It was not the most promising of starts to their campaign to save the known and unknown universes.

There were six men in the cave, one of whom – the Watcher – would play no part in their quest. He sat naked and bloated in the underground lake, staring blindly at the tapestry of images which scrolled out just beneath the surface of the water, looking more and more troubled as they changed shape, colour and significance. He was far too busy to speak with the other five; not only was he tasked with monitoring all the events in the world as they played out before him, but he had also to converse with all the others of his kind, scattered one to a planet throughout infinity. Between them, they catalogued the entirety of existence, a little like some unimaginably vast interstellar internet, save that the internet does not tend to have its willy submerged in a stagnant subterranean pond.

The second and third men came as a pair. William the Bastard was 38 years old. His two English companions thought of him as French, but he was in fact from a race of Vikings who had spent the previous hundred years squatting in Normandy, behaving in such a confrontational way towards the neighbouring Franks as might in itself have justified his unfortunate nickname. Just ten minutes earlier, he had seen his knights win the Battle of Hastings and re-name him “William the Conqueror”. But then two English buffoons had led him through the tunnel of swirling light to “baisesait où”.

The third man was his translator. His main task back on Earth had been to explain to third parties that William’s nickname, “the Bastard”, was due not to his unpleasant nature, but rather to the fact that his father, the Duke of Normandy, had taken a fancy to a tanner’s daughter when he caught her washing her dirty knickers in his moat.

The fourth and fifth, Rod and Alfie, sat on the rocks nearby, separated from their Norman companions by a couple of yards, and nine hundred and fifty years of history. Each of them had come here through a time-tunnel of their own, anchored at the Rising Sun pub in Ramsgate, a slightly faded sea-side resort in the bottom right hand corner of England. Rod was in his thirties, and was wearing muddied jeans and an XL black t-shirt bearing the legend “FREE ono”. He had twice played a part in saving Hedral from oblivion, but was starting to wonder whether this third and final attempt would go quite so well. They had been told to nip back to Earth to fetch the Saxon King Harold, who was destined to defeat the shape-shifting Warlock in battle and set the world to rights. Instead, they had inadvertently taken the Warlock with them to Hastings and watched as he had killed Harold before their eyes. So they had returned here to Hedral with the Duke of Normandy instead, a man whom it seemed would only be likely to defeat the Warlock if the contest was “rock, papier et scissors”.

Alfie was not much more than half Rod’s age, and grown-up in years only. He had no real idea what was going on, save that everything was really mental but that this was in no way his fault, no matter what anyone said. He had previously fallen in love with the Hedral Watcher; the fit naked woman in the outdoor lake rather than the rank naked bloke in the underground pond (Hedral was the only planet with two Watchers, being at the precise centre of all the Universes, known and unknown, and therefore eligible for a two-for-one offer). He had got a bit bored, though, as she had spent all day staring into the waters of her lake instead of cooking him his dinner or letting him hump her gorgeous body senseless. Much as he loved her, he had decided that if he wasn’t going to get either a shag or a sandwich, there was no point hanging around and he would be better off going back home to his mum. Just for a sandwich, of a course, as shagging his mum would be gross, whatever his mates said about her.

And then finally there was Halfshaft, failed wizard, who had spent most of his long life trying to prove to himself that he could do magic when it really mattered, but had had to content himself instead with conjuring leaf-sized flame from his fingers, along with the occasional spurt of water when the mood took him. He was the only one of them on his feet, as he attempted to cajole his companions to follow suit, to go to the aid of Takina, his unrequited Amazon Love. He had left her in the hands of Osiris, the sex-obsessed King of the Dark Elves, and now that they were back from their unsuccessful quest to recruit Harold to defeat the Warlock, his main objective was to return to her side and protect her as best he could from the crude elfish advances which Osiris was no doubt making towards her. Saving the world could wait until she was safe from those long and probing fingers of the Elf King.

Rod eventually stood up, too, in a show of solidarity. “Okay, I’m in. Let’s get back to Vorgas and kick his big elf arse.”

The Watcher looked up from the lake which lapped squeamishly around his nether-regions.

“They’re coming. An army of trolls to destroy you. You must go.”

“What army?” asked Halfshaft in panic. “Who are they? How long have we got?”

But the Watcher was once again immersed in the inter-planetary events which floated in the water around him, and made no reply. Conversation had never been his thing.

“We must save Takina,” Halfshaft urged his companions again, conscious of the fact that time was ticking away. Osiris was both mad and very, very dangerous to know, which was a pretty worrying combination when he held captive the woman of the wizard’s dreams (both the wet and the romantic varieties). “Let’s go.”

“I’m with you, mate,” nodded Rod, and the two of them headed for the two stone slabs which stood sentinel on either side of the exit tunnel of the cave.

Alfie jumped to his feet and followed them, reluctant to be left alone with two “Frenchman” if it could be avoided. No way was he eating snails, or selling onions, or whatever it was they did over there.

The Normans stayed put, having much the same feelings about Saxons as Alfie had about them.

“Did you tell them why I am known as William the Bastard?” William demanded of his Interpreter in Norman-French, as the three Englishmen left the cave.

The Interpreter sighed the sigh of many years of beatings, scoldings and even the occasional mild sexual harassment when his employer had been too drunk to find the Duchess’ bed chamber.

“I believe they may already have already worked that one out for themselves.”

William, Duke of Normandy and now King of England, scowled at him. He wasn’t sure he liked his servant’s tone. He splashed him with lake-water to show him who was king. “Piss off and make me my tea,” he commanded in Norman-French.

 

#

 

The vanguard of the army to which the Watcher had referred was, it appeared, rather closer than Halfshaft had hoped. They had barely emerged from the Watcher’s cave when he caught sight of a man and three cave-trolls hurrying across the grass towards them. They were less than two hundred yards away and approaching fast.

Although ordinary land trolls were huge and aggressive and had a tendency to bite people’s heads off if you gave them so much as a funny look, they were like neutered kittens compared to their cave-dwelling cousins. Cave-trolls were twice the size of them, for a start, weighing about 600 lbs each. They carried enormous stone clubs to pulverise any living creature they came across. Whereas a land-troll had the self-restraint to take the occasional human prisoner to eat him later, cave-trolls would batter him down to a pancake every time. Which made it rather confusing why they were being led by a man on this occasion, who – as far as the wizard could tell from this distance – had not even been chewed around the edges.

“Cave-trolls!” shouted Halfshaft, raising the alarm.

Alfie started running back into the cave. Rod caught him by the arm. “Where are you going, mate?”

“I’m gonna hide in the cave. It’s a bit dark down there. Maybe they won’t see us.”

“They’re cave-trolls,” Rod pointed out. “At the risk of pointing out the bleeding obvious, that means they live in caves. They’re kind of used to seeing things in the dark.”

“So what do you think we should do?” replied a petulant Alfie, never keen on being contradicted. “Give ‘em a bunch of flowers and let ‘em hump us senseless every Friday night?”

Rod looked to Halfshaft for ideas. The cave-trolls and their human escort were closing in fast. Whatever they decided to do, they would have to do it quickly.

“What do you reckon?” he asked the wizard. “Run like buggery?” It was their favourite plan, having been more or less successful dozens of times before.

Halfshaft shrugged. There did not seem to be any real alternative. He set off, with Rod and Alfie close behind him.

“Don’t run off!” cried the man with the cave-trolls. “That’s just bloody rude!”

“Feck off!” Alfie shouted back at him. “Stop your mates trying to eat us, you little twat.”

“That is just so trollist!” the man protested. He came to an indignant halt behind them. “Just because they’re cave-trolls, it doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings.”

One of the cave-trolls let out a deep throaty roar, whether in agreement or in hunger it was hard to say. The man gave it a cuddle to reassure it.

The three men ran on. In a choice between trollism and safety, they would have chosen safety every time, however politically incorrect that may have been.

“I think you should stop now,” the man shouted after them, his voice barely audible now that they had managed to put some distance between them. “And maybe start running this way instead.”

“You must think we’re stupid!” Rod protested over his shoulder, slowing down a little to catch his breath.

Alfie, by far the youngest of the three men, had pulled ahead of the others. He had once heard it said by a contestant on Big Brother that when running from a bear, it didn’t matter if you ran faster than it or not, provided you ran faster than the people who were with you when you spotted it. By the same token, he reasoned that as long as he was in front of his new friends, they would be the ones the cave-trolls would eat, and he could sneak back to the cave and ask the Watcher for directions home once the cave-trolls were having their after-dinner snooze.

But there was something up ahead. Something bad. Maybe even worse than the cave-trolls who the little bloke was cuddling behind him. He came to a halt, uncertain what to do next.

The others caught up with him, and he waved them down as they tried to pass him by. “Guys,” he said. “Hang on a minute.”

“We’ve got to keep running,” Halfshaft told him. “Don’t listen to anything he says. He’s just trying to trick us.”

Alfie pointed ahead. “Yeah, I know that. I’m not stupid! But what’s that, over there?”

Halfshaft squinted towards the horizon. There were lots of tiny little figures there, no bigger than ants. “What, them?” he asked. “What are they?”

“That’s what I’m asking you. This is your neighbourhood. Are they on our side?”

More figures appeared, and as they all came a little nearer, they became a little larger, too.

Realisation dawned on Alfie first, whose eyesight was a little keener than the others. He turned and fled back towards the cave-trolls.

“What are they, though?” Halfshaft repeated, unwilling to run back towards the cave-trolls unless he was left with no other option at all, bearing in mind their tendency to eat people.

Rod winced. “I think we’ve just found that army the Watcher was going on about.”

“The one sent to kill us?”

“Yeah.”

Halfshaft scrutinised the horizon again. The figures were getting larger all the time. There were maybe a hundred of them, mostly land-trolls by the size of them. “All of them? Just for the three of us?”

“Two of us,” Rod corrected, as Alfie reached the cave-trolls and hid behind the biggest of them.

Halfshaft waited for one of the cave-trolls to grab the teenager and stick him down its throat, but it just stood there, amiably enough, as he cowered behind it. “Are they going to eat him?” he asked, with morbid curiosity.

Rod waited for a few moments to see if the cave-troll was hungry. Nothing happened. “Doesn’t look like it.”

With a resigned sigh, Halfshaft turned tail and started jogging back towards the cave-trolls, Rod puffing along just behind him. It went against the grain to run towards them, whatever the circumstances, but it seemed the lesser of two evils. There was nowhere else to go.

Halfshaft rapidly changed his mind when he got there. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, upon reaching the cave-trolls, he recognised the man who was with them: Archie Watkins. Halfshaft had conjured up Archie from Earth a thousand years in the future, using the only decent spell he had ever been given. He had believed him to be Harold the Invincible, King of the Saxons, and expected him to defeat the Warlock on their behalf. Archie had at least turned out to be a distant descendant of the Saxon King, but it was hard to imagine a man who was less equipped to defeat anyone in a fight, yet alone a shape-shifting monster. The middle-aged accountant from Hastings had fled the mountain, threatening to call the police, and when Halfshaft had last seen him he had taken refuge in the bowels of the earth, surrounded by cave-trolls who had inexplicably adopted him as one of their own. One of these cave-trolls, George, had attempted to help Halfshaft on his quest, but had proved to be even more inept than his master, avoiding confrontation at all costs, his sole contribution being to loan the wizard his lucky handkerchief in times of trouble.

His second reason for changing his mind about trusting the cave-trolls was perhaps an even better one. Upon reaching them, the largest one grabbed him and stuck him under its arm. Another of them seized Rod, whilst the third turned round and picked up Alfie. They had been outwitted by the stupidest race on the planet, and now they would have to pay the culinary price.

Rod’s cave-troll grumbled a little upon picking him up, as if complaining about the weight, which really added insult to injury. The largest one huffed, raised its rocky eyebrows and swapped burdens, passing Halfshaft to its fellow in Rod’s place. Once all three of them had a suitable human tucked beneath its arm, they set off away from the pursuing land-trolls, with Archie Watkins trotting amiably along behind them.

“Sorry about this,” he apologised to his captives. “No time to explain, but you’ll thank me for this later.”

“You’re gonna get a smack in the teeth when he puts me down,” Alfie responded.

“She,” snapped Archie, deeply offended. “She’s a she. How dare you speak about my fiancée like that?”

 

#

 

They had a head-start on the pursuing trolls, but it was not a very generous one. Some of the trolls behind them starting breaking away from the pack and narrowing the gap at a gallop. Unless they found cover, it was only a matter of time before they would be run down. Cave-trolls were fearsome creatures, and more than a match for any land-troll on the planet, but there were dozens upon dozens of the creatures closing in on them. If they caught them up, the three men would be torn to pieces, whether or not the cave-trolls were inclined to try and save them.

Rod’s head bobbled up and down as the cave-troll ran. He was tucked under the arm of the largest cave-troll, but despite the thickness of the creature’s biceps he protruded from either side by about two feet. His head was facing backwards, behind the cave-troll, so he if he craned his neck he could see the troll army catching up behind them. He felt a little like an overweight surf-board.

“Alright, darlin’?” Rod enquired of his cave-troll conversationally. If these were going to be his final moments of life, then he was at least going to have a bit of a chat before he went.

The cave-troll squeezed him beneath its arm, sharply enough to wind him. “You’re a bloke,” Rod corrected himself, once he had recovered his breath. “Obviously a bloke. Goes without saying.”

Archie Watkins was lagging behind. The cave-troll carrying Alfie stopped to wait for him. “Keep on running!” Alfie shouted at her. “The little fella can catch us up later.”

The other two cave-trolls braked as well. All three of them returned to Archie, and formed a protective wall in front of him. Archie’s fiancée dropped Alfie unceremoniously to the ground and the others followed suit with Rod and Halfshaft. The three men took cover with Archie behind the wall of cave-trolls, wishing that there were an extra couple of dozen of the creatures to even out the fight. Archie tried to make a break for it, but Rod grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and hauled him back again.

“You wouldn’t make it a hundred yards,” he told him. “We’ve gotta stay with the cave-trolls. Maybe they’ll frighten them off.”

The first of the pursuing land-trolls arrived, others hot on his clumping great heels. Rather than meeting the cave-trolls head on, they fanned out around them until the party was completely encircled. It was a very large circle by the time they had finished, consisting of over a hundred land-trolls in all. Rod wondered again why quite so many of them had been sent for just the three of them. Especially when all three of them were so very crap at fighting.

He remembered that he had Harold’s sword in the scabbard on his back. It could only be used by someone from Earth, and made the wielder invincible. He had used it once before with very limited success; it was all very well having a sword which made you invincible, but if you had no sword-fighting ability whatsoever then it didn’t pose much of a threat to the people you were fighting.

The nearest Rod had come to a fight back on Earth was a tug-of-war over the TV remote control when his girlfriend was trying to switch channels to “Britain’s Got Talent” when it was his night to watch the football. Halfshaft’s twin skills of creating a small flame of fire and squirting an insipid spurt of water were unlikely to be a great deal of help here. Alfie, as far as he could gather, had no abilities whatsoever, unless he was able to whine people to death. So all that stood between them and total oblivion were three cave-trolls, three against a hundred or more. And, in the unlikely event that the cave-trolls were able to beat off an attack, there was every chance that they would then eat the three of them anyway.

The cave-trolls took up their clubs with both hands. The largest of them took a step or two forwards, trying to intimidate the land-trolls into flight, but they had the courage of numbers. They did not retreat an inch.

The big cave-troll went to take another step forward, but the smallest of them mewed at him. He turned round and surveyed Archie Watkins for a second or two. He sighed, and returned to the ranks. Protecting the mild-mannered accountant from Hastings was clearly their number one priority, if only for the sake of his fiancée.

An armoured troll stepped forwards from the circle, walking towards the cave-trolls as if unconcerned by the damage they could do to him if the mood took them. He held two lengths of rope in his hands. He threw them on the ground at the cave-trolls’ feet, nodding towards Rod and Halfshaft.

“Tie them two up, and the rest of you can walk. It’s just them we want.”

“Sounds reasonable,” nodded Alfie. “No point in all of us dying, is there? See you later, lads. Take care.”

“Cheers for that, mate,” Rod replied.

“I’m just saying. It’s better for you two to take one for the team. There’s no point in taking us lot with you; that would just be selfish.”

“Who’s to say that once we’re tied up they won’t kill you anyway?” Halfshaft snapped. “They probably just want us out of the way to even the odds.”

“Even the odds?” Alfie smirked. “There’s hundreds of the buggers! And if they wanted a couple of us tied up, I don’t think they’d pick you two, would they? They’d pick these big bastards here. Go on, let them tie you up. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Well?” asked the armoured troll. His trolls were getting restless, anxious for a fight. The circle around them was starting to shrink.

Archie Watkins shook his head. “They’re not going anywhere. I need them to help me get home. I want to move back to Hastings with my beautiful fiancée. Show her how we do things, back on Earth. Buy her some fish and chips on the seafront, take her to watch “Star Wars” in the cinema, maybe.”

“That’s selfish as well,” Alfie complained. “You old people are all the same, always thinking of yourselves rather than giving the young a chance. Look, I’m way too good-looking to die. Hand ‘em over, like the bloke asked you. Maybe I can help you get home instead.”

“No. They’re staying with us.”

The armoured troll smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. Now we get to fight. We would have killed you all anyway.”

He signalled and the surrounding trolls started walking forwards, closing the trap. “Don’t hurt the wizard and the fat man too badly,” he said. “Chameleon wants them alive.”

“And don’t hurt the young, handsome one either,” Alfie shouted, but everyone ignored him.

The largest of the cave-trolls raised his club and charged towards the ranks of land-trolls closing in on him, ignoring the mewing of the other two. A dozen trolls swamped him and pulled him down to the ground, his massive club flailing around him as he fell in a vain attempt to take some of the trolls with him as he died.

Halfshaft looked at Rod. Rod shrugged. “Nowhere to run,” he said.

They waited nervously as the noose of trolls pulled taut around them.

 

#

 

Magic, thought Halfshaft. The only way we can get out of this is by using magic. And not just the limp party-tricks I usually come up with. Twice before he had tapped into truly impressive spells (more by luck than design, he had to admit). If only he could do so a third time, now, when he needed it most of all.

His life – and death - might have been so different if he had concentrated more at Wizard School. They had taught all manner of spells there which would have been useful in a situation such as this, including shape-shifting, earth-quake conjuring, invisibility, hovering and vomiting acid (they’d had to wear goggles for the last one for health and safety reasons). But all he had wanted to do was Big Bertha, the Principal’s over-sized and over-sexed daughter, who would teach him so much more than her father ever would.

While all the other pupils at Wizard School and Wizard College were learning the 28 Great Spells and the 1415 Slightly-Less-Great-Spells, he was bunking off behind the Penny Farthing sheds with Bertha, learning about love, life and digital penetration (which was not as sexy as it sounded, as Bertha was the one using her digits and she had fingers like genetically engineered sausages).

One day, his father had paid an unscheduled visit to the school, catching him in flagrante (Bertha was setting light to his pubic hair on the advice of her Mum, who knew a thing or two about what men really wanted, no matter how much they cried and begged a woman to beat the flames out).

His father had been a wood-carver, and a pretty average one at that. But one day in their hut-home he had woken Halfshaft from a childish dream, telling him that he had been muttering magical incantations in his sleep, and that he would enrol him in wizard school as soon as he could afford it. Twenty seven years of scrimping and saving and own-brand-beans-on-toast later, his parents had brought him here, telling him how proud they were of him, even though he was now thirty eight, and the next oldest in the class was just 12. Maybe that age-gap was the reason he’d skipped so many classes and learnt next to nothing. Or maybe it was because he hadn’t been mumbling incantations in his sleep, but had been dreaming about getting a sloppy cuddle from the witches’ apprentice his parents had been bullied into boarding for the week.

His father had caught him with Bertha, had seen him hitching up his robe with one hand and using the other to try to put out his flaming testicles with his singed school cap. He had expected his father to shout at him, to beat him, to remind him of all the sacrifices which had been made to pay for him to attend the best wizard’s school in the world. But instead, his father had just turned away, shaking his head in crushed sorrow. Matters were not helped when Bertha gave his father a mouthful (but not in a good way), telling him he was a dirty old pervert for watching young people having a bit of fun, although she had then had a sudden change of heart and offered to set his pubic hair alight, too, for half a groat (or a full groat if he wanted her to rub in the burns cream for him afterwards).

To make matters even worse, it turned out that his father had been called in by the Principal, who was considering expelling him for lack of application. Three of his teachers were sitting behind a large desk in the Great Hall (or a great desk in the Large Hall, he couldn’t remember which, now). He had followed his father into the room, conscious that it was not helping his cause that he had to hold his robes away from his groin to stop them rubbing against his badly singed foliage. The smell of burnt hair hung heavy and damning upon him.

There were three senior members of staff there to sit in judgment upon him: the Principal (who thankfully never ventured behind the Penny Farthing sheds or he would have expelled him on the spot), Miss Honeypot (the Head of Explosive Spells, who acted as if she may have spent a fair amount of time knicker-deep amongst the Penny Farthings herself in her much younger days), and Mr Vip (Head of Sarcasm and Irony).

His father sat with head bowed as the Principal listed the classes which Halfshaft had attended (Party-tricks and Sarcasm) and the classes which he had not (all the others). Next door, he could hear the young wizards chanting out spells as if they were the three times table, learning magic by rote so that they could change, defend or terrorise the world as they pleased when they graduated.

He noticed that Miss Honeypot was winking at him. At first he thought it was just convulsions; she was about one hundred and sixty after all, and well past her prime. But then she licked her cracked old lips in a way which might have been suggestive in a woman who had not been dodging Y-shaped coffins for half her life, and at that moment he knew the awful truth. If she was to vote against his expulsion, he would have to do her a favour or two in return, and if the rumours of her distant past were true, he knew exactly what those favours would be. His tongue shrivelled up and attempted to take refuge behind his back teeth in mute terror at the awful, crusty fate which awaited it.

Despite the thirty-four and a half (half a sixty-nine) which his ancient tutor had in mind for him, he winked back. What was the harm? The Principal only needed a majority vote to get him out, so he would be leaving whether or not Honeypot was in favour of keeping him in (or keeping him down). She fluttered her eyelashes at him in response (he thought it was a flutter, although it may have been that she was trying to wink at him with both eyes at the same time).

One in favour, one against. So that left the casting vote with Mr Vip, his sarcasm tutor. Ironically, sarcasm was the one class he had always attended, finding that he had a natural aptitude for it. Maybe Vip would keep him in? If there was anyone there who would save him, it would be Vip.

But then he remembered that Vip and Honeypot had been lovers in their younger days. He had a feeling they may have even been married for a couple of decades, half a century ago. But they had fallen out, as Honeypot had wanted romantic weekends by the river and roses on her pillow, whilst Vip couldn’t help sounding sarcastic even when he was trying to be genuine. “Oh, you look so pretty today”, he had said, in a tone which suggested that she was something squishy and steaming he had just scraped off his boots. “You think I’m disgusting,” she had wept. “Oh, you don’t look disgusting at all!” he had protested, but his tone of voice contradicted him, and that had been that.

Had Vip noticed the winking-fest? Halfshaft’s wizardly education, the respect of his father, his whole life depended on this one question. If Miss Honeypot’s facial contortions had gone unremarked, there was hope for him yet. If they had been spotted, he was dragon-toast.

He looked at Vip. His heart sank. The professor was staring at his ex-wife as if she had just taken a dump on the table and rubbed his face in it. Bruised -purple with rage, he turned to face Halfshaft, intent on avenging this perceived infidelity. Bye bye, Wizard School. Hello, life of wood-carving a shilling-a-dozen statuettes. And all with severely burnt pubes, to make matters worse.

“I vote he is expelled with immediate effect,” ruled the Principal, coming to the point at last as the children’s incantations droned on next door. “I have no doubt that my two esteemed colleagues will be in full agreement.” He waved vaguely towards Halfshaft, signalling to his two colleagues that it was their turn to pass judgment upon him.

“I think you’re being too hasty,” Miss Honeypot protested. “I think this young man shows great promise.” At this, Vip tensed so much that his buttocks could have practically eaten through the seat his chair. “I’m sure that given the right – hands-on encouragement, he will come on in leaps and bounds, and maybe, just maybe, he will go down,” (pause for further winking) “as one of the most talented wizards of his generation. You’d like that, young man, wouldn’t you? To go down? As - what I just said?”

Halfshaft nodded and shuddered at the same time. If his father had not been sitting next to him, he would have fled the room there and then.

“Say it,” Miss Honeypot. “Say you’d like to go down.”

“I’d like to go down,” he repeated dutifully, staring miserably into his lap. It occurred to him that by holding his robes away from his burnt crotch that he may well have been flashing his expulsion panel, which may not have been the greatest of ideas with both Honeypot and Vip sitting opposite him.

“Really?” asked the Principal. “Talented? Him?”

Miss Honeypot nodded, trying to suppress a grin. “He could do great things under me, I’m sure of it.”

All eyes turned to Vip. Halfshaft had never before seen a man on the cusp of literally exploding. His veins were practically bursting through his skin, and his eyes were bulging through his eye-sockets so far that it looked like they were trying to cross the desk and smack the trainee-wizard in the face. There could be no doubt how the Professor would vote. He might just as well start packing his bags now.

He looked at his father, and saw that the old man had silent tears running down his cheeks. He wasn’t sure whether it was through gratitude at the misplaced trust Miss Honeypot had appeared to show in him, or the disgrace of having a talentless son who was willing to prostitute himself to stay in an institution where they permitted pupils to set light to their own genitalia. Either way, he knew that he had let him down and that nothing he could ever say or do would be enough to regain the love and respect his father had once held for him.

“Oh yes,” spat Vip. “One of the most talented wizards of his generation, without a doubt! You have only to look at the exceptional progress he’s made to date, the way he applies himself beyond all measure, and the fact that he never, ever, ever gets distracted by beautiful tutors who should know better as he isn’t fit to kiss the ground she glides on!”

“Are you sure about this?” asked the puzzled Principal, taken aback by this unexpected endorsement of such an unpromising excuse for a human-being. “I thought we’d agreed that he was a bit crap?”

Vip rushed around the table, so that he could prod Halfshaft in the chest as he continued to berate him. “Crap? Him? Whatever gave you that idea? There’s no way that a pupil like this would bugger up every bloody spell he attempts, on the few occasions he bothers to even attempt them. And he would never, ever distract my star pupil by trying to steal his tobacco during a lesson on dragon-conjuring-Tuesday, making him conjure up a demon instead which took me three bloody weeks to send back to the Underworld!”

“He wouldn’t?” repeated the Principal, who never had quite got the hang of the sarcasm thing.

“Well of course not! This man is a wizardly genius! Head and shoulders above every wizard I have ever had the pleasure to teach! One day, he’ll go on to great things. Found his own wizard school, maybe, subdue the Great Forest, save the world before breakfast.”

“Oh,” said the confused Principal, for want of something better to say. “I see.”

“That is,” finished Vip, as he made his way back to his chair, “if someone doesn’t cut his nasty little bollocks off first.”

The Principal looked to Miss Honeypot. “So you think he should stay?”

She nodded, licking her cracked old lips as she did so. “Most definitely. There’s so much I could teach him. It excites me, just thinking about it.”

The Principal turned to Vip. “And you want him here, too, George?”

“Where else would a wizardly colossus such as this be quartered? It’s not like we’d want to consume him with flame and throw his burnt little body into the woods, is it?”

“No, no. Quite. Mr Shaft, I’m sorry to have brought you all this way for nothing. My understanding was that your son, Halfshaft, was a wastrel, a cretin, a sorry excuse for a human being. But it appears that I may have got hold of the wrong end of the wizard’s staff. However much of an oaf he appears to be now, he clearly has vast potential which we will do our very best to coax out of him, however deep it may lie. Thank you so very much for coming, and please feel free to help yourself to a cup of tea and a Wizard Biscuit or two in the kitchens before you leave us. They’re free. Good day.”

The Principal tipped his wizard’s hat and left without a backward glance.

“What the -?” protested Vip. “Don’t tell me he’s letting the vile little toad stay?”

Miss Honeypot nodded happily. “I’ll move him to the quarters next to mine straightaway. I’ll make it my personal business to mentor him, day and night.”

Vip, speechless for once, stormed out of the room. Miss Honeypot followed him out, leaving Halfshaft and his father to say their goodbyes. “Come and see me when you’re done. We have a lot to fit in, I hope.”

The two men sat in silence for a minute or two, his father bowing his head and staring at his lap. Occasionally, he wiped a tear from his face. Halfshaft wanted him to say something – anything – but he remained silent. And then, without a word of warning, he stood up and left the room. No hug, no goodbye, not so much as a farewell frown. He was just gone, leaving the forlorn wizard alone behind him.

“I’ll make you proud of me!” Halfshaft shouted after him as he went. “I’ll make you so proud of me.”

And for the next three weeks, he applied himself at his lessons as he had never done before. He skipped sarcasm lessons with Vip (judging it to be for the best after the Professor’s comment about cutting off his testicles) but other than that he attended every tutorial he could, and even started showing vague signs of learning the occasional spell or two.

And then, just as he started thinking that he might achieve something with his life after all, he received the news that his father had died on his way back home, torn in half and eaten by two trolls who had somehow made it through the Great Forest. Dead. Gone. Never to be seen or apologised to again.

Which is when he gave up trying. And, paradoxically, when it became more important still that he should try and make his father proud of him, even if his father was no longer there to witness it.

 

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