For Florence The dreams we dream

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The Galloping Lantern

‘Good evening, Mr. Andrews’, the man behind the counter said as Bartholomew Harbottle walked in, leather bag in his hand.

‘Good evening, Jones’, he replied with a nod. He removed his broad rim hat, straightened his long black coat and quietly stood by the bar, as usual, while Jones poured his ale.

The Galloping Lantern, like scores of other public houses in Port Nolath, was filled with pipe smoke and working class men, dirty from a hard day’s work. The mixed aroma of tobacco, sweat and stale beer filled every corner and a wood fire kept the punters thirsty and cosy, unwilling to leave the comfort of those stained walls for the cold, dark rain outside where horse and cart clattered loudly over cobbles and angry wives waited in dingy houses like rabid dogs in rancid kennels. On those dark winter’s nights the odds were firmly stacked in the landlord’s favour, they all knew it.

Bartholomew paid for his pint and crossed the room to his usual seat, in the corner furthest from the bar. He sat down and, as usual, took a book out of his leather bag and opened it on his lap. Conversation flowed in from all angles to where he was sat. ‘A bit of trouble with the missus’, went along with ‘he ain’t ever paid me for what I work for’, to be mixed with ‘what did you expect? He’s a grass, ain’t he?’ All these bits floated past Bartholomew and made him feel great. The more he listened the better his mood got.

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He sat for a while longer, staring blindly at his book, allowing himself to follow a conversation or two. It was the same old nonsense, regurgitated in slightly different words and before long he was bored, his interests satisfied. He finished his drink, pulled his hat down over his head and slowly stood up to make his exit.

‘Excuse me, sir’, a voice squeaked to his left.

Bartholomew paused for a second, not looking to see who it was, instead scanning to find the quickest exit route. His eyes flashed around the room towards the entrance where a group of young men were streaming through the door, pushing to get to the bar first. Even in his corner, on the far side of the bar, men were suddenly stood shoulder to shoulder. A ship load of thirsty sailors had just come in, Bartholomew thought to himself. Great.

‘Excuse me, sir’, the voice squeaked again.

This time Bartholomew turned to see who it was. A man with a round pink sweaty face stood an arms length away from him, pushed between two men much taller than him. Bartholomew crossed his arms and waited for him to finish squeezing passed the two men. He seemed fairly harmless and not the sort of fellow who would have many, if any, friends in a place like this.

After a bit of a tussle and at least one curse the pink faced man came to stand in front of Bartholomew. He smelled very unpleasant.

‘Sir,’ the man was as twitchy as a bag of mice, jumping from one foot to the other -

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not a good sign. Bartholomew watched him closely whilst trying to resist pulling his nose up.

‘Sir, I know…’ he said, meaningfully.

‘How very annoying.’ Bartholomew thought to himself, but he kept his calm. It was too crowded in there to get rid of a problem without causing an upset and what if the man was insane? Port Nolath was too comfortable a setting to be ruining it all for the sake of a madman who thought he ‘knew’ something. Also, Bartholomew did not think his associate, the frail Alam Al’Kazaar would not be pleased, not at all.

‘You… what?’ Bartholomew spoke slowly and made no effort to hide his annoyance at being disturbed.

‘I know, sir.’ he whispered, leaning tentatively closer to Bartholomew, whilst constantly changing his weight from leg to leg, glancing over his shoulder at the two big men behind him.

‘Listen man, I do not know what it is that you KNOW, but you have the wrong person. I can guarantee you that.’ The man shrunk away from Bartholomew, the anger in his voice clearly frightening him. ‘Now, leave me!’

‘But sir…’ the man began to protest.

Like lighting Bartholomew grabbed the shorter man by his collar and pulled his pink fat face close. The men around them took no notice.

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‘You don’t know anything, little man. Go away before…’

‘Children!’ the man choked, shocking Bartholomew to silence. ‘You hurt me, sir, and I will shout it out for all to hear, I swear it.’ he hissed, his pink face showing up red patches where Bartholomew had strengthened his hold on the man’s collar.

‘Fine,’ Bartholomew released his collar slowly, feeling very conspicuous, very conspicuous indeed. He glanced around them to see if anyone had heard anything, but every one was drawn into their own conversations, no eyes looking in their direction. ‘We can’t talk here.’ he said and made for the door. He shouldered his way through the crowd and quickly reached the door, bursting out unto the street.

Outside it was darker and damper than Bartholomew Harbottle expected, a blustery wind pelting rain and sleet into his face. He put his broad hat back on, obscuring his face in shadows from the people on the street. Noises were drowned out by the stormy weather and people were taking cover where ever it was to offer - just what he needed. After about a minute the short man burst through the doors, looking over his shoulder, checking to see if he was being followed. Bartholomew spotted him and waved him over. His little legs were quick and unsure on the wet cobbles as he rushed over.

‘Follow me,’ Bartholomew said as soon as the man was near enough. He swept his long cloak around him and stretched his strides up the cobbles, listening to make sure the short fat man stayed close.

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They walked away from the busy pubs and late night flower sellers and away from the places decent people went. The streets fell silent as they walked, their feet echoing lonely noises up narrow lanes whilst Bartholomew whispered softly. Eventually the sleet stopped and the cold wind dropped slightly. Bartholomew smiled from under his hat as he moved steadily onwards, watching the world transformed for the words he spoke. Just outside of their peripheral a big grey shape joined the shadows, keeping its ears pitched to the sound of Bartholomew’s voice. The short fat man behind Bartholomew was silent, his eyes wide, focussed on buildings around him as they twisted and distorted themselves, eerie lights shining out of their windows in greens, reds and blues. It was as if they were entering another Port Nolath, a Port Nolath that was falling apart at the hinges. All around them the living lanes of a once vibrant city bent and bent into deserted rows, doors drooping more and more with every passing house, windows hanging on their hinges, some falling and smashing to the ground as the two men walked by. The short fat man craned his neck as Port Nolath became unrecognisable, his heart beat in his chest and his tongue tied in this throat. Behind them a wolf howled.

They were at the top of Star Hill, one block away from the graveyard, when Bartholomew stopped and waited for the little man to catch up. Bearing up at the two men, like gnarling faces, were hordes of dilapidated houses, windowless frames like hollow eyes, broken doors like jag toothed mouths, open and silently screaming. In contrast, visible over the broken roofs of these houses, as if seen through a dream vial, Port Nolath lay in all her splendour. Ships full of people could be seen going up and down the Ess, buildings flickered their lights, proof of the wealth and life held within their walls, whilst all around Bartholomew and the little fat man, less than a mile away, it was barren. Nothing moved, except the grey figure behind them in the shadows.

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They were surrounded by the Port Nolath in Bartholomew Harbottle’s dreams. Not the noisy, bustling, vital city, where people worked and lived, but instead it was a silent, deserted Port Nolath, where nothing lived, empty and devoid of laughter. It was his favourite place to do ‘business’.

‘Now, tell me,’ he said as the man approached, pausing to let him catch his breath. ‘Now tell me, stranger, what is this that you spoke to me about earlier?’ He leant forward, looking down at the much shorter man from under his hat.

The little man looked around him, shoulders heaving. He lived in Port Nolath all his life and did not know where he was. ‘I was hoping, sir.’ He might have been hoping, but his high pitched tone led Bartholomew Harbottle to believe that he was actually wishing.

‘I…’ he continued, again skipping from one foot to the other, more and more rapidly, ‘well, I happen to know what sort of business you are in and I was hoping to… you know… negotiate.’

‘What sort of business would this be, that I am in, Mister…?’

‘Paul, just call me Paul,’ Paul giggled nervously. He knew that he had a second name, it was only that nobody has asked him in such a long time that he had actually forgotten what it was.

‘Well, Paul. What do you know of my affairs?’ Bartholomew asked, angry eyes

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staring out from under the rim of his hat. What does this man possibly know? He wondered.

‘Sir, I,’ he swallowed, ‘actually, we… We have been watching you and have seen you talking to a number of children, all of whom have recently been reported as missing.’

‘I never took any children!!’ Bartholomew blasted.

‘We know sir, we saw them walking right up to you and taking your hand like it was the most natural thing in the world. They were not under threat of violence, it was clear to see.’ His eyes searched Bartholomew’s face. ‘We know sir…’ Paul seemed to think he knew something, that was for sure.

Bartholomew stared at him for a long time, watching the man twitch and wriggle, like a fly in a glass thimble. ‘That’s right, those poor children came to me to be rescued. They had been kept in squalor, brought up in homes where their lives would have amounted to nothing and I,’ he took one step towards Paul whilst pointing a thumb at his own chest, ‘I offered them a better life, why not?’

‘Exactly, sir. We agree. Good on you. But,’ he swallowed again, hard, ‘according to the city’s law enforcers you have abducted those poor wretched souls from their very homes… from the loving arms of their mothers. Some of those mothers I know very well and it seems slightly unfair to them that their children should be stolen away like that.’ He gave Bartholomew another meaningful look although he could not see his eyes.

‘What?!’ Bartholomew shouted. It suddenly became very clear to him what the man

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Paul was aiming at and it angered him. Not only did the miserable man not have a clue what his business was, but the arrogance to think that he could black mail Bartholomew Harbottle?!

‘Well,’ the man cowered, but kept on speaking, ‘we just thought that a man, financially capable of looking after so many children, should be capable of making a donation of sorts to another of the city’s needy funds… our pockets. Or, he would risk being exposed to the police, if you get my intention?’

‘Oh, I get your intention…, I get your intention loud and clear.’ Bartholomew turned around and nodded to the grey figure which was hiding in the shadows. It growled and walked slowly towards them. It had been sniffing the man’s scent all night, eagerly anticipating the moment when the signal was giving to kill, but it liked to take it slow, draw out the pleasure of the hunt.

Bartholomew smiled and turned back to face Paul, who had gone ashen white. ’I get you, Paul, don’t I?’ Behind Bartholomew the giant wolf’s eyes burnt into Paul’s scull, dribble swinging from its long canine fangs.

‘Easy now, sir. Not so hasty.’ he took a few steps back, holding his hands up in front of him, eyes wide. ‘The others are waiting for me. If I am not back with them shortly they will inform the authorities, sir.’ he spoke quickly, wanting to say his bit, wanting to save his own life.

‘Do you think I care about what you or your people tell the police?’ Bartholomew and

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the wolf walked slowly towards Paul. ‘Do you think the police, with their silly little hats and whistles, would have any idea what to do with the likes of me?’ The fat little man struggled backwards and tripped over a cobble, hands still held high. It suddenly occurred to him that the man with the giant wolf and the devil in his smile was in a different league to the sort of criminals they were used to. There was a slight chance they might have underestimated this particular monster. Bartholomew did not seem to be feeling threatened, he did not even seem to be particularly angry. No, Paul thought to himself, before him was stood a man who did not feel anything except maybe a slight annoyance at having to wash his hands again tonight, a man to whom life meant nothing. Paul instinctively knew that Bartholomew had fed this wolf many a time on many a night.

‘Sir, I beg you.’ It was a useless plea, but it was all he could think of. The wolf was now directly behind Bartholomew where it growled loudly and kept its evil murderer’s eyes on Paul without blinking.

‘You beg me?’ Bartholomew looking at him as if he was crazy, mock smile on his face. ‘After threatening me, you beg me?’ he stepped out of the way and the wolf leapt forward, its paws coming down heavily on the man’s chest. It ripped at Paul’s shirt with its teeth and then bit into his arm, holding him painfully while Bartholomew continued speaking to him. ‘You take my position for a second, stand in my shoes and tell me what to do. I have the likes of you threatening to blackmail me. What would you have me do?’

Paul turned his head in an attempt to keep himself as far away from the animal’s face as possible. ‘Let me go?’ he said, even though he knew it was not going to happen.

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‘I don’t think so.’ Bartholomew whispered and the wolf leant in closer. ‘I have no choice but to kill you. You know that and I know that, so you can just as well make your peace with it.’ The wolf growled loudly through it’s clenched teeth, it was mad with blood lust now. Paul felt his knees go weak and he suddenly felt sick to his stomach, a funny metallic taste at the back of his throat. Black dots started filling his vision and he was just about to pass out when Bartholomew slapped him.

‘Hey! Hey! Stay with me!’ Paul snapped his eyes open and saw the man and wolf standing over him. He felt his chest and searched for the blood he expected to see, but there was nothing there.

‘Oh, not so fast,’ Bartholomew smiled a cruel smile down at him. ‘We have to savour this moment together man. It is the last minutes of your life, you don’t want to rush it, do you?’ He shook his head at the wolf which reluctantly let go of the man’s arm and took a few steps back. Beneath them Paul sighed deeply. His arm, where the wolf had held him, was specked with blood, but it wasn’t broken..

‘No, I didn’t think so.’ Bartholomew patted him on the head and then sat down on the floor next to him. The wolf circled just behind them, glaring at Paul.

‘Besides, before I kill you, I want to let you know exactly who it was you were dealing with tonight. Can’t have you dying as ignorant as you were born, can we now?’ He looked at Paul sympathetically, still smiling, watching the fat man’s mind racing to find an escape from his ordeal. Bartholomew instantly wished that he had not let go of the man. He really wanted Paul to listen to what he was saying, but it seemed that the little man was more

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interested in running away. Bartholomew stared out over the city of Port Nolath and all it’s beautiful lights whilst in the corner of his eyes he watched Paul shift his hefty frame, reading himself to jump at the first opportunity.

‘Well, I hope you are listening because this is a story you will never hear again.’ Bartholomew looked Paul square in the eyes as he said this and then added, ’I know exactly what you are doing, little man. Don’t even think about it.’ He waited until he was confident that Paul was not going to run before he continued.

‘Many years ago, when I was about twenty, I happened to meet a most extraordinary man whilst I was struggling to make a living as a street-magician. I was going about my business, performing my art in the market before a small group of people, when I noticed in the crowd a face that stood out from the rest. He was tall and thin, his head and face totally bald, even devoid of eyelashes. Instead of hair he was completely covered in the strangest markings. Little birds in flight, people in battle, maps of the world, poems and phrases in a dozen languages and all other manner of things covered him completely, every picture connected to another picture by a thin string drawn on his skin. A remarkable man from the sight of him and an awesome man if you ever got to know him as I did.’ Bartholomew smiled into the night as he spoke, his eyes stroking the Ess and its many bridges.

‘I finished my show and everybody left, as usual, to go about their daily tasks, but not the ‘pictured man’, as I had heard people refer to him then. He remained standing where he was during the show, staring straight at me. Eventually I walked over to him and introduced myself; so starting the most incredible journey of, not only my life, but the most incredible journey of any life I had ever come across or heard of. He introduced himself simply as ‘the

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teacher’ and not even for one second did I doubt the appropriateness of his title. His high forehead and sharp cheekbones gave him the air of a man who ’knew’ things. I was instantly eager to learn from him whatever it was that he wanted to teach me. ‘What are your teachings?’ I asked him. My words had not even echoed off the walls when I found myself stood amongst a crowd of people again. The teacher was stood amongst the crowd as before. Everything was as it had been a few moment earlier during my show. The man with the pictured skin had somehow turned back the very essence of time. It was the hardest thing ever, but I somehow managed to finish my show again. I waited for the crowed to disperse and approached the teacher, as I had done only moments before. I introduced myself again and so did he, but this time I did not ask him what his teachings were, I only asked him if I had time to gather my belongings. Had he said ‘no’ I would still have followed him, but he said ‘yes.’ I insisted that he accompany me home, not wanting to let him out of my sight, lest I return to find that he had gone. He waited at the door while I said ‘farewell’ to my elderly mother and gathered my clothes. After what he showed me I could not return to an ordinary life. Even my childhood sweetheart, whom had been constantly on my mind those days and whom I had vowed to marry, was forgotten the moment I met him. Learning from the teacher was instantly far more important than everything else, everything.’ Bartholomew turned his gaze to the man next to him.

‘Have you ever had an experience like that, Paul? A moment in your life that you can earmark as ‘the’ moment? ‘The’ moment when everything changed for you?’

‘No sir, I am afraid I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience.’ Paul honestly could not think, it was not a lie.

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Bartholomew Harbottle stared at the man called Paul for a hard second. ‘Every person like you has had a moment like that, Paul. Every cracked little soul was once whole. There must be at least one memory of when it all went wrong for you.’ His eyes probed Paul’s, searching for that moment. After a second Bartholomew smiled again and Paul could have sworn he heard him say ‘nasty’, but before he could even think on it Bartholomew continued. ‘It is a shame you can’t remember yours because it would have been quite something. A moment like that makes you believe in fate and more than that, it makes you feel special, as if fate did not categorise you, but unambiguously searched you out. Indeed, it felt as if fate had a special eye out for me and that she chose to change my life. Change for the better or the worse, which ever, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that fate chose me. My life out of all the thousands of lives out there. You cannot help but feel unique, more that just alive, preordained to do ‘something’’. He looked over at the miserable little man next to him and laughed. ‘Well, perhaps in your next life you would remember this moment as the moment fate smiled on you. Your wretched life has hardly been worth living.’

‘Maybe’ Paul muttered.

‘Well, myself and the ‘pictured man’ took our horses and rode out of my village that same night. We travelled nights and made our camp every day at first light, all in absolute silence. I woke when he woke, I ate when he ate, I mounted my horse when he mounted his and only when he spoke did I speak. I did not question our destination, if indeed we had one, but I noted our route in my mind. For a week our road climbed steadily upwards, out from the marshes of Duin ‘le Gran and then higher, rimming up the mountains above the forest of Duin ‘le Gren. The higher we climbed the stronger the wind around us blew. When the wind blew from the back we made steady pace and the horses seemed hardly to notice their load,

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but when it blew head-on we made little progress. On such occasions we stopped when flecks of foam blew from the horses’ mouths. Asides from the strong winds the animals also had to contend with the thin air and sparsely scattered grasses which were devoid from nourishment. The higher we climbed the worse it got for them and on the eleventh day my horse collapsed. Tried as I did I could not resurrect her and I was forced to carry all my belongings whilst trying to keep up with my companion who did not seem to slow his pace, his eyes focussed on the road before him, as if lost in a dream, impervious to the storm blowing around us. That whole night I struggled ahead, my legs giving way beneath me several times and I lost nearly half of my belongings. It was not long before I realised that ‘the pictured man’ had left me completely. The wind whipped at my coat furiously, threatening to blow me over the edge of the narrow pass and snow gathered on my eyelashes, freezing into place, blocking my vision, blinding me. Several times I found myself one or two steps away from a thousand foot fall. How I did not succumb that night I still don’t know.’ Bartholomew smiled to himself. ‘After a while my senses left me and I gave in to marching blindly ahead. If my feet took me where I was meant to go it suited me, if they took me over the lip of the road and to certain death that suited me fine as well, besides, I realised I was slowly freezing to death. Time had lost all meaning for me, but I must have been marching all night and in the right direction for, just as the sun was coming up the next morning, I noticed an entrance carved into the shear rock face to my left. My vision was still blurred, but I recognised a human shape hurrying towards me dressed in a long brown robe. In the distance voices shouted. I had arrived at the monastery of Duin ‘le Furges where my companion was waiting for me. Do you know the place?’

‘No, sir. I ain’t ever left these streets me whole life.’ Paul said.

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‘You should regret not travelling while you still had life in you to do so, the world is a far more beautiful place than you would ever know. The monastery, whilst it was working was amazing, honestly awe inspiring. Even now, I hear, in it’s ruined state, it still brings tears to the eyes of pilgrims who are left breathless by the obvious devotion that carved the holy city out of solid rock using the most basic of tools. I admit, I have not been there in a very long time, but the memory if it is still fresh in my mind.’ Bartholomew smiled at Paul again.

‘I was rushed into the monastery and given warm goats milk to drink. I had been on the brink of death, but as soon as I swallowed some of the milk I felt instantly rejuvenated. When I felt well enough to speak I thanked the monks over and over for their hospitality, which they accepted reluctantly for they were humble and were embarrassed by my gratitude. My teacher spoke to them, for what seemed like a long time, in a language I could not understand. It sounded full of high pitched clicking noises and low rumbles, melodic, yet silent. In my confused state I could not even try to guess at its origins. When they finally stopped talking my teacher turned to me and told me that they had invited us to stay with them for as long as we wanted. Again I went to thank them, but he stopped me and told me to go back to sleep instead. For ten years we stayed in that monastery and never once did they complain or insinuate that we were taking rude advantage of their hospitality. In fact, they became like a family to me and I can still remember their faces now as clearly as if they were sat here with us.’ Bartholomew went quiet for a second, fiddling with the hem of his coat.

‘But while we were there,’ he continued eventually, ‘we would wake every morning early and, weather permitting, climb the mountain behind the monastery, reaching the summit just after midday. From there one could see most of the kingdom it seemed, but of course it was only the valleys beyond Duin ‘le Furges. Even so, the sight never seized to amaze me. It was

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on that summit, several thousand feet high, nestled firmly in the clouds where my education of The Craft began. For ten years I learned all about how the universe moved around us, how each and every thing on Earth, living and dead, were connected and how, by manipulating one tiny string in all of this connectedness, it was possible to do the impossible.’ With that Bartholomew Harbottle disappeared into thin air.

Paul rose to his feet quickly, turning his head this way and that, looking for Bartholomew and the wolf, but he found himself completely alone. From far away, down the empty streets he could hear cats and foxes rummaging through piles of rubbish, husbands and wives shouting at each other from behind cracked walls and steamboats blowing their horns up and down the Ess. He gauged he was about a mile from St. Paul’s and, sprinting, made his way down a street to his left. There was a corner he could take a hundred yards down the street and he tried to move his legs as quickly as he could. ‘I need to get out of sight’, he thought, ‘if I could just make it around that corner.’ He gritted his teeth and picked up his pace as much as he could. It was now fast approaching and he did not even notice that it was a dark abyss between two horrid looking houses, complete with gargoyles staring down at him. ‘Nearly there’, he thought, running faster than he had ever run before. He leant into the corner and then tried to stop as quickly as he could. In the middle of the road ahead of him, stood with its feet apart and heckles up, was the wolf. It barked loudly, very loudly and Paul slipped. The speed he was running at, the sudden stop and the weakness in his knees caused his body to straighten out in mid-air, completely parallel to the floor, feet flying out from underneath him. When he hit the floor he hit it hard, the air knocked from his lungs and for a few second he did not move. ‘Ouch…’ he moaned as he lay on his front. He pulled his arms around his head trying to find the strength to pull his knees up underneath him. The wolf had long since stopped barking. Instead he was stood watching the man unsympathetically as he

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crawled in pain. After a few seconds though, it seemed the wolf had become bored of waiting and he lazily walked over to Paul, lowered his big hairy head and firmly took the man’s arm in his jaws. Paul screamed all the way as the wolf dragged him back to where he had been sitting next to Bartholomew.

‘Wow, you really hit the floor hard there Paul. I hope you haven’t broken anything.’ Bartholomew Harbottle said.

He peeked up over his arms, laying in a heap where the wolf had left him, and saw the man with the broad rimmed hat sitting as if he had not moved.

‘What did you think you were doing?’ Bartholomew asked him.

He did not answer but merely rolled over unto his back and drew in a few deep breaths. Slowly the tension in his chest ease and he pushed himself up. ’Aargh…’ he moaned, his arm was in agony.

‘You should really try and be a bit more steady on your feet Paul.’ Bartholomew mocked him, causing Paul to shrink where he was sat. His predicament was clearly a lot more serious than he could ever have imagined.

‘Where was I?’ Bartholomew Harbottle continued, ‘Oh yes. For ten years I learned about the connectedness, the string, the line which bound everything and then one morning my teacher announced that we were leaving the monastery and I was to take nothing with me.

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Odd as it seemed we did exactly that, my teacher even leaving his fine horse behind as a gift to our kind hosts. The decent thing to do, I remember thinking, but as soon as we set out I wished for that horse. We were leaning into the blustery wind and sleet, descending the road we had taken so many years previous. At first it was impossible to speak as we walked, the wind blowing our voices away before it left our lips, but after a few days travelling down the mountain, the wind subsided and I asked him why we had left everything behind. ‘We cannot take it where we are going.’ he said simply and waved his hand around us, letting his fingers ride the wind. From between the white patches of snow purple flowers bloomed before my very eyes. Then red ones and yellow ones. It was unbelievable. They were coming up as quickly as I am saying this to you. Then, like a deep green wild fire, white hills were replaced by rolling hills of grass, crowding the flowers. As soon as the last bit of white disappeared, the earth began to tremble like a green ocean being brought to bowl. The green hills shook and then bubbled as thick trees pushed through the earth reaching hundreds of feet into the clear blue sky.’

Bartholomew shifted his weight, the cobbles obviously uncomfortable beneath him, but Paul was too transfixed to notice.

‘It was the most terrific sight. Where we had, only moments before, been stood on ice fields, we were now stood in a dense dark forest which stretched for many miles around. ’Can you feel the power of the Craft you could control, Bartholomew?’ my teacher asked me then, and I replied as any man would have replied. That day all doubt was removed from my mind and my devotion was complete, no matter the price. Can you imagine what it felt like in that moment, Paul?’ Paul was silent. ‘Can you imagine the overwhelming feeling of possibility? I had just seen a forest being made to appear where before there was nothing!’ Bartholomew’s

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eyes were wide, the moment playing itself out in his memory. ‘If I could have that power, I thought, I could do anything. I could rule which ever kingdom I chose to rule, I could have whatever treasure my heart desired and I could travel anywhere without a thought. My heart had swelled so much with the gravity of that moment that I distinctly remember tears running down my face. It was the single most incredible moment of my life and I wanted it to last forever. How could I die when I could make the very earth obey me? How could anything with such great power be troubled by something so insignificant as death? I instantly asked my teacher if there was a way to eternal life. ‘Good question, Bartholomew’, he said as he nodded his answer and then he said these mysterious words to me:

‘Remember the balance of life,’ he said pointing at a picture of scales tattooed over his heart, ‘remember the string that connects,’ and he pointed at a ribbon which ran between each and every one of the hundreds of images on his skin, ‘remember that time is like water,’ a few wavy lines depicted a river on his lower stomach, ‘and remember that if you stood still you’d be the mountain instead of the mountain, for the mountain still moves as it rotates with the earth and the earth still moves as it turns around the sun and speeds on through the stars.’

For many years I considered this, what he had said, and for many years it made no sense to me. Day in and day out all I could think of was how I could stand still in respect to everything. It was a mystery to me then and in many respects it still is, but I have learned how to do it and it is quite something.’ Bartholomew looked at the man next to him. ‘Do you want to see it?’ he said excitedly. ‘I bet you would just die to know what I am talking about,

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wouldn’t you?’ Paul shook his head. He had heard too much, he thought. His head hurt.

‘Well, come on then.’ Bartholomew said and put his hand out to help Paul up.

The short fat man pushed himself up, ignoring the extended hand and followed behind Bartholomew Harbottle once again, hoping to be heading to a safer haven, hoping that at the end of it all he could go home without a dagger poking out of his ribs.

Bartholomew led the way with his long strides and they marched off together in the direction of Port Nolath Bridge. Paul knew the area very well and he started thinking about a possible escape once again, his head turning back every now and then to see where the wolf was, which had seemed to have disappeared. Given the right moment he could make a run for it and this time he was going to be sure that it was the right moment. He looked at Bartholomew who was whispering to himself, as he did before when they left the Galloping Lantern, apparently lost in a world of his own. ‘Barker Street’, Paul noted silently, ’three more roads and we’d be on Mule Street. If only the lanky git would look away at that corner I can make meself scarce, hit the passage next to Peggy’s Flowers an’ slip through the grate window into Peter Ol’fella’s bot’le thingy.’ Him and his friends used to play on these streets when they were about eleven or twelve, he couldn’t remember, but he remembered the grate window quite clearly and Peter’s store room. It was a knowledge which had saved his skin on many occasions when him and his friends been running from the coppers, as they usually did. Pick pocketing was a lot harder than most people would think.

He watched Bartholomew carefully. This time he was making his escape for real, not like last time, he decided. Ahead of him Bartholomew seemed to have all but forgotten about

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the man walking behind him, his whispering becoming more and more cheerful. As they crossed the first of the two crossing before Mule Street Bartholomew started to do a little skip after every couple of steps. As they crossed the second he quietly giggled to himself, ‘Oh, this is so exciting. I cannot wait. What a surprise!’ Behind him Paul was scanning the empty streets. By his estimates it was about half twelve and on a Tuesday night and it was not uncommon for the streets to be deserted at this time, yet it felt remarkably eerie. It was too quiet. He shook himself and fixed his eyes on the Mule Street crossing which they were now approaching. Peggy’s Flowers should be just to their right, if his memory served him right, but it was still around the corner and he could not see it from where they were.

Bartholomew, ahead of him, had stopped and was staring at a building across the street, the opposite side from Peggy’s. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’, Paul thought and sprung past Bartholomew, nipping around the corner before he was seen. Much to his annoyance Peggy’s Flowers was not where it was meant to be, it’s space taken up by a dull looking carpenter’s shop. He glanced to his left and saw, with a sigh of relief, that at least the narrow passage was still there. In a flash he disappeared down it. Half way down the passage he stopped at the grate window and bent down to undo the latch. It was just as rusty as he remembered and with a satisfying ’pop’ the window swung down. Paul squeezed himself into Peter’s bottle store. As soon as his feet hit the floor he turned around and pushed the window up, closing it behind him. He heart raced and he stood still for a few seconds to catch his breath. The place had the exact smell of freshly tilted earth as he had remembered. The cracked brick walls were still covered in moss and the floor was damp as it always had been, the only thing missing was the soft trickling of water one almost expected in a place such as this. Paul pushed his back to the wall and waited to hear the footsteps outside, but it was quiet out there, a distant horse cart the only evidence that the city was not deserted. He shuffled

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along the wall, closer to the window, where he held his breath and listened, nothing. He moved closer, to right underneath the window and listened again, but it was absolutely quiet outside. It seemed that he had lost his attacker. A smile crept across his face. He had done it! ‘Peter Ol’fella, you’ve saved me skin again, you ol’ bag!’ he said to himself, his voice echoing off the cellar walls. But his smile quickly disappeared when a sound from the back of the storeroom made him jump.

‘Oi, did ya’ make sure ya’ weren’t followed? I don’t want no-one knowing we’re here.’ a young voice said loudly.

‘Yes, yes, o’ course I checked. What do ya think I am, stupid?’ another replied.

‘Shh…’ a third whispered loudly, ’all of ya’. Blimey, i’ is like a flippin’ carnival in here. If the coppers ain’t heard ya’ I bet all of Port Nolath has. Pipe down.’

Paul swallowed hard. Did he recognise those voices? Who could they be? He did not know any children anymore… it had been such a long time since he had been that young. Slowly, scared to make a noise and alert them, he made his way towards where he had heard them speaking. When he was near enough he could see them, sitting with their legs crossed facing each other, in the far corner. A streak of street light from the low cellar window shone across the three young faces.

Paul’s hand instinctively came up to his mouth, but it did not stifle his cry. ‘My God!’ he exclaimed. The three boys, sitting on the floor, was himself, aged eleven, Ben, the neighbour’s boy and Frederick. Ben and Paul had met Frederick when he tried to steal their

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washing off the line in their communal back garden. The three of them had been inseparable ever since.

‘How can this be?’ Paul asked them, but they ignored him.

‘Where are we going to put this then?’ young Paul asked his two friends. In his left hand he was holding a book, covered in satin lace and silver. It was worth more money than any of them could imagine. ’I can’t keep it my house, wha’ if the coppers come round?’ his looked at the other two boys.

‘Look’ the older Paul shouted, ’never mind the bloody book! Why are you here?!’ they did not flinch. ’Look at me!’ he shouted again.

‘They can’t hear you, Paul’, Bartholomew said quietly. He was leaning against the wall next to the boys.

‘Well, you can forget about bringing it round mine… They’re round there every blooming day as it is.’ Frederick said and crossed his little arms.

‘Look at them, Paul, sitting there discussing what to do with their prized possession. You remember how this day ended, don’t you, Paul?’ Bartholomew looked down at the boys by his feet, watching them closely.

‘Yes, I remember,’ Paul said. That day was etched into his mind like a red hot smelting groove.

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‘Do you not think that fate somehow stepped into your life on that day?’ Bartholomew asked him.

‘Definitely’, Paul muttered without hesitating, his eyes fixed on the three young lads. He had wished that day away so many times. So many times had he wished he had not gone out that day, or that he just had not nicked that book. He looked at the three boys in their dirty clothes, the light shining across their smooth young faces, their dirty hair. They looked so innocent, so harmless. They would play together all day and get up to all sorts of mischief, but at the end of every day, each one of them looked forward to running home to their mothers where they knew they belonged.

‘If you had just taken the book home… or if you had just not taken the book to start with… or even worse still, if you had just not cared so much about the old man who saw you hiding the blasted book under the bridge.’ Bartholomew pointed down at the young Paul while he looked the older Paul in the eye. ‘Hey Paul, what if you had just turned around and walked away as apposed to throwing that old man in the river to save your skin? What if you had not committed your first murder at the age of eleven, hey? What if, Paul? What if?’

Paul looked at the three boys, tears streaming down his face. ‘Go home lads!’ he shouted, ‘Go home now!!’. But they did not hear him and he watched helplessly as they continued their discussion, deciding on a plan of action that would ruin all of their lives. After what happened that day none of them returned to being children. The guilt and the shame of what they had done weighed them down so much that Ben ran away from home and was found frozen to death several weeks later. Frederick hung himself a few years later at the age

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of eighteen, his entire life had been unhappy and his only regret was that he had not done it earlier. Paul was the only survivor of that day and he lived his life in the gutter. He knew that decent people did not throw old men off bridges and he also knew that he was not a decent person. He begged for what he could not steal and ate his dinner out of dustbins.

Bartholomew Harbottle walked over to where Paul was stood. ‘It is terrible what happened, I know and I am sorry I had to bring you here, but I could not think of a better example of what I wanted to show you.’ He looked at Paul and then down at the children.

‘I think you would agree that their lives are wasted from this point forward,’ he did not look to see if Paul agreed, ‘but, it does not need to be a complete waste… Let me show you.’

Bartholomew walked back to where the boys were sat and stood himself in the middle, between them. ‘Look closely, Paul. See how life, even as useless as these, can be made into something worthwhile.’ He stretched his hands out over the boys, whispering as he looked down at them. Paul could not hear what he was saying, but after a few seconds he noticed a sort of white steam coming off the top of the boys’ heads, floating half an inch above their crowns.

‘What are you doing to them?!’ he shouted at Bartholomew.

‘Shh… Just watch.’

The steam grew slowly denser and higher. Before long each boy had a three inch

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column of steam rising from his head. Bartholomew worked his hands up these columns, one at a time, using his palms to shape the loose columns into thin, bright rays of light.

‘See Paul, it is all to do with balance. These three evil boys, if removed, would leave an imbalance for which I can compensate.’ As he said that a long black tail appeared behind him, whisking from side to side. It reminded Paul of a cat, moving the way a cat’s tail did before it pounced.

‘If I take one of these for example,’ Bartholomew said and wrapped his tail around Ben’s steam column, ‘I can correct that balance and take over where Ben here left off.’

‘You murderer!!!’ Paul shouted, Ben’s body at his feet.

‘Not really’. Bartholomew said quietly, his attentions already moved on to Frederick. ‘If you think about it, I am actually doing them a favour, saving them from a meaningless existence.’ His long black tail whipped around another silver column and Frederick fell over backwards, dead, like a string-puppet, collapsed to the floor.

‘Now,’ Bartholomew turned to face Paul, his hands working the young Paul’s life force into a narrow ribbon, his black tail whipping from side to side impatiently, ‘here we are, Paul. At the end of a hard day’s work, like my daddy used to say. Here we are and we don’t know what to do.’ Bartholomew looked down at the silver ribbon in his left hand and then up at Paul who was shaking with anger.

‘Let us not forget, Paul, you came to me tonight, I did not come looking for you.

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What ever reasons you have to hate me you have brought upon yourself for I am the mountain. Look.’ Bartholomew waved his free hand and the scene around them faded to be replaced with the inside of The Galloping Lantern where Bartholomew was sat with a mug of ale in front of him and a book open on his lap. He looked up from his book and said, ‘See, I told you… I have not moved’. Paul stumbled over backwards and landed heavily on the damp cellar floor.

‘Tell me what to do Paul. Tell me if your life is worth living. I could end it all here tonight, set you free from your guilt or… or you can carry on fighting to try and be someone when you know you are no-one, an utter waste of space.’ Bartholomew was back in the cellar with him, stood next to the young Paul, silver ribbon in hand.

‘End it now!’ Paul shouted. ‘I can not carry on like this!’ he sobbed.

‘Are you sure?’ Bartholomew asked and stroked the silver ribbon with his black tail. ‘There are always alternatives, you know?’

‘End it now!’ Paul sobbed again.

‘Ahh, come now, Paul. Don’t give up so easily! For once try not to be so pathetic. How about a bit of salvation?’ Bartholomew smirked down at him. ‘Why don’t you tell me where the rest of your group are hidden and so seek retribution for their many, many wrongs? Helping justice find the unjust is a just cause, you know?’

Paul stopped sobbing for a second. There were fourteen other thieves in his group,

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each of them far more evil than Paul and they were waiting for him to bring back Bartholomew Harbottle‘s blackmail ransom. It was their fault he was here, but if he died without bringing them back the money they would probably curse him, even if he died for them. They were like that, selfish and unkind. Where Paul felt truly bad for the wicked things he had done, they revelled in it. They loved their wickedness and did not once feel bad for the people they wronged every single day. They even made fun of Paul when he reprimanded them for their unnecessary cruelty. ‘Saint Paul, the murdered!’ they would shout at him.

‘Their souls could buy my salvation?’ Paul asked Bartholomew, his eyes wide with hope.

‘Sure, why not?’ Bartholomew smiled down at him.

Paul dried his tear streaked face with his dirty sleeve and sat up. ‘Really?’

‘Yes, really.’ Bartholomew answered.

‘They have rooms above The Galloping Lantern, but I don’t want anything to do with this if their lives cannot buy my salvation.’ Paul shook his head as he said this.

‘Spoken like a true blackmail artist,’ Bartholomew laughed, ‘who just had the blood of fourteen of his brothers added to the blood already on his hands.’

‘You said their lives could buy my salvation!’ Paul shouted, realising that he had been tricked.

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‘And it could!’ Bartholomew shouted back, mocking his tone, ‘If you were stood in a court of law they would have happily traded the lives of your fourteen friends for yours and you would have walked away a free man. Sadly though, this,’ Bartholomew waved his hand, showing the cellar, ‘is not a court room and although you are free, know this; you have sold your only friends because you were too soft and too self-obsessed to let go of something that happened when you were a child. Pathetic to the very end.’

Bartholomew let go of the silver string he had been holding on to and they both watched as the young Paul ran up the cellar stair to make his way to the bridge where he had an appointment with destiny.

‘That old man probably wanted to die, but you have decided to beat yourself up over it and now fourteen of your friends will die because of you.’ Bartholomew said.

Paul crawled backwards into the corner where the boys had previously been sat and hugged his knees to his chest, tears again streaming down his face. ‘You’ve deceived me!!!’ he shouted over and over again. ‘You tricked me!!!’

Bartholomew turned his back on the short, fat man and walked towards to stairs. ‘Only because you set out to trick me, Paul.’ he said quietly when he reached the bottom run. ‘Only because you wanted to steal from me, have I stolen from you. You wanted money, I wanted life… We trade in the same way, you and I - with the same tendency to short change, don’t you agree?’ Then he was gone.

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Paul shook where he was hunched against the wall, his mind exhausted and his eyes sore from crying. ’There must be a way’ he said out loud. ’There must be a way that I can stop that old man from dying.’ For a second he seemed lost in thought and then he jumped up, ran up the stairs and out of the back of Pete‘s glass shop. He remembered exactly where he had been when they had pushed the old man off the bridge and ran there as quickly as he could, he legs barely able to hold his big frame. On reaching the bridge he could see his young self walking along on the riverbank, book hidden under his jacket. He tried to call out, but his voice caught in his throat. Desperately he waved his arms trying to get the boy‘s attention, but it was useless.

‘How?’ he asked the air around him. ‘How can I stop this awful thing from happening?’. There was no-one there and no-one answered. He looked up and down the street, hoping to see the old man. Maybe he could distract him, maybe he could make him take a different route, but the street was empty. It was only him at the top of the bridge and him on the river bank. He lent over the railing again and caught sight of his younger self moving some rocks and sliding the book into a ready made hidey-hole. Suddenly the boy looked up at him and snarled. ‘Yes,’ Paul thought, ‘come after me, you little blighter.’ He pointed at the boy with an accusing finger and shouted,

‘Oi, what do you think you are doing?’

‘Mind ya’ own, ol’ man!’ the boy shouted back at him.

‘You come here and say that to me face, you little mongrel!’ he shouted back.

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He smiled as he saw the boy leave the rock pile and run up the river bank towards the stairs on the side of the bridge. ‘I might just be able to save him’, he thought to himself. ‘I might just be able to make his life worth living again.’ He could have danced with excitement.

Before he knew it his younger self was stood in front him, nearly as tall as he was, but much skinnier and much, much younger.

‘Who do ya’ think ya’ are, hey?’ the boy challenged him.

‘Oh, wouldn’t ya’ like to know.’ Paul laughed.

‘Ya’ wha’? Ya’ making fun o’ me, ol’ man?’ the boy shouted at him.

‘No, jus’ trying a’ stop ya’ from making a fool o’ yer’self.’ he said calmly.

‘You’re the fool, ol’ man.’ the boy said and grabbed hold of Paul’s coat.

‘Hey, hey. There is no need for that!’ Paul shouted. ‘I wasn’t going to tell no-one.’

‘Oh, yeah? And how am I suppose to believe that?’ the boy said.

‘Cause I said so, didn’t I?!’ Paul shouted and tried to pull his coat free from the remarkably strong young hands, but the boy did not let go.

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‘Ya’ give me something as a sign of yer’ word?’ the boy asked.

‘I don’t have no’ing to give ya’’ Paul replied, still struggling for his coat.

‘Then give me ya’ coat!’ the boy shouted and viciously pulled at him.

Paul had to fight hard not to let the boy rip the coat off him and during the struggle he leant back over the railing, away from his younger self, trying to use his weight to his advantage, when he heard a terrible rip. For a second the world came to a complete stop and Paul look back at his younger self. The young face was frozen in horror, mouth open midshout, eyes wide with the realisation that something had gone dreadfully wrong.

Like a hammer, it struck Paul between the eyes. His entire life had been haunted by the old man’s face, killing him with guilt every time he looked at the mirror. Turns out the face was his all along. They had both been here before, but neither of them knew it until it was too late. On the far side of the bridge Bartholomew sat on a bench, the wolf laying, with its head on its paws, on the floor next to him, like tourists gawking at the strange customs of the indigenous people.

There was only one last thing left to do, Paul thought and he closed his eyes. For one last moment he felt the wind blow on his skin and he smelled the air. He knew that he would not survive the fall, but was not concerned about that. He knew the water would be cold, but did not care. What broke his heart was the young boy stood on top of the bridge. ’Jump in, lad!’ he shouted as he fell and he would have shouted it again if he had the chance, but the water quickly swallowed him up, the freezing cold stopping his heart before he had time to

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think about it.

In a room above The Galloping Lantern fourteen men sat drinking. They had spent most of the evening waiting for one of their number to return and they were growing very impatient. A knock at the door brought them to silence.

‘At last,’ one of them said and stood up. He put his eye to the looking hole and could not see anyone. ‘Shorty’, he thought and pulled at the handle.

‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ Bartholomew Harbottle smiled whilst stepping into the room, ‘I take it you all know who I am, but sadly I don’t really know who you are and I am dying to make your acquaintances.’ Some of the men jumped from their seats, but retreated more quickly. Behind Bartholomew the hall way was suddenly filled by a massive grey wolf. It dropped its head as it stepped into the room, its back touching the top of the doorframe. ‘Oh, do excuse my bad form,’ Bartholomew apologised. ‘Please meet my friend, the Wyn’aìr. Thought I’d invite him out for a spot of lunch as we hadn’t seen each other in a while…’

Bartholomew and his associate had been travelling away from Port Nolath for over a week when Jones discovered the remains of the fourteen men, two floors above the public bar. Had their rent payments been up to date they would have stayed there until they stank, but they were nearly two months late and Jones was forced to go round, threatening eviction. He didn’t say anything though, considering the state they were in, but called the funeral director and the police instead. It was a peculiar case, everybody agreed and Jones really hoped it would not have an effect on his business. For weeks the news papers would report on the ’mass murder’, but in the end people gave up trying to solve it, distracted by other more

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pressing business, like the rising price of tea.

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