The Man of the House
S. I. Anderson
Copyright © 2017 Stewart Anderson
All rights reserved
To my little boy, who sits on my lap, listens to my stories, and asks for more…
1)The Man of the House
The Man of the House
Ajir sat on the floor on top of a bamboo-netted mat, rubbing his eyes, trying to rid them of sleep. Today was an important day for him, the first of his working life. But it was too early to be awake, too early to be ready for work, too early to eat even, though his drowsiness did seem to disappear somewhat as the plate of hot food was put in front of him.
Maybe it was not too early to eat.
He had had the same meal for the past week. Rice with lentil-curry, but it still tasted good. He noticed his mother sitting opposite him, watching, smiling. She was proud of him, he knew, and a half-smile spread across his lips.
There was not much food about, and the small amount that had been on his plate, he finished quickly, making sure to wipe clean the plate. It would be different tonight. When he finished work, he would return home with food, enough for his mother, enough for his three sisters, enough for them all.
“My little man,” his mother said as she hugged him. “Going off to work already.” Her grip tightened around him and he stood there, for how long he knew not, but long enough to begin to wonder if she would ever let go of him. Eventually, she did. “Be safe,” she said as she kissed him on the head.
Ajir felt like crying. It was not the first time that week he had felt like crying. But he held it in, like he had for the past week. He had to.
“There’s a surprise in there for you,” his mum said as she held out his tiffin box. She was crying now.
He had seen her cry a lot in the past week, but it still did not make for comfortable viewing and he still did not know what to do. So he stood there, silent and still as he had been for much of the past week.
“You don’t go,” she suddenly said and she grabbed hold of him again. “You don’t leave my sight”.
His sisters had to pry her off him. They led her away, comforting her as they went. They were better at it than he was, they knew what to do, what to say.
The cockerel’s call was the only sound that penetrated the early morning peace as Ajir walked barefoot across the paddy fields that cut through the small village of mud-baked huts. He met his first group of early risers just as he stepped onto the main road. With hats on their heads and books in their hands, he knew the small group of boys were heading to the mosque for morning classes.
They stopped in front of him and one reached out and held his hand.
“Where are you going?”
Ajir did not reply. He had not spoken at all in the past week. He had not needed to. All who had spoken to him in the past week had either asked if he was ok, or they had simply told him things, given him advice. For the former, he would nod or shake his head, and for the latter, he silently listened.
He could not answer this question with a shake or a nod of the head. He lowered his head and looked down at the ground, unsure what to do.
“He’s going to work,” another of the boys said.
“Are you?” asked the one holding his hand.
Still staring downwards, Ajir nodded.
“Where are you going to work?”
Again, Ajir could not reply with a nod or shake of the head, but again, he did not need to. It was a small village. Everyone knew everyone else, and eventually everyone knew everything about everyone else.
“You’re going to work in that ditch, aren’t you?” another asked. “The one opposite the school,” he added knowingly.
Ajir nodded again.
“Ok, you go earn money,” the boy said, moving his head the way old people did when they thought they were giving invaluable advice. “Feed your family,” he said and he let go of Ajir’s hand.
The group of children walked off, and Ajir turned to watch them as they went, listening to the sounds of their voices, their words, their laughter. That was him a week ago.
The ditch was right opposite the school, on the other side of the road, and yet, he had never noticed it before. He had never needed to. Ajir walked down the small alleyway that led off the main road and stopped a few meters in front of the group of men huddled over a small fire. He stood silently and waited for them to notice him, to address him.
“What are you doing here?”
The voice came from behind and Ajir jumped, a little startled. He turned to see a woman standing over him, looking down at him, her eyes narrowed.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Ajir hesitated. The way her eyes stared obtrusively and her voice; there was none of that gentleness he had become accustomed to. He felt compelled to answer her. And so he spoke for the first time in a week.
“W-Work,” he stammered. It sounded odd, his voice, croaky even. He wondered if it had always been like that.
“Are you the one whose father died?” the woman asked bluntly.
He was running with the ball at his feet towards the goal. Behind him were over a dozen others trying to take that ball off him. Some were even on his team. But this was how they played football, with almost everyone running after the ball. The glory was in scoring really, and then celebrating. Nothing else mattered much.
It was the mosque announcement that stopped the running. “Innah Lillahi Wa Innah Ilaihi Raaji-oon,” were the words the muezzin blared over the loudspeakers. It was Arabic, the language, but Ajir knew what it meant. ‘To him we belong and to him we must return’. Someone had passed away.
“Who is it?” Ajir asked as the ball slipped away from him. “Who died?” he asked, as he dropped to his knees.
“I didn’t hear it properly,” his friend shrugged.
So they waited for the announcement to repeat. It was his father’s name. Everyone turned to stare at him. But Ajir laughed. His father wasn’t dead. He had seen him that morning just before he left for work.
But then someone came – he did not remember who – to tell him to go home. His mother was looking for him. His father was dead.
They were cutting away a hill that day, and his father had been at the top, ready with shovel in hand to break away the soil before they filled the truck with it. But the soil didn’t need breaking. It came down on its own, along with his father. It took them two hours to dig him out.
Ajir saw his father that night, wrapped in a white cloth, only his face left uncovered. He didn’t look dead. He looked to be asleep. They took him away that same night to bury. It was the last time he saw him.
Lots of people came to the house that day and some stayed the night. There was a lot of crying. His mother cried. His sisters cried. He wanted to cry too. But the men told him not to. He had to be strong for his family. He shouldn’t cry. So he held his tears back and somehow they kept his words back. He became completely silent.
The owner of the hill came the next morning with a bag of rice and lentil. He told them not to worry, that he would provide for them. But a few days later, he came again with a group of men to sit and talk to his mother.
Ajir sat with his sisters in the kitchen to eavesdrop.
He would not be able to provide for them, the hill-owner said, because of the damage the collapse of the hill had caused him. Apparently it was his father’s fault. He had been standing too close to the edge, though no one had told him that at the time. The men left that day and never came back. The food began to run out, and they had very little money to buy more.
The woman didn’t smile at him like everyone else had done for the past week. With her lips tight, and her eyes travelling all across his body, she sized him up.
“How old are you?”
Ajir hesitated. She was forcing him to talk, something that seemed foreign to him now. And he didn’t know how old he was anyway. “Class eight,” he said.
“You used to go to school?”
Ajir nodded. He used to.
The fire died out and the men stood up, ready for work. With spades in hand, some began to fill baskets with mud while others lifted the baskets of mud and carried them off, dumping them some twenty meters away on the other side of the alley.
“Are you sure you can do it?” the man asked, as Ajir stepped forward.
He nodded. It wasn’t complicated work. And he didn’t really have a choice; he had to be able to do it. The man helped lift the basket onto his head. It was heavy. He wondered if he would be able to last the whole day. They didn’t pay for half-days…
The day wore on and the sun rose up high, burning against his skin. Ajir’s vision blurred. His mind wandered. His thoughts turned to his father. He was always happy when he came home from work. He would bring them sweets sometimes. Ajir missed his father. He couldn’t imagine going home happy from a job like this.
It was finally lunch time, and Ajir collapsed onto the ground, exhausted. “Eat,” someone said to him. “We won’t be on break forever”. It was good advice and he reached for his tiffin. There was a surprise in there for him, his mother had said.
It was a small tiffin, his. Not as large as some of those around him. But it did have three containers. There was rice in the first, lentil curry in the second and a small piece of fish in the third. Ajir had the rice and lentil first, then savoured the fish.
His father used to bring home fish sometimes. Other times, after Friday prayers, they would go together to hunt for fish. They would never catch much, usually the leftovers of whoever’s land it was. But it didn’t matter really, it was fun.
He could hear the children from school, running around laughing and screaming. They must have been on lunch break too. That was him a week ago. His only worry back then was of the times he would miss school to go off wandering with his friends. It was his father he feared the most those days. If he ever found out Ajir hadn’t attended school… but he never did.
“You learn,” his father would say. “You don’t want to be like me when you grow up,” he would chuckle.
His dad would ask him how school was, and Ajir would tell him, even on those days he missed classes. He was good like that. He could talk a lot back then, a bit too much according to some. Maybe that was why he was so quiet now. Maybe he had used up his share of words.
Break was over. Work began again. Ajir carried basket after basket. His feet began to hurt, his arms too, and his back. It wasn’t long to go, he told himself. It wasn’t long to go…
With the day over, and his pay clutched tightly in his hand, Ajir wandered the market, staring at the stalls with their fruits and vegetables. The vendors shouted out their prices and Ajir wondered if they were trying to scare the customers away. Everything was so expensive.
“Look daddy, look,” a small child tugged on his father’s shirt and pointed, “an ice-cream van.”
“It’s too cold for ice-creams.”
“But I want one,” the child pestered.
“Your mother will shout at you,” the father said. “And then at me.”
“I’ll finish it before we go home,” the boy said earnestly.
The father laughed. “Ok.”
Ajir watched as the father walked with his son towards the ice-cream van. He watched as the father bought the ice-cream, as he un-wrapped the paper and gave it to his son, as he smiled and ruffled the little boy’s hair.
He felt his eyes bubble. And then a tear made its way down his right cheek before another followed on his left. He wiped them off but they were quickly replaced by more. He was crying now. He felt an urge to scream then, to call his father to come and hold him, hug him.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he stood there silently and waited for his eyes to run dry. They did eventually. And when they did, he moved along, for he had food to buy for his family.
His mother was waiting for him outside their house. She grabbed hold of him and hugged him tightly, much like she had that morning. She let go of him after a while and took the bag of rice and lentils from his hand.
Ajir walked into the house and sat on the bamboo-netted mat. His mother was cooking. He could hear the rice bubbling. His eyelids began to weigh heavy. He lay down on the mat and closed them.
He was falling asleep now, he knew. But it didn’t matter. They would wake him when dinner was ready. Everything was going to be ok now, Ajir reassured himself as he drifted off. Everything was going to be ok now, for he was the man of the house.
“What’s in a name?”, Shakespeare once said. Not much was his point. My parents must have disagreed. They named me Joy. It means victory. I was born three days after our declaration of independence. My father was a freedom fighter. He lost an arm in the war. It meant a lot to him, our victory, and so he named me quite prosaically.
I don’t remember much from the early days of our new country. I was but a child, and my memories are much like that of any other child. I remember running around a lot, playing with the many children that always seemed to be about.
At the age of eight, I discovered and fell in love with books. They became my new friends. My mother was pleased. She never liked me playing with the other children. I don’t know why, but she never trusted them.
Children aside, there always were lots of people in our house. It was a big house. Men would come to visit my father. They would sit around him and drink cups of tea. Women would come to visit my mother. They would sit around her and drink cups of tea. They would ask for money and rice, the women. I never knew what the men asked father for.
It was a low-lying country, ours. I was twelve years old when I witnessed my first flood. It was all around us, the water. I travelled on boats a lot that year. I enjoyed it. But I was alone in that.
The flood of that year was not only one of the most severe in our country’s short history, but it was also one of the worst in living memory. Not my living memory, of course. I was only twelve.
More people came to our house during that time. I would sit with my mother sometimes and listen as the women told of terrible tales. Some had lost everything – their houses, their animals, even family members. Luckily, our house was built on a hill. We didn’t lose anything.
I don’t know what the men said to my father, but they did seem somewhat angry. On occasions, some would have to be thrown out. I remember once, when one man refused to leave, my father threatened to sink his boat. His reasoning was that, if you didn’t want to leave, then you should stay forever.
The man left.
The flood waters receded later that year and the roads resurfaced. There was no need for boats anymore. It was a shame. I missed the boats. A lot of people still came to see my father though. Things hadn’t improved much for them.
I was thirteen when it happened.
As hard as I try, I can never forget that day. With a book in hand, I was sat on our front balcony, with my mother next to me. My father was just below us, on the veranda. A group of men had come to see him.
I was absorbed in my book, so much so that I didn’t realise an argument had broken out beneath. It was only when my mother placed her hand on me to usher me into the house did I hear the loud and angry voices coming from below. I remember the look of anxiety on my mother’s face as she told me to go to my room.
I was unconcerned though. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Over the past few months, a lot of angry men had come to see my father. Arguments often broke out and my father always threw the people out. How was I to know it would be any different this time?
I settled onto my bed and continued reading. I don’t know how much time passed before the screaming began. I remember looking up from my book, wondering why someone was screaming, wondering if I should go down to see. I remember hesitating, not wanting to put the book down. The story was reaching its peak. A few more turns of the page and I, along with the main protagonist, would know the purpose of his existence. As a child I was quite into fantasy…
My father died that day.
We left the country of my birth a few months after my father’s death. I didn’t like our new country much at first. Everything was different. The food was different, the weather was different, the house we lived in was different, and of course, the language was different.
I got used to the food after awhile, even began to enjoy it. My mother cooked at first. But she wasn’t very good at it. We had a chef back home. She got better as time passed, but everything changed once we embraced the ‘local’ cuisine. I became fond of eating. There was just so much variety. From Italian to Mexican, Indian to Chinese, you could eat a different country every day.
I had never seen snow before. I came from a hot country. Snow was cold. I didn’t like it much. So I stayed indoors, waiting for winter to pass. It did pass, apparently. But it was still cold.
Our new house was small. There isn’t much else to say about it really. It was small. I know it bothered my mother that she had to live in it. I didn’t mind it so much. And we didn’t have servants and maids here, so it was probably for the better that the house was small.
It was the language that I found most difficult. I remember my first day at school, staring at the foreign faces of my classmates, the teacher shouting my name, calling me over, saying something to me, repeating her words over and over again, each time slower than the last. To this day, I still do not know what she said.
I didn’t make any friends at my new school. How could I? I hardly knew any words in their language. And when I did finally manage to string a few sentences together, it was too late. No one wanted to talk to me anymore.
My mother passed away last year, a week after my fortieth birthday. I live alone now, with my cat. Yes, I know what you are thinking. And you might be right. But do I care? No, not really.
My father named me Joy. Victory, it meant. He was murdered in his own house. I know why. My father was a wealthy man, but he was not born one. He made his money with his might. The men that killed my father that day, they were much like him. They were men who wanted wealth, men who wanted power. And they wanted it from him – literally.
Joy – it has another meaning here. I used to wonder if the language was mocking me. I was anything but happy. I missed my father, I missed my home, I missed my books –they had books here, but I couldn’t read them at first- and I missed my mother.
I know. She came with me. But it wasn’t really her. I don’t know if it was the death of my father, or that we had to leave everything behind and come here that did it, but she was never the same. My mother used to have the patience of a fakir. Not anymore. She snapped at everything and everyone for the first few years of our new life, me included. I don’t hold it against her though. It wasn’t her fault.
We never did return home again. My mother wanted to at first. But it wasn’t safe. Things changed, the country moved on – but she did too. She no longer cared. And that wasn’t the only thing she stopped caring about…
It is lonely here sometimes, and I do wonder what my life would have been like if my father hadn’t been murdered, or if we had gone back when it was safe. I wonder about my parent’s families too. I had aunts and uncles. I probably have many cousins now. I wonder if they ever think of me, if they even know of me.
So here I am now, a forty-year-old woman living alone with her cat. I have very few friends and no family that I am in touch with. Am I happy? Oddly enough, I think I might be. I have an unlimited supply of books to read and a gorgeous cat. I named him Bengal, my cat, because he is a Bengal cat. Sometimes I think my father’s bluntness in naming things might have rubbed off on me.
It’s funny how life works out, how you can find comfort in the smallest of things. In the end, there was no victory for my parents, but there is some joy for me.
Thank you so much for reading my two of short stories. I hope you enjoyed them. I would very much appreciate it if you left a review as this helps others decide if they should give this book a chance.
I have written two other full sized fantasy novels. If you’ve enjoyed my writing, please continue turning the pages to read a sample from my Thomas Skinner series.
THE OTHER SIDE
S. I. ANDERSON
Copyright © 2016 Stewart Anderson
All rights reserved
To my little boy, who sits on my lap, listens to my stories and asks for more…
It was the first day of his summer break. Tom stepped out through the front door of his house, intending to head for his local park. As he closed the door and turned, he spotted the small red car parked on his driveway. He took another three steps towards it before he noticed her.
Her head was slumped on the steering wheel, her eyes were closed and her arms dangled by her side. She looked to be asleep, or dead. He briefly wondered why he thought the latter before he felt a sudden surge of familiarity.
He knew her.
Tom walked down the concrete slabs that cut across his front lawn and peered inside the car. There was very little of her face to be seen. Half of it was pressed against the steering wheel and the other was partially covered in her long red hair.
Who was she? How did he know her?
He felt an impulsive urge to knock on her car window, to wake her up, to ask her. He even raised his hand to do so when she stirred. And then he realised that he was standing over a car, staring in at a sleeping person. It didn’t matter that he thought he knew her. It was still weird. And she was about to wake up and catch him in his moment of oddness.
Tom took a step back and briskly walked past the car and down the road, purposefully avoiding looking back. He was going to the park, that was what he was going to do. Not stare at a sleeping woman. That was weird and creepy.
And he might be a little weird by some definition, but he certainly wasn’t creepy.
Once at the park, Tom plonked himself down on a bench. Before him, a group of children ran around kicking a ball. He had shared classes with a few and knew most of their names, but he doubted they knew his.
Tom was a bit of a loner.
He wasn’t really sure why. Aside from the hunchback, the puffy cheeks, the loud huffing and puffing after a sprint or a short walk, he was a fairly normal thirteen-year-old boy.
Oh, and he could move things without touching them. He imagined that to be sort of unique. It wasn’t something he bragged about. He had seen one too many movies to know it was best not to.
He had told his sister though. He had to tell someone. He needed to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. And the best way to do that was by showing someone, and having them say it was so.
As Tom watched the children play their game of football, his thoughts drifted towards the red car parked in his driveway and the woman sleeping in it. He wondered why he thought he knew her. He barely saw any of her face. If someone asked him to describe her now, the only thing he could say was that she had long red hair.
There was another person sitting on the bench, and a while passed before he noticed. She was in her early twenties, had long red hair, red lips and red eyes. She sat next to him and stared at him brashly.
It was her, the sleeping woman from the car.
Why she was here? Had she caught him peeping in her car and followed him to the park? What did she want? Why did he still think he knew her?
“Hello,” Tom said cautiously.
She didn’t reply immediately. Instead, she stared him up and down before her lips pursed. “What are you doing here?”
He was sitting on the bench, but that much was obvious, so Tom said, “Watching them play football.” He supposed he had been doing that, before his mind had wandered off.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “What?” she asked confusedly. “How did you get here?”
Here? Did she mean the park? “…I walked?”
“You walked-” she stopped disbelievingly. “What do you mean you walked?” she demanded. “Is that supposed to be funny?”
Tom shook his head quickly a few times. He wasn’t trying to be funny. He really had walked to the park. He could remember it quite clearly. It hadn’t happened very long ago.
“Is this some sort of test?”
A while passed before he realised she was waiting for an answer. Tom shrugged. He didn’t know if it was a test. He didn’t know what she was talking about either, but he stared at her, much like she stared at him – brashly.
She was quite striking to look at. He had never seen red eyes before, not red like this – fiery and powerful. And oddly, it wasn’t a scary look.
He still felt like he knew her. Her face, her body, her everything was so familiar. There was almost a glow about her. He felt this sudden urge to touch, to feel. He shuddered at the thought and looked away. Touching a stranger was worse than watching them whilst they slept.
And then the oddest thing happened.
The woman reached forward and touched him. It was more of a poke really, first on the stomach, then his chest, and then his cheeks, left and right. She then held his right hand, lifted it up and let it go.
Tom let his hand drop before he tucked it away by his side. He slowly shuffled away from her until he came to the end of the bench. He held onto the armrest and worriedly stared back at her as she muttered to herself. He was beginning to think she might be crazy. Sure, he had thought of touching her too, but he hadn’t, and that was the big difference.
It was a shame, he thought as he watched her lips move as she continued to mutter to herself. That feeling of familiarity hadn’t left him. He still felt like he knew her.
“Oh grow up,” the woman said as she noticed he had moved away from her. “This is stupid,” she added sullenly before sighing. “Fine, if this is what they want…”
The woman smiled and moved towards him. Tom’s first thought was to shift away further, but he was already at the end of the bench. Before the thought of standing up and running away entered his mind, she held her hand out for him to shake.
“Hello,” she smiled, “I’m Cindy.”
It was a friendly gesture, and a sudden departure from her previous demeanour. He wondered if she was bipolar. Should he shake her hand? What if he did it wrong? Would she become angry again? But if he didn’t shake it, she would most certainly be offended…
Tom reached out and tentatively took her hand, deciding it best to try not to offend her. “Thomas Skinner,” he said, and then wondered why he had used his full name.
They sat quietly after that. Cindy was still smiling, though she no longer looked his way. They both stared ahead at the children running around kicking the ball.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” she said after a while.
Tom turned to look at her. She had just made a comment about the weather. He wondered if she shouldn’t have started with that – before she poked him and all. He still felt like he knew her, and she had been outside his house.
And now she was here. He had to know. She was still smiling. This was a good time as any to ask. He took a deep breath. “Are you following me?”
It wasn’t the question that was supposed to come out of his mouth. He wondered what was wrong with his tongue.
Cindy chuckled. “Am I following you…” she repeated, mulling the sentence over. She turned to look at him, the smile still on her face but a curious look in her eyes. “Now why would I do that?”
“I saw you outside my house.”
“Yes, you did,” Cindy nodded. “And then you ran off,” she grinned.
Tom didn’t remember running. He had walked quickly. And she hadn’t answered the question. “You are following me,” he said. “Why?”
“I was looking for something.”
“I don’t know.” Cindy looked away, towards the running children. “Something different…” she said absently.
Tom was different. But only one other person knew that, and that person was Emily, his sister. Even his parents didn’t know. He hadn’t felt ready to tell them yet. And here was Cindy, a complete stranger, and part of him wanted to tell her.
He still thought she might be crazy, but he felt like he could trust her. He wondered why. He was sure he didn’t know her now, even though she still seemed so familiar…
“I might be different.”
“You might be a little too different,” Cindy muttered.
Cindy smiled at him innocently. “Nothing.”
Tom stared into her large red eyes, a little unnerved. He had heard her. He was a little too different, she had said. He was about to ask her what she meant, but Cindy broke eye contact as she turned suddenly to face the running children.
They sat silently and he was glad for it. If they had spoken for much longer, Tom knew he would have told her. A stranger he had just met, and he was ready to tell her his biggest secret. Surely something was quite wrong with him.
A while passed before Cindy stood up. “Well, it was… interesting, odd, weird meeting you.”
It was all of that because you were all of those, Tom thought. He watched her as she walked away, and for the first time he noticed the long black piece of cloth that draped down her shoulder. Was she wearing a cloak?
Cindy strode nervously up and down the corridor. A man in a velvet cloak with golden strips along the borders stood by the door that led into the Law Lords’ private chambers. His eyes followed her as she walked, and his face grew increasingly agitated, but he said nothing.
So she continued to pace.
It had been two weeks since she had met Thomas Skinner, ten days since she had returned home, a week since she had submitted her report on the magical signature found on the Other Side and now she was here, in the House of Lords, summoned by the Law Lords.
It wasn’t unheard of, Guardians being called before the Law Lords. It was usually for one of two reasons. Either to congratulate a Guardian returning victorious from an incredibly difficult quest, or to admonish one who had not only failed, but managed to do so spectacularly.
As hard as she tried, Cindy couldn’t think of anything she had done that deserved their adulation. It had to be for the latter reason. She had failed and she thought she knew how.
It was supposed to be simple. Something on the Other Side was using magic. It happened occasionally and it was always pixies. The Great Barrier kept their two worlds and everything within them separate – apart from pixies.
Somehow, the little fairy-look-alike creatures would find a way past it. And once through, they would head straight for the Wanderers’ towns and cities to create mischief and wreak havoc.
It was the Other Sider’s job to bring them back, to keep their worlds separate: the magical from the non-magical, the wizards from the Wanderers. And that was why she was there, to bring the pixie back.
But it wasn’t a pixie that was using magic.
It was a boy.
She didn’t know what to make of him at first. He was too young to be an Other Sider. And the Great Barrier only allowed Other Siders to pass. So what was he doing there? When she had walked up to him and demanded to know, he’d played innocent, even acted as if she were the crazy one.
Cindy had left him there on the park bench. The improbability of the scenario had her convinced it was a test of some sort. She already knew he lived in a house. Her first stop was the local secondary school to see if he had been enrolled there as part of an elaborate ruse.
That was where it all fell apart.
She found him. And he wasn’t a recent recruit. She managed to trace him back all the way down to nursery and even a hospital he was supposedly born in. That could only mean one thing. A family of wizards were living on the Other Side.
How long had they been there? How had they avoided using magic for so long? How had they passed through the Great Barrier?
She’d gone to find Tom again. He was in the park, sitting on the bench, alone. She followed him around for a day. She saw his family: his mother, his father, his sister. They weren’t wizards.
They were Wanderers.
As if it weren’t confusing enough, she had to remind herself Wanderers didn’t give birth to wizards. That was just stupid. It was like a cow giving birth to a goat. It didn’t happen.
In her defence, she had written in her report that the magical signature came from a boy wizard who appeared to have been born on the Other Side to Wanderer parents. It was a stupid thing to write, but what other option did she have? And now she was here, in the House of Lords.
She had heard stories about them. Sometimes, when they were in a bad mood or just bored, they looked for people to punish. Maybe this was one of those instances.
“They will see you now,” the man by the door said.
Cindy stopped and turned to look at him. He had a smile on his face. It wasn’t kind. She took a deep breath and walked through the door. It led into a dimly lit tunnel. The Law Lords came into view as she stepped into their private chamber. They were sitting on chairs on an elevated platform. Pipes were in their hands and smoke billowed out from their mouths.
They appeared to be relaxed and in relatively good moods.
With her eyes fixed onto her feet, she gave a low bow. She had never been to the House of Lords before, or met anyone of any nobility. She had practised her bow at home. She hoped it looked right.
Her throat suddenly felt dry, her tongue heavy and her mouth clumsy. “My lords,” she croaked.
“Cindy Melikov,” Lord Lipton said. “When your report of the boy from the Other Side came before us, I must confess to having unpleasant thoughts of what to do to you.” He spoke gravely.
There was no doubt left as to why she had been summoned. Her legs began to shake. She pushed down hard onto her feet, trying to keep them still. But it didn’t work. She did notice her feet though. Had they always been that big?
“There is no need to frighten the poor girl any further,” Lord Colborne said. “Congratulations are in order, Cindy Melikov.”
Cindy was still busy trying to stop her legs from shaking. It was a moment before his words registered. Congratulations? She looked up. “My lords..?”
Lord Colborne smiled. “It was a bit of luck on your part to stumble upon him, but nonetheless, your report was very thorough and you conducted yourself well under the circumstances.”
“A wizard born to Wanderers,” Lord Lipton said, “this changes everything.”
The words repeated in her mind. A wizard born to Wanderers… It hadn’t been a test? They really were his parents? But that was impossible. Wanderers don’t give birth to wizards. Whoever heard of such nonsense? She almost said as much out loud.
“This changes nothing.”
It was Lord Dragunov who had spoken and he sat a distance apart from Lords Colborne and Lipton. She met his eyes for a second before she looked down again. It was ample time to know he wasn’t happy.
“You – Melikov, is it?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Tell me, what does your father do?”
“He is a farmer, my lord.”
“A farmer,” Lord Dragunov scoffed. “A lowly Guardian of common blood, you are required to ask permission before you do anything deemed above your level of competence.” He slammed his fist onto the armrest angrily.
“My lord, I-”
“Silence!” Lord Dragunov roared and Cindy shuddered, taking a step back. “How dare you interrupt me?”
She didn’t realise she had interrupted. There was a good passage of time before she spoke. How was she to know he hadn’t finished? As the silence stretched, she wondered if she should apologise, or would that count against her for interrupting again?
“A Breeder posing as a wizard, and you did not think to refer to your superior before you merrily wandered up to him and dethroned what little dignity you had?” Lord Dragunov said contemptuously.
Cindy’s eyes widened as she stared at her feet. Dethroned what little dignity she had…? She was confused. One moment she was being praised, now she was being insulted and denigrated.
“You dare not answer me?” Lord Dragunov said ominously.
In trouble for talking, in trouble for not talking – you couldn’t win with a lord. “I wish to beg your forgiveness, my lord, and promise in future to remember my place.”
It wasn’t what she wanted to say, but she knew better than to speak her mind. Her contact with Tom had been brief, her report very detailed and, as it now seemed, correct. What had she done wrong?
“I’ll see what your future holds,” Lord Dragunov said. He stood up and turned towards the other lords. “It isn’t too late to change your minds yet.”
“The House of Lords has decided,” Lord Colborne said firmly. “The boy will come.”
“The House will not always be yours,” Lord Dragunov said as he stormed off the platform. “The Breeder will wish he was never born,” Cindy heard him mutter as he left through another tunnel at the back.
Cindy looked up at the two remaining lords. They were still in relatively good moods, still smoking their pipes. Lord Colborne even had a smile on his face as he looked back at her. “You must be wondering why you were summoned.”
He was right. They couldn’t have sent for her to first praise and then shout at her, could they? Surely lords had better things to do? Although, according to her father, they didn’t.
“You are to bring Thomas Skinner to our world. We have reserved him a seat at the School of Merlin,” Lord Colborne said.
It made sense to her now, what Lord Dragunov had said about changing their minds. He didn’t want Thomas to come to their side. She could see how a wizard born to Wanderers could be a problem for him.
Her worry was a little more self-centred.
“My lords…” Cindy paused hesitantly.
“What if I made a mistake? What if he really isn’t a wizard?”
“Is there something you wish to add to your report? Something you may have forgotten to mention?”
There were a few things she had left out. Like how she had fallen asleep while she waited outside his house, how she had poked him to see if he was actually real or a figment of her imagination. But those were minor details, nothing that needed to be shared.
“No, my lord.”
“A wizard born to Wanderers is not a claim we take lightly. Others were sent to verify. He is what you say,” Lord Lipton said lazily, staring at his nails.
A weight seemed to lift off her chest just then and she let out a long silent breath, feeling relieved and a little lightheaded. They weren’t about to make such an important decision based on her report alone. She noticed Lord Lipton’s nails. They were quite long. Maybe he should consider cutting them.
“There is more,” Lord Colborne said. “Lord Dragunov does not approve of the boy coming to our side. As I am sure you are aware, he is a fervent supporter of removing the Great Barrier, conquering the world, enslaving the Wanderers, you know.” He waved his hand in the air dismissively. “He isn’t alone in his views. Their support seems to grow every day.” Lord Colborne paused to stare at her.
Cindy wondered why he was telling her this. It wasn’t that she didn’t already know it, everyone did. But why was he telling her? What did he want from her?
“The School of Merlin is in the Land of the Free,” Lord Colborne said. “No man from any House would openly harm him there. But the Le Fays do have many fanatical supporters.” He paused again. “You are to keep watch over him and protect him from harm’s way. It would be a shame if the boy were to die before we truly understand what he is.”
Cindy blinked twice as she realised her worry had been misplaced. It was Tom whose life was in danger, not hers. If they brought him here and the Le Fays managed to get a hold of him…
“Is that understood?” Lord Colborne asked.
“Yes, my lord,” Cindy said automatically.
Was she really going to bring the boy here, to a place where he would be more of a misfit than he already was? To a place where he would be fiercely hated by so many? What other option did she have? Could she refuse a lord?
“You will not need to report to anyone. You are there simply to protect him. We have others in the school – if he really is a wizard born to Wanderers, well…”
Lord Colborne reached into his pocket and pulled out a purple pouch. He threw it towards Cindy. It glided in the air before landing in her open palm. Inside it was dust, gold dust.
“Use it wisely,” Lord Colborne said, “and bring us our boy wizard.”
Cindy stood opposite the Great Bazaar. Wizards and witches dressed in the finest of cloaks and sporting a lot of shiny metals walked past the two great pillars, going in and out. She had passed the bazaar many times before without entering. She had only a little gold dust, and none to spare.
Today was different. Cindy stepped out from between the carriages and stared up at the enormous pillars as she crossed the road. There was faded calligraphy etched into them, but she didn’t get a chance to read it.
Distracted by her curiosity, she veered into the path of wizards and witches coming out. They collided into her roughly. Some moved along, ignoring her, others showed signs of contempt. Cindy was ready to apologise, but they didn’t want one – not from her.
Once past the pillars the bazaar opened up to floor above floor with row after row of shops, all beneath a glass dome. It was spectacular and she felt a little intimidated. The passers-by didn’t help.
A few looked her up and down before visibly shaking their heads in disdain. Her cloak was simple and she had no expensive metal on. She was out of place. She knew that. They did too.
But they didn’t have to be so rude about it. The way some of them carried themselves, you would have thought they were the Lord and Lady Zarlock reincarnated. She imagined battling a few, watching the smugness disappear from their faces as they hit the ground.
Cindy shook her head to rid the image. She had more important things to worry about than what some lordlings thought of her. She had never watched over anyone before. What made it worse was that Tom was her responsibility. She had found him. She was going to bring him over.
They would hate him. They already did. Word had spread of the wizard born to Wanderers. The news was not received well. She had seen some of the angry crowds, shouting and screaming. Apparently, one such mob had burnt down the Bazaar of Wonders. It took a special kind of idiot to confuse Wonders with Wanderers.
It wasn’t just idiots that she had to keep an eye out for. The Le Fays were her main concern. She had a plan, but she was beginning to think that any plan where her head could go missing was a bad one. She didn’t want to die just yet.
Cindy stopped in front of a watch shop. They were pretty. Some were golden, others silver, green, red even. They all had two things in common: they told the time and they were pretty.
But a watch wouldn’t work.
She moved on, past the various shops, pausing briefly in front of a jeweller. She was tempted by the rings on display. They were small and could have slipped off his finger. But it wouldn’t explain the sharp poke he would feel.
A few shops later, and Cindy found something that would.
They were perfect.
All she had to do now was choose one that was expensive and looked it too. It was for a lord. They weren’t very discreet about what they had. A phoenix-feathered diamond encrusted quill caught her eye.
Cindy picked it up and approached the counter where a young man sat slouched reading a paper.
“I wish to purchase this.” She waved the quill in front of his eyes, hoping to get his attention.
It worked, sort of. He looked up; his dull eyes bore into hers before he sighed lazily. “And I would like to ride on the back of a dragon,” he said before returning to his paper.
She wanted to punch him then for being so rude. He was like her, not rich or powerful. Actually, he was worse than her. He was just a shopkeeper! But she didn’t punch him. She gritted her teeth and waited for the anger to pass.
“Gold,” he replied without looking up. “Lots of it.”
Cindy reached into her cloak pocket and pulled out the pouch of gold dust Lord Colborne had given her. She threw it at him. It bounced off his chest and landed on his lap. His eyes widened as he saw the gold dust inside, and he almost fell off his chair as he jumped to attention.
“I beg your forgiveness, my lady,” he said quickly.
He was staring at her anew, fear in his eyes. She almost chuckled out loud. A large part of her wanted to toy with him, to make him sweat.
“I trust that is enough gold?”
“Y-Yes, my lady,” he stammered.
“It is a gift for a nephew of mine. I would like it wrapped in something suitable,” she said. “And once you have done that, I would like to see the Master of the shop.” She smiled cruelly. “He is about?”
The young man’s face paled. “T-The M-M-Master of the shop?”
“I wish to exchange words with him,” she said curtly.
She didn’t really mean to have him reprimanded. It was just a bit of fun on her part. But he did something unexpected. He dropped to his knees and brought his head to the ground near her feet. “Please, my lady,” he said. “Please.”
It was a good thing his head was down, Cindy thought. It wouldn’t have done for him to have seen her jump back in surprise. She decided she had had her fun. All she wanted now was to have her quill and be out of this place.
But what was she supposed to do?
It was a question. But the man was too terrified to realise, and he rose as if commanded. He stood stupidly for a moment before he remembered why he had risen. He rushed behind the counter and pulled out a fine piece of cloth to wrap the quill in.
He brought himself down on one knee and held it out to her.
Cindy took the quill from him and walked out of the shop. She had paid too much for it. There was enough gold in that pouch to pay for at least two such quills. But she couldn’t ask for change. Not after he had thought her a lady, not after he had begged at her feet.
It wasn’t like she needed the gold anymore. She had what she required. Now she just had to go through with her plan. But that would have to wait. It was time to pay the mysterious little wizard another visit.
It was another bright summer’s day on the Other Side. Cindy didn’t wait outside Thomas Skinner’s house. She went to the park. And he was there, like she knew he would be.
He sat on the bench alone, staring ahead at the other children as they kicked a ball and ran after it. She never did understand why they did that. Surely they knew the ball would move if it was kicked?
Cindy hesitantly walked towards Tom, wondering what she was doing even thinking about taking him to her side. He would hate it there. Wizards and witches didn’t have much respect for those that weren’t like them. And Tom’s parents were Wanderers, a race a large number of wizards had started to dislike of late.
And then there were the Le Fays, who would probably want his head on a spike…
Tom didn’t look up as she sat next to him. He stared ahead, but she knew he wasn’t watching the children. He was somewhere else.
“Hello, Thomas,” Cindy said with her best smile.
He jumped, startled by her sudden presence.
“Uh… Hello,” he stammered.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“ No- hello.”
Cindy laughed and Tom looked away as his face reddened. He was a shy boy. It wasn’t a surprise. She didn’t think he had many people to talk to. Wanderers had this strange ability to look through wizards as if they were invisible.
That was what Tom was in this world – invisible. She was going to take him away from that to a place where he would be the complete opposite, and not in a good way. Cindy needed to start talking and stop thinking before she decided against obeying the lords.
“So… what’re you doing?”
Small talk – that was what she was going with? She hadn’t really thought this bit through. How should she tell him? What if he didn’t want to come back with her?
“Sitting on the bench?” Tom said.
He was looking at her again, curiosity mixed with apprehension. He had shifted a little away from her too. He was nervous of her. She didn’t blame him. She had poked him the last time.
“What do you know about wizards?” Cindy asked, ditching the small talk.
“Wizards?” he mumbled.
“Wizards, witches, werewolves, giants, dragons, trolls, goblins, pixies, fairies, what do you know about them?”
Had she overdone it a little? Maybe she should have just stuck with wizards for the moment. It wouldn’t do to overwhelm him with too much information.
“Do you believe in magic?”
He didn’t answer but he stared at her warily and she knew instantly that he did. But he wasn’t going to tell her, not yet anyway. He barely knew her, and she hadn’t given him much reason to trust.
“You’re a wizard, Thomas,” she said encouragingly.
“Ok…” came the hesitant reply.
It was going to take more than just words to convince him. She had to show him. And she knew just how. The Wanderers had a saying for this – two birds with one stone.
“You’re like me,” she said. “Look.” She pointed towards the children kicking the ball.
Cindy gave a slight wave of her hand. The ball came to a sudden stop. The boy closest tripped and fell to the ground as he tried to budge it with the side of his foot. The ball stayed where it was as another tried to move it without any luck. Slowly, they all gathered around the ball. But no matter how hard they kicked, it did not move.
“Isn’t that much better?” Cindy said, satisfied. “They don’t have to run after it anymore.”
Tom’s eyes shifted from her to the ball and back to her again. “What are you going to do with me?”
“Do with you?” Her eyes narrowed as she wondered what he meant. She wasn’t going to do anything with him.
“Are you going to take me away?”
It dawned on her then. He was afraid. But he shouldn’t have been. She was a good person. She was going to take him away. But that was different. It was.
“Not if you don’t want to come,” Cindy said, though she knew that was a lie. He didn’t have a choice. If she didn’t bring him, someone else would. “You can stay here if you want to. You can go to school with the Wanderers. You can forget you ever met me.” She paused before adding, “Or you can come with me and go to a school full of witches and wizards.”
She hoped he picked the latter. It would make everything so much easier.
“What’s a wanderer?”
“That’s what we call-” Cindy paused. She had never had to explain what a Wanderer was before. “It’s what we call those living on the Other Side.”
That was another thing she had never had to explain.
“It’s a long story,” she said before quickly adding, “do you want to come?”
“You want me to choose now?” Tom asked incredulously.
“Well…” Cindy shrugged.
She was being unfair. She was asking a lot from him, and he barely knew her. But she did need him to say yes.
“Hey,” she put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently, “you’ll like the other side. It’s a magical place, full of people like us.”
She knew those words would have an effect on him. Historically, wizards and Wanderers had never gotten along, and it was obvious much had not changed as Tom sat alone on the bench, friendless.
She knew what to say to convince him. And she hated herself for saying it, for appealing to his loneliness, for lying.
“You’ll fit in,” she said.
“Mum said you’re going away.”
Tom looked up from his book to see Emily standing at the door. He put the book away as she walked in and sat on his bed.
“She said you’re going to a special school.”
“And that we won’t see you for a year.”
That was what Cindy had told his parents. He was special, she had said. She didn’t tell them how he was special. They were a little apprehensive at first. That changed once Cindy showed them a brochure of the school.
Tom wished he could have gotten a look at that brochure. It must have been something quite amazing. His parents had agreed to let him go off with a stranger somewhere they knew not for a whole year without being able to keep in touch.
He thought that a little odd. Why couldn’t he keep in touch? Surely a phone call here, an email there and a letter every so often couldn’t hurt? They did have those things where he was going, didn’t they? Where was he going?
Cindy still hadn’t really told him. There had been some more talk of the Other Side, Wanderers and something about a Great Barrier. It didn’t make much sense to him.
“Is it because of what you can do?” Emily asked.
He had never really gotten along with his sister. Apparently that was normal between siblings. They fought over every little thing. And she could be quite cruel too, always teasing, always calling him Sarah.
He hated that name.
It was the name his parents had given him before he was born. They thought he was going to be a girl. They had told the story a million times, how they painted his room pink, bought him all girly clothes and toys and how, they would laugh at this point, they had even named him Sarah.
Emily thought it was the funniest thing ever.
“She said I was a wizard,” Tom told her.
It had been over a year now since he’d realised he was different. It started with little things, like pencils moving towards his hand as he reached for them. It frightened him at first. He worried there might be something wrong with him. He had to tell someone. Emily was the closest thing he had to a friend. They didn’t always get along but she was his sister and he trusted her. So he told her, showed her.
And once she finally believed him she told him to keep it a secret, which he did. Nothing changed between them. They still fought all the time and he never tried to use his magic – as he now knew it to be – against her.
“A wizard,” Emily chuckled nervously.
Tom smiled. A wizard – it did sound pretty cool. Something he would definitely have picked as a career choice had it been an option.
“You’re leaving tomorrow?”
He nodded. Tomorrow morning, Cindy would come to take him. He would be gone for a whole year. Part of him still didn’t believe it, that he was a wizard and that he was going to go to a wizard school. What if Cindy had made a mistake?
“I’ll miss you…” Emily said.
She leaned forward and gave him a hug.
He didn’t say it.
But he would miss her too.
It was the morning that Cindy said she would come for him. He would be gone for a year, she had said, so pack properly. He was supposed to have packed by now. But he hadn’t.
Tom had never travelled before. He didn’t know what to pack. And even if he had known, he didn’t have a suitcase to pack it in – because he had never travelled before. And his parents hadn’t thought to buy him one either. In fact, their behaviour had been a little odd of late…
He wondered if Cindy would really show. He still had his doubts. Going to a wizard school – it was a lot like a few stories he had read. If she did turn up though, he was certain she wouldn’t be pleased with him.
Cindy did turn up. And he was right. She wasn’t very happy. She muttered something about time being of the essence as she grabbed hold of one of his shirts. She did something to it and the next thing he knew, she was stuffing everything he owned into his new shirt-luggage-thing.
Maybe he really was going to a wizard school.
Tom said his goodbyes at the door and got into Cindy’s red car. They drove for over an hour on the motorway before exiting onto a dual-carriageway. They were currently weaving in and out of narrow country lanes that seemed to narrow further with every turn.
“Are we nearly there yet?” Tom asked.
“No,” Cindy said.
Ten minutes passed.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
A few more minutes passed and Tom wanted to ask again if they were nearly there yet, just to be annoying like some kids were. But he didn’t think he knew Cindy well enough to do that. Although apparently he did know her well enough to wander off with her…
The car eventually came to a stop. Cindy got out. Tom didn’t. They were in the middle of a forest. The only building in sight was a small cottage, not a school. It looked like a place you-
“Come on, Thomas,” Cindy interrupted his thoughts.
She was standing behind the cottage with his shirt-luggage in hand, staring at him impatiently. He got out of the car and followed after her. It was a little too late to doubt her motives. Tom walked past the cottage. The trees thinned out and he caught his first glimpse of what lay beyond. He stopped walking.
“That’s the sea.”
“Yes, it is,” Cindy said and she suddenly disappeared.
Tom rushed forward, worried she might have fallen off the cliff, only to see her walking down a set of wooden steps attached to the side of it. He followed her down to the bottom where, tied to a small pier, was an even smaller boat.
He stared at the boat, and then the sea beyond, and then the boat again. She couldn’t be serious.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Cindy said.
Tom didn’t find her words comforting. It looked absolutely awful, so not as bad as absolutely awful was still awful. But he climbed in anyway. He couldn’t exactly turn back now. And he was a little excited – or terrified. He wasn’t sure which.
The boat moved out to sea and the waves came crashing in on both sides. But no water ventured into the boat. Nor did it rock violently. Tom still held onto the sides tightly, just in case.
“Look ahead,” Cindy said.
He had been looking ahead, wondering where they were going. It was a small boat, which hopefully meant a short journey. But there was no sign of anything but water and water. It stretched for ever.
And then, in the blink of an eye, there it was.
Land – lots of it.
“Where did that come from?”
Tom spun around to look behind him. Where there had been the coast of England only moments ago, there was now nothing but water. “Where are we?” he asked. “What happened to England?”
“Nothing happened to it. It’s still there.” Cindy casually pointed behind her.
“But I can’t see it.”
Why was she laughing? There was nothing funny about this. No-one said anything about going on a boat and watching an entire coastline disappear while another one appeared. Where was he? Was he still on Earth?
The boat touched onto a pier identical to the one they had left on the other side. He wondered if that was what Cindy had meant when she had talked about the sides.
“Welcome to Atlantis.”
The word Atlantis bounced around in his head. He had heard of the place of course. “No.” He shook his head.
“Atlantis is a myth.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is,” Tom said adamantly. He remembered now. Atlantis was a Greek myth written by Plato. He surprised himself there, knowing that much. He had a habit of drifting off in history class.
“Atlantis is not a myth,” Cindy said. “It’s right in front of you.”
It was hard to argue with that. It was in front of him. Tom jumped off the boat and onto the pier. So far, it was very similar to what was on the Other Side in England. Beyond the beach was a cliff with wooden steps attached to the side. He was in Atlantis. He stood still for a moment to let it sink in. And then he remembered, didn’t Atlantis sink?
“Are we at the bottom of the sea?”
“But Atlantis sank.”
“No, it didn’t,” Cindy said impatiently as she led the way. They climbed up the wooden steps. At the top was another cottage. But there was no car waiting for him. Instead, there was a horse-drawn carriage and it took off as soon as they both sat in it – driverless.
The road was a dirt track with the occasionally stone paving. Every so often they would come to a crossroad. The carriage would turn left, right, left, another left, a right and another left. Tom quickly lost track of the turns. It was like a maze.
They exited the forest and the ground below changed. It was now paved completely with cobblestones and it had noticeably less turns. Atlantis was very green. Lots of trees, fields, hills and in the distance he could see mountains. It was also very empty. An age later, he spotted the first sign of civilisation – a single house atop a hill, far far away.
“Almost there,” Cindy said.
They had just entered a road where the trees grew tightly together on both sides and their branches formed a tunnel above. As they exited the tunnel, Tom spotted two single pillars that stood at the bottom of a hill. It wasn’t much – certainly no school.
They drove on, past the pillars and up the hill. The school came into view before they reached the top. It was an enormous stone building at least six floors high. The carriage came to a halt in front of a large set of doors.
Cindy stepped out and with his unconventional luggage in hand, walked into the school. Tom followed after her through the large doors, through an empty hall and out into a corridor where they turned left and walked past closed doors on both sides.
Cindy stopped in front of a door that had written in faded gold the word ‘Headmaster’. She looked at him and smiled. And then she knocked on the door.
“Come in,” a voice said.
Cindy put his luggage down and as she walked away, she smiled and gave a little wave goodbye. Tom watched her go, suddenly feeling homesick.
He waited until Cindy disappeared from sight. Once she had, he picked up his luggage, took a deep breath, opened the door and walked in.
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