The Tiger, The Wizard,
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…
The Tiger, the Wizard and the Cupboard
More sand filled into Matt’s shoes as he trudged up the dune. It made sense, he supposed. The sand was already in his mouth, his ears, his eyes, his hair and inside his clothes, so why not his shoes? He glanced back at Katie, the woman with the gun. It hung loosely in her hand and he wondered if now were a good time.
She did look very tired. And maybe a little frustrated.
Katie’s eyes narrowed as she noticed him staring. “Why have you stopped?”
Because I’m thinking of taking that gun off you and shooting you in the head with it, Matt thought. “I’m tired,” he said.
“We can take a break,” Katie said and she abruptly plonked down on her bottom and slung the bag of mostly coins off her shoulder and placed it beside her. “What?”
Katie pointed to her left with the gun. “Do you want to sit over there?”
Matt glared at her. She responded equally, her grip tightening on the gun. Matt moved a few steps away from her and sat down. He took off his shoes and held them upside-down, shaking the sand out, wondering how this had happened to him. All he had wanted was an ice-cream. And now, here he was, in the middle of a desert – he was going to die. If it weren’t the heat that killed him, it would be the gunshot wounds of an ill-fated struggle.
“Was that thing always there?” Katie asked.
He looked up to see her staring at the dune to the left; the one she had earlier pointed towards. There was something on it. A tall, black, rectangular object sat perfectly amongst the sand. Matt sat up. No, it hadn’t always been there. That exact spot was completely empty just a moment ago.
He stood up and began to walk towards it.
“What are you doing?” Katie asked.
“I want to see what it is,” Matt replied without stopping.
Katie got up and slung the bag of mostly coins over her shoulder. She trudged after him, taking quick steps and coming up beside him. “Why?”
Why not, he thought. It was the first thing he had seen that wasn’t sand and cactus since they had abandoned his car. Maybe there was water in it. Oh, what he would do for some water…
The dune flattened at the top and was hard as a rock. The black object sat on it, seemingly entrenched into the hard ground. It was made of wood and had double doors, each with a ring handle attached.
“Is that a wardro-”
“It’s a cupboard,” Katie interrupted. “What’s it doing here?”
They both turned to look around, searching for anything else they might have missed, or anything that could explain how the cupboard had made it here. There was nothing but sand for miles and miles in all directions, and above them was the scorching sun.
“Maybe there’s water inside,” Katie said. “Open it,” she pointed at the handles with her gun.
That was what Matt had planned to do all along, to open it. If nothing else, it would provide them some shade from the heat. But now that Katie had told him to do it, and with her gun hand too, he suddenly didn’t want to anymore.
He turned to observe her once more. She wasn’t much of a threat without the gun. Slender in frame, of average height, and pale skin that was now badly burnt; he wondered again why he hadn’t resisted much when she had held a gun to his back. They made it look so easy in the movies, he wondered if he could have turned quickly, caught her by surprise and snatched the gun off her.
At least, back in the town, if he was accidently shot, there was a chance he might have been rushed to hospital before bleeding to death. But out here, in the desert-
“Open it,” Katie repeated warily, her gun hand raised slightly and pointing in his direction now.
Matt looked away from her and back at the cupboard. It was completely black, but there were ever-so-faint carvings on it – hard to tell if it were writing or just designs. He reached for both the handles and pulled. The doors resisted and for a moment, nothing happened. Then suddenly, they swung open.
Matt stared inside. “Are those coa-”
“Cloaks,” Katie interrupted again.
Long and black, they hung down from the top, one after the other, row after row. Matt reached in and pushed a few away, expecting to find the wooden back of the cupboard. But it didn’t matter how many he pushed away, there seemed to be an endless supply that went much further back than should have been possible considering the size of the cupboard.
“You have to get in there,” Katie advised.
Matt pulled his hand out and took a deep breath, trying to calm his anger. He had been just about to step in when she had said that. He wasn’t normally a disagreeable person, but there was just something about her that made him want to do the opposite of everything she said. Maybe it had to do with the fact that she had taken him as a hostage. He didn’t bother turning to glare at her. He knew what would happen. She would order him to get in.
Matt stepped inside the cupboard and pushed aside the cloaks, going ever deeper. Moments later, he heard muffled noises coming from behind. He paused to listen. Footsteps, the rustling of cloaks…
Was there something else in there with him? What could possibly be hiding in a cupboard in the middle of a desert? The footsteps sounded like that of a sizeable creature, and the cupboard was deceptively large. Had a large desert animal taken residence in the cupboard? What kind of large animals lived in deserts?
Matt pushed aside the cloaks with both hands as panic began to set in. As he ran forward, he could hear the frequency of the steps behind him change too. Whatever was in here with him, it was chasing after him. He looked behind as he ran, expecting to see it any moment. And then he tripped over something on the ground and tumbled out through the back of the cupboard.
He turned as he fell to the ground, and scrambled back on his bottom, backing away from the cupboard, expecting something to jump out and grab him. Moments passed, and then something did come out, but it didn’t jump.
It fell, much like he had.
The head full of long black hair looked up and a burnt face stared at him.
“Katie,” he gasped.
“Why were you running?” she asked, looking a little spooked herself.
“I thought-” Matt stopped, not wanting to tell her what he had thought.
It was embarrassing enough knowing what had happened, that he had been afraid of her footsteps, that he had feared some desert creature was after him. He wouldn’t make it worse by telling her. It was stupid, wasn’t it? The only large desert animals were camels. And camels weren’t scary.
“Where are we?” Katie asked.
Matt looked around. The only thing that was still familiar from before they had entered the cupboard was the cupboard itself. Everything else had changed. They were no longer in a desert with rising dunes. They were on land flat as far as the eye could see. And tall savannah type grass grew all around them.
They both climbed off the ground slowly, dusting themselves whilst staring around bewildered.
“What happened to all the sand?” Matt asked.
“It’s gone,” Katie replied.
“I can see that,” Matt snapped. “But how, and where?”
Katie glared at him, and her eyes narrowed, but she said nothing. They stood still, staring at each other fiercely, and then Katie’s eyes drifted to her left. She seemed confused for a second. And then she suddenly she walked past Matt.
“Where are you going?”
She didn’t turn or stop to answer. “I saw something move that way,” she pointed in front of her with the gun.
“And you’re walking towards it? Seriously, do you always do stupid things?” Matt asked.
She stopped abruptly and turned to face him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The day had been too much for Matt. He wasn’t surprised his brain wasn’t functioning anymore. The desert heat must have fried something in there. That could be the only explanation. You didn’t walk into a cupboard in a desert and walk out through the back of the cupboard and end up somewhere completely different.
“You held up an ice-cream van, you kidnapped a person in broad daylight in front of the police, you made that same person drive you into a bloody desert, you abandoned the car and our only hope of being found and now, now you’re in a place,” Matt threw his hands up in exasperation, “I don’t even know what kind of place this is, but you want to walk towards something you just saw move? Have you seen where we are? It could be a lion!”
Katie’s eyes narrowed. “You’re British,” she said.
“You’re accent, I was wondering where you’re from,” she flashed him a smile before turning to walk off towards the moving thing amongst the tall stalks.
Matt closed his eyes, his hands rising to cover his face. “Oh wow,” he mumbled softly.
He wondered what the odds were of another person like her existing. Six billion people in the world, and he could confidently say she was one of a kind – and he had the misfortune of meeting that one.
Unsure as to why, he set off after her. He caught up quickly; she had come to a complete stop not far ahead. Whatever it was that had parted the long grass ahead had stopped too. As Matt caught the look on her face, he knew something was wrong.
She turned to look at him, her eyes wide. “Maybe we shouldn’t have come this way…”
Matt couldn’t say he was surprised. What did surprise him was that he found he didn’t want to say something unhelpful…
“What is it?” he whispered. “What have you seen?”
Katie didn’t reply, and it was a moment later did he notice the raised hand, her finger pointing. He followed it to the spot it pointed and noticed the flattened grass around the creature as it sat crouched. Its front legs extended before it. Its head was mostly covered by stalks of grass, but the eyes were clear to see. Large and menacing eyes that stared at them as its tail rose playfully.
“Is that…” Matt’s throat felt as if it had dried some more, even after the hours of desert heat it had withstood. “Is that a…” he couldn’t find the courage to muster the word and confirm his fear.
“A tiger,” Katie said.
That wasn’t what Matt had feared. He was thinking of another animal. They were in the middle of a savannah. This wasn’t tiger territory. He was about to ask Katie if she was sure when the creature suddenly rose.
Matt saw the face clearly, noticed the stripes. It was definitely a tiger. And, it was walking towards them.
Katie took a step back, her right shoulder brushed against his left, and she looked up at him.
“…It’s coming towards us.”
“Shoot it!” Matt hissed.
But Katie didn’t. Her head spun around frantically as she searched for an escape. And then, she suddenly bolted off in a direction to his left.
Matt stared after her, confused and scared. Didn’t she know you couldn’t outrun a tiger? Why hadn’t she taken a shot at it while it was still just standing there? He turned to look back. The tiger had stopped strolling towards them. It sat on its bottom, hunched on its front legs.
Matt was surprised the tiger hadn’t already pounced onto him. He turned and ran after Katie. Sure, he knew you couldn’t outrun a tiger. But, the only other thing to do was to stay where he was and stare at the beast.
Matt wasn’t sure what the advice was for dealing with tigers. Funnily enough, it had never really come up in any of his classes. But, even if the advice was to stand tall and be as a big a target as you could be, or fall to the ground and crumble up into a ball, he didn’t think he would do either.
Whoever came up with these sorts of survival guides had clearly never met the average man or woman. Faced off against an animal that wanted to eat you alive, the vast majority would turn and run.
Sweat dripped down Matt’s forehead as he run through the long stalks. He could see Katie ahead, and past her he spotted a single tree. As he run, he looked back to see where the tiger was, if it was following him.
The tiger was following him, but not like tigers normally do, not like the way predators stalk prey. The tiger almost pranced towards him, like it was following him in a leisurely manner. It was still catching up though, and quick.
Ahead of him, Katie had reached the tree. And now she was climbing it…
Matt almost stopped running when he realised what her plan was. He wanted to scream at her. He couldn’t believe he had just followed after her. But then, he supposed, nothing she had done up until this point had made any sense. Why did he think now would be any different?
Still, he ran until he came to the foot of the tree. It was a fairly large and leafless tree. The trunk rose about two meters above the ground before splitting into three large branches expanding three different ways. From there was a scatter of medium-sized branches and it was on one of those that Katie had perched herself on.
“It’s a tiger!” he screamed at her.
She stared down at him like he was the idiot. “Why do you think I climbed the tree?!”
He wanted to shake her, but he heard a low growl just then. He looked back. The tiger was about twenty meters behind him, sitting up much like a guard dog would. Why was it doing that? Why hadn’t it ripped his throat apart already?
He only realised what he was doing after he had grabbed hold of one of the large branches and pulled himself up. He was climbing the tree…
He held onto a smaller branch just above his head and steadied himself before he looked back at the tiger. It was still sitting there, upright, watching him. Holding onto the branches above, he carefully made his way to Katie, who had found an almost cosy spot where she sat crouched, trying to look as small as possible.
She eyed him with hostility as he approached.
He glared back at her. “You know tigers can climb trees, right?”
“You have a better idea?”
“Yes!” Matt fumed. He did have a better idea. “I told you to shoot it!”
Katie’s eyes turned back to the tiger. “It’s not real,” she said softly.
“What’s not real?”
Matt looked down at the tiger. It had moved closer to the tree. It now sat only a few meters away from the trunk. It looked real enough to him. What was she talking about?
“What isn’t real?”
“The gun… I needed some money… I was desperate… I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“You…” Matt paused. “The gun…” he stopped again. “You…”
Matt raised his right hand and wiped the sweat off his face. He sat down on a branch and stared at the tiger. The gun wasn’t real. He didn’t have to be here. The gun was a fake. So many times, he had thought of snatching the gun off her, or making a run for it. Each time, he told himself it wasn’t worth it. Just cooperate. She will let you go once she is a safe distance away from the police.
And now he was sitting on a tree branch, staring down at a tiger that behaved more like an amused guard dog, in a land that was… magical? His burnt skin from his time earlier in the sun still stung, so he couldn’t be dreaming. And, he didn’t do drugs…
Katie glanced towards him furtively and Matt sighed. This was the one time he was actually wishing her to be a cold-blooded robber. He needed her to be ruthless killer. That tiger wasn’t going to sit at the bottom of the tree forever. At some point, it was going to realise that it was a tiger…
And tigers could climb trees.
Katie sat perched on her bottom on a large branch, holding the branch above with her left hand, the gun in her right hand, and the bag of coins still slung over her shoulder. How much money she managed to steal? The bag was full of mostly coins. He wondered why she needed the money. Maybe he had misjudged her, maybe she didn’t have a completely rubbish reason for doing what she did. She must have been pretty desperate to rob an ice-cream stand.
He almost began to dislike her a little less. But then, the tiger growled from its sitting point near the foot of the tree. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t kill him, or that she didn’t want to either – he was still probably going to die now.
Matt sighed again. “You’re hopeless, you know that?”
She turned to look at him again, her mouth tightened, her eyes narrowed. He started to laugh and that seemed to infuriate her more.
“What’s so funny?” she scowled.
“You’re pointing the gun at me,” Matt started to laugh louder. “You have got to be the worst robber ever.”
Katie looked down at her right hand before she hesitantly withdrew it to her side, causing Matt to laugh even louder.
She glared up at him. “It’s solid metal,” she said angrily. “I can still hit you on the head with it.” She turned her back towards him.
Matt smiled. For the first time since he had been taken hostage, he was oddly relaxed. He found the situation amusing. He was stuck on a tree with the most hapless crook ever, there was a tiger sitting at the bottom of that tree, and not to forget, they were in a strange land that had appeared out of the back of a cupboard.
Maybe he shouldn’t have ruled out a dream so hastily… he pinched himself.
Katie turned to look at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” Matt said sheepishly.
She scowled again before turning her back to him.
Matt looked down at the tiger, still there at the foot of the tree, it was now resting on its side as its tail moved playfully. Again, he wondered why the tiger didn’t just climb up the tree and eat them. What was it waiting for? What was it thinking?
At that moment, the tiger turned its head to look away from the tree. It sat up suddenly and its ears pricked. It had sensed something, and Matt thought he knew what. Quite far away, in the direction the tiger was looking, Matt thought he could see a black pointy object moving towards them.
“Katie,” he called, “there’s something out there.” He pointed without looking at her, his eyes squinting, trying to focus on the object.
As it came nearer, the object became clearer, and what Matt thought was one mass pointy object was in fact a man, and the pointy thing, his hat. He wore a long black cloak; his hat was black too, as was his face, and he was floating towards them.
“It’s a man,” Katie whispered.
That was what Matt had thought too at first, but he wasn’t so sure anymore. “Where are his feet?”
The thing glided towards them. And the long stalks of grass, they didn’t part as he should have brushed against them, they didn’t move at all. Matt rubbed his eyes. He had to be hallucinating. The man, the thing, it moved like a ghost, going through the grass.
It reminded him of a grim reaper. “Shoot it,” Matt said. He turned to look at Katie. “Shoot it,” he begged.
She stared back at him, bewildered. He knew the gun wasn’t real, that it couldn’t fire bullets, but he still stared at it desperately, willing her to pull the trigger and stop that thing. Was he losing it? He had to be, that was the only logical explanation.
The tiger gave another low growl as it ran towards the man, the thing. Matt watched it, suddenly feeling elated. The two would fight and while they did that, he could make his escape. He stood up on the branch and moved too quickly. His back foot lost its balance as his front foot stepped onto one of the larger branches. He felt himself falling. His hands reached forward, trying to grab hold of something, anything.
His right hand grabbed hold of a twig. His left hand clasped thin air. Neither was a good thing to hold when falling. His mouth opened in horror, but before a word could come out, he hit the ground, landing squarely on his back.
He was staring up at the tree, he could see Katie. No, he could see Katies’. There was two of her. And now they were merging together. He closed his eyes as the pain throughout his body shot straight up. His head felt like it was going to explode.
And then he felt something wet on his face. Was he bleeding? He opened his eyes to see fur, some white, some black, and some orange. Where was he? What had happened to the tree? He could hear a noise, a slurping sort. What was on his face?
He pushed the fur away with both hands and sat up. He rubbed his face and stared down at his hands, trying to make out what it was that stuck to his face like slime. His sight was still a little blurry, but as he raised his right hand and watched the sticky stuff drop, he thought he knew what it was.
That furry thing he had pushed away…
Matt’s eyes widened as he raised his head. It sat up like a guard dog a meter away from him, its eyes fixed on him, its mouth open, and its tongue long and hanging.
Matt’s mind began to race as he struggled to remember which animals playing dead worked with. He was almost certain it didn’t work with tigers. And even if it did, he had already sat up. Wasn’t it too late to play dead now?
With his eyes still on the tiger, he began to move back on his bottom, in slow motion. He wasn’t getting very far very quickly, but it made sense in his head. By moving ever so slowly, he was playing dead, but at the same time, he was moving away from the tiger.
“What are you doing?”
Matt shuddered, confused and frightened. Where had the words come from? Was it the tiger talking?
The word hadn’t come from the tiger. It was coming from above and beyond the tiger. He looked up. The tree had returned. And sat on it, in the same position as before, was Katie. He noted with anger how she hadn’t moved even an inch since his fall. Not even a branch down to check on him.
She stared down at him worriedly. He glared up at her.
“Why are you moving like that? Have you broken your legs?”
He was so angry then, he wanted to shout at her, but the tiger was still only a few meters away from him. It was still watching him, its posture the exact same, not having changed a bit, not even to follow the noise that had come from above. Not for the first time, he wondered what was going on. Why was it just sitting there?
The tiger smiled.
Matt blinked. He blinked again. It was still smiling. He didn’t know tigers could smile. It was the most terrifying thing he had ever seen. He couldn’t do it anymore, playing dead whilst moving back. He got up, turned and ran for his life.
He didn’t get very far.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the tiger that stopped him. It was the man in black, the man that moved through things as if he were made of matters not solid. But he was quite solid, Matt found, as he crashed straight into him.
It was like running into a brick wall. The man budged not the slightest, but Matt dropped to the ground, dazed for the second time. He was on the dusty ground again as he crawled back, looking up, expecting to see something terrifying and devilish. He was sure if it didn’t hurt so much, he could convince himself it was a nightmare.
The man smiled at him, showing beautiful white teeth. “Bhalo achen?”
Matt stopped crawling and stared up at him confused?
The man shook his head enquiringly. “Salaam?” he asked and when Matt didn’t respond, he followed with “Bonjour?” and when a hint of recognition appeared on Matt’s face, the man continued “Ah, vous etes François?”
Matt shook his head. “English,” he said as he rubbed his head, wondering how hard he must have banged it. He looked over his shoulder to see where the tiger was. It hadn’t moved it at all. It sat there, still a few meters away, still smiling, still looking terrifying. He turned back to the man standing in front of him. “Where am I?”
The man looked around before answering. “I don’t really know,” he said in perfect English. “I would say Africa, but that’s a Bengal tiger over there…” he paused before smiling again. “And you might find this interesting,” he said as he pointed behind Matt, “that species of tree actually died out many thousands of years ago”.
Matt looked over his shoulder again, this time at the tree. He didn’t find it interesting. He was more confused and annoyed now than he had been before he spoke to the man. He turned back to look at him. He was a tall man dressed in a plain black cloak that draped down from his neck, covered his whole body and rested on the ground. He stared at where the feet would be, remembering how the man had glided towards them.
“Your friend seems very concerned,” the man said. “We should go to her”.
She wasn’t his friend, Matt thought. But he didn’t think now was the time or place to air unimportant details. There would be time for that once he made it home. For some reason, he suddenly had a little hope that he might actually make it home alive. He wasn’t sure what his hope was based on. The tiger and the man both still looked terrifying.
The man began to move then, and again, he glided forward and as Matt watched, the position where his feet should have been made no discernible movements.
“Come now,” the man said as he passed Matt who was still staring down at where his feet should have been. “There are many things more fascinating to examine than my movement. That tiger for example, have you seen how he smiles? Charming, isn’t it?”
You and I have very different views on what constituted as charming, Matt thought, as he clambered up and followed closely behind the man as he headed towards the tree. He made sure to keep the man in-between him and the tiger as they passed it. Sure it hadn’t attacked him yet, but it was still a bloody tiger!
The tiger watched them as they passed. It had stopped smiling and seemed a little bored now, distracted even. Suddenly, it stood up and strolled towards them. Matt grabbed hold of the man’s arm and pointed behind.
“The tiger, the tiger!” he gasped.
“Oh, do calm down,” the man said without looking back, still steadfastly heading towards the tree. “If it intended to eat you, it would have done so already.”
Unconvinced, Matt refused to let go of the man’s arm. The tiger followed them, coming close up to the man, and thankfully, staying on the other side to him. And that was how they made it to the bottom of the tree – Matt still holding one of the man’s hand, the tiger now rubbing its head against the man’s other hand.
Katie stared down at the trio perfectly bemused.
“What’s going on?” she asked him.
Matt stole his eyes away from the tiger just for a second to look up at her. She was still in that same position on the tree, her body crouched in-between branches, her left hand holding on for dear life, the gun in her right hand.
“Hello,” the man said pleasantly to her.
“He… he speaks?”
He definitely spoke, and more than one language. Matt nodded without looking up, his eyes back on the tiger that had just lain down on the ground like a kitten. Its paws were up as it clawed at the man’s cloak. The man seemed unperturbed by this sudden assault and strangely, the giant claws did no damage…
“Wouldn’t you like to come down?” the man asked Katie.
She seemed to mull the question over before tentatively replying “…umm.”
“It’s much safer down here,” the man encouraged.
“Matt?” she called.
He looked up.
“Is it what?” he asked.
“Is it safe down there?”
Matt looked back at the tiger. It had bored of clawing at the man’s cloak and was now playing with its own tail. He looked back up at Katie and shrugged.
Katie seemed to take that as a yes. She moved down carefully off her branch and stood a little as she stepped onto the larger branches. As she made it to the trunk, she held onto one of the three branches, swung underneath it and promptly dropped onto her bottom clumsily.
The tiger stopped playing with its tail and sat up, alert. Matt muffled a gasp. Katie stood up and dusted herself down before she came up to the man and stuck her hand out.
“I’m Katie,” she introduced herself.
“How very nice to meet you,” the man smiled widely before he shook her hand. “I am the wizard”.
The tiger came up to Katie curiously, and instead of backing away like any sane person would do, she rubbed its head.
“What… what are you doing?” Matt asked. “That’s a tiger, not a dog,” he hissed at her.
Katie looked at him offended. “I can see what-”
“Come now,” the wizard interrupted. “Let us sit.” He grabbed them both by the arm and easily sat them on the floor at the bottom of the tree, one either side of him. “We have important things to discuss.”
The tiger took a seat next to Katie, and smiled as she rubbed its stomach. She looked up to give Matt a dirty look, one he returned with as much resentment as it were possible to muster onto his face. If she wanted to play with a tiger, then that was her choice. Why did he care? On the bright side, he would be rid of her soon, when that tiger became hungry and ate her.
“So, the question to begin with is,” the wizard said as he looked first at Katie, and then at Matt, “why are you here?”
“We were in a desert. We found a cupboard and walked into it. And, we came out on this side,” Katie said.
The wizard chuckled. “It never ceases to amuse me how often that works,’” he smiled. “But, that wasn’t what I meant. Why are you really here? Something is wrong. What is it?”
“She kidnapped me,” Matt blurted out.
Katie glowered at him. He shrugged. It was true. She had kidnapped him. A lot had happened this day, but he wasn’t going to forget why it had all started. He was happily waiting in queue to buy an ice-cream before she turned up with a realistic fake nine millimetre. He was in queue for an ice-cream for crying out loud, who the hell robs an ice-cream shop?
“Ah, and why did you kidnap him?” the wizard asked her.
“I needed money,” Katie said defensively.
The wizard turned to Matt. ”Do you have money?”
Matt was a little taken back by the frank and personal questioning. It was his turn to become defensive. “I might have some,” he said.
“Ah,” the wizard said knowingly, as if something just clicked. “And what do you need?”
Matt didn’t have to think the question over. He didn’t need anything. He was content in life. He had money, friends, and a fulfilling job. He smiled smugly as he said as much.
“Do you have someone to share it with?”
Someone to share it with… Matt looked at the wizard, momentarily confused before his eyes opened wide. No. He began to shake his head. He looked at Katie before he shook it more frantically. He knew what the wizard was getting at. There was no chance, not with her. Never.
It was a moment later before Katie understood where the wizard was going with this. She looked horrified, almost disgusted.
“Excuse me?” Matt said, offended now. “What’s wrong with me?”
“What’s wrong with me?” she shot back.
“YOU KIDNAPPED ME!” he shouted at her, throwing his hands in the air.
“I. Needed. The. Money,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, everyone needs money. Most people get a job.”
“You’re such a-”
The wizard held his hand up to interrupt. “Let me explain something to you. It is never the same, when a person, two people, three or more arrive here. Sometimes it’s really complicated. We sit here for hours on end, trying to understand, trying to figure out a solution. Sometimes, it takes so long, tiger there has to go out and hunt, to bring us food. But, in this case, it is really simple. You’re in need of each other. You both-”
“I don’t need-” both Matt and Katie began, but they stopped short as the tiger sat up from its playful position and growled.
“He doesn’t like me being interrupted,” the wizard said softly. “Now, where was I? Ah yes, it’s really quite simple. You two should marry.”
Matt and Katie stared at each other, taken aback by the suggestion. Matt recovered quicker, and he suddenly had an idea. They were here for a reason, the wizard had said. Plenty had come before them, and the wizard had mediated, Matt doubted very successfully, but sure, in the wizards mind, a solution had been found. It was what happened after that interested Matt.
He had an idea, but he needed Katie to be on board. He gave her what he hoped was a very thoughtful look before he winked. It didn’t seem to work as she stared at him, exasperated. He shook his head frustrated and decided to launch into it anyway.
“So, let’s say we agree to marry,” he began and immediately Katie raised her hands in objection. He ignored her. “What would happen then?”
“Then there would be no need for you to be here,” the wizard smiled.
Brilliant. There was a way home. All he had to do was pretend to like Katie for awhile. How hard could that be? He turned to look at her. Her lips were curled and her eyes narrow. He hoped that meant understanding had dawned on her.
“Of course, I can’t expect you to just fall in love. Me and tiger here are going to go for a walk, let you spend some time alone to get to know each other, think everything through,” the wizard said and he stood up.
Matt’s eyes inadvertently went towards the wizard’s feet. He was definitely floating, he decided, as he watched the wizard move without making any discernible physical movements. The tiger followed after the man in black, leaving behind an awkward silence. Matt and Katie stared at each other.
“How long do you think they’ll be gone?” Katie asked.
Matt shrugged before he got up and sat at the bottom of the tree, leaning his back against it. He hoped it wasn’t very long. He picked up a stalk and began chewing on it, whilst wishing he had on one of those cowboy hats. The scenery was perfect for it.
An hour passed, and still, there was no sign of the wizard or the tiger. Katie had joined him at the bottom of the tree, leaning her back against it, her shoulder was now resting against his. He had minded at first, but he was leaning back on it now, and truth be told, he was tired. And it was comfortable.
“Who robs an ice-cream stand?” Matt asked, finally saying what he had been thinking for the past ten minutes.
Katie turned her head to look at him. “You have a better idea?”
“Yes,” Matt said instantly. “Banks, jewellery shops, petrol stations, even the American equivalent of corner shops.”
“They all have CCTV, smartass,” Katie replied nonchalantly.
That stopped him short. He didn’t have an immediate answer. He supposed ice-cream stands didn’t have much in the way of security. It was probably because they didn’t have much to guard, he thought. But it was too late to say that and another long silence lapsed.
“Why did you need the money?” Matt asked.
“Why do you care?”
He didn’t. He was just trying to make conversation to pass the time. But if she would rather sit in silence, he was perfectly fine with that. He moved a little to his left to create a distance between them. She gave him a dirty look but said nothing.
They sat in silence again. Matt stared out towards the direction the wizard and his tiger had wandered off in. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing there but long stalks of yellow grass. He stared up at the sun. They had been here for hours now, and the sun had moved not an inch. How was that possible?
“My little brother is an idiot,” Katie suddenly said. “I’m going to kill him myself when I get home,” she muttered.
“Well, aren’t you always a pleasant one,” Matt said sarcastically.
She ignored his remark. “He got mixed up in the wrong crowd, ended up owing money to this thug named Mark.”
Matt turned to look at her, astonished. “So you decided to rob an ice-cream stand?”
“What else was I supposed to do? They hung him in a well upside down for three hours, said next time they’d drop him in, pour gasoline…” she stopped.
Matt watched her carefully. He thought he had seen her eyes bubbling up before she turned her head away from him. If what she had said was true, robbing an ice-cream stand suddenly didn’t seem like such a stupid idea. Pouring gasoline down… they threatened to burn him alive? That sounded particularly awful and a little bit unnecessary. If a body was to be found burned alive, wasn’t it more likely the police would search longer and harder to find the perpetrators?
But then, America was a pretty large country with over three hundred million people. He supposed it was perfectly normal that a small number of those were mentally primitive and basically crazy.
Katie still had her head turned away from him. He thought he heard a sniff, but couldn’t be sure. He wanted to comfort her, that would have been the right thing to do, but, they didn’t exactly have the best of relationships. He wasn’t sure what reaction he would receive were he to throw his arms around her to give her a hug.
He decided to comfort her with words. Unfortunately, instead of saying the usual blah of not worrying and everything was going to be fine, Matt said “Want to marry me?” and then he smiled like an idiot.
She turned her head, and the expression on her face was one that most sane people would have had under the circumstances. Her brows furrowed, her eyes narrowed, her lips tight – she was not amused.
“Sorry…I…sorry,” Matt said sheepishly.
They sat silently again, but with one difference. Matt no longer felt an animosity towards Katie. He wondered what he would have done if he were unfortunate enough to have been in a similar situation. Probably go to the police. But then, there was the risk that this Mark might react badly to being visited by the police.
Alternatively, he could go to one of those money lenders that charged extortionate rates of interest, not be able to pay them back, end up homeless on the streets and then, either slum it out, or do something stupid and end up in prison.
“He’s coming back,” Katie said.
She was right. The wizard was floating towards them once more, alone, without the tiger. Matt stood up and brushed the dust off his clothes. He could see the wizards face now, and the wide smile that it wore. Matt couldn’t help but notice how white and perfect his teeth were.
“I think it’s time you went home,” the wizard said.
Matt wasn’t expecting him to say that. He turned to look down at Katie. She held her hand out; he grabbed hold of it and helped her up.
“Come on,” the wizard began to float away from them. “Time is of the essence.”
They hurried after the wizard as he floated towards the cupboard. Once there, he climbed on top and sat there in a meditating pose, his eyes closed. Awhile passed, and Matt leaned down, about to whisper in Katie’s ear when the wizard opened his eyes and stared straight at him.
“Time to go,” he said. “Just one thing to explain, while you’ve been here, time has actually been going backwards in your world,” the wizard climbed down off the cupboard. He opened the door. “In you go,” he said and waited impatiently.
Neither of them moved. “What do you mean time has been going backwards?” Katie asked.
The wizard sighed and stared down at his wrist, on which there was nothing. “I suppose we have a few minutes,” he looked up at them. “For every minute you spent here, a certain amount of minutes reversed in time back where you came from. I’ve estimated that amount of time to be roughly fourteen hours. So, when you go back to your world, everything you did the fourteen hours prior to entering the cupboard will never have happened.”
“How… how is that possible?”
“I really don’t have the time to explain,” the wizard said, “but it’s called time-travelling, or at least it’s a variation of that. Go home and Google it,” he smiled.
“There’s going to be two of me when I get back?” Katie asked.
“No. That’s why it is a variation on the traditional time-travelling. Your other self will disappear at the exact moment you walk out the other side of that cupboard.”
“Into thin air,” the wizard said. “I’ve been told it can be quite disturbing to those who witness it. Unfortunately, there isn’t any other way.”
“I was having dinner in a restaurant roughly fourteen hours ago,” Matt said, looking a little concerned.
“I was at home, in bed, planning carefully how to rob the ice-cream stand,” Katie said cheerfully.
“Matt, I believe you were heading for the toilet any moment now,” the wizard said.
He was right. Matt did recall needing to use the toilet while they waited for their food to be served. The wizard smiled and indicated in with his hand. Matt moved quickly for the door. Katie followed him in reluctantly.
“Good luck,” the wizard said as he closed the door behind them.
They waded their way silently through the cloaks. Matt was first to the other side and he pushed open the door and stepped out. They were still in the desert, and it was dark. But not far away, he could see lights. They trudged quietly through the sand, heading for the lights. Matt had his head up, Katie, her head down.
The lights turned out to be street lamps. They stopped walking just as they climbed up the railings and onto the pavement. Katie leaned against the railings, her head still down, deep in thought.
“I should really call Susan…” Matt said absently before he noticed Katie. “Hey, you haven’t tried to rob the ice-cream stand yet.”
“I still need the money,” she said dejectedly.
This was crazy, but Matt felt something for Katie just then. And no, it was love. It didn’t matter that the wizard thought they should get married. That definitely wasn’t going to happen. But he did want to help her.
Matt placed a hand on Katie’s shoulder and gently squeezed. “I’m sure we can figure something out.”
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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