CHAPTER 4 TO THE BEACH AND BEYOND
They left the city through the west gate, Adam and Dylan taking the lead on horseback, followed by Izzy.
Niamh and Cameron travelled in the supply wagon with Derry, Turloch and Fearghus walking beside. Derry was next to Niamh.
As for Dougal and Cait, they walked hand in hand at the back of the group, enjoying what, to them, seemed like a beautiful summer’s morning stroll. The suns shone bright and warm in the clear sky, not even breath of wind disturbed the tranquillity.
Soon after they cleared the perimeter of the city, Turloch realised he hadn’t seen Phil. ‘Where’s the dragon?’ he asked Dougal.
Dougal glowered at Turloch, a little annoyed that his moment with Cait was ruined. ‘Phil left the city after the council meeting.’
‘Where did he go?’
‘He’s gone on ahead to find Liam to offer assistance.’
‘How long will it take us to find Liam?’
’A week until we reach the coast, according to Niamh. As for how long it takes us to find Liam, your guess is as good as mine. I think it’s more likely he’ll find us.’
’Is he really that good?’ asked Cait.
‘Better,’ said Izzy, who had ridden over to join the leprechauns. ‘Last year Liam, and a handful of his druids, visited Caledonia to compete against the best foresters we had to offer. It wasn’t even a contest. Even though the brownies had the advantage of local knowledge, they were out-tracked, out-hunted, and made to look like novices. At one stage, the druids went to ground without any supplies, evading half the brownie army for over a week. If it wasn’t for them being bored and returning to Tantallon, they’d probably still be out there.’
‘How do you know they’re inside the allocated area?’ Fearghus asked, surprised that anyone could be so talented.
‘You don’t know fairies very well, do you?’ she laughed. ‘If you did, you’d know it would never occur to them to cheat. And if that’s not enough to convince you, they also raided the brownie camps every night. On one occasion, they stole a side of spit-roasted beef from the centre of the brownie command post, leaving the poor cook bound and gagged. No one saw them come, and no one saw them leave. The cook was found within minutes, but there was no trail to follow.’
‘How did they do it?’ Cait asked, engrossed by Izzy’s story.
’Liam calls it Earth Magic.’
‘What’s Earth Magic?’
’Not long after Liam returned to the woodlands with his newly formed order, the druids began to study the healing properties of plants. It was about this time that Liam stumbled across a small grove with an ancient abandoned stone cabin at its centre. Although it was clear by the state of the inside of the cabin that no one had lived there for a very long time, the garden looked as though it had been recently tended. One night, while Liam and two other druids camped about a mile from the grove, he saw a light shining in the distance. Ordering his followers to remain where they were, he went to see where the light was coming from. It didn’t take him long to realise it was coming from the grove itself. Cautiously he crept towards the edge of the grove so he could get a closer look.’
Izzy paused for dramatic effect.
Cait leaned closer and urged the small brownie to continue, captivated with what she was saying. ‘What did he see?’
‘A transparent figure dressed in a transparent brown robe.’ Izzy whispered the words in a low, haunting voice.
‘A ghost,’ gasped Fearghus, turning pale, and feeling faint.
‘Yes,’ said Izzy, ’it was a ghost. Before Liam could slip away, the ghost looked at him and said, “Hello, fellow man of the woods. I have been waiting for you for a very long time.”’
‘Who was he? How did he know Liam was coming?’ Cait asked.
’He told Liam his name was Seaghada, a priest of nature, and the last of his race. He had been dead since before the first fairies settled in Sarasidhe, but had been waiting for his successor to arrive so he could pass to the other side. Liam returned to his men just before dawn and sent them to gather the rest of the druids, ordering them to return to the grove one month later.’
‘What else did the ghost say and do that night?’
’Liam won’t even tell his closest friends what happened that night, or for the next month after that for that matter. He says the knowledge he gained belongs to the druids alone. The king was not happy about this, but surprisingly it was Niamh who finally managed to convince Strahan to let the matter rest. She reminded him that wizards also kept their secrets to themselves. What I can tell you is that Liam now lives in the cottage when he’s not off on the king’s business, as he is at present, and the grove, now sacred, is the focal point for the druid order.’
Cait was wide eyed, fascinated by the tale. ‘So even you don’t know what this Earth Magic is?’
’Since Liam’s meeting with the ancient ghost, the druids have begun magically healing people, and some, like Liam, can even talk to animals. In fact, every time I see Liam, he seems to have learnt something new. Not even Niamh understands how the druids’ magic works. She says it is nothing like wizard magic, which draws from the magical essence that is present all around us but is only accessible by those who can bend it to their will.’
Izzy explained how she and Cameron had visited Liam at his new home on a couple of occasions and had even been lucky enough to stay at the druid’s cottage.
’While we were there, I saw an old book with a dark-green leather cover on an oak pedestal in the corner of the room. I was desperate to look at it but had the distinct feeling that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, so I left it. When I asked Liam about the book, he politely refused to comment.’
They continued along the south-west road for three days, encountering the occasional farm, but little else.
The only event of interest was when late on the second day, Fearghus finally mastered the art of invisibility.
With his newfound skill, his first thought had been to disappear and go home. The only thing stopping him was that he had no idea how to get there.
Midway through the fourth day, they changed direction and headed due south.
When they stopped for the night, Niamh told the leprechauns and brownies that they were ahead of schedule and would reach the coast in the early afternoon the day after next.
As Phil flew into the camp and landed gracefully next to Adam, he spoke with great urgency. ’We have to wake Niamh and the others, and quickly.’
Seeing the fairy dragon land next to his brother, Dylan rushed over from the other side of the camp. ‘What’s happened?’ he asked hurriedly, knowing that for Phil to be present, danger must be afoot.
‘We’re too late,’ the dragon said. ‘Wake the others, and I’ll explain in detail.’
Within minutes everyone was gathered, eagerly staring at Phil, waiting for him to explain his unexpected late-night appearance.
‘We were right about where the ogres were going to strike next; unfortunately, we were wrong about when. We thought we still had another week, but they attacked a fishing village six hours ago. We managed to get most of the locals out before the ogres reached the village itself, but we didn’t save them all.’
‘How many died?’ asked Izzy, a pensive look on her face.
‘Nine,’ said the dragon sadly. ‘Liam thought about putting up a fight but sensibly decided against it. There were simply too many of them. He wouldn’t have stood a chance.’
‘How many ogres are we talking about?’
‘Thirty, at least. Liam and his druids are following them now, and he is waiting for us to join him.’
‘We’re still at least a day and a half away.’
‘Not if we carry you,’ said Dougal. ‘If we leave now, we should be there by morning.’
‘It will mean leaving the horses and supply wagon behind,’ said Izzy.
‘The horses know their way home. As for the supplies, we’ll just have to forage for food when we need it,’ Niamh reasoned.
They found Liam at six the following morning. The fairy druid was standing on a sandy beach staring at the ocean. He turned as he heard the others approach.
‘They’ve gone,’ he simply said.
‘Where?’ asked Niamh.
Liam pointed out to sea. ‘There was a large ship waiting for them off the coast. Before we could even try to stop them, they signalled to the ship. They were picked up by six rowboats, taken back to the ship, and then sailed away.’
‘We have to follow them,’ Izzy stated. She loathed it when she thought the enemy had won. She simply wouldn’t stand for it, especially when innocent people had died.
Adam looked at her, understanding how she felt, but not sure what they could do. ‘How?’
‘We’ll commandeer a fishing boat from the village,’ said Niamh, turning to Phil. ‘Phil, find that ship, and then find us so you can lead us to it. I’m going to uncover who is behind this if it’s the last thing I ever do.’
‘We won’t be able to come with you,’ said Dougal. ’We’re too large to travel in a fairy boat.’ As he said this, he saw the look of pure relief on Fearghus’s face and frowned.
Niamh smiled at Dougal’s frustration. ‘Let’s just find a ship – let me take care of the rest.’
By the time they reached the small fishing village of Ivernis, life was beginning to return to normal.
The locals had already buried the dead. The folk of Ivernis were a tough breed, and although there was heavy sadness in the air, they all knew that life must go on.
Niamh bought a fishing boat from the widow of one of the villagers who had been killed by the ogres. She paid twice what the boat was worth, making sure the woman, and her four children would be able to make ends meet.
’Has anyone actually been on a boat before?’ asked Izzy.
’Fearghus and I used to sail on a lake near our home,’ replied Turloch. He shook his head in dismay at the small vessel Niamh had acquired. ‘But we’ll never fit in that.’
‘I’ve hired a couple of sailors to sail with us to show us what to do. As for you leprechauns, it’s not going to be a problem.’ As Niamh said this, she started to make small, intricate gestures with her hands in Fearghus’s direction.
Fearghus shrieked in panic as a strange, tightening sensation washed over him. His whole body shimmered as his surroundings became larger and larger. He felt himself shrink.
Cait watched, her mouth wide open, brow furrowed, as her friend’s body resized itself to that of a fairy. ‘How did you do that?’ she asked.
Niamh smiled at the look on Cait’s face. ‘It’s something I’ve been working on since we had to leave Dougal and Derry behind, when we searched Rupert’s castle, looking for Amber.’
Derry, who had nothing but admiration for the fairy wizard, was also amazed by what she had just witnessed.
‘How long will it last?’ she asked.
’I’ll have to recast the spell every twenty-four hours; otherwise you will return to your true size.’
‘What happens if we run into an ogre patrol on dry land and we’re miniature?’ Fearghus asked, still in shock at his new size.
‘I’ll just reverse the spell and you’ll be back to your normal selves in the blink of an eye.’
‘It’s going to be a tight fit, eighteen of us in a boat that size,’ said Dylan.
‘There’ll only be thirteen of us,’ said Liam. ‘I’m sending my druids back to tell the king what we’re doing.’
‘We can’t sail with a party of thirteen,’ stammered Fearghus. As if his new size wasn’t bad enough, now they were throwing in bad-luck numbers as well.
‘Thirteen’s an unlucky number.’ Fearghus was staggered Izzy even had to ask, when the answer was so obvious.
Cameron stared at the strange little leprechaun, not quite believing what she was hearing. ‘Is he for real?’
The other leprechauns sighed and nodded their heads in reply.
‘There’s one more thing: you’re going to have to leave your armour behind,’ said Niamh.
‘Why would we do that?’ Dougal asked, not prepared to go anywhere without his armour.
‘Because, if you don’t, and the boat sinks, or anyone wearing armour goes overboard, they will sink to the bottom of the sea like a stone, and there’ll be nothing anybody on-board can do to save them, not even me.’
As the fishing boat was about to set sail, complete with its new crew, Phil returned.
‘I’ve found the ogre ship and know the course you will need to take to intercept it,’ he said, and not wasting any time, took to the sky once more to make sure he didn’t lose his prey.
Dougal concentrated hard on Phil as he watched him fly away. The lurching and listing of the fishing boat made Dougal feel sick to his stomach. He held on tight to the ropes that hung above him, trying to ignore the nauseating feeling that seemed determined to rise in his belly. It took Dougal and some of the other first-time sailors until nightfall to gain their sea legs.
Over the next few days, Phil returned once or twice a day, informing them of the ogres’ progress. Although they weren’t closing the gap, they were at least heading in the right direction.
It was late morning on the fourth day at sea when Dougal heard one of the fairy sailors cry out, ‘Sail ahoy!’
Dougal looked over to where the sailor was pointing and saw a tiny speck on the horizon. He joined Derry, Izzy and Cameron, who were standing starboard, facing the bow.
‘It can’t be the ogres,’ he said to them. ‘It’s coming from the wrong direction.’
Niamh was looking through what the sailors called a spyglass and relayed to the others what she saw. ’They’re esprit follet, and there’s another ship behind the one you can see.’
‘Have they seen us?’
’It doesn’t matter if they have. There’s no bad blood between fairy and follet.’
‘What? Even after they sided with Rupert against you?’ asked Dougal, amazed by how forgiving the fairies were.
’That was a group of mercenaries, not representatives of any esprit follet nation,’ the wizard replied.
’Are you saying there’s more than one follet nation?’
’Yes. There have been three since Karolus Magnus,the greatest of all follet kings, split his kingdom, leaving an equal third to each of his sons. Since that time, one of them has occasionally tried to conquer the others, but none have ever succeeded. If anything, they should be grateful to us, because until we defeated Rupert, they all paid large tributes to stop him from invading.’
‘Between you and me, Dougal,’ Izzy said, ’I don’t trust anyone who would take money to fight in someone else’s war, and a lot of follet horsemen fought against us, the brownies.’
Three large follet ships soon closed the gap. The lead ship sailed up alongside the fishing boat, holding fast.
‘Prepare to be boarded!’ a voice called from the vessel, as grappling hooks sailed over the side.
Dougal watched as several follet sailors walked easily across the plank that was placed between the decks of the two swaying ships.
A tall, particularly arrogant looking sailor, obviously in command, took the lead. His eyes were cold, the colour of grey slate, and his hair, which had once been jet-black, had strands of silver-grey peeking through at each side. His olive skin was starting to show the leathery quality one gets from spending too much time in the sun and wind.
He was dressed in a well-maintained blue uniform with gold buttons, lapels and epaulets. He wore white starched trousers and highly polished knee-length black boots.
‘Who commands this vessel?’ he ordered.
Niamh walked directly up to the man and confronted him. ‘I do,’ she said confidently. ‘Who are you, and why have you boarded my ship?’
’I am Admiral Phillip Navarre, Commander of the Auvergnen Navy. Now, if you would be so kind as to explain who you are and why you have violated Auvergnen territorial waters.’
’My name is Niamh Donegal. I am a wizard of the Royal Court of Sarasidhe. This is,’ she gestured to Izzy who walked forward to join her, ‘Ambassador Isabella Wallace of Caledonia, and cousin of the brownie king. We apologise for violating your territorial waters; we had not realised we had done so. As to why we are here, we are chasing a ship that has raided a fishing village.’
’Are you accusing Auvergnen ships of piracy?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘But you expect me to believe that your king would send a foreign ambassador, and his most powerful wizard, after a coastal raider?’ The admiral saw the look of surprise on Niamh’s face. ‘Yes, I have heard of you, and your brownie friend, although I believe she normally goes by the name Izzy, not Isabella. Now, tell me, why are you here?’ the admiral demanded once again.
‘It is not a simple coastal raider we chase; it’s a ship full of ogres.’
‘Do you take me for a fool? Ogres are a creature of legend. Even if they weren’t, you wouldn’t chase a ship full of ogres in a fishing boat like this one, even if you are a powerful wizard. I believe you to be spies.’
‘What?’ Niamh exclaimed, astounded by what she was being accused of.
The admiral looked her directly in the eye, and then slowly repeated what he had previously said.
‘I believe you to be spies. However, because of your high rank, and the risk of a diplomatic incident, I will give you one chance to withdraw. If you choose not to, or if you return, I will have no option but to send you, and your ship, to the seabed.’
Before Niamh could reply or refute his allegations, he turned on his heels to return to his ship, closely followed by the officers who had accompanied him aboard.
Minutes later the grappling hooks that held the small fishing boat captive were cut free, and the small vessel was once again bobbing freely on the waves.
‘Well, what do we do now?’ asked Dylan.
Niamh looked at him, then at the others. ‘Firstly, we’ll have to make it look as if we are leaving. At nightfall we’ll turn back, and hopefully we’ll be clear of their waters by morning.’
The admiral’s ships shadowed the fishing boat for the next three hours, and then headed back towards the Auvergnen coast once satisfied their job was done.
‘That should make things a little easier,’ said Izzy, as she watched the ships sail away.
Niamh nodded and, once the ships were well out of sight, ordered the fairy sailors to drop the boat’s anchor.
’What’s that, Izzy?’ asked Dougal, pointing to a giant, glowing arrow that was heading their way. ‘Look, there’s more!’
‘Oh my God, we’re under attack!’ Izzy screamed as she realised what was happening.
A loud, high-pitched hissing sound filled the air as a bright, burning metal arrow hit the water a few feet short of the fishing boat. The sea bubbled in protest as the arrow broke through the water’s surface, sinking from sight.
Within seconds, all thirteen of the small boat’s crew were on deck, watching helplessly, as dozens of the glowing molten metal arrows continued to bombard them.
Niamh and Derry used their magic to deflect as many of the flying missiles as they could, but eventually some got through.
‘Where are they coming from?’ shouted Dougal.
’It must be the follet ships!’ Adam replied.
A deafening thud sounded, and the boat shook violently as one of the arrows struck the hull. A second arrow completed the job, totally crushing it, and then another hit the boat’s mast, snapping it cleanly in half.
Chaos broke out, as falling masts, ropes and metal began to crash to the deck.
‘The hull’s breached!’ cried one of the fairy sailors. ‘We’re sinking!’
‘Abandon ship!’ yelled Niamh. She turned to Dougal. ‘I bet you’re glad you’re not wearing that armour now!’
‘Get as far away from the boat as possible!’ yelled Eoughan, one of the more experienced fairy sailors. ‘You don’t want it to drag you down with it.’
Eoughan then scrambled to make sure everyone got off the sinking vessel safely.
As Fearghus dived into the icy cold water, he thought to himself, I knew a crew of thirteen would be unlucky.