I am at the Cheeky Parrot on my way to Castle Marsh. I didn’t get a new story written for Christmas this year, but I did attempt to research one. Here’s what happened when I went to interview some old friends.
The Cheeky Parrot: Christmas with Fred and George
In which I find travelling in the Realms a-wash with problems
I am sitting at a table in the Cheeky Parrot, a sort of traveller’s rest stop at Castle Wash. It’s just outside the walls of the castle itself, but the whole city is called after the castle, as is the custom in these lands.
They call this place an inn. It provides just about everything a traveller might need, sleeping quarters in a variety of standards, sumptuous to squalid; food, ditto, snacks and things for your journey… well you get the picture. It’s also a centre of relaxation for the people of the town, so it’s noisy, with laughter, arguments, shouts to the bartender from across the room. I’m enjoying the view. Well, I’ve decided to enjoy the view, since I’ve been waiting for the coach to Castle Marsh for two days now. They promised me that it would be here today. It’s just the flooding between here and the marsh is bad.
“No,” replies the barman, shuffling his feet and studying the glass he’s polishing.
“Why is it flooded on this side?”
“Thou’s better ask them at’ castle.”
I purse my lips as he turns back to doing his job. There’s something going on that I don’t know about. I hate that.
“Message for Ms Jemima!” calls a voice from the tiny room under the main staircase. I get up and poke my head through the doorway.
“Ah, message for you!” Tori, the Castle Wash post system operator, hands me a yellow slip, uncurling from its release from the vacuum tube. I thank her and return to my seat.
“Dear Jemima,” I read. “Hear the coach can’t get through. Sending George instead. You’ll enjoy his new thing. Fred xx”
I notice he still sends messages in the minimum number of words required. Even kings can be frugal. Well, Fred believes frugality is the key to success. He may be right, in these troubled times.
If he’s sending George, I guess I’m in for a ride in a flying machine. The weather has cleared; it’s still cold, but the wind has dropped, so I hope it’s safe to fly.
Last time I flew with George, it was in a biplane with an open cockpit. It was summer and it was absolutely freezing.
George invents flying machines, and his ultimate aim is to make one that can carry freight across the Great Western ocean non-stop. He now has one that lands on water that can carry freight for long distances, but only as far as the other side of these lands in one go. That’s a good distance, but nowhere near enough. He has one that has only a single wing, but four engines, that will fly two people (including the pilot) all the way to the other aircraft makers in the lakes on the far side of the mountains. That’s a very long way, but still not as far as across that darned ocean. I’m sure he’ll complete this quest, but he’s only got about three years to do it in, now.
“Where do the flying machines land if they visit?” I ask the barman.
“Land planes come down on the hill over there,” he said pointing. “Flying boats have a special lane in the harbour.”
If George has a ‘new thing’ as Fred suggests, it’ll probably land on the water. That’s why I’m now leaning on the harbour wall, looking out into the vast expanse of water they call The Wash. I can see a row of floats marking a straight line down the middle of the sea, the other side of a row of posts that I know marks the deep water channel. Various ships and boats are tied up at the quay; most have people dashing on and off, and gantries that I’d call cranes, but the Wash people call storks, helping to move huge bales from ship to shore, or vice versa. I once asked why they were called storks. “They look just like ‘uge ears of storks towering up in’t sky,” an old salt told me. I smile as I remember, then feel silly as I realise he meant stalks.
There’s something looking like a stork flying about above the water. It circles round and comes into land. The quayside has fallen quiet; everyone has stopped to look. It splashes down, races along the floatlane, and eventually comes to rest, nose towards the shore, about a hundred yards away.
The person climbing out of a door next to the windows in the front (front? they used to be on top) looks tiny. He pulls something from a pouch slung beneath the wing, throws it onto the water and waits. I’m amazed as it transforms into a raft of sorts. He pulls some sticks from the door in the plane, and climbs in. A figure I recognise instantly appears at the door and climbs in after him. I’m smiling, and moving forward. He’s turning, waving and grinning at me with his big toothy smile. George!
The boat, for that is what it is, comes up right to my feet, and George steps out. His assistant turns the boat around while George and I hug.
“It’s the prototype,” he says, waving airily at the new flying machine. “Very bare inside, but I thought you’d like to fly in it.”
“As long as it’s safe!”
We both laugh. He explains it has the old engines, and it needs the new ones if it’s going to do the job we want, but he has some technical problems to sort out.
“Like what?” I love encouraging him, but he frowns.
“Well, we’ve found out that flying across the Great Western Ocean needs more than just a machine with the range to do it. The new engines aren’t reliable enough, and there are all sorts of things to consider like height, weather, direction finding, and things like that. There’s so much more to do.”
“Well, you’ve plenty of time to do it.”
I settle myself in the boat, and the assistant, named Dash, rows us back to the machine. It is indeed spartan inside. There’s a rickety chair on either side of some controls, behind the windows, and a pile of sacks behind them. I seat myself on the sacks, they go through some routine checks, and we start our take-off.
“How long will it take?” I shout when we’re airborne.
“Only about half an hour. The wind’s with us now. Couldn’t fly yesterday, it was too gusty.”
I look out of the window with him and he points out various landmarks.
“Why is there so much water below? We’re not over the marsh yet, surely?”
“We’re going round the top edge. I prefer to fly around the coast in new machines, just in case we have to come down in the water.”
“Does that often happen?”
“Often enough. Not for a while in this set-up, though. What do you think of her?”
“Very impressive. And very spacious!”
There is a huge amount of space in the body of the machine behind us. You could see all the wires leading to the tail, and various tubes leading from the fuel cell to the wings, but otherwise, the space was empty. Void, even.
“Is that where the cargo will go?”
“Yes, although we have plans to fit it out with a rest area for the pilots, and feeding station. Eventually I suppose we could take passengers.”
“A comfy seat would be good.”
“It’s on my list.” George smiles. “Fred might not be at home when we get there. He’s got a problem with a food store down south.”
“At the bottom end of the marsh. I think it flooded, but he’s suspicious. Haggis went down with him. It may be sabotage.”
“Why would anyone sabotage a food store?”
“We get people passing though, sometimes. They don’t want to stay, so we give them a few days rest and food, then they move on. Mostly they stay. They tell us about gangs going around stealing food, and if they can’t take it away with them, destroying the rest. Fred says it’s to destabilise the status quo.”
That sounded like the sort of thing Fred would say. Make trouble for the kings, would be an accurate translation.
“Why are there so many gangs roaming around, George?”
“If we knew that, we’d have a chance of stopping them. I’ve heard that they are from the places that the you-know-whats used to run, and now they are homeless, but otherwise harmless, if you know what I mean.”
Vampires with no bite. And with no leader since the lords left their castles for the eastern lands. I wonder what will happen next.
to be continued next Friday
© J M Pett 2017
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