The Hedral Watcher sat cross-legged on the floor of the underground cavern, staring sightlessly into the waters of the slow-flowing stream around him. The current circled his broad belly, searching in vain for a short cut around the island of flab in its path. He ignored the trickle of the stream against his skin, having grown accustomed to it over many thousands of years. He just waited silently in the darkness, naked and bloated, his unfocussed eyes constantly scanning the icy water about him for portents which only he could read.
It was then that Rod made his unexpected entrance. Seventeen stone of drunken biker appeared in mid-air, and catapulted across the cavern, his arms flailing wildly about him as he fought in vain to keep his balance. The profound silence of the chamber was shattered by the sound of violent curses, interspersed with unhealthy gurgling noises, as his face skimmed across the water like a bomb seeking a dam to bust. He came to a shuddering halt, his face wedged between the accommodatingly chubby thighs of the Watcher. After several panic stricken seconds of spluttering, thrashing around and prising apart, he finally managed to extricate himself. He stood up, peering about the cave in bewilderment.
“You smell of alcohol,” complained the Watcher, who seemed otherwise unperturbed by the dramatic entrance.
“And you’re a fat naked bloke sitting in a puddle,” Rod retorted.
“You will find the wizard in the castle,” the Watcher went on, ignoring his outburst. “Seventeen miles to the north-west. Hurry.”
“What’s going on? I was in the pub two minutes ago, having a quiet drink with my mates. The next thing I know, some bald old pervert’s got his legs wrapped round my ears. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not the way I like to pass my Saturday nights.”
He waited for an explanation, but the “old pervert” was no longer paying attention. Instead, he was staring back into the water again, as if transfixed by some secret vision.
“Friday nights, maybe, but never on a Saturday. And you could at least have bought me a kebab first!”
Still no reply.
Sighing, he looked about him for a way out. Just for a second, he thought he saw the reflection of a forest in the stream, but as soon as he tried to focus upon it the image had vanished.
“Where’s the nearest taxi rank, then?”
Without awaiting a reply, he waded to the nearest bank, and hoisted himself out the water on to the slippery rocks above. His wet denim jeans clung uncomfortably to his legs, and he reached for the wad of notes in his pocket to check they were still dry. They were. He envied them.
There were a dozen or so passages leading from the cavern, and he noticed for the first time that one was illuminated by a faint glimmer of light. As he watched it, the light became stronger, playing upon the ripples on the surface of the stream. As it grew brighter, the large naked bald bloke suddenly came into sharp focus. Rod took an involuntary step away from this disturbing vision, slipped, and ended up back in the stream. After a few failed attempts at gaining his footing on the slippery submerged rocks, and an impressively varied combination of F- and C-words, he eventually managed to struggle back on to the bank again. Upon checking his pockets, he discovered that his money had turned into a sodden pulp. It was not going to be his day.
After a few more close calls on the treacherous rocks, he finally made it to the mouth of the tunnel. There were two large slabs of stone on either side, reminding him of the sliding doors of a walk-in wardrobe. With one final look back, and a resigned shake of his head, he stepped between them, entering the passageway. The moment he did so, the stone slabs swung to noisily behind him, cutting off any possibility of retreat. At the same time, the light went out, leaving him in icy darkness.
For the first time since his explosive arrival in the cavern, he felt a surge of panic deep in the pit of his stomach. For some strange reason, he had the sensation that he had just been shut away in a fridge.
Yet again, Halfshaft had opened his mouth before his brain was in gear.
He was a failed wizard. In a recent survey commissioned by the Magician’s Society (East Hedral branch), it had been ascertained that the average wizard had mastered over one thousand spells by the time he reached the age of fifty. Halfshaft had got the hang of two of them. He could create fire, and he could conjure up water from thin air to put it out again. These limited skills, he knew, made him a particularly bad advert for his profession, but he consoled himself with the thought that his was always the first name on the guest-list at barbecues.
In the past, his lack of ability had not really bothered him. Everyone suspected that he had about as much talent as a singles bar for elderly lepers, but his foul temper and ready sarcasm had allowed him to bluff his way through countless awkward predicaments without anyone being able to prove it. He had therefore been given the benefit of the doubt, and was treated with the respect due to one of the two most revered wizards at Spartan Castle. This was not much, because there were only two wizards there, and the other – the “Grand Wizard” – got more than enough respect for both of them.
It was Halfshaft’s dislike of his colleague which had put him in this unfortunate position. The Grand Wizard was, he had to admit, a quite remarkable magician, with shape changing powers second to none. Six days a week, he would change himself into a dragon, and prowl around the perimeter of the Castle grounds, repelling marauders, devouring bandits, and giving passing tradesmen a nasty shock. On the seventh day, however, he stayed in his private chamber, sitting cross-legged on his bed with an eighteen-inch pipe clenched firmly between his teeth. Halfshaft, without a hint of professional jealousy, made no secret of the fact that he considered the pipe to be an extension of the Grand Wizard’s masculinity. It was because he made no secret of it that he was now just minutes away from almost certain death.
The duel was to take place in a locked chamber. King Spartan himself was to supervise it. It was, to all intents and purposes, a fight to the death. Whereas the loser might not actually die – unconditional surrender and desperate grovelling was usually enough to avoid this ignominious fate – he would be expected to do the decent thing and go into voluntary exile. This, Halfshaft decided, was his only chance of salvation. Not going into voluntary exile, of course. That would be suicide. No, instead, while they were giving him the chance to do the decent thing, he could hide in the ladies lavatories, and cry like a girl when they tried to drag him out. It was a tactic that had got him out of numerous scrapes in the past.
There was no way that he would win the duel itself. He was hopelessly outgunned, and he knew it. Worse still, everyone else knew it too. It was plastered all over the ugly gloating faces of all his “friends” and neighbours, who had crammed into the courtyard outside to witness his disgrace. He had tried to even the odds by attempting to learn new spells, but had discovered that the time-honoured adage about old dogs applied equally to wizards who were getting on a bit. He had even considered hypnotism in the hope that he could convince the Grand Wizard that martyrdom would be a good career move, but had given up on the idea when he found out that it involved swinging a timepiece in front of the eyes of the intended victim. He couldn’t even lift a sundial, yet alone swing one.
Everybody who was anybody (and quite a few people who were not) had crowded into the courtyard outside the chamber, peering in at the two opponents on the off chance that they might have a quick warm-up before the doors were closed on them. The duel itself would take place in private, as was the custom ever since King Justice V had accidentally been turned into his own grandfather by a stray spell (to the horror of everyone, not least his proper granddad, who developed an identity crisis and died of confusion not long afterwards). There was nothing in the rules, though, to prevent the combatants from hurling the odd thunderbolt at each other before kick-off to keep the fans amused. But on this occasion, neither did anything but sit in their respective corners, waiting for the signal to do battle.
All of the cynics who had denounced Halfshaft as a talentless fraud had been forced to wait a very long time for this moment. There in the crowd was William Taylor, the soldier who had paid him a small fortune for a “brutal strength” spell, only to beaten up by his own wife for selling their prize pig to raise the funds for it. And Henry Morgan, the blacksmith who had wanted a potion to make him like an animal in bed, but had ended up confined to his chamber with legs as swollen as a hippopotamus at a “Weight Watchers” class. He could see a dozen or two others, all of whom would be equally as keen to scrape his bloodied carcass off the floor at the end of the day, and divide it up between them as souvenirs. They were a sentimental lot, after all.
He looked over to the Grand Wizard to see if there was any sign of anxiety or doubt there. Nothing. Halfshaft noted resentfully that the magician had even brought his sodding pipe with him.
King Spartan raised his right hand regally into the air, signalling the crowd to silence. Although the courtyard was packed solid, none of the gathering ventured any closer than an arm’s length to their monarch. They valued their heads too highly for that.
“We all know why we are here. A very serious accusation has been made against the most revered and respected wizard who has ever served under Us. This accusation has been denied, and the Accuser has been challenged to a duel to test the truth of his ridiculous allegations. Let God be with the man who speaks truly.”
“God be with him,” approved the whole assembly, getting into the swing of things.
“And let the Devil take the man who is not.”
“The Devil take Halfshaft!” cried the crowd, in what the wizard concerned felt to be an outrageous and hurtful attempt to pre-judge the issue.
“Before the duel commences,” continued the King, “it is my duty to introduce the two opponents. On my right, we have Cyrellius, the Grand Wizard.”
Cyrellius, thought Halfshaft. No wonder he calls himself the Grand Wizard. I’d make up a name for myself too if I was called anything as ridiculous as that. Then he realised that he actually had a name about ten times as ridiculous as that, and made a mental note to change it if he ever lived long enough to get the chance.
Spartan spent the next seventeen minutes listing the various titles the Grand Wizard had earned. Guardian of the Gates; Liberator of the People; Holder of the Golden Shield of Zandor. You name it, he was it. Somehow, Halfshaft just knew that he must have been head prefect at school.
“And Protector of the Holy Shrine at Beacon Castle,” finished Spartan. “Oh yes, and he was also head prefect at school.”
This brought a polite round of applause from the crowd. It wasn’t every day you got to see someone who had been to school, after all.
Halfshaft closed his eyes and prayed that Spartan would give him an equally impressive build-up.
“To my left,” announced the King, “we have – what’s your name again, you?”
“Halfshaft, Sire,” mumbled the mortified wizard.
“To my left we have Halfshaft-Sire,” Spartan went on. “He’s a bit of a conjuror, I’m told. Children’s parties; that sort of thing.”
The assembly sniggered maliciously. Halfshaft vowed silently to get even with each and every one of them if ever he got the chance. But he was cut off in mid vow as the King clicked his fingers and the doors of the duelling chamber slammed shut, leaving the two old wizards alone together to fight to the death.
Rod had finally grasped the idea that he was no longer in Kent. He had been wandering around for hours since finding his way out of the underground caves, without seeing anything even faintly resembling home. No pubs, no kebab-houses, no signs of civilisation at all. And now it was starting to get dark, he noticed there were two moons. He had no idea where he was, or how he had come to be there, but felt that he had to make it to the castle which the fat naked bald bloke had mentioned, if he was to have any hope of getting to the Club that night. And he was determined to get there if he could. He was on a promise.
His hopes took a blow when he emerged from thick, shoulder-height grass to find his path blocked by a river. He wondered whether this was the same one he had seen in the cave. If it was, he had been wandering around in circles all this time. In any case, it now looked much rougher and deeper than before, and – swimming not being his strong point – he decided his best bet was to follow it along the bank until he found a shallow place to cross.
After just a few minutes, he noticed a black figure standing by a badly collapsed bridge ahead of him. He hurried onwards, and found an old hag on the riverbank, peering out across the water to the far side. She had a fat body, with thin straggly limbs protruding from it, like some grotesque parody of a spider. He was surprised he had not caught sight of her earlier, because the spot would have been within his view from the moment he had reached the river. She was dressed in dark rags, which fluttered pitifully in the breeze about her, as if trying to escape her wrinkled, unwashed body. If they were, then he could not say he blamed them.
“Young man,” she called to him. “Young man. I need to get to the other side of the river, but although this is the shallowest point, the current is still too strong for my old legs.”
“You want to get yourself a dinghy,” Rod quipped. “Row yourself across.”
“But my arms are weak. And I would not know a “dinky” if I saw one. Will you carry me, across?”
“How deep is it?” Rod enquired, dubiously.
“Up to your waist,” the hag told him. “But don’t worry about me. I’ll stay dry if I cling to your back.”
Something stirred in the back of his brain. Some childhood story he had once heard. Man gives lost old biddy a piggy-back across a raging river; lost old biddy turns out to be more than meets the eye; lost old biddy later saves man out of gratitude. Besides, he could hardly leave her here.
“Do you know the way to the Castle?” he asked.
“Yes”, she replied. “If you help me over the river, I’ll take you there.”
“Okay, then” invited Rod, with a sigh. “Hop on board, Grandma.”
With a surprisingly energetic leap, she mounted his back, and clung on to him as he waded into the water. The shock of the icy waves battering his legs nearly drove him back out again, but she spurred him on, squeezing him with her spindly old legs as if he were a carthorse.
By the time he reached the middle of the stream, the water had reached his chest. Once or twice, he thought he had lost her as the current tried to rip her from his back, but each time she clung on ever tighter, cajoling him onwards. Slipping on the mud beneath his feet, he finally struggled out on to the far bank, cold and shivering, his clothes sticking wetly to him like a badly designed second skin.
The old woman dismounted, and squeezed his arm in gratitude.
“Thank you,” she said with feeling. “Thank you very much.”
“That’s okay,” he told her gallantly. “My pleasure. Now, where’s this castle, then?”
She pointed back to the other side of the river.
Rod frowned, puzzled.
“So what are we doing over here, if you’re taking me over there?” he asked. “It was some sort of test, wasn’t it?”
“No,” she responded. “I’m afraid it wasn’t. It’s just the only way I get to straddle young men nowadays!”