Return of the Prisoners
Tom and Elisabeth greatly regretted having to leave Tantamount behind. But it would not have been possible to walk tightly wrapped together in an invisible cloak with holes in it, and carry a large chair to which a parrot was chained, without arousing suspicion that something vaguely unusual was taking place.
It had been difficult enough moving at all without treading on each others feet, and even with Rockall flying ahead to warn them of any particular danger, it had taken them nearly an hour just to reach the outskirts of Goldcaster. And it had been impossible to be certain that no bits of either of them were showing as they tottered on their way through the relatively unfrequented back alleys and the byways of the plundered town.
Several times pirates had rubbed their eyes, shook their heads, and then closely examined the walls or fences which Tom and Elisabeth had passed. Still, Elisabeth had thought, it all added to the general atmosphere of strangeness and could only help in the long run. As long as they could avoid being caught again.
But they had at last escaped into the countryside. Still clutching the cloak in case of danger they made their way onwards through the surrounding trees alongside the road that lead up into Summerdale, and to the track that would eventually take them to the Mill.
‘Should they not be here by now?’ asked Boswell.
Mr Bagley drew his fob watch from his waistcoat pocket, examined it, shook it, examined it again and sighed. He turned to Fastnet. ‘Are we sure that nothing has happened to them?’
‘Malin saw them leave. Well, he saw a hand waving to him in the empty street behind the Town hall. And Cromarty saw the hand waving again near the rose garden and four feet shuffling past a pirate who was fishing from the river bridge.’
‘I had better scry in the crystal again.’ said Professor Paragon. ‘Although if they are under the cloak they will be hard to find. They won’t be waving now.’
‘Oh yes they will!’
Standing in the huge doorway of the Mill barn was the tiny figure of Tom, waving both his arms and grinning widely. Elisabeth came in behind him, smiling happily, with Rockall perched on her shoulder. ‘Good afternoon.’ she said. ‘Are we too late for lunch?’
* * *
There was yet another explosion at Will Nudd’s forge. Part of the front wall crumbled, sparks shot out into the street, and through the smoke drifting across the pavement stumbled a pirate, scarred and charred, and clutching his head.
‘The Bells!, the Bells!…’ he cried, as he staggered away.
‘What’s occurring?’ asked the ship’s Cook as he met another pirate nearby.
‘Same as yesterday. We got the biggest bell down at last – a right bugger that one, but the Captain’s doing his pieces still. He’s gone to the harbour to see if there are any boats strong enough to take those bells across to the old Leopard – seeing as how no way can they melt ’em.’
‘Don’t reckon they’re going about it the right way. These modern villains got no staying power.’
‘Very true. Can’t get the staff nowadays.’
‘Remember old Scorcher?’
‘Scorcher Rumbold. Big bloke, one eye, no brain, do anything…’
‘Could have been a contender, old Scorcher.’
‘Wouldn’t let the odd singeing stop him.’
‘He’d have had them bells melted in no time – not afraid of a bit of fire, old Scorcher.’
‘Loved the stuff, flames and that…’
‘Burned everything he could get hold of – pyro – wossname, maniac.’
‘If he’d been here today he’d have sorted this lot.’
‘Man and yob, playing with fire, all the time…’
‘Never did him no harm.’
‘Whatever happened to ‘im?’
‘Blew hisself up.’
‘Oh, well, there you go. This seagull’s a bit cheeky ain’t he? Get out of it !’
Elisabeth was almost overwhelmed by the warmth, relief, and affection occasioned by their return.
Doctor Johnson lumbered over to her, grasped both her hands in his, bestowed a kiss upon her forehead, scooped up Tom, hugged him, and sat him up on the front axle housing of Berengaria. Professor Paragon and Mr Bagley and Boswell and Barney and Umbrage all bustled about them, shaking their hands and ruffling their hair, and Will Nudd, covered once again with smuts and charcoal dust, came over from his makeshift forge, a hammer in one hand and rivets in the other.
‘We was that worried about you and young Tom, Miss Elisabeth.’
‘Well, we could not have escaped without the Professor’s cloak and the help of the seagulls. I understand that you are in charge of this very effective Gullnet, Fastnet?’
‘Thank you Miss E. One does one’s best.’
‘Fastnet is the Wing Commander.’ said Mr Bagley. ‘That seemed an appropriate title.’
‘They have got the great bell down now and at the forge, but still can’t melt off the gold from any of them.’ said Fastnet.
This is what I had anticipated.’ said the Professor. ‘It will take more than hot fire and hard work to get that gold off. It was cast with dwarf craftsmanship and sealed on with secret spells.’
Elisabeth told the Professor that Sir Jasper was planning to come back up into the valley the next morning, not with a small band as before, but with as many of the crew as possible to get as much booty as they could.
‘We thought that would happen. Now the bells are at last in his hands, even if the gold is still on them, the crew will want a break and the chance of more booty.’
‘We know what is happening in Goldcaster.’ said Boswell. ‘But should we not try and see if Mr Buckram is returning with help?’
‘I don’t think we could expect any sign of him yet.’ said Mr Bagley.
‘But a routine check would be wise.’ said the Professor. ‘Fastnet – would you be kind enough to send a gull to the southern pass, perhaps twice a day?’
‘What is the plan now?’ asked Elisabeth.
‘Now you are safe and we are reasonably sure of Sir Jasper’s intentions, I think we should proceed as we originally intended.’ said Boswell.
‘I agree.’ said the Professor. ‘Tomorrow, when they come past us into Summerdale we should attack the pirates in Goldcaster with Berengaria from one direction, with the rest of us approaching from another.’
‘But what about the farms in Summerdale?’ asked Mr Bagley. ‘Is there nothing we can do to stop the devils?’
‘We must use our resources carefully.’ said Doctor Johnson. ‘Even with those who have joined us we are relatively few compared to them.’
‘We may be able to frighten them a little.’ said the Professor. ‘Yes, and delay them by apparently natural means until we have at least one of the bells ringing. I must check to see that nothing untoward is happening.’ He placed his great green crystal on a table and passed his hands a few times over it. Looking down they saw it cloudy at first and then the clouds parted, and there was Goldcaster, with pirates scurrying to and fro and much activity near Will Nudd’s forge. The view changed gradually to the outskirts of the town and then up into Summerdale where all was peaceful.
‘Umm…’said the Professor. ‘All appears as one would expect. But wait a minute – what is this?’
The crystal had clouded again, but then suddenly little pinpricks of different coloured lights fizzed all over its surface. Then it cleared once more to reveal a rather mature lady, wearing a large floral bonnet and a lace edged gingham dress under a flowing black cloak, with a toad on her left shoulder, riding on a donkey laden with all sorts of packages including, yes – a broomstick, trotting down the road from the mountains into Summerdale in the afternoon sunshine.
‘It’s my Aunt Hetty!‘ exclaimed the Professor. ‘What on earth is she doing here? She must have called my teleflower and heard my message.’
As he spoke the witch reined her donkey to a halt and looked around suspiciously. Then she reached into her cloak and took out her own crystal ball. She breathed on it, spat on it, and rubbed it briskly with her sleeve. She must have seen them because she nodded her head, almost smiled, and raised one hand in greeting. Her face was rather lined, with a hooked nose, and piercing eyes. She appeared to be talking into her crystal, but very little could be heard, and the Professor shook his head sadly.
‘We are so short of power.’ he said. ‘I must write down what I want her to know.’
He took a notebook from his pocket, tore out a sheet and on it wrote – WE CANNOT HEAR YOU, and showed this to his crystal.
Any vestige of Aunt Hetty’s smile immediately vanished.
‘I think she’s saying “Why not?” ‘suggested Elisabeth.
‘Yes,’ muttered the Professor. ‘I’m sure she is.’
He wrote a further message – THERE IS NOT ENOUGH POWER.
The witch appeared to be shouting something.
‘What was that?’ asked Boswell.
‘I think that she said “Incompetence” ‘ suggested Elisabeth
‘Umm…’ grunted the Professor. ‘I believe she did.’
‘What is she saying now?’ asked Tom.
‘Er, something about inefficiency, I think, and how she got the flower message and has come to help.’ said Elisabeth. ‘She’s speaking very slowly and deliberately, isn’t she?… “And what about my broomstick? Don’t know what things are coming to – can’t leave you alone for five minutes…” ‘
‘Yes, yes, yes…’ said Professor Paragon briskly. ‘It’s obvious that we can’t communicate like this.’
He rapidly wrote another message – I WILL ARRANGE FOR SOMEONE TO MEET YOU.
‘What did she say then?’ asked Mr Bagley.
‘ “Where?” I think.’ said Boswell.
‘She said more than that.’ said Elisabeth, stifling a giggle.
‘Well, er, yes… Something like “You nincompoop” possibly.’ suggested Boswell.
‘Never mind that.’ said the Professor crossly, hurriedly scribbling yet another message – I WILL SEND A SEAGULL TO FRODLEY FARM WITH LATEST NEWS.
Aunt Hetty appeared to exclaim ‘A Seagull!’ and she raised her eyes to the sky. Then she turned to the toad on her shoulder and as the crystal clouded over Elisabeth was pretty certain that she was saying ‘Did you hear that? A seagull – he’s reduced to seagulls already? I could have had a lawyer for a nephew, a doctor, even an accountant maybe. Huh! What have I got? A magician is what I’ve got! And not just any magician, but a magician without magic! I ask you – I should be so lucky…’
‘Was that lady really a witch?’asked Rockall, his eyes wide and his feathers twitching.
‘Oh yes.’ said Barney. ‘She’s the full Aunty alright.’
‘Well, yes, she is quite powerful.’ sniffed the Professor. ‘She could certainly be useful tomorrow – provided she’s properly briefed and doesn’t overreach herself. Now who can we send to tell her our plans…’
‘I’ll go.’ said Rockall. ‘I’ve heard a lot about the lady – they say she’s very fond of animals.’
‘Oh yes – Very fond.’ grunted Umbrage. ‘She’ll turn people into ’em if they so much as argue with her.’
‘No, no, no.’ said the Professor. ‘She’s not as harsh as that. Well, only sometimes.’