Old writing: Otherworld

This is something I wrote before 2005…it was probably a 2002-2004 piece that made it onto the new drive in 2005. These are the first two chapters of a 12-chapter book – considering that the rest of the chapters have titles like “The Battle Commences” and “They Learn Their Powers”, you can see that I was still very influenced by traditional epic fantasy – definitely a young piece! It’s not something I continued with in the current story form, but I can see a few influences that later went into S’ian and GreenSky, and some that are creeping into The Thief And The Seer.

 

Chapter 1: The cottage and its secrets are discovered.

Robert stumbled through the forest, brambles tearing his clothes and skin, branches whipping his face. He tripped on a tree root and fell, pushing himself back up with tears streaming down his muddy face from the pain of his leg. He continued to stumble through the forest, knowing that he would have to get as far away from them as he could.

He was so wrapped up in his flight that he didn’t notice as he came out of the trees and into a small glade. He had come out onto the grass, and almost fell into a stream. He stopped abruptly. Looking back, he saw no sign of where he had come through the trees – there seemed to be an impenetrable barrier of prickly thorns where there had been a clear gap. Robert, feeling a little scared about this, turned to look at where he had stumbled into.

In front of him was a green clearing with oak trees around the edge and the stream he had almost fallen into running through it. On the top of a slight rise in the clearing sat a small stone cottage. It had a battered wooden door and windows scattered all over the place. The roof was made of mossy tiles and a small outhouse leaned drunkenly against one side of the cottage. Robert was too tired and dizzy to even consider any danger, and began to run towards the door. It was quite hard after he got halfway to the house, because it seemed to move every time he though he had got nearer. The stone path seemed determined to trip him up, and the door was moving further and further away. He tried to turn back, but the path wouldn’t let him go back and anyway, the bushes behind him had become an impenetrable wall of thorns. He got to the door with supreme effort, feeling the world spinning around him, and tried to reach for the handle. It wasn’t under his fingers. He tried again and again missed. Finally, Robert stumbled and fell as his leg collapsed under him. He knelt on the path in front of the door, feeling the rough stone beneath his hands, and collapsed against it hopelessly. He would just lie here until morning, and if anyone found him, good for them. He couldn’t be bothered with doors that wouldn’t let people near them.

He was dimly aware of the creak of the door opening, and heard footsteps approaching and circling him. A clear woman’s voice called from the doorway.

“What is it, Tomkin?”

Gentle hands turned Robert over, lifting his head. “A young boy,” a deep, kind voice said. “Injured, it looks like. Shall I bring him in?”

“Yes…do so.” the woman said.

Robert felt strong arms lift him, and sank into blackness as he was carried into the cottage. The door shut firmly, just as the boy’s pursuers reached the edge of the clearing. They knew better than to try and get through the holly hedge, now thicker and even more prickly, and stood looking through a gap at the closed door. They stood for a moment, then turned and loped off. This development would have to be reported.

Chapter 2: The first messenger

Robert awoke to the chatter of low voices. He could feel heat on his face and relaxed in the warmth for a moment, before the memories of his flight came back. He sat up with a jerk, feeling pain flare through his skull at the sudden movement.

Hands caught him as he swayed dizzily. “Easy now, young master.” a man’s deep voice said gently. It sounded kind and reassuring.  “You’re safe here. They can’t get you.”

Robert let the hands lay him back and opened his eyes as the man moved away. He was lying in a wooden chair with several blankets wrapped around him. He seemed to be in the cottage, for the walls of the room were of stone. The ceiling was low and beamed, and a fire crackled in the grate in front of him. The fire threw yellow light onto the walls, making the room cosy and warm.

Hands again raised him, holding a mug to his lips. “Drink this.” the man said.

Robert took several sips of the hot liquid, and then turned his head painfully to see whom it was who was helping him. The man crouching down beside the chair grinned at him.

“I’m Tomkin.” he said. “You can call me Tom, though.” He ran a hand through his black hair as he caught Robert’s gaze on it. It had dark blue streaks, and seemed to be always in a mess. Tom had an engaging smile and a cheery face, changing with his moods from happy to sad in an instant. He seemed trusting and wise and clever and cheerful all at once. Robert liked him immediately.

“What happened?” the boy asked, painfully aware of his throbbing leg and numerous scratches on his arms and body.

“We found you collapsed on the path, and took you in.” Tom said.

“We?”

“Yada and I. She’ll be around in a little while to see you.” Tom smiled and walked away to put the mug down, then went over to stir up the fire. Robert felt the heat wash over him and sank back into exhausted sleep.

#

“Who d’you think he was running from?” Tom asked later, watching the boy sleeping in the faint light of the fire.

“The Hounds. I felt three of them come to the edge of the clearing just after we’d gone inside – a minute later and they would have seen us as well. They don’t actually know that we’ve got him, but I suspect they’ll report it anyway.”

“Yes.” Tom frowned, brushing his hair back from his eyes again. “That might cause problems.”

“We’ll find out when he wakes. I wish the House wouldn’t take things into its own hands, but I suppose it has its reasons. It didn’t like him when he was on the path, but it’s welcoming him now.”

“Maybe it was the Hounds.” Tom went back to the boy’s side, checking on the wounds. His companion watched impassively as the man tended the boy, who stirred uneasily in his sleep as he dreamed of his past.

#

It was two days later when Robert roused from sleep, feeling fully awake for the first time. Rain was drumming on the windows of the cottage, and the in the firelight the room seemed warm and comforting. The wind was howling around in the chimney, making the fire blaze and dance. Tom was sitting in a chair by the fire, reading a book. He glanced up when he felt Robert’s gaze on him.

“Ah, you’ve woken.” Tom said, flashing a cheery smile. “How do you feel?”

“Better.” Robert said, raising himself out of the chair. Tom stepped over and caught his arm as he stood gingerly, swaying dizzily. The man helped the boy as he took several tentative steps, feeling his legs become firmer and stronger. They ended up by Tom’s chair, and he lowered Robert into it.

“Well, that’s better! I’ll find you a drink.”

Tom brought a mug over and pulled up another chair. His face became serious as Robert sipped the drink.

“How come you ended up here?” he asked.

“I was being chased.”

Tom’s face hardened and his eyes became dark. “Yes, we saw. We know about them. Why were they set on you?”

“Because I stole some bread because I was hungry.” Robert said miserably. “The wizard caught me and took me to the castle, and another wizard saw me and told him to lock me away. He seemed scared of me – I think thieves go before the judge or something, but the wizard took me to a room and shut me in. I was really scared…but when the guard came he opened the door and I ran out. Then I hid and managed to get out the main gate and they set something on my trail. But I don’t know what they were. I’d never seen them before.”

“Hmmm…Yada’s busy at the moment, and Laeille’s not here…blast!” Tom stood up and began to pace round the room. “This is serious. We really need Laeille for this sort of thing. Yada!” he yelled.

“All right, Tom! I heard!” a voice called crossly from a shadowy doorway to one side of the room. “I’m coming.”

The voice was the one Robert had heard the day he had found the cottage, the one that had said he could come in. Tom had asked her permission, Robert remembered.

A woman entered the room from the doorway, one hand resting lightly on the doorframe. She had short brown hair and wore a simple smock that reached to her knees with dark leggings and boots under it, but the thing that drew Robert’s attention were her eyes – sparkling green and full of laughter.

Yada walked easily across the room to where Robert was sitting and sat down in the chair that Tom vacated for her.

“I don’t think I know your name, young man.” she said, her voice light and with an undercurrent of rippling laughter.

“Robert.” the boy said, aware of how inadequate it seemed.

“Robert.” the woman said thoughtfully. “I’m Yada – I’m a witch, by the way. And Tomkin you know already.”

A witch? Robert was surprised. She didn’t look anything like the village witches, who tended to be old and bent and grumpy and could only curse and make potions. He didn’t expect witches to have laughing eyes and look very pretty when they smiled.

“When’s Laeille next coming here, Yada?” Tom asked suddenly, wandering over with a worried frown on his face.

“I don’t know.” the witch said apologetically. Tom sighed and went back to the work surface at the other end of the room, leaving the two alone in the light of the fire.

“Laeille is another of our friends.” Yada explained, turning her face to Robert. “She tends to come and go – usually when we need her most, she’s not here. She’ll be coming.”

“Thank you for looking after me.” Robert said.

“That’s all right.” Yada smiled, her face lighting up. “I’m sorry the path was being horrible to you. It tends to do that with people we don’t know, even though I have told it several times.”

Robert stared. How did she know about that?

“And don’t stare. It’s rude.” Yada rebuked him lightly, with a smile on her face. “It’s done it before…I’m just waiting for it to do that to Laeille. She’ll teach it not to.”

The door shut against the wind outside with a loud bang.

“It did.” a laughing voice said from the doorway. “I demonstrated to it that I didn’t like it, so it does it to everyone else instead of me.”

None of the three in the room had heard the door open, and they all jumped as the door banged. Robert twisted round in his chair and Tom put down whatever he was doing, a grin spreading across his face.

“Laeille! You could have said you were coming!” Yada exclaimed in irritation.

“I’m sorry, Yada.” the blue cloaked figure standing inside the doorway said lightly. “I didn’t want anyone else to know…not that I don’t trust you, but it’s better to be safe.” The figure was soaking wet, water running off the cloak to drip onto the floor. Tom hurried over.

“Here, let’s take that, Lae. Go dry off.” he said, taking the cloak off the figure. So this was Laeille! Robert watched in interest as a young woman took the cloak off and shook her long auburn-red hair out. Her pale skin was almost translucent under the golden glow and she was slender, with long fingers and very blue eyes in an aquiline face. She seemed to be aged about twenty. Tom hung the cloak up and the girl wandered over to the fire. As she came into the light of the flames and saw Robert, their eyes connected. Something seemed to pass between them in that moment, but the boy didn’t have time to sense what it was. Laeille smiled at the two sat there.

“Greeting, Yada.” she said to the woman. Yada smiled and gestured to Robert.

“Our guest is Robert, a young fugitive from those blasted Hounds.”

Laeille bowed slightly to the boy, her skin and hair glowing in the light of the flames. The boy sensed that the young woman had liked him immediately. “I’m pleased to meet you, Robert. I’m going to do something to those hounds one day.”

“Like you did to the path?” Tom asked.

“Something like that.” Laeille admitted blandly. “Rob, you’re half asleep. Let’s get you back to the other chair before you fall asleep in Tom’s and he throws you over there.”

Robert laughed and let Laeille and Tom walk him back to the other chair. He lay there dozing as the three sat around the fire, Yada’s soft voice mixing with Tom’s deep one as they told Laeille what had happened. The girl seemed worried about him, and asked several questions, but brushed away Tom’s fear about the Hounds. The last thing that Robert remembered was Laeille laughing at something Yada said, her silvery voice mixing with Tom’s deep chuckle, before he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

#

Laeille had gone by the time Robert woke the next morning, but Tom seemed indifferent to her disappearance. “She comes and goes.” he said. “She’ll come again whenever we need her. She’s got her own things to do – generally, she can do them without our help.” He winked. “She told us to keep our noses out the first time we tried to help her. If any of us need help, we ask for it. Otherwise, we don’t.”

Robert thought this seemed a little harsh, and said so.

“Well, I suppose it is…” Tom said thoughtfully. “But Laeille is a difficult girl to understand, and some of the things she does are quite beyond our comprehension. We simply wouldn’t understand it.” He grinned. “If we need help, we ask her. She’s got powers beyond your understanding, Rob. If you need help, call her. She’ll hear.”

Robert sat in the sunlight by the window while he was recovering, thinking about the strange girl he had met. Tom had hinted that she had strange powers, and had said to call her. Who was she? He felt sure that he had heard of her before…but the memory, tantalisingly, refused to show itself. It hid just behind his consciousness, so that he could not see it clearly. After several hours of thought, the boy sighed and gave up. He decided that he liked her, even if they had only just met. And thinking about mysterious, he had to find out more about Tom, Yada and the House. He wasn’t sure he liked houses that had minds of their own.

As Robert regained his strength over the next few weeks, he began to explore the house. Tom and Yada seemed quiet happy to let him, and the boy set off up the staircase expecting the house to small and cosy. Instead, he found a maze of rooms and staircases. Passages and doors led off every whichway, and the doors never seemed to go where you expected. Robert found that he could happily spend whole days in the house and still not have seen everything. The rooms were all comfortably furnished and most had windows, although when Robert tried to work this out he found that there couldn’t be that many windows because he’d only seen a few on the outside of the house. After a while, he gave up trying to understand and simply explored, delighting in every new secret he unlocked.

He also found time to help Tom with his experiments. Tom was always working on something, and he let Robert help. The experiments all seemed to be potions and salves, cures for this and that, and once there were several funny coloured liquids that steamed oddly when poured into bottles, even though they felt cold to the touch. Robert found himself learning a lot from Tom as he helped, and found that he was able to perform small tasks on his own as he learned more and more. Yada also taught Robert over the weeks, although her teaching was always concealed in conversation. She would gently lead the boy’s mind towards questions, and even though Robert gave her answers, he found that he was thinking about what she had said for several days afterwards as other thoughts occurred from that one comment.

And so the weeks passed. Laeille returned twice, vanishing during the night to whatever she was doing. Robert’s leg healed, and he soon found that he was able to run around the house, darting up and down the stairways and passage in an endless game of hide and seek. Periodically Hounds could be seen from the windows, skulking around the edges of the Glade, but Yada and Tom never mentioned these visits to Robert. It seemed an idyll time for the young boy, and he soon forgot what had led him to the cottage in the first place, even though the memories were still there.