A Cloud Over Brenham
Chapter 1: The Funeral

From the Chronicles of Father Piet George of Brenham

Good King Charles was buried on this day, 14th Jounes, 950. The funeral was held in the church of Brenham, and all attended. As I have previously noted, King Charles had been ill for some time with a disease that appeared to wane and then wax, causing great consternation amongst the physicians and experts called from the Portal. After all their efforts, he seemed to rally, only to fall unconscious and die a few days after.

It is also worrying that his sister, Princess Susan, is now showing the same symptoms and has, for her own safety, been removed to another land through the Portal.

And so it is left to Prince Harold to take the throne. It is hoped that he will not fall to this disease which, I'm sorry to say, the commoners have started to call "The Royal Plague". As the spiritual leader of my flock I, have tried my best to curtail such things, but it is difficult.

I must say, the funeral was well-attended, including several of the faerie folk. The Lord Bran was there, as well as two persons who were heavily cloaked and seemed to be held in great esteem by the faerie. Other attendees included the ambassador from the metal world and the woman Clancy. I thanked them all for being there, although Prince Harold did seem to be rather brisk with them; the upcoming investiture was affecting him I suppose.

During the release of the Spirit it was with sadness that I watched the ascension of the soul as it rose into the air. It seemed to want to remain behind, but the Blessed One accepted him as was his due. I have to say that the way the soul moved around Prince Harold was strange. I fancied it was trying to talk to Harold ... but I'm certain that impression was mine alone.

It was spectacular to see the glare of the portal as the guests stepped through it to leave. Harold was there. Fulfilling his duty to visiting dignitaries, he waited a few moments before returning to the Castle.

I have to prepare for the service of investiture now. The plans have been drawn up and all is nearly ready, except I am unable to find the circlet of power. It has been searched for, but has apparently been mislaid by the armourer — much to Harold's annoyance — but we are covering this with a copy of the circlet. I doubt that it will make much difference.

Private Journal of Harold — King Harold I of Brenham

Too long my brother suffered from the illness, and how it hurt me to see him like that ... I was told the poison was fast acting! Never mind. It's done now, and the out-worlders have taken my sister, Susan, away so she won't be any bother to me. It's all arranged that I will be crowned King — as was my birthright! Being the second son wasn't my place I was destined to be the King and I will reign as a true king would!

My first act will be to remove that blasted captain of the guard. He's been watching me, I know it. But I have my own men who will ensure that he won't be any further problem. After that, I will ensure my own people control the guards and then I'll start my pogrom to take over the whole of the land.

The only problem is the loss of the circlet of power, that which will activate the armour of protection, without which I cannot activate the computer inside the wrist-bands. And for some reason, the sword, Twilight, will not talk to me as it did to my brother — I tried it last night and ordered it to obey me, without success! I don't understand this. I have to read through the books in the library to find out why this is.

While thinking of the books ... I find that the notes of the Journey of the first King, John, my father, are missing and the only things I have are the stories that he would tell us of his travels, but I have to admit that I didn't really listen to them, as most of tales are too far-fetched to be real, although the transportal system does give me cause for concern. It would be too easy for people to try to use them to escape from my benevolent rule.

I'll have to sort something out about that ... a bit later I think.

The land of Brenham was still in mourning for its king. In his forest lair, Lord Bran brooded about this. He had seen a darkness coming, and coming fast. He wondered if he should have consulted the Green Lady and Brenda about this.

Bran shook his head. Leave it for the time being; if it affects the forest, then perhaps ... But that would be in the future. The death of his friend, the man Charles, was had made him sad. All life was sacred, but Charles was the son of his other friend John.

Although he wanted to speak to both John and Margaret, he knew that to do so would invite more people to study them and possibly pierce their disguises, something that he was reluctant to do.

His mind went back to when he first met with John Aitkens. At first he'd thought the man as one of those who was intent on destroying the land with their evil, but then he saw his daughter, Genius, with him and so he watched.

Then the man began singing — songs from another land that brought strange, happy sensations to Bran, and he wanted to know the man better. And so he did.

He found that John had a commitment to escort the Lady Brenda, this had brought him into conflict with Brak Distar, and it was only due to the influence of John that Brak was defeated.

Bran found that his connection with The Green Lady strengthened and that he was now able to travel to other worlds and that his powers had increased due to this. Somehow, Brak had been reducing the influence of the guardians of the lands. Later it was found to be part of the programming of the intelligence known as the Red Queen.

Like Lord Oberon, the guardian of John's home planet, Bran had an affinity for the land and would never leave it for long, but the need to help John transcended this obligation.

And so, when the battle returned to Brenham, Bran was there by his side for the task ahead. He had thought to help the people of the land by creating the church so that the mortal folk had a focus for their faith. He hadn't consider the impact it would have on his own people. in fact when the Supreme One appeared to them all he was forced to reconsider his own mortality

He laughed. A machine man worried about his soul? That was what backups were for. In that way would he be saved and a replacement would then take his place with all his memories intact.

The Supreme One? That was a confusing thing. It seemed to look favourably upon John and Margaret and spoke to everyone through the priest Pieter, another human who had surprised Bran. They spent several hours talking about things; how the people and the land were connected; how the faerie folk and the people of Brenham were now working together, even if he never entered the church itself. Although he had built it for John and the then Brother Pieter, he felt a connection to it.

Bran shook his head. How could he think of this? he must be getting old. He smiled and then called the folk to dance and to sing. This was the way to celebrate a friend — to be dour and sad wasn't the way to remember Charles.

In the land of Brenham, things were happening. The new king, Harold, had declared that his brother had been poisoned by persons unknown, although he did think that the Captain of the Guard was involved in the plot, as he was now missing.

Because of this, the entire palace guard was now imprisoned and new guards were installed. In fact they almost trebled the original number of guards.

Because of the problems, Harold announced that travel through the portal would be controlled until the main group of plotters were found, although he did think that they had already escaped. But he feared for his sister Susan as well as himself.

The townsfolk at first applauded his actions, but then found that they were being stopped and their property searched.

Then taxes were imposed to pay for the new guards and buildings, and a wall was being built around the town — for their protection — by convicts, whose numbers had greatly increased due to violations of the new tax laws. These were driven by the guards, who looked down on them.

Some folk tried to cross country to get to other towns to escape from this new regime. They were soon traced and pulled back, Accused of association with the poisoners of King Charles, and flogged before being imprisoned.

Soon, decrying of the king was declared treason, and anyone who spoke against his majesty was arrested and hung. The townsfolk were fearful of saying anything, lest the person they spoke to report to the king.

Fear stalked the street, although only during the daylight hours, as a curfew was in effect. Nobody was allowed on the streets between sundown and sunrise. Groups of more than 10 were not allowed to meet except for church services, leaving that as the only place for people to get together.

Father George protested to King Harold, but got nowhere.

"You forget yourself, Priest. As king of this land, I can decide who the priest is and who is not. Any further protests and I'll have to find someone who will listen to my words and pass them onto the faithful."

Father George frowned. "But the Supreme One decides who is called to the faith. It is not up to us mortals to make such decisions. I would suggest that you meant-" His protests were cut off by Harold jumping to his feet.

"I am the King, priest. I am the one to whom the Supreme One talks to now, and who passes on his words to you. So I embody the faith. You have been told that you are allowed to open your church for services as normal. I will now pen the sermon that you will recite and that you will pass onto your parishioners and the Monastery. Do not deviate from the script. You are dismissed," Harold angrily retorted.

Father George tried to protest, but the guards moved forward to escort him from the chamber.

That Sunday, Father George got to his feet and glanced at the papers he had in his hand. He strode to the front of the Church and spoke. "In the name of the Supreme One ... Brethren, I have here the words of King Harold. In it he states that the church and the crown are now joined for the wellbeing of the people. It is the duty of the people to obey the crown in all things. He states that since he is the head of the crown, he should also be the head of the Church."

Father George looked up at the top of the church at the guards who were standing there. "I have contacted my Prior, who understands my feelings on this, and he also shares them. The church has always been non-judgemental in the workings of the crown, offering aid to those who require it. We have to maintain our distance from the crown to ensure our even-handedness and so I cannot, in all faith agree to this missive. And-"

The rest of his words were stopped by guardsmen, who ran through the aisles and down the centre walkway to him. They grabbed him and quickly ushered him away and out to the castle.

The new captain of the guard stood at the altar. "By order of the King, this church is closed due to the actions of the traitorous Father George. It will re-open when a priest agrees to the role of the king in the beliefs of this church. It is a pity that the action of this traitorous priest has opened the way for the damnation of this congregation. This service is over!" The captain watched as his men came down from the sides and escorted the people out of the church.

As he walked out of the empty church, he noticed a golden chalice. He smiled, picked it up, and walked to the doors.

"HOLD THIEF! RETURN THE CHURCH RELICS!" A voice boomed out from nowhere, making the captain stop with fear. Then there was the sound of the chalice hitting the floor as his fingers released their hold on their prize. He ran out of the church and slammed the doors shut.

I stepped from behind a force shield, laughing.

Bran was with me. "That wasn't nice, Lord John." He was also laughing at the reactions of the guardsman.

"I'm sorry, Bran, but I couldn't help it. Stealing from the church; how could he? I'm sorry I didn't have Twilight with me. It might have helped me." I was sobering now with the thoughts of what my son was doing.

Bran seemed to know what I was thinking. "You had no choice. Did you want to remain King forever? You told me several times that you were not interested in being a king. What did you once say about the crown?" He regarded me.

"It was a cold hat with nothing to protect a person against the rain," I said, thinking back to the days when he would visit me and somehow make the function of ruling a lot better. I picked up the chalice and placed it back from where it had come.

"So how is my god-daughter?" Bran asked, his concern for my daughter, Susan, showing on his face.

"She's getting much better. The toxicology people have found the poison used, and they are starting the antidotes, but they think it's going to be some time before she's completely well." I shook my head sadly.

"Hark, I hear footsteps approaching." Bran alerted me, and so we went back behind the shield.

Father George entered the church. "My Lord Bran, are you within?" he called out, looking around the church.

The small fae who entered with him looked straight at the shield. "He is hiding, priest, but should appear soon."

Bran looked at me. We could see each other behind the screen although any 'normal' person wouldn't see us, and a grin settled on his face, "I am here, Father George, although I do beg your pardon for being in such a holy place." He stepped into view.

Father George made a sign with his hands and then looked abashed. "I'm glad you are here, Lord Bran. I had hoped that you would grace us with your presence earlier, as you did with Father Pieter."

Bran shrugged his shoulders, "I'm sorry Father George, but since the death of Father Pieter, I do not seem to have the need anymore."

Father George nodded, "It is of no matter, and I do thank you for my rescue. I was fully willing to meet with Harold and have this out with him." He looked serious.

"That would not have worked, Father. Harold is smitten with the greed for power, and since he — thankfully — did not inherit any of his father's powers, he resorted to poisons from faraway lands gained during his travels through the portals. With use of these, he's gained the throne and would kill any who speaks against him. It is plain that he plans more than the control of Brenham town, I would consider that he has eyes on the nearer kingdoms," Bran cautioned.

Father George looked at him in shock. "But the other kings would stop him; they wouldn't let him invade their lands"

Bran shook his head. "Nay, good father. He does not design to invade by force, but rather by stealth, as he's sending his spies into the other lands to cause unrest in those places. It's called in-file-tration, or something like that."

"No, Bran. It's pronounced infiltration," I said, closing down the field. "Hello, Father. It's been a few years since I saw you. You're getting old, my friend." I approached the pair.

Father George frowned as he looked at me. "I'm sorry, but I don't recognise you, sir. Have we met before?" He studied my face, trying to remember me.

"I remember when you officiated at the funeral of Father Pieter; I shook your hand and thanked you for taking his place at such a time," I said, taking his hand and shaking it.

"But ... the only person who did that ... was ... Oh my Lord." He sank down onto his knee.

I pulled on his arm. "Get up, Father. I'm no longer the person you knew," I said, and laughed at his amazed look. "And no I'm not a deity either. I'm just a man," I added, hearing Bran snort as he tried to control his laughter. "Just a man, Father. That's all." I glared at Bran.

Father George was in a daze as I took him to a pew and sat him down. I squatted down in front of him.

"But, my Lord John, how is this miracle achieved?"

"Didn't you read Father Pieter's journals? His private ones?" I was puzzled, as I thought that he should have done this.

"Oh no, Lord John. They've been kept at the monastery in the secure vault," he explained. "Only the senior monks are allowed to read them. We priests do not have that right."

I sighed. Trust the clergy to hide things that needed to be known. "Let's just say that the portals can offer more than travel. On my first few journeys, I was offered virtual immortality. All I have to do is to step through a portal and my body returns to the age when I first travelled through them, when I was supposed to look 30 years old. That was why I never travelled whilst I was king. When I gave up the throne and entered the portal, I and my wife were regressed in age. I'd had enough of ordering people around and wanted just a simple life." I looked up at the ceiling of the church.

Father George shook his head. "Nothing in life is simple, my son — I mean, my liege," he corrected himself.

I smiled. "You were correct with 'my son.' I'm nobody now — just a traveller once again — but the news I received from Bran and others made me realise that things were going sour in Brenham. I'm sorry I was too late to save my sons."

Father George frowned. "I'm sorry my liege, I know King Charles died, but who is the other son you refer to?" he enquired.

"Harold, of course. If I'd been a better father to him, I suppose he would have turned out differently, but what else could I have done?" I got up and started pacing the aisle.

"You could have done nothing more, Lord John. You realised that by staying in Brenham you would outlive your own children. Both brothers were raised the same way; neither was treated differently. It was just that Charles was born before Harold, succession is always with the elder male child taking the crown. Would you have dissolved the Kingdom?" Bran pointed out.

I shook my head. "Of course not. The people needed a strong king to lead them. Charles was that king. I knew it, the lords knew it, and the people knew it. For some reason he had the knowledge needed. That's why he was the best one to leave in charge." I justified my actions but knew that I didn't need to.

"Exactly. And he should have seen his brother's envy. We have no control over what people think, but we can try to stop them before they go too far. Now, what do we do about your other son, Harold?" Bran enquired pointedly.

I sighed. "Well, he's too old to put over my knee for a spanking. So what else do you suggest I do?"

Bran shook his head. "You know exactly what is needed. Your son must be removed from the throne," He said quietly.

I shook my head slowly. "No, Bran. I'm not going to kill my own son; I don't care what you may say. I kill only when it's necessary."

"Fine sentiment, but remember he's already killed his brother and poisoned his sister. He won't hesitate to kill you. He is going to take over this world, and then what? The portal is still open to travel at this point." Bran pointed out.

"Just for the moment, Bran. Only for the moment." I looked to where Father George was watching us. "Father, is it right for a father to kill his son?"

Father George shook his head. He seemed horrified at the thought. "Nay, my liege. The taking of a life is never justified. There is always another way to deal with such."

I nodded. "Agreed. Harold may want to use stealth when approaching other kingdoms, so why not use stealth against him? Did you read any of the Christopher Stasheff books?"

Bran frowned, puzzlement showing on his face. "I ken not of such a person, is he a wise man?"

I laughed, "No, Lord Bran. He's just a writer, but his books do have a bearing on this matter. Now, take Father George to a safe place. I have some work to do here."

Bran bowed and then gestured to Father George, who followed him out of the church. I looked up to the ceiling. "I don't know if you can hear me. I'm sorry that my children have been such a bother. I have to hide this church, and I know where I need to send it. Do I have your permission to do this thing?" I asked the air.

I don't know if it was just my imagination, but the ceiling seemed to brighten slightly, and the air grew fresher as if the roof wasn't there, and then I felt ... something ... I can't describe it, and a sense of power flowing into me. I stepped outside the church and regarded it.

Breathing deeply, I pictured in my mind what I wanted to happen. "Temporia travelata!" I intoned, feeling the power flowing through me. Streamers of lights seemed to flow from my hands to wrap themselves over and around the church, covering it and enveloping it. The building before me faded — streamers, church, and all, leaving a bare area of ground with a few gravestones visible, and then they, too, wavered and then vanished from sight.

I staggered slightly and went down onto my knees. The effort of casting the spell had taken too much from me. I was in a dangerous position should any guards approach, but I felt small hands holding me.

"Come with me, magician. We'll keep you safe," I heard a young girl say, and allowed myself to be led away to a village near the town.

I woke up to find a wolf standing over me. Since this isn't a normal thing to happen, I stayed still before I recognised her. "Well it's not the best view I've ever had of you."

My voice made the wolf jump up and then turn to lick my face. "All right, all right, I'm glad to see you, too." I twisted my head trying to avoid her tongue.

"She showed up a few hours after we brought you here." It was the same young girl's voice. I looked around to find I was on a rude bed in what seemed to be a wigwam. Near the centre of the house was a woman who was cooking something on a fire, beside me, keeping away from the wolf was a girl, about 10 or just a bit older.

I started to get up, but then saw that my clothes were on a chair nearby, and so I just sat up, keeping the covers ... covering me. "Thank you, but how did you know I needed help?" I enquired of the girl.

She looked back at the woman. "Granny told me to be at the church. She said that someone would be there and I had to bring them back here," she said simply, and handed me a bowl of something. "She also said you had to eat this because you'd need it."

I took the bowl from her hands and thanked her, then I thanked the woman who got up and walked towards us.

She smiled. "That is a little thing in repayment for the good you have done the land, Lord John," she said, and she turned her blind eyes to focus on me. "I am Mellissa and this is my grand-daughter Thomasina." She put her hand on the girl's shoulder.

I sipped from the bowl and found it very tasty. "Then I thank you, Mistress Mellissa and Miss Thomasina. I'm sorry I've been a burden to you." I bowed my head to each of them.

I heard a bark from Genius, still in her wolf form, and glanced at her, but Mellissa spoke again. "That's enough from you. Now change back into your other form, Fae." She spoke with authority.

The wolf looked at me and I nodded. It ran to a curtain partition, and then Genius stepped out into view. "I'm sorry, Mistress Mellissa, but I had to protect Lord John. Although you and Thomasina were not hurting him, I didn't know your intentions,"

Thomasina looked at Genius, her eyes wide. "Were you really that wolf? Was it difficult to change? And how did you start?" the questions came quickly.

"Hush, child. The ways of the Fae are not for you; you've other gifts to find out about. Now, Lord John, the way you have chosen is not easy, and with Thomasina with you, it will be more difficult." She regarded me with her blind eyes.

"Yes, I know, but I've ... what do you mean 'with Thomasina'? I'm not taking her with me. I can't take a child into danger," I protested.

"You will have to take her. The guards will be here shortly and will arrest me for witchcraft. I need someone dependable to look after my grand-daughter, and who else could I trust?"

I shook my head, "But witchcraft isn't a crime ... or at least it wasn't." And this was true; otherwise I'd have to have myself arrested after all the spells I've cast.

"Times have changed, and with Crazy Harold on the throne, nobody is safe. You have enough time to finish your meal, get dressed, and leave before they arrive. But you'd better hurry." Mellissa returned to the fire.

I looked at Genius, who just shrugged. "I think you've been volunteered. Come, child. You need to pack some clothes." She took Thomasina's hand.

I finished the soup and then quickly dressed, trying hard to ignore Mellissa who was still seated by the fire, "Don't mind me, Lord John, I've 'seen' it several times!" She had a smile on her lips.

Genius was still helping Thomasina to pack, and I spoke to Mellissa again I felt awkward about doing this. "Are you sure about this? She's only a child. Wouldn't it be better to leave her with someone else?"

Mellissa reached out and slapped my face. "I have told you what you must do. Shall I tell you what will happen to the girl if you should leave her? The guards who take me will set fire to this house. They will leave my grand-daughter with nothing but the clothes she has at the moment. In a few days she will be begging on the streets, and within a week she will be dead, at the hands of the very guards who arrested me! This would be her future if she stays with me." Her voice betrayed no emotion, even though it was her own grand-daughter of whom she spoke.

"So you're saying she either faces an uncertain death with me ... or a certain death when left alone?" I clarified the situation.

"What other choice can I give her. My neighbours would not take her in, and the Church is now ... missing, so I cannot give her to the priests to put into the convents. Besides, you may find she has certain ... gifts that will help you later on. Trust me, Lord John; you will thank me for letting you take her along."

I felt she was looking into my soul as she spoke."Very well, but please remember I do this under protest."

"How else would you do such a thing? Now, hurry. They're getting closer." She had started damping down the fire as the footfalls of guardsmen could be heard getting louder. I quickly looked for Thomasina and Genius, taking their hands, and we left the wigwam, dodging around another wigwam to watch.

Captain Allen was one of the old guards, but had been conscripted into the new group against his will. This was the only way to keep his family safe. He knew of Mellissa, and she wasn't the evil person that his orders said she was, but he couldn't say that out loud. So he followed his orders.

Currently his orders were to arrest Mellissa and to destroy her home. This was to ensure that none of her powers could be reused by anyone. Fire purifies — everyone knows that — so the wigwam was to be burnt to the ground.

Anyone else in the wigwam would have to fend for themselves. The fate of the child who lived there did press on his mind for a few moments, But then concern for his own children clouded his mind, and he hardened his heart and gave the order.

"Take the witch and imprison her! Burn this den of evil and purify the ground."

Mellissa was grabbed and shackled as if she was some criminal. It was surprising how little resistance she put up as she held out her hands for the irons. She turned her head to look at Captain Allen.

"I forgive you, Dean. I know how much your family means to you. You have no choice in this, but you have to live with yourself. I pity you." She sounded sad, as if she had seen something, but Captain Allen couldn't fathom what.

We watched as Mellissa was dragged from her home and, with the use of tinder, torches were soon lit and applied to the fabric of the wigwam and thrown inside, causing a conflagration. The guardsmen marched off with their prey and left the village people to run around to prevent their own houses from being burnt.

Thomasina started to cry, and I held her close to me, but her tears were short lived as she stiffened up. "I'm okay now. Gran told me this would happen and that she wanted me to listen to you ... John. What do you want me to do?" She looked up at me.

I sighed and looked at Genius, who shrugged her shoulders; she didn't know the answer either. "Well, I was going to act the part of a traveller, but who goes around with a young girl? Unless ... How would you like to change your name to Thomas?" I asked her.

She frowned and studied my face. "Thomas? That's a boy's name." Her look was that of a person told to eat worms.

"What's in a name? It's the clothes that make a person," I countered, and looked around for a shop. There were none nearby. "Where's the nearest market?"

It was a bit later that a suitably dressed 'boy' was walking with me in the village as I looked for a cart.

"I don't feel right in this." Thomasina protested as she scratched her side.

I regarded her. "You're right. It's the hair; it's too long."

"I'm not getting it cut; people will think I'm a boy then." She dodged out of my reach as I took a knife from my belt.

Genius shook her head, "Let me do this, Lord John. I'm sure that I have a better sense of fashion." She pulled Thomasina closer to her and they wandered off to some wigwams from whence I heard protests sounding along with the clip of shears.

I walked on, knowing that Genius would find me, and came across a farmer looking rather down on his luck.

"I used to take goods through the Portal to the Forest world. They were good payers and I only had to give one tenth of my takings to the King. Now he wants fees for travelling as well as half my takings! How can anyone make a living like that?" He turned his head and spat onto the ground.

"Times are hard, my friend, but I've heard that there is change approaching. I'll tell you what. I'll give you a fair price for your goods, and the wagon." I opened my purse and, after a brief session of haggling, we agreed on the price.

"But I need my horse, so you'll have to find another, 'cause I'm not leaving my family without a plough-horse." He held onto the reins of the creature in question. I didn't think it had much more pulling in it, but then who was I to judge?

"Let me see your horse." I wanted to help him slightly more, and so I reached out and rubbed my hands over the flanks of the steed, feeling a slight tear in the muscle along with a few minor injuries — not from abuse; just normal damage accumulated over the years.

I put my hands on the horse. "Revitar," I whispered, feeling the power flowing through my hands and entering the horse, finding the injuries and healing them The horse nickered as it moved slightly, finding its aches gone, and it looked at me.

"Don't say a word." I admonished it. I know it couldn't talk, but then again...

The farmer hadn't seen anything, but when he pulled on the rein the horse reacted so quickly that the man was nearly pulled off his feet.

"What's got into the beast?" He called to me.

"Must be the lack of the wagon. I don't think it liked it," I shouted back, laughing as the famer was dragged away.

"What did you do to that poor horse?" Genius had just arrived back with ... well, it was Thomasina, but it wasn't!

"Well now, I didn't actually do anything — well nothing much — just enough to help the beast, not to mention the farmer. Now, we need a beast of burden to pull this wagon. Any suggestions?" I looked at Genius, who shook her head.

"Not my forte, Lord John. Wolves yes, horses no." Nonetheless, she called out in a strange tongue, and stout grey wandered into the village and approached us. Genius put her hand on the horse's neck. "This is Saul. Bran asked him if he wouldn't mind helping us," she explained.

The look in Saul's eye was along the lines of 'don't mess with me boyo!' and so I asked, "How does Saul feel about this?"

Genius didn't respond at first, and then she looked at me. "Let me put it like this: he has to help us because that is his sentence. Don't ask any more, please, Lord John."

I nodded. "Very well. I'm sorry if you find this type of work distasteful, Saul, but it is for a good cause, and I'm sure you will be rewarded. I will try not to put you into harm's way, but I cannot promise anything."

"Oh boy, what a large horse." Thomasina's face showed the fascination that all girls have for horses and then she paused. "He didn't do it, but he couldn't stop it. He feels that he's doing this to make up for the..." Her voice trailed off as Saul looked at her, and then she hugged his neck. "I'm sorry. I won't tell them." She started to cry.

Saul gave a small nicker, which made Thomasina look at him. She gave a small smile and then nodded. She stood back and held Genius's hand. I glanced at Genius, who shook her head slightly, preventing me from asking the obvious.

"Right. Now, Saul, I need you to act the part of a working horse. I know you're really above this, but we need to convince people that we're harmless." I looked at Genius, "Which reminds me, we need to change our aspects," I reminded her.

Genius gave a smile and soon a smaller, dumpier woman was in front of me holding Thomasina's hand. I shook my head. "Show off! But some of us need other means," I said, and rummaged in my pack to produce some false hair. Using a small water-barrel as a mirror, I soon had a bushy beard and thick eyebrows. I rubbed some dirt into my face, highlighting the lines that were making their appearance to make me seem older.

I turned around. "What do you think?" I enquired of the two.

Thomasina burst out laughing. "But I know it's you!"

"Of course you do, since you saw me put this on, but how would other people think of me?" I bent over slightly as if with age.

Thomasina tipped her head onto one side regarding me. "Oh I see, you don't look like the warrior that you are. But that's just dirt and hair. Why would it confuse anyone?" She was so straightforward that I believed that she would be able to pierce any disguises.

"Okay, we've got to stop the portal from operating. What I could use right now is a communicator to the Green Lady." I looked at Genius, who sighed.

"Go ahead, Lord John. She will hear you." Genius's eyes were slightly glazed.

"Green Lady? The Brenham portal needs to malfunction. Alert the repair crew to take their time on this one. We need to quarantine Brenham for the time being." I spoke carefully so that The Green Lady would be able to analyse my voice. It was something that we'd planned before I entered Brenham. There was another portal for this world, but it wouldn't activate while Brenham's was working.

"My Lord John, we will do what you ask. Your wife Margaret wants to join you. May she do so?" Genius said in the tone of The Green Lady.

I shook my head. "I'm afraid not; I need her to remain at home and look after the children."

"Sir, you have children?" Thomasina looked puzzled.

"I have a family now living in another city." I didn't want to confuse her with talk of other worlds. "They need their mother to look after them." I thought back to Margaret and the two children that we had back on Earth. It's true that Clancy would have asked Puck to help look after them, but I didn't want to get Margaret involved in this problem.

"Green Lady, shut down the Brenham portal." I waited a few minutes, and then Genius looked up.

"It is done. Secondary portal at Lake Town established. Emissaries despatched to Lord of Lake Town to update," Genius reported, and then shook her head. "My mother is very unhappy with you, Lord John, but she understands why you are doing this. What else is there to do?"

"I have to get Al working again. Your namesake, my daughter, managed to pass this to me." I held up the Al's collar."

Thomasina gasped. "I know what that is. It's the circlet of power. But it's held under guard at the castle. They only bring it out at festive occasions." She reached out to touch it and then pulled back. "It feels alive ... but it isn't." she looked at it, puzzled, but didn't try to touch it again.

"It's a machine with its own intelligence, so in a way it is alive, but purely in a mechanical way." I glanced at Genius as I said that but didn't add what I was thinking. Thomasina looked around at her anyway

"But does that mean that-" She broke off as she realised that she was overstepping some invisible boundary.

"It is something that we don't talk about; just like Saul has his secrets, Genius has hers," I pointed out.

Thomasina looked down, abashed. "I'm sorry, Lord John. It's just that sometimes I can ... feel isn't the right word but I don't know any other, I know things about people ... That's why I stayed with Granny..." She stopped talking and started to cry.

I pulled her close and hugged her, "It's all right, Thomasina. I think I can understand. You'd start talking to other children and then say something that they think they've hidden and then they'd hit you." I could feel her stiffen as I said this, but she started to calm down. "Now that's why your Granny told you to travel with us. We'll keep you safe." I hoped I could keep my promise.

"I'm sure you will, Lord John." Thomasina looked up from my arms. "But do I have to be called Thomas?" She protested.

I smiled down at her. "You look like a Thomas now. So let's see how it goes." She gave a small smile but she still didn't appear happy.

Before we could start I had to get the rest of Al. This meant I had to get into the castle and then down to the armoury. I didn't think that my son would allow me to enter through the main gate, so I had to use the back door.

This was not going to be as easy. The last time I did this, Harold knew about the passage, and had played in it when he was younger. So I prepared myself before I entered.

. I knelt down in front of Thomas.

"I want you to stay with Genius and Saul. Listen to them and follow their orders. I don't want to hear that you played up." I tried to sound serious but as Thomas looked first at Genius and then at Saul she giggled.

"Okay, but only until you get into trouble," she promised, and I couldn't get her to say anything else.

I went to a cairn of stones, found the activation switch, and watched as a stone causeway rose up, giving a path to the rear of the castle. I looked up to make sure I wasn't being watched and ran across the path into the tunnel that had also opened up when the causeway formed.

I was working from memory now. I hadn't been down here for some time. I looked through the spy-holes that I passed every now and then. Finally, I saw the armoury ... and the guards who were standing by the door — two of them. How was I going to -?

"Does thou need help Lord John?" a small light floated beside me. Looking closely, I could make out the small form of a fey.

I smiled at it. "I could, but I fear that your small size would not be much against those two." I pointed out.

It frowned at me, arms on its hips, and then it shook its finger at me. "Size be not the issue here, Lord John," It admonished me, and then flew through the spy hole towards the armoury door.

It was boring being a guard at the armoury door; after all, it wasn't as if anyone was going try and take the swords. That's why the duty was always given to the lowest of the new guards, and always those who did as little as possible — it was a punishment duty as well.

The two guards assigned had been caught fighting with each other over some small trinket that a man tried to smuggle past the portal. In the end, the Sergeant at arms took the item and sentenced the pair to a week of guard duty.

So it didn't take long for the fey to sneak up on one of the guards after it had doused its light. It focused its power and flew towards the back of one of the guards, striking him with enough force to cause pain.

"So you're a wise guy?" The unfortunate victim said, and turned round to punch his colleague while he was unaware.

That wight bent over with the blow, but didn't go down. He turned and threw himself at his opponent, and with the two scuffling without regard to their duty, the door was soon clear.

I watched the comedy unfold and then realised that people might hear. I concentrated and then spoke "Quietus, " picturing an area surrounding the corridor. Immediately, all the sound muted. The fight continued in silence.

Taking advantage of their distraction, I went to the door and tried it. It was locked, of course, and I didn't have the key. No matter; I had installed another entrance. I pressed on some of the stones in the wall and part of the wall slid open.

"Constructus." I pictured the parts of the armour I was going to take and quickly exchanged them with the real armour. Then I saw my sword, Twilight, heavily chained up. I took an axe and broke the lock. Taking the chains from around my sword I took the hilt and pulled.

'Master, where have you been?' Twilight asked me mentally — his normal mode of communicating

"Sorry Twilight, I've been busy. Now I have to get out of here," I told it. Taking the scabbard designed for it, I sheathed the Sword. I ran out of the armoury to find one of the guards standing over the other with a self-satisfied look on his face.

The look soon faded when I chopped him on the back of his neck, rendering him unconscious and he fell across his fellow.

I returned to the passage and closed the door. The fey was standing beside me, "Well, Lord John?" It regarded me as if daring me to criticise it.

I smiled down at it. "I apologise. Size doesn't mean anything, and I thank you for your help."

It beamed — in more ways than one — and then quickly flew down the tunnel and away from sight, its light fading away as it vanished. But it was time for me to leave as well. I turned and ran along the tunnel to the causeway, but the door was closed!

King Harold was sleeping when a noise woke him up. It was a strange buzzing noise that he didn't recognise at first, so he got up out of the bed of his latest paramour — actually the second maid — and followed the sound.

He came to a table that his father had placed years ago. It was an out-world device, a thing of metal and almost glass, and it was making the noise. Harold looked at it and then spoke.

"What are you?"

He received no reply.

A light on the top of the table was flashing. It resembled a button, so Harold pressed it. Immediately, the table showed a passageway with a person walking along it.

Harold gaped. "What is this; an intruder?"

He called to the guard outside his door. That man looked in and Harold barked at him. "Get the Captain of the guard. There is someone using the passageway into the castle." The guard opened his mouth to ask a question, but Harold strode over and struck the man's face. "Go!" He ordered, and then shut the door.

"Now, what do I do to stop him?" he pondered, and then noticed another button highlighted. He pressed this and another screen came on revealing the causeway. Then, while Harold watched, the causeway lowered back into the moat and the tunnel door closed. "That's going to fix him." Harold rubbed his hands in anticipation as he watched the action on the screens.

I didn't hesitate. If the door was closed, then the causeway would be down, so unless the switch on the wall worked ... I tried it and nothing happened. Then I remembered the surveillance system I had installed and the by-pass system to ensure that people getting in couldn't get out. Why I had to be so paranoid I don't know, but I was.

"Al, deploy and analyse," I said to the collar. It started to move, surrounding me in an armoured suit.

"System active, loading subsystems, checking dates ... hmm. Hey boss, whyinhell did you leave me so long?" Al said accusingly.

I shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know, I didn't think I'd be wearing you again and I wanted something for the kids to look at."

"Oh great, now I'm a museum exhibit! I've a good mind not to tell you about the 10 men who have just entered the corridor you're in. they have swords and pikes, no modern weapons evident." Al reported.

I smiled; it felt good to be back in action. "Very well, Al. I apologise. Now can you employ camouflage mode and imitate the stonework in this passageway?"

"Oh, that's simple. What's the plan boss?" Al was shimmering as he spoke. I moved back against the wall as the first 5 men jogged past.

"We're going to make them think the sky's fallen in." I concentrated again. "Illusional!" I pictured stones falling from the roof, creating a scene visible from both directions. The 5 men who were 'trapped' called back to their colleagues who had halted at the site.

I slipped away from the men who were looking at the stones — I wasn't sure how long the illusion would last — and made my way to a small exit I knew of.

Al changed back to his normal mode as I opened the door. "Boss?"

"Not now Al, I'm just checking." I looked around the door.

"Yeah, but boss-" A sword point made itself known by poking into my side, "Don't worry about me boss, I think you've just found out!" Al said unhelpfully.

"I don't know who you think you are, but you're under arrest." The Captain of the Guard said with a sneer, his sword extended.

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