this is for the prisoner – the old prisoner – fire something or other….”

“Old Firebricks!” laughed another of the soldiers.

“Looks like he eats better than we do,” said another of them, peering into the plate and then spitting into it, “There lad – give it ‘im with my compliments!” and he bowed mockingly. They all roared with laughter.

I’ll get him for that later, Roland thought, but meanwhile he had to find out where Firebrace was. “Can you tell me where he is?” he asked, trying to disguise his voice and sound serflike.

“Oh sure lad, why, he’s up there perched on top of the unfinished tower!” said one soldier, pointing. They all clearly thought that this was hilarious as they laughed as before. “You climb up there lad – we’ll give you a hand!”

Hilarious, Roland thought sarcastically.

“No he ain’t, said another, “He’s on top of the battlements telling the whole countryside what to do like the lord and master that he is! He’s still defending the castle like he owns the place!”

“Now then! What’s all this?” came a shout, and the form of Serjeant Jankers emerged from the darkness. Roland looked down at the ground. For all his bellowing Serjeant Jankers actually had a brain and he knew Roland by sight. If anyone was likely to recognise him, it would be the Serjeant…

“What you up to lad? The Serjeant barked sharply, coming right up close to Roland.

“food for the old prisoner, sir,” said Roland, looking at the ground as hard as he could.

Jankers shouted, in staccato sergeant-major fashion, “Left hand side of the gatehouse! Turn right. Ask the guard to open the cell door, for you!

Roland didn’t need telling once to hurry away. In the background he could hear Jankers shouting, “And you lot are a disgrace! You are a sight! What are you! Now get yourselves tided up before you all end up on a FIZZER!”

Roland did as he was bid and made his way to the gatehouse double quick smart. He went too fast, though, because he rushed into the entrance of the gatehouse to find himself faced with Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp having a lively argument.

Bril-a-Brag said, “We need to set the boy a deadline – he gives himself up in two hours or the old fool dies…”

Dagarth replied, “Oh that’s no good! What if he doesn’t? Then he’s called our bluff! I wouldn’t give myself up for the old fool, and that boy is far too clever to. The old man isn’t worth a groat and he knows it. Anyway, I want him to suffer before we kill him – for a long time, if possible. A week will do. Then we’ll kill him.”

“Alright,” said Bril-a-Brag “– a week, and if we have not found another way to flush the boy out we will threaten to kill the old man – after he’s suffered. Perhaps knowing he’s suffering will make the boy give himself up, anyway.”

“I wouldn’t hold your breath,” Dagarth said.

At that moment they noticed Roland standing, transfixed with fear that he might be recognised. Dagarth obviously didn’t recognise him. He simply came up to Roland, peered in the dish and asked, “Is that for the prisoner?”

Roland tried to nod, as best as he could with his eyes locked onto the ground before him. Dagarth clearly took the nod as a yes as he spat into the food., “Give it to the old fool with my compliments.” And he shouted over to the man-at arms standing by the door, “open up,”

The door to the cell was opened and Roland hurried in.

The cell was in fact an old storage room with only a small, high window overlooking the moat. It was dingy, dark and rat infested, Just the way Dagarth liked them Roland thought.

Firebrace was not in a good way. He was lying down, injured and in pain.

“Who is that?” he asked, blinded by the sudden light as he had been in darkness.

“Sshh! it’s Roland.”

“Roland! I was sure you would come!”

Roland put down the meal, “Don’t eat that. Everyone’s spat in it – even Brother Goodwill!”

“And even Dagarth?” Firebrace asked.

“Even Dagarth,” Roland confirmed.

“Fair enough. I always used to spit in his when I had the chance!”

Roland then went back to the corridor to see if he could buy them more time to talk.

When he looked out of the door Dagarth, Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp were gone and only the guard stood on duty. Roland took a risk and told a lie, “I have orders to tend to the prisoner’s wounds.”

The guard merely nodded and grunted. Roland hurried back to Firebrace. He did what he could with his wounds whilst the old man talked, “There isn’t much time so I must tell you what you need to know. To do what you must do next you must understand why the tower is here. This place was not chosen merely for its hills or its farmland – it was chosen for the cause of these things. This is a special place, a place where the powers of the earth and the powers of the sky converge to enable nature to make her wonders. There is a bond here, a cord between the earth and the sky. The tower was built to channel those powers and to protect the cord from its enemies.

‘Like all good things, it has enemies, creatures that seek to destroy it. They sought to prevent it being built from the day the first stone was laid, and they still seek to destroy it.”

“The Spirus?” Roland asked.

“No, not the Spirus. They are of a kin to the enemy of the tower, but they are not the main enemy. I am speaking of our oldest, most powerful, enemy; the Sh’Mordra, – the Storm Lords.

“Your great great grandfather fought a great battle against them and they did not return for many generations. But when they did – when you were just a small baby –there were more of them than ever before. They had grown vastly in number, and had also grown more devious, more ruthless and more powerful. So another great battle was fought to defend the tower – a battle we all but lost.

“And this was how my mother died?”

“No Roland. It is not how your mother died, because your mother did not die.”

Roland gasped, “But where is she then? What happened to her?”

We would have lost completely –lost everything – but for your mother. The Storm Lords were on the point of victory. They had pushed us back on all fronts and were attacking the tower itself. The tower began to fracture, the cord itself to break under their assault.

It was then that your mother made a great sacrifice – for you Roland, as much an anyone else – whilst you slept below. She stood by the edge of the fracture and cast herself into it, allowing her own life energies to blend with it, to feed and heal it. Now she is bound to it, trapped within it. Your mother is here, Roland, always, she is part of the vital bond between the earth and the sky, part of the cord that channels the life force between them.”

“My poor mother!” Roland said, “Is there no hope that she can be released?”

The secret of your mother’s release – and I am sure there is one – is what your father has gone to find. It is a dangerous task and one wrong step will kill her, and sever the link binding the earth and the sky. It must be done with full knowledge. It was a very difficult decision for him, whether to remain here with you, or whether to seek a way to free your mother. He has gone to seek men and women of wisdom who know the answers…”

“Roland was angry: “I should have been told this before!”

“To what end?” Firebrace asked, “I have said before, your father and I protected you for too long. But how would we have explained to a small child that his mother was gone, yet at the same time still here – not really living but not really dead either?”

“But you could have told me later.”

“When was the right time? We didn’t know! We didn’t know when the crisis would come. We put it off too long, as I say, but we didn’t know when, and we wanted you to be a child for as long as possible.”

Roland saw the truth of it and began to calm down. Firebrace continued, “The Warriors of the Sun were not strong enough because they had dwelt too far, for too long, from the source of their power. You must seek younger, stronger warriors, newly born in the crucible of the sun – you must go to the sun itself.”

“What!” Roland boggled “Isn’t that a long way? And upwards! I ‘m not a bird – if even birds can get there!”

“It is a journey I have never made – I don’t know if any human has made it, but you must, to refresh our forces, if we are to win. To get there you must first go up to the very top of the tower, to the place that is known as the First Plain of the Sky. Beware the Nollynocks and the Grimbles! On the plain search for the creatures known as the Whales of the Sky – they will take you to the moon. The Moon-Dwellers will know of a way to get you to the very heart of the sun, safely. There you must seek the help of

the Great Council of Grand Flames – the rulers of the sun.”

‘The Storm Lords will do what they can to stop you getting there but you will not be on your own. Through your mother great powers can be summoned to assist you. It will tax her enormously to fight them as well as to keep the cord together, so you must do as much of the work as you can.”

“You are coming with us,” Roland said, “We are going to get you out of here. I can’t leave you to be tortured.”

“Roland, listen to me,” Firebrace said and stretched out his hand and to hold Roland’s, “I have a wound in my side and my leg is cut in three places. I am in no condition to go anywhere. If you want to save me, and your mother and father and this castle and all those who depend on it – the world – you must do what I say. Leave me here. I will be alright. Dagarth cannot do anything that will really hurt me. Now go, get away, and get help!”

Reluctantly Roland stepped back and turned to the door. He looked back at his old mentor, who nodded, and then he left.

The guard had gone to sleep on his feet. On many another occasion Roland would have thought it good fun to shout “Boo!” at him, or even try to impersonate Serjeant Jankers, “What’s all this then! Asleep on duty! It’s a fizzer for you!” – but now was most definitely not the time. He carefully and quietly took the keys off of the man’s belt, locked the cell and hung the keys back on the sleeping guard. As silently as possible he made his way to the outer door and slipped across the courtyard. Serjeant Jankers had sorted out the rabble so he was able to slip back into the tower without further trouble – until he had to wake up Botherworth, of course. Luckily he was getting used to dealing with the cantankerous janitor!

Chapter 10

 

“We have to go where?” Oliver asked, unsure he had heard right.

“To the sun,” Roland repeated, “That’s what Firebrace told me.”

“Are you sure he didn’t just mean somewhere sunnier and warmer?”

“I am sure he meant the sun in the sky,” Roland said.

“And did he come up with any suggestions as to how to get there?” Oliver asked, still highly sceptical.

“As a matter of fact he did. We take the tower’s lift up to the First Plain of The Sky, find the Whales of the Sky, and they somehow get us to the moon, and then we ask the Moon-Dwellers how we get to the sun.”

“Well, it all sounds so simple when you put it like that. Look, are you sure he hasn’t gone perfectly potty?”

“Apparently my mother will help us. She is not dead.”

Oliver realised that Roland was serious as he would not joke about his mother. He said, “We do need reinforcements. If Firebrace knows what he is talking about….”

“I am sure he does,” Roland said.

“I hope this doesn’t mean we have to solve riddles and all that sort of rubbish, gatekeepers demanding that we ‘Answer me these questions three’…”

“If anyone starts up with that sort of thing I’ll personally slice their jonglies off,” Savitri said, slicing the air with her sword.

 

When they asked Brother Goodwill to go with them he was overjoyed and hugged them all several times over. He was sure they were going to have such a lovely time!

“It will be an adventure! We will all be adventurers together! Won’t it be wonderful! I simply can’t wait! All we have to do is to get the key off Mister Botherworth and we can go!”

“Botherworth has the key?” Oliver asked, feeling an ‘uh-oh’ coming on.

“The only one, unfortunately. He is the janitor after all – the word ‘janitor’ being derived from Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways. Mr Botherworth is very possessive of the key. He will not give it up for rhyme or reason.”

“I will make him give it up!” said Savitri, drawing her sword, “And no rhymes,” she added.

“Oh my goodness no!” Brother Goodwill protested, “No! Botherworth is useful, whatever his peculiarities and nuisances. We must not offend him. No, all we need to do is to ask him to come up to the top with us and let us out – he will do that – I hope. There is no need for bloodshed; just good manners, good will and…. fortitude!”

 

“Up the top of the tower?!” Botherworth said, looking up at them in disbelief from his low doorway, “What you wanna go up the top for?”

“Because it’s there,” Roland said.

“Huh!” Botherworth grunted, “Young people! Always off on some jaunt. And I suppose you’ll be wanting to come down too, I suppose.”

“It had occurred,” Roland replied.

“Look, joyrides is not what the equipment is for. The lift is fragile and if you’re just going up to come down again…”

“We need to get out and go somewhere up there,” Roland said, impatient.

“Ah, well, you’ll need the key to unlock the door then, wont you?”

“I think he’s got it,” Oliver said.

“And none of your fresh young cheek, either!” Botherworth responded.

“It’s the only type we have,” Oliver replied, cheekily, with added cheek on top.

“Well you’re not having the key. It’s my responsibility and it never leaves me. It’s locked onto my belt by a lock and the key to that lock is on a chain that’s also locked onto my belt and the only key that unlocks that lock is also locked onto my belt, so you can’t have it!”

“Then perhaps you might think of coming up with us and unlocking the door yourself,” Roland said.

“All the way up there! You must be joking! I’ve better things to do.”

“We’ll just have to break the door down – or pick the lock,” Roland said, looking straight at the man.

“Oh no you don’t! You young vandals! I’ll have you if you break tower property!”

“The tower is mine, the door is mine,” Roland said, “I cannot vandalise my own property. If you don’t open it we will break it down and leave the repairs to someone else…”

Botherworth thought, “Well, alright… I s’pose. You’ll need someone to come with you up there anyway – there’s things up there you won’t like!”

“You mean the Sh’Mordra?” Roland asked, “Aren’t you afraid of them?”

Botherworth reached into a corner behind the door, produced a broom and brandished it defiantly, “That’s what this is for! Dealing with the vermin is part of the job description! What with them and the rats in the cellar, I just don’t get paid enough!

Now, lets get going before I change my mind!”

Roland laughed. For the first time he was actually beginning to like Botherworth.

 

They stepped into the lift. It reminded Roland of a cage.

The sides were made of vertical brass rods with gaps between them so that you could see straight through to the sides of the lift shaft. The gates were made of a criss-crossed metal slats and folded away to the sides. Botherworth drew them closed and pressed some buttons on a panel beside them. The lift groaned, then moaned, then started moving upwards, slowly at first but then gathering speed with a hum that grew louder as they passed up the shaft. Occasionally very thin slits of light, like vertical columns, passed by and they guessed that these were doors to the various levels. There were certainly a lot of them. Even though the lift was now going at quite a lick they were passing floor after floor with seemingly no end to it.

“What is on all these levels?” Roland asked.

Botherworth answered, “Things, stuff, gizmos, a few kingdoms and empires, some folk of various types, kinds and descriptions, other bric-a-brac – and a few monsters. Sort of stuff you put in the attic and forget about until one day it comes out and gets you…,” and with they heard a sound, like a combination of moaning, growling and roaring, followed by an aggressive snort, coming from one of the levels they were passing.

“Sounds like you’ve got some clearing out to do,” Oliver said to Roland.

“First things first,” Roland replied.

“We’ll soon be there! Won’t it be wonderful! Yet another adventure!” Goodwill chirped up. Botherworth looked at him accusingly, “Why are you so cheerful all the time?”

“Many reasons,” Goodwill replied, “The joy of each new day, the joy of wonderful companions, the joy of each new adventure. The joy of joy itself!”

“Sounds awful.” Botherworth said, “Can’t you take summink for it?

 

As the lift continued to rise they emerged from the visible part of the shaft and were suddenly drenched in blinding sunlight and surrounded by blue sky. Now it was as if the lift were simply flying upwards through the air as nothing was visible around it except for the shining spiral that Roland had seen when the scuttler had fired its lightning bolt.

“That’s what the tower actually looks like,” Roland said.

“It’s beautiful!” Oliver said.

“It is!” Savitri said “Powerful looking to – and deadly, I hope!”

Outside the spiral, in the distance, they could see black specks circling. They seemed to be winged creatures and at first Roland thought they were birds, maybe crows, but quickly the specks began to gather and get closer, still circling but in an ever tighter circumference.

“They’ve seen us!” Botherworth said, “Damn vermin!” and he grasped his brush.

As they watched one of the specks broke off from the rest of the swarm and started flying straight towards them.

As it got closer they could see that it consisted of smoke – smoke that looked like it was from a fire that had died and gone cold long ago, but whose destruction still lingered as a cloak of dark and rage.

“It’s a big’un,” Botherworth said, “Nasty bloomin’ thing.”

It was close enough now for them to see that from it’s front stretched a long neck, at the end of which was a tiny head with a hideous, shrivelled face. Alongside the neck were many tentacles that seemed to change in number as they wriggled and squirmed and grasped at the air in front of it.

It was a thing that had to fill any watcher with horror, particularly those in its path.

It was only yards away now, approaching quickly. Within a second it had seized the cage and given it a mighty shake that threw all of its occupants off of their feet. At the same time the creature let out a deep growl of rage and divided into a thousand tentacles that invaded the cage through the bars. It shook the lift again.

The first back on his feet was Botherworth, who grabbed up his broom and started thrusting it through the bars into the thing, “Shoo! Shoo! I told you lot before! It’ll be traps and poison! Don’t make me get the exterminator in!”

“You really think these things are just vermin?” Roland yelled at Botherworth.

Savitri and Roland drew their swords and Oliver loaded his bow.

They quickly found that the tentacles were vulnerable to weapons. Savitri and Roland went around the lift cutting them off. The ends wriggled and died on the floor as the stumps shrivelled back through the bars. Oliver shot an arrow, then another. Both disappeared into the smoke but obviously found some sort of target inside the creature as it roared and flinched back, then retreated.

They had fought off one, but looking out again they saw that the whole swarm was now flying towards the cage.

“Stripe me! They’ve been breeding up here!” Botherworth said.

Even Botherworth’s bravado couldn’t dispel the dread that they felt watching the mass of creatures approach them. The sky itself turned black as they blocked out the sun.

“Stand by!” Roland said, realising that they were all going to hit the cage at once and with great force.

When the creatures hit it was as if they hit all at once. There was tremendous bang and a jolt that went through all of them like a body blow. The impact sent the occupants of the lift flying against the bars. For a few moments Roland was dazed. As he came to he could hear the swish of smoky tentacles above his head. He looked up but there was nothing to see. All was blackness. Nevertheless, he had the eerie sense that a thousand eyes were watching, looking inwards through the bars. There was now a stench in the lift, like that of old stale, dead smoke combined with the smell of rotting flesh.

Savitri found her tinder box and managed to strike a light. The moment she did so a smoky tentacle struck it from her hand, the flame dying as the box hit the floor. For a second they had all caught a glimpse of what was around them – a million tentacles, feeling, grasping, seeking. It had been less scary with the lights off.

“Oh my goodness! Things aren’t going very well, are they?” Goodwill said

“Aren’t they?” Botherworth said sarcastically.

As they spoke there was a deep groaning sound and they were thrown on their feet once more as the lift was tipped sideways. They rolled down against the bars before being flung back the other way.

“They’re trying to break the lift shaft,” Botherworth explained.

The metallic creaking and groaning went on as they continued to be thrown around.

Several times they were flung as high as the roof, only to be pulled down again to the floor. Roland felt his arm break and the sound of shattering bones was coming from the others. They were all crying out in pain. It was obvious that none of them were going to be in any fit state to continue with the quest, even if they got out of this alive, which itself seemed impossible.

Just as those bleak thoughts invaded his mind Roland noticed that the smoke was stirring, as if it were wavering and having some disagreement with itself, as if parts of it wanted to flee and other parts wished to stay. It was as if it sensed some enemy was about to descend upon it. Then, like a shawl being pulled off, the Sh’Mordra were simply gone, as if they had been brushed away by a great hand. Once more Roland and his companions felt pure, sweet sunlight. It was miraculous and Roland felt the full force of joy.

As he bathed in the fresh light Roland heard a voice, coming not from outside but from inside him. He recognised it as his mother’s. It said but one word, hushed as if from a cloudlike dream, and full of love. “Roland.”

He fell unconscious.

He awoke to find himself amidst the others on the floor of the lift, which had now come to a halt. They were all waking up as if from a deep sleep. For a few moments Roland couldn’t recall where he was but then remembered the attack by the Sh’Mordra. He remembered that his arm had been broken and felt a sense of panic. He felt his arm. Now it was perfectly alright. He looked around at the others. As they stood up it was clear that their injuries had also been healed.

“What happened?” Savitri asked.

“We had some help,” Roland said, “Is everyone alright?”

“I think so,” Oliver said, “As alright as we can be…”

“It was quite a trip one way and another, wasn’t it?” Brother Goodwill commented.

“You noticed that, did you?” Botherworth said.

“It isn’t over yet,” Roland said.

The lift had stopped in a shaft, like the one they had passed through before emerging into the sky. Blocking the lift was a solid wooden door.

“We’re here, I suppose,” Roland said.

The First Plain of the sky? Oliver asked.

Roland shrugged.

“So what exactly is it?” Oliver pressed, “We are not just going to step out onto clouds are we? Presumably this plain is between the earth and the sky, or above the sky, with another sky and more clouds above it?”

“Wherever you go is clouds,” Botherworth said dismally, “Clouds above, clouds below.”

“Ah! But some of them are nice bright shiny clouds!” Brother Goodwill said perkily.

“’Ere we go,” Botherworth said, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

“if we can walk on it, how does the sun shine through it?” Oliver asked, still concerned and puzzled.

“I don’t think my mother helped us just to let us set foot onto thin mist,” Roland said,

“Anyway, we will have to see — let’s go be adventurers!” And he turned to Botherworth, “If you would be so kind as to unlock the door, Mister Botherworth”

Chapter 11

 

Botherworth unlocked the door and they stepped through.

Before them was a landscape that looked as if it had been dug by a million giant moles working together with a million giant rabbits. There were hollows and mounds and after that yet more hollows and mounds, all much higher and deeper than a man is tall. The mounds consisted of rocks and rubble and other stuff that had obviously been dug out of the hollows. It was a daunting landscape and one that would require strength and energy to cross.

“It looks like a giant Arraranx has been at work,” Botherworth said.

“What’s one of those?” Oliver asked.

“You don’t want to know… You really don’t want to know…,” Botherworth said.

“Look, you’re always trying to put us off doing things,” Oliver told him, “Perhaps its time for a more positive attitude, eh? Look at Brother Goodwill—” and the brother smiled.

Botherworth responded, “It’s looking at him so joyful that makes me miserable….” He turned to Roland, “Anyway, I suppose I really ought to wish you ‘good luck’ on your quest. You’re certainly going to need it! Now, I got things to do so if you’ll excuse me…”

“And where are you off to?” Roland asked.

“Downstairs, where my job is, where I’ve got things to do – when I am not being pestered by kids and other nuisances…”

“What!” Gasped Oliver, “Aren’t you afraid of those black cloud things! After what we’ve just been through!”

But Botherworth just brandished his broom defiantly, “Next time I’ll bring a dust pan as well!”

“You’re coming with us,” Roland said.

“Oh no I’m not,” said Botherworth. I said I’d come to the top of the tower and that’s all! I left the kettle on downstairs and it’s time for my tea so if you’ll excuse me…”

“The lift may only be fit for one more journey – and you’re not taking it without us. You’re coming with us to make sure you don’t.”

“Oh no…!” Botherworth insisted “I’m not moving! I know what’s out there!”

“Great! In that case you will be our guide!”

“Well, err… I don’t really know that much, actually…”

“You either come with us or stay here,” Roland told him, “because I will lock the door and take the key,” and he grabbed the key, with Botherworth still attached, “I am sure we can find a way to get it off the chain!”

“Do you want to stay alone here, possibly with a giant Arraranx?” Oliver asked.

“Rrrrrr!” Savitri said loudly, having crept up behind Botherworth. He jumped slightly.

Roland took the key — together with the attached caretaker — to the door, which he locked, “There. Now no one can use it but us.”

Savitri and Oliver both grabbed Botherworth by the shoulders and started to move him in a positive direction.

“This is the way,” said Oliver.

“Alight, alright, I’ll come,” said Botherworth, realising he had no choice, “just don’t expect me to be happy about it.”

“I don’t think we’d ever expect that of you!” Oliver said. The others all laughed.

 

The struggle to climb up and down the mounds and in and out of the hollows nearly knocked the cheerfulness out of all of them. Their pace became slower as they stumbled more and began to curse every step. It was also a depressing landscape, with not a tree or a flower or any kind of living creature, despite the appearance that it had been made by animals. It was as if nature had made a mess of it and then got fed up with the state it had created and deserted it, presumably to go off and ruin somewhere else. It was a depressing idea and they all thought something like it but all kept it to themselves – even Botherworth.

“Does it ever end?” Oliver asked, after a couple of hours.

“One can only hope,” Roland said.

“And have faith,” Brother Goodwill said, “It really isn’t that bad! For an absolutely awful place it is rather pleasant, as absolutely awful places go!”

“Name a more awful, awful place,” Botherworth challenged.

“Errmmm,” said Goodwill, who just couldn’t think of one.

“I knew it!” Botherworth said, as triumphantly as he dismally could, “He doesn’t know how awful things can really get!”

“Worse than this?” Roland asked.

“Much worse!” Botherworth said.

“Then you think Goodwill is right – you think there are more awful, awful places, so therefore this place isn’t that bad in comparison!”

“I didn’t say that!”

“It is a logical deduction from what you said!”

Botherworth grumbled under his breath, “Youngsters and their tricks. I’ll show ‘em!”

 

Proving Botherworth wrong cheered them all up – everyone except Botherworth, of course, but even he seemed to get a bit of grit after the discussion – presumably from irritation.

Their cheerfulness, and Botherworth’s grit, were nearly used up completely by the time they reached the top of the last, and by far the largest, of the mounds. Once at the top they found that they were looking across at a neighbouring hill with a village on it. This village looked a most strange affair, consisting of a single street that went straight up to the top of the hill and straight down the other side. The houses along it were built as two continuous rows facing each other across the street, all the way up and all the way down.

“A typical mining town,” Brother Goodwill said, “– filled with hardworking people joyous in their daily toil!”

“Slaves to the system more like,” Botherworth said, in a bolshie tone.

“We can ask directions there,” Roland said, “It’s not far!”

“It’s out of our way!” Botherworth said firmly, “Beware the Nollynocks and the Grimbles!”

“So that’s where they are!” Roland said.

That’s where they are, and where we oughtn’t to go!” Botherworth said, and he repeated, “Beware the Nollynocks and the Grimbles!”

“Firebrace said that too.”

“And he was right! Beware the Nollynocks and the Grimbles!”

“Why? What can they do?” Roland asked, intrigued more than worried.

“Its more a matter of what they can make you think you can do,” Botherworth said, cryptically.

“Well, we’ll just have to deal with it,” Roland said, “If they start any trouble, we will have to fight our way out, won’t we Savitri?” and he looked at her.

“Absolutely!” she said, and wielded her sword.

“Some folks can only learn by experience,” Botherworth said, rolling his eyes, “If I refuse to go, I suppose you’ll just drag me…”

“Quite right,” Oliver said.

Botherworth muttered something in a janitorial tone.

 

As they grew closer to the village they saw that a washing line was stretched out in a zigzag pattern back and forth across the street, threaded through the upper storeys of the houses. It continued up to the brow of the hill and over it, out of sight. Along it items of laundry were being pulled in the direction of the hill top, passing over it to the other side. Occasionally the line reversed direction and items came back again. The companions watched as the laundry zigzagged its way up and down.

“What on earth is going on?” Roland asked.

“It’s a sort of code,” Brother Goodwill said, “How wonderful! If only I had quill and parchment! Never mind, I think I can do without. Now let’s see, two pairs of underpants, one sock, a shirt, a jerkin, errrm…. Yes! Something about the strangers they have been expecting – prepare a big welcome – very big – great excitement – do something or other to mark their way as they come along the street!”

“You can tell all that from moving laundry?” Oliver asked.

“I have a gift,” Goodwill said – “which came in very useful in times past.”

It was too intriguing to pass up. With Botherworth still muttering warnings under his breath, they headed for the village.

As they entered the street a short pair of long pants appeared at a window and was hauled across the street on the line, starting on its zigzag way up the street. It was followed by a line of bunting. As they walked up the cobbled street the short pair of long pants kept pace with them, always ahead, like a herald. Behind them the bunting was stretching out so that the whole street was becoming festooned. When they got to the brow of the hill the people in the houses rushed to the windows, cheering, waving excitedly and throwing long pretty coloured streamers down on them. Right at the top of the hill a line of musicians came out of one of the houses, all playing a jolly tune on brass instruments together with a big, booming bass drum. The band marched down the street behind the short long johns and in front of Roland and his friends. People started to come out of the houses and follow them so that there was a crowd behind them, all cheering.

They all arrived at the end of the street to be greeted by a group of small men in smart, dark coloured suits and dome shaped hats with brims. Some of the men were unable to stand completely upright, whilst the others were almost bent double. It looked as if they had all spent a long time in a place with very low ceilings.

“That’s what being underground for a long long time does to you – hundreds of years,” – Botherworth explained, “The ones that can stand nearly upright – them’s the Nollynocks. They do the hard work at the mine face, with pick and shovel. The ones that can’t stand up straight at all – them with the very long forearms – them’s the Grimbles – they’re the ones who push the mine carts in and out of the mines.”

As Botherworth finished speaking the group of suited men parted in the middle and one of the Nollynocks made his way to front. He wore golden chains around his neck and acted as if he were very important.

“Welcome!” he said “We have been anticipating your arrival for centuries! Finally! Outsiders inspired to invest in our little venture,” and he put his hands together and clapped, starting a round of applause that rippled through the group of suited men right out to the crowds of people. The important-acting Nollynock puffed himself up and continued, “On behalf of the Parish Council and people and folk of The Parish of Saint Caragdeweller the Great and Less And somewhere-in-between I am pleased to welcome you to our humble yet proud habit-it-tu-tude-it-it-tations and to grant you the freedom of the borough,” and again there was applause as the suited men parted once more and a mine cart pushed by some of the Grimbles made its way through to the front.

The important-acting Nollynock picked up an enormous golden key that was placed on the rocks in the mine cart. He nearly buckled under its weight and quickly handed it to Roland who managed to hold it for a second before he passed it to both Savitri and Oliver to struggle with.

“Many happy returns!” The important-acting Nollynock said. “I now pronounce us all man and wife!” and there was a burst of very loud applause from all of the attending Nollynocks and Grimbles.

“Thank you,” Roland said, “but in truth we came here for another purpose. We are looking for The Whales Of The Sky…”

“A quest!” Said the man, “Then you’ll be needing inspiration!” he said, looking at the cart.

“No, we need directions,” Oliver said.

“But a bit of inspiration won’t go amiss,” the man persisted, hopefully.

“Depends whether we want to be inspired,” said Botherworth, “Or need to be…”

“Anyway, we don’t even know your names,” said the man.

“Don’t give them your names,” Botherworth said.

“Why not?” Roland asked.

“The fairies are tricky with names…”

Roland told Botherworth “Firstly, they don’t look like fairies, and second, telling them our names is a proper courtesy and will do no harm. He turned to the man, “My name is Roland and these are my friends, Oliver, Savitri and Brother Goodwill, and this is, err , well… This is Mister Botherworth.”

Botherworth grunted.

“Welcome! We have prepared a feast for you!” said the important acting Nollynock, and the men in front of them parted to reveal an entranceway that led into a grassy mound. The important-acting Nollynock indicated that this was the way that they should go.

“I regret we don’t have the time,” Roland said, “We have a castle and a village to save from some very nasty people, and we have a friend who could be executed at any time…”

“And don’t forget some vengeance!” said Savitri, swinging her sword in her usual way.

“And the vengeance, too,” Roland added.

“Mustn’t forget the vengeance,” Oliver said, facetiously.

“Sounds important,” said the man, “but I am afraid we really don’t know where these ‘sky whales’ are. Of course, if you came in and spent some time in merriment, eating and drinking, then meanwhile we can ask around and maybe find out about them for you.”

“Alright,” said Roland, “but if you can’t find out anything we must be on our way. Meanwhile, a little food can’t do us any harm. I for one am hungry. After all, getting here was hard work!”

Botherworth grunted and rolled his eyes.

They followed the man into the mound and down a very long, narrow, low-ceilinged passage lit with flaming torches. At the end was a long hall, again with a very low ceiling. In it long benches were arranged lengthwise. At the far end was a table raised up on a dais beneath a very low ceiling. They were ushered forwards to it, bending over so as not to bump their heads. The important-acting Nollynock with the golden chains joined them at the table along with the other men in the dark suits, whilst the rest of the villagers filled the rows of long benches. Almost as soon as they had sat bowls of steaming soup were rushed out and placed in front of them.

“Looks good,” Oliver said

“Don’t eat the fairy food!” Botherworth warned in a low but audible voice, “It’s page one of The Underworld Explorers Guide! It’s a Code C Two-Eleven red alert in the Great Stith’s handbook!”

“It’s just food,” Oliver said, and tucked in. The others did the same. Botherworth sat and grimaced as he watched them.

Plates of meat and vegetables and flagons of drink were brought and consumed, then more and yet more. It seemed as if the meal would never end. Oliver turned to Botherworth, “Aren’t you hungry?”

“Not as hungry as you must be by now.”

Oliver wondered what he meant, then he realised that he felt as if he hadn’t eaten a thing.

The visitors were too busy eating to notice that the villagers were melting away into the darkness, gradually, one by one. By that time they were far too happy to care….

“This is a wonderful place,” Roland declared, “It makes me want to create – to realise my dreams!”

“I shall write a poem and set it to music!” said Oliver.

“And I shall paint a picture!” said Savitri.

“And I shall build the most marvellous new monastery!” said Goodwill.

“Uh oh,” said Botherworth, rolling his eyes again.

Roland said, “I have always wanted to be a sculptor. Imagine before me is a great block of stone, I am walking around it now! I shall start to break off bits here – and here – and here! The statue is already in there, waiting for me to free it, to give it form, to give it life!”

“What are you sculpting?” asked Savitri.

“You shall see,” said Roland, taking up an imaginary chisel.

“I have never even played a musical instrument,” Oliver said, “but I can hear the tune already in my head. All I need is the means to write it down, if can figure out how to write the notes – what about you Savitri?”

“Oh yes!” said Savitri, “I can already see the painting in my mind. All I need is brush and canvas – what about you Brother Goodwill?”

“First I must plan my great monastery,” said Goodwill – “It will have all mod-cons for the most modern and up to date monastic brotherhood – whilst still living in poverty, of course. A hospital for the sick, worship areas for all faiths and denominations, and a great big room for pure joy itself – imagine – a room just for JOY!”

“Oh dear – oh dear – oh dear,” said Botherworth.

“How long do we have?” asked Oliver.

“As long as we need!” said Roland, “As long as we need! We are free to create, to dream, to revel in our fantasies!”

“Dear – oh dear – oh dear – oh deary, deary me,” said Botherworth. Shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

Roland started chipping away at his imaginary block of stone.. In his mind he could already see the finished sculpture – a fine replica of his father, looking like the proud hero Roland always imagined him as; sword drawn, ready to defend the defenceless and vanquish those who oppressed them.

As Roland chipped he did not notice the broom that came up behind him, the broom with which he was hit over the head with a ‘doink!’ The head of the broom was then neatly hooked around his neck and he was dragged away.

Meanwhile Oliver was composing the loveliest tune that had ever been heard – it involved harps and dulcimers and citherns and all the other most beautiful, delightful sounding instruments he could think of. He was composing it so that they would all sing together in magnificent harmony that would reach up, up – up to the very heavens so that the angels themselves would hear it and start to sing along. The words he set to it were of shepherds and shepherdesses in a pastoral idyll, where Great Pan played his pipes to soothe all of his creatures.

He didn’t notice the broom either. Again it was sneaked up behind and he was hit on the head with a ‘doink!’ It was then hooked around his neck. He was dragged away.

 

Savitri was imagining; it was to be a bloody scene painted with slashing brush strokes, every stroke most satisfying as it did bloody violence to one of the figures in the painting.

Like Roland and Oliver before her, Savitri did not notice the broom come from behind. It struck her with a ‘doink!’ as it had done the two boys.

 

Brother Goodwill was thoroughly into planning his monastery. He envisaged in his mind an enormous building, “A monastery fit for a king!” he proclaimed, “although we would not be so immodest and grand to think so.”

As with the other three, he did not notice the broom that came up behind him, knocked him on the head and which then dragged him off.

 

As he started to come round Roland was having difficulty thinking about his statue. He now had a nagging feeling that there was something more important that he was neglecting. The feeling was growing inside him and made him feel very uncomfortable. His dream seemed to be fading like soap bubbles bursting and something was intruding into it. The something couldn’t quite make up its mind what it was. It was like a bright light, but it was also like a strong, sharp irritating sound that kept on insistently. It was slowly making up its mind that it was a squeaking, squealing noise, punctuated by an occasional grunt.

“My beautiful poem!” Oliver cried, feeling it seeping from his mind, like sand flowing through his fingers. He was experiencing the same as Roland; his dreams of music and poetry now totally interrupted and destroyed by a sullen feeing that it wasn’t what he should be doing, punctuated by a terrible squeaking noise that ripped right through his concentration.

Savitri was finding herself getting more and more annoyed. She wanted to express her anger in painting, yet now felt that there was something not right about it at all, that the real battle was not with brush and canvas but with a real sword, on a real battlefield, with real enemies. Then there was that terribly annoying scraping, squeaking noise that kept intruding right into her brain, stopping her thinking.

Where is my lovely, beautiful, joyous monastery going, thought Brother Goodwill, who felt it running away from him just as if it were on wheels, running downhill, starting slowly but speeding up, always out of his grasp as he frantically chased after it. At the same time the feeling was growing within him that this was the wrong time, the wrong place for such a project. There was something else far more important that had to be done first.

“But the monastery would have been so wonderful,” he wailed, “so wonderful!”

“Wouldn’t it just!” Botherworth’s rude voice intruded. Goodwill awoke and looked about him. He was in a wooden cart – a mine cart, being bumped along a track. Roland, Savitri and Oliver were piled in with him.

Botherworth was pushing them in the mine cart. It was a bumpy journey and it had helped to shake them all awake. Then there was that insistent, squeaking-scraping sound made by one of the cart’s wheels that got right into your head… Slowly their heads began to clear and they all began to look around and take in their new situation. They struggled out of the cart and staggered around, recovering their senses.

Oliver was the first to fully realise what had happened. “You rescued us?!” he asked Botherworth, incredulously.

“Yep!” said Botherworth, in a matter of fact way.

Roland asked, “Rescued us from what? What happened?”

Botherworth explained, “That back there is an inspiration mine, mining pure inspiration. The Nollynocks and the Grimbles have built up an unhealthy tolerance of it, but it doesn’t stop them wanting to share it with others…”

“But I don’t understand. You could have gone just back to the tower and left us…”

Botherworth told them, “Folks up the tower is my responsibility. Whatever the mess they get into through their own folly and despite my warnings, my job is to come and sort it out and rescue ‘em. If they get stuck in the loos, I have to come and free ‘em, if they eat a dose of pure inspiration, I got to come and hit ‘em over the head with this – ‘ere broom,” —and he brandished it — “and hoik ‘em out before any real harm can come to ‘em…”

“You did your job very well,” said Roland, “very well indeed. Thank you, though I must confess that I am not really sure what came over you.”

“It’s obvious,” Oliver said, “He was inspired to! He was inspired enough to do his job without any extra inspiration!”

“Do me a favour!” Botherworth said, and they all laughed.

“Anyone got anything to eat?” Oliver asked, “I’m starving…”

Chapter 12

 

“Where to now?” asked Oliver.

“I don’t know anything about anything beyond here, so it’s no good asking me anything,” Botherworth said, “ I s’pose you’ll still be wanting me to come with you though,” he grumbled.

“I am sure we would all be grateful if you would,” Roland asked, just in case we need rescuing again. Please would you?”

“Very well, as you ask so nicely,” Botherworth replied, and Roland thought he almost saw a smile on the janitors face.

The track they were on lasted for several miles and then faded out as the country became more stony and sandy. It was also flatter than before, something for which they were grateful. They continued to follow the direction that the track had been headed until they reached a small hill which they decided to climb to get better bearings. From the top they could see something glinting, far off. It stretched right across the landscape and had the shininess of a sword. They decided to go and see what it was.

They discovered that the glint was caused by a pair of metal rails, stretching from horizon to horizon. The rails had been nailed into hundreds of wooden cross pieces placed at right angles beneath them,. It was a baffling thing to find in the middle of a wilderness. It was a baffling thing for someone to leave in the middle of a anywhere.

“What is it?” Oliver asked, “Some sort of boundary marker?”

“I think it’s a type of road,” Savitri said, “but I have never seen anything like it.”

“It’s a railway,” Botherworth put in, “It’s for trains to run on. Locomotives pulling carriages or wagons.”

“What? Explain.” Roland requested.

“Think of a horse pulling a wagon or carriage – this is a load of wagons or carriages in a train being drawn along by a mechanical horse and guided by these rails…”

“Sound amazing,” said Roland, “But where are these trains?”

“Probably late,” Botherworth grunted, “they normally are!”

“If it’s a type of road whoever built it must have built something at the end of it,” Roland said. The logic seemed inescapable. “We’ll follow it,” he said, stepping into the centre of the track, in-between the rails.

“I wouldn’t walk on the track,” Botherworth said, “Don’t ever walk on a railway. The trains will come along fast – even if they’re late!”

Roland stepped off. He now had more respect for Botherworth and his advice.

“Perhaps someone nice will come along on one of the trains and we can ask them where we should go, and they will be kind enough to tell us,” Goodwill suggested.

“Or someone nasty, so we can get into more trouble,” Oliver said.

“Now you’re starting to sound like me,” Botherworth told him.

“Oh no! I’d better fix that — right away!” Oliver joked.

 

They started walking along the track. In a few hours they came upon a long, sweeping bend which seemed to last forever, only to find at the end of it that the rails then started to bend back the other way. It went on like that for while, bending back and forth. As no trains had come along they began to relax and, despite Botherworth’s warning, they all started walking on the track itself rather than beside it. It was easier, once you got the hang of it. All you needed to do was step from one plank on to another and once you got into the rhythm it was easier than walking on the rough ground beside. Only Botherworth refused to do so, and had trouble keeping up because of it.

They were on a sharp bend with Botherworth now far behind them when they thought they heard him shout something. It was followed immediately by a loud noise, like a cross between a moan and a scream followed by a squealing and hissing sound. . It was like the cry of a beast, but a cry no animal could have made. They turned to see the most incredible sight; a huge metal machine, belching smoke and steam was bearing down upon them.

“Get out the way!” Roland yelled, and they all scattered off of the tracks as it passed. It consisted of several bits, all borne on wheels and pulled along by the first bit — the bit which was doing all the hissing and puffing. It had come up behind them and passed them — nearly run them down and killed them — in just a few seconds.

“That, was a train,” said Botherworth, rushing up to them as they picked themselves up.

“Incredible!” Oliver said, “How fast was that thing going?”

“About fifty miles per hour, I’d say.”

“Faster than any horse I’ve ever seen,” Roland said, “And that thing at the front – that was what you call the loco…?”

“It was a steam engine,” Botherworth said, “Always rather liked them. I wanted to be an engine driver when I was kid, but then steam was withdrawn. Another point where things started to go pear…”

“There is a driver?” Roland asked, “– as in a human man? Like a driver of a cart?

“Yeah! Of course! What do you think?”

“That it was alive and went on its own,” Oliver said.

“or driven by something like the Spirusses,” Roland said.

“Oh no,” Botherworth confirmed, Steam locos – human contraption! Beautiful! Give my right arm to have a go on the footplate!”

“So wherever its going, there are probably men like us,”

“And maybe women,” Savitri put in.

“And maybe women too,” Roland added. “Whatever, we now have yet more reasons to continue in this direction.”

“It could go for miles, that thing,” Oliver said. “We might never catch up with it.

“Nothing travels for ever. We will walk until we do catch up with it,” Roland said.

Botherworth grunted once more.

They walked for a couple more hours, then the track turned into two tracks, then four, then six, and from then on into so many that the adventurers quickly lost count. They were laid side by side, stretching from horizon to horizon.

 

As they walked through the sea of rails they heard the sound of singing on the breeze.

“Who would be singing out here?” Oliver asked.

The singing grew louder as they got closer, and they saw now that a large group of men were working up ahead, swinging picks over their heads in concert. As the adventurers got closer they could hear the words the men were singing.

“Drill ye tarriers drill!

Drill ye tarriers drill

It’s work all day with no sugar in yer tay!

On the Lower Plains of the Sky Rail-way!”

There was a man with a wide brimmed hat watching them work and occasionally bawling instructions at them, “Put yer backs into it, yer lallygaggers! We’d a crossed the Hassayamapa fifty miles back but fer all yer slacking!”

As they went up to him he turned to them and said, “Best darn crew I ever bossed! All good Irish lads too! it’s a crying shame to see em treading water building sidelines when there’s a road to be built – and all because of them darn bandboxes! Anyways, what can I do for you folks?”

“We are looking for the Whales Of The Sky, do you know where they are?” Roland said.

“Whales of the what?” The man asked, and he looked up, “only thing I see in the sky is the sun, and too much of that! Young Mister Brandon Junior might know – that’s his private car on the siding.”

He pointed to the train that had nearly killed them, which had come to a stop on one of the sidings nearby.

“Here, I’ll take you,” the man said.

The tail end of the train had a platform with steps up to it, then a door into the inside. On entering they found a room with comfy chairs and a large writing desk at which a man sat, with his back to them. The man with the wide brimmed hat cleared his throat and spoke, “Mr Brandon, there’s some folks here to see you, want to ask you about some whales,”

The man rose and walked towards them, offering his hand. Roland took it and shook it.

“My name is Davey Brandon Junior, assistant engineer of this railroad. How can I help you?”

Roland told him, “We are looking for the Whales Of The Sky, do you know where we could find them?”

“I heard something about them,” the man said.

“You did!” Roland said, excited, “Can you tell us more – like where they are?”

“My father talked about them. He scouted this whole region when planning the railroad – he is the real genius behind it.”

“Can we ask him?”

“No,” Brandon said bluntly.

“If we asked nicely?” Oliver suggested.

“I doubt it, because you would be asking Count Og-dra-gob. We have tried asking him things nicely before and he doesn’t respond to nice.”

“Why do we need to ask Count Og-dra-gob in order to speak to your father?” asked Roland, seeking to get to the root of the matter.

“Now that’s a long story,” said Brandon, “You see, we gotta have water for the locos and the only water for a hundred miles in any direction is on the Count’s land, so we gotta go through it. Only problem is he doesn’t want us going through it. My father went out there to put up a windmill to pump water. They wrecked that by tilting at it. Probably thought it was a giant or something – they’re dumb enough! That was when dad got kidnapped by the count and his knights. That’s why you can’t talk to him, because he is a prisoner in Count Og-dra-gob’s dungeon.”

“Bandboxes!” Cursed the man with the wide brimmed hat.

“That’s enough McCann!” Brandon said, “We may as well be civil about our opponents, however much they may frustrate us.”

“Damn civility is the problem I sez! A few sticks a dynamite would fix ‘em and their flamigigs and we could go on…!”

“We are not here to fight a war,” said Brandon determinedly, “Even if it’s what they want. We are here to bring sivilisation, not destroy it. We are improving this country and no single man should stand in our way, not just for a load of silly war games – but we’ve got to do things in a civilised way, nonetheless.”

He said to Roland and friends, “We’ve been building this Railroad since Creation and hope to be finished by Doomsday — or a little before. Two crews set out from the same point headed in opposite directions and will meet up on the opposite side of the world, providing a complete circular route. We have a golden spike already cast for that moment-” and he produced it from his pocket and held it up in front of them. It was well worn, as if he had spent a lifetime or several caressing it. “When we finish this spike will be the buckle in the girdle of the world!” And his eyes gleamed as those of a believer. Then his voice sank and his eyes looked to the floor, “But it looks like we might not finish at all – all because of Count Og-dra-gob and his war games.” And he grasped the spike tightly and looked crestfallen.

“Oh dear,” said Roland, trying to sympathise.

“But how does it work, going around the world?” Oliver asked, noticing what he thought was a flaw in the plan, “You started from under the earth, then you go above? – I don’t follow…”

“The world is round,” said Botherworth, ”It’s a globe, can’t blame you youngsters for not knowing that. Nobody’s discovered it yet!”

“Round!” exclaimed Oliver, “So-?”

“-So you starts on one side and gets around to the other. The plains of the sky above the Earth wrap around the Earth. See!”

“The Earth is round!” said Roland, also amazed.

“The Earth is round!” said Savitri, amazed also.

“Well, you learn something new everyday. One of the positive things about life!” Goodwill said.

“We have to talk to your father,” said Roland, returning to the matter at hand. “if we must ask the count, then ask the count we must.”

“Good luck to you,” said young Brandon.

Will you point the way? Roland asked.

“Just go out the door, follow the direction of the tracks beyond the sidings and keep going that away once you get to the end of ‘em. That’ll take you there.”

 

As Young Brandon had said, shortly beyond the place where his train had stopped all the tracks came to an abrupt end. Even the pavement that the tracks were to be laid on halted. All that there was to mark where the railway was planned were a series of pegs and boards, many of which had been pulled out of the ground and scattered about. They had dents in them, suggesting they had been struck with sharp instruments, and with force. More jousting practise, Roland concluded.

At this point, too, the landscape changed. The desert environment was replaced by a gentle landscape of small, grass covered hills. Trees and shrubs were everywhere and a stream trickled away nearby.

“Very pleasant,” Oliver noted, “Quite heavenly in fact.”

“Lovely,” said Botherworth, in a sarcastic tone.

“How charming,” said Goodwill, “The very kind of enchanted, pastoral landscape where one dreams of knights going about their noble and chivalric deeds…”

“Look out!” Oliver yelled.

They all looked out and saw, coming over a hill, four knights riding abreast in tight formation. They were all clad in glittering armour with shields and tabards all decorated in differing, pretty patterns of together with other fancy adornments.

“Uh-oh! Here comes Essex!” Botherworth said.

“Looks like trouble,” Oliver said.

“Oh no! I am sure not!” said Goodwill, “They are gentle knights who I am sure will be most courteous towards us!”

As Goodwill finished speaking the knights pointed their lances at the adventurers then started to charge as one.

“Hold your ground,” Roland said, “They are knights and if they are genuinely noble will not harm unarmed people.”

“And if they aren’t?” Oliver asked.

“We have swords,” Savitri pointed out.

“Drop them,” Roland said.

“I won’t,” Savitri said, pulling her sword out of its scabbard and wielding it.

“Please, drop it,” Roland repeated, firmly, and drew his own sword and threw it down. “We cannot defeat men on horseback, not four of them with lances.”

Savitri saw the reason in it and dropped her sword, very reluctantly. Oliver dropped his bow and quiver. Botherworth dropped his broom.

The knights continued to gallop towards them and the adventurers held their breath. The tips of the lances were within a couple of feet of them when the knights pulled up, sending up a shower of dust.

“We surrender!” Roland said.

“Greetings!” said one of the knights, “I am Sir Valiant de Vosper, bendy dancetty argent vert —”

“— Oh don’t give them all that!” said another of the knights.

“They are our proper titles upon the tourney field,” the other replied.

“It’s just a lot of mumbo-jumbo from what I — don’t — understand of it! I don’t know why the count insists upon it — it all sounds so silly!” and he said to the adventurers, “You are now our prisoners to be ransomed, you will come with us to the lists.”

But no sooner had he spoken than there was a very loud and startling crashing/clanking/leaf-rustling noise from some nearby bushes, accompanied by the fast beat of horses hooves. Four other knights, also riding abreast, with yellow and black shields and tabards, came galloping out and engaged the first group of knights in a melee. They drove forward with their lances, unseating the knight who had first spoken to the adventurers and sending the others scattering. They rode away only to come to a stand and turn, so they were facing the first group of knights. The knight who had been unseated regained his mount and lined up with his fellows. They stared at each other for a few seconds and then both groups charged at the same time and there was a fearful clash of lances against shields, armour and anything else that was unlucky enough to get in the way. After a while of it the second group of knights seemed to have the upper hand. The first group obviously felt so too as they beat a retreat.

“Thanks for the rescue,” Roland said to the victors as they rode up to him.

“Rescue! We were fighting over you! you are now our prisoners!”

“Oh dear,” said Brother Goodwill.

“Sounds about right,” said Botherworth, dismally.

Their new captor introduced himself, “I am Sir Nigel le faire, paly bendy, or sable, a bend sinister erminois.”

And he proceeded to introduce the other knights in similar fashion, giving their names and then lapsing into the same language he had used to describe himself.

“What’s he saying?” Oliver asked.

“He is titling each of them by blazoning their escutcheons,” Goodwill explained.

“What?” Oliver asked.

“Describing the patterns on their shields,” Roland clarified, “My father taught me some heraldic terminology, before he went away.”

“Are these the lists they mentioned earlier?” Oliver asked.

“No,” Roland said, “The lists are the places of refuge in a tournament, where combat is suspended when the competitors are in them.”

“Indeed they are!” said Sir Nigel le Faire, quarterly or, sable, a bend ermine,

“You will accompany us there, please.”

Two of his companions rode around the back of them and lowered their lances at the adventurers, threatening to prod them along in the right direction.

“Alright! Alright! We’re going!” Botherworth said.

“Not quite the courteous welcome I was hoping for, or would have expected,” said Goodwill.

“Seems times have changed since your day,” Oliver said.

“Seems so. How sad, how very sad…,” Goodwill said, shaking his head sadly.

Chapter 13

 

It was a couple of miles to the “lists” that Sir Nigel had mentioned.

They were in fact a town of tents covering a very large area around which was a brightly coloured cordon.

“I would hazard a guess that this marks the limit of the lists,” said Roland, as they as passed through it.

Most of the tents within were dull greys and browns but they surrounded a central area where large, highly coloured and decorated pavilions towered above the rest. At the centre of it all was a brightly coloured castle with pennants flying from it. It was obviously merely decorative but still impressive.

The tents on the outskirts were arranged into streets and lanes and were occupied by all manner of traders and craftsmen. Many were open at the front with their occupants plying their wares. There were blacksmiths, armourers, saddle makers – and cooks. There was a lot of food, whole pigs and oxen being roasted on spits. There was minced lamb, also on a spit, being cut off in slices and served in flat bread with a salad. There were pies on one stall, apples and pears on another. There were exotic fruits and vegetables which the adventurers did not recognise.

Roland and his friends were very hungry by now and their mouths watered at the sight, but they were marched past the stalls with empty stomachs and watering mouths.

As they got closer to the centre the tents got grander, and many sported the colours of knights and had smaller tents for horses and servants. It was at one of these that they stopped. Their captors dismounted and invited their prisoners in.

“I trust you would like to eat and drink,” sir Nigel said.

“Yes please!” they all said together.

Sir Nigel ordered food to be brought.

When Sir Nigel ordered food he meant plenty of it. There was so much food they couldn’t eat nearly half of it, despite being very hungry.

“You are our prisoners, but also our guests,” Sir Nigel said, “You will be treated as if you are royalty until your ransom is paid!”

“There might be a bit of a problem there,” Roland confessed, “I am not sure who will pay…”

“Don’t tell him that,” Oliver whispered, “he might dispose of us.”

“It does not matter,” Sir Nigel said, “In the case no ransom is paid you will be well treated as our guests, forever.”

“We have things to do – a quest,” said Roland.

“Impossible, I am afraid,” said Sir Nigel, “The rules are clear. Once you have strayed into the tourney area and been taken prisoner, you must remain a prisoner until ransom is paid. Sorry about that – but, well – look, I do hope you have a lovely time here. I wouldn’t want you to be unhappy. or to feel like a burden or anything…”

“I am sure we can manage not to feel like a burden,” Oliver said, pointedly.

“Great!” said Sir Nigel.

At that moment another knight entered the tent, looked at Roland and friends and cried out, “Cuthbert Goggins! I do declare! I thought it was you! Shouldn’t you be dead after all this time! Well of course, so should I! It’s all the fresh air and fighting keeps us going up here!”

“Who is Cuthbert Goggins?” asked Oliver.

“I am,” said Brother Goodwill, “That is to say, I was, once, a long time ago…” He stood up to be embraced by the man, their armours clanking together as they did.

Goodwill explained, “Cuthbert Goggins was my name before I took the Orders, and this is Filbert Hilbert…”

Sir Filbert, quarterly, azure argent, a bend vair, if you don’t mind!” Sir Filbert said.

“A knight! I always knew you would be!” Goodwill said.

Sir Filbert laughed, putting his arm around Goodwill and explaining to the others, “We were two boys from lowly stock who had our first adventures together! We rose through the ranks by our skill with the blade and the lance!” and he asked Goodwill, “Tell me, have you killed many lately?”

“I am a Fortresser now,” said Goodwill.

“No wonder you are still alive! Took the pledge eh? I heard of it. Honourable, but dull. There are other ways to immortality, as you can see!” and Sir Filbert laughed again, showing his teeth. He embraced Goodwill once more, “So what are you doing here?”

“We are the guests, in fact the prisoners, of Sir Nigel…”

“Oh dear. Not a lot I can do about that. Rules are rules. Anyone who strays into the tourney field is fair game, I’m afraid. Have you thought of challenging them to mortal combat for your release?”

”Not really my scene any more. Maybe my young friends…”

“We are not here to kill anyone,” said Roland, “we are on a quest.”

“A quest. Very interesting! Who are these people — your friends?”

“Oh forgive me, forgetful as ever! I quite forgot that you haven’t met them yet either!

This is Roland, the great great great grandson of Sir Roland argent, a pomegranate gules, the founder of our order.”

“Founder!” Roland gasped.

“I remember him!” Sir Filbert cried, “Fierce fellow, intense eyes, a fine fighter with a sense of humour. Deadly and funny – a lethal combination! If he didn’t kill you, you could die laughing with him!”

“Yes, indeed,” Goodwill laughed.

“The boy has his looks – hopefully his fire!”

“He does! Both!”

“But what of him?” Roland asked, wanting to know more about his ancestor.

“I will tell you later, if you will forgive us,” Goodwill said to him.

Roland tried to forgive, but felt frustrated that he always seemed to be shut out of the most crucial information about his own kin.

“Anyway, this quest,” Sir Filbert asked, “Is it fun?”

“Not so far,” Botherworth said.

“I second that,” Oliver said.

“I third it,” Savitri said.

“What are you questing for?” Sir Filbert asked.

“The Whales Of The Sky,”

“Not heard of them. Where would they be?”

“We don’t know either,” Roland said,

“How can you be questing for them if you don’t even know where you are supposed to be looking?”

“Good question,” Roland said, “but we have been told there is a man here who knows.”

“Here? Who?”

“A man called Davey Brandon Senior. He is a guest — a prisoner — of Count Og-dra-gob’s in a dungeon at the castle.”

“That’s serious,” said Sir Filbert, “The dungeon is under the real castle, not the fancy thing with the frills so he isn’t a captive of the tournament. The Count really does have something against him.”

“We need to talk to him,” said Roland. And for that we need Count Og-dra-gob’s permission. We need to talk to the count.”

“He is here in the lists. I can arrange an audience — if Sir Nigel will allow your parole in exchange for your promise not to try and escape.”

Roland promised, reluctantly, and Sir Nigel nodded his assent.

 

Sir Filbert led them through the maze of brightly coloured pavilions toward the centre of the lists and the fancy castle. Here there was an area that was roped off with a dais within it. Off to the sides there were various tents which were fitted out for maintaining weapons and armour as well as horses and their livery.

“This is The Count’s arena, where the results of the tourney are announced,” explained Sir Filbert. He asked a page where the count could be found. The page indicated one of the tents at the far side and they headed for it.

As they approached the tent they could hear coming from it the sounds of metal being bashed, together with the most dreadful curses and the occasional grunt and groan. As they entered they beheld a most strange sight. A very tall knight in armour was kneeling down in front of an anvil. His head was in a helmet that was laid on the anvil. Blacksmiths were bashing and pulling at the helmet with hammers and tongs. Several knights were standing around enjoying the spectacle. The head in the helmet was doing the cursing. “For blazes sake get this cussed thing off of me!”

“What has happened?” Sir Filbert asked.

One of the knights explained. “The Count has suffered the most terrible misfortune. His head is jammed in his helmet and we cannot get it out…. It was caused by a most ferocious blow delivered by an opponent. He was lucky not to lose his head entirely…”

“I heard that!” The head in the helmet on the anvil yelled “It wasn’t by luck! It was pure skill! It was he who struck me who had the luck, and when I get out of this I will show him who is better with a sword!”

“Right now you had better just keep your head down my lord,” said another of the knights, as another blow clanged against the helmet.

“Owww!” yelled The Count. Another blow landed with a clang, “I’m a Count, not a bell!”

One of the other smiths stuck the tongs into the front of the helmet, trying to get a better grip on it.

“Dowww! Dat boz by doze!” Yelled The Count, “I’ll have all of you for this!

“We’ll have to heat it up,” said the smith, “it might expand enough to slip off. Bring him over to the fire…”

“What! Are you mad!” yelled The Count in a panic. “You’re not roasting my head! Help! HELP!”

“Excuse me, but plenty of lard’s what you really need,” said Botherworth.

The men turned to look at the newcomers.

“You have experience in such matters?” one of the knights asked.

“Let’s put it this way,” Botherworth said, “there was once a boy, and there was once a bucket. The boy was curious about what was at the bottom of the bucket. He found out – trouble! I had to use lard and a ton of elbow grease.”

“I’m not sure we have any elbow grease…Where do we get it?” The knight asked.

“You’ll have a long weight before you get hold of any of that,” Botherworth chortled, “Come on, get some lard and let me have a go.”

A bucket of lard was brought and Botherworth stuck his fingers right in it as if he enjoyed the feel of it. Roland suspected he actually did.

“Oooh! This is nice and gooey and greasy,” Botherworth said, “Good stuff!” I think we’re onto a winner here!”

If Botherworth enjoyed sticking his fingers into the lard he enjoyed the next bit even more. He started to press the lard into the helmet through all the gaps he could find, especially at the neck and through the grill in the faceplate.

“What’s going o-urrrgggh blurp-blurp-blurple!” The Count protested.

“It’s the ears you’ve got to watch for – get plenty of grease behind the ears,” Botherworth informed the onlookers whilst he carried on, oblivious of The Count’s protests. He was clearly pleased to be in charge of operations.

“Now,” Botherworth directed, “Brother Goodwill, I am sure you can find a positive way to help me – grab his legs in an optimistic way whilst I pull and twist the helmet.”

Botherworth was enjoying himself. He grabbed The Count’s helmet whilst Brother Goodwill grabbed The Count’s legs. Botherworth started to twist and pull the helmet alarmingly. Understandably, The Count protested – or at least, he tried to protest, “Nnnngghhhhrrrr nnnggghmmmm!”

Botherworth put his full weight into pulling on the helmet. Unfortunately the outside of the helmet had also become covered in lard and his fingers slipped. He fell over backwards. He got up again and shook himself, “I need a cloth with some spirit.”

It was brought and he wiped the helmet and started again. This time Roland and Oliver helped Goodwill with the count’s legs whilst Savitri pushed the helmet from the neck. Slowly it started to give, until, finally, with a mighty rush, it came off and Botherworth once more staggered backwards and fell on his rump, this time clutching the helmet in his lap.

The Count stood up immediately. His head was covered in lard and his hair was all spiky and looked like the bristles of a brush. He looked very fierce, “Who has done this!” he roared.

The knights all quickly pointed at Botherworth, who looked as if he wanted to quickly pass the helmet on to someone else.

The Count rushed over to him and pulled him up off the floor. He grabbed the helmet and threw it aside, then shook Botherworth’s hand vigorously with both of his own, “I would like to thank you very much! Thank you very much indeed! These fools were going to roast me, but you – you saw sense! You saw the way to help me out of my predicament without cooking my head like dinner!” and he cast an accusing, withering stare at the knights.

“It was good lard,” Botherworth said, modestly.

The Count licked some of the lard off his lips. “It is good lard!” he cried, “I never knew it could be so sweet! But then it has done good service!”

“I had a bit of help,” Botherworth admitted, pointing to Roland and the others.

“These are your friends?” Og-dra-gob asked.

“Well… Yeah, alright, I suppose they are, really…”

“Fine! Good! You will all be my guests!”

Sir Herbert stepped forwards, “My Lord, these people are captives of Sir Nigel le Faire, paly bendy, or sable, a bend sinister erminois, and are on parole from his custody.”

“Tell Sir Nigel le Faire, paly bendy, or sable, a bend sinister ermin – we really must find a better way to refer to each other than this long-winded nonsense – that I will pay their ransom. I will win it back soon enough anyway!” And he laughed heartily and turned to Roland and friends, “Come, and I will show you what we are up to.”

and he led the way out of the blacksmith’s tent. Once in the open he flung his arms wide, “This is my grand arena, where we announce the winners of each tournament, then we rejoice, sing songs about love and armed combat, and then go out for another tournament where we bash each other silly as practice for a real battle – of which there are far too few these days! Anyway, it’s grand fun!” and the count laughed heartily.

“Sounds wonderful,” said Botherworth, sarcastically

“Just like the tourneys we held of old!” Brother Goodwill cried, “I remember once when Brother Skullcrack struck home with such a terrible blow to the head of Brother Bonebreak – of course they are now both sworn to peace. No more fighting for them,” he became sad for a moment – “but they are very good with bricks and mortar,” he said, perking up “– most excellent! And with blocks of stone!”

“Most other tournaments,” Og-dra-gob continued, “are carried out with two teams of knights, but we decided it would be so much more fun to divide into four teams, all matched against each other – no alliances allowed between teams. It works fine, it’s just that all this officious heraldic nonsense gets in the way…. But never mind that! Let us have the results!” and he commanded the trumpets to sound, signalling that the results were to be announced. They all looked toward the dais where a herald climbed up the steps. He puffed himself up, unfurled a scroll and read out: “Nigel le faire, paly bendy, or sable, a bend sinister erminois, Sir Justin, bendy wavy or sable, Sir Nicholas, pily dancetty or sable and Sir Jock De Salle, chevronny, or sable, Have scored the most points and taken the most prisoners – some of whom I think are in the audience right now! Give us a wave if you’re out there!”

Brother Goodwill waved. The others didn’t. There was a ripple of applause.

The Herald continued, “So, with no further ado, I present the grand prize! They win a voucher for a burnishing from Janikin’s armourers!”

The named knights stepped up to collect their prize. The crowd went wild.

“Now, the runners up,” said the herald, “Sir Valiant de Vosper, bendy dancetty, argent vert, Sir Dunstan, paly bendy, argent vert, Sir Langorrock de Larrack, pily bendy vert argent, Sir Morgrain, lozengy argent vert a chief vert. They win a voucher for a fumigation and delousing of their undergarments from Messrs. Gusgrime, Grimnicks and Sniffit, valid for one month only!”

Again, the named knights stepped up to collect their prize. The crowd went wild, yet again.

“Now the third place, Sir Jools, gules, a bend argent….”

“You see what I mean?” said Og-dra-gob, turning to Roland, “All we want to do is collect our prizes, sing a few songs and then go back to our wargames, but all this heraldic nonsense just gets in the way! Every time we wish to refer to each other and the teams….”

Then Roland pointed out something that had been on his mind for while, “All the teams have one colour in common, and exclusively – only they use it, for instance gold, or green….”

“Yes, that’s the way we planned it, so that we would know easily who was on which team.”

“Well then, why not just call them by that colour: yellow team, green team, blue team and red team!”

Og-dra-gob’s mouth fell open, then he slapped his palm to his forehead, “Of course! Of course! That’s so simple! So obvious! Why didn’t I think of that! Brilliant! We will do it!” and he turned to the knight next to him, “When he is finished, fetch The Herald to me!” He turned again to Roland, “The Herald won’t like it – he won’t like it at all! He gets a great deal of pleasure out of showing off his knowledge of all this heraldic stuff!”

“He’ll just have to stick it down his tights,” Oliver said.

“He will! He will indeed!” and Og-dra-gob laughed loudly, showing off his white teeth.

After the prize giving was over the count took them to the grand chamber in the fake castle. The Count sat on a throne whilst Roland and friends stood around him. The Herald was announced and entered proudly, puffing up his chest and walking in stately fashion up to The Count. He bowed deeply with a flourish.

“You sent for me my liege,” he said.

“Indeed I did!” The Count said. “There has been a bit of a suggestion by my new friends here….”

“A suggestion?” said The Herald suspiciously, his eyes moving nervously to look at Roland and company.

“Yes, a suggestion,” said the Count. “Now, all this pily paly wavy bendy blazoning stuff….”

The blazoning of the escutcheons!” said The Herald, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “You wish me to teach these youngsters how to blazon an escutcheon!”

“Oh no! No! Perish the thought!” The Count said, “No! We don’t want any more of it! No! In fact we want less of it! A lot less!”

“L-less, my lord?” The Herald stuttered, not sure he was hearing correctly.

“Yes! Less! As in cut it out completely!”

“C-cut it out…. But, but,” The Herald stammered, “how shall we know the teams then?”

“Well now, that’s the suggestion. From now on we are going to call them yellow team, red team, blue team and green team!”

“But, but,” The Herald stammered again.

“Butt––butt?” Mimicked The Count, “What is this? Do you think you’re instructing a billy goat?”

“No my lord! Of course not my lord – But my lord, this suggestion, it is unheard of.”

“It is only unheard of because no one has said it yet! Now I am saying it and it shall be done. Clear? Savvy?”

The Herald was crestfallen. He seemed like a broken man and he became hunched over, as if gravely wounded. When Roland saw this he had pity on the poor man and stepped forwards, “I tell you what, why don’t we keep the old heraldic names for the team colours, that would work too! Or, gules, azure, and vert!”

“Could we?” Said The Herald, brightening a little, “Could we?” he asked, tears forming in his eyes as he looked at The Count.

Yes, yes, alright, alright. I don’t see why not. Just don’t let it go any further though!

“No my lord – of course not my lord!”

The Herald seemed to have recovered somewhat and although still clearly shaken to the core left with some crumb of comfort.

After he was gone The Count turned to Roland and company, “My friends! You have brought me so much joy by solving my problems! The time has come for me to ask what I can do for you! Anything! Anything! Big – small – medium sized – family sized – a six pack! Think on it, don’t make up your minds too quickly!”

“Ah, well that’s quite simple actually,” Roland said, “There is a man who is a prisoner of yours called Mr Brandon – we’d like to have a few words with him.”

The Count appeared shaken and stuttered as he spoke, stroking his jaw and grimacing, “That man has caused me a lot of trouble!” he growled.

“We know. By proposing to build a railroad through your lands,” Roland said.

“Not merely through my lands, but through our sacred tourney zone! What worst could one man do to another?”

“It might not be that bad,” Oliver suggested.

“Not that bad! Stopping us riding freely about, bashing each other with merry abandon! How could it ‘not be that bad’?”

“If I may,” Brother Goodwill stepped in, “As a builder and a former warrior I understand something of these matters. Perhaps you do not fully understand what is planned here…”

“Spoiling my fun by the sounds of things!” The Count thundered.

“That isn’t necessarily so,” said Goodwill, “Let me draw you a map and show you. Do you have a map of the area?”

“Lots!” Said The Count, “Essential to planning our tourneys!”

A map was brought And Goodwill sketched out how a railway might look if built through the tourney zone. “You see, it could go through a tunnel here –with bridges here it wouldn’t block your way hardly at all. In fact it would add some interesting obstacles that would make the game more interesting! Coping with the terrain as you find it is an important part of soldiering – you would simply have a new terrain to play with!”

“Yes, yes I see,” The Count said, “Well, it really isn’t as bad as I thought…”

“And of course,” Goodwill continued, “if they built a station here…” – and he indicated the lists – it would enable people to get to the tourney and get back home again! More people could take part, more merchants, more knights, bigger, better, more fun that ever!”

“Yes, yes!” said The Count, his enthusiasm growing, “I see! It’s for transportation! Well, we must have transport, essential for military purposes you know. Perhaps we could understand this new technology, even practice using it ourselves…”

“I am sure that could be arranged,” Goodwill said.

“Wonderful!” said The Count, “It appears I was wrong! Now, I will send for the poor man I have incarcerated – seemingly unjustly – so you can ask him what you want.”

When Brandon Senior was brought before them he was a pitiful sight. The bad hair day that looked as if it had been created by a flock of squabbling starlings was the least of his makeover issues. He was so filthy his dirt had filth, and his grime needed a bath too. It was a wonder that there was enough of him for the dirt to cling too, as he was so thin he looked like he had been on the Holy Healthy Hermit Diet since the very first day of Creation. At least he was actually getting some nourishment, though; a well chewed rat was clenched in his hand from which maggots dripped when he nibbled on it. A nervous tick and a generally addled state added to the impression that he had been a prisoner for a very long while.

“Is it my turn on the treadmill again?” he inquired, “It keeps my weight down something beautiful you know..” and he winked and poked at the ribs that were sticking so far out of his skin they showed through his mouldy old shirt.

“I am afraid not,” Roland said. “We have good news. The Count has approved your idea of a railway across his land.”

“Does this mean I get to see the sky again?” the man asked.

“Yes, and lots of it” Roland said.

“I’m free? The man asked.

“Yes, that as well,” Roland confirmed.

“I’m frightened,” said the man, “I don’t understand what ‘free’ means, any more…”

“Understandable, after a long period of incarceration, but may we ask you a question? We want to know where the Whales of the Sky are. Do you know?” Roland asked.

The man just grunted. It seemed he did not understand. Roland repeated the question. The man looked around suspiciously, then spoke with a whisper as if telling an important secret, “You will find them in the trees,” he said, improbably.

“Really? Are you quite sure about that?” Oliver asked, “Whales in trees?”

“Where else would they be?” The man asked, as if surprised at the question.

Oliver opened his mouth to object strongly but Roland shook his head at him.

“You will find them in the trees,” Brandon Senior repeated, this time emphatically, “Over yonder, by the river, five hundred miles in that direction.”

Oliver gave Roland a look that suggested Brandon Senior was round the twist. Roland shot a look back that said he half believed it.

“Well, if they are the Whales of the Sky, I suppose its logical to think they might be found in trees,” Roland said.

“Fish are,” Brandon Senior said, with a daft look, but as if pointing out something obvious in order to be helpful.

What about ducks?” Oliver asked, testing the man.

“The exception that proves the rule,” the man said.

“What about dolphins? I suppose we’d find them in bushes?”

“Don’t be so silly,” the man scoffed, “They’d live in burrows if they came out of the water!”

“Oh silly me, of course they would,” Oliver said, giving Roland another dubious look.

“He is certain about the direction and the distance, Roland said. All we have to do is go and see.?”

“And if it’s all nonsense?” Oliver asked.

“then we have followed the only lead we have, and it has come up short,” Roland said, glumly.

It was plainly the best Mister Brandon Senior could manage in his sad condition.

Roland and his friends had a long way to go and time was pressing so they left the old engineer in the charge of Sir Filbert, who promised to get him back to the train and tell his son the good news.

“I’ve never seen anyone get around old Og-dra-gob so quickly!” Sir Filbert told Roland, once out of earshot of The Count. “He doesn’t give the time of day to most folks he meets!”

“Perhaps they just never get the chance to help him,” Roland said.

“Still, you’re quite a team!”

“At least we have done good for someone,” Roland said. “Now we have to get to the sun and back before they execute Firebrace…. If you will excuse us.”

“Gladly — and good luck!”

Chapter 14

 

As a parting gift Og-dra-gob gave them all horses. Oliver looked at them nervously.

“There’s nothing to it!” Said Botherworth.

“I didn’t know janitors could ride,” said Goodwill.

“It isn’t in the job description – and it didn’t come up at the interview, but I find it useful!”

Botherworth mounted and then fell straight off the other side. He remounted and grasped the reins, “When you fall off, you just gotta get straight back on! I’m a bit rusty, that’s all, plus a slippy saddle…”

Oliver mounted with a lot less difficulty.

“See! Nothing to it!” said Botherworth, “Now, where do I put me broom?”

With such things sorted out the adventurers rode out for their journey. It was a long one, but the thought that they were at last on the right track — so it seemed — kept them going.

They passed out of the pastoral landscape of Og-dra-gob’s territory into more mountainous terrain and continued until the mountains that Brandon Senior had spoken of came into view. The foothills were covered with trees and the peaks cloaked in cloud. As they got yet closer they could see that inside the cloud there were forms, like living creatures, moving upwards and downwards. They were graceful creatures, like sea creatures, with flat tails and flippers that pushed against the air like wings. Their movements had all the appearance of swimming, although technically they were in fact flying slowly through the mist. They were soaring upwards from the trees, as if to take gulps of air, and then diving down into them again. They were moving as if to a perfectly choreographed dance.

“They must be the whales,” Oliver said.

“I think they must be,” Roland said.

“Something seems to have gone right – at last,” Botherworth said, almost as if he were disappointed at being proved wrong about life in general.

The adventurers rode up to the edge of the forest. It looked quite impenetrable so Roland tried to get the whales’ attention from where he stood. He waved his arms and shouted , “Excuse me! We need your help! We have been told you can help us. Can you?”

There was no response from the whales. Roland tried again, “We have come here from the Unfinished tower. A man called Firebrace sent us. We must get to the moon so we can get to the sun and get more sun warriors to save the tower from—”

“ — from the Spirus,” Savitri cut in, “The most evil, nasty, vile, murderous creatures that have ever been on the earth.”

“Which is round, in case you didn’t know,” Oliver put in.

The whales seemed to gain interest. Near the adventurers part of the cloud started to billow and then extended right over their heads. Slowly The whales moved into the new part of the cloud and started circling, nose to tail, right above Roland. Then one of the creatures swam down so that its head projected out of the bottom of the cloud. It emitted a high pitched noise that caused all of the adventurers to cover their ears.

“Gor’ blimey!” cursed Botherworth.

“Somewhat distressing!” said Goodwill.

“Was that ‘buzz off’?” Oliver asked.

The horses were also disturbed by it. They started to rear up and whinny in protest. The adventurers dismounted and shooed them away. They bolted for home.

“What do we do without horses?” Oliver asked.

Roland shrugged, “We have found the whales, if they cannot help us, I reckon it’s game over anyway.”

He looked up again and cried out, “I am told you can help us! We need to get to the moon!”

Another of the creatures dipped its head down out of the cloud and again emitted the high—pitched noise. This time they had all covered their ears in readiness.

“Tell them why again,” Oliver urged, “Perhaps they didn’t fully understand the first time.”

Roland did so, “We need the help of the people in the sun in order to save the castle that protects the unfinished tower. We must reach the sun. We must get to the moon so that we can reach the sun and ask the Great Council of Grand Flames for reinforcements.”

Another of the whales dipped its head beneath the cloud, emitted the high pitched sound and then drifted upwards again. Once more they had covered their ears.

“We don’t seem to be getting anywhere,” Oliver said, lowering his hands.

The whale rejoined the other whales and they all began to ascend, as if they were leaving.

“No!” Roland cried out, “Please don’t go! We need your help! We have been through so much to get here! Please help us!”

The whales continued to ascend for a few moments, then they stopped and all of them turned to face inwards toward the centre of the circle. Then, slowly, majestically, they begin to rock back and forth in a see-saw motion, as if nodding to each other.

“What are they doing?” Oliver asked.

Roland shrugged. As he did so there was a faint tremor beneath his feet. They all felt it. There was another, then another…

The trembling and rumbling grew, then, from the ground between them, a jet of water burst upwards towards the sky. It was narrow at first but quickly got wider — so quickly that they suddenly found themselves engulfed and swept up by it. At the same time Their ears were filled with the roaring of it so that they could not hear themselves – or each other – cry out.

They were thrust upwards toward the sky, then right through it. Then there was light — a lot of light; light split into spectrums, light whirling around, light in beams and clouds, light in fragments that floated past their eyes.

It was at the point when they needed to draw breath – just a few seconds after it started — that the roaring and the light quickly halted and they were flung into darkness, landing on soft sand.

 

Their eyes grew accustomed to what was, in fact, dim light and they saw that they were in a cavern, surrounded by ships. The whole place smelt of the sea, but as if the tide had gone out long ago.

“I’m dry,” Oliver said, surprised.

Me too,” said Savitri

I don’t think we were in that fountain – whatever it was – long enough to get wet,” Roland said.

“Impossible,” Botherworth said.

“Are you wet?” Oliver challenged.

“No,” Botherworth admitted.

“What are all these ships doing here? Oliver asked, looking about, “What an odd thing to find on the moon!”

“You think that’s where we are?” Roland asked.

“Where else would you find a cavern full of ships?” Oliver said, with a smile and a wink.

“I’d like to know for sure,” Roland said.

 

There seemed to be hundreds of ships, of all sizes and shapes. They were stacked right up to roof of the cavern, many crammed in at odd angles, some broken under the weight of supporting others. Their masts stuck out of the piles like felled trees, or like tentacles reaching out in grim desperation. Plainly there was a shortage of ship storage space.

The next cavern contained the same, and the next — and the next. There seemed to be an endless supply of ships and very little room to store them. In each successive cavern the ships were newer, less decayed, than in the last, giving the impression that whoever put them there was just moving on from cavern to cavern building ships and filling up the space with them. That idea was confirmed when they entered a cavern containing a fully working ship building yard and with only a few ships stacked to the sides. Men were busy at work building yet more. Roland went up to the man who seemed to be in charge, “Excuse, me, but can you tell us where we are?”

The man laughed out loud, “Why! You’re in the moon of course! Where else would you be?!”

“Thank goodness,” said Roland, “Now, can you tell us how to get to the sun?”

The man laughed again, “What you wanna go there for?”

“Because it’s there,” said Botherworth, in his best sassy tone.

“That’s what we said to you!” Oliver told him.

“I know, and I liked it. Wasn’t going to admit it at the time though!”

Realising Roland was serious, the in—charge seeming man continued, “I don’t know, I really don’t. You’d best ask in the office.”

Over in the corner of the cavern was a small hut with the word “Office” written on the door. They went over to it and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” said a voice.

Inside were three men at three desks, all dressed like clerks in holy orders. Roland said, “I wonder if you can help us. We need to get to the sun.”

“Before or after the mythtelling?” one of the clerks asked.

“When is the mythtelling?” Roland asked.

“After Ogleforth.”

“And err, when is that?”

“Soon,” said the clerk.

“How soon is soon?” Roland asked.

“Quite soon,” the clerk said.

“Ahhh… So how do we get to the sun?”

“That’s difficult, very difficult,” the clerk said. “You need to ask the Great Mistress of the Lighthouse. If you can get her attention and ask her, and if she is willing – only if she is wiling, mind, she will call a Sentinel of the Sun who will, if he is willing, take you to the Sun.”

“Only if she is willing, and he is willing, eh?” Roland checked.

“Only if she is willing, and he is willing,” the clerk confirmed.

“And how long will this take?”

“The clerk shrugged, “How long is a game of Ogleforth?”

“Well, surely it must end before the mythtelling,” Oliver objected.

“That is true, very true… You are learning our ways!” the clerk said approvingly.

“So how do we see the Great Mistress of the Lighthouse?” Roland asked.

“Very difficult, very difficult,” the clerk said, again shaking his head, “She doesn’t talk to anyone. She is far too bound up with competitive sport and the hearing of the myths.”

“So how do we talk to her?”

The clerk thought, “Join the Ogleforth match and win a game or two — anyone with a boat can play. Impress her with your sporting ability. Then maybe, maybe, she will notice you, deign to exchange a few words with you…”

“Doesn’t sound very positive,” Oliver said, and shot a look at Brother Goodwill who had opened his mouth to speak but then thought better of it.

“Where do we get a boat and how much does it cost?” Roland asked.

“The harbour,” said the clerk, “Just choose a boat. They’re free, no cost. Just play the game well – play badly and you will suffer a forfeit!”

“What’s the forfeit?” Oliver asked.

The clerk shuddered, “Get locked out when everyone else goes home.”

“And that’s bad because…?” Oliver asked, wondering if there wasn’t more to it.

“That’s bad because they take the air back inside with them,” the clerk said, “Air is only allowed out onto the surface during Ogleforth and special occasions – such as visiting dignitaries. It’s a defensive measure.”

“So no air for losers,” Oliver said, “Better practice holding our breath,” he joked.

“We shall play to win – and win,” Roland said. “Now, where is the harbour?”

The clerk pointed through an arch to another cavern beyond.

They went through the arch and found themselves in the harbour. It was in the largest cavern — by far — that they had been in yet. Here there were no boats stacked up. Instead they were lying around on the sand, as if marooned by the tide going out. There was a harbour wall in the far distance, and at the far end of it a very tall lighthouse reaching up to the very top of the cavern. All around the harbour there were arches where tunnels led in.

There was an odd thing about the boats. All of them had strange, tall objects in the centre. They were like masts, but instead of bearing canvas sails each had a circular structure, the width of a tall man’s height and more, at the top. The centres of these structures were made up of many long, criss-crossing strings. Each one had three ropes hanging from it, one from the top and one from each side. They looked like they might be some sort of sail, but it seemed unlikely as the wind would blow straight through them. Wooden beams, a bit like oars, stuck out from the sides of the boats but it was hard to see how they could help in powering the craft.

It was all very well boarding one of the boats but they had no idea how to sail it. Roland noticed two men on the quay and approached them.

“Excuse me, we are here to play Ogleforth,” he said.

“You’re a bit early! Rush hasn’t started yet!” said one of the men.

“I am told we can take any boat we choose?” Roland said to them.

“Provided you play, said the other man, and don’t just go swanning about in it!”

“How do we sail the boats? How are they powered? What do we do?”

Both men chuckled.

“You’ll see,” one said.

“You’ll see,” the other agreed.

It wasn’t much help to say the least, not much help at all.

There was not enough room for five people on board so it was quickly decided that Roland, Oliver and Savitri should do the sailing whilst Botherworth and Goodwill would remain on shore and cheer from the sidelines – provided there were any sidelines.

The three friends boarded the boat and looked about. There was still no indication of how it was powered – there were no oars and no sail. There was no rudder either.

“How do we steer?” Oliver asked.

Roland shrugged.

They made themselves familiar with the boat as best they could, although it all made little sense.

“We’ll just have to watch what the others do,” Roland said.

As he spoke a horn with a low, dull note was blown and there was the sound of rushing feet from the arches around the harbour. A large number of people came hurrying through and started leaping into the boats in a mad scramble. Some leapt into one boat only to leap out again, whilst some were pushed out by others who rushed in behind them. There were several struggles going on over ownership of boats. Several tried to board the boat that the friends were in but they were able to repel the boarders successfully. In a few minutes almost everyone was in a boat. All the squabbles over whose boat was whose had been sorted out

and there were only a few stragglers left wandering in the sand.

At that point the horn was blown again. Yet more people rushed in but From different arches than the previous group. The new ones leapt onto the sand and formed teams around the boats. They then waited, presumably for commands. The horn blew again and on each of the boats one of the team members looked down at those around the boats and pointed, all in the same direction, towards the harbour mouth and cried, “Yee-hove-hee!”

The teams of people around the boats cried “Yee-hove-hee!” grasped the beams at the sides and started to lift and push the boats so that they slid through the sand, quickly gaining speed.

Seeing what was happening Oliver did the same as the team members on the other boats. He looked down at the boat pushers, pointed where the others had pointed and cried, “Yee-hove-hee!” The people around their boat also cried out, “Yee-hove-hee!” and soon their boat was also on its way.

Chapter 15

 

They were headed toward the lighthouse at great speed. Beyond it they could see the vast opening of the harbour mouth and through it stars —hundreds —thousands — millions of stars. As they passed the lighthouse there was a hissing, rushing sound and they felt a strong breeze all about them.

“They must be letting the air out!” Cried Roland.

The rushing air helped to speed them out onto the surface. They saw immediately that the lunar sky was starkly divided into a dark area, full of stars, and an area of blue sky which was like that on earth. Both parts were separated by a line that arched across the sky. The area of blue sky was in the distance and the other ships were headed for it.

As they were puzzling over all this a small bright object came rushing over their heads from behind. It was so close that they ducked, although it had already passed before they did so.

“What was that!?” Oliver cried as they watched it pass over the other ships to disappear behind some rocks in the far distance.

“I don’t know,” said Roland. “Lets try not to get in the way of one.”

They caught up the other boats which were all forming into a line. The trio’s boat joined one end of it. In front of the line of boats were two other boats, each of which had a different coloured flag on it.

“What’s going on?” Roland asked.

“I know what this is!” Oliver said, “They’re captains picking teams!”

Each of the captains took it in turns, selecting from the ships in front of them by pointing. As each ship was picked its pushers pushed it around to join its team behind its captain.

The friends waited, wondering if they would be picked, but all of the others were chosen and they remained, now alone, one unwanted ship and its crew with all the chosen crews staring across at them.

“Do we get to play at all?” Savitri asked.

The team who had the last pick started to wave and shout at them impatiently, gesturing for them to come over. Clearly they were expected to join it as a matter of course. Oliver looked down at the boat pushers and cried, “Yee-hove-hee!”

The pushers responded by crying “Yee-hove-hee!” and pushed them over to join their team.

The ships of both teams now started to spread out across the surface. The trio’s boat followed. As they did so the captain of their team circled back and came level with their boat. The captain leapt on board, asking, “You new to this?”

“Yes,” said Roland.

“Thought so! Right! The idea is to wait until an ogle appears – that’s one of the bright objects that come flying over. When one that’s coming in low enough is spotted both teams try to play it, trying to bat it with the racquet—” and he indicated the strange object that stuck out of the centre of the boat — “Only one ogle can be in play at any one time – once it’s sighted and the cry has gone up for it that’s the ogle until it goes out of play – we’ll come to that!”

‘When the ogle appears both teams try to get it and bat it towards the terminator —

that’s the border between the light and the dark you see out there where the blue sky is and where the grandstands are—” and he pointed to the light blue sky in the distance —“The boats try to pass it to boats of their own team and try to keep it from boats of the other team, who are trying to intercept it. When a boat is near enough to the terminator it tries to hit the ogle so that it crosses it. When that happens it’s called a Bedern, and it’s a point for that boat’s side.

‘Now, you can get extra points; if three ships in the same team hit it in a row – one boat passes it to another in the same team and then that boat passes it on to another which then strikes it, that’s called a Straker. If four ships from the same team hit it in a row, that’s a Koenig. If the last boat to hit it then scores a Bedern, then that’s either a Full Straker or a full Koenig. Clear?

‘If the ogle simply flies into the dust and fizzles out before reaching the terminator then it’s a Lendal – no score, and we go back to the start and begin again, same as we do after a Bedern. Clear?”

He then showed them how to use the racquet, “It swivels at the base — here — so that you can twist it around… These ropes—” and he pulled the ropes that were hanging from it “— are used to turn it to face the right way and to pull it back so that it will spring forwards and hit the ogle. If the ogle is flying high what you can do is this: when you are in the right position, and at exactly the right time you can order the err… them—” and he indicated the pushers at the side “—to stop and then toss the boat upwards into the air to enable you to strike it. Cry yee-hove-stop! to stop and then yee-hove-leap! To leap. You have to judge it fine, though!”

“Who are these people pushing the boat?” Oliver asked.

“Well, err, they’re called yee-hove-hees, but it’s of no consequence… Anyway, that’s how you play Ogleforth. Think you can handle it?”

“We have to,” said Roland, “The success of our quest depends on it.”

“I am sure we can,” said Savitri, determinedly.

“We certainly don’t want to get locked out, anyway!” said Oliver.

“Eh?” said the captain, “Oh, you’ve been listening to the cave-lubbers eyewash! They tell all the newbies that to incentivise them! You’d have to play very badly for that to happen!” and he winked and laughed heartily. “But I ‘m sure you’ll do good! You look young and strong! This match is a tiebreaker for the Grand Cup of the Silent Seas – which is where we are, or nearabouts anyway. We always seem to end up losing the toss and with the last boat in the selection – let’s see if you might be diamonds in the rough and surprise us!”

With that the sound of the horn was heard again and their captain jumped back into his ship. He cried “yee-hove-hee!” and his own boat-pushers responded with the same cry, then propelled him quickly across the sand away from Roland’s boat. Roland gave the same order and his own boat glided gracefully after the captain’s.

Soon the game was on. A cry went up and the ships all turned towards a bright flickering object coming at them from the dark horizon. One of the opposing ships was first to it but narrowly missed hitting it. The bright ball sped onwards until a ship of Roland’s team managed to. As it did a shower of sparks exploded from the racquet accompanied by a very loud, eerie twang—oiiiiiing noise that reverberated across the lunar landscape. The ogle was sent flying off towards the terminator. Several opposing ships tried to intercept it but another boat of Roland’s team got to it and struck it once more. Again there was a shower of sparks and the eerie twang––oiiiiiing noise.

“This is how you play Ogleforth!” The captain shouted at them as they joined in the chase, the ships spreading out in order to catch and hit the ogle. It was one of the opposing ships that intercepted it, again with the accompanying sparks and noise, but the boat only succeeded in striking the ogle downwards so that it bounced and scraped some rocks sending yet more sparks flying. It finally came to rest in the dust and fizzled out.

“So that’s a Lendal,” Oliver said

Again the ships spread out across the surface, trying to spy the next ogle. One was quickly spotted and all ships raced to it. The yee-hove-hees pushing Roland’s vessel started to push it in the same direction as the pack, but Roland gave different orders, “No – hang around behind – we might be more use!”

He had noticed how all the ships raced towards the ogle at once but failed to provide enough cover near to the terminator, where the high points were to be scored. So Roland’s ship cruised around between the pack and the terminator, looking for their chance to receive the ogle.

The new ogle was passed across the surface between ships of the opposing side as they scored a Koenig. But Roland’s strategy paid off. He was in the right place to rush in between two of the other team’s ships as one was passing the ogle to another. Watching closely, Roland ordered the yee-hove-hees to go faster so that they ended up right in the ogle’s path. The burning ball hurtled toward them, all its fire and fury seeming larger, more intense by the instant.

“Stand by!” Roland yelled.

Savitri and Oliver swung the racquet into the right position and then pulled it back and let it go at just the right time. Coming from right overhead the twang—oiiiiiing sound was deafening and they were showered with sparks like a waterfall of fire. They ducked their heads as it fell and when they looked up again they saw that they had sent the ogle speeding across the surface right to another of their team’s ships. That in turn sent it speeding ahead but it was intercepted by the other team and then fizzled out into a Lendal. Nevertheless, the trio’s boat had been pivotal in a Straker!

“A Straker! We did it!” Oliver cried in triumph, “We can play Ogleforth!” and the three high—fived each other.

The captain pulled up beside them again and shouted, “Keep that up and you’ll be ship of the match!”

Soon another Ogle was spotted and the game was on yet again. Once more the other team got to it first and had most of the running, pulling off a Koenig before it was intercepted by a boat from Roland’s team. The other team then got it back again to score a Bedern.

With the next ogle Roland’s boat was part of a Full Koenig – that excited the trio very much, but they really wanted to score a Bedern themselves. The rival team drew level again with the next ogle and it was all down to the final one.

This time Roland decided to hang back even more than he had before. It took them close to the grandstand and some in the crowd wondered what they were doing. There were some shouts of “Get up there!” and “Play the game!” but Roland ignored them. Soon the ships of both teams were coming towards him, the ogle flying between them. The other team scored a Straker with a Full Koenig on the cards as the ogle was sent flying towards another of their ships. Yet again Roland saw his chance to

intercept the ogle for his own team and tacked the craft sideways so as to get in its way. The only problem was that there was no member of his team near enough to pass it to. There was only one thing for it — they would have to try to score the Bedern themselves by turning the racquet so it was at an oblique angle to the incoming ogle and then striking it a glancing blow to send it across the terminator. It would be a very difficult trick to pull off — the most difficult shot imaginable and would require pin point timing.

Roland ordered the yee-hove-hees towards the right position as Savitri and Oliver pulled on the ropes in order to get the racquet facing the right way. Roland then joined them pulling at the centre rope, still giving last minute orders to the yee-hove-hees.

They were heading for the right place but as they watched the ogle coming towards them they realised that it was going to be too high and go over their racquet. There was no time to stop. There was no choice but to hit it on the move whilst leaping at the same time, although the captain had given no indication that it was a standard manoeuvre.

“When I tell the yee-hove-hees to leap, get ready to let go,” Roland told Oliver and Savitri.

With the racquet in the right position all three of them pulled back hard on it. Roland watched the ogle coming towards them and at the right time yelled “yee-hove-leap!”

“Yee-hove-leap!” cried the yee-hove-hees, with not a thought or suggestion that they found the idea of leaping whilst moving odd.

Still rushing along the boat was thrown high up in the air. As it rose to meet the ogle Roland yelled, “Now!” and all three of them let go of the ropes. The racquet lurched forwards and hit the ogle at a skew angle, striking it with a very loud twang––oiiiiiing and a huge shower of sparks so that it span and headed straight for the terminator. They watched it go, holding their breath for what seemed like an age, wondering if it had enough momentum. But, in its own slow time, the ogle passed across the terminator. It was a Bedern! They had scored a Bedern! The crowd in the grandstand went wild!

Oliver noticed that both Botherworth and Goodwill were in the grandstand and actually thought he saw Botherworth hugging Brother Goodwill. He shook his head in disbelief.

“You’ve done it!” their captain said as he came alongside again, “Diamonds in the rough you are indeed! Champions! The very champions! It is for you to accept the cup and, I don’t doubt, the award of boat of the match! An interesting new manoeuvre, that flying leap! We’ll all be practising that from now on you can be sure!”

Proudly they mounted the stand to have the cup presented to them by the Supreme Mistress of the Lighthouse. She handed it over and Roland took his chance, telling her, “We must speak to you on an urgent matter.”

“Very well, for such fine sportsmen I will hear anything, but first a few words for the crowd…”

Roland turned to them, “Thanks to you all! We are visitors but are already enjoying ourselves! I hope you are happy to have us here and we are providing good entertainment!”

The crowd cheered.

“Thanks must go to our worthy teammates! We hold the cup but we hold it for all of them – we couldn’t have done it without them!”

The crowd cheered all over again.

“Thanks also to our worthy opponents – who I am told will not be locked out when the air goes in!”

The crowd laughed and applauded at what they obviously considered a good joke

“But thanks also needs to go also to our excellent boat—pushers, the yee-hove-hees who rushed us through the sand and leapt at just the right moment. We couldn’t have done it without….”

Roland’s voice began to tail off. At the very mention of the yee-hove-hees there had been a sharp intake of breath from the crowd. The Supreme Mistress of the Lighthouse turned her back on him and walked off. Roland didn’t finish what he was going to say and there was no applause.

Their captain was beside him again, “Bad move me lubber. The yee-hove-hees is mere slaves, no one may mention them or acknowledge their existence in public!”

“That’s wrong,” Savitri said.

“It is,” Roland said.

“It’s the way it is,” the captain said, “The way this world is – the moon, I mean.”

“And Earth too,” Savitri said, “Too much like it.”

“Can we regain anything?” Roland asked in desperation, “We must speak to the Lighthouse Mistress…”

“Perhaps if you offer a grovelling apology for mentioning such low, base and vile creatures in her presence… She may listen, given that you played so splendidly and entertained us all.”

 

Despite the disastrous faux pas the friends were invited to the team victory party, which was very jolly with many hi-jinks accompanying the usual replaying of all the best bits of the match – in other words, the bits where they had been winning. Roland was sullen though. All his purpose was undone. He had won the match for the team and got the attention of the Lighthouse Mistress as planned only to have it all ripped away from him. He was also annoyed about the reason for it. The yee-hove-hees had played their part in the victory and yet they were not part of the celebrations. It was wrong and he knew he had been right to thank them, and he would have made sure they were invited to the victory party as well, if he had had anything to do with it.

If you have to do something wrong to get a good thing done, is that right? He thought of his conversation with Bril-a-Brag. If he had known that mentioning the yee-hove-hees would undo his purpose, would he have mentioned them? He should have done, he knew, and he decided that he still would have done.

“Is their nothing we can do?” he asked the Captain.

“I have been sending out some feelers,” said the Captain, “We will have to see. Don’t be despondent! It may yet come right! You won us the Ogleforth cup, against all expectations! That counts for something!”

“But we are pressed for time,” Roland said,” I have a friend who may be executed within a week.”

“Well time is time, and it isn’t always the time we think it is – particularly not up here!”

With that he left. Roland wondered what he had meant.

Soon after the captain came back again, “I have spoken to a close friend who is a good friend of a friend of the Lighthouse Mistress. If you hurry, she is willing to hear you out. But beware, she will expect an apology for the affront.”

“I am not too proud to grovel for a good cause,” Roland said, “But the yee-hove-hees – I will not apologise for standing up for them.”

The Captain looked glum, “Well, let’s see what happens…”

Roland was rushed down lots of passages and through many caverns — all packed to the roofs with boats — until he arrived at a grand chamber which was very long and lined with many Ogleforth boats all carefully displayed on pedestals. At the end of the chamber sat the Lighthouse Mistress, high up on a grand throne. Roland walked the length of the chamber and bowed. The Lighthouse Mistress looked down upon him.

“I am here to apologise for any affront,” he said.

“Your apology is accepted,” The Lighthouse Mistress said.

“But,” Roland said.

“But?” She asked.

Roland was sure he could not say it. He heard the words in his head and knew he could not say them. He was sure he lacked the courage. Then he heard the words come from his own mouth, “But the yee-hove-hees should not be slaves!”

The harbour mistress sat impassively. At least she didn’t seem angry.

“They should not be slaves,” she agreed, “There should be no slaves at all. But there are, and what is is what is. What can I do?”

“Free them,” Roland said.

“It is not mine to do, but their masters. Have you never owned slaves?” she asked.

“I thank goodness I have not,” Roland replied.

In public I must keep up the appearance of being affronted by your behaviour, but in private I can say that you have a good heart, and commend you on it. You may go now,” she said.

“There is something I must ask you” Roland said, summoning his full supply of courage, “We need a favour….”

“A favour? You insult me in public, and you need a favour!”

“Yes,” he said.

“At least you are courageous, as well as a good sportsman. Tell me what this favour is.”

“We are fighting a battle down on the earth and we need new sun warriors, fresh from the sun. We need to get to the sun and we need you to help us.”

“You need a Sun Sentinel to take you. It is the only way to get to the sun, and to get safely into it.”

“So I have been told. I am told you can summon one for us.”

“Do you know what a Sun Sentinel is?” The Lighthouse Mistress asked him.

“No.”

“They are the creatures sent out by the sun to guard the very edges of light and dark. They wait in the dark for many years, watching and waiting for any sign of the forces of darkness rallying for attack. It is a lonely life… The lighthouse can be seen by them and can be used to signal them, but there is no guarantee one will respond. Because of the life they lead – the loneliness — they can be moody, avoidant. You must also know that the appearance of the Sun Sentinels can be fearful. They contain the rage of a furnace and the darkness of an abyss.”

“We need one,” Roland said, “we will cope with it when it comes.”

“Then we will summon one for you. You may leave now.”

Roland was overjoyed. He had got what he wanted. He also had spoken out and not been punished or disadvantaged for it. He had done the right thing and got away with it. He had a feeling that life wasn’t always like that…. He rejoined his friends at the party.

“How was it?” Oliver asked, “Are they are going to help us?”

“Despite the fact that I maintained my objection to the treatment of the yee-hove-hees, they are going to summon a Sun Sentinel.”

“Great!” said Savitri, “And well done for not caving in on your principles!”

“How long will it take?” Oliver asked, “The clock is ticking on Firebrace.”

Roland said, “I don’t know how long because I didn’t ask and I should have done. Blast! We could be here weeks. I should have asked and if necessary tried to get them to hurry things up a bit…”

“You can’t think of everything –not in a situation like that,” Savitri said reassuringly, “You have done what you could.”

At that moment the horn sounded again, in a long, long blast.

The captain of the team announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the mythtelling!”

“What is this mythtelling?” Oliver asked the captain as they hurried towards the door.

“The mythtelling is – why, it’s the mythtelling! Attendance is compulsory on pain of death!”

“We’d better attend then,” Oliver said

“The death penalty is another thing I have qualms about,” Roland said.

“Lets just not push our luck, okay!” Oliver replied.

Chapter 16

 

These are the myths that were heard by Roland and his friends during the mythtelling in the moon.

 

Order And Chaos

There were once two sisters called Order and Chaos. They fought continually and their rivalry never faded, even when they grew up.

Order tried to contain Chaos by putting her in a box, then she decided to kill her by throwing the box into The Great River, but the box broke open on the rapids and Chaos escaped. Out of the bits of the box Chaos fashioned a weapon to kill Order.

 

She beat Order to death and threw her body into The Great River, but when Order was gone she wept at the emptiness that was left where once her sister had been. The Great River heard her crying and restored Order to life. Once this was done they resolved never to fight again but to join together and work on something together that would keep them from fighting. Their answer was to create the world, with its careful balance of Order and Chaos, so that both sisters could be happy, each have what they wanted and learn to compromise with each other.

 

The Great River

As the world grew the Great River found it was a good place to flow through, but it was unruly and ill-disciplined. Sometimes it went this way, sometimes that. When it flowed along its normal path the plants grew and the people were happy. But if the river flowed too much in one place people drowned and plants and animals were swept away, if it stopped flowing in a place then there was drought and the people died of thirst and hunger.

Order and Chaos sat down to plan the path of The Great River so that everyone could be sure where it would flow, where its water would be most useful and to stop it harming anyone. But The Great River was older than Order and Chaos, and disliked being told what to do by them. In protest it stopped flowing altogether, causing much suffering and death. It stored up its water, then let it out again, causing a great flood and yet more suffering. It flooded the whole world killing most of the people and creatures on it.

So Order and Chaos decided to break up The Great River. They divided it into many different rivers and streams so that it could not destroy the whole world again, and would be useful to everyone, everywhere.

 

The Whales Of The Sky

Once the earth flooded to such a depth that the waters reached the moon, and the moon became an island in the Sea of the Earth.

Many people drowned, but many were saved by the great whales who carried them up to the moon where some made new lives, whilst others chose to go back down to the Earth when the waters had subsided.

In gratitude for saving their lives the moon-dwellers granted the whales the wisdom of the moon, and called them “moonwise”. The whales took the wisdom of the moon and used it to evolve. They chose the freedom of the air over the freedom of the water, and whenever they took to the sky of a night-time, and looked upon the shining moon, they said, “We are moonwise.”

 

The Thief Who Stole the Sun

 

There was once a thief who stole the sun. He plucked it from the sky and put it in his pocket, then took it deep underground to his lair where no one else dared to go, where he grew precious jewels and forged precious metals.

Without the sun the world was a dark, cold and barren place so the tribe asked their greatest hunter to find the sun again. She took to the winter sky and sought for it throughout the stars, then she took to the earth and searched for it from one end of the world to the other. Finally she looked underground and found the thief’s lair. After a fierce battle she returned the sun to its rightful place.

But the thief was angry at being robbed of his prize. He made thunder in the earth which caused the ground to shake and the mountains to spew boiling red rivers.

The people were frightened by this display, so they sent the hunter back down into the underworld to bargain with the thief. It was agreed that the sun would spend the days above ground, and the nights below, and that the sun would shine above ground for longer in the summer, and below ground for longer in the winter.

So, everyone was satisfied.

Catchfire”

“Catchfire” was not his birth name, but it was what the tribe came to call him. One day he had returned from the woods bearing a stick on which a flickering, dancing flame was perched like a bird. The others did not know how fire was made, and when the weather was cold, they were cold, and they always ate meat raw

“How have you got fire to perch upon a stick, like a bird?” Catchfire was asked.

He told how he been in the forest and the suns rays had shone down, strong and bright, through the fluttering leaves. Within them he had seen tiny fires hovering and flittering, like a swarm of insects.

He had chased them, leaping up to try and catch one. The first time he caught one it had been too hot for his hands and he had let it go with a cry. Then he had thought of making something to trap them out of leaves and a branch, but the moment he caught one the trap burned and the fire escaped. Then he found that a part of the fire had remained on the branch, so he brought it home.

He showed the tribe how to make the fire grow by putting one stick beside another so that the fire spread to it, then to another stick, then another. So the tribe learned how to build a fire to keep them warm, and learned how to cook meat and boil water.

Sometimes the fire went out, however well it was minded. It could not be helped when it rained heavily or the wind blew. Then Catchfire went into the woods and returned with another fire, freshly caught, its young life burning brightly at the end of a stick. Sometimes the others went out into the forest and looked for the clearing with the fires, but could not find it.

“How do you catch fire? Where do you catch it?” the others asked, “We must know, for when you die, as you one day must, we will not know how to catch the fire.”

But he refused to reveal his secret.

One day, two of the children decided to follow him into the woods. There they saw him, not leaping to clutch fire out of the sun’s beams, but crouching on a mound rubbing twigs and sticks together until a flame appeared and grew. They ran back to tell their parents, and showed them how it was done.

When Catchfire returned his secret was known, but the people were not angry. He had given them fire, and they were not angry at him for wanting to keep his secret.

 

How the Gods Died Out

As Order and Chaos mixed together they reached out beyond themselves and the world they had created. Chaos reached the heavens and mingled with the gods, so that their perfection was diminished and they descended to the earth. They walked amongst mortals until, eventually, they themselves became mortal. One by one they died, and as they died they became the dust itself, which spread throughout the cosmos, filling it with their spirit.

The Great Stith

The people of the world were once a single tribe, and they only had one story. They never tired of hearing it, and made up different versions until they realised that they had made two stories. As there were now two stories the people who told one of the stories became one tribe, the people who told the other story became another tribe.

Soon there were more than two stories, and more than two tribes. The stories increased and divided, and the tribes increased and divided and spread across the world.

One day the Great Stith looked at all the stories from across the world and saw that all the stories had parts that were the same as parts in other stories. People across the world were all telling the same stories but in different ways. Now the people of the world could see that although they told many different stories, they were really the same stories, and that people everywhere were all the same.

 

Those were the myths that were heard by Roland and his friends during the mythtelling in the moon.

 

“That was beautiful,” Oliver said.

“It was okay,” said Savitri, “You should hear the Upanishads.”

“Even Stith the Myth got a mention,” said Botherworth, approvingly.

“One day, I shall write poetry,” said Oliver

“You were born to be a poet, Oliver, I swear, and I ways knew it,” Roland told him.

 

After the mythtelling they ate, then slept, then woke, then waited. They ate and slept and waited again, then again. They wished for another game of Ogleforth just to pass the time, but there was only more eating, sleeping and waiting. Then, as they were beginning to despair, a messenger from the Great Mistress of the Lighthouse arrived to summon Roland to her presence.

“A sun sentinel has answered our request,” she told him.

“Will it take us to the sun?” Roland asked, delighted but anxious.

“Yes it will.”

“Great!” said Roland.

The Great Mistress of the Lighthouse lent forwards, “You must understand how this will be done. The sentinels are able to wrap a piece of darkness within them, to carry it within them. It is an essential ability they have that enables them to foster life at the boundaries – creatures that can be used in the fight against the darkness.

‘Because they are so contaminated with darkness they are not allowed within the inner limits of the sun – that is to approach The Very Hearth which is the capital of the sun — where you must go. They are not even allowed to be heard by those within the sun, in case of infection, so the sentinel cannot mediate for you.

‘It will wrap you within itself, in the coolness and shade within it, then you will be shielded from the great heat and light of the sun. Now you must remember, never to look at the sun without its shielding – not even from the earth as you will be blinded by its light. That is not magic but science.”

‘You will find that the Great Council will be focused on their great war between light and dark and care little for the people in between. They do not care, right now, that mixtures of light and dark, heat and cold are necessary for most life. If they had their way they would end up destroying it.”

“Then surely they are our enemies as much as anyone?” Roland cried, astonished and horrified at this revelation.

“Not really,” replied the Great Mistress, reassuringly, “They are rational, amenable, not motivated by hate, as the creatures of the darkness are. The flames may yet come to understand and back down. The creatures of the darkness never will. As I say, the flames have allowed the sentinels to foster creatures at the edges – such as yourself – to use as proxies in the fight. The creatures of the darkness have done the same, as you have experienced for yourself. This is your strength; you are part of their fight and they are bound to help you in some way, even if they don’t see it at first. You must make them see it, make them understand your cause and its importance; use all your powers of speech and persuasion – use them as you would a weapon against a foe!”

Roland gulped, unsure he would be up to such a challenge.

The Great Mistress continued, “As the sentinel will not be able to take you right into The Very Hearth there is something else you must have – come with me.”

She rose from her throne and led Roland down through a doorway and down a narrow passage. The passage led to stairs which spiralled downwards, deep into the moon. Here there was a cavern, filled with dim but unearthly light. At its sides, low down, were pools of darkness, as if radiated from a source too dark to see. The Great Mistress led Roland to one of these pools and suggested he put his hand into it. He did so and felt something soft. He gripped it and pulled it out. He saw that it was a tiny, dark blue flower which he had picked and now held in his hand. It radiated darkness as a torch radiates light.

“They are Moon gentians – The Great Mistress said, “They were Pluto’s gift to the world, brought here to the moon by the Whales of the Sky. Now they grow only on the moon. No other gentian is like them. Take a gentian with you – and one for each of you friends. When you leave the protection of the sun sentinel, these flowers will wrap you in their own shade and they will even keep you safe in the heat and light of The Very Hearth.

“These tiny flowers?” Asked Roland, sceptically.

“Yes, they are tiny but with great power.”

“But if they spread darkness – aren’t they evil?” Roland asked.

“They are of the darkness, but have no will of their own. They are just plants, and can serve anyone’s purpose. They will protect you – but they will also draw upon you all the defensive forces of the sun. These forces will view you as a contamination, as an enemy, they will be enraged by the shadow the flowers cast. You will see the warriors of the sun at their fiercest and they will come at you with no mercy in their hearts. All of the furious energy, heat and light of the sun will be against you. Do not be daunted, they cannot get into the shadow, just hold the flowers high and keep to the centre of the shadows they cast. Do this and even the most ferocious flames cannot harm you. You must thus make your way to The Very Hearth. Now, pick a flower for each of your fellows,” The great mistress instructed.

Roland did so.

“Now it is time for you to meet the sentinel,” she said.

She took him to yet another large cavern. In the cavern was a, huge flame, many times the height of a man. The flame almost had the appearance of a living creature in the way it moved and the shapes it occasionally formed. Sometimes, as Roland looked more closely, he almost thought he saw a face in its flickering flow. He also noticed that the flame seemed to be stooping, as if bent by sadness.

“This is Lumenfarge,” said the Great Mistress.

“Hello,” said Roland.

The flame spoke with a voice that was very odd. It was a contradiction in terms, like a booming whisper, very loud and very soft, all at the same time. It said, “So you are Roland, and you want to go to the sun.”

“Yes, I am Roland, and yes, I do want to go to the sun.”

“I’ve wanted to go to the sun for a very long time,” the flame said.

“That’s good,” said Roland, pleased that the sentinel had its own reasons for wanting to go.

“No. No, it isn’t,” said the flame, and its upper part seemed to wobble from side to side, as if it were shaking its head very sadly, “I have been homesick, homesick and sad for so long – so very long. And I can only stay home for a very short time, then I must go back to my dull and lonely existence at the frontier of light and dark.”

Roland tried to think of something positive to say –‘there must be a bright spot somewhere’ hardly seemed appropriate when talking to a living flame.

“And I cannot go to The Very Hearth again, ever,” the flame continued, because of the stain of darkness I now carry inside me.”

“I am sorry,” Roland said, “But I understand that that will help us – it will protect us, so I am told.”

“Yes,” Lumenfarge said, “Good can even come out of bad, or at least from a mixture of the two…”

“Well err… good, I suppose,” said Roland, unsure really what to say. “As long as something good comes out in the wash. Now, are you willing to take my friends too?”

“As many as need to go.”

“Great! There are five of us – and here are the others, just in time!”

A messenger had been sent to fetch Roland’s comrades and they now entered the chamber. Roland went over to them, “This is Lumenfarge, the sentinel who will be taking us to the sun.”

“A flame with a name!” Oliver quipped, “Now there’s a turn up!”

Roland shot him a look, indicating that levity wasn’t appropriate just now.

“He seems to have a few prob’s,” Roland said quietly, confidentially, so Lumenfarge wouldn’t hear, “Let’s take it easy, shall we…”

Botherworth went up to Lumenfarge and stared into his flowing, flickering body, plainly fascinated.

“I understand it’s rude to stare,” objected Lumenfarge.

“Sorry,” said Botherworth, continuing to stare, “Didn’t know flames had feelings.”

“Well we do. You might at least introduce yourself,” said Lumenfarge.

“Sorry. My name is Ebenezer – Mister Botherworth to my friends. Those over there are my friends: Oliver, Savitri and Brother Goodwill. So what’s it like being a flame, then?”

“It’s a lonely life,” the flame said, dolefully, “At least for a Sentinel. All I do is sit out on the edge of the light watching the darkness – watch, watch, watch is all I ever do…, then more watching. I never see any action!”

“What you wanna see action for – you might get killed!”

“Better than just sitting and watching…” Lumenfarge said, “Better that than being miserable…”

Even Botherworth wasn’t prepared to go along with that one. He said, “I think you need to speak to a friend of mine…”

He called over to Brother Goodwill, “Brother Goodwill! Can you do something to cheer this bright spark up?”

“Oh yes! Gladly!” said Goodwill, positively leaping towards them.

“Been tried before,” Lumenfarge said.

“Ah, but we’ve got the experts on hand now,” Botherworth said.

“You must work on it as we go,” said Roland, “There is no time to wait. Can you take us now?” he asked Lumenfarge.

“Yes,” said Lumenfarge, and with that the side of the flame split from his base upwards to form a doorway into him, “Enter,” he said.

Roland thanked the Great Mistress of the Lighthouse for all her help, then he and his fellow adventurers entered the sentinel. Inside Lumenfarge it was cool and light, neither too hot or too bright for them. They could still see the outside through the thin film of flame wrapped around them.

“Can you breath?” Lumenfarge asked.

“Yes,” said Roland.

“Not too warm? Not too cold?”

“No. No, not too anything.”

“Good. Are you ready?”

“Ready as ever likely to be,” Oliver said.

with that the flame rose up through the roof of the cavern, up into the sky of the moon. They looked down through the wall of flame, then up at the great cosmos and its panoply of stars and galaxies. Then the darkness inside Lumenfarge thickened to protect them and they turned towards the sun and accelerated.

Chapter 17

 

The journey to the sun was long and punctuated only by Brother Goodwill’s attempts to cheer up Lumenfarge. It was a difficult task as the sentinel had indeed spent many years alone in the darkness and knew little of company and cheer. All the while the disk of the great star grew larger until it was all they could see. As they got close in they could make out great dark clouds on its surface. So it seemed that even on the sun the war against darkness was continuously fought.

They passed through the upper layers of flame to find yet more flames beneath. They passed downwards beside massive columns of fire roaring upwards and outwards towards the darkness above. At times they heard screeching and groaning sounds. Sometimes a faint scream.

All the while the sentinel’s doleful voice and Brother Goodwill’s chirpy tones could be heard as they exchanged views on the value of life.

“I think,” said Goodwill, “that the test of whether you have a positive view of life is this; even if you have lived a life full of pain with just one moment of pleasure,

if you can wish for your life to recur eternally for just for that one moment of pleasure, then you have truly affirmed life!”

“Sounds dreadful,” said the sentinel.

“Oh, not really,” said Goodwill.

“Have you ever known real pain?” Lumenfarge asked.

“I have been in battle and wounded.”

“That is pain from without. I mean pain from within.”

“It seems to me that your pain from within is caused by a lack of interest in things outside you — things, people, to occupy your mind.”

“I have no one. I don’t have any friends, and my family don’t want to know me because I carry the darkness within me, which is why I can carry you and have this conversation with you.”

Botherworth lent over to Oliver and said confidentially, “Bit of a misery, isn’t he?”

“But a useful misery,” Oliver said, “Kind of like someone else we know!”

“Oi! You watch it!” Botherworth said, but there was a flicker of a smile on his face.

“After this is all over, we do need to do something about trying to cheer Lumenfarge up,” Savitri said, “He is putting himself out for us.”

“We can offer him our companionship – and we will invite him to the victory party,” Roland said.

“Do you think he will come?”

Roland shrugged, “He is willing to help us, why not?”

 

Despite the sentinel’s ability to shield them the friends could now feel the heat of the sun’s centre. With intense white heat now all around them Lumenfarge said, “This is far as I am allowed to go.”

“We must now go on foot,” Roland told his companions.

“On foot! Have you completely lost it!” Oliver objected, “What’s out there makes the inside of a baker’s oven look like an ice house! Is there even anything for us to walk on?!”

“There is a path,” said Lumenfarge, “It is narrow at first but gets wider. Follow it with no diversions and it will take you to The Very Hearth.”

“And we have these,” said Roland, producing the gentians from his pocket.

“Flowers!???” Oliver exclaimed in disbelief. Then he saw the darkness that they cast around them. “They are very errm… dark, aren’t they.”

“The Great Mistress of the Lighthouse assured me they would protect us, even in The Very Hearth – the centre of the sun.”

As Roland held up the tiny flowers the darkness inside the sentinel grew even darker.

“More darkness,” said Lumenfarge miserably, “I always bring trouble with me when I return home.”

“Perhaps if your kin lightened up a bit — no pun intended,” Oliver said.

Roland shook his head at Oliver, then told Lumenfarge, “I do not believe you are a bringer of trouble. You have helped us and that is all I see. Thank you. If there is anything we can do for you…”

“Don’t mention it,” said Lumenfarge, “If you need me again…”

“Yes, we will,” said Roland, “We will need you to get us back, so please stay.”

“Very well,” said Lumenfarge. Your friend has tried to cheer me up. I appreciate that. Its nice to have company after all this time, even that of lesser forms.”

“I am glad we have been able to do something for you.”

Roland turned to Goodwill and Botherworth, “I don’t see much point in you two coming with us. Perhaps you would like to stay here and continue trying to cheer up our fiery friend?”

The fortresser and the caretaker both nodded their agreement.

“Now, are we ready?” Roland asked.

Oliver and Savitri replied that they were.

“Very well, then. It is time we stepped into the sun!”

Lumenfarge opened the doorway in his side. Roland walked towards it and peered into the white tumult of flame outside, then took a deep breath and held

his gentian out over the threshold. The eerie dark shadow it cast showed that there was indeed a path — of sorts. It was made of solid flame. There were also walls and a ceiling of solid flame. It was in fact a corridor. Roland took another deep breath and stepped out into it.

Almost immediately there was a reaction to his presence. There was a scream that sounded almost evil — or like a warning of evil — and the walls, floor and ceiling around him brightened, reddened and flexed, as if with rage. Flames all about leapt and writhed in anger.

Oliver and Savitri stepped out behind him, joining him at his side.

Roland held his gentian higher and put a foot forwards, then another. The others also held up their tiny flowers as high as they could, sending darkness spilling out around them. The flames immediately retreated to the fringes of the shadows like frightened, wounded creatures.

“Are you quite sure this is safe?” asked Oliver.

“No,” said Roland.

“Okay, just asking.”

They all started to walk quickly and as they did so the flames continued to back away from the dark pools cast by the gentians. Beyond the shadows the flames continued to redden and grow in intensity. There were sounds like the growling and snarling of angry animals that grew louder as they walked. There were also even more sinister sounds, such as distant screams. They began to think they saw faces in the flames and in the walls – the floor, the ceiling….

“Did you see that?” Oliver asked, pointing at one.

“And that!” Savitri added, pointing at another.

“Let’s just keep on moving,” Roland said.

“What did Lumenfarge mean by calling us lesser forms?” Oliver asked, trying to keep himself distracted.

“It seems that the Great Flames created us just to help them in their war.” Roland said.

“Is that true?”

“So it seems.”

“They owe us then, don’t they?”

“Perhaps they think we owe them! Anyway, we have no time to waste thinking about it,”

They reached a junction where several other corridors joined the one they were in. The route ahead became wider, like a road. Beyond the junction a large number of flames blocked the way. They hissed and shook and reddened with rage at the sight of the approaching adventurers. They were determined to stop them but Roland stuck his gentian forwards and they were pushed aside. As they fell back the walls, floor and ceiling shook as if with rage and a dull roar echoed all around.

As they proceeded more and more flames blocked the way, their hisses and growls and roars of rage filling the ears of the adventurers. They all glowed red with rage and reached out fiery tentacles that felt along the edges of the gentian’s shadows.

Soon hundreds – thousand -of flames were all around the adventurers, hostile and angry faces that shrieked and screamed hatred pressed right up against the edges of the shadows. Roland had never felt so frightened, and the others were also clearly very scared. There was nothing between them and the fury of the flames but mere shadows, and they did not feel like enough — not nearly enough. Roland wished for a strong shield, a suit of armour or better, a stone rampart. None of these could have protected them as well as the darkness of a gentian’s shadow, but they would have felt more substantial, more reassuring.

“We must be near somewhere important now,” said Roland, “judging by the reception – and the look of the place.”

There was, indeed, now an appearance of magnificence and grandeur around them, as if they were on a great thoroughfare in a great city. The towering walls of flame at its sides had the appearance of great buildings. Before them they saw a what looked like a great doorway with burning bright white pillars and an even brighter white light shining out between them from a vast chamber beyond.

“That must be it,” said Oliver.

At the doorway hordes of screaming of flames waited to greet them. As they were pushed aside by the shadows they clamoured at their edges, filled with murderous fury. The Adventurers passed through the great doorway to be confronted by another doorway, even larger, then another. Beyond that they found themselves faced by the greatest and whitest light of all, scorching and intense, the heat almost unbearable to them. Now the adventurers found that they needed to shield their eyes despite the protection of the flowers. They were sweating with the heat.

In front of them was a circle of flames, the brightest and whitest that could be imagined. They were each at least a hundred feet tall, although it was difficult to judge in the surroundings. There were seven of them, Roland thought, though he could never be sure as he could not see properly with the tears streaming down his face.

For a few moments there was silence. Roland wondered what to say. What do you say to the great grand flames at the very centre of the solar system? Good morning? Hello, how are you doing me old mucker? Nothing Roland could think of seemed right.

He was spared the effort of speaking first by a booming voice that was as loud and stern as the heat and light were intense. All the great, grand flames were speaking at once. “Who are you?” they demanded to know.

Roland took another deep breath, “I am Roland, from Earth, Lord – in my father’s absence — of the great tower that holds together the earth and the sky…”

There was mumbling amongst them, then each took it in turns to speak a part of a sentence, all in the same booming whisper as Lumenfarge only much louder, “We have a memory —“

“— from long ago —“

— of this —

—which is —

—which was —

— but a small part —

— of our great war.”

“Well, we need help,” Roland continued, “the Spirus have control of the castle, we had sun warriors that we sent into battle but they were old, and weary…”

“You have ordered brethren of ours into battle?” Inquired one for the flames, fiercely.

“Used them as mere pawns!” demanded another.

“Sacrificed them before yourself!” roared another.

“Yes,” Roland admitted, boldly, “I understood they were mine to command.”

“Impudent!” roared another flame, and they chanted : “Impudent! Impudent!”

“ — And you have failed, despite misusing our brothers!” one said.

And together they chanted, accusingly, “Failed! Failed! Failed! Failed!”

Again they shared a sentence between them,

“You allowed the enemy —

“— a victory —“

“— to defeat you —

“ —Despite sacrificing our brethren.”

“It could not be helped,” Roland protested, weakly.

The flames took it in turns to choose words they thought described it all best,

“Disrespectful!”

“Disgraceful!”

“Disreputable!”

“Dishonourable!”

“Impudent!”

“Impure!”

“You are impurity!”

“Impurity must be expunged!”

“What do you mean impure?” Oliver demanded.

“Yeah! Who are you calling…?” Savitri said.

Roland raised his hand to suggest that they tone down their objections.

The flames continued, “Have you —

“ — no respect — “

“ — for your betters?”

It didn’t seem to be going well. Roland decided on another tack.

The Great Mistress of the Lighthouse, on the moon —“

“We know of he r—”

“Well, she said you created us to help you in your struggle. We were helping you when we deployed your brethren. We are fighting the darkness too.”

“In a small way.” One flame said.

“In a small place,” another flame added.

“Every little bit helps,” Oliver put in.

Roland took a deep breath and tried to summon all his powers of speech and persuasion, as advised by the Lighthouse Mistress, “We have come a long way seeking your help, knowing of your strength and of the great battle that you fight. We wish to fight that battle with you, to take up arms with you, to join you… But first… — but first we must win our own battle. The unfinished tower is a resource of great strength – I am told – that cannot be — must not be surrendered to the enemy. If we lose the tower, we may lose the Earth, and the Earth is close to the sun, is it not? Therefore allowing it to fall into enemy hands is a risk to you.”

“A small risk.”

“Very small.”

“ Alright, a small risk. But the tower may be just what you need one day. You never know. You never know what allies you might need.”

“Maybe,” the flames said.

“Why would we need you?” one asked.

“Why would we ever need you?” another pressed.

“We are mighty!” said another.

“You are small and weak,” yet another said, and with an insulting tone to boot.

They began to chant, “Small! Weak! Small! Weak!”

“We are mighty!” they all said.

“Well, if you are that mighty, you can afford to help us a bit then can’t you,” Roland said, feeling he had them.

“Good going!” Savitri said, “You got them!”

“Yeah! Send some of that might our way if you have so much of it!” Oliver said.

The flames seemed to reflect on this. They huddled together for a minute, their edges merging.

“Fifty,” they said.

“Fifty what?” Roland asked, “Fifty regiments?”

“Fifty warriors,” was the reply.

“What!” Oliver cried, “That isn’t enough!”

“You cannot do this!” Roland cried, “You cannot betray us like this!”

“Betray?” queried one of the flames, reddening with anger and shaking alarmingly.

“Impudent!” Said another.

“Outrageous!” said another.

“Get out!” Said another one.

“Get out!” repeated another.

“Alright! Alright! We’ll take it!” said Roland, “Fifty will be enough – I hope they will be enough. They will have to be enough.”

The flames seemed to calm down, but also started to flex and change shape as if they were doing some sort of weird exercise. They all spoke again, taking it in turns as before, “Now go! —“

“The warriors will follow you — “

“— Return to Lumenfarge —“

“— He will carry them –

“ — as well as you.“

“Now go—

“ — away from here — “

“ Leave now—”

“ — quickly!”

“ Quickly!”

“ Quickly!”

“Go!”

“Go!”

“Go! Go! Go!” They all started to chant.

“Leave us!”

“Be gone!”

Roland felt there was more to be lost than gained now so the adventurers quickly left the hall. As they headed down the passage they heard the sound of marching behind them. They looked back to see that indeed a column of sun warriors was following them.

“They look like more than fifty when in columns like that,” Oliver said, trying to find some cause for hope.

“They are not enough,” Roland cursed.

“Not nearly enough,” Savitri said, with rage in her voice.

They held up their gentians to repel the heat and light but the walk back to Lumenfarge was more peaceful than their journey inwards. Flames no longer screamed at them with rage or tried to block their path. The intruders were leaving, and that at least was appreciated.

“At least we don’t have to fight our way out,” Oliver said.

“They are glad we are going,” Roland said, “It’s good riddance to us.”

“Disgraceful, “ said Savitri, quietly.

“Careful, they might hear you!” Oliver said.

Even Goodwill seemed subdued.

 

“I am sorry,” said Lumenfarge, upon hearing of the disappointment.

“We will manage,” Roland said, with determination.

“But how?” Oliver asked.

“There are ways,” Savitri said, waving her sword about like a determined person.

“Yes, there are ways,” Roland repeated, as if he were trying to convince himself.

He asked Lumenfarge, “Can you take us back to the moon as quickly as possible? We have a long journey ahead of us and we really must get back to the earth as soon as we can, however much good we can or can’t do when we get there.”

“I could take you all the way if you like,” Lumenfarge said.

“What!!!???” Roland said, “All the way to Earth, to the tower?”

“Of course,” said Lumenfarge, I can go anywhere, except for The Very Hearth. Would you like me to take you all the way?”

“Yes! I would like that very much! Very much indeed! Yes please! This at least is good news – thank you Lumenfarge. Can you find the Hall of the Knights Fortressers?

“Indeed I can,” said Lumenfarge.

“You will have to fight off an attack by the storm lords,” Roland warned.

“Huh!” Lumenfarge scoffed, “They will scurry away and hide at the sight of me!”

With that they quickly left the sun far behind them.

The journey back to earth was long and the adventurers slept most of the way. As they approached the Earth Lumenfarge woke them and for the first time they looked down upon their home planet.

“Its beautiful!” Oliver said, “I didn’t know it would be so….blue!”

“It is beautiful,” Roland agreed.

“What a pity creatures like the Spirus have to spoil it,” said Savitri.

“Where are the plains of the sky,” Oliver asked, “How come we can see through them?”

“They are not visible from here,” Said Lumenfarge,” they are on a different … plain!”

 

Lumenfarge was right about the storm lords. They had no trouble from them and didn’t even see a single one. As they got lower they could see the landscape of the castle, and then they saw a wonder; Lumenfarge’s approach made the great, finished tower sparkle and gleam in all its glory, as if it were welcoming long lost kin. They saw it’s whole marvellous, intricate design, fully illuminated, as they dropped down through it and entered the Hall of the Knights Fortressers.

“We are here,” Lumenfarge said, and the doorway in his side appeared again. Goodwill led the way out with Oliver and Savitri following and Botherworth bringing up the rear. But Roland remained behind and after the others were gone spoke to Lumenfarge, “Lumenfarge, there is more I wish you to do, if you are willing…”

“I will help you gladly if I can,” said the flame, “You have been good company to me, and have tried to help me…”

“Good. I am most grateful to you too. You have helped us immensely and the behaviour of your masters is no fault of yours – no fault of yours at all. I do not want the others to know about this as I don’t want their hopes dashed again if it should fail. They are demoralised enough already. Listen now, this is what I want you to do….”

Chapter 18

 

At the head of only fifty sun warriors Roland stepped out of Lumenfarge to rapturous applause from all around him. The warriors did indeed look more than they were when marching in a column. Roland was embarrassed by it. He hadn’t achieved nearly what was expected of him. What he expected of himself. He held up his hands to deflect the applause.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome back!” said Goodwill profusely, rushing forwards and vigorously shaking Roland’s hand.

“You came with us you twit!” Oliver said, laughing.

“Yes, but it doesn’t hurt to offer a hearty welcome back!”

“Welcome back indeed!” said Brother Stalwart, taking Roland’s hand from Goodwill’s.

“They were all here waiting for us,” explained Oliver, “Seems like they knew we were coming!”

“A Sun Sentinel is seen long before its arrival,” said Brother Stalwart. “It’s one of those mysterious things,” and he arched his eyebrows mysteriously. “It is possible to know they are coming before they actually are! We knew it had to be good news when we heard of it!”

“Not good, I am afraid,” said Roland. “We bring only fifty sun warriors.”

“Only fifty! Stalwart said, aghast, “They look more! I hoped this was just the first tranche…”

“There are words for their lordships up in the sun that aren’t suitable for printing in a kids’ book,” said Botherworth.

“At least you are back safe,” said Stalwart.

“How long have we been gone? Roland asked.

“Only two days — barely that,” Stalwart said.

“It felt like weeks,” said Oliver.

Roland then remembered what the Ogleforth team captain had said about time not being the time you think it is.

“Anyway,” said Stalwart, “You are safely returned to earth, thank goodness. What next?”

“First we must rescue Firebrace,” Roland said, “His rescue is now imperative as our chances of winning a victory are smaller than we hoped. At the same time as we are rescuing him we can scout the defences. Has Dagarth managed to repair the latest damage yet?”

“No one has been out of the tower since you left, but I doubt it. I don’t mean to be boastful but without our skills…”

“Sounds right,” Roland said, “but we will have a look. Can you bring us some food, Brother Stalwart, then we will get to it…..”

 

Roland, Oliver and Savitri slipped out of the base of the tower into darkness. They looked around but could see no sign of guards. Roland looked up at the battlements. There were no sentries on duty – none that he could see. It was very mysterious. It seemed that they could wander about as they pleased. Nevertheless Roland told the others, in a whisper, “Let’s go careful and keep a watch out – and keep our voices down!”

The courtyard had become a lot more cluttered since they last saw it. There wasn’t just uncle Dagarth’s torture equipment and other bric-a-brac any more. For starters There were now five scuttlers.

“Five of them now!” Oliver exclaimed, “how on earth will we…?”

“Lets not dwell on it for the moment,” said Roland, “We have to rescue Firebrace.”

As well as the scuttlers there was now a large structure in the middle of the courtyard. It was difficult to make it out in the darkness. As they got closer to it they could see that it consisted of bodies – living human bodies contained behind bars. They got yet closer and as they did a voice called out weakly, in a whisper, “Roland! Is that you my dear boy? Is that you my dear sweet nephew? My darling boy! I was sure you would come to rescue your poor old uncle. Take pity on me – please! I beg you! Take pity!”

Roland walked up to his uncle Dagarth, who was pitifully gripping the bars that kept him captive. He really looked quite bedraggled, pathetic and in desperate need of rescue. Around him were his men, also prisoners.

Roland asked the obvious. “This may sound a silly question uncle, but what are you doing in there?”

“Please help us!” pleaded Dagarth; “The Spirus put us in here and I am sure they are going to kill us horribly after torturing us horribly first. It will all be horrible, oh woe is me!” — and he pointed pathetically at his own torture equipment — “Please get me out at least, you don’t have to worry about the others, just help me…!”

“Oi!” said a voice from behind.

“There has been a turnabout in fortunes, hasn’t there!” said Oliver.

“Where is Firebrace,” Roland demanded to know.

“Please let me out…..” Dagarth continued to plead, “Remember how I loved you, my dear sweet Roland!”

“You are thinking only of yourself, uncle, as ever. We’re not going to help you until we’ve rescued Firebrace. Where is he?”

“We left him in the cell in the gatehouse, I haven’t seen him since.”

“So he isn’t in there, with you?” Roland looked through the bars, trying to see between the men standing in the cage.

“If only he were! I swear I would beg his forgiveness,! I would willingly kiss his feet and other unpleasant parts!” wailed Dagarth, “I will give you a million groats, I will let you have the castle, the treasure, anything you like, just don’t let the Spirus torture and kill me!”

“Oh do shut up, you horrid nasty whinging wicked uncle, you,” Savitri told him, and prodded him hard in the guts with her sword.

“Let me have a go at that,” said Roland, and proceeded to prod Dagarth in the guts with his own sword.

“You can prod me in the guts all you like – with swords, lances, what have you, just let me out!” and he tugged at the bars desperately.

“Where are your partners, Bril-a-thingy and Gloaty-wotsit?” Roland asked.

“Here!” said Bril-a-Brag, and Roland saw that he was sitting down behind Dagarth.

“Are there no sentries at all,” Roland asked him. “Why not?”

Bril-a-Brag said, “The Spirus are too arrogant to think they need to guard the place any more.”

“So where are they?” Roland asked.

“Who knows,” Bril-a-Brag shrugged, “Stowed themselves away inside somewhere. Haven’t seen one since they put us in here.”

“Are you all in there – all the people, I mean?”

“Just us fighting men,” said Bril-a-Brag, “They sent the civilians away — all except for the kitchen staff. They have been kept on to feed the land surveyors. The Spirus don’t need food and we are left here to starve.”

“Where are the land surveyors?”

“The Spirus are most impressed with them as a strategic asset,” cursed Bril-a-Brag, “After I brought them in, too… They are in the great hall living it up, taking turns sitting on the throne and arguing over planning issues. They think they can change the landscape for the better…”

“Or to better themselves!” raged Dagarth, “It’s what they should be doing for me!

And those two numbskulls Booblejob and Dribblebib are loose somewhere – even the Spirus realised they’re too dim to be a danger. They’re probably eating as much as they like right now…”

Roland had heard enough from Dagarth and friends. “Can you and your soldiers at least be quiet if we mount a rescue of Firebrace? Can we trust you?”

“Better still,” said Bril-a-Brag, “We could be a distraction, if you like…”

“Distract who?” Roland asked.

“The Spirus of course.”

“There aren’t any here.”

“But if there are — when you need it — we will distract them.”

“Well, okay, if we need it.”

“We want to be of help!” wailed Dagarth.

“You want to be on our side now so you can be rescued is what you mean,” Oliver said.

“Well, yes,” Dagarth fessed up, “but we do see the error of our wicked ways, honestly. I do anyway, and I’m the one you should rescue.”

“I am sure we can find something useful for you to do uncle, even if it’s just a bit of aggressive whining.”

“Oh thank you! thank you!” he whined.

 

They found their way into the gatehouse and down the passage to the cell where Roland had left Firebrace just a couple of days before. The door to the cell was open — plainly the Spirus were totally unbothered by any threat from the old man. They should be more wary, Roland thought — particularly when it came to Firebrace.

The old warrior was lying on the bed, clearly very weak, but he sat up immediately when Roland entered. “Roland!” he cried, “Have we won! Is the battle over?”

“Sorry, but no,” Roland replied, “Not even begun. And I’m afraid to say we didn’t have much luck at the sun. They only let us have fifty sun warriors!”

“Just fifty!” Firebrace said, “I always knew they had little regard for us, but I did hope for more. But how come you are here, if you have not won?”

“We came to rescue you regardless. Also, there has been a bit of a change of fortunes.

The Spirus turned on Dagarth and his other allies and they are all prisoners in the courtyard…”

Firebrace threw his head back and let out a long, loud roaring laugh. The best news I have had in a long time – and the best medicine too! Told you, didn’t I! I could have told Dagarth that the Spirus are not to be trusted, but I wouldn’t have bothered as he wouldn’t have listened. Some people can only learn by experience! I’m sure he’s learned his lesson now – until the next time, of course!” and Firebrace laughed again.

Roland continued, “The Spirus aren’t bothering to guard the castle. They think they have won and that’s it. They don’t see us as a problem anymore…”

“Don’t they!” Said Firebrace defiantly, “You say there are no sentries?”

“No.”

“Good, then help me get to the tower. I could do with proper treatment. I am sure Brother Goodwill will oblige!”

Roland and Savitri helped Firebrace get on his feet. With one of them on either side he put an arm around each so they could support him. Oliver went on ahead to make sure the coast was clear. They were half way along the passage when Oliver returned.

“It looks like the scuttlers have woken up,” he said, “They have started to prowl around the courtyard as if they know something is up, like it’s feeding time. They seem a bit dozy and are only half awake but I wouldn’t like to get near them.”

When they got to the entrance the scuttlers were indeed waiting for them, like a pride of lions waiting for its quarry to emerge from its hiding place. There were faint rumblings as they slowly moved about and they were emitting low growling noises, like a creature having an angry dream.

“How do we get past them?” Roland asked.

At that moment a commotion broke out from the cage which held Dagarth and the other prisoners. They had been waiting for the rescue party to show itself at the entrance to the gatehouse and now let go with a distraction.

“It seems we are going to need them after all,” Oliver said.

“Never discount anyone,” Roland replied.

“So it seems.”

The scuttlers began to lose interest in the gatehouse and turned away to the cage.

With their attention distracted, or at least split, Roland decided it was time to take the chance. They dodged left out of the gatehouse keeping close to the curtain wall, hurrying as best they could whilst supporting an invalid. The scuttlers were attracted by the movement and started towards them, their feelers twitching whilst the rumbling of their motion shook the ground. When the prisoners saw what was happening they redoubled their noisemaking efforts and the scuttlers turned again, confused once more. The scuttlers stood in the middle of the courtyard, trying to make up their minds which to attack. The prisoners strived to make even more noise. There was a risk and Roland knew it.

“They are going to bring out the Spirus,” he said.

“Do you want them to stop?” Oliver asked.

“Not much of a choice is it,” Roland agreed.

They were now most of their way around the base of the castle wall and nearing the finished tower. At that point several Spirus poked their tin heads out of the keep to see what was going on. At first they assumed that the prisoners were just making a noise and watched in bemusement. Only slowly did it dawn on them that the scuttlers were also aware of something moving around the edge of the courtyard. At last they realised and rushed towards Roland and his fellows, calling out to others with the metallic screeching noise that Roland knew only too well.

Oliver knew he could not fight the Spirus at close quarters. He rushed back to support Firebrace in order to free up Savitri and Roland. They drew their swords and rushed forwards, quickly decapitating the few first group of Spirus. But now more were on the way.

With a phalanx of Spirus rushing after them all three now lifted Firebrace and hurried him into the base of the unfinished tower. They did their best to barricade the solid oak door then carried Firebrace up the stairs as the sound of crashing and splintering wood sounded beneath them. They were very glad to see Botherworth open the door for them.

“Are we glad to see you!” Oliver said.

“First time for everything,” said Botherworth.

 

They entered the hall of the Knights Fortressers with Botherworth now helping the exhausted trio to support Firebrace. They helped him into a chair with Brother Goodwill fussing about them in his usual concerned and kindly way.

“What’s the situation out there?” Brother Stalwart asked.

“We have a big problem,“ said Oliver, “There are now five scuttlers.”

“Five!” said Brother Stalwart.

“Five,” Savitri confirmed, “That we saw.”

“Thanks for pointing that out,” Oliver said.

“You’re welcome,” Savitri said.

“Yes, five that we saw,” Roland said.

“The good news,” said Savitri, “Is that Bril-a-Brag, Gloatenglorp and Roland’s uncle Yuck have been betrayed by the Spirus and are now prisoners in a cage in the courtyard. They even helped us get back here safely.”

Brother Stalwart laughed as loudly and fulsomely as Firebrace had, and even Brother Goodwill barely stifled a giggle. Firebrace laughed again.

Roland said, “The time may come when we can release them and rely on them as allies, if they see the battle turning in our favour. We cannot trust them for the moment as they could still turn against us if they see a chance.”

“Agreed,” Firebrace said to Roland, “Now, you must decide how we are to proceed in the coming battle.”

“Should I fetch the Venerable Conceiver of Strategies?” asked Goodwill.

“This time I have my own plan,” Roland said. Firebrace nodded his encouragement.

“For my plan to work,” said Roland, “We will need to move the sun warriors out onto the hill of the Scary Oak. I could ask Lumenfarge again but really don’t want to ask too much of him.”

“The problem is already solved,” said Brother Stalwart, “We envisaged the possibility of this issue arising and have widened the corridors and installed new freight lifts so that an entire army can be moved throughout the tower!”

“You did this in just two days?” inquired Oliver, slightly amazed.

“Many hands,” said Stalwart, “ – and industrious ones.”

“And you didn’t even have Goodwill to make you tea,” said Savitri, with a wink at him. He laughed.

“This is fine!” said Roland, “Excellent. Thank you! Good work all around! Now,” he said, with despondency creeping back into his voice, “All we need is to think of a way of dealing with the land surveyors. We cannot do anything until we can deal with them. Frankly, without more land surveyors I don’t see how. We could kill them, but technically they are civilians…”

“Who are a strategic weapon,” Savitri pointed out.

“Perhaps they need some inspiration,” Botherworth said.

“The last thing we want to do is encourage them,” Oliver objected.

“No, I mean inspiration of the artificial sort,” Botherworth persisted, and he took a leather pouch out of his pocket and waved it about, “Besides rescuing you lot I also liberated some from the Nollynocks and the Grimbles. Thought it might come in useful!”

“Oh you beauty!” Savitri exclaimed, giving him a peck on the cheek.

“Just trying to help,” said Botherworth, blushing a tiny little bit.

“Now, we just need to find a way to get it to them,” said Brother Stalwart.

“That might not be as hard as you think,” Roland smiled, “We were told when we were down there that the land surveyors are being rather well fed from the kitchens, the only reason why the kitchen staff have been kept on. It should be possible to sneak a meal in to them. We shall have to make sure they all eat something of it — it is essential that every one of them is inspired!”

“Seems like everything is set then,” said Oliver.

“The odds are still against us,” Roland said, “Very much so. Do we fight?”

“We must,” said Savitri.

“Yes,” said Oliver, “I am sure that the villagers will be behind you.”

“So when do we go?” asked Savitri.

“Not yet,” said Roland.

When?” Oliver pressed.

“There will be a sign,” Roland said.

 

That evening there was indeed a sign. A bright streak of light shot downwards through the sky, making straight for the top the hill of the Scary Oak. Lumenfarge had returned.

Chapter 19

 

With a bagful of inspiration Roland, Oliver and Savitri made their way down the staircase to the visible part of the tower. Firebrace’s rescue could only have tipped off the Spirus that there was some danger within the castle. They would now be alert and on guard, and the trio were going to have to tread carefully.

Looking over from the safety of the invisible part of the tower they could see no sign of any Spirus so they stepped across and cautiously made their way down the stairs to the doorway at the base. They moved carefully and quietly, checking ahead in case of ambush. It seemed there were no Spirus in the tower. Presumably they had chased up the stairs and then come to a very puzzled halt at the topmost step of the visible bit, searched the rest and then gone away to wonder about it.

The door at the base had been broken in. Roland stuck his head out of the doorway and saw that two Spirus were standing guard on it. Oddly, the two Spirus sentries seemed to be guarding against people going into the tower rather than coming out of it. Roland and Savitri stepped out of the doorway without being seen and swiftly knocked their heads off. As they did there was the rushing-whooshing sound that Roland had heard when Savitri had dealt with the guards outside the command tent. Roland now saw it was accompanied by a jet of red mist erupting out of their necks and heading skywards as their armour collapsed into heaps.

“Two down,” Roland said.

“Two down,” Savitri confirmed.

There were no other Spirusses in the courtyard, just the scuttlers and the prisoners. The scuttlers had gone back to sleep and the way to the kitchens did not take the trio near them.

One of the doorways to the kitchens opened directly onto the courtyard. They passed through it to find only human chefs and kitchen hands, busy at their tasks. Roland struck a large pan with his sword to get their attention. They all looked towards him, startled. Plainly they were working under threat and in fear, and it showed.

“Have the land surveyors been fed yet?” Roland asked.

One of the chefs stepped forwards, “My liege! it is good to see you again! So good! Thank goodness you are here!”

“Good to see you too,” Roland said, and nodded at the man, although he did not recognise him. He made a mental note to pay more attention to the staff in future — it might be important when it came to knowing whom he could trust in such situations.

“This meal is for the Land Surveyors, I take it,” he said, pointing at what had been prepared.

“Yes, they are the only ones we feed now,” said the chef, confirming what the prisoners had already told, “They are always eating, there is always food being made for them. If not they call out for it – very loudly, and ring the bells! The meal is finished and ready to be taken to them.”

“We will take it to them. Stay here until we’re finished. We’ll come back for you and take you to safety.”

The trio donned aprons and got out the bag of inspiration, sprinkling a good dose on every dish. Then they grabbed trays and piled the plates onto them. When all was ready they headed for the throne room trusting that any Spirus they met wouldn’t think twice about them whilst they were dressed as servants and

carrying trays of food. They were correct in the assumption too. A squad of Spirus marched past them on the way, not noticing that they were intruders.

The trio entered the throne room to find the land surveyors squabbling over their latest plans. “What about the centre piece,” one was saying, “We really must have a central focus!”

“We should definitely have a sculpture park!” said a second, “Sculpture parks are so very now!”

“They were then,” said a third, bitingly.

“What about fountains?” said a fourth.

“Oh you and your fountains! You’re always on about fountains,” said a fifth, “If we are to have a proper centre piece we must try harder, and all agree!” Said the first one.

“We need something of use to everyone,” the third objected, “like a multi—storey stable.”

“Not everyone rides,” said the second.

“It could have spaces for carts and carriages,” The fifth put in.

“Think of the revenues!” the third insisted, “Pay and display, charging by the hour! The Town Council will love it — and aren’t they the ones we answer to?”

“We are the rightful arbiters of taste and efficient design!” said the fourth, “They can sort the revenues out afterwards! I am king today!”

“Oh no you’re not,” sad the fifth one, trying to pull the fourth one off the throne, “It’s my turn and has been for ages!”

“We still haven’t decided where to put all the new houses,” the third protested.

“We mustn’t use green spaces – we must reuse the land already built on first,” the first said.

“But the green spaces are where people actually want to live!” the second objected.

“What about the Nimbys?” the third said, “They have powerful magic and can certainly put a stop to housing development with a simple wave of their wands!”

“My magic is stronger,” said the fifth one, who had finally succeeded in pulling the fourth one off of the throne and was sitting on it himself. He stuck out his hand as if he was waving a wand, “I have a large invisibility cloak which will hide the real purpose of any plans until it is too late to file objections!”

“You are interfering with local democracy!” the first objected.

“I am!” the fifth confirmed, gleefully.

“Good!” said the third, “We should decide what happens, and people will just get what they get, like it or lump it!”

“Ahem,” said Roland, “Gentlemen, dinner is served!”

The trio moved forwards with their dishes, offering the inspiring feast to the surveyors.

“Would you like some of this?” asked Savitri, “It’s very delicious…”

“Have some of this,” Oliver offered another, “It’s wonderful! Fresh in today!

“This looks good,” said Roland, offering some to the fourth surveyor, who had by this time regained the throne, to the protests of the fifth one.

“Well, I must say,” the first surveyor commented, “the serving staff are far more helpful and civil than usual. Normally you can’t get a word out of them! They must have been taking customer service training!”

“It seems you can get the staff, if you try!” the third commented.

Roland knew that the serving staff were supposed to be silent when serving a meal but this wasn’t the time to behave correctly. As he had noted, they needed to make sure that all the land surveyors, everyone of them, ate the inspiration and that they were fully inspired.

It was not long before the effects began to tell…

The third surveyor leapt onto the table and started building his stable with imaginary bricks, “I am going to build the biggest multi—storey stable in the entire world – right here! Look! I am building it now!”

Then he impersonated a horse, whinnying and trotting to show how the horses would go up ramps to the different levels.

“I am going to build the biggest sculpture park ever,” said the second, showing how it would be laid out by sprinting around the room and waving his arms a lot, “It will the centrepiece of the entire universe!”

“My fountain!” said the fountain enthusiast, “will reach the stars – you will be able to travel to the moon on it!”

“I think he knows something,” Oliver said.

“And he’s having a whale of a time!” Roland laughed.

“Nice one!” said Oliver

“I am building the biggest housing estate in planning history,” said the first one, getting started with a make-believe hod full of fantasy bricks “– a housing estate consisting of palaces for everyone on a brownfield site that’s never, ever been developed in a city centre that’s right out in the country and has never been touched by a developer’s grubby hand!”

“And I am building a special prison just for Nimbys!” Said the fifth, with an evil gleam in his eye, “A huge one! We will lock them all away forever and do whatever we want, so there!”

“Job done, I think,” said Roland, “All land surveyors thoroughly inspired!”

Oh my goodness!” Said Oliver, shaking his head, “The fools! Is that what we were like when we were inspired?”

“I don’t want to think about it,” said Roland, “Let’s press on – we have work to do!”

The trio left the land surveyors to their inspired fantasies.

It was now time to act and act quickly, before the inspiration wore off. They gathered the staff from the kitchen and hurried them up into the tower. Then it was time to put the main plan into operation. In the main hall of the Knights Fortressers the fifty sun warriors were ready, together with a company of archers from the village. Roland stood before them and spoke, “I cannot lie to you. The odds against us are poor, but if we do not fight we will have to live in slavery under the Spirus – or run from them. I ask you now: do we fight?”

“Yes!” said Oliver.

“Yes!” said Savitri.

One by one the villagers answered: “Yes! Yes! Yes!…” until they all started to chant “Yes!” at the top of their voices so that it resounded to the very top of the invisible tower and beyond, and the very stones rang with it.

“Very well then,” Roland said. He took his place at the head of his army with Oliver and Savitri by his side. Together they led the way through the widened corridors to the new lifts, descending in them to the top of the hill of the Scary Oak. At the bottom the doors opened to reveal a group of knights already mounted and ready for battle. Oliver and Savitri recognised them immediately — it was Count Og-dra-gob and his tourneyers!

Behind them was Lumenfarge, tall and burning brilliantly, even in bright sunshine.

The count rode across to meet them.

“Thank you for coming,” Roland said

“Thank you for inviting us!” said Og-dra-gob, “There are far too few battles these days to pass up the invitation to a skirmish! Besides, how could I resist a summons delivered by such a splendid messenger?!”

“Great! Are you ready?” Roland asked.

“For battle? Always!” Roared Og-dra-gob, and brandished his sword.

The trio rode over to Lumenfarge and Roland asked him, “Have you got the other thing we spoke of?

“Yes,” Lumenfarge replied.

“Good.”

Lumenfarge opened his side and the three entered.

“An Ogleforth boat!” Oliver exclaimed in surprise, looking at the vessel.

“And yee-hove-hees!” said Savitri. They look like the same ones that helped us win on the moon.”

“They are,” said Roland, “I asked for them specially – and the same boat.”

“But why?” Oliver asked, “I mean why an Ogleforth boat?”

“I have an idea – it is just an idea, but bear with me and we shall put it to the test.”

They boarded it and Roland ordered, “Yee-hove-hee!” and the yee-hove-hees propelled them through the opening in Lumenfarge out onto the hilltop.

“It seems strange to be aboard one down here,” said Oliver.

“We seem to be moving a lot more slowly than on the moon,” said Savitri.

“We are. It must be gravity,” said Roland, “We are heavier down here — we will have to get used to it and practice a bit. I just hope that the yee-hove-hees are up to it.” He turned back to the Sentinel, “Lumenfarge, I take it then that the mistress of the lighthouse agreed to my offer?”

“Yes, indeed. You must all return to the moon regularly to compete in the Ogleforth matches, at least twice a season and on special cup days.”

“It won’t be much of a burden,” said Roland.

“Sounds like fun,” said Oliver.

“I think I can make time in my schedule” said Savitri.

“Good. Thank you,” said Roland, “ I thought I could count on you both, although it was naughty to commit you without asking…”

“We’ll overlook it on this occasion,” said Oliver, with a wink.

“On this one occasion,” said Savitri, with a smile.

Lumenfarge told them, “I will gladly take you to the moon and bring you back when you need to go. Just call. There is one other thing; I would like very much to help in the battle, but if I do it will bring the wrath of the Great Council upon all of us. They limited you to those fifty warriors and that was what they meant. I would make fifty one. That was not what they meant.”

“When they mean something they really mean it, eh” said Oliver.

“Yes,” confirmed Lumenfarge, dolefully.

“You have done quite enough for us already,” said Roland, “Do not bring your masters’ anger down on yourself.”

“I had better leave now,” said Lumenfarge, “before they consider me “involved””

With that he departed as a blazing streak upwards into the sky.

The trio took the Ogleforth boat for a few turns around the top of the hill practising and trying it out in the stronger gravity. It was slower, but it became clear that the yee-hove-hees were strong enough to cope with it.

“Now, there is one thing I must do before we go into battle…” Roland said, and he addressed the yee-hove-hees, “Yee-hove-hees! I have been given sovereignty over you by arrangement with the Mistress of the Lighthouse, who has purchased you for me; you are mine to command!”

The yee-hove-hees looked attentive, awaiting his orders.

“But I cannot and will not order you into battle as slaves. Therefore I set you free, and ask that you volunteer to help us!”

The yee-hove-hees seemed stunned, as if they didn’t know what was happening, then they lifted up the boat and threw it as high as they could, “Yee-hove-hee-free! They cried.

“Will you help us?” Roland asked, hoping above hope.

“Yee-hove-yes!” cried the yee hove-hees.

Roland thanked goodness under his breath, then pointed to where his army was formed up and commanded, “Yee-hove-hee!”

“Yee-hove-hee!” cried the yee-hove-hees, and the boat was propelled to the front of the column. From their vantage at the top of the hill Roland explained his plan to Og-dra-gob, they then lost no time in descending from the hill to the place where Roland had decided they would deploy. They lined up in battle order with the villagers in the middle, ready with their bows, and the tourneyers and the sun warriors on either flank, ready to charge. Roland, Savitri and Oliver, in the Ogleforth boat, were right at the front.

“Now the next move is theirs. We must wait for them to come to us!” Roland said.

“How do you know they will?” Oliver asked.

“Because they think they have the material advantage,” Roland said, “Even without the land surveyors they are too arrogant to ignore such a challenge – they will come and get us!”

The attackers could see some of what was going on in the castle through the gap the scuttler left when it had crashed through the castle wall. The Spirus were mounting up and getting ready to move out. The rumbling and the growling of the scuttlers was audible although Roland couldn’t yet see them. There were clearly a lot of Spirus, an unbelievable number, pouring out as if from every corner and crevice of the castle.

“Where are they all coming from?” Oliver asked, “Was there even room in the castle for all of them?”

“We didn’t see many when we in there, did we?” said Roland.

“They were all packed tightly into odd spaces, standing upright in ranks, toe to heel,” said Savitri, “That’s their idea of great R&R.”

“Sounds boring,” said Oliver, “I almost feel sorry for them.”

“Don’t!” said Savitri, angrily.

“Sorry,” said Oliver.

The drawbridge was lowered and a brigade of Spirus charged out with a scuttler close behind. Seconds later two more scuttlers followed, then more mounted Spirus. As those made their way around the castle toward the attackers, the other two scuttlers manoeuvred through the gap in the castle walls and dived into the moat. They emerged on the other side and proceeded toward Roland and his troops.

“We must wait until the very last minute,” said Roland, “They have to be close for any of this to work…”

The Spirus plainly assumed that the scuttlers were now their main tactical advantage. Their cavalry hung back lazily waiting to mop up whilst the scuttlers advanced, the trio who had come across the drawbridge curving in from the left and the two who had come through the wall moving in a straight line from the castle. The latter were almost in range for their missiles to strike Roland and his allies when Roland gave the order, “Yee-hove-hee!”

The Ogleforth boat moved off at great speed towards them.

“I think I understand what you are going to try,” Oliver said, “Are you sure this will work?”

“Of course I’m not sure!” said Roland, “but it’s the best idea I could think of!”

“Just checking. As long as it’s the best idea! However bad, as long as it’s the best we have!”

One of the scuttlers saw them coming and its horns started to generate the fire. It let it go and the missile came rushing toward the boat.

“Right!” said Roland, “It’s time to put theory to the test! Action stations!”

Instead of manoeuvring to avoid the charge they sailed right into its way. The missile came roaring in, growing larger by the second. They swivelled the racquet around to face it and pulled it back so it was poised ready. As the fireball passed over the ship’s bow they let the racquet go. Just like the ogles on the moon the fireball rebounded off the racquet, albeit with a different sound – more a ‘dwoiiiiing––annnnnnng’ than a ‘twang–– oiiiiiing’. The missile was sent screeching back to whence it had come. It hit the scuttler straight in the head, between its horns, and it exploded in a blaze of flame and sparks.

“It works!” Oliver cried, jumping up and down, “Roland! You’re a genius!”

“We’ve got four more to go,” said Roland, “let’s not get too excited just yet…”

The rest of the battle was proceeding as planned. As the trio had moved off to attack the first scuttler Og-dra-gob had ordered his knights and the sun warriors to charge the Spirus cavalry. At the same time the villagers opened up with volley after volley of arrows into their midst.

Roland looked at the next scuttler on his target list — the other one that had come through the castle wall.

“We will have to circle around to put some distance between us and it,” he said, and ordered, “Yee-hove-right!”

The yee-hove-hees manoeuvred the ship to the right and they coasted around in a circle to come back around in front of the scuttler. It was now close enough to the villagers to hit them with its missiles and succeeded in getting off a shot that whistled over their heads, parting their hair. It now had their range and the next shot would be deadly. There wasn’t time to organise a head—on approach so Roland steered the boat so that it would intercept the next burst whilst moving across in front of the scuttler. Savitri and Oliver turned the racquet to face sideways and Roland watched the scuttler intently to make sure that the timing was right.

He timed it well and again the racquet returned the charge to its source. This time it glanced off the side of the scuttler which was knocked of course and came to a halt, clearly damaged. It was not a knockout blow but at least they had shielded the archers from its deadly effects. They circled around as it prepared to fire once more. They had now got its attention and it was aiming its fire at them, not at the archers.

“Looks like we’re in for it,” said Oliver.

That’s what we need to happen,” said Roland, “Get ready.”

They were now facing the scuttler head—on and it was aiming straight at them. They were much closer than they had been before and when the burst struck the racquet the whole boat shuddered and creaked. The missile was again returned to the head of the scuttler, which exploded with another shower of sparks and flame.

“Wonder how many of those this old barge can take,” said Oliver.

The villagers let out a great cheer before returning to their task of showering the Spirus with arrows. Roland looked across the field and saw that Count Og-dra-gob and the sun warriors were embedded in a dense mêlée, but seemed to be getting the better of the enemy. Seeing this Roland looked about for the other scuttlers.

The Spirus had clearly realised that something was going wrong with their plans and that the scuttlers were being destroyed. This was plainly new to them and a bit of a shock. Instead of heading right into the battle the other three were holding back and looked like they might even retreat. Roland ordered a course be set for them.

“They must all be destroyed,” he said, “if there is to be any peace around here.”

At the sight of the Ogleforth boat coming toward them the scuttlers headed for a copse of trees and before the boat could catch them had hidden themselves in it.

“They’re running scared!” Oliver cried.

“They’ve adopted a good tactic – it might work,” Roland cautioned.

As they got closer they could hear the rumbling and crashing of the scuttlers within the wood as they ploughed new paths amongst the trees. They got closer still and as they did one stuck its head out and emitted a shot that nearly took the boat out. They had got too close without being able to see an enemy which had a view of them. Roland ordered that they back off and again they circled around. As they returned in the direction of the copse another scuttler stuck its head out and fired. They returned the shot which crashed into the trees and started a fire, but with no affect on the scuttler. Almost immediately it fired again. Once more they grabbed the ropes of the racquet, positioned it and pulled it back, only much faster than they had ever done it before. There was little time for judging the shot but by now they were well practised and returned the fireball back to its origin resulting in another shower of sparks and flame. Another one down.

“Two more to go,” said Roland, looking around the field to check what else was taking place. As he did he noticed that a large brigade of Spirus cavalry was heading out of the castle and making straight for them.

“We have incoming,” he said, “I’m surprised they haven’t tried a cavalry attack on us sooner. I don’t see any help coming from Og-dra-gob and the archers are too far away. We will just have to try to defend ourselves – or run.”

“I suggest running,” said Savitri.

“You? Run?” Oliver queried.

“From them, in the case of impossible odds, YES!” said Savitri.

As before, Roland knew that if Savitri of all people was advising a retreat, it was good advice.

He swung the boat around and circled the wood, looking amongst the leaves and branches trying to see a sign of one of the scuttlers. They plainly knew that reinforcements were on the way and were not going to take any chances until those arrived. It seemed hopeless. The Spirus cavalry were almost upon the boat now and they were certain to be overwhelmed. Roland looked again to the mêlées but there was no hope of help from Count Og-dra-gob or the sun warriors, who were still deeply immersed in their own battle.

“We should have brought some accompanying troops,” said Roland, “My fault, my pride…”

“We have done well,” said Savitri, as the Spirus thundered closer, their hooves beating out defeat.

“Not well enough, I fear,” said Roland.

At that moment it all changed. As if from nowhere the boat was surrounded by another group of cavalry, as if they had descended onto the battlefield from above. Doubtless they had, too.

“We have been watching!” Said Brother Stalwart, brandishing his sword, “You need us now!”

And the knights Fortressers engaged the attacking Spirus in furious battle.

“You are full of surprises,” Oliver said to Roland.

“I didn’t plan this,” Roland said, “I would never have asked them. They’ve decided to do this by themselves.”

“But won’t they die if they kill?” asked Savitri

Roland was silent.

Protected from the Spirus cavalry by the Fortressers, the trio prepared to circle the woods once more. As they did so the two remaining scuttlers broke from cover and headed for the mêlée between the Spirus cavalry and the Fortressers. Roland chose the nearest one to attack and set a course to do so. Upon seeing the boat it tried to change course but Roland was persistent in blocking its way. Finally the monster had had enough. It was now growling and shaking as if thoroughly antagonised. It charged its horns with lightning and sent a burst straight towards the boat. They struck it straight-on and sent it back but the creature tried to dodge out of the way. The missile hit its rear, just wounding it. It snarled with rage and set another burst running. This time the trio made sure of it, sending the shot back with a firm dwoiiiiing––annnnnnng! The creature tried to dodge out of the way again but the shot hit the side of its head with the usual fireworks.

“Four down, one to go!” cried Oliver.

The mêlée between the Knights Fortressers and the Spirus was continuing with undying ferocity. The remaining scuttler seemed uncertain what to do, whether to aid its fellows or to turn its fire on the Ogleforth boat. Its days of easy pickings were over and its destruction beckoned. Roland was determined it would be destroyed but to achieve that he had to get its attention. He sailed far out in front of it and turned to confront it. It raised its horns and the lightning formed upon them. Then it produced a new strategy. Instead of firing the missile directly at the boat it fired it upwards into the air so that it travelled in an arc, curving up then down towards the boat.

“Look out!” Yelled Oliver

They were unable to do anything with it and it nearly hit and destroyed them -

only some quick footwork by the yee–hove–hees avoided it.

They turned, circled around and came back. Once more a lightning bolt arced up and nearly came down on top of them – the yee-hove-hees again getting them out of the way just in time.

Roland took a deep breath, “Again!” he said.

Roland decided it was time to start getting in the way of the missiles again instead of trying to avoid them. They circled around once more and came in, this time more slowly. The scuttler generated its lightning, aimed – and fired. The missile soared up into the air and came arcing in towards them. Roland ordered the boat to turn in a tight circle so that they moved out of the missile’s path, then back on the right course needed to return the fire. For a moment it looked as if the shot would pass right over the top of the boat but Roland was prepared for that; at just the right moment, whilst they were still moving, he yelled “Yee-hove-leap!” as he Oliver and Savitri pulled back on the racquet.

“yee-hove-leap!” cried the yee-hove-hees, and thrust the boat up into the air.

The trio let the racquet go and it struck the missile full square, sending it sailing upwards in another long, slow arc – straight back to its origin. The scuttler exploded with yet another shower of sparks and flame

“Return of serve, I think.” said Roland.

“We did it!” Oliver cheered, “ – we can play Ogleforth! Even on grass!”

“We have lawn invented lawn Ogleforth!” Savitri cried and the three of them high-fived.

There was little of use they could do now in an Ogleforth boat so they withdrew. Oliver was dropped off by the ranks of archers so that he could join them and put his own bow to work. Roland and Savitri returned to the top of the hill where mounts and arms awaited them. They mounted up and rode down into the battle, galloping up to Og-dra-gob just as the mêlée between his forces and the Spirus was in its final stages.

“They are fine sport, these Spirus!” Og-dra-gob called out to them, and then turned to congratulate a group of his own men, “Well done red team! A voucher for a new suit of armour to you!”

Savitri made up for all the time she had spent waiting for revenge by galloping into the midst of the battle, cutting a path right through the Spirus as she went. None of them stood a chance as they fell before her furious, flashing blade.

Roland looked over to where the Knights Fortressers were battling. They too were on a winning streak. Everywhere the Spirus were being defeated and falling back to the castle walls.

“Now is the time!” said Roland, and waved his sword high above his head. It was seen from within the finished tower and a group of villagers rushed down the steps into the courtyard and released the prisoners. They rushed from the cage, picked up whatever they could use as weapons and began to fight the Spirus.

The Spirus now had nowhere to retreat. Caught between the Knights Fortressers, Og-dra-gob’s forces and the prisoners, who quickly found the armoury, they were quickly vanquished.

Roland knew he owed a debt. He rode up to the Knights Fortressers.

“Thank you,” he said, “You rescued us when we needed it, the victory is yours as much as anyone’s — more so!”

“A final victory,” said Brother Stalwart, “It’s so long since we have tasted victory in combat, I had quite forgotten how good it is. You must now look to the future Roland, guard the castle well. I am sure you will. We entrust it to you and your descendants for all time. I know you will not let us down.”

“But..” Roland began to object.

“It is time for us to go, now,” said Stalwart, “We have all killed, and now because of our oath we must die as well…”

“No!” Roland cried.

But then he realised that he could now see through Brother Stalwart to the things behind him. Stalwart was fading away, like a reflection in a pool, or like the mist on a summer’s morning. One by one the Knights Fortressers faded and flickered out of life, all of them. Brother Goodwill was the last; with a cheery wave and a happy smile he was gone to join his brethren amongst the stars.

“No!” Roland cried, No!”

He rushed forwards, thrashing at the air with his sword in desperation, but they were gone.

Chapter 20

 

“Can we…?” the herald pleaded, “Can we use the proper heraldic terms, as it is a special occasion… Just this was once…? Please?”

“Oh, all right!” Og-dra-gob gob said, “As it is a special occasion – just this once, mind!”

“Oh thank you! thank you!” said the herald, “Thank you sire!”

All of the victors were assembled in the courtyard, including the ex-prisoners of the cage. All were rejoicing in the defeat of the horrid Spirus.

The herald took a deep breath and let forth a full panoply of emblazonments featuring all of the pily paly bendy dancetty prancetty stuff he could muster.

As his tourneyers stepped up to get their prizes Og-dra-gob turned to Roland saying, “It was wonderful to fight in a real battle after all these years — thank you again for inviting us!”

“Thank you again for helping me get my castle back,” said Roland.

“Yes, thank you,” said Dagarth.

“As I understand it, you were one of the villains!” Og-dra-gob said, arching his eyebrows at Dagarth.

“Err, a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation of my true motives. I merely pretended to be on the Spirusses side so that I could betray them when the time was right and help you … And so I did! And we have all defeated the Spirus! Hooray! Hooray!” he cheered, hollowly.

Og-dra-gob turned back to Roland and leant towards him, speaking confidentially, “Slippery character, isn’t he?”

“Tell me all about it do,” Roland replied.

With the prize giving done he decided it was time to get the nasty bit – and the nasty folks – out of the way so that the real party could begin. First Roland addressed his uncle: “Uncle, although I could and should be “wonderly wroth,” as the books have it, I intend to pardon you for your sins. You are family after all and it would seem ungracious not too, particularly as you have now turned over a new leaf, for the moment — or so it would appear, anyway… . I wish you to leave this castle and its environs and go back to your own, on condition that you never, ever return – and no more treasure seeking!

Dagarth bowed and scraped as he backed away, nervously looking at the swords that were still being brandished by Roland’s allies, “Thank you, oh thank you for being so merciful! I really won’t let you down, honest! Oh thank you!”

Roland continued “As for you, Bril-a-brag and Gloatenglorp, I also licence your departure. You may pass on to Caunterbury unmolested, where you may do penance before the blissful holy martyr.”

Bril-a-Brag and Gloatenglorp left without a word, but as he went Uncle Dagarth muttered, “I’ll bet he lays his hands on the treasure straightaway and gives most of it to those despicable peasants!”

He then glared at those peasants and gestured for his wife, sons and what was left of his retinue to follow him in his walk of shame out of the gate.

Roland addressed those who remained: “Now, enough of enemies! Let’s make more time for friends! I thank you once more, yee-hove-hees!”

The yee-hove-hees all cheered, “Yee-hove-hee!”

“and thank you to the Venerable Conceiver Of Strategies!”

The fool of the venerable conceiver of strategies beat him around the face even more enthusiastically as usual until the venerable conceiver at last seemed to realise that he was being appreciated, gave a smile and even started blowing kisses to all those cheering him.

“And Bobblejob and Jubblebub – step forwards! You did your part, albeit unwittingly, so I am promoting you both to be my guards with special responsibility for spotting mythical and non existent monsters – a post with no responsibility whatsoever. Nevertheless, you will still be supervised carefully to prevent you doing any harm…”

Bobblejob said, “Thank you! Thank you! I swear we will keep a special lookout for any mythical and non—existent monsters and report them straight away if we see any.”

“Yes, we will carry out our duties digitally.” Said Jubblebub.

“And then jump in the moat,” Oliver said.

Roland gave him a stare, then continued, “And Firebrace my old counsel; I am sorry you could not be with us in the final battle… What can I say, what can I give you but my grateful thanks and enduring friendship.”

Everyone cheered and Firebrace rose, as best he could, and acknowledged the applause.

“Oliver,” Roland said, “I make you seneschal of this castle and Savitri chief muster mistress and adjutant — if you will accept the positions.”

“Gladly,” said Oliver.

“Yes,” said Savitri, “and anyway, I have nowhere else to go!”

Roland asked them, “I would like both of you to supervise the guarding of the land surveyors and ensure they cause no further problems.”

They both confirmed acceptance of the grave responsibility.

Roland continued to express his heartfelt thanks, “Thank you villagers!” — the villagers cheered — “and thank you to the sun warriors.” — the sun warriors stood silent, in rows, like dummies, as if waiting for their next orders; but everyone cheered them anyway.

“And Lumenfarge! We all owe you everything. You put yourself out to bring us the instruments of this victory.”

Everyone cheered. In response Lumenfarge burned even more brightly and with a slightly pink tinge, almost as if he were blushing.

“And Mr Botherworth – indispensible, and also wonderful!”

Botherworth really did blush. Savitri hugged him.

Then the bird which had conveyed messages when Roland was in the tower’s cradle fluttered down and perched on his sleeve. It pulled at it with its beak and tweeted loudly, as if demanding its role in the victory be acknowledged.

“And thanks to you also – my able avian messenger! I hereby make you captain of my birds!”

The bird tweeted its appreciation and flew off, doubtless to inform its fellows of its new rank.

All said a quiet prayer to remember all those who had fallen in battle, especially the Knights Fortressers and particularly Brother Goodwill. “We will remember them!”

Then they all went off to the great feast that awaited them — all except for Roland and Firebrace, who remained behind for a moment. Roland turned to Firebrace and said, “The tower is the treasure isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” said Firebrace, Doubtless there is gold or silver to be found in many of its rooms, but it is as worthless as dust compared to the great treasure that is the tower itself — the connexion between earth and sky that sustains all life!”

“I am glad we saved the tower from the Spirus – and from Uncle Dagarth and his friends.”

“We did well – you especially, my young commander. But don’t think this will be your last battle; there are many others who seek to control the tower.”

“And destroy it,” said Roland, “The storm lords.”

“Them too.”

“One day I will defeat them and free my mother.”

“Yes,” said Firebrace, “One day you will.”

 

 


Roland's Castle

It is the Middle Ages. Eleven year old Roland has been left as the master of his family’s castle. He believes his mother is dead. His father has gone away on a mysterious quest. His wicked Uncle Dagarth, Auntie Hildegrind and his two bullying cousins have taken over the castle on the pretext of looking after him. What they really seek is the castle’s treasure, which they believe to be mere gold or silver. Neither they, nor Roland, know the castle’s real secret. At it’s heart is an invisible, magic tower, which is a trove of secrets and a route to other worlds. Roland is not alone. His father has left Firebrace, a trusted servant, as his son’s mentor. Roland also has a friend called Oliver, a boy from the nearby village. A visit to the castle by two strangers sets in motion a series of events which lead to Roland discovering the secrets of his castle and which sees he and his friends going on a quest to other worlds.

  • ISBN: 9781311325495
  • Author: Becky York
  • Published: 2016-03-17 16:50:18
  • Words: 76907
Roland's Castle Roland's Castle