“We’re looking for a room,” I began.
“No rooms here,” swiftly retorted the inn-keeper. “We’ve got food and we’ve got ale but no rooms. Try at the sign of the White Hart by the bridge at the top of the village.”
“Ah no, I didn’t mean that kind of room,” I hastened to explain. “We’re looking for a particular room.”
The inn-keeper stared back, knotting his dense black brows a little closer together.
“We’re looking for a room that would have appeared somewhere round here a few days ago,” added Michael. “Just popped up all of a sudden, out of the blue.”
“This is a room you won’t be able to enter,” I continued helpfully. “A room that’s entirely enclosed and completely cut off from the outside world.”
The inn-keeper’s brow furrowed yet further.
“It may not seem very remarkable from the outside, probably blends in with the surroundings,” Michael ploughed on regardless. “But there may just be an extra door somewhere that you hadn’t noticed before or the dimensions of a building that you know might have seemed a bit unfamiliar of late.”
There was a lengthy pause, after which the inn-keeper rubbed his hands decisively down his greasy apron and said, “No rooms here. Try at the sign of the White Hart. Now, did you want any food and ale or not?”
I sighed. “Just a couple of ales, thanks.”
The inn-keeper ambled off to fulfil our request, muttering heavily beneath his breath as he went.
“You know, I’m not sure this is going to be quite as easy as we thought,” I said to Michael once he was out of earshot.
“You thought this was going to be easy?” returned Michael with a raised eyebrow. “Rescuing someone locked up in a prison that’s been scattered across 273 different locations in the landscape?”
Before I could respond the inn-keeper returned and set before us two large tankards of rich, dark ale. He paused just long enough to offer up a hostile glare before retreating to a shadowy corner of the room.
“Well, I didn’t think the whole thing was going to be easy,” I retorted, taking a tentative sip of my ale. It tasted surprisingly good. “But I hadn’t figured on getting stuck at the first hurdle either.”
When we’d, somewhat reluctantly, accepted the mission to rescue renowned author CJ Sturridge from the apartment block in which he had been incarcerated by members of the nefarious Explorer’s Club we’d been consoled by the fact that we were in possession of a device that had fortuitously recorded the location of each of the 273 rooms of that block as they lay scattered across the landscape of the imagination. How we were meant to somehow link those rooms back together and facilitate Sturridge’s escape were questions that had yet to be answered but, thanks to our device, the finding of the rooms themselves had not appeared to be an issue. Only, having laboriously tracked our way to the first location on a very long list, we were met with the unpleasant discovery that the co-ordinates on the inter-dimensional travel device were not quite as specific as we had hoped. I casually laid a hand on my bag in which the device was currently concealed. “Why can’t this damn thing be more accurate?” I complained.
“Alright, so it looks like we’ve got, what, maybe half a square mile to cover?” said Michael with a philosophical air. “That’s not too bad. Somebody, somewhere must have noticed something. We’ll just have to poke around a bit, that’s all.”
I glanced around the room and wrinkled my nose distastefully. This was not a location I particularly fancied poking around in. The trouble with the landscape of the imagination was that places within it were jumbled together not just geographically but temporally. Stone Age villages sat in the shadow of modern metropolises, renaissance towns were liable to nestle up against futuristic cityscapes. And whilst there hadn’t been chance yet to establish precisely which century we’d currently stumbled into, the vibe here was distinctly medieval. There was no electricity, no sign of modern transport or communications and the whole place hung with a heavy stench that suggested the inhabitants were strangers to the benefits of modern plumbing.
“I’m not sure we can expect all that much help from the locals,” I muttered with a nod towards the corner in which the inn-keeper lurked.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing,” an unexpected voice broke into our conversation. “Perhaps I can help.” I turned to find we were being addressed by a short, wiry chap leaning over from the table opposite. “May I?” he added and, without waiting for a response, promptly slid into an empty chair at our table.
I regarded the interloper with a wary eye for the tables were far enough apart and our voices had surely been low enough that any overhearing must have been of a deliberate nature. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, with shoulder-length hair so blond as to be almost white and pale, sallow skin. He was enveloped in an enormous grey cloak and bore a leather bag slung over his shoulder.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said with a broad smile that showed up an uneven row of rotten teeth. “I am Guillaume of Tours.”
He paused as though hopeful the name would spark some show of recognition but didn’t seem enormously put out when none was forthcoming. Michael quickly smoothed over any awkwardness by offering up our names in return.
“You are in need, I perceive, of some local assistance,” said Guillaume. “Now, I am not a native of these parts but I have been hereabouts long enough to have made some valuable connections. I trust you will not think me too boastful if I let slip that I come directly from Le Chateau de Sangallo where I was the personal guest of Le Comte himself.”
Not being familiar with the place I couldn’t really judge how boastful a name-drop this was but I was at least a staunch enough socialist not to be impressed by the title alone.
“You said you were looking for a room,” Guillaume pressed on. “A very special kind of room.”
Michael and I exchanged a guarded glance. It was not that we were distrustful people by nature but experience had taught us to apply caution in the face of casual offers of help from apparently disinterested strangers. Few things in this landscape were as simple as they appeared.
“You are right to distrust the capacity of the natives,” continued Guillaume, apparently misconstruing the reasons for our guardedness. “An ignorant and primitive people on the whole. But you can speak quite openly with me.” He offered up an encouraging smile. “I fancy, after all, that we are members of the same brotherhood.”
“What brotherhood would that be exactly?” I asked, somewhat bemused.
Guillaume leaned in a little closer. “Well, we go by so many names, do we not? The ignorant might refer to us as conjurers and sorcerers but I say we are no more than seekers of knowledge. Personally, I have no problem with the title of alchemist though I fear it is a word that is much misunderstood.”
“You’re an alchemist then?” I said uncertainly.
“In the purest sense of the word,” replied Guillaume. “For what is alchemy, really, but a search for the formula which underpins life itself?” He offered up another confiding smile. “I believe there are many secrets to this world that may yet be unlocked with an enquiring mind and a practical devotion.”
“You have a point there I suppose,” conceded Michael.
“Excellent!” exclaimed Guillaume. “I knew from first glance that we had much in common. So, what say you if I join with your quest for this mysterious room? I daresay I could be a great help to you… for a small consideration, of course.”
“Ah well, I’m not exactly sure how we’d be able to repay you,” returned Michael awkwardly. “We’re a bit low on, er, funds.”
“Oh please, I do not speak of money,” said Guillaume, sweeping away our concern with an expansive gesture. “I’m sure we could work out some other method of reward. A sharing of information, for instance. After all, if I may be so bold, knowledge is always at a premium for members of our brotherhood.”
Before either of us could formulate an adequate response to this suggestion the door of the inn was flung open in a manner calculated to attract the attention of everyone within. We turned to see standing in the doorway three figures bulky enough to block out most of the sunlight behind. They paused on the threshold just long enough for the eyes of the leader of the trio to do a thorough sweep of the room before marching determinedly towards our table.
I swallowed nervously as they arranged themselves in a loose formation around the table for they were dressed in a manner that suggested that, whether they were actively looking for trouble or not, they were at least well-equipped to deal with it should it arise. The ill-matched pieces of armour they sported were dotted with dents and scars and each was bedecked with an impressive array of swords, axes and other assorted sharpened implements. It was with a certain sense of relief then that I noted that the leader of the trio fixed his attention directly upon Guillaume, barely noticing Michael and I.
A not unreasonable flicker of panic flashed briefly across Guillaume’s face before he recovered himself and bared his uneven teeth in a bright smile. “Good day to you, mon Capitaine,” he said to the leader. “Can I get you a drink?”
The expression on the Captain’s face did not budge an inch from the concentrated scowl that seemed to be its default setting. “You’re wanted,” he announced brusquely. “Master Ferdinand sends me to escort you back to the Chateau.”
“I’m afraid you must convey my apologies to Master Ferdinand but regretfully I am unable to accept his kind offer,” replied Guillaume cheerfully. “I have business here.”
“It’s not an offer,” said the Captain flatly. “It’s a command.”
The concerted effort required by Guillaume to maintain his bright tone in the face of the Captain’s terse scowl was becoming painfully apparent. “I have no wish to quarrel with you,” he said with a slightly ragged smile, “but Master Ferdinand is in no position to command me to do anything. My work at the Chateau is finished and Le Comte himself gave me leave to continue my travels.”
“It would seem Master Ferdinand thinks otherwise,” replied the Captain. “I suggest you take it up with him.” As he spoke he casually laid a hand on the hilt of the substantial sword which hung from his belt. It was the slightest of gestures but none the less intimidating for that.
Guillaume shifted anxiously in his seat. His eyes flew briefly around the interior of the inn, as if in search of inspiration, before returning reluctantly to the Captain. “Mon Capitaine,” he began again in a particularly obsequious tone, “you know it is ever my wish to oblige Master Ferdinand but I am afraid it really is impossible for me to do so on this occasion. You see, right now I am in the middle of very important business with my two friends here.”
I could cheerfully have kicked Guillaume as the Captain’s fierce gaze now turned slowly but surely upon Michael and I. “You’re in business with him, are you?” he said to us in a suspicious tone.
“No, well, I wouldn’t put it like that,” Michael hastily replied.
“We’ve really only just met,” I added.
But Guillaume, having somehow struck on us as the best method of disengaging himself from this apparently unwanted engagement, seemed determined to stick to his story. “We are in the midst of very complex negotiations,” he insisted determinedly. “I cannot possibly leave now.”
“What kind of negotiations?” asked the Captain, the suspicion evident in his tone ratcheting up another notch.
“This is a very, ah, specialised business,” replied Guillaume airily. “I would gladly explain the whole matter but I fear there is no chance of your understanding.”
The Captain frowned.
“Look, if you people have things that need to be dealt with then don’t mind us,” I said quickly, seizing upon the brief pause to try and disentangle ourselves from this mysterious matter. “You go right ahead.”
“Exactly, we wouldn’t want to interfere,” added Michael.
Unfortunately in the further pause that followed our remarks the inn-keeper decided that this was the moment for him to interfere, emerging from his shadowy corner. “I’ve heard them plotting together,” he said, slinking up to the Captain. “Talking of strange rooms and unnatural doings. Devil’s work, that’s what it is, if you ask me.”
All three of us instantly began to offer a rebuttal to this prejudiced assessment of our conversation but we were all stopped in our tracks by a deep growl from the Captain. There followed another moment of silence. It appeared that the Captain was thinking deeply over all that had been said and it didn’t look like thinking was an occupation that came naturally to him.
Finally, after a minute of agonising suspense, he barked sharply, “Right then, I think you’d all better come up to the Chateau right away. Master Ferdinand can see what he makes of you.”
This was met by an immediate flurry of further protestation that was cut short by the Captain. “Enough!” he snapped, laying his hand once again on the hilt of his sword. There was nothing very subtle about the gesture this time. “You’re going and that’s that.”
I glanced first at Guillaume and then at Michael but we all seemed to recognise that there was little to be gained from further argument now except perhaps some kind of major disfigurement. One by one we reluctantly rose to our feet.
The Captain nodded curtly to the smirking inn-keeper and led the way to the door, leaving his wordless colleagues to bring up the rear. As we all tramped out into the sunshine there was nothing I could do but wonder precisely who this Master Ferdinand might be and just exactly what he might possibly want with the likes of us.
To be continued…