Part One: Through Dark Waters
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The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
First published July 2016 by James Moody
Copyright © James Moody 2016
ISBN 978-0-9946112-0-8 (EPUB)
The Strange Swimming Pool
A Perilous Welcome
The Birthday Party
From the author
That day was not a happy one for Ben Silverstone.
For his parents Jackie and Steven, buying an old, crumbling little cottage on the edge of Hulstead Village, in South East London, was a dream they had been talking about for years, and for which he knew they had worked extremely hard in their jobs as accountants for a company whose name was a collection of four letters he could never remember. Not only that, but moving from their small flat in Fulham would save them lots of money as it had been far more expensive. He had watched them at the dining table sometimes, while he quietly pretended to watch television nearby, as they talked with worried frowns about the bills, and was at least pleased that they seemed to be in a safer financial position now. He could see a weight had lifted from their shoulders, and hadn’t seen them stop smiling since they had bought the house four months ago, even in spite of all the mountain of paperwork he had seen them working through.
For his little brother Toby, the house would be a treasure trove to explore and play in, especially the little patch of garden at the back of the property, sandwiched between the enormous castle-like properties on either side of them. Once it had some grass in it that was. Right now it needed all the rubbish cleaned away, and probably also to have an exterminator come to get rid of any rats likely to be hiding in it, Ben thought. But Toby was more amused by all the brown cardboard packing boxes than anything else at the moment anyway.
As for Paddy, Ben’s grey and white whippet, he sat directly in front of Ben, head tilting to one side, and then to the other, as if looking at Ben from a different angle would enable him to find a smile somewhere within his gloomy expression. That was his default pose for trying to cheer Ben up, and usually worked wonders. They had found Paddy in Battersea Dogs Home when Ben had been about Toby’s age, and Paddy had been attached to Ben ever since. The staff had said he’d been found in the river at night by a police boat, somehow managing to keep his head above water long enough for them to drag him out and dry him off. Ben could understand his dislike of being washed in water. He obliged him with a scratch behind the ear and watched the skinny little dog tremble with delight.
For Ben though, there was a lot of change happening all at the same time. Not only had he just moved from where he’d spent almost all of his eleven years of life so far in to a dilapidated old house, he was starting at the even older secondary school in the village in a few weeks time. His parents had reassured him things would be absolutely fine once he had settled in, but he was used to the way things had been back in Fulham, and quite comfortable there, and also much preferred modern things anyway. He liked things that were clean, and worked reliably and easily. He didn’t know very much about oddly shaped, disintegrating things with dark holes and strange smells, and they made him a bit uncomfortable. As he stared blankly at Paddy he felt a dull ache in his chest forming, which he thought must have been all of the feelings he had about these changes compressed tightly into one spot. Maybe he was just hungry.
His mother called him for dinner. They ate fish fingers and peas from the local supermarket that Ben’s mother had cooked on a camping stove, on a table of boxes, by candlelight.
“We’ll get the electricity and gas turned on tomorrow hopefully,” his father said, as he walked in from what was going to be their bedroom, putting his phone down on another of the boxes. The truck his parents had hired to move was still half full outside, and Ben wondered if there was enough room in the tiny house for all their contents or whether they might end up having to just pile up all of the things they didn’t have space for into one of the rooms all the way to the ceiling, and squeeze the door closed behind.
“That’s good Dad. But I actually quite like the candlelight,” Ben lied, trying to put on a brave face. His father patted him on the back.
That night his parents stayed up very late unpacking in the candlelight, while Ben sat in his new bedroom, wrapped in his own thoughts, with Paddy dosing on his lap, and Toby sleeping next to them on a makeshift bed of boxes and what his mother had managed to find of the bedding. Toby would have happily slept inside a box that first night, surrounded in a nest of neatly packed towels and sheets, Ben mused, with a smile. Unwilling to make a start on his unpacking, he lay down, and finally drifted off.
The next morning was a rush. Ben’s parents had fallen asleep underneath an old photo album they had uncovered, and had slept through several alarms. The tour of Ben’s new school was scheduled to begin at 9am sharp, and Ben’s parents did not want to be tardy and upset Ms Villeneuve, the school headmistress. There was a whirlwind of bread and peanut butter for breakfast, and Toby and Paddy were hastily handed over to Ben’s Auntie Maggie to look after, before Ben and his parents jumped into their rusty VW Polo and raced over the speed bumps towards the school.
As soon as they had found a parking spot in the school car park, Ben and his parents joined a small group of other parents and children lined up in a neat row before the steps to the main school building, waiting for Ms Villeneuve, who was to escort them on the tour herself. The main building was an enormous old structure three times the size of Ben’s primary school, and he imagined that it and the other buildings in the grounds could probably hold thousands of children like him, in classes of hundreds, sitting at rows and rows of old wooden desks like little learning machines, in front of scary white haired men who probably still dressed like the teachers used to a hundred years ago and taught them nothing but ancient Latin. This was not going to be a fun place to go to school, he decided, as he looked around. Still, he did his best to look enthusiastic as his parents grinned at him excitedly.
He glanced up at the clock tower that rose above the left side of the main building. The tower had been one of the most ancient parts of the school, his parents had said after they had done the first school tour a few months ago, and it looked like it was leaning dangerously to one side, ready to collapse on top of some unfortunate students at any minute. To the right of the clock tower above what looked like the main doors, there were the remains of a crest containing a book and some kind of winged animal, and below them something written in a language Ben didn’t understand.
There were several large stone arched windows along the front of the building, with odd diamond shaped pieces of glass that shimmered in the morning sun like the scales of an enormous snake that had squeezed its way inside to lie in wait for them. Around the top just before the roof began there perched the ruins of a row of gargoyles, which were probably more likely to squash anyone walking below who had managed to get past the treacherous clock tower than scare off any evil spirits in their crumbling condition, Ben thought.
On the sharply pointed slate-tiled rooftop directly above the main doors he caught sight of a man painting one of the chimneys, while sitting very precariously on the pinnacle of the roof. For a moment the man paused to look down at the tour group, and Ben wondered how on earth he had got up there, with no scaffolding or ladders in sight, and nowhere near a window. Then the man turned his attention back to the painting, and Ben turned his attention to the other families joining the Silverstones on the tour.
There were now three other families in the tour with them. The first was dressed so immaculately it appeared as though their clothes had been sewed and ironed while they stood there. They must have arrived first, and were waiting patiently for Ms Villeneuve without saying a word, and keeping very still at the far right of the line. Their boy was about the same size as Ben, and seemed very experienced at keeping still and quiet.
The next family was dressed in very bright colours that reminded Ben of the colourful birds in the Amazon rainforest that he had seen on David Attenborough wildlife documentaries. The father jangled his keys in the air as he paced up and down talking loudly into his gold mobile phone, while the mother carefully styled her son’s blond hair.
“Keep still Jordan lovely,” she said to him as she licked her fingers and styled his hair into a sharp, gravity-defying point.
Jordan tapped on his matching gold phone with a blank expression, ignoring everything else.
The Silverstones had arrived next and stood beside Jordan and his family, and to their left had just arrived a very tall, skinny family with twin girls, who talked to each other much too fast for Ben to interpret, while their parents did the same. He thought they might have been foreign.
After a few moments further waiting as more families arrived, the clock struck 9am, and the enormous doors at the top of the steps to the main building made a groaning noise as they creaked open, precisely on cue. Ms Villeneuve stepped out.
Ben had been half expecting a headmistress like old Mrs Bumblebottom at his little primary school in Parsons Green. But Ms Villeneuve was very different. She wore a pensive expression as if she was constantly considering a problem she hadn’t yet been able to solve, and actually looked no older than his parents. Her clothes were similar to those worn by the first family in the line, but a touch sharper and more modern, and helped reinforce the air of superiority she exuded as she calmly glided along toward them. Her glasses were rimless, and magnified her sharp green eyes to at least twice their normal size as she observed them. Her light brown hair was contained in a perfect bun, positioned very carefully in the very centre of her head.
She paused at the top of the stairs for a moment to survey the group, measured out a small smile, and then descended and introduced the tour.
“Welcome back to Hulstead College and thank you for coming. Parents, your previous tour covered most of the grounds and buildings, so today is simply a formality to make your children more comfortable prior to the commencement of the school term in three weeks time.”
Ms Villeneuve talked in perfect English, but with a subtle French accent. Jordan’s father was clearly impressed.
“Great. Yeah. Fantastic,” he commented, as his wife concluded a final flourish to Jordan’s quiff.
“We will begin with the Great Hall behind me,” she said with a dramatic gesture, without removing her gaze from the group. The parents and children looked up at the grand features of the building. Ben’s parents seemed to love it, and he heard them oohing and ahhing a great deal as they pointed towards different parts of it.
The crisp morning sun gradually gave way to a few grey wisps of cloud, and a cool breeze rustled the early autumn leaves from the trees behind them as Ms Villeneuve recited a perfectly rehearsed history of the school, and in particular the Great Hall. The boy from the smartly dressed family posed a question, and she dealt with it swiftly before returning effortlessly to the narration. To Ben, the building was just old.
Finally she reached a precise pause. “Now, let us go inside.”
Ben’s chest ached again. He drifted back behind the parents like the other children, and exchanged a few pleasantries with his fellow students. Ilse and Lotte were from Holland, and had moved over to London so that they could grow up speaking more English. George didn’t say much at all besides his name, and was eager to pay attention to everything that Ms Villeneuve had to say. Jordan showed Ben an amusing picture of a cat on his phone while Ms Villeneuve talked about the stained glass windows.
But Ben remained largely quiet, anxiously eyeing the old wooden beams of the Great Hall that towered above them, the rickety old staircases leading up into forgotten corners of the school, and the deep, rich colours everywhere that felt so unwelcoming. It smelled damp and cold. The floors were hard stone and polished wood, with the exception of the patterned carpet on the raised platform at the far end of the hall, from where the school assemblies were delivered.
They moved on to some other buildings after the Great Hall, and towards the end of the tour they came to the school gymnasium. It was a large brick building set in a lonely spot near the edge of the grounds, housing an exercise hall and a swimming pool. As they approached a light rain began to fall, and the group hurried as much as they could behind Ms Villeneuve, who produced a large black and grey umbrella from somewhere, but refused to compromise her steady pace.
It was a relief to Ben to step inside, and the bright lights of the exercise hall seemed reassuringly modern to him. He enjoyed playing most sports – he thought he was fairly good at them – and the hall brought a feeling of safety after the creaking stairs and crumbling walls of the other buildings. Ben’s mother squeezed his shoulders reassuringly as they entered.
“The gymnasium is well equipped as you can see, and our boys and girls are required to participate in three exercise classes every week. We pride ourselves on an excellent performance record within the Greater London leagues and our boys and girls participate at county and national levels as well.” She made a sweeping gesture around the room, ending at a small door in a corner on the far side.
“The original building was destroyed in a fire in the 1920’s but was originally constructed around 1750 at the same time as the Great Hall where we began the tour. At the time of the fire it was little more than the swimming pool, which we will visit in a moment, and a tennis court where you are now standing.”
“There you go Jord, you like tennis,” Jordan’s father declared.
Ms Villeneuve glided toward the small door.
They passed through the door, and then into the boys changing rooms. The twin girls held their noses tightly, afraid of any residual smells of boys that had changed there previously. Then the group hurried through the long, open boys shower room, whose faucets looked unlikely to be capable of providing anything except icy cold water, before finally coming into the pool room.
The room was very dark despite the lights, but Ben slowly looked around. It was a large pool, probably Olympic sized, he thought, with a spring diving board at one end, and lanes marked out with the usual dividers. There was the normal chlorine smell coming from it, but the water must not be well heated at all, as it was still fairly cold in the room and several of the group had wrapped their coats a little closer after they had come in. On the other side of the pool there were a few spectator stands, and Ben noticed a man dozing on them under his cap; a mop and bucket propped up nearby.
Ms Villeneuve led the tour around the pool in the direction of the stands. “As you can see, the pool itself has been around for some time.” She smiled as if this was expected to draw a laugh, and a few of the parents obliged.
“Is there a school swimming team?” Ilse asked.
“Yes of course. The teams practice after school with Mr Taylor on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the school year, beginning with the initial team selection trials during the first week of term, and they compete in the Greater London Swimming League, with an excellent record.”
The girls nodded.
“And always a lifeguard?” their father said, with a frown.
Some of the parents muttered quietly.
“Some kid drowned here once,” Jordan’s father explained to Ben’s dad in a mock whisper, whilst patting him repeatedly on the back as if trying to help him with a ticklish cough. “In the middle of a swimming class too. Big mystery. But that was a hundred bloody years ago when they didn’t mind about losing one or two of the students!” He burst into loud laughter and moved away.
Ben’s father smiled gratefully for the information.
Ms Villeneuve stepped in to answer the question. “Yes there is always a lifeguard present during swimming classes and competitions. I assure you the pool is quite safe.”
Ben looked around again. There were extravagant mosaic patterns around the pool and under the water. It reminded him of the Roman baths he had seen in Bath, when his family had visited. Not your typical school swimming pool, he thought. He wondered why they hadn’t updated it. It was probably one of the protected historic buildings he was learning more and more about.
But the water was the most peculiar thing about it. The shallow end directly in front of where the group stood seemed brightly lit and still, except for the churn of the chlorine pumps. But as they walked around toward the bleachers side and the deeper end the water became unnaturally dark. So much so that Ben couldn’t even make out the bottom. The light cast by the bulbs beneath the surface seemed barely to be escaping. Just how deep was it? he wondered, looking for depth markings. He couldn’t see any. Was it his imagination or could he spot movement down there?
Even the surface of the water seemed to move with a heaviness more like the open sea, with powerful rises and troughs like the deep water far away from the safety of land. He was glad to be standing on the side, but still felt as though he was at the unstable edge of a great yawning ocean trench.
He edged away back to the group, which was pretending not to look at Ms Villeneuve as she addressed the man who had been lying on the seats.
“Mr Evren please, I have asked you before. You are not to sleep here on the bleachers like a” – she paused momentarily – “beggar”. Her perfect composure and posture cracked just a little.
The man had turned and sat up, but did not look directly at Ms Villeneuve. Instead he gazed at the pool. Ben noticed it was the same man who had been painting the chimney earlier.
“Yes Ms Villeneuve,” he said, with a low, musical accent that sounded quite at home in the old school.
Then he stood up, taking his mop and bucket, and turned to Ms Villeneuve. He appeared about the same age as the headmistress, but there was something very much older about him. Perhaps it was his beaten clothes and cap, or his craggy face and paint-dappled hands. He smiled softly, disarmingly, but his eyes were sharper even than Ms Villeneuve’s.
The headmistress seemed to lose her composure once again.
“Yes,” she said. Her eyes dropped away, and she turned back to the group, which was watching Mr Evren intently.
“Let’s move on,” Ms Villeneuve said, and they began to walk back toward the changing rooms.
As they left, Ben glanced back at the pool quickly, and then at the strange man. He was motionless, watching the pool. But just at that moment, he turned to look straight at Ben.
That evening Ben eagerly took Toby and Paddy to the little park just up the road and played in the late summer sun that had burst through the drizzle as they arrived home. The aching in his chest all but disappeared as he chased after Toby, rolled on the wet grass with Paddy, and laughed till he was too tired to move. Toby rode on his back, and they pretended to be warriors on horseback valiantly fending off Paddy the terrible dragon, and for a brief while all the coming changes were packed away out of his mind.
Three weeks later, Ben started at Hulstead College.
Before they left home, his parents took almost half an hour posing him for photographs in his new school blazer on the front doorstep. He noticed several other children being put through a similar ritual as he glanced up and down the road.
When they were finally satisfied, his parents delivered him to the stone steps of the Great Hall, and hugged him vigorously. He felt the ache in his chest returning as he waved goodbye to them. Finally, after they were out of sight, he joined the herd of other uniformed children trudging off towards their classrooms.
Ben’s heart pounded above the chatter of children as he climbed the stairs to the second floor of the Newton Building, and walked down the long, gloomy corridor to room 2D. He walked through the open door into a small classroom, which contained about thirty wooden desks, arranged in six columns. There were a handful of other students who had already claimed the desks at the back of the room, and were playing on their phones, relaxing into their new territory. At the head of the class was a large table, and an enormous blackboard covered the front wall behind it. He carefully selected a seat in the first column against a wall, and in the middle row, hoping that this would avoid the prominence of a front row seat, but also the appearance of mischief from proximity to the back row, and therefore maintain a balance of anonymity as far as possible. There was also a large boy seated directly in the line of sight from this desk to the teacher’s, which would further advance his strategy.
Room 2D gradually filled up as it drew closer to 8.45am, and Ben met some of his new classmates. A girl called Lucy Day walked in soon after he did, and smiled at everyone, before sitting directly in front of him. She had a little white streak in her dark brown hair, and earring studs in the shape of tiny pineapples and strawberries.
“Hi I’m Lucy Day,” she said with a beaming smile that was as white as a toothpaste advert. “What’s your name?”
“Ben Silverstone,” Ben replied, trying to remember if he had brushed his teeth in the hurry that morning.
“Do you live in the village?”
“Yes we just moved to Pickall road a few weeks ago, to the little cottage on the corner.”
“Oh wow that’s a beautiful house I’ve always dreamed of living there!” She was still beaming.
“It’s a bit old, but my parents really like it I suppose. Where do you live then?”
“I live over in East Hulstead near the East Hulstead Tavern, so it was really easy to walk here up the hill.”
Ben wasn’t sure exactly where East Hulstead or the East Hulstead Tavern were. He talked to Lucy for a while before the other students seated near him arrived. She didn’t seem to have any of the first day nerves that Ben and some of the other students did, and helped relax all of her neighbours.
Behind Ben sat Jordan Knight, who Ben had met on the school tour with Ms Villeneuve. They exchanged a few pleasantries, but Jordan seemed more interested in shouting over Ben towards Lucy than talking to him.
Ben had the wall to his right, but to his left, a tall, lean and tanned boy called Freddy sat, whom Ben thought looked far too old to be in his year. Freddy and Jordan seemed to know each other already and quickly became absorbed in discussing their summer holidays and sporting achievements.
Sylvie arrived with Lucy and sat next to her. She was a French exchange student spending a term at Hulstead College and staying with Lucy.
“I…. do not speak se good English, I ‘ope se teachers will be nice to me, do you think?” she said.
“I’m sure they will be,” Ben responded. They talked for a while about her school in Paris, which sounded even older than Hulstead College.
Behind Freddy was a boy called Hidashi, who had grown up in London and was now boarding at Hulstead College because his parents had moved back to Tokyo. He laughed a lot at everything Ben and anyone else said to him and seemed very happy to be there.
Room 2D finally reached its full capacity, and the noise of the children inside it reached an almost deafening intensity. Then, just after the school bell rang for the beginning of classes, the students began to discern a soft thudding noise, and slowly quietened to listen more closely. The thudding was causing puffs of dust to fly off the blackboard and up from the table at the front of the room, and it was even making some of their pencil cases rattle towards the edges of the desks as it grew louder and louder. Finally the thudding stopped, and the door swung open. The most massive, muscular man Ben had ever set eyes on stooped through the doorway, and thudded towards his table. The children coughed and shielded themselves from little pieces of the ceiling falling onto them. After a moment of rearranging the papers at his desk while the dust settled, the man took up a single sheet and a pen, and introduced himself.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Mr Lomonosovsky,” he pronounced in a thick accent.
Jordan and Freddy sniggered loudly, but Mr Lomonosovsky was unphased. He probably could have squeezed the life out of each of them at the same time without much effort at all if he had chosen, Ben thought.
He quickly took the roll call, and then began. “We start this first day with Science, of Physics. So what is Physics, for you?” He waited.
“It’s a type of science,” Hidashi shouted eagerly, “to do with movement, and things like that”.
Mr Lomonosovsky was pleased. “Yes good. Very good. This class is obvious to be one of strong ones.” He seemed to flex an enormous bicep, and Ben worried his shirt would tear.
“Physics is movement yes, and power and energy.” He paced across the room towards the blackboard as if to demonstrate. “Physics teaches us about concepts of matter” – he crushed the chalk to the blackboard, leaving a powder trail falling from the words as he wrote – “and energy, and how these interact to give us things like heat, light, sound, electricity, magnetism, and so on.” He waved his hands as if collecting all of these things in a mighty ball.
Mr Lomonosovsky continued to thud around as he discussed the concepts and structure of the curriculum. Ben started to wonder how much food he ate to become so enormous, and imagined whole farms of cows and chickens awaiting slaughter for his meals at his home. The floor seemed strained with each step.
“I have the strongest record of examination results in this year group, and I must retain that. The formula for perfect results is” – he turned back on the blackboard and, finding his previous chalk destroyed, pulled out a new piece – “hard work + attention.” He paused, turning back to them. “You must study hard, complete your homework on schedule, and ensure you train your minds to reach potential. You must pay attention to everything – every detail – I teach you in this classroom. If you fail, I will notice. I carefully monitor performance statistics for this class, and you will be punished.”
There was a collective gulp.
Ben was not surprised to see Mr Lomonosovsky walking towards the gymnasium building after the class.
Towards the end of his first day, Ben went back to the gymnasium himself, for the first of the week’s exercise sessions, which was a swimming class. He changed into his Hulstead College swimming shorts beside Freddy, who had brought with him an expensive looking pair of swimming goggles. Ben tried to laugh at his jokes about how many girls from the years above them he had managed to kiss in the school holidays.
Inside the pool room, Ben shivered, recalling how cold it had been on his previous visit. The gym teacher was Mr Taylor, who separated them into groups and instructed them on the way the class would proceed. Ben was disappointed to be put into a lane group with Jordan and Freddy, but he tried to mimic some of their confident gestures and avoid shivering as best he could. He noticed Mr Evren dozing on the bleachers again, and wondered how anyone could ever fall asleep in this cold, damp, dark place.
The class began, and Ben began swimming laps up and down the pool. He felt his heart quicken as he glided over the dark deep end the first few times, and tried not to look downward. He was glad to find nothing rising up and attacking him, and felt more and more confident as he swam, easily overtaking Freddy, and drawing up towards Jordan.
The session ended with a whistle just as Ben cruised up beside Jordan.
“Great session Taylor!” Jordan shouted. He turned to Ben as he removed his goggles. “Not bad Silverstone, you thrashed Freddy!”
Freddy’s head emerged slowly from the water with a glum expression unconcealed by his expensive goggles. “Rubbish pool,” he muttered. “No wonder someone got drowned in it. And can’t they afford heating?”
“Don’t be such a wuss Rothburg,” Jordan laughed. “They keep it cold on purpose to keep the blood pumping faster or something.”
Mr Taylor had finished the class and was instructing people to get changed, and get going to their next classes as he moved towards the exit.
“Silverstone, shall we just get in a couple extra?” Jordan asked casually.
Ben felt a surge of panic. “What, now?”
“Yeah.” Jordan was already putting his goggles back on.
Ben looked at Freddy, who stared back at him blankly. He was caught, fearful of disappointing Freddy and Jordan, but worried about being late for his next class. He attempted to hide his concern, and pulled his goggles back down over his eyes to set off.
Ben’s heart beat faster now, but not because of the pool. He accelerated hard, catching sight of Jordan’s splashes ahead of him. Jordan swam back past in the other direction, and Ben estimated he was ten or so strokes behind him. He barely noticed the depths of the pool as he turned, following Jordan back to the shallows.
How long would Jordan swim for? Ben thought. When would they stop, and go to the next class? Perhaps Jordan didn’t have to go to one for some reason – maybe he had a free period? He tried to catch sight of the clock in between breaths. His heart beat hard.
Ben turned again. How many more lengths had past? Was he heading back to the shallow end, or towards the deep one? He looked up ahead of him, and saw the building darkness. His heart fell. Suddenly he was more aware than ever of where he was in this strange pool, and swimming towards the deep dark waters. And where was Jordan now? He should have seen him go past in the opposite direction by now. Come to think of it, had he seen him go past in the previous lap, or the one before?
He swam hard. He felt cold, in spite of the all the strain of his swimming. The water seemed to be heavier, and rougher. His limbs began to ache. Despite his renewed efforts he seemed to be going slower. He must be near the end by now. Where was it?
He tried not to look down, but the more he tried, the more he began to glimpse dark shadows beneath him. He imagined things watching him from below as they circled, and he started to feel like he was being held, and tugged downwards.
He pushed hard again, and with relief, his fingertips hit the edge. He seized it quickly with both hands, and pulled his weary body out of the pool, rolling away from the edge. He drew deep breaths, and finally rose onto his knees, looking back at the pool.
“Lesson is over. You best be on your way.” The musical voice of Mr Evren came from a few steps away. He tilted his head slightly and squinted as he rubbed his stubbled chin, appraising Ben.
Ben stared back at Mr Evren, and then at the pool. He gasped for air. He didn’t know what to say, even if he had breath to say it.
“You are a good swimmer” – Evren turned his eyes to the pool – “but it’s dangerous to swim in the pool by yourself.”
Ben coughed. After a moment he nodded, and jogged towards the changing rooms.
He quickly showered, and dressed for the next class. He knew he was late.
His chest ached again as he reluctantly knocked at the next classroom, and entered. The teacher and other students stared at him as he apologised for being tardy and hurried his way to the last remaining desk, which was directly in front of the teacher. She waited for him to open his bag and take out his pencil case, and then continued writing on the blackboard. Ben stared into space for most of the class.
At the end of the final class of Ben’s first day at Hulstead College, the cold early evening had already begun to set in, and by the time Ben had walked home through the village it was almost dark. The streetlights struggled to illuminate Pickall road, as he made his way to his new home. He was glad to receive the hugs from his mother, and to be welcomed back into the warm glow of the kitchen. Paddy emerged with Toby to greet him, and whimpered until he was patted to satisfaction. But even the laughter and warmth could not completely dispel the ache in Ben’s chest.
A few days later, Ben had his first English lesson. Mrs Greenleaf’s voice was like a soft lullaby, and he needed to concentrate very hard to avoid drifting off to sleep as she introduced the Greek play ‘Oedipus The King’, as their first study. Lucy had read it already, and turned and smiled at Ben excitedly.
Mrs Greenleaf called upon certain students to play the characters through each section, as they read through together during the class. Mrs Greenleaf asked Ben to play the hero Oedipus during one scene, and chose Lucy to play his wife Jocasta. Ben blushed as he read the loving words in front of the class, and predictably, Jordan couldn’t resist making fun.
“Try not to drool on your desk ‘Salivastone’!”
Ben didn’t dare turn around, and tried to ignore the laughter.
Mrs Greenleaf talked a lot, but later must have noticed the yawns from around the room, and decided to wake everyone up.
“What do we think is underlying these words – what is Oedipus thinking?” She looked around the room. Her eyes rested for a split second on Ben’s, and he felt the blood rushing to his face in horror. He quickly looked downward, and pretended to be re-reading the section. He held his breath and hid, only releasing it with a stifled gasp when Mrs Greenleaf had settled on Lucy again.
“He’s worried that the prophecy might be true,” Lucy said excitedly. “He is worried that he might not be who he thinks he is. And that is beginning to shake his foundations a bit.”
“Yes, perfectly perceptive as always Miss Day,” Mrs Greenleaf responded with a pleased smile.
“What a pile of rubbish,” Freddy and Jordan laughed to each other at the end of the class, as they rushed out to the playground for break.
Lucy turned towards Ben, and grinned with her white smile again. “So do you like the play Ben?”
Ben flushed, a million interpretations rushing into his head. What was going on here? Had he done something amusing? Was Lucy mocking him? Was this a trick? He finally managed to smile back, but at his own desk. He didn’t dare look up at her reaction. “Not bad,” he muttered to his pencil case, and immediately wondered what had possessed him to say such a thing. He frantically searched for something better to say about the words or the story, but by the time he had finished packing his bag and looked up, Lucy had gone.
He replayed the moment in his mind endlessly in a search for the perfect response as he walked home later that day.
“So how was your day today love?” Ben’s mother asked, as they ate dinner. His parents both looked at him eagerly. Toby munched on his soggy pasta beside them, a thin tomato and pesto moustache framing his mouth.
“It was alright I guess.” Ben decided not to mention anything of the excitement with Lucy although that was all he could think about. “We did English today, and started reading a play called ‘Oedipus The King’.”
“Oh that’s great I think I did that one when I was at school!” Ben’s father said. “Isn’t that the one about a hippopotamus called Eddy?”
Ben’s mother sighed as his father chuckled at his own joke. “Don’t be silly Steven! I’m so proud of you Ben, getting into that posh school and reading Greek plays in your first week!”
They both grinned at Ben widely.
The end of the week was in sight, and Ben was feeling great relief, by the time Tim Wisecroft arrived in his class. Ben didn’t notice him that day until English, when Mrs Greenleaf asked a question about the reading of Oedipus they had just been through.
“What do we think the author Sophocles is trying to do here, with this section?”
Just as she had before, Mrs Greenleaf searched the room for a volunteer, or a victim. “Come on Lucy and Jack, let’s let some other people contribute this time.” She paused and Lucy lowered her hand.
Ben shrunk behind Thomas.
Mrs Greenleaf consulted her class listing. “Tim. Tim Wisecroft. Where are you?” She scanned the class over her half frame glasses.
“There’s no Wisecroft in this class Miss,” Jordan quickly jumped in; eager to respond to something he knew the answer to.
Mrs Greenleaf consulted her register again, and frowned. The tension began forming in Ben’s chest. At last a stuttering noise came from one of the desks near the back, and Ben joined the rest of the class in turning slowly towards it.
“He…here Miss”. A small hand extended upwards.
Mrs Greenleaf rose slightly from her seat, straining to see the boy. “Ah Mr Wisecroft, thank you.” She consulted the register again. “And I believe this is actually your first day, so welcome to our little class. The other students should make you very welcome.”
Ben could feel the boy’s anguish.
“School started on Monday mate!” Freddy joked. The class giggled.
Mrs Greenleaf continued. “Well Tim, what do you think the author is trying to achieve here, with this segment?”
Poor Tim, Ben thought. He was thankful for not being called upon himself, but felt desperately for him. He willed the other boy to say something brilliant, intelligent and strong, announcing himself to the class and silencing Jordan and Freddy forever, but as the moments passed by, he knew it would not come. He sensed the clock ticking, feeling as though something in him was tearing with every slice of the red second hand.
“I don’t…. know Miss,” Tim said at last, looking down at the text. “Maybe th….at” – Freddy looked at his watch – “that Oedipus is caugh…caught…. between two things?”
“Yes yes exactly Tim.” Mrs Greenleaf patiently waited for the class to return their gazes to her. “Sophocles is doing exactly that. He wants us to realise that Oedipus is very conflicted. On one hand he wants desperately for the truth, and that is understandable wouldn’t you say Freddy?”
Freddy bumbled something, but she didn’t wait for him.
“But on the other hand he suspects that the terrible prophecy about himself might somehow have fact in it, and is afraid of what that would mean about who he really is. That great conflict will continue throughout the rest of the play and the author will bring it out at different points. We will keep an eye out for it. Thank you Tim.”
At lunch that day, Ben noticed Tim sitting alone, at the end of a table full of giggling girls. He walked over to him. “Hi I’m Ben, I’m in your class.”
Tim smiled up at him.
Ben sat opposite on the bench. “How come you were late to join school then?”
“My parents, th…ought we were going to stay in Australia for a bit longer. I…w…as in the middle of a school year there.”
Tim’s stammer seemed to dissipate as he talked and became more relaxed. Ben was glad he felt comfortable with him already. “So what happened?” he asked.
“They had to move back here as D….Dad got a new job unexpectedly.” Tim took another mouthful of his steak and kidney pie, while Ben waited. “So it was a bit sudden for us really.”
They sat and talked for a while. Ben told Tim about his own change of scenery and the classes Tim had missed. After a while he decided to mention the swimming pool. “So have you heard about the weird swimming pool here?”
“The old one, where someone drowned ages ago?”
“Yeah.” Ben paused, considering how to go on. “There’s definitely something strange about it. I had to swim on the first day of term. It sounds strange but it felt like there were some strong currents in it. Just like you might find out at sea.”
Tim didn’t look up from his bowl of rice pudding. He ate like a boy twice his tiny size. Ben sensed he was listening intently as he scraped the sides.
“I could feel something pulling me under in the class last time, and then I managed to get out, and the janitor was standing there like he knew what was going on. He’s a bit odd too I think.”
Tim looked up, his bowl so clean it could have been put straight away. “Hmmm, could be a drain that’s got some strange pressure on it I suppose? I think we have a class there tomorrow don’t we, so we could test it together then? I’m not a very good swimmer though. I don’t exercise much really.” He smiled.
Ben felt much better having confided in him, and lighter getting the story off his chest.
They packed up their trays, deposited them at the cleanup point, and walked out together into the playground.
The next day, all Ben could think about was the afternoon swimming lesson.
He missed his lines a few times during English, and Lucy giggled as he tried to catch up.
He survived a surprise test from Mr Lomonosovsky on forces.
Finally, the clock struck 3, and he walked with Tim over to the looming brick gymnasium. The lights from the exercise hall beamed out into the cold grey afternoon as they trampled over a few soggy autumn leaves towards it. Ben’s heart was already beating hard, and his chest hurt again.
After they had changed, Ben and Tim were put with Paul and Mary in one lane. Ben was relieved to be nowhere near Jordan or Freddy this time, but barely heard Mr Taylor barking instructions for the lesson as he stood on the side shivering with his group.
Mr Evren was there again in the stands, only this time he was awake, watching them.
They started by swimming four lengths of breaststroke. Ben swam as fast as he could do without overtaking Tim, and offered some words of encouragement to keep the smaller boy going. Mary and Paul sped past them.
Then they moved on to backstroke, and Ben found his hands hitting his friend’s feet. He didn’t mind though as it kept him focussing on something besides the darkness below him. So far, so good, he thought.
The class paused at the shallow end while Mr Taylor shouted some further orders at them. This time they were to race in freestyle, and Ben was pitted against Mary in the first race of their lane, with Tim to race Paul second.
Mr Taylor gave them a few minutes to line up at the edge.
Ben’s teeth chattered hard as he moved towards the start beside Mary. He glanced at Tim behind him at the lane edge, who nodded and gave a sympathetic smile. In the bleachers Mr Evren sat watching.
Ben stood in position, ready to dive in. He stared down at the shallow water and the strange mosaics decorating its bottom. Swirling shapes and intricate patterns. Nothing he recognised. His eyes followed them away into the distance; to the dark waters he was about to swim straight into.
The whistle blew.
Ben burst away, nervous energy coursing through him. He was already a full body length ahead of Mary. He could hear the shouts from the side, and the splashes of swimmers in the other lanes as he took his first breath. He knew he was way ahead of them, but didn’t care. His adversary was the pool itself.
As he surged ahead, he watched the slope of bright mosaics fade away beneath him, until he could see nothing but shadow. He looked ahead for the end of the pool, but couldn’t make anything out. To his left, he could still see a section of the lane marker. He just had to stay close to it.
He swam hard. All he could hear now was his own heart, beating so powerfully in his ears he thought it might just burst. But there was also an energy unlike anything he’d ever felt pumping through his arms and legs and powering him on.
He knew he must be approaching the turn.
Suddenly though, he began to feel something. A surge of panic hit him as he felt the swirling drag of the water below him.
He took another stroke, and pulled his head out for a breath. Where was the lane marker? The water was swelling around him like waves. His head turned back down, but all around him was dark.
He swam still harder, but he could feel the water building in strength, determined to catch him and suck him down into the blackness. It almost had him in its grasp.
He fought on, but could feel the energy in him beginning to wane. In desperation he considered stopping to call for help, but knew the water would gain an even stronger hold around him if he did.
He realised he was going to go underwater.
The pool pulled him down relentlessly, and as his strokes slowed, his arms and legs no longer broke the surface.
His heart beat in his ears as he stopped swimming, and turned to watch the fading light of the pool surface above him. He caught sight of Mary and a few of the swimmers from lanes near theirs. Soon they would come down too, he thought, and then Mr Taylor would realise and pull everyone out somehow. He just had to hold on. He held his breath, and tried to save his energy and stay calm, but knew he only had a minute at most.
The other swimmers passed overhead, and the surface quickly darkened.
He didn’t understand. Was it just a drain problem under his lane? That was impossible. A pull this strong would definitely catch other swimmers in the lanes beside his. And why had it not affected Mary for that matter? His mind raced as fast as his heart as he tried to think. Maybe if he waited till he reached the bottom he might be able to get out through a pipe? The air was running out though, and his confusion was not helping.
Still further down he went. The water was thick and heavy around him, and he could barely see his hands. His ears popped.
He curled into a ball and imagined the things that might be waiting for him down there.
The water swirled and he spun in all directions.
Ben knew he was running out of breath. Hopefully his parents wouldn’t cry too much, he thought. He wanted them to be happy in their new, old house. An overwhelming sadness mixed with anger inside him, and he sobbed into his goggles.
But then, all of a sudden, there were flickers of light.
Light above him.
The water seemed to have relaxed its icy grip, if only for a moment, and he thought he might actually be floating upwards now.
He pulled away towards the light, swimming desperately upwards. It was close now; he just needed to reach it to see his family again. He didn’t understand, but nothing else mattered.
He was reaching the very limit of his breath when at last he broke the surface, and gasped a deep, desperate mouthful of cold air.
He opened his eyes, but his goggles had steamed up. He felt a cold droplet land on his forehead. Then another.
He lifted his goggles and looked around for the rest of the swimming class.
But the other students were nowhere to be seen, and Ben was not in the swimming pool anymore.
Ben took a few more deep breaths, wondering if he was in shock.
A thick mist surrounded him on the water. Above, the sky was an angry grey, and there were flashes of lightning and loud thundercracks as the rain fell.
Had the roof of the gymnasium just blown off in some kind of a freak storm?
The water swelled, lifting Ben just high enough to see above the mists. He thought he saw a light, and perhaps a shore in the distance.
How on earth had he got here? The water had pulled him down; he remembered that much, and then had suddenly released him and he’d swum back up to the surface. But this was definitely not the same surface where he’d been swimming laps in Mr Taylor’s class a few minutes ago. Was this a dream? Had he drowned?
Before he had long to contemplate his predicament, he heard a shout nearby. He twisted in the direction it had come from, and listened above the thunder. It came again. It sounded angry, and Ben wondered whether Mr Taylor had somehow followed him and he was now in serious trouble.
The shout came again, this time with other cries beside it.
Ben waited patiently for another wave to crest on the rough waters, and looked for the source of the shouts.
There, two swimming pool lengths away, was a boat. It was wooden, he could tell that much, and appeared to be simply but solidly crafted. It carried around twenty men, all clad in what looked like old-fashioned leather and metal armour. They rowed hard right towards him, shouting angrily as they came.
Ben wondered if he had found his way into a re-enactment of a historic sea battle. He raised his hands tentatively, and waved at the boat. Thoughts of all the trouble he would be in danced in his mind, but he was getting colder by the minute, and just wanted to get out of the water and go home. An image of Paddy shivering in sympathy flashed into his head.
“Help!” he cried.
The boat kept coming, and the shouts became louder, angrier.
Were they going to run him over? Ben swam off to one side of the boat. “Hey! Hey! Help me!” He waved frantically as the boat neared.
At last, one of the oarsmen at the front of the vessel turned towards him, and slowed his row strokes. “Woah!” he shouted above the storm.
The other oarsmen slowly stopped, and the man stood up. He wore a large and crudely made metal helmet, which covered his face down to his nose, and which had a single spike on the head plate that seemed to have been positioned more by chance than craftsmanship. Long dark hair trailed out from underneath the helmet, and a beard glistened in the rain. He stared at Ben.
“I’m not part of this re-enactment. Please can you help me get to the shore?” Ben shouted.
The man stared. He looked to his side at another man almost as big, and then back to Ben. “What kind of fish are you then, lad?”
The other men laughed loudly.
“If you ain’t a fish, you’re braver than most to swim on the lake, and on a day like this.” The man waved up at the storm.
Ben expected the man very soon to realise he was not a part of the game, and to feel pretty stupid about leaving him in the cold water for so long.
“Answer me quickly then boy: are you a friend of King Elmer?”
Ben considered. That might be a password of some kind for the game. He decided to try playing along in the hope of speeding things up. “Yes. I am a friend of King Elmer.”
The man watched him carefully. He didn’t seem to be convinced, and Ben was tiring. He had almost drowned after all, and was now treading water in a freezing lake, in the middle of a storm.
“Look please I just need to get out of the water and get home. I don’t know how I got here, but there’s been a mistake of some kind and I need to get home. My parents and school teachers will be worrying about me.”
This seemed to stir the men up. But as they began to discuss, a great shout went up from the bank where Ben had seen the light a moment ago. He heard the clash of metal on metal, and people screaming.
There must be another part of the re-enactment on the shore, Ben thought.
The men hurriedly began to set their oars.
Ben shouted again. “Oh come on please, I need to get out here!”
The man looked around at his fellow actors. Then he lunged over the side towards Ben, and in a swift motion, grabbed him under his armpits and dragged him over the side and into the boat, throwing him onto the boards between the two rowers’ benches.
Ben felt a bit ridiculous lying there in his Hulstead College swimming shorts, with his goggles around his neck, so he quickly tried to sit up and look like he was in control, but banged his head on an oar handle.
The men all stared at him, but quickly turned their attention back to the lake bank. They began to row hard.
Ben looked around for something to keep warm or dry off. As soon as they arrived at the shore he would find someone with some sense to help him. Then he’d get a hot chocolate, and have a hot bath back at home as soon as he could, and work out an explanation for all this madness.
Under one of the benches he noticed a blanket of some kind, and reached for it. He dried himself as best he could, hugging his chest and rubbing his arms to warm up. Then he realised the blanket was in fact a sort of long woolly shirt. He quickly put it on and continued rubbing.
The men continued to ignore Ben as they rowed through the choppy water, shouting angrily towards the bank. Other shouts met theirs. He wondered what would happen when they landed. The battle re-enactment would get into full swing, he supposed, and he would have to try to avoid being pretend-hit by anyone silly enough to think he was involved.
A moment later Ben heard a loud whooshing sound from the direction of the shore. An oarsman at the front of the boat screamed out, “arrows, take cover!” and stopped rowing. He clutched his right forearm, and Ben saw what looked very much like a wooden arrow sticking out of it.
This was very realistic, Ben thought. The man continued to scream loudly. He was a very good actor.
The other oarsmen began shouting at each other wildly as they rowed, and scrambling to raise shields over the sides of the boat as more arrows whistled past overhead. The man who had pulled Ben into the boat, who Ben thought must be the leader yelled some commands.
“Get the shields up men, that’s it. Ivor pull up your oar quickly, you can’t row no longer. Help draw up shields for the others now!”
Ivor pulled his oar out of the water with the help of the man behind him, and lowered it beside Ben. He edged sideways out of his bench, still holding the arrow tightly, and slumped down on the deck just in front of Ben. Ben looked keenly at his arm, and saw thick streams of blood dripping down his leather wrist guard and hand.
He felt very sick.
This was not a re-enactment. Something very bad was happening, and he didn’t understand any of it. He just wanted that hot chocolate and to warm up and go home.
The storm raged violently above him, and the men screamed ever louder as they drew closer to the bank.
Ben could see people fighting on the land now, with swords, spears and shields. People lay motionless on the ground in awkward positions. He began to shiver violently again, and ached all over.
Some of the men drew their swords, letting the boat cruise in. They were only a few metres from the clashes of the battle. On the bank other men, their faces covered in hooded capes, stood waiting for them, swords drawn.
Ben knew in a moment he would either have to hide in the boat, or jump ashore and fight. He could try to swim away in the lake, but they were too close to shore now and he might easily be struck by an arrow.
He looked around. There was nothing for him to fight with. Suddenly he felt something on his head. A helmet. He turned, and an oarsman nodded at him. Another to his left lifted a small sword from his belt, and passed it to him. It felt heavy, but at least it was sure to be lighter than the long sword the man lifted in his other hand. Ben gripped it tightly. Finally Ivor thrust a small shield at him wordlessly, and helped set it on his left wrist. He was armed.
That was it then. He was going to fight.
But he had never been in a fight in his life. Not unless you counted a bit of pushing and shoving on the football pitch over a tough tackle. And now he was going into a battle with swords. He felt very ill, but suddenly stronger. He didn’t want to die, not here, not anywhere right now if he could help it. He wanted to get home to see his parents again, and Toby and Paddy. He didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on, but he was sure of that, and that was enough for him to fight.
The boat shuddered aground, and Ben and his comrades sheltered behind their shields from the latest barrage of arrows. The thunder crackled, and lightning illuminated the darkened sky. Their leader yelled and they all leapt from the boat, and trampled ashore into the fray.
Ben kept his head down, and his shield and sword up, as he trailed behind the other men as best he could and tried to make sense of the scene beside the lake.
To his left, further along the lake bank, Ben saw fighting near a cluster of tent-like buildings beside the shore. The fires there must have been the lights he had seen from the water. To his right not far away a thick forest rolled down a hillside and met the lake. In front of him, in a clearing of the forest, they clashed with the hooded men.
Their enemies fought using long bows, which they had now swung onto their backs or cast aside, and long, thin swords much like those Ben had seen used in the sport of fencing. They were light-footed and graceful, and were proving difficult for the heavier boatmen to pin down and overpower.
The boatmen ahead of Ben peeled off to the left to engage with a group of the attackers trying to break towards the camp, and suddenly Ben was standing alone. He looked around, not knowing what to do next.
Suddenly a loud shout came from towards the forest. It was their leader. He had been hurt, and his attackers had already dispatched two of the other boatmen, and now outnumbered their leader three to one.
He had to do something quickly.
He ran towards them, trying to decide whether he should shout something.
“Die!” he screamed as loud as he could, as he launched toward the nearest attacker.
The man reeled back. For a moment he simply looked Ben up and down. He was obviously bemused.
Ben decided to push his advantage, and screamed again, lifting his sword and shield.
This time the man countered, pushing Ben aside skilfully and slicing at his left arm.
Ben felt a sharp pain in the arm, but tried to hide it. He felt a trickle of blood on sleeve, and knew it would be difficult for him to hold up his shield with the injury. He fixed his gaze at his enemy, trying to keep his concentration.
The sky thundered above them.
Ben edged to one side, but the man mirrored his moves. Ben could not see his face beneath the hood, but he knew the attacker was watching for an opening.
The hooded man launched at Ben again with his long blade, and it was all Ben could do to parry it with his weakened shield arm, and stumble back. He rebalanced again and tried to focus quickly.
Ben’s mind raced. This is a sport, he thought. Like football, tennis, and the other sports he was pretty good at. That’s all this is. Just with some serious consequences for second place. Balance, coordination, speed, fitness. He had all of those things.
He sharpened his senses, taking a breath. The storm seemed to subside for a moment.
The man came at Ben again, but this time Ben adjusted. Just as he had done so many times before playing football with his friends, he dummied to his right, and then spun back to his left and around, out of the man’s attack. The attacker was left exposed as he lunged forward to Ben’s right side, and Ben brought his sword around and down onto the man’s back, slicing through the hooded cape and into the man’s flesh.
The man screamed and fell, dropping his sword.
This was very strange, Ben thought, to see another person at his feet like this, beaten, bloodied, maybe even fatally injured. He felt a pang of worry. What had he just done? What would his parents think of him?
The man stumbled to his feet, and ran towards the forest, shouting something Ben couldn’t understand.
Ben looked back towards their leader. He was still outnumbered two to one. His movements were tired and awkward, and soon the attackers would overcome him.
He took a breath, and ran back towards the fight, screaming again.
One of the hooded men glanced at the screaming boy in Hulstead College swimming shorts coming to attack him, and then looked towards the wounded attacker running towards the woods. He shouted something to his friend, and the two men darted off back to the forest.
Ben looked around. The other attackers had fallen, or were retreating back to the trees. He drew a deep breath of relief. He seemed to have just survived his first, and hopefully last battle. He examined his bloodied left arm carefully. It hurt, and would probably need some stitches, but he would survive.
“I’m Liam,” the leader of the boatmen said, removing his helmet as he approached. There was a scar across his forehead, reaching almost to his left eye.
Ben noticed he had sustained a serious wound to his left shoulder, and seemed to be limping slightly.
“Thank you greatly for your help, friend of King Elmer, and now a friend of the ploughmen and herdsmen of Peregrine too.” He patted Ben on the left arm softly where he had been injured, and smiled, catching his breath.
The other men slowly rallied around them, removing their helmets. They stared at Ben, and he became anxious.
He wondered whether to tell them everything that had happened to him. He was obviously way out of his depth. But it would probably be safer to find out where he was and who these people were first, before revealing too much. Besides, his swimming pool incident was probably not worth troubling them with yet, considering they had just been in a battle and were busy tending to their wounded and putting out fires.
“So young warrior, what do we call you?” Liam asked.
“I’m Ben. Ben Silverstone,” Ben answered.
Ivor appeared beside Liam. “Benbensilverstone is a hefty chew of a name lad!” He laughed. “With a name like that you belong in the court of The King gossiping, not here with us lowly clodhoppers!”
The men roared their approval, and then looked expectantly back to Ben for a reply.
“Call me Ben then.”
“No no. You’re no Ben,” one of the other men chimed in. “You don’t look nearly as wisecrinkled as ol’ Ben did last time I saw him just a few months back over at the Penny Orchard market. So unless one of those nasty mages has cast some spell of forgetting on you, you just can’t be Ben.”
“You’re right there Frummer. That’s surely no Ben,” another joined in.
Ben didn’t know quite what to say. It seemed the name Ben was taken, and so he would just have to choose another one. He decided just to play along rather than persist with the strange discussion. “Well what about Silverstone then? Has anyone taken that one?” He looked around at the group.
“No one I know by that name,” Liam answered. “Silverstone it is then.” He turned to gather up his things, and the men began to move in the direction of the camp along the shore.
Ben sighed in relief.
“Come on young Silverstone.” Ivor walked beside him. “We’ll find you some food and plenty of good warming vol to drink and soften those injuries! And fetch you some trousers and shoes to wear as well!”
“Excellent. Thank you.” Ben hoped that vol was the same as hot chocolate.
“So my strange friend, how did you come to be in the lake? And what people do you belong to?”
“Wait till the old man Alder speaks with him first, Ivor!” Liam shouted, “Before you drown him worse than Lake Kaidesh with your inquiries!”
“Very well,” Ivor said with a chuckle. “I’m sure Alder will like you, Silverstone.”
The camp had been relatively undamaged in the attack. As they approached, Ben saw a collection of rugged looking tents forming a haphazard circle around a large, partly covered shelter. Underneath it a large fire burned, and there stood a few stools built from chopped tree trunks. At the far side of the camp Ben spotted a row of fences, and thought he saw a few animals milling around, seemingly un-alarmed by the recent fighting.
As the fighters approached the camp, women, children and older men came and greeted them. Some seemed to be injured. They must have defended the settlement when it had been attacked while the warriors were away.
Everyone stared intently at the newcomer.
As they walked through toward the centre of the camp, Ivor told Ben more of their tribe. Ben tried to listen, but found all the attention rather offputting.
“Welcome to our present home then, Silverstone. We are peaceful farmers, loyal to King Elmer of Norchand up in the north, and look to his laws. But we abandoned his lands long ago, during the time of his great grandfather, in search of better pastures and to escape the nasty plague that swept across the realm then, and struck hardest at those in the cities.
“Since then we have been wandering, seeking a new home.
“’Course in recent times the pastures just about everywhere have worsened and that’s the likely reason for the attacking by these roaming packs of bandits.” He waved back toward the forest. “I’ve got no doubt they were forced towards the pastures just here for the same reason as we.
“More and more attacks we face these days – that’s why we’ve taken to arming ourselves with weaponry bartered from Beniford – and more cunning the attacks as well. The decoy over the far side of the lake this time, drawing us over there but all the while they waited like sneaking squirlers in the forest.
“It seems the lands themselves are hostile to their peoples, forcing us against one another. ‘Course some say it is a great spell by a powerful mage to show off his power and perhaps unbalance the odds in his favour. Then again perhaps it’s a kind of message from our lands, rejecting those damned… outsiders.”
Ben listened quietly. He didn’t know what to make of it all, but the mention of outsiders was of particular interest. He remembered the other children thought drowned in the Hulstead College swimming pool. Perhaps they had somehow ended up here as ‘outsiders’ as well. And if so, maybe they could help him find a way home.
He thought of his parents. Tim would have sounded the alarm already, and he imagined the hell breaking loose at the school as Mr Taylor and the others tried desperately to find him. Maybe they’d send rescue divers down after him, or try to drain the pool. His mother would be worried sick. He wanted desperately to let his family know he was safe. He would definitely leave out some of the details about the blood, swords and battle he had just survived though, or he might never be let out of their sight again.
By the time Ben reached the central sheltered area, fifty or more people had assembled. They stared at Ben and muttered quietly to each other. He tried to judge the mood, but suspected they were whispering distrust of the latest outsider. For the most part though, he was concerned he might be told to explain himself at a great assembly and judgement of the people, and would be shouted at. His chest began to ache.
At the rear of the great shelter, Ben noted a tent that had been mostly hidden by the large assembly area, and which was slightly smaller than the others around the camp. There was a small flag atop it, showing a yellow plough and sickle on a green background.
Ivor ushered Ben towards the little tent. “Let’s see what Alder makes of you then, young Silverstone! In you go!”
The crowd massed behind them, and began to take up seats in the shelter. The whole camp had come to see just what this Alder made of Ben, and that made Ben exceedingly nervous.
Ben walked cautiously towards the tent and looked for the way in. He felt at the fabric, noticing how smooth and oily it felt. There was no door though. What was he supposed to do?
There was a chuckle behind him. “Around the other side my friend!” Ivor grinned.
Ben tracked around, and finally found a break in the oily cloth wall. He carefully pulled it aside and immediately caught the aroma of stewing meat. He was starving, he realised, as he stepped inside.
For a moment, Ben crouched still. He let his eyes adjust and took in his surroundings.
The floor of the tent was covered with a similar fabric to the walls, but was coloured almost black so that it looked as if the vibrant rugs and cushions adorning it floated like oddly shaped planets in the night sky. In the centre of the space, on a lopsided little table, a metal lamp threw out some light. Alongside the table a bed of red-hot coals stood in a metal basket, and over it a rusted tin saucepan hung, from which the stewy smells wafted. Ben stared at the bubbling pan, his mouth watering.
“Are you hungry?” A voice came from the shadows beyond the stew, and Ben looked up to find it.
On the far side of the little tent, sitting on a cushion, sat an old man. He looked at Ben calmly from the shadow. He wore a loosely fitting garment similar to the shirt Ben had taken from the boat, over trousers of the same material. A leathery book was in his hand, and he put it to one side. His hair was white and short.
“You should know that my stew is the very best in the village. Even better than Yelena, and she has quite a following!” He chuckled. “Of course, some say her stew contains only the rats she finds around the camp. I myself once found a rat tail in one of her servings last Harvest Fair, and since that day I have always avoided it, though there are those who find it tasty, rat or not.
“Do you think they simply are unaware that Yelena’s stew contains rats, and would never eat it if they knew the awful truth, or that they are secretly well aware of the rats and enjoy them, but would always guiltily deny that is their preference, or perhaps even that they simply like the rats, and do not mind who knows that is their taste?”
Ben smiled. “Well if it was me, I would definitely not eat it knowing it contained rats. But if someone actually really likes rat stew, then I suppose that’s ok. At least it takes care of any rats about the camp!”
The man laughed loudly. He was larger than Ben had first realised, and the loose shirt did not conceal the roll of his big belly as he laughed. He reminded Ben of a happy Buddha statue.
“Come then my young friend, have some of my stew, which I assure you contains no rats whatsoever.”
He pulled a bowl from beside the coals, and spooned several large servings into it. He held out his hand, and Ben took the stew, and sat down on the floor near him.
Ben waited for a moment, unsure whether it was customary or polite to say something before eating in this camp, but when his host motioned to Ben’s bowl, he dived in.
Almost drowning, and sword fighting created an appetite, and the stew was warming and delicious after the cold. He would have to ask his mother to make some for the wintry days when he got back home.
When he had finished, Ben looked up and found the man studying him keenly. He had obviously already eaten. “So my hungry friend. What is your name?”
“Silverstone,” Ben answered quickly, eyeing the tin saucepan for the chance of seconds.
“Hmm. That is a well-chosen name. My name is Alder.” He smiled.
“Liam, who is our captain and defender, has told me of your great courage during the attack on our camp. He also says you were found swimming in the lake.”
He studied Ben for a few moments more before going on. “I am considered the sage of our people. They look to me for guidance and knowledge in most things with which they are unfamiliar. Of late that is more regular I must say.”
He paused again, and looked directly at Ben, who shifted uncomfortably. “You, young Silverstone, are unfamiliar to us. And so today I must judge whether you are true friend or foe; whether you are to be welcomed and aided or…” His smile had disappeared.
Ben gulped. This was a trial and judgement. He wasn’t sure what to say. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s start with your origins. What people do you belong to?”
“Erm. Well I am from Hulstead, in London. So I suppose I belong to those peoples.”
“Hulstead is not a land I am familiar with, and I am familiar with all the lands from here to Chasisi at the foot of the Amyntas. Most lands in all the Western Realms even.” Alder’s face darkened further. “And I do not believe you are from beyond the Amyntas Mountains, are you?”
Ben considered how to respond. It didn’t sound like being from beyond the Amyntas Mountains was a very good thing, and if he wasn’t careful he was going to find himself in even more trouble than he was already in.
“Look,” he started, “I’ll be completely honest with you, but I need to know I can trust you to” – he looked Alder in the eyes – “to not hurt me.”
Alder’s eyes softened a little. “The laws of Norchand state that a man who fights alongside us in battle is to be given all the rights of a citizen. I see no crime to judge you guilty of under the laws of Norchand as yet Silverstone, so unless you are about to tell me you are a murderer seeking refuge from good King Elmer’s judgement, I see no reason you will be harmed in our camp.”
Ben wasn’t sure about this.
Alder continued. “Besides, you have shared my stew, and so I give you my word, no harm will come to you from anything you speak here now, if it be the truth.”
Ben smiled weakly. There wasn’t much of a choice.
“Ok, so I am just a schoolkid…” he began.
“I’m sorry?” Alder frowned.
“A student, at a school, where children learn”
“Ah, like a city academy, go on.”
“Well my academy is in the land of Hulstead. Hulstead is not beyond any mountains. Well maybe it is, I don’t really know where it is from here. But I am beginning to think it is a very long way somewhere else. I’m not sure how I got here from there exactly, but I do remember swimming in a pool at the academy, and there was something very odd about this particular pool, and during a lesson it sort of sucked me down under the water and then spat me out again here. On that lake.” He pointed in the direction of the lake.
Alder listened intently.
Ben went on. “When I came out on top of the water again, I found myself right in front of Liam and his row boat.
“I really have to get home. My parents will be having a heart attack!”
“They’ll be very, very worried,” Ben quickly clarified.
“I see.” Alder rubbed his chin quietly for a moment, and Ben began to worry he was about to be sent out to the mob to be hung.
“Please. I’m just an academy student, and I just want to get home,” Ben pleaded, almost in tears. “Can you help me?”
Alder squinted at Ben. He looked him up and down, and then side to side, examining him like a piece of meat for his stew. “I think you are a friend, Silverstone. At least for now.”
Ben kept quiet.
“And I believe your story.
“Let me tell you something of these lands you have found yourself in.” He adjusted his seat, as if about to recount a long tale.
Ben waited patiently.
When Alder was comfortable, he began. “We are a wandering farmspeople, called the Peregrine after our first leader. Long ago we landtended happily in the lands of King Elmer, a few weeks’ journey to the north from here. But after the great plague we journeyed from there in search of fresh lands.
“Elmer rules from the beautiful city of Norchand. He is a good king. He does not curry favour with the mages like the rulers of Chasisi, Murdimore and the other cities; he seeks only what is right for his people, and rules them fairly. Once in a while his taxmen come to us, but they ask for a fair tribute, and in return we have refuge behind his city walls if we should need it.” He stopped to stir the stew.
“But the mages are becoming more and more powerful, and a great war between them will soon come, spilling over into the lands and forcing all people to choose their sides. The storms come more and more now, and the lands become more barren as they cast their spells and experiment. It is an omen of the doom to come I think.” He looked at the ground.
“The mages are outsiders; magicians; devil charmers. They came into this land from another, through great gateways between their worlds and ours. I do not know why they come. I do not know whether they come from the lands beyond the Amyntas, or from somewhere else. I do not know how many there are, trespassing unseen in our lands. But there are five who have risen to power above all the others. These five exist outside our laws, outside our societies. They do as they please because they have the power to crush armies with a single spell.” His face was fixed in deep creases.
“It is only the balance of power between the five that prevents one from dominance, as none will allow another to assert his power over the lands. But all the while they secretly study, building up their might until one can overcome the others and rule this world completely.” He had become more animated as he spoke, and slightly breathless now.
“But all of them once came to us, as you have just done, Silverstone, through a gateway. All are foreign in our lands, as you are.” He looked hard at Ben. “I do not know how they learned their spells, if they did not bring them. Perhaps each was taught by another. But I expect in time, that you will find that outsider magic also. And when that time comes, you may become a friend no longer.”
“I am not a mage,” Ben protested. “There’s no such thing as magic anyway. And I told you; I just want to get home to my family. As soon as I find another one of those gateways that is open I will go back through it and you’ll never see me again.
“Not that I didn’t really enjoy the stew. It was delicious.”
“Hmph,” Alder chortled. “The gateways are a greater mystery than even the magicians who came through them. Unless you have a spell to open them, I don’t know how they are used. It seems there is one within the lake, but I would not swim around in it trying to find it if I were you. There are strange creatures within the water there, and people tell of old ruins and ghosts beneath the surface. No, I think you are stuck with us for now, my young friend.”
Ben became angry. “I am not stuck here. I can’t just forget everything back home!”
“I understand. But I cannot help you. I am just a farmer. Wisest, some say, of the Peregrine people, but wise enough to know that we are not such a greatly wise people. There are many in the realm that are a great deal wiser than I.
“But do not lose hope. The good King Elmer has great knowledge, and would no doubt help you. I have heard tales of some folk disappearing from our lands also, perhaps to journey to others. And perhaps some of the mages themselves have come and returned to your world. Who is to say what is possible with their spells after all. Perhaps one can open the gateway in the lake for you even.”
“Yes, yes that’s it. I need to find the mages, and ask for their help getting home.”
Alder paused, rubbing his chin again. Ben began to eye the stew.
At last he spoke. “I will help you of course, if that is your choice. We cannot stand in the way of the great tide.
“But I advise you to first seek the counsel of King Elmer, before revealing yourself to a mage. The magicians always search for superiority over one another and I fear whichever you reach first may try to use you for his own ends.”
“I will be careful then. But I have to go. I must find a way home to my family and if that is my best chance, then I’ll take it.” Ben felt suddenly strong again, as he had before in the midst of the battle.
Alder rose, and gripped Ben’s shoulder. “Very well young warrior Silverstone, your path is set, and I will send you on your way with ample provisions from the grateful Peregrine. But first and foremost you must rest with us here a few days, and allow your injury to heal.” He pointed to Ben’s arm. “Besides, the people will want to greet you as a new friend is always greeted; with good Peregrine stew and vol, and plenty of dancing with the young girls if you are lucky!” He laughed heartily.
Ben stood up eagerly at the mention of more food and drink, and followed Alder as he walked out of the little tent. They moved back around to the central shelter, and Ben’s stomach jumped again at the sight of so many people massed in front of him.
The crowd fell silent as they approached. The tension was as thick in the air as the smell of stew cooking.
Sensing Ben’s hesitation, Alder slowed and walked beside him.
They entered the shelter and stood beside the central fire. The skies had darkened as night fell, and the light of the flames illuminated them for the crowd like a golden spotlight.
Ben didn’t know where to look.
“Welcome croppers of Peregrine!” Alder began. “Beside me stands our newest friend; Silverstone!”
A cheer went up from the warriors, loudest of all from Ivor.
“He is a citizen of Norchand; a travelling wanderer seeking knowledge.”
Ben decided not to protest the lie.
“He has fought bravely today alongside our warriors in the defence of our home, and must be given our warmest welcome. He will stay with us for just a few weeks while his war wounds heal.”
Ben blushed. He didn’t feel very brave. After all, all he’d wanted to do was escape. And what was this about staying for a few weeks?
Alder smiled widely at him. “He will put down with Appleby, helping tend the farms and learning our simple ways.” With that pronouncement, he took a short bow, and moved to one side, leaving Ben standing alone in the spotlight.
Ben flushed brightly, and looked back to Alder for help.
“Say something,” Alder said cheerfully. “They don’t bite.”
Ben frantically racked his brain. What could he say to this group of strangers amassed in his honour, no doubt expecting him to deliver something funny yet bold and inspiring. He felt like Tim Wisecroft during the English lesson when Mrs Greenleaf had asked him a question. He glanced around at the faces of the crowd. He certainly didn’t feel brave now.
The crowd stared at him curiously. A young boy near the front of the group shouted out, “do you have trousers?”
The crowd roared with laughter. Ben stood paralysed, wondering whether he could run away.
“Quiet!” Liam suddenly stood and joined Ben. The crowd quickly silenced.
“This lad swam through that cursed lake, and saved my life today, through his bravery in battle. So I for one will welcome him with the respect he deserves.” He slapped Ben on the back.
The crowd bustled into life, and a group of the men came up to welcome Ben. One of them handed him some trousers, which he gratefully received and put on. Ivor hustled him back to the seats as music began to play. He handed Ben a heavy mug of something that smelt like the alcohol Ben’s parents had drunk the night they’d finally bought the house, but was a horrid purple colour.
Ben tested it timidly. It felt as if he had swallowed one of the red-hot coals from the great fire, and that it was slowly winding its way down his throat into his belly, setting everything alight as it went. He coughed hard, which seemed to only encourage Ivor, who whacked him on the back encouragingly.
“I don’t drink alcohol,” Ben stuttered, at least happy to have finally warmed up.
“You must drink vol Silverstone! We’ve brewed this here batch from the plants at the edge of the lake and I think it contains the strange secrets of the weird water in it! It is delicious, ain’t it? And besides it will help you sleep well and ease your bruises!”
Ben tried to avoid the purple vol as best he could that evening, carefully dribbling it from his mug onto the ground beside him when nobody was watching. He listened to the tales the fighters told of their travels with the camp from place to place, of their skirmishes with bandits and other strange peoples, and of their simple lives tending the farms with their families.
One by one the men moved away to their families, slumped off to their tents, or simply closed their eyes and snored where they sat, so that Ben marvelled at how they balanced on their tree trunk stools. Ivor energetically entertained the rest with his stories, which Ben suspected had drifted from recollections to fantasy as the night wore on. He wondered just how much of Ivor’s latest tale about the tall-necks of the Edustus desert was fanciful. It didn’t matter. He enjoyed it anyway, and felt the calmest and warmest he had done since he had left for school that morning, a whole world away.
Suddenly Ben felt something touching lightly on his back, and he turned to find a young girl around his own age smiling at him. She was very beautiful, with long, dark curly hair, and bright, wide eyes. He began to feel uncomfortable.
“Hello. I’m Eva,” she said.
“Erm. Hi I’m B… I mean Silverstone.”
She giggled a little.
An older man appeared behind her, also smiling at Ben. “My name is Appleby. You are to be my guest for the time of your stay with us. It’s my honour to welcome you.”
Ben felt ashamed at imposing on this man he hardly knew, when all he’d done was try to survive a battle. Everyone was treating him like he’d won the battle of Waterloo. He stood and introduced himself.
Appleby explained that the family was now turning in, and Ben was very happy to follow him. He patted Ivor on the shoulder as he left, but the man was not distracted from the climax of his story. Ben felt sure he’d hear it another time.
The Appleby tent stood towards the outer edge of the circle, near the animal fences, and was one of the largest in the camp.
As they entered, Ben saw soft rugs scattered on the floor. To one end of the tent were colourful cushions and a coal basket very similar to the one in Alder’s tent. At the other edge was a row of thick woolly rugs that looked like a cross between a mattress and a sleeping bag. They were covered in patchwork blankets. Ben felt sleepy just looking at them. It had been a big day.
Eva’s aunt Lea was also in the tent, rocking her sleeping baby. She smiled at Ben and he nodded back to her.
Appleby silently waved a hand toward one of the sleeping mats at the far side of the row, and Ben understood it was to be his. Before he could jump in to it, Appleby insisted on tending to Ben’s wound. He extracted a pot of a kind of herbal ointment from a bag, and dabbed it gently on the bloody scar on Ben’s left arm. It stung, but Ben was too tired to protest.
Finally when Appleby had finished, Ben thanked his host again quietly, stumbled towards his bed, and fell into the blankets. His mind quickly turned to his parents, and to Toby, Paddy and their crumbling old house, and he missed them terribly. That morning he had shouted goodbye from the doorstep before he made his way to Hulstead College, and now here he was, going to sleep on a woolly mat in a farm camp, next to Lake Kaidesh. He silently whispered goodnight to his family, hoping somehow that his words would find the way back to them, far away in his own world. Then he fell asleep.
Ben spent the next few days in the company of Appleby, Eva, Liam, Ivor, Alder and others of the Peregrine farmers.
The people were good-humoured and the camp was often filled with laughter. They had suffered greatly during the plague, and in their travels with the tented village from one place to the next, but rather than break their spirits, it had made them hardy to most day-to-day problems. Even the latest bandit attack was treated with a good sprinkling of jest, and the warriors’ heroism exaggerated ever further at evening meals, which the camp ate together in the main shelter.
“If those marauders want to take my best blucumbers they’ll have to do better than a few bows and arrows and sneaking up at them through the forest. Why, I’ve more to fear from the snails and brownfly than them!” he’d heard one lady shout.
“My turnapples’d turn sour and poison the land for that foul behooded lot if they laid a hand on them anyways!” another chimed in.
On Appleby’s farm plot, Ben tried to assist as best he could. On the first day as their guest, Eva showed him around to get him familiarised so that he could help with her chores.
She began with the pomp-hens. “Pomp-hens lay us big, rounded eggs, like these beauties.” She held up a black-shelled sphere the size of a tennis ball from the laying tables inside the wooden hutch. “If we’re lucky, they each lay three a day, and that’s plenty for us and leftovers to barter with. But Pomp-hens need to be treated carefully,” she said, as she placed the egg carefully in a grass-cushioned tray and directed Ben outside to the day pen.
“Pomp-hens are very majestic and like to be treated with respect. You have to stick to the same time going into their hutch so as not to surprise or interrupt them, and if you’re looking at one and catch her eye you should bow and show her lots of humility, or she will get very grumpy and peck and scratch at you till you’ve learned your lesson. When you feed them it’s best to keep your eyes down and carefully spoon the feed into neat piles; they’re a very particular about that as well.”
Ben stared at the strange things. They were a lot like the chickens he knew, but bigger and prouder, and with bright, multicoloured feathers more like he’d expect to see on a parrot. One of the birds strutted towards him, and he noticed a bright yellow crest on its head, swept upwards and to one side like Jordan’s blond quiff. It looked boldly back at him, and he suddenly realised that Eva was bowing next to him. He hastily bent over, hoping he had been fast enough. After a minute the pomp-hen pivoted like a catwalk model and swaggered away confidently.
Next, Eva moved them along to the digboks enclosure. As Ben walked towards it he thought it might be empty, as he couldn’t see anything moving within the fence perimeter. All he noticed were some muddy mounds, and near them a few short posts, which had wide, flat metal bases.
“Digboks are very difficult animals to keep,” Eva began, “because they love to burrow. If we let them, they would dig their way to the great open plains west of Murdimore, and I bet the one or two we have lost are there right now, feasting on the green grasses.” She chuckled.
Ben looked more closely. At the top of each post there was a taut rope, leading straight down into a little hole in the ground. The mounds must be everything they had dug up already, he realised. “So you keep them from escaping with those heavy anchors in the field?”
“Yes, exactly. The land anchors hold them. But we keep them well fed so I think they’d miss us if they escaped anyway.” She picked up a bucket of yellow pellets from near the gate, and motioned to Ben to follow her inside.
They approached one of the holes, and Ben leaned over to see how deep it went. It dropped steeply for at least five metres and then ran off towards one of the other openings.
“I think the tunnels probably connect with each other down there in a big underground cave where they all sit, planning how to overthrow us and make their escape,” she said as she shook the feed bucket.
For a minute or so nothing happened. Then the rope on the anchor twitched.
Ben took a step back, slightly apprehensive about what creature might emerge.
The other ropes began to slacken, and Eva kept shaking.
After a few more rattles of the bucket, a short legged, pale haired creature the size of a lamb sprang out and looked around. It shook off the dirt to reveal a pair of large ears, baby horns, a hairy beard, and a snout covered in long whiskers. A tongue hung from its open mouth, and it looked very much like it was smiling.
Ben stepped back beside Eva as the other digboks appeared and wandered over. The animals rubbed up against them insistently until they were fed, and devoured the pellets hungrily.
As soon as they had finished the feed, the digboks turned their inquisitive snouts to Ben, wriggling their damp noses around his legs and hands. He worried they may have confused him for a food pellet.
“These ones aren’t so proud!” Ben laughed
“They seem to be quite interested in you actually!”
Finally, in the largest pen, Eva introduced Ben to the two hayhoppers, Mirri and Mordred. “The hayhoppers will eat anything that grows out of the ground, and have got quite an appetite, so we have to move their pen around regularly. We only transferred them from the north side of the camp a couple of days ago, and they have already eaten their way through all the grasses and plants here.” She motioned to the earth, and Ben could see it was very brown at the end nearest to where the animals stood.
One of the animals looked up from the grass it had been busily munching through, and began to slowly rear back on to its two rear legs. It had a long tail, Ben could see now, and its front legs were slightly smaller. Then it began to hop towards them. It wobbled around awkwardly like it was a bit too fat to be jumping, but managed to keep its balance until finally it had reached them. It lowered back onto all fours, and sniffed at Ben’s feet and hands.
“Mordred’s looking for a reed sugar lump!” Eva explained. “Here you go, why don’t you make friends.” She handed Ben a cluster of reed sugar.
Ben slowly extended his closed hand out towards Mordred, but the hayhopper had already covered it in a long tongue and soaked it in green saliva before he could open it. He yanked his hand free before the animal digested it too, and wiped it off on his shirt with a groan.
Eva laughed. “Don’t worry, they do that to me too!”
Ben was eager to help despite his lack of farming experience, even with animals in his own world.
On that first day he managed to let one of the Pomp-hens out of the day pen, and had to run after it, bowing enthusiastically. Later, he was bitten on his behind by Appleby’s favourite digbok. But Eva’s gentle laughter and reassurance helped him overcome his embarrassment, and he quickly picked up the basics.
Each day Ben would get up with Eva before dawn and help with her morning chores; collecting the pomp-hen eggs for breakfast, milking Mirri the hayhopper, and checking the fences around the animals for any suspected wildfox burrowing.
Soon they were racing through their tasks, and able to devote more time to what Appleby called ‘mischief’, which seemed to be anything except the chores. They gave the pomp-hens great warrior names, tasted the autumn wild berries Eva knew were safe, and would watch the sunrises from a hill to the west of the camp, hidden from Appleby’s watchful eye by a few bushes.
One day, as the sun rose over the great Lake Kaidesh, from where only a few days earlier Ben had appeared, he found himself confiding in Eva.
“You know, I didn’t come from King Elmer or Norchand, Eva. I don’t even know who King Elmer is for that matter.” He tried to gauge her reaction.
“I came from the lake. I came through the lake, through some kind of portal. From a different world to this one; to yours.” Ben tried to assess whether she would run away and call for help, and he would be thrown out of the camp. “Please don’t scream and run away.”
Eva’s expression eventually cracked into a smile, and Ben breathed again.
“Perhaps you are a reincarnated fish.” She made a fish faced pout at Ben, and pretended to swim towards him, a hand raised as a fin above her head.
Ben grinned. “Perhaps I am. Or maybe I am one of those ghostly creatures from the mysterious lake!”
They both laughed.
Ben knew he was safe. They rolled down the far side of the hill like younger children, and Ben thought of Toby and how much he would have enjoyed it.
Ben and Eva talked more each day. She was very curious about Ben and his world, and asked him a lot of questions.
“So, you normally have two names?” she asked, as they cleaned the pomp-hen hutch.
“Sometimes more. It depends on where exactly you are from in my world. At least one is chosen for you by your parents, like here, but the other one belongs to your family.”
“Then everyone must carry a lot of names. One is more than enough to tell people who you are. There are plenty of different names to choose from after all.”
“But what happens here if someone you don’t know happens to pick the same name as you?”
“That has never happened that I know of, except for with you of course. But I suppose one of you must change your name,” she answered simply.
“I’m not sure my world would have the patience for that. We choose the same names too often, and it would be confusing to change names all the time.”
Eva emptied a bucket of pomp-hen droppings into the wheelbarrow. “Your world is a very odd place. Your creatures are similar to ours, yet your knowledge must be very great for you to build these ‘cars’, ‘planes’ and other things. Your elders must be so wisecrinkled with the burden of all that, they must hardly be able to move!”
That sounded like what Frummer had said to him when he had told him his first name, Ben thought. “What do you mean by wisecrinkled Eva?”
“Well, wisecrinkled is when someone’s body changes as they learn things, but usually only after they are already fully grown. The more things they learn, and the exact things that they learn about, change how wisecrinkled they look. Alder is our wisest person, and he is very crinkled and grey haired, but I think his crinkles are from laughter and the joy of what he has learned mostly, and he still has most of his hair so I don’t believe he has learned of much to worry him in his life. My dad says Alder’s crinkles and hair have changed a bit this last summer though.”
Ben listened closely. “Doesn’t everyone just get older as they age? Everyone get’s wrinkles and grey hair don’t they?”
“No no. My father is aged older than Alder, but he is very much less grey and wisecrinkled, because he has not learned nearly as much, and he has learned mostly of tending animals and crops, and drinking vol by the fire, so has had much more laughter.” She stopped a moment. “He doesn’t know much of the wider realm, and what nasty things are out there that might one day threaten us all. I suppose Alder does.”
“How old is your father then, if he is aged more than Alder?”
“He is one hundred and thirty three years old. We celebrated his birthday a few months ago, with lots of vol as usual, and a stew of our best five pomp-hens for all the camp.”
Ben was stunned. “You’re telling me your father is one hundred and thirty three years old? And each year is twelve months, or fifty two weeks here?”
“Yes of course,” Eva said bluntly.
Ben hardly dared ask his next question. “So how many years old are you then Eva?”
Eva flushed lightly. “I will celebrate my own birthday in a few days. I will be thirteen years old.”
Ben sighed in relief, although he did wonder why there was such a long gap between Eva and her fathers’ age.
They finished cleaning the pomp-hen hutch, and climbed their usual hill to look at the glow of the lake and the water birds waking up.
“Perhaps it’s my company and learning about my strange world, but I’ve noticed you look a little crinkled today Eva,” Ben said with a slight grin.
Eva whacked him on his sore arm with one of her boots.
In spite of Ben’s frequent worries about returning to his own world, he began to enjoy his time with the Peregrine farmers. He wanted to find a way home to his family, Hulstead College and his real life, but the sunny autumn days he spent with Eva felt like a secretly stolen summer holiday away from the cold, damp and scary place he had come from. It would have been easy for him to stay there, forgetting his worries and never becoming wisecrinkled.
A few days later the camp celebrated Eva’s 13th birthday. There was more vol than Ben could ever have imagined, wheeled out in enormous wooden casks cut from tree trunks, and Appleby must have slaughtered half his digboks for the stew, which was cooked in an enormous, battered tin cauldron belonging to Alder.
Even the wilderness herdsmen who only brought their animals down from the high hillsides to the west and to the south of the lake for special occasions attended, and Appleby and Eva were honoured.
As the eating of the gigantic stew concluded, some of the group began singing songs and playing instruments, and many began to dance merrily, vol mugs in hand. Ben remained on the sidelines with some of the warriors, happy to watch quietly.
One of the men from the hillsides outside the camp came and sat beside Ben, bringing a large mug of vol for him. “So, Silverstone is what they call you?”
“Yes that’s right, pleased to meet you,” Ben answered uneasily. He wasn’t sure what it was about the man that was making his chest begin to ache. He was darkly skinned, but his eyes were bright grey. His clothes seemed a little richer than the other farmers.
“I am Geven.” The man gave a smirk that made Ben look away. “Alder says you are visiting from the lands of Elmer. What news does he send of the struggles of the mages? And please, remind me how the great fountain of Queen Lorelane looks, it has been years since I last saw it.”
Ben was almost certain Geven did not believe Alder’s story about where he’d come from. He considered his reply carefully. “Well, the mages struggle quietly in the shadows as they always do, until one has the upper hand. As for the fountain, I cannot find the words to describe it.” He smiled as best he could, unable to hold Geven’s gaze for more than an instant.
At that moment, the music paused, and Ben looked up to see a circle had formed, in the centre of which stood Liam, holding Eva’s hand. She grinned widely.
“As is custom at the 13th birthday of a young lady of the camp, a man of standing should perform the dance of Alin and Ria with her.” Liam said.
The crowd cheered their approval.
“I claim this dance, unless there is anyone who wishes to challenge me for it?”
The people glanced at one another, joking and laughing.
Ben blushed and stared at the ground.
“She is beautiful, isn’t she Silverstone,” Geven whispered. “The dance is a great honour. But I think she looks toward you my friend. Perhaps she would prefer your hand to Liam’s, if you would challenge him?”
Ben looked up. Eva must have turned away again. She seemed happy. He felt his chest again. A panic began to rise, as the moment seemed to hang in front of him. Something was calling him to stand up; to seize the dance with Eva.
But he was also terrified of what might happen next. He didn’t even know the dance of Alin and Ria, and would probably fall flat on his face, humiliating himself. He also had no idea what the challenge for it would consist of – for all he knew he might very well find himself in a duel to the death with Liam. Besides, he thought as he stole another look towards Eva, it looked like she was fine without him. No, he had made up his mind. He would stay where he was.
“Shame,” Geven muttered, seeing Ben had made up his mind. “They say the dance often leads to love.”
“I don’t want to dance, OK?” Ben said irritably, and a little louder than he had intended, so that some of the farmers nearby turned towards him. He blushed again and lowered his head. This was terrible.
The music began, and the crowd cheered as Liam spun Eva into the dance. The farmspeople laughed and clapped along, and some other couples joined Liam and Eva.
Ben looked down at his feet, feeling awful. For the first time since he had arrived through the pool, he felt lonely. His chest hurt, and he stood up and walked outside the shelter.
He wandered away from the party towards the lake shore. The moon hung low, creating a silver blaze on the mist covered waters. Someone was by the lake staring up at the sky, and as Ben approached, the man turned. It was Alder.
“Good evening Silverstone. I trust you are enjoying Eva’s party?”
“Not really, to be honest.”
Alder looked at him and smiled. “I’m sorry to hear that my friend. But do not worry. Look at the lake, glowing there under the light of the moon. Its waters are so still tonight. Maybe that is why the moon dares come so close and risk being swallowed.” He chuckled to himself
The lake was beautiful. But all Ben could think about was the dance, and the anger he felt.
“Who is Geven anyway? I don’t like him much.”
“Geven is just a hill herder. He travels far south down to the foothills of the Sanan ranges with his herd. But do not worry about Geven now. This view is more important.”
Ben ignored him. “I don’t belong here. I need to find a way home. I’m going to leave. Tomorrow”.
Alder did not look at him. “You have stayed with us longer than I could have hoped for, but every day I hoped you would stay a little more.” He stared at the moon for a while silently.
He turned to Ben. “But I understand. You are one of us, Silverstone, but you are also not one of us. The safest way is to seek the counsel of The King at Norchand. But if you truly wish to find a mage, then The Blue Lady, brother of the magician Evander, is where you should start. The way is easy to the northeast over the Drumald ridge, but watch always for bandits in these parts and especially in the wooded foothills. From the ridge, follow the path down to the Bitter Falls in the valley beyond, where she can be found each day.”
“Thank you Alder. For looking after me when I arrived, and welcoming me into your camp like a friend.” Ben managed to smile at the old man.
“You are a friend, Silverstone. Good luck. And please, do not trust any mages.” Alder’s eyes hardened for a moment, and then he broke into a smile again, and turned Ben back toward the shelter with him. They walked back into the party.
Ben hardly spoke to Eva that evening except to wish her a happy birthday with the rest of the line of well wishers. He held her hands in his as everyone else seemed to do, and looked hopefully for a glimmer of something he did not know in her soft eyes.
She smiled at him, but Ben thought it was the same smile as for everyone else.
He lingered beside Ivor, listening to the stories becoming wilder and wilder as he drank more vol, but thinking only of his home.
Finally Ivor fell asleep mid-story, and Ben slipped off from the remaining party. He patted Ivor gently on the back as he walked out, but the man was so drunk the tent could have fallen on his head at that moment and he wouldn’t have woken.
Ben found his way back to Appleby’s tent, and into his sleeping mat.
The next morning, Ben was up before dawn, and silently collected the few things he had been given by Alder, Appleby, and the others into a sling bag that Lea had made for him. He found his swimming goggles, which he thought might prove useful if he needed to swim back through a portal, and reminded him of home anyway. He also took a small supply of apples, bread, and smoked fish from Appleby’s store at the side of the tent.
Appleby was already awake and Ben could hear him outside, but Eva lay sleeping in her mat. Ben glanced at her for a moment, wondering if he should wake her. The ache in his chest began again as he thought through what he would say, and considered what her reaction might be and ruled out each possibility one by one in his head. Finally he snuck out of the tent.
Appleby turned, and stood waiting for Ben. “Eva will not be happy about this.” He smiled.
A part of Ben hoped that was true. Another piece hoped she forgot him quickly. He tried for a moment to imagine her reaction to the news of his departure.
Finally Ben returned the smile. “I need to get home. You have been very kind to me Appleby, and if you ever find yourself in…” He trailed off. “I can’t ever hope to repay you.”
Appleby shook his head. “There is no need whatsoever. You are a citizen of Norchand, and now a good friend of the Peregrine croppers besides!”
He sighed, propping himself on his spade for a moment of contemplation. “You know, there is all this talk nowadays of the future being a dark place what with all these mages about. But I always say the future comes and goes, and we’ll struggle through it together with friends somehow, just as we have the past. I doubt we simple farmers have taught you much to take back to learned King Elmer, Silverstone, but I hope we’ve taught you at least that friends can be found far from home.”
Ben smiled widely, and they embraced. Then he turned away, and walked quietly out of the camp to the northeast, towards the Drumald ridge.
END OF PART ONE
Thank you for taking the time to read this first part of the Silverstone story!
I hope you enjoyed it, and that you are as excited as I am about what comes next for Ben Silverstone in the strange land in which he has found himself, and to discover why he’s there and if he makes it back to Hulstead!
But right now, I need to ask for your help in two very important ways to complete Ben’s journey.
My hope is that this story will be one that resonates in different ways and at different levels with readers, and I want to hear from you. I’m publishing the story in stages in part so that I can take into account your feedback to shape the rest of Ben’s journey (see the Q&A below for more details). So please, help me help you get the most out of it!
You can do this by emailing me directly at
The Silverstone story is just getting started, and for it to gain an audience and grow it desperately needs reviews. Typically only 1% of readers actually leave feedback, and in many cases those with negative reactions are more likely to review than those with positive feelings, which can distort the overall rating level. The volume of reviews is critical in persuading readers to purchase a book, so your voice is extremely powerful!
So if you have a few minutes to leave a short, honest review, I would appreciate it greatly!
Thank you once again for reading!
More information about the story including artwork and clues about the next parts will be available on the website soon. www.silverstonestory.com
Q: Why are you publishing the Silverstone story in several parts, rather than in one go as a traditional novel?
A: The whole story will cover three whole novels, so was always going to be broken up in the same way as many fantasy stories are split traditionally, but we have gone a step further and broken the individual novels into separate parts, each published separately.
There are a few reasons for this but the basic one is that I wanted to try to build a connection with the readers. Firstly I wanted to try to build interest in the story with readers gradually, and in a way encourage them to reflect on individual parts, and what might happen next, before being given the ‘official’ version, and so help to fire their imaginations. Ben’s imagination is really a major ingredient in the story, and so I liked the way this method of publishing helped relate that back to the readers. If readers join the story after several parts have already been released they can catch up quickly of course, but at least for some it will hopefully help fuel their own interpretations.
Secondly I also really wanted to be able to listen to feedback from readers as the story was written, rather than after it was finished, and have the opportunity to actually take this into account. This stems from some of the major themes in the story and the desire to connect them back to the readers in a deeper, more meaningful way, which I felt this way of publishing allowed more than the traditional route.
There will be concerns from some readers that the parts may not come frequently enough and that may hinder their enjoyment and I understand that, so we will try to stick to a regular publishing timetable to help maintain the momentum and try to deal with that issue as best we can.
Q: What is the timetable to publish the next part of the Silverstone story?
A: The intention is to publish a part at least every three months. We know it is important to keep this regular to maintain the progress of the story, because while we want to build suspense, we don’t want to cut off enjoyment by taking too long between each part. The date for publication will be announced right at the end of the previous part of the story, and we will stick to it as best we can!
Once the first complete novel (SILVERSTONE) is published, the second novel in the series will begin after a short break. The idea at the moment is for each individual book to comprise three or four parts and to bring Ben’s full story to a conclusion over three full books.
Silverstone Part Two: A Mage Revealed is available now!
For more information about the Silverstone series, visit www.silverstonestory.com very soon.
Ben Silverstone has just moved away from everything he knows to a new home, and is about to start secondary school at the crumbly old Hulstead College nearby. He's worried, but anxious to make new friends and do his best to settle in. As his classes begin though, Ben begins to suspect the ancient school and in particular its impossibly deep swimming pool hold secrets, and before long he is swept away to a land of fierce battles, weird creatures and powerful magicians, where he feels even more helpless. Ben must learn quickly if he is to survive and find a way home. The Silverstone series tells Ben's story, and will be published in parts, each the length of a short story. Silverstone Part One: Through Dark Waters is the first part of the series.