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…
It was a mixed neighbourhood, but there wasn’t much mixing – at least, not in the way he wished there to be. You could eat at the same restaurant, attend the same school, and even be good friends. But that was where it stopped.
Tariq found a spot to park his SUV three roads away from the Jumerah. As he stared into the rear-view mirror to adjust his keffiyeh, he noticed another car pull in behind him. His eyes narrowed as he recognised the three men in white thawbs that stepped out.
It had to be a coincidence that they were here. There was no reason for them to suspect him. He was always so careful. Still, he reached into his glove compartment and felt for his shades. They weren’t much for a disguise, but they would allow him to watch them somewhat discreetly.
Tariq stepped out of the SUV and stood still a moment, soaking up the atmosphere. The heat, the humidity, the remaining husk of a sandstorm; they clung to his face like a damp veil. It mattered not that he had spent his whole life here – prosperity masked many things, climate included.
The three men were further down the road, walking towards the Jumerah, or in that direction. It was a place popular for those with not much to do in life. As he set after them, he wondered again if that made it a good place to meet. Did being amongst crowds make it easier to blend in and stay anonymous, or did it mean there was a greater chance of being spotted by the wrong people?
In front of him, the men disappeared from sight as they took a left turn. Tariq was still far behind, but his pace automatically slowed. There was a shisha bar on that corner. Maybe that was what they were going? The Jumerah was unlikely to be their destination. They wouldn’t have parked so far away from it.
It was a small room, four walls, no windows, a single door of metal coloured in a dull grey. In the centre were a table and three chairs. Tariq sat in one, opposite him sat Greg, a stoutly man with black hair, a pink face and a red moustache. To Tariq’s right, high in the corner, was a single protruding rectangular object.
Someone, somewhere, was watching him.
“Won’t be long now,” Greg smiled and when no response of any manner came forth, he added, “Watch the game at the weekend?”
Tariq sat with his hands resting on his lap, his head down, his eyes tired. His exhausted mind seemed intent on repeating the events over and over again. They were just talking… he had tried to be friendly, unassuming…
“You speak English, don’t you?”
Tariq looked up. Greg stared at him with his small beady eyes that looked even smaller, surrounded by the extensive fatty flesh of his cheeks.
“I… I not watched the game.”
Greg nodded. “You didn’t miss much. Nothing happened for eighty minutes… then the guy fell to the ground like he’d been stab-” he stopped abruptly. “Uh… they gave a penalty… shouldn’t have been one. No…” Greg looked away, clearing his throat loudly.
The noise awoke a little more of Tariq and his eyes noticed the lines left by metal pushed against his skin. He gently rubbed his wrists, watching as the lines faded away at his touch before resurfacing again. They had pushed him to the ground and pressed his body against the hard concrete. One climbed onto his back as another held his head down. After cuffing his hands, they bundled him into a van.
“So, what do you play out there then?” Greg asked as he moved his head to indicate somewhere beyond his shoulder. “You don’t play football, do you? It’s too hot, isn’t it? And the sand, it would-”.
The door opened and a thin man holding a clipboard stepped in. He pulled out the empty chair and sat in it. “Tariq, is it?” he held his hand out. “I am inspector Clarkson.”
Tariq relinquished the grip on his left wrist and raised his right hand over the table. As he shook Clarkson’s hand, his head rose and his eyelids flickered. The man before him, Clarkson, he had straw-like hair, a thin nose, large eyes and a still face.
“Now then, how about you start at the very beginning?” Clarkson’s lips moved, and he spoke words, yet his face remained as it was, still and betraying no emotion of any sort – not even boredom.
“Very beginning…” Tariq’s brows creased as gruesome images flashed though his mind.
He was on the fourth floor of the Jumerah, sipping on a now cold coffee, watching the passing women in Burqa and wondering which was her. It was impossible to tell – the Niqab did its job well. But it helped pass the time as he waited.
He finished his coffee and ordered another before a chair from underneath his table was pulled out and a woman sat in it. Tariq glanced at her eyes. From afar, it was hard to tell, but from close up, they were a dead giveaway – green.
“Sumaiyah,” her name came out like a question and he wondered why. Maybe seeing the three men earlier had unnerved him more than he had wanted to believe.
“Sumaiyah?” her voice teased. “Were you expecting someone else? What slot did you have me booked in for?”
She always did that – teased, sometimes mocked. It didn’t help that their first ever conversation had begun as a result of her overhearing him state to his friends quite jovially that he would have four wives. They were sitting at the back of the classroom, him and his friends. Nobody was supposed to overhear.
He had thought about this moment long and hard, about what to say, how to say it, how she would react, and what he would do to convince her. But now that the moment was before him, all the reasoning and the arguments for, his brain had pushed aside. His mind was filled with panic. And so, the words came out as unrefined as they possibly could.
“Be my wife.”
“Oh? Me and how many others?” her eyes twinkled.
There it was again, the teasing. She didn’t know it yet, but she would soon. She would look at his face, see his expression – and then he wondered, what would she see? What was his face showing?
He remembered the three men walking ahead of him, he remembered the sound of their footsteps, one had worn a loose sandal that flipped up with every step, leaving the noise of leather slapping into his soles echoing down the street.
It reminded him of something unpleasant… lying in the boot of a car, staring up as the door came down, watching the sunlight disappear and darkness ensue.
“You’re…” Sumaiyah paused. Whatever expression he had on his face, it was enough. She knew. “But our families… Sunni’s and Shia’s don’t-”
“You want me to start from Iraq?” Tariq asked. He didn’t want them to know about his personal life, but if it helped him get out of this situation, if it helped him in any way to get home to his little daughter…
“Not from the very beginning,” Greg said. “He only needs to know what happened yesterday.”
“At bus stop?”
“At the bus stop,” Clarkson nodded.
“I waiting for-”
“Are you sure you don’t need an interpreter?” Greg interrupted.
“No interpreter,” Tariq shook his head.
“What about something to drink? A cuppa tea?”
Tariq shook his head irritably. What he wanted was to tell them about what happened yesterday. The sooner he did that, the sooner he would finish, the sooner he could go home. And he had to go home soon.
“He’s okay, Greg,” Clarkson said without turning to look at him, his eyes still on Tariq. “Let him talk.”
Tariq wanted to thank him, but he was unsure of this man with the monotone voice, the pale unblemished skin, the flat face. Clarkson fit the image of men he knew. Men from government who did things only spoken in hushed whispers. But this was a different country, the rules were different, and so were the men of government.
Or so they said.
He was learning more and more of this country’s realities, and last night, he learnt that all men were the same, regardless of where you were.
He walked home from work most days. But he was tired tonight, and it was cold, so he took shelter in the glass-enclosed bus stop. Not wanting to break his single twenty-pound note, he was rummaging through his coat pockets looking for the right amount of change when the glass door was pulled open.
Tariq looked up to see three men, no, three boys standing before him, their clothes loose, their hoods drawn, their faces partially masked in shadows. One stepped forward from the other two, and with one hand in an inappropriate place, he gestured rudely with the other.
“Do you know who I am? I’m about to slit you, paki.”
The work “paki” reverberated in his mind as he tried to make sense of the connotation. In this new country, he had been only a few months. He knew little of the culture and the place, though to say the area was rough would not be inaccurate. He thought he knew why the boys were being hostile – gang violence.
“I not Pakistani,” Tariq said and he smiled, trying his hand at appearing friendly and unthreatening.
A grin appeared on the boy’s face and he turned to look back at his two friends. “We got ourselves a live one, boys,” he said. He turned back to look at Tariq, the grin gone. “I no Pakistani,” he mocked before taking another step forward. “Where you from?”
The boy was close to him now and Tariq could smell his breath and the alcohol he had just consumed. There was another smell too. Was the boy drunk and on drugs? Either one on its own was bad in Tariq’s opinion, but a combination of both…
The boy stepped closer to him, his head moving from side to side, he reached forward with his hand. Tariq stepped back and away from the boy’s reach.
“Where you think you going?” the boy asked.
It was a good question. Nowhere, was the answer. He was in a glass box, the door to which was in front of him, behind the boy still holding an inappropriate part of his anatomy, and beyond the two boys that stood behind him. Tariq’s back pressed up against the glass behind.
He was trapped.
He didn’t like this situation. The three boys, they were old enough to be dangerously cocky, young enough to not know the boundaries. He had avoided watching the news since he had come to this new country. The news was too depressing and too close to home. But he knew young boys, the bad ones, the ones that did drugs, the ones in gangs, they were the same everywhere.
“Are you deaf bruv!?” the boy asked aggressively as specs of spit flew out from his mouth and landed onto Tariq’s face. “I asked where you from!”
“Iraq,” Tariq said quickly, hoping they would leave him alone if he just answered their questions.
“Iraq?” the boy looked confused before his eyes lit up and an enormous grin appeared on his face. “Boys,” he looked over his shoulder, “we got ourselves a Taliban.”
There was a moment of silence before one of the boys behind shook his head.
“No,” he said.
“What you mean no?”
“Taliban’s are Afghans,” the boy replied.
“You what? An Afghan? What the fuck is that?”
“People from Afghanistan innit, they call em Afghans. This ones from Iraq. He’s an Al Qaeda”.
The boy turned back to look at Tariq, the smile no longer on his face. He was angry now, and Tariq remembered thinking how odd that was, as if the boy were okay with the Taliban, but drew the line at Al Qaeda.
“You wanna behead me fucker, is that what you wanna do? You got a knife hidden on you? Got a bomb somewhere there?”
Tariq shook his head quickly. “I no terrorist. I want to go home,” he said and then he remembered how the boy had become angry the last time when he hadn’t answered a question, so he added quickly, “I have no knife.”
“Well guess what you piece of shit,” the boy grinned manically. His hand reached inside his jeans pocket and he pulled out a blade. “I do.”
It wasn’t the longest blade Tariq had ever seen, nor the sharpest. In fact, for a weapon, it was pretty pathetic. But, as he was soon to find out, it was still enough to kill.
There was silence in the small room as Tariq finished telling his story. He stared down at his hands, the hands that had killed someone young. He hadn’t meant to do it. When the knife came out, it changed everything. He was suddenly nervous, afraid and angry all at the same time. It was as if time was repeating itself. This time he wouldn’t make the same mistake.
The boy made a feeble attempt at stabbing him. Looking back now, he could see the boy had never done this before, that he didn’t want to kill. He had pulled the knife out in haste. He couldn’t just put it back, he had friends to show off to, so he pushed the knife forward slowly.
Tariq took it off him easily and thrust it into the boy’s chest. He had meant to kill. And he did. There was only one thing on his mind at the time – he had to live. He looked up at the two men sitting before him. Greg had a grim expression on his face, Clarkson’s was as before – unchanged and unreadable.
“What is going happen to me?” Tariq asked.
“That’s not for us to decide,” Clarkson said. “You and the facts will go before a jury. We will most likely be pressing charges for murder,” he continued, his voice still monotonous as if he were reading out a fast food joints menu through an intercom for those using the drive-in.
“Murder?” the word resounded around Tariq’s mind. No, no, he couldn’t go to prison. He just couldn’t. He stood up suddenly and grabbed Clarkson’s hand with both of his. “I have little girl,” he begged.
Greg stood up and took a step back, surprised. Clarkson simply raised his eyebrows.
“Sit, Mr Tariq,” he said, his voice slightly more intense, his eyes slightly narrowed. Tariq slowly let go of Clarkson’s hand. It was the first time the man had shown any emotion, and they weren’t positive ones. He wondered if he had made a mistake, he wondered how much authority this man held in deciding his future. He sat down slowly and stared at his hands, his head down.
“As I was saying,” Clarkson continued, his voice back to normal, “We will press charges for murder as there seems to have been intention to kill. You can claim self-defence. There is CCTV footage of the incident and they match more or less with your account of the incident. However, how a judge and jury will decide, I cannot tell you,” he paused and Tariq looked up. Was that sympathy in the man’s eyes? “Until the trial, you will have to remain in custody,” he finished.
Tariq wondered if he had understood properly. The CCTV backed up his version of events. He could plead self defence. Did that mean they wouldn’t lock him away? But the man seemed sympathetic. Why would he be if it was good news? He would have to remain in custody until the case was concluded…
“How long case take?” he asked, dreading the answer.
“Months, a year, even longer sometimes…”
“I have to be in prison for a year?”
“If you’re acquitted, yes”.
Tariq stood up again. “No… no…” he grabbed hold of the table by the sides as he felt his head begin to spin. He couldn’t be locked up for that long, he had to get home. He wanted to explain, he wanted to beg, he wanted to cry, but all he did was slowly lose vision as he felt the world swallow him up.
Tariq held his three-year-old daughter Sofia against his chest with one hand and with the other, he held onto Adam, his five-year-old boy. His wife Sumaiyah was behind, carrying in her hand a single luggage with their most precious possessions. They had left it too late. They should have fled much earlier, when the signs first appeared. But like many, they had been in a state of stunned shock.
The talk of war had been brewing for many months, and after a while, it became almost normal. There wasn’t the fear that should have been. Most people didn’t think it would actually happen, and the few that did were brushed aside as conspiracy theorists. No, word in the coffee shops and shisha lounges was that the Americans wanted something. The most prevailing theory was the most obvious, Iraq’s oil. There were men talking behind closed doors, and the intensifying rhetoric meant a deal was close to being struck.
And then the bombs fell.
The war was a short one. But like all wars, it was unpleasant. Roads were damaged, electricity and water was in short supply, shops were looted and the few that still had supplies charged incredible amounts for basic necessities. And then there were the bodies. Children, women and men mangled with brick and metal, a result of American inaccuracy, or accuracy, no one could tell.
What came after was worse. They lived in a mixed part of the city and suddenly, it seemed like everyone wanted to kill him or his wife. The cleansing of neighbourhoods began, and still he hesitated. This was his home. He had lived here all his life. Where was he to go? What was he to do?
But he had to move, and he knew it. And so, with a half-baked plan, he headed out the door with his wife, two children and a suitcase. He knew the roads in the city and so he avoided any areas that could be dangerous. Two hours later, far away from the city but not yet near his destination, he came across the thing he had dreaded most. Two vans parked in the middle of the road. To his left, off the road, held up on four metal pipes was a black piece of cloth. Underneath it Tariq counted six men, all with guns visible on their body.
He knew what this was – a check point. It wasn’t manned by soldiers, police or officials of any kind. No, it was a “Death Squad”. They were appropriately named. Not much else needed adding, except perhaps the sect, Sunni or Shia.
As Tariq stopped by the van, a man with an AK-47 slinging down from his shoulder stood up and began to walk towards him. He looked back at his two children, only five and three, they had no idea what was going on. He had told them they were going to visit their aunt, who lived far far away from Baghdad. They were happy at that. Baghdad had become too noisy, according to his son Adam.
Tariq jumped, startled by the knock on his window. He turned to see the man with the AK-47 standing by his door, staring in, his eyes narrow and suspicious. The butt of his Kalashnikov hit against the glass of Tariq’s window again as the man, with two raised fingers, indicated for him to lower it.
It felt like a surreal moment. His heart was pounding furiously, and that extra flow of blood was doing something to his senses. He lowered the side door glass and even though he was shaking inside, he smiled.
“What are you?” the man asked.
Tariq hesitated. He was in an area that was traditionally mixed. The problem with that was, he had no idea which sect this “checkpoint” belonged to, whether they were Sunni or Shia. And that was what the man was asking. Tariq wondered what would happen if he gave the wrong answer. He turned to glance over his shoulder at his wife, his two little children, Sofia and Adam had huddled against her on either side as she sat in the middle.
“Oi, mister, what are you?” the man asked, his gun slowly rising, the round tip now pointing directly at Tariq’s face.
Tariq stared up at the man. He wasn’t really a man, not even one on the cusp of it. No, he was a teenager. A teenager who was holding an AK-47 that was shaking ever so slightly. Behind the tough exterior was a boy who was scared. Maybe he could reason-
“What’s going on?” came a shout from the tent.
A man stood up and began to walk towards them, and a moment later, another two followed him. Soon, there would be four men with AK-47’s standing around, asking the same question. A question to which he didn’t know the right answer.
He made a decision then. In hindsight, a good decision had he made it before the men began to walk towards him, before they asked him the questions, before he even stopped beside the two vans.
Tariq put his foot down on the gas. As the car sped towards the two vans, he heard the men shout, followed shortly by the sounds of gunfire. The two vans, parked facing each other with a little gap in-between, parted just enough as the front of his car smashed into them. As he accelerated past the vans, he could still hear gunfire, and he was sure some of it was hitting the car, but he couldn’t stop to check the damage.
With his eyes on the road in front, he called over to his wife, to his children. He said their names, quietly first, almost a whisper. A quarter mile passed before he said their names again, louder this time.
He looked up in the rear-view mirror. He noticed the blood first. Red. What other colour could it be? He turned to look back, his eyes wide, yet uncomprehending. His son, Adam, his five-year-old little boy, sitting to his mother’s left, his eyes open, unblinking, his shirt red… His wife, Sumaiyah, her left arm around Adam, her body slumped over his daughter, Sofia.
Tariq pulled over on the side of the road and scrambled out of the front and into the back. He put his hand over his son’s nose. He felt his neck; he held his small hand, his fingers shaking now, he searched for a pulse. Nothing…
“Adam…” he put his hand on his shoulder, “No… Adam,” he shook his boy gently. No, this couldn’t be happening. He was only five. They saw, they saw the children in the back. No, why would they… why?
His eyes moved towards his wife. He didn’t call her name. He placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed as the tears began to drop. How had this happened? How could this happen? They were alive only moments ago… how could they be gone? Why did they-
Tariq let go of his wife and moved back a little, startled. His wife’s body had just moved. Was she alive? Her body moved again, but it wasn’t natural. He thought he could hear a noise. Breathing. Then he saw the feet. Sticking out from under his wife, they moved ever so slightly.
His daughter was alive.
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.
It was a large room, dark and filled with books. There were books on the walls, books on the floor, books everywhere. There was a small desk too and an old, frail-looking man sat behind it with his head buried in a book.
The headmaster didn’t look up as Tom entered the room and after waiting awhile, he wondered if he should say hello to get his attention. He thought about clearing his throat too. But he ended up waving his right hand nonchalantly.
Tom’s hand froze in mid-air. With his eyes just inches above the book, the headmaster shouldn’t have been able to see him wave. He brought his hand down quickly and hid it behind his back.
“Well?” the headmaster asked as he finally looked up. “What do you want?”
Tom was lost for words, partly because he didn’t know what he wanted – it wasn’t he who had knocked on the door – and partly because the headmaster seemed so familiar, much like Cindy had. Except this time Tom was definitely sure he knew him.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Thomas Skinner, sir.”
“Thomas Skinner,” the man mused. “So you do speak.”
Tom nodded nervously.
“You knocked on the door?”
“Yes sir. Well, no sir.”
It was Cindy who had knocked on the door, Cindy who had just ditched him here. He remembered her mumbling something about time being of the essence. He wondered what the hurry was that she couldn’t spare the minute it would have taken to explain to the headmaster why he was here.
“So you did, but you didn’t?”
“Thomas Skinner,” the man interrupted as his eyes lit up. “You are Thomas Skinner?” he asked and Tom nodded. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”
He had said so – even used his full name and all.
“Sit sit, my boy.” The headmaster pointed to a chair. He closed his book and put it aside. With his elbows leaning on the table and his face resting in his hands, he smiled broadly. “Thomas Skinner, Thomas Skinner,” he marvelled.
Tom sat down and nodded politely, wondering why his name was being repeated, wondering why the old man was smiling at him like that. The feeling of familiarity was still strong. He was sure he knew this man.
“You are quite something, my boy. I would never have believed it, but here you are.”
The words didn’t make much sense to Tom. Why was he quite something? He was a wizard in a school for wizards. Wasn’t that quite normal?
“It’s just amazing, isn’t it?” the headmaster continued. “How you think you’ve seen everything, and then you show up.” He added, “And your parents really are Wanderers?”
Tom still wasn’t quite clear on what Wanderers were, but he knew his parents weren’t wizards, so he reasoned they had to be the former. “I guess so, sir.”
“Simply astounding,” the headmaster enthused.
He knew he was missing something. It didn’t feel right, the conversation. There was too much enthusiasm and praise coming from the headmaster. Astounding, amazing, quite something – those weren’t words normally associated with him. What could he have done for the headmaster to think those of him?
“A wizard born to Wanderers,” the old man said, “who would have thought it possible?”
Just then, Tom remembered the words Cindy had muttered as they both sat on the park bench. “You’re a little too different” she had said. He suddenly had a bad feeling about this.
“Doesn’t that happen often then, sir?”
“Never,” the headmaster said. “You’re the first.”
“Yes – they didn’t tell you?”
Tom shook his head. He was pretty sure he would remember if they had. Any sentence that began with ‘you are the first’ would not be easily forgotten. He was waiting for a moment like this, for someone to say he wasn’t a wizard, that there had been a mistake. But that wasn’t what they were saying, was it?
He was a wizard, but born to Wanderers… which wasn’t normal?
“What did they tell you?”
“That I was a wizard,” Tom said warily, “and that it would be better for me to go to a wizard school.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Do you know where Atlantis is?”
Tom almost said underwater. But he knew better now, so he shook his head.
“Do you know who the Wanderers are?”
“The people on the Other Side?”
He shrugged, confused. There was a feeling of déjà vu about this conversation. The headmaster turned to face the bookshelf. He shifted to his left, moved a few books and reached behind them. He returned to the desk with a black, glimmering, oval-shaped object the size of a bowling ball.
With a wave of his hand he cleared his desk, sending books, quills and other objects flying away. He placed the ball in the middle of the table.
“Come here, my boy.”
Tom pulled his chair up to the desk.
He didn’t want to. The way it glimmered, it didn’t look very friendly. But the headmaster stared at him impatiently, waiting. So he mustered up his courage. And he poked it.
So he poked it again.
“I said to hold it,” the headmaster snapped.
Tom reluctantly placed both his hands around it. It was warm. And it didn’t shock him like he thought it might. He looked up at the headmaster, wondering what to do next. And then the room began to fill with life as colour, sounds and images burst out from the ball.
They came from the sea many thousands of years ago. The winds had blown their ships off-course, and they had wandered upon our lands. They had travelled from far and had spent many months on the waters. They were weak and of ill-health.
They looked much like we did, but there was something about them, something that said they were different, that they were foreign. At first we thought it was the effects of the long arduous journey across the oceans. But time passed, and they recovered their strength, and still an aura of unknown hung about them.
It was much later did we realise. These beings, they were slower, weaker; they had bad sight and no magic. They were not wizards.
We called them Wanderers – they had wandered onto our lands.
They were few at first, and we were curious. We let them build houses and farm the land. Wanderers lived shorter lives and had more children. As the hundreds of years passed and their numbers began to grow, their houses became villages and towns.
It did not go unnoticed, their growth. What began as grumblings from the old became something more as the Wanderers outnumbered the wizards on the smaller islands of the continent of Atlantis.
It was many hundreds of years later did the War of the Wanderers take place. Some wizards had come to see the Wanderers as an inferior race, one sent to them by the oceans to serve.
Morgan Le Fay was one of those wizards. She attacked the Wanderers, destroying their towns and villages, killing those that resisted, enslaving the rest. But not all wizards agreed with her, and so began the war and the Clash of Two Houses.
House of Le Fay, led by Morgan, and House of Zarlock, led by Merlin – the two oldest of Houses, the two most powerful of Houses, pitted in battle against each other. As was custom, the two Houses and their allies met on the Plains of Al Kanathra to settle the victor.
Battle raged and casualties mounted, but none seemed the closer to triumph. Merlin sought Morgan to end the war as only the death of one could. He found her along the edges of the battlefield, resting near the White Forest.
They began their duel and as the day wore on they moved into the White Forest, going farther and deeper as they fought. They came upon the Silver Lake and Merlin and Morgan separated to take momentary refuge on either side of the water.
As Merlin sat by the lake with his back resting against the trunk of a white tree, a woman rose from beneath the waters. It was said that she was completely white – from her eyes, to her lips, to her hair, to the scale-like cloth that clung onto her body.
Merlin spoke not as she watched him, as she moved towards him, as she came to the edge of the lake. She sank below the waters again and a moment later a white unicorn nudged Merlin’s right arm. He climbed onto it and as it flew over the Silver Lake the white woman rose again from beneath the waters.
“I give you Excalibur,” she said and she threw a sword into the air.
Merlin caught the sword, the unicorn swooped down to where Morgan rested, and with one strike he sliced her head off. He returned to the Plains of Al Kanathra and threw her head onto the battlefield for all to see, for the war to end.
But the war did not end.
Morgan’s supporters fled the battlefield only to re-emerge ever more vengeful. They no longer wanted to rule over the Wanderers, they wanted to destroy them, to remove their species from Atlantis.
The attacks on Wanderers resumed shortly after Morgan’s death. Whole villages and towns would suddenly be surrounded by prowling hordes of Le Fays and then burnt to the ground, every Wanderer inside killed.
To prevent the genocide, Merlin gave to the Wanderers the smaller islands of Atlantis and ordered all the wizards to leave, to come to the mainland. And then he cast his greatest spell.
The rain began first, heavy and tranquil, it poured down for many days. And then came the wind, fierce and howling. They raised the waters of the ocean and engulfed the mainland. As the rain stopped and the water receded, the smaller islands, the islands of the Wanderers, disappeared. The mainland was now surrounded on all sides by a sea that stretched forever.
Merlin had left only one path that led from the mainland to the world outside. He trusted the secret of that path to a chosen few and together they tracked those wizards that had defied his call to leave, those that still remained on the Other Side.
Slowly, wizards and witches were brought back from the Other Side until there were no more.
The Wanderers told stories of magic to their children, stories of the great Merlin, the evil Morgan, and the land of the Atlanteans that sank, stories that changed over the years that passed, stories that became legends, stories that became myths.
The colours and sounds faded and the room came back into view. Tom let go of the ball and looked up. The headmaster was holding another round object in his hand. But this time he knew what it was – a globe.
“Look here.” The headmaster pointed at a spot to the left of Cornwall. “What do you see?”
There was nothing there but water, and he said as much. The old man gave a wave of his hand and land began to appear. Starting from Plymouth, it curved around the Isles of Scilly and up all the way to Ireland before extending westward.
“Atlantis,” the headmaster said.
It was huge, and so close to home, some of it straddling across the sea borders of England and France. How had they managed to hide it from the rest of the world? How had no one even accidently stumbled across it?
“The Wanderers… they have ships, planes, submarines-”
“Magic,” the headmaster said simply. “There’s only one way in and out of Atlantis my boy, and it’s on that wooden boat.”
There was a loud thundering knock on the door just then that startled both of them. “Caretaker Byrne, here for the boy,” a voice boomed.
“Is that the time already?” the headmaster peered at his wrist. “Well, what do you know, it is,” he chuckled. “He’s here to show you to your room.”
Tom didn’t want to go, not now, not yet. He had questions to ask. He thought he understood what Wanderers were. They were the people on the Other Side, the… normal people. And wizards, were they a different species? It seemed like they were, which raised the question, how was it possible for him to be a wizard?
The headmaster watched him carefully. “You’re a wizard Thomas, and that’s all that matters.”
“But how do you know, sir? How can you be so sure?”
“Because I can see,” the headmaster said gently. “Ah, this is all new to you but you can see too, my boy. There is something about wizards. They seem-” he paused, looking for the right word. “Familiar.”
The door opened and Tom almost shrieked at what he saw. He thought it was a headless person. But it wasn’t. They were just so tall that from where he sat the person was visible only up to its neck.
The headmaster gave a little bow. Tom took that as his cue to leave. He stood up and hastily did his best to mimic the bow before he grabbed his luggage and walked out through the door.
Caretaker Byrne was indeed a tall man, by far the tallest he had ever seen. He knew it was rude to stare at people, more so if they were different somehow. But Tom did exactly that as he trailed behind the caretaker. He couldn’t help it. He was in awe.
“You find my height fascinating?”
Tom quickly averted his eyes to the ground. “No sir,” he lied.
“I am considered short for my kind.”
He wondered if Caretaker Byrne was one of those giants Cindy had mentioned.
He had hoped for a bit more than that, but Caretaker Byrne didn’t seem like a man of many words. Tom decided he was a giant. He had to be. He was much too tall to be anything else.
They walked the rest of the way in silence. Caretaker Byrne led him down the corridor and out into a courtyard, through another corridor and then out again, into the open.
The school was on a hill. They had walked through it and come out on the other side. A stone path led down the hill, surrounded by a forest on both sides. The further they went, the closer the trees grew to the path.
At the bottom of the hill, just before the forest began, was a single white tree. Set against the backdrop of rich greenery, the tree seemed to almost glow. But it wasn’t the tree or the scenery that had Tom staring with his mouth half-open as he walked. It was what was on the tree.
The trunk of the tree was large and round and it rose up straight for a few metres, and perched on it, with the branches spreading out on all sides, was what looked like a small cottage.
It was a tree house…
“You will be staying here,” Caretaker Byrne said in that deep booming voice of his. “Supper is served between six and eight in the main hall,” he added and he turned and walked off.
Tom watched him go, his mouth still half-open. He was going to come back. Caretaker Byrne was going to come back, he was sure of it. This had to be a joke. They weren’t going to leave him here all alone.
Caretaker Byrne disappeared over the hill.
Tom waited for him to reappear.
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