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Warriors of the Realm

By Hannah Ross All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Blurb

Septimus Swift is the possessor of an extraordinary trait - the Sight, which allows him occasional glimpses into the future and into other people's minds. In all honesty, Septimus feels he could do without this dubious gift, which makes him feel like a badly tuned radio station. It is this unusual ability, however, that might give him a chance to save his best friend's sister from mortal illness. Like his father Nicholas had done two decades before, Septimus finds himself crossing the border between the mundane and the magical as the Gates to the Other World open once more. Meanwhile, the saga of Tilir continues. Savages threaten the stability of the realm, the king is under pressure from allies across the sea, and a group of rebels stirs the kettle to make sure the proceedings don't end with a peaceful outcome. Throw some court intrigue and backstabbing into the mix, and you've got the makings of disaster. What will happen to Septimus when he is thrust headfirst into this mysterious foreign world? This is the second installment in the Quest of the Messenger series, but it is not a direct sequel to Paths of the Shadow, so you can enjoy it even without reading book 1.

The Curse

Septimus stared beyond the edge of the field, where the familiar house loomed in the distance. The end of summer was nearing, but the air was still filled with warm, sweet smells, grass and honeysuckle and late blossoms. He could faintly hear the buzzing of bees, slow and lazy in the golden afternoon, calling to stretch out on the grass and relax. He could do that soon, he thought to himself and smiled. Relaxing, after all, was what he did most of the time while visiting the house of Mr. and Mrs. Pennyfeather, the parents of his best friend Alan.

He lifted up his small suitcase and set off in a walk towards the small red brick house where he had known so many happy hours and days in his seventeen summers. He knew the Pennyfeathers were already expecting him, so he tried to walk swiftly, overcoming the languor that threatened to creep over him with the sunlight on the back of his neck and the air so still.

When Septimus made his way up the garden path and towards the dark oak front door, he intended to ring the bell, but Alan was already there to greet him, smiling from ear to ear. Septimus put his suitcase down on the floor, and the two boys grasped hands.

“Hey, Sep,” said Alan, “I thought you would be here earlier.”

“Was held up at the train station,” explained Septimus, “someone thought something was wrong with my ticket; they had to double-check it at the exit.”

Alan was of an age with Septimus. The two boys went to school together, and next year would be their final. After several years of sharing more than their dormitory - of sharing their secrets, their pains and sorrows and triumphs, the challenges and victories of boyhood - they were more than friends... more like brothers, in fact. They have known each other their entire lives - Septimus’s father, Professor Swift, who was now the headmaster of their school, used to teach Alan’s father back in his day. The teacher-student relationship blossomed into true friendship in the years that followed. Professor Swift married late and Mr. Pennyfeather early, and the Swift children were close in age to those of the Pennyfeathers. Anna Swift was three years older than her younger brother and his best friend, and Lillian Pennyfeather was two years younger than her brother Alan.

“It seems you have grown over the summer, Al,” remarked Septimus, “wait, yes, you have - how are you doing this? I think you must be at two inches taller than me now.”

Alan Pennyfeather and Septimus Swift even looked a little alike. Both were small and skinny as boys, and grew rather tall and lean as they got older. Both had the same smooth, raven-black hair, though Septimus always left his a little longer, and thin, slightly pale faces. But where Alan’s nose was small and straight, heritage of the pretty Mrs. Pennyfeather, Septimus had inherited the beaked nose of Professor Swift, and his black eyes. Alan’s eyes were green, like his father’s.

“Come,” said Alan, “it’s nearly tea time, I must tell Mum you’re here. She’s been fussing since morning, preparing the guest room for you.”

“She needn’t have bothered,” said Septimus, shaking his head, “I could share your room, couldn’t I? We’re used to that.”

“I told her as much,” said Alan, “but she only shrugged me off and told me to go and fetch some clean sheets for you. When I said I don’t have the faintest idea where they might be, she told me to go and tell Lily to do that.”

When the two friends entered the hall, they were welcomed by Mrs. Pennyfeather, who rushed forward, all smiles, wiping her hands on her polka-dotted apron.

“Septimus, dear boy! How wonderful to see you! Hope you had a smooth trip here. And how are Mr. and Mrs. Swift? Any news?”

“Nothing special, Mrs. Pennyfeather. There is, of course, Anna’s upcoming wedding next summer, but I’m sure my mother already told you all about it.”

“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Pennyfeather, beaming at him. “We were all so thrilled for dear Anna when we heard, I don’t remember when I last saw Lily this excited. And John seems to be such a nice young man... they are so well-suited... well, I am sure your parents are absolutely delighted.”

Mrs. Pennyfeather continued merrily in this venue for some minutes, but something was not quite the same. A sharp, attentive look on Septimus’s part told him that both his best friend and his mother were wearing small frowns underneath the welcoming smiles they bestowed on him. He found this strange. Yes, Mrs. Pennyfeather seemed more tired than usual when he thought about it. He wanted to ask whether everything was alright, but somehow couldn’t muster the words.

“Well,” said Mrs. Pennyfeather, clapping her hands together, “I have a pie in the oven, so do excuse me, boys. Tea will be served in about an hour.”

And, waving at them both, she hoisted her apron more tightly about her waist and hurried off into the kitchen.

“We could come up to my room while we’re waiting,” suggested Alan, “unless... I suppose you want to go and say hello to Lily? She’s in the garden.”

Septimus noticed that there was a certain knowing look on Alan’s face as he said those last words, and a faint blush crept over his pale cheeks. They never talked about the subject, but Septimus knew, of course, that there is no way he can hide it from Alan for very long.

Sep didn’t remember a time when Lillian Pennyfeather was not present in his life. He was only two years old when he first met her, after all, and she had just been born. As children, they played together from the time she was still too young to pronounce his last name properly, and called him instead “Sep the Sweet”, a nickname that Alan still jokingly stuck at him whenever he was in the mood. When she grew up a bit, Lily became shy in his presence, though for several years, at least until she started attending school along with the two boys, Septimus couldn’t figure out why. Not that it mattered; Lily was his best friend’s sister, and he would always look out for her like another brother, wouldn’t he?

He didn’t quite know exactly when these older-brotherly feelings gave way to something completely different, but now he was about to approach Lily with tremor in his heart. She was no longer the ten-year-old girl who blushed whenever they exchanged a simple hello. At fifteen years old, she was the very picture of loveliness, and Septimus was fully aware of the fact that next year in school was about to be their last year together. After next summer, their ways would part - unless he was prepared to do something about it. And he knew he just had to try.

“Go on,” Alan urged him, “she’ll be down by the pond. You know the way.”

Septimus looked at him uncertainly. “Al,” he started, “is everything alright?”

Alan smiled at him, but his smile was somewhat strained. “I think you had better talk to Lily,” he replied.

When Septimus stepped back into the garden, he felt his heart fluttering against his ribs. Soon, he saw the overgrowth of trees and bushes that surrounded the pond, and Lily’s slender back and the waves of dark red hair that tumbled down her shoulders. She was wearing a pale blue dress. The light sandals which she had chosen for the warm summer day were lying by her side in the tall grass.

Lily heard his steps behind her; she turned back and smiled, obviously happy at the sight of him; however, Septimus also noticed the dark circles under her eyes, and the unusual pallor of her face. She was cooling her feet in the shallow waters of the pond, and beckoned him to sit next to her. Obligingly, Septimus pulled off his shoes and socks and immersed his feet in the water, alarming a flock of little fish that took refuge, swimming quickly away from his toes.

“Hi, Sep,” said Lily, “I’m glad you could come. Al told me you might not make it here this summer.”

“It’s great to be here,” nodded Septimus, “of course, I would have seen you on the school train anyway -”

He was startled to see Lily shaking her head, and even more startled to hear what she said next.

“I’m not going back to school.”

Septimus gaped at her. Was this some kind of weird joke? Brilliant, pretty and popular Lillian Pennyfeather, the star of her year, the model student, not going back to school?

“What - what do you mean, Lily?”

Her warm brown eyes found his, and it was obvious to him she hadn’t slept in days. “I’m ill, Sep.”

Relief swept over him.

“Oh - well, even if you aren’t able to come back at the start of term, I’m sure it will only take a few more days and then you can take another train and -”

With an ominous feeling, he saw her shaking her head.

“You don’t understand, Sep. I didn’t mean I’m not coming back with you and Al. I meant I’m never coming back. At all.”

Septimus looked at her, knowing at once this is something much more serious than he had imagined. “Please explain,” he asked. All kinds of horrible thoughts of all the terrible illnesses he had ever heard of swirled in his brain, and he did his best to push these thoughts away, so as not to give way to premature panic.

For a few moments, she hesitated, not knowing where to begin.

“It all started a few weeks ago,” she finally said, “when Mum and Dad and Al and I went camping in that forest - well, you must know it, we went there loads of times when we were kids, with my parents and yours. The one a little south from here.”

She paused, as though it was difficult for her to continue.

“Yes,” nodded Sep, prompting her to speak. She was silent for a long time.

“I was bitten,” she finally said.

“Bitten?” repeated Septimus, raising his eyebrows. “What bit you?”

“I never saw. The bite wasn’t painful, I didn’t even pay attention to it until later, but...”

“Oh, I get it. It must have been some sort of animal, and you got an infection -”

“That’s what my parents and Al told me at first,” said Lily, “but I knew straight away it’s different. I was bitten in my sleep, and when I woke, I - I didn’t feel right. I haven’t felt right ever since, Sep. Especially at night. And I - I couldn’t eat. I was hungry, and I tried to eat, but I simply couldn’t keep anything down but water. It appeared I was about to die of starvation, the rate things kept going. Three days after we came back, Dad asked your father to come to our house.”

Septimus found it hard to contain his surprise.

“My Dad? He - he was here earlier in the summer? I didn’t know, he never told me... and why would you want to talk to him? He’s an historian, not a doctor...”

Professor Swift, Septimus’s father, was an expert on medieval history, and apart from his position as the school headmaster, gave guest lectures on folklore tales in universities up and down the country.

“Of course he hasn’t told you,” said Lily, ignoring his last comment, “we asked him not to, at least not then, even though I knew I would like to tell you eventually.”

“Tell me what?” asked Septimus.

“Your father told my mother to give me fresh chicken blood,” said Lily in a tone of forced calm, though she couldn’t keep a quiver out of her voice.

Septimus looked at her, not knowing whether he is supposed to laugh. Lily’s face, however, was deadly serious, an expression that instantly became mirrored on his own face.

“Chicken blood?” he repeated, not knowing what else to say. “Why would you want chicken blood?”

“To drink it,” said Lily.

He looked at her as though he didn’t know whether he ought to believe his ears, whether this isn’t some sort of very unfortunate joke. “To drink it?”

“I felt better when I did,” said Lily.

All of a sudden, Septimus thought he knew where this was going, but this was so ludicrous, so unbelievable, surely she couldn’t mean...

“I’m a vampire, Septimus,” she finally said and burst into tears. She cried for a long time, while he started into space, dumbstruck, not knowing what to say. When she finally looked at him again, her face was glazed with tears, and something painful was obscuring Septimus’s throat.

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