… and number 4. I just liked the idea of a story within a story.

 

Lightning Tree

 

The wood was old:  firmly entrenched in the small valley.

The trees were old:  gnarled and bent with time and weather’s aging.

The very air itself seemed old:  laden with mystery and portents.

The people were … young, for the most part.

 

“Please miss?  I think I got a splinter from one of the tent-pegs.”

Mrs Calderbank, the Gym teacher, looked down at the girl.

“I doubt it … not very easy to get splinters from metal pegs … let me look at it, just in case.”

The reddening on Karen’s finger had probably been caused by accidentally hitting it with a mallet.  That was her opinion, but she cooed and fussed over it for a few minutes anyway, until the child calmed down.

“There you are.  No real harm done … and I’m glad to see you were paying attention earlier.  I can’t see anything wrong with your tent, and you got it erected very quickly … well done.”

“Thanks Miss.  Judy and Sarah did most of it, but we tried to work as a team, just like we’d been shown.”

This was, perhaps, the main objective of the trip:  to get younger and older students working together.  It also allowed them to let off excess energy and noise, and meant that the school would be a fractionally quieter place while they were away.

“You can relax for a while, now.  The boys have nearly finished the latrines, and the fire is almost ready to start cooking supper … If you want to stroll in the woods, make sure you go with someone who’s been here before … I don’t want anyone getting lost … and watch out for stinging nettles.”

Karen smiled:  her finger already forgotten.

“I’m looking forward to ‘after’ the meal … Judy said we would sit round the fire till it was dark, and you and others would tell us stories … bye, Miss.”

 

This is a tale from not too long ago … only twelve years, or thereabouts … when the woods were home to a wider variety of life … not all of it human.

Did you notice, earlier, the way the trunk of that tree seems split into two near the more recent growth, at the top?  Even now you can see the twisted roots at the tree’s base … the way they are entwined, creating little nooks, and cavelets … and the shadowed ‘holes’ that used to be home to innocent, and slightly mischievous, imps.

There was a dark-mage … not a nice man.  He liked to climb the tree, and sit, almost at the tallest point, so he could survey everything around.  He used to lash the poor imps with switches made of briar twigs, and cared nothing for their pain and discomfort.  He sent the tiny creatures out of the woods every once in a while, to do his bidding … to steal … to plant nightmares in the minds of people he wanted to hurt … to hunt out strange and rare herbs and plants, that he used in his darkest spells.

This went on for a long time, until the night the ‘other’ came.

The dark-mage preferred velvets and silks, which was how he was garbed just then … soft, expensive, powerful clothing with metallic gold braid edging the hems.  He looked with disdain on the ‘lowly’ figure, just arrived.  The plain brown habit they were wearing was made from rough material, and conveyed no sense of strength or importance.

“I have come to stop you.”

The voice was calm, warm, almost friendly, and the mage was not impressed by it.

“You?  Fool?  Forgive me if I sound cynical, but you don’t exactly have me quaking in my boots at your ‘magnificence’.”

The mage hit him with Earth, first … it rippled and bucked under the monks feet … deep chasms opened in front of him, and rocks pelted him.

The figure stood there, feet firm, not wavering, and the rocks merely bounced off.

The mage hurled Fire at him:  torn as if from the gates of hell itself, the flames licked hungrily, curled and surrounded him, seeking to devour with their insatiable appetite.

Smoke cleared, and the figure was still there … untouched, not even sweating.

Next, he clawed handfuls of Air from the atmosphere, and threw it at the figure … a whirlwind, tornado, buffeting, and sucking the oxygen away … it still didn’t work.  The monk’s robes were not even ruffled.

Water, called up from the depths … cold, unforgiving, it swelled up, and flashed, all-consuming and unstoppable towards him … and stopped.  The monk gestured, and the waters calmed:  sinking slowly away without coming near him.

It was the monks turn now.  Clouds gathered overhead, and before the mage could defend himself, a bolt of lightning struck: searing him to dust, and with a mighty ‘crack’ splitting the top of his tree.

The imps screamed, and ran from their root homes.  They were never seen again.

The monk had one more thing to do.  A patch of rich, dark earth was levitated to the centre of the ‘V’ where the trunk had been split … a tiny seed was placed carefully in it, and the vanishing thunder clouds were gently persuaded to shed one, two, three … four silver tears of rain, on the precious gift he had left as an apology … he made a last, quiet vow to the tree, before disappearing from the woods.

“I am sorry for the loss of your friends, but if it takes ten years, I will make sure that you do not remain lonely.”

 

She knew the flowers: a vibrant healthy ‘splash’ of purple, were there, and that no one could see them from ground level.  She knew why the headmaster arranged camping here every summer, to give the tree company.

Sarah also suspected that the ‘true’ story had not been half as pretty, or easy, as her own … but she preferred ‘her’ version.

 

 

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… and, School/Simon story number 3.

Senior Students

 

“I am sooo much in trouble.  Well: it was nice knowing you two … maybe I should go and pack my bags, ready for the journey home.”

“Don’t be such an idiot, Pat.  If anyone’s in trouble, ‘we’ are.  I don’t think anybody actually saw you standing there, waving your hands in the air like a loon, and shouting, “Leviosaah”, like some first year Hogwarts student … and it was ‘me’ that started the fire.  You wouldn’t have even been there if it weren’t for us … we’ll share any punishment.”

The three had been close friends for about two and a half years now:  since the school had acquired the new headmaster, and certain ‘gifted’ pupils had started on, how can I put this, ‘extra-curricular’ studies.  They were standing in the Chinese garden that was part of the school grounds.  They often met here, by the little arched bamboo bridge, to plan things they shouldn’t be doing:  or to discuss things they had got away with … this was ‘not’ one of those things.

Jen put a supporting arm around Padraig’s shoulder.  Sarah was still busy reading the article in the local paper.  The picture heading the article was quite clear … too clear.

“Freak Explosion Saves Driver’s Life!”

That was the headline.  The picture underneath appeared a bit like some avant-garde artiste’s latest exhibit … probably titled, “Cab with Cloth”.  What little remained of the rear of the vehicle looked like it had been peeled from the back to the front, like a metal banana.  The cab itself was just about visible through the vast cloud of towels and sheets that seemed to have cushioned it above, below, at the sides, and somehow, even ahead of it.

 

“Padraig O’Connor?  I’d like to see you in my office … Jennifer Morris, Sarah Aldon … I will talk with you later.”

Crunch time!  It was extremely rare for the headmaster to use telepathy to call a student, and this indicated just how seriously he considered the nature of their latest  ‘adventure’ … what else could it be about?

“Don’t take all the blame.”

Jen released him, after a brief hug.  Sarah looked up from the paper.

“Use that magic Irish tongue of yours, Pat.  He’s always been fair, and … make him see that we ‘did’ do the right thing.”

“I feel like hamster fodder.”

That was all he said as he walked away.  These three were among the very few students that knew the true identity of the headmaster’s ‘pet’.

 

“Sit down, Padraig.”

Simon steepled his hands together, in front of him, as if he were about to deliver a sermon.  He had always hoped that the young man in front of him, and his friends, would grow up to join a rather ‘unconventional’ government department that he had dealings with.

“You and your colleagues are normally very responsible, when it comes to your ‘skills’.  I don’t consider “front page news” as being particularly … subtle … even if it apparently has not been connected to any of you.  I would like to hear, in your own words, how it happened.”

It was the only chance he and his friends would get, and he knew it.  Pat did not try to embellish the tale in any way:  he kept to the facts.  Simon knew their talents:  Sarah, the strong empath, and already showing potential to also become a healer:  Jen, the fire-starter who, if she learnt enough control, could become a devastating human weapon:  and himself, of course:  Pat / Padraig, the erratic telekinetic who, until recent events, was comfortable manipulating no more than about two or three bricks in weight.

 

“I had finished my science project earlier than expected, and the others had no homework that evening.  We thought we would just have a quick look around town, before bed-time.  We were on the overpass, not taking much notice of the traffic, until Jen spotted the laundry van.

She drew our attention to it, as it was ‘weaving’ slightly across the lane.  Sarah really scared me.  She went deathly white, and blurted out, “It’s the driver … He’s having a heart attack.”  I put what pressure I could on it, and Jen blew out the rear tyres, but it was moving too fast …”

Simon was listening intently.  He said nothing, but motioned Pat to continue.

“You know how that railing leads round to the right … If we had not found a way to stop it before then, it would have gone over about half way round … straight into the library.  There were too many people in there, and I knew we … somehow … had to act quickly.”

Simon raised a hand to stop him.

“So, assuming that no-one would notice the three of you, concentrating so intently, you asked Jen to ignite the fuel tank … hoping it would blow the van off the road, before it reached the curve … that wouldn’t have been enough to lift it over the railing … rather heavy things:  fully loaded laundry vans.”

Pat smiled to himself … of course the headmaster knew them well enough to understand that he had ‘helped’ the van to its stopping place.

“I think Jen learnt some valuable lessons about her own control … She was wonderful.  I could sense that she was actually shaping the fire of the explosion, so it tore the back apart, without burning the cab, or causing damage around it … and … I remembered something you said a few weeks ago.”

The headmaster spoke again.

“I say lots of things … most of which I’m sure gets ignored … what, in particular helped you, this time?”

“I think you were talking about ‘similarities’ and resonance … it was something to do with finding connections, no matter how slight … I remember Sarah laughed when you said you liked ducks, because of their webbed feet:  and that always made you think of spiders’ webs, and helped you to feel the thoughts of anyone that was planning a trap … I had, this.”

Pat pulled the small feather from his pocket.

“I think it must have come out of my pillow.  It was the best ‘connection’ I had.  I kept thinking of that Harry Potter movie … Felt like my head was going to explode, but I got the cab over the railing:  I got all the bits of laundry to cushion it … and, according to the paper, the ‘soft’ bump of the landing actually re-started the driver’s heart.  I’m sorry, Sir … maybe there could have been a more ‘subtle’ way to do it … but it worked.”

 

Simon laughed, and then stood: walking around the desk to look over Pat’s shoulder.

“… so you came back to school with a nose-bleed and a severe headache:  and the local rag had something more exciting than the church fete to decorate the front page with.”

The headmaster glanced, once, at the photograph, and then opened the paper.

“Did you see this piece here, on page 11?”  Simon drew his attention to a block of text, so small, it could easily have been ignored.

 

Biblical Plague in Miniature!

Local biologists have blamed the recent hot weather for the unexpected swarm of frogs that appeared around Bellis Pond last Saturday.  The thousands of amphibians seemed to carpet the area like a huge green-brown carpet, for almost three hours:  totally destroying the insect population, and then ‘hopped off’:  disappearing to wherever it is that frogs go.

 

“This does not go outside the room:  not even to your friends … That was ‘my’ doing.  I sensed that someone had illegally dumped chemicals in the pond, and we were heading for a large number of illnesses in the town:  maybe even deaths, with what the flies could have spread in this climate … The particular bio-toxins, while very harmful to us, would not hurt the frogs, and they like insects … for food.

I was expecting some unwelcome local interest in the phenomena, which hopefully would have died down quickly.  Thanks to your escapade, my work appears to have been relegated to a mere footnote …”

Simon paused, and Pat waited for the bad news.

“… Before I tell you the results of ‘your’ actions, I will say this once, and once only … Don’t do it again!”

 

The girls were waiting for him on the bridge.  They glanced at each other:  both wondering just how severe the punishment had been.  Pat sat down quietly, looking a bit pale.

Sarah , always ready with a joke, broke the silence first.

“You’re here, so I take it Pebble didn’t get fed then?”

Jen ‘ssshh’d’ her impatiently.

“Be serious … what happened Pat?  You look terrible.”

 

“I don’t believe it.  I thought there was a good chance I would be expelled …  I’m not sure how it happened but somehow … you two have been made prefects … I’m the new Head Boy.”

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Serena

 

I suppose I should write this down for posterity, or something.  At the time, it was one of those “deal with” situations, and I was hardly expecting to keep a journal of the events.

 I had recently taken on a new position in the area, and was still settling in at the school.  I hadn’t even noticed this place, although I passed it every day.  It was a common or garden semi-detached house:  looking no different to the others on the quiet, tree-lined street, except …  Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Maybe a small bit of background would be appropriate.

I had been offered, by a good friend, the option of taking a new post as the headmaster of a mixed boarding school.  I think they had thought my talents could be useful in that particular area, which had, at best, a dubious reputation, in several ways.

My name is Simon, by the way, and those few people that know me well are aware that I sometimes take an unconventional approach to solving problems.

It was the mathematics mistress who first fully drew my attention to it.  She had pulled me to one side, in the teachers’ common room, and asked me if I knew anything about Serena, one of her brightest students.

I remember thinking at the time that her attitude was almost defensive.  She tried to find out if I had spoken to the girl, or had visited her parents, but seemed in some way scared of whatever answer I might give.  She was almost visibly relieved when I told her I had not had the chance to get to know all the pupils yet.  It wasn’t the first time Serena’s name had been mentioned.  It had come up in conversation with more of the tutors, in the last two weeks, and I was starting to get intrigued, myself, about the air of menace, and fear, that always accompanied these enquiries.

The school records showed her to be a talented and promising student, although there were several indications that she did not seem to make friends easily.

 

A common or garden semi-detached house … Yes it had those qualities:  blending in with its neighbours, and having no distinguishing marks or ‘atmosphere’ about it … or was there?  I stood on the street and calmed my thoughts:  reaching out to try to touch … whatever it was that set this place apart from the others.  A slight ‘tingling’ in the air:  a sense of a breeze, where there was no air movement:  a hint of … what was that?  … Jasmine, I think, came to me as I did my best to absorb the impressions I was able to receive.

Scary?  No:  I didn’t sense that it was, in any way … however, ‘something’ had my staff spooked, and I intended to find out what it was.

 

The following eight days did nothing to soothe the situation.  It was as if some kind of infection was spreading rapidly through staff, and pupils.  It had got so ‘nervy’ at school, that I was beginning to suspect a mutiny was imminent, and everyone would just walk out.  Not the best thing to happen so early in my tenure here, and would look poor on my resume, if I allowed it to continue to that stage.  This was the time for action, and it took me little effort to set a protective and calming ward over the buildings … as I said, I don’t always use conventional methods.

I had met Serena briefly last Tuesday, and was impressed by the sensible nature, and courteous speech of the rather plain red-headed young lady:  and … there it was … the feeling of something ‘hidden’ inside her.  Whatever it was, it felt like nothing ‘evil’, or anything like the malevolence I had dealt with in the past.  I could have pried:  there were more than a few tricks I could utilise to force things out in the open, but that has never really been my way.  I had been closely monitoring the ‘mood’ of the school, and it wasn’t exactly a great revelation to discover that the ‘calmer’ days were ones where a certain red-head was ‘not’ present:  either on free-study days, or perfectly legitimate off-grounds business.

 

The gate would have creaked as I opened it, ‘if’ I had opened it.  I stopped, hand not quite touching it, as I felt the confused thoughts.

“Why?  I’m so scared of the teachers … what if one of them found out, and thought me a freak?  Why can’t I just be normal?  It was bad enough at the old school … no-one controlled their thoughts there, and I can hardly be blamed for picking up some of them.  How was I supposed to remember what I’d heard as words, and what had not been spoken?  And when I say something that I couldn’t possibly know, what do they do … look at me as if I’m weird.

And now mum wants me to choose a new colour for the fence and gate … it doesn’t even need re-painting, and whatever I get will be wrong … as if I don’t have enough worries … Oh:  it’s the head … what’s he doing here?”

 ‘Now’ I knew … an untrained telepath.  It was Serena who had the fear and worry of ‘normal’ people, and had been unknowingly projecting that onto others.  It’s no wonder that the school was so jumpy, or that she had found so few friends.

It wasn’t difficult to find out what she needed to know from her mother’s mind.  I kept a calm half-smile on my face:  looking directly at Serena, so she could see that ‘my’ lips were not moving.

“It is possible to train yourself to filter out the ‘everyday’ background of thought, and just pick up the ones you really need to.  Maybe I should put you on a list for ‘special’ studies. … Paint the gate blue.”

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Furry Justice

Pending me actually completing any of the umpteen ‘work-in-progress’ stories, I thought it might be fun to revisit the School/Simon ‘shorts’.  So, here goes with number one.

Furry Justice

As soon as she had spotted the cheerful name-sign, “Pebble”, attached to the spacious cage, with it’s maze of attached tubes, she had lost all interest in the conversation going on in the office behind her, and leant over to watch the antics of the little slate-coloured bundle of fur.

“I can assure you that she will have the best opportunity in the area, for achieving good results.  I know you only live a short walk away, but are you certain you wouldn’t like to reconsider, and allow her to board here?”

“No:  she’ll be fine with us, and that way we can keep care of her when she isn’t at school”.

The reply was barely polite:  conveyed in a sulky and ungracious tone.  Simon was beginning to dislike these ‘parents’.  The woman’s voice was no more pleasant than the man’s, having a whining, nasal quality that spoke of deceit and treachery.

“I’m sure you can see how delicate she is, headmaster.  We really think it best if she just comes here for her lessons … and the scholarship money?  We can expect that to be paid into our account, so we can keep it safe for her, until she needs it?”

“Of course.  That will be arranged by the end of the week.  The school could have sorted out a private trust fund for her but … well, it is your decision as her guardians.”

There were times when Simon almost regretted his own manners.  Just for once, maybe it would be nice to tell these jackals what he really thought of them.  He knew from what he had sensed on their previous ‘interviews’ that the girl would not see much of her scholarship money.  These two would use it for their own purposes.  He suspected that this was what had become of her inheritance, from her real mother and father.

“But meanwhile, if you’d like to leave her with us for the afternoon, I’ll ensure that you can pick her up at four-thirty prompt.”

The couple left, and he watched the ‘delicate’ girl for a while.  Her somewhat pinched and nervous expression had been replaced by a slight ‘glow’ of awe and joy as she observed Pebble.

“Maria?  If you have a moment?”

Simon liked to treat all people, regardless of age, with respect, and he waited till she rejoined him in his office before continuing.

“Please, sit down, and make yourself comfortable, young lady.  What do you think of my friend?”

She smiled shyly, as she settled herself into the huge soft armchair.  She curled her legs underneath herself.  Somehow she felt at home here, and knew she could trust the headmaster.

“She’s beautiful and … I know this will sound silly but … I get the feeling that she’s ‘free’, although she’s in that cage, and she does seem happy and content there.”

Simon laughed easily,

“Well:  I can tell you a little story about that.  She doesn’t have to stay in the cage:  she can come and go as she likes … She’s actually a powerful demon that did me a favour once.  So now I let her keep that unassuming form whenever she wants to relax, and it helps her to hide from the attention of bigger demons … sometimes at night she will prowl around in her normal shape, but we try not to be around when that happens … “

Maria giggled at the tale.  This one was not your everyday headmaster type at all.

“I still think she’s awfully cute … You said you wanted to ask me something earlier, about my real parents?”

“Yes:  I understand they were killed in a car accident.  Your ‘aunt and uncle’ were in the car behind, weren’t they?  I know it can’t be pleasant for you to recall, but do you remember much about it?”

Afterwards, she wasn’t sure exactly what she had, or hadn’t told him.  The headmaster seemed to have picked up on things she didn’t even say, almost as if he could read her mind, or thought that there was something ‘he’ could do about the accident.  She felt quite rested, and not at all tense in the way she usually did when remembering the loss of her mother and father.  Now she had a little errand to do.  If she could just think where she had seen her aunt and uncle hide that tin box, and it’s contents.  It didn’t strike her as peculiar that Simon had mentioned it, hinted as to where it was, and had asked her to bring it to his study.  It took her days to find:  and she had to be careful that the adults were out, of course.  She slipped out of the house in the evening:  unaware that she was being observed.

They had followed her to the school.  What was she going to do with that piece of brake tubing she had stolen?  Surely she couldn’t know that it was the only evidence that they had rigged her parents’ car to make it crash.  They moved quietly:  hiding in the shadows of a bookcase at one point, and then squeezing past to find … the stupid girl had put it in the cage, to be played with.  Well, well, well:  this could be even better than them keeping it safe.  Teeth that could chew through solid wood, would soon make that piece of rubber, part of irrecoverable history.

… the door was shut behind them.

Simon stood in the office doorway.  He ignored the banging from the study.

“There is a room already arranged for you, you know.  We can sort out your clothes and other items tomorrow.”

Maria turned at the new noises from the study.  High pitched sounds of human fear and terror:  something large and furry, moving rapidly on sharp-clawed paws:  and, a sudden stop to the screams.

“Oh dear:  I think I know what’s happened in there …”  She looked up and smiled wickedly,  “They’ve been pebble-dashed”.

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“Just a taster”

This should turn out to be the ‘intro’ to a story about the healers’ origins.  Meanwhile, I just like handling female characters … I could probably have phrased that better.

 

“Alya?  I swear you don’t look any different from when we first met … and how can you eat so much without putting on any weight?”

The words switched lazily into a healthy, infectious chuckle.  It was a fairly typical greeting from Khuna, and a lot milder than most of the ‘opening insults’ she had come up with in the past.  I stretched out a leg, hooked a chair with my left foot, and pulled it nearer to the table.  She ruffled my hair playfully before settling down.

I glanced quickly at her outfit, before returning to the business at hand … stuffing myself with what must have been my fourth helping of the thick, almost solid, stew.  She was, of course, wearing a green dress:  just like mine, except for her sense of style, or lack of it.  All the Corllain seem to have similar figures:  or the ones I’ve met do, anyway.  Khuna is slightly ‘smaller on top’ than I am (and I don’t particularly consider myself over-endowed in that department:  not that Fordan ever complains, although that’s another story), but she more than makes up for it with the low necklines she tends to favour.  I’m sure one of the men at a nearby table must have caught a good eyeful of bosom as she bent over to sit down … he almost choked on his ale.  She is a very attractive young woman:  even if, assuming I’ve remembered my dates correctly, her eighty-seventh birthday is in a couple of day’s time.

Sorry:  that’s completely irrelevant, and a totally unworthy chain of thought coming from me (who am I kidding?).  One of these days I’ll work out why it is that the two of us seem to bring out so many of the worst sexist/female/bitch aspects in each other … come to think of it though, that’s probably why we became such immediate and close friends, only a few years ago.

I am glad to see her here.  My hunger, foul mood, and generally feeling as old as she doesn’t look (Oh:  you know what I mean), are down to the fact that I’ve been working damn hard recently.  I’ve learnt that, one to one, there isn’t much a good healer can’t cope with.  Three days ago, a rockslide at the pass caught a supply caravan from Allendoren:  and I’ve been ‘busy’ saving the lives of the nine people that were the worst injured.  Solo work of this magnitude, channelling the gifts of the Goddess, is ‘not’ fun.

“That stew does smell delicious.  I wouldn’t say no to one or two bowls myself.

The infirmary was my first stop, before I came over here, so I’m not short of a good appetite now.  I honestly don’t know how you appear so well … I wouldn’t like to try to cope with that on my own.  I think you’ve done most of the job:  between us we should have them all back on their feet by tomorrow evening.”

I smiled at the half-hidden compliment … they’re rare from her.  I’d guess that Khuna must have ‘felt’ the injuries, and set off almost immediately (I know perfectly well how long it takes to get from Lanterris to here).  I’ve expanded my skills considerably since originally becoming Corllain, but my long-distance sense is nowhere near equal to hers.  We each have our individual particular specialities:  even with Khuna’s years of experience, I can still out-do her in certain aspects of our shared talent.

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Kethra

Image

“Welcome to Vilashar Forest”.  Nobody had ever thought to put up signs around it, and you would have needed an awful lot of them.  The forest was one of the largest ‘wild’ stretches of land in Aeldor:  A vast area of woodland, it took up a great deal of the Orasen Vale, and extended over a fair portion of the hills to the North.  Much of it was relatively unexplored territory, although there were several well-travelled, safe, routes through it.  The place was untamed enough that there were many stories, tales and myths about its depths, and who or what might exist in them.  There, almost insignificant by its Southeast border, lay the busy town of Pandirech.

 

 

 

She threaded her way carefully through the throng of people outside the law-court:  sometimes resorting to the ungentle practice of  “judicious application of strategically placed sharp elbows”.  The twenty-day journey here had done nothing to encourage her normal polite nature.  Corlee usually enjoyed travelling, but rarely ventured this far from home.  The middle-aged woman, arguably the most powerful seer of her time, had learnt not to ignore the things she saw; and sometimes, not to talk about ‘all’ she had seen.  That, of course, was why she had come this distance:  her dark vision of nearly four months ago, and the fact that it related, in a very personal way, to friends of hers from Rella’s Haven.  She knew that, here and now, was where and when she was meant to be.

 

She entered the building.  The tall man waiting for her, wearing a turquoise armlet, similar to her own, bowed respectfully before speaking.

 

“My name is Dalva.  I might wish for better circumstances, but your presence is a blessing for us all, at any time.  Allow me to be your host during your stay with us”.

 

Her manners restored by the compliment, Corlee answered her fellow seer with a bright smile.

 

“Some people I know have a young son with your name.  Should he grow up to have your graciousness, his parents will be well pleased”.

 

A few more pleasantries:  time to relax with some relatively meaningless small talk, and local gossip:  time to consume several pots of keevah:  and then it was on to the courtroom itself, and the serious business that had brought her here.

 

 

 

Orben:  an individual almost as well known as Corlee.  He had been law-giver for numerous years and had probably, at one time or another, served in most of the major towns of Aeldor.  Age had gifted, or cursed, him with a face that now conveyed a sense of severity he did not deserve.  The sentences he dispensed were still considered the fairest, and sometimes most unexpected, in all of Aeldor.  The plain, midnight-blue gown that most of his profession favoured, and his badge of office, were all he needed for anyone, even a stranger, to be able to recognise his authority; and most could guess at his identity.

 

At present, you could not see what was suspended from the chain around his neck.  He opened the fist across his chest:  after a few moments of absolute silence and stillness in the large, cool room:  freeing the representation of a small golden cup.  When the chalice of truth was ‘bare’ in court, there would be no falsehood, no opinion other than an honest one, no misdirection:  only truth, and judgement.  Court was now, officially, in session.  Orben was an experienced enough judge of character that he new full well when someone was lying:  and those that appeared before ‘him’ were aware that he knew.

 

Looking down impartially at the seven men before him, his voice contained no malicious tones, no pre-judgement:  and perhaps its even measured, melodic baritone, seemed in some way even more ominous because of that ‘kindly’ character trait.

 

“You are here, at your own request, to have your lives ordered by others.  You have claimed protection, although you have so far refused to say what it is you need protection from.  You claim that you ‘wish to do penance’ for past deeds; yet you have offered no information about any crimes you may, or may not, have committed.  You bring before me, and the people of this place, an intriguing, and impossible, task …  I confess that ‘I’ have so far sought no second-opinion regarding these matters … the ‘second-opinion’, which contains more truth than ‘you’ have seen fit to reveal, has found me”.

 

He nodded briefly across at Corlee.  They had only had time for a brief introduction; nevertheless he believed he could trust anything she might have to say.  For an instant his face warmed, and he winked at her.  The seer did not need her talent to interpret that quick, unexpected, sympathetic and understanding look, “I know:  you do not wish to be here, but sometimes duty places us where we would rather not be”.

 

She stood, and began to describe her vision in detail.  It was a short and cruel story:  how a man, wife, and their twelve year old daughter were travelling home through the forest, stopping four days away from the town they had left:  how a band of nine robbers had come across them in the middle of the night … they could have easily relieved them of their possessions, and left them to return; poorer, but alive; to Pandirech … no:  how the adults had been slaughtered while sleeping:  how a rough, hurtful hand had been clamped over the mouth of the barely waking child, before she was dragged off with them, not even seeing the corpses of her parents.

 

Corlee stopped at that point.  Orben stood slowly, and repeated, word for word, the entire tale.  Law-givers, by the very nature of their work, had very good ‘immediate’ recall.  This was an important and integral part of the court ritual.  It wasn’t repetition in case someone had not heard everything.  It was a mark of respect for what had just been said:  a law-giver’s way of confirming, “this ‘is’ true, otherwise ‘I’ would not be saying it”.

 

Orben looked over the men again.  His face seemed even more severe, but the voice was just as impartial as it had been before.

 

“So:  you are thieves, and possibly murderers.  I notice you appear to be missing two of your colleagues.  If you have anything to add to the testimony as it stands …”

 

They remained silent, and the law-giver turned to the seer.  His hand came up and covered the tiny cup.  This was not unusual, mid-session, but did indicate that his next words would be more private, and not necessarily part of the court’s business.

 

“I take it you have more information for me?  If there is some way I can prevent you having to disclose it to all here, please let me know”.

 

Corlee thanked him for his consideration, and beckoned Dalva to join her.  It isn’t something generally known, but neither is it a secret:  two seers, working together, can, with little effort, directly input a vision into another’s mind.

 

She spared nothing:  letting Orben experience everything she had ‘seen’:  all the ways in which the girl had been mistreated and abused in the three and a half months of her ‘servitude’, until the day she had somehow managed to loosen her bonds, and escape into the surrounding trees … at which stage Corlee rather abruptly cut the images, severed her link through Dalva, and in a clear, steady voice, offered the entire court two short sentences:  just eleven words.

 

“The murderers are already dead.  Kethra is safe in the forest”.

 

Orben hardly knew the seer; however he could easily sense how much strain it had caused her, reliving those brutal memories, and from the cold, tight-lipped expression on her face that she intended to share nothing else with him today.

 

His hand withdrew again, and light flashed off the chalice of truth.  Wise, and unforgiving eyes stared, once more, down at the seven robbers.

 

“I take it that you require protection from the fate which befell your colleagues?  Very well.  You will have the protection of the town.

 

I take a dim view of robbery, but at least you are not murderers; and there was never a need for killing:  you could have persuaded your ‘friends’ to let them live. You did not …  I am ashamed at your treatment of the child.  Some of us have servants:  some of us, in our youth, have been servants, but …”

 

The voice hardened, and lashed at the men, like a whip.

 

“… we do not have slaves, and no adult ‘ever’ has any excuse for causing the harm that you have done to that poor girl’s life”.

 

Orben calmed down, but there was little mercy in the way he delivered his words:  it was nothing more, or less, than a statement.

 

“You will be given accommodation.  You will form a work-group, and be paid fairly for your labour.  You will be accompanied at all times by at least five others, and will not leave the boundaries of Pandirech.  You are free, as a group, to treat the town as your home, and go where you will, but your muscles will be used wherever and whenever the town sees fit … for the next eight years of your lives”.

 

You could almost see the relief on their faces.  No harsh physical punishment:  no imprisonment.  They knew it was going to be hard work, but they would probably have better lives than they had as thieves.  And that was it, verdict passed.

 

The chalice had been tucked away inside Orben’s gown, and the court was finished … the law-giver, however, was not.

 

“For the first two years, you will voluntarily lose a quarter of your earnings in tithes.  This will help to balance the cost, time and effort that we intend to put into finding Kethra.  There is no possible way you could apologise to her for your actions, and I do not intend to make you try to …  In four years time, I, or my successor, will be here in this court, and so will you.  Each of you will bring with you twelve townspeople who will testify to your ‘renewed’ character, and worth.  Those of you that can accomplish this small task will only work a further two years:  those that cannot, will serve this town for an extra six years past their sentence”.

 

It was a typical Orben twist.  Not law, as such, but when ‘he’ recommended something, it became a one choice option.  You ‘will’ do this and, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is no ‘or’.  Capital punishment was not unknown in this country, but it was very rare, and seen as a last resort by most law-givers.  Orben had given them a, not too easy, opportunity to rehabilitate themselves.  It was hard, merciful, and fair.

 

 

 

“I just wish we could find her.  It would sometimes be better if children were not so independent: and I would certainly prefer that ‘she’ wasn’t proving so resourceful.  The town’s best people have been unable to track her, or even find any evidence of her continued existence.  The experienced woodsmen that her uncle sent have had no luck either …  Are you certain she is alright?”

 

It was a rather unnecessary question for the law-giver to ask of the seer.  They were, as usual, discussing Kethra. Corlee had assured him, on several occasions over the last month, that the girl was healthy and somehow managing to fend for herself:  although she had not ‘seen’ enough details to guide the various searchers to her.

 

The two had become good friends in the short time they had known each other.

 

Orben’s respect for Corlee’s reputation had been confirmed by the time they spent in each other’s company, and he liked her not just for her talent, but also for her wit, humour, lady-like manner, and natural beauty.  She understood his professional ‘coolness’, and was pleasantly surprised to discover, even without her gifts, that hidden underneath it was a strong, gentle character, with an endearingly warped view of the world.  His tales of the more outrageous judgements he had ‘considered’ in his work, and eventually rejected because of their inappropriateness (and sometimes, downright stupidity) made her appreciate his sense of justice and right:  and more than a few times, they caused her to break out in fits of uncontrolled laughter.

 

The seer grinned at the older man before replying to his query.

 

“What would you like me to do:  link with Dalva every single day, so he can tell you the same thing, over and over?  I am as concerned as you about Kethra, but she ‘is’ alright:  safe at the moment, and whatever emotional turmoil she is coping with, it may be that the forest is a better place to heal that pain, rather than bringing her back to an adult world she no-longer trusts”.

 

Orben sat quietly for a while:  considering the seer’s words.

 

“You could be right there, and, as you can ‘see’ nothing more, I suppose we will just have to wait until she is found, or decides to trust someone … anyone, again”.

 

“Orben, you know very well I will inform you if there is any change.  I don’t know why you wouldn’t let me leave with the caravan yesterday, or was it that you couldn’t resist another day in my company …”?

 

The law-giver was about to protest, but realised immediately that the seer was only, gently, baiting him.

 

“… but I do appreciate the escort you’ve arranged, who have been waiting outside for long enough: and the next time ‘you’ get a reasonable break from your duties, I hope you’ll visit us.  Parvic will like you”.

 

Orben laughed as Corlee got up from the table, and left.  Corlee had talked a lot about her husband, and he honestly looked forward to, one day, meeting the big man.

 

 

 

She was clad in clothes of scraps:  bits of fabric found, picked up; torn patches recovered from deserted campsites or thorny bushes.  Maybe it was a half-forgotten remnant from her past, but due to her skill with a needle, the outfit was snug, warm, and the patchwork colours were set in a pleasing style, while still being inconspicuous enough that she could hide easily, blending into the background of the forest.

 

She followed ‘people’ cautiously and silently when they passed through her domain:  recovering any useful ‘leavings’.  Kethra didn’t like these visitors, and distrusted and resented their intrusion.  They were far too noisy and, although their speech had meaning to her, she couldn’t spare the effort of understanding it.  I don’t think any traveller was even aware of her shadow, always following them until they left to go, somewhere else, far off.

 

Her possessions were simple, and few.  A couple of cracked bowls that had been discarded by their previous owners; a small knife that had slipped unnoticed out of a merchant’s belt as he was mounting his horse; the sowing kit that was all she retained from her past; threads long ago used up, but replaced by carefully unravelled cloth, and sections teased patiently from the fibrous Hala root; and the garments she wore.  These were her worldly goods.  These, and the memories she refused to allow to surface.

 

Five and a half years had made her world a familiar place.  Kethra had found, very early on, the caves that were safe to sleep in whenever storms came crashing over.  The largest of these contained a carefully maintained, all but smokeless, fire.  About six months into her self-imposed exile from society, she had not stockpiled enough fuel for it, and had spent a miserable, scared, dark and cold eleven nights, before a nearby lightning strike had restored warmth to her.

 

Stone and sky were now her guardians, and tutors.  She knew every variety of tree and shrub:  which roots, berries, leaves, were sweet and/or nutritious; which ones speeded up the healing of everyday cuts and bruises; and which ones caused headaches, sickness, and were generally to be avoided.  Time and experience had been good and effective teachers.

 

You would easily mistake her for a forest spirit of some kind, if you saw her.  She kept herself clean, bathing regularly in the fresh, heart-shaped lake, but there was always that sense of slight unearthliness in the way she moved, so quietly:  in her clothing, and the braided olive vines that held back her rich brown locks:  in the way those hazel-green eyes darted swiftly around her, no longer quite so nervous, taking in everything that moved:  in the unexpected nymph-like laughter that bubbled often to the surface, and broke the silence when she knew herself to be truly alone:  and, last but not least, in the way she and her ‘sometimes’ companion slid gracefully through the trees at early evening … hardly ‘feral’, but both forms, despite the many differences between them, appearing to share the same un-human, feline qualities.

 

Kethra was by nature, and current circumstance, primarily vegetarian.  She could tickle the occasional fish from the lake:  its small piscine population seemed to re-balance itself easily enough to accommodate her slight appetite, but she had never killed any other living creature.  Animals that died by natural causes; mainly age, or more often, by the unwelcome attention of some bigger animal, tended to be poor food-stuff and, ignoring the improbability of one of the larger voles ever actually being hit by lightning, if it happened, the unfortunate mammal would probably be more than over-cooked by the experience.

 

That left Poran.  The cat led her to the carcase of the deer-like creature that he had brought down earlier.  It was far too big a meal for him:  which he justified, in his own thoughts, by saying to himself that it was valuable hunting practice, and anyway, he liked keeping this particular human, his friend, healthy.  Kethra thanked him with a brief smile before kneeling to get on with the business of butchering.  The small knife had become an effective multi-purpose tool in her slim hands.  Today they would both have full stomachs by the time darkness fell, and supper was finished.

 

She liked the big, almost fully grown, feline. He had been, on and off, with her for about four years now, and she still remembered their first meeting.

 

It had been a hot day, and she had let the fire die down to a minimum maintenance level.  She had, uncharacteristically for her, dozed off, and came to with a start at the almost imperceptible noise of soft paws gliding into her cave.  The cat, for some unknown reason, didn’t appear to her to be frightening in any way.  He merely strolled in, dropped what he had been carrying in his mouth near the fire, almost in the embers:  it seemed like the two small mammals were being presented to her as a gift:  and then, purring all the time, came to within about three feet of where she sat.  Kethra laughed, the first time she had done so for a good while, as the head was cocked to one side observing her, “It’s alright, you’re not prey”, and then this deadly feline simply rolled on his back, paws waving in the air, “Hey look … I have a tummy … tickle please?”  She was certain she didn’t actually hear any words, but that was what the actions conveyed … and that was the start of their long friendship.

 

 

 

It was the nearby singing that eventually woke her:  she always slept well after eating meat.  This was something that was recognisable, and she considered it unthreatening.  Kethra knew the pleasant voice, from one of the few less-resented visitors.  She had learnt useful skills from watching them hunting, and skinning small animals for their own meals.  She scrambled quickly and quietly out of her cave, to find the source of the sound.

 

She expected to find this regular ‘interruption’ sitting by an efficient and neat campfire, horse tethered close by, and probably enjoying a pot of  keevah.  She was hardly expecting the surprise waiting for her.

 

Kethra was, perhaps, even more cautious than usual as she approached the clearing.  She suspected that this person had hearing at least as acute as her own.  Twice, in the past, a head had turned in her direction, almost as if they could hear and see where she was hidden, and knew they were being observed.  Stopping at a safe, she thought, distance, she silently pushed the last branch to one side, for a better view … there … what?

 

For one instant, she honestly thought that Poran was attacking for some unknown reason, but immediately realised that this unfamiliar cat was a slightly lighter colour, and somehow she sensed that it was female:  also, and this came as a bit of a shock, they were … playing.  The raven-haired young woman continued singing while, in a very unladylike manner rolling about on the ground with her partner.  Kethra almost laughed, watching them for a while; wrestling, playing patty-cake hand to paw, paw to hand, and generally behaving like idiots.  She had not, until this moment, considered that there could be the possibility of another human/cat friendship similar to the one she enjoyed with Poran.

 

Eventually the two of them stopped fooling around.  The woman made a quick rather futile attempt at brushing some of the dust off herself, and squatted near the fire to pour a mug of steaming keevah.  The cat prowled around for a brief time, and then settled down:  lounging casually by the side of a bed-roll, and looking directly at Kethra.

 

She froze, for one heart-stopping moment, as she felt the invasion of her mind.

 

No-one had spoken to her for over five years:  and if you asked her, she could honestly claim that she had no idea how she knew Poran’s name:  but the soft, friendly thoughts/images that reached her came across clearly, as if they were fully formed words.

 

“You don’t want anyone to know that you’re there:  do you?  It’s alright:  if it’s that important to you, I won’t tell her.”

 

This, all too short message, was probably the most comforting and important thing that had happened to her for a very long time.  Kethra knew instinctively that she could trust the cat as much as she trusted Poran, and maybe this was the start of the healing process for her.

 

 

 

She may have been young, nevertheless she was emotionally a very strong person.

 

A weaker individual would have given the game away.  Correl gave no indication that there was any change from her previous journeys through here.  She held back the tears until she was a good distance from her last stop, and then let them flow freely.  They were tears of both sadness, and relief.  Resh had refused, point blank, to tell her what had happened but, even without seer or other talents, she was somehow convinced that they had, at last, made contact with Kethra.  Thanks to her own considerable hunting skills, she had sensed the presence of the young girl on her last five trips, and could have made a good guess at where she had been hiding on each occasion.

 

 

 

Five years earlier, Djor and Aerdris had faced one of the most difficult decisions, and made their choice.  It would have been simple to send out a ‘rescue’ party to bring her home, back to civilisation. It would also have been very wrong.  They appreciated how much she must have been hurt, mostly in terms of how little she would now trust any of her own kind.  The important question for them was, “How do we help to keep her alive and well?”  Guided by Corlee, and their own senses, they set in motion a long-term plan; although they were aware that it would not, necessarily, bring her back.  Kethra, as a child, had been headstrong and unruly, and, much like their eldest daughter, had always shown great resourcefulness and courage.

 

Djor and his wife, and Orben, had regularly asked Corlee how ‘justice’ had been served:  how the murderers of the girl’s parents had met their end, but the seer never, ever spoke about it.  Whatever had happened to them, she kept that secret to herself.

 

How do you help someone who has learnt to trust no-one?  How do you get close enough to them that you can have a chance of undoing hurtful memories, or at the very least balancing them with more pleasant ones?

 

In the first year, Kethra demonstrated her ability to hide from those looking for her.  The most experienced woodsmen had been unable to track her, or find any trace of ‘how’ she was living.  Corlee expressed concern about health and diet issues, and it was decided that maybe, just maybe, a non-human friend would be more acceptable to the ‘lost’ child.  Poran was the most obvious choice to ask if he would help.  The male cat:  much more private than his sibling, Resh, rarely even attempted to communicate with people, but liked their company on a one-to-one basis.  He spent as much time as possible with her over the following years and, as part of the ‘gradual’ process of rehabilitation, even warned her away from getting too close to Correl’s earlier visits: which allowed Kethra the chance to come to know her from a safe distance.

 

You can’t second-guess the future; and on this occasion, a certain seer was not prepared to give any hints.  It was possible that Kethra would one day come out of hiding, approach Correl, speak with her, and eventually rejoin the world she had left.  It was equally as possible that she would find greatest peace in the calm, solitary existence she had known for the last five years, and would stay, apart from Poran, on her own.

 

 

 

She was back at the Keep, and relaxing after her recent journey, with her parents.

 

Correl was tired, and both sad and in some strange way content.

 

“I haven’t seen my cousin yet, but I still remember her.  I hope she has, despite what she’s been through, managed to rediscover that wonderful laugh of hers.

 

I believe she is safe, and no matter what else ‘I’ might wish for, I cannot ask the Gods for more than that”.

 

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Corwen Halt

… just one of those little ‘feel-good’ pieces.

 

He had grown up on the railways:  on this particular line, anyway.  He was still young but already could open the carriage doors without any help.  I suppose you could say that he was a bit of a vagabond, although he did keep himself clean and tidy.  Regular commuters talked to him, and often, somehow, found themselves sharing their food with him:  the ticket inspectors merely took one look into his innocent eyes, and didn’t bother to ask.  They all knew him, and accepted that he was a seasoned, if slightly unconventional, traveller.

The station was fairly typical of a country village stop.  The buildings and flower-boxes were neatly kept, even if the signs, doors, and other woodwork could do with a fresh coat of paint, but that hardly mattered.  He knew where he was long before the ‘Spirit of Dunkirk’ Class 4-6-2 locomotive, tender, and rake of six carriages, had wheezed and clunked to a complete stop.  He shuffled off the seat, and was soon sitting on the platform at Corwen Halt, watching the train move noisily off on the next leg of its journey, towards the larger towns, and the end of the line.

            He momentarily scratched an imaginary itch at the back of his head, and then strolled casually past the railway guard: on towards the end of the station building.  Old George didn’t say anything:  just nodded, and grinned at him.  He knew what that meant.  The guard’s room would be empty; the stove would be on, and the battered old armchair was still comfy enough that he could doze there through most of the afternoon, without anyone interrupting him.

            He did sleep, and therefore missed her arrival.

 

The thick woollen skirt rustled slightly against her overcoat, as she stepped down.  The ‘fresh’ country breeze was exactly as she recalled it, and she was glad of the extra petticoat that helped to keep her legs warm.  The railway guard at the gate looked much as she expected him to.  Maybe the wrinkles in the gnarled, rustic face were a fraction deeper, but it still held the same open, helpful and welcoming expression she remembered.  It took only a moment for his name to resurface in her mind.  She smiled as she approached, and extended her gloved hand.

            “George:  isn’t it?  Corwen doesn’t appear to have changed much”.

He shook her hand, after a brief hesitation, and queried,

            “Miss … “?

            “Miss Rodgers … Harriet Rodgers.  I was evacuated here.  I have often wondered how on earth you put up with us youngsters.  I think we almost doubled the local population”.

He ventured a polite laugh.

            “Oh, you rascals certainly turned our quiet lives upside down:  probably for the better, overall.  Please forgive my memory:  there were so many of you:  I’ll place you eventually.  What brings you this way again, if you don’t mind me asking”?

Harriet ventured a quick look around before replying.

            “I don’t think I was ever cut out to be a city girl.  It feels so right to be back.  I’m going to be working here, and sometimes with you …  Does Martha still have her tea shop?  I’ll treat you to a cuppa, and one of her wonderful Eccles cakes, if she still makes them, and we can chat for a while.”

            “That’s very kind of you, Miss.  There’s slightly over fifty minutes before the Gartlleston train is due, so it won’t do any harm for me to take a break.  The old tea room was closed down some fourteen months ago, but Martha is still around, and I can offer you something just as good … if you’d like to follow me”?

George led Harriet through to the station hall, and past the small ticket kiosk.  There in one corner, where an over-large waiting room used to be, was a cheerful looking ‘new’ tea room.  George spared a glance at the bright sign above the door … ‘Corwen Café’.

            “Never really liked that modern term, café, but we are more than half way through the century now, so I suppose even us country folk have to ‘move with the times’.  Martha runs it, and it makes far better use of the space …  you’ll be pleased to know that she ‘does’ still bake all her own cakes”.

 

Her coat was hanging on a hook near the door, and they sat comfortably close to the small paraffin heater.  It was, for her, like stepping back in time.  The furniture was familiar to her:  the curtains, and pretty green gingham tablecloths.  She felt as if they had merely moved the old place into here as a complete entity:  lock, stock, and proverbial barrel.  Some food items were still subject to rationing, of course, however this didn’t seem to affect the display of pastries and cakes on offer.  She remembered that even four short years ago, during the closing stages of the war, a certain lady had always managed to produce mouth-watering delights, despite the scarcity of ingredients like sugar, fruit, and fresh eggs.  The same ‘certain lady’ greeted her with open arms, and a brief peck of welcome.  Martha still had that ‘ruddy’ country glow to her cheeks:  still wore her grey hair in a tidy bun, and hardly seemed any different to when they had last seen each other.  The floral apron, though faded slightly, was almost certainly the same one she had always worn. 

 

Harriet wiped the last few crumbs of the second Eccles cake away from her lips, and turned to resume her conversation with the guard.

            “… So that’s about it.  With all the opportunities now open to young women like myself, I decided that I would rather live away from the city, and closer to the countryside.  I worked hard and, as a result, you now have the pleasure of knowing the first female ticket supervisor for this region.  As soon as I heard that the post was available, I just ‘had’ to apply for it.  They did say that a railway house would be one of my perks, but I thought I would get here a week early, and look up some of the families and friends I haven’t seen for a while.  I take it I’ll be able to get a room at the Plough, while I’m waiting for my things to be brought up from London”?

George put down his teacup.

            “No need for that.  I know Doris and Jonathan would be more than happy to see you, and have you under their roof, but the number three cottage, next-door to mine, is habitable now.  Fireplace is clear, chimney is open, and there’s coal in the bunker.  Fresh bed-linen in the cupboard, and even a few basics in the larder.  Area office didn’t say who would be staying there, but I like to be prepared in advance.  I’ll get the keys for you, as soon as the two-thirty-seven has gone through …  What are you now, young lady:  twenty, twenty-one?  … and a supervisor already … can’t say as I either approve, or disapprove.  It’s a changing world sure enough.  I think I can honestly claim that, for all the chaos you caused, most of you were well behaved, so you’re welcome as my new neighbour.  I’m glad to know you, again, Miss Harriet Rodgers”.

 

            They walked slowly back to the gate.  George still limped slightly, courtesy of the leg injury that had prevented him from doing military service.  They continued chatting:  ‘catching up’, and Harriet was delighted to discover that Rose and Maurice remained up at Saracen’s Farm.  They had been her ‘parents’ whilst she was here before, and she really looked forward to seeing them once more, as soon as possible.

Corwen Halt was exactly as busy, or not, as she expected it to be at this time of day.  Two people got off the train:  one got on.  It hardly broke into their conversation at all.

            “I’m very pleased that we had such an impact on you.  I’m just not too sure that I really understand why you chose to come back and live here or, for that matter, why you decided to work on the railway”.

She looked a bit sad:  he could see it in the young woman’s face.  Her voice was quiet, wistful, as she answered him.

            “I was a very impressionable girl.  I remember, when we came here, most of us hadn’t even seen any animals apart from cats, dogs, and budgerigars.  Cows and horses were quite strange things to us.  I liked it from the first day:  not because it was different and exciting, but because it was so warm and welcoming.  It was ‘right’ for me to be here, and it actually felt wrong once I’d returned to the city.  This village managed to touch my heart, and my life …  As for the railway connection:  it wasn’t something that I’d even considered, until the day I was leaving”.

Old George dabbed at suddenly moistened eyes with a handkerchief, and turned his friendly smile towards her.  His voice cracked slightly as he spoke.

“I remember you now.  It was in the old carriage that was rusting away in the siding over there.  I remember a curious girl, couldn’t have been more than sixteen-year-old, waiting for the train back to London:  not expecting to be a mid-wife, until she heard the noises and went to investigate.  I saw it all through the window:  how she held the new-born in her lap, and named him, before having to give him back …  There’s one familiar face around here that should be glad to see you”.

He raised his voice to yell, in a very un-gentlemanly way,

“Hey:  Lazy bones …  Guess who’s here”?             

 

He woke abruptly at the call.  There was the scent he would never forget:  the first thing, after his mother, that had imprinted itself on his little life.  He raced down the platform at full speed, and threw himself into her arms.

Harriet was almost bowled over, but managed to brace herself just in time to avoid being knocked to the ground.  She cried, and tousled the light blonde hair while she hugged the precious bundle close to her.  It was several minutes before she could keep back the tears, enough to hold the squirming Labrador slightly away from her face, and softly whisper,

“You’ve grown quite a bit since I last saw you …  It’s alright, Albert.  It’s alright.  We’re ‘both’ home now”.

 

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