chpt#6: An affair in Annwn
“So, yer a wizard now, then? Gonna show us some o’ yer magic?” Scarlet sneered.
Skarry shifted uncomfortably, the ropes that bound his hands behind his back were not tight but it made stumbling down the pock-marked track towards the lake exceedingly difficult and he certainly didn’t need his sister, who was obviously enjoying holding his ‘tether,’ goading him with her dubious wit. “It doesn’t work like that, Scarlet,” he muttered. “I’m an alchemist, not a street entertainer with a pocket full of cheap fireworks.”
“So what can y’do? Apart from be a glocky gonoph.”
“I am not a thief, of any description.”
“Oh, aye! We knows that!”
“Alchemy is a precise art form, if you really want to know. We take matter and reduce it to its constituent parts. We try to understand those parts, what they are and how they function. Sometimes we try to piece those parts back together, either to recreate the substance itself or to form something new. It’s about understanding the perfection that exists within the world, and then trying to achieve that perfection in ourselves.”
Scarlet looked at him incredulously, “Yer tellin’ me yer a bloody Tinker?”
“No. No not at all, I…”
“D’yer hear this, Rowland? After all th’money ee’s had blown away on ‘is so-called ‘high-class-education,’ the boy’s a bleedin’ Tinker!”
“A Tinker?” Rowland, who was holding the rope attached to Mercurio’s wrists, and clanking along beside Scarlet on his mechanical goat-legs, frowned thoughtfully. “It does sound like tinkering, you know. Taking things apart, putting them back together, discovering how they work and improving them – discovering perfect principles and applying them… yes, yes I agree.”
“Ha!” Scarlet scoffed.
“I didn’t realise that Tinkers actually joined the crews of land ships,” Skarry said quickly, trying to deflect the attention from himself and prevent Scarlet finding any fresh basis for ridicule.
“What? Oh yes, every land ship always has at least one Tinker onboard,” Rowland replied, “in case anything goes wrong, you know, with the ship or a member of the crew. You saw what happened with Jack earlier, I suppose. Could have been a very nasty incident if I hadn’t been here. And that happens quite often, unfortunately.” He looked chagrined. “The valves keep wearing out, you know, but the real fault lies with the overall design. The heart incorporates a diaphragm of soft, flexible material. Five pistons touch the diaphragm at precise points, when the pistons are pulled back, rack and pinion gears coupled to a central cog…”
“Oh, give it a rest, will yer, Kid!” Scarlet groaned.
Rowland frowned but ignored the interruption. “…a central cog, even out the pressure on the diaphragm, you understand? When the diaphragm is compressed, the ventricles contract, when the pistons are released, the ventricles expand. The whole thing is powered by a meths engine which heats an insulated boiler to produce steam power. The steam is condensed back into a self-sustaining feed pump and returned to the boiler. It’s disgracefully inefficient – a real nightmare to maintain – but we can’t seem to utilise cream power on such a minute scale yet, and any system similar to the Argo’s function – now that is pure poetry, I’ll tell you about that in a moment – again, is far too complex to work internally. So he has to drink meths to keep his heart pumping.
We had to install a pipe feed parallel to his oesophagus, and a valve, which he can operate with a flick of his tongue, so that the meths goes to his heart and not his stomach. Then, of course, there was the distillation system, the excess overflow and the shunt which all had to be put in to remove any excess meths that might seep into his bloodstream. Plus the access plate in his neck to change the valves, and another in his chest… the poor boy’s a complete mess!
We’re working on a perpetual motion heart for him, built on the principles of gravity but,” he shook his head, “we’re a long way off yet, though it pains me to say it.”
“Why, in the name of Wiz, did he give his heart to the pirate king, anyway?” Mercurio asked. “It seems an utterly foolish and needlessly theatrical notion.”
Skarry raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
“None o’ yer damn business,” Scarlet snapped, and the wizard turned and shot her a venomous scowl.
“Getting back to Tinkering,” Rowland mused, as if nothing else in the world were of any interest or import, “Let me tell you about The Agro, because she’s one of a kind. Now the beauty of The Agro is twofold – threefold to a mind like Jacks, but that’s aesthetic claptrap. The first miracle starts with the sails. Now, on a sea-bound vessel, the sails function to catch the wind and drive the ship forwards. Aggie’s sails work differently. Their construction allows them to flap and this flapping motion operates a set of pumps, connected to a set of high-pressure air chambers. Wind is pumped into these chambers until a certain pressure is reached and then they lockdown. Potential power stored – you understand? We can also get extra power in there from the bellows, when we need it.
When this stored air is released, it works a complex set of pistons – just the same as steam works the pistons in a cream engine. These pistons control sets of metal rods and so control Aggie’s movements. Unfortunately I’m not at liberty to describe to you the precise mechanical details, but, putting it very simply, Jack is able to control the opening and closing of the chamber valves and so control the ship. But he’s also able to set Aggie to auto-pilot, isn’t that astounding? She’s actually able, after a fashion, to use logic to govern her own movements, just like any sentient being. Joe Thanson thought that one up – amazing Tinker, an absolute genius. But he needed my wife, Babs, to help him out with the finer calculations. That was a harrowing time I can tell you! She had to invent the difference engine just to make the calculations he was requesting – and even then it took months! But they got there in the end, and now we have Aggie, who is far more versatile than a cream powered ship like The Plunder Bus or The Gentleman’s Relish. Pah!
“Now the second beautiful thing is the walking mechanism. It was developed by the kinematics Tinker, Ernest Burntester. We call it the Burn Linkage – a central crankshaft runs through Aggie’s body and is rotated by the turbines. One half of the rotation of the crank controls the correct placement of the foot upon the ground, the other half of the rotation lifts the foot off the ground. The legs are coupled to the crank in a pattern which gives an interval of half a rotation between each foot placement, this is how Aggie is able to walk, and it’s a smooth motion – you’ve seen it. Burntester developed it as a replacement for the wheel – gives us a greater scope for traversing difficult terrains like sand, cobbles, marsh, rocky passes, we can go anywhere really. It’s revolutionised the reach of land piracy, he deserves a knighthood, he really does.
“He developed a similar mechanism for the pega’tons with Helgarth Hounds.” He shook his head. “That was a nasty business. Hounds thought we ought to raise our sights – literally – when Victoria commissioned the building of the skyways, to make it more difficult for us and the Trampers to attack her tea convoys, and generally make travelling safer for the general public I suppose, (not that most can afford a skyway ticket, can they?) We were nowhere near building a machine that could actually fly, of course we still aren’t, but he saw that actual flight wouldn’t be necessary.
“The Watchers, for example, don’t actually fly, do they? They glide from one raised platform to another. Hounds invented these pega’tons – lightweight hippo’tons which could carry one passenger, but with wings which could be maneuvered to utilise the air currents and optimise lift. As long as they could walk or canter along the skyrails, the wings would provide stability for travelling at speed and also enable us to leap from one rail to another, get on top of the carriages, and float to the ground in relative safety should an accident occur or we needed to make a quick getaway.
“Well, all that was fine and good but then Hounds and Burnester argued over something and, in the end, Hounds left the clockwork city and formed the Skywaymen. He took the pega’ton they’d designed and all the details of the flight mechanism with him. As he’d always been a secretive fellow – ridiculously precious about his ideas – there wasn’t a Tinker left behind who had any idea how to recreate it. Not even Burnester, whose only real input had been the walking mechanism anyway.”
“You’d think that Bill would have declared outright war on them?” Skarry mused.
“Well, there it is. You don’t know Bill at all. Fiercely loyal, Bill is, and no matter what Hounds had done – betrayed him you could say – in Bill’s mind it’s once a pirate, always a pirate. He sees the Skywaymen as kith and kin to us all. Now I don’t say he likes them, and I don’t say he didn’t blow a few gaskets when it all happened, of course, but he’s a magnanimous fellow, at heart – under all that tough exterior. He has to be tough, he’s the pirate king, but he doesn’t have to be a tyrant, and he certainly couldn’t be if he tried. Not in his nature, you see? In the clockwork city, we’re like one big family, you could say that the Skywaymen are like our disreputable cousins – we don’t have much to do with them if we can help it but, they are family at the end of the day.”
“Yes. How touching. A family that exploits and steals from one another. I can see how that would work,” Mercurio sneered.
Rowland grinned. “Well,” he scratched his beard, “we are all rogues at the end of the day. What do you expect us to do? Sit in each other’s parlours sipping tea and politely declining the last slice of fruitcake?”
They had reached the lap of the slope now and a sudden motion beside the path brought the entire party of pirates and prisoners to a startled halt. Jack stepped forwards, just as a pega’ton manifested out of the last shreds of early morning lake-mist.
“You took your time, Captain!” The mounted Skywayman’s tone was jocular and he swung himself out of the saddle and strode the short distance to shake Jack’s hand.
“Good morning, Anders, my friend. We assumed you’d be expecting us, but our progress has been hindered by the extra baggage we’ve had to lug.” He cocked his head, not at the enormous ottoman which Biddy Bones and Albert Tross had been negotiating, but at the two wizards and The Witch. Anders chuckled and Mercurio scowled.
“I see you’ve come to declare an affair then? I’ll never understand, Jack, why you insist on carting that old tea chest around with you to every parlour affair. It’s frankly insulting, you know? We do have fine china in Annwn.”
Jack put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, my friend. Let us call it sentimental.”
“You’re right, I wouldn’t understand that at all.” He narrowed his eyes mischievously. “My grandmother might…”
“Well, Babs is an intelligent woman. What a shame you didn’t inherit her sagacity.”
The Skywayman laughed and clapped his gloved hands together. “It’s damn cold out here, Jack, shall we be off?”
“Lead on, my friend, lead on.”
Anders grabbed the reins of his pega’ton and he and Jack moved back to the head of the group, which soon began to continue its progress towards the lake.
“I thought Annwn was a forest,” Mercurio muttered. “There’s not a blasted tree for miles.”
Scarlet snorted derisively and Rowland chuckled.
“Oh, it is a forest, it really is!” The Witch said, enthusiastically, as Angel De Mort, who was holding the rope attached to her wrists, drew level with the little group.
“Ov course,” she smiled. “Everyone has heard ov the forest ov Annwn. Though very few have had the dubious privilege of entering it.”
“Well, yes of course I have never been in myself,” The Witch said, hastily, “but The Stalactite Scrolls state that the forest of Annwn is actually…” She trailed off as the party came to another halt beside the grey pebbled shore of the lake. The silk water folded gently back and forth over the stones and stretched like mercury, tickled pink by the stirring fingers of the sun. To the left, an outcrop of craggy rocks hunched like a skulking crone, riddled with fissures like wrinkles, and, beside a particularly large gash, an actual crone sat huddled in a rocking chair, apparently asleep. She was wrapped head to toe in a Skywayman’s cape and a formidable looking blunderbuss languished brazenly across her lap.
“Hello!” Anders left the reins of his pega’ton dangling and strode towards the old woman, stooping slightly to peer into her weathered face. “I say! Hello, Granny, it’s me, Anders!”
“What? Allo? Allo Granny is it? Oo goes there then, eh?” The weapon moved with astounding speed into the Skywayman’s face and he laughed, nervously, and tried to push it aside. It didn’t budge. Skarry couldn’t tell if the old crone’s eyes were open or not, but he suspected not and was beginning to hope that this ‘Anders’ would get his overly jovial face blown off – its resemblance to that of Gabriel Hounds’ was uncanny and irritating.
“Ha! Come on, Granny, dear, it’s me, look! It’s me, Anders.”
“Eh? Anders? Anders Cash is it? That puny, powder-faced, pignut, is ee back already?”
“Ah… yes… yes, that would be me, old thing. Listen, do you want to, er…” he tried again to remove the muzzle of the beast that had attached itself to his chin.
Rowland stifled a chuckle and the old woman’s head snapped in his direction. “Eh? Oos that with yer then, hm? That Rowland is it? Stinkin’, flea-shacked old goat.”
Rowland scratched his horned head of grey tight-curled hair and winced. “Shrewd as ever, I see, Babs.”
“Bah! You always was a pribblin’ old pot-worm. Oo else is that clamourin’ about back there?” She tilted her head up, though how she could see anything through the heavy fall of wrinkled brown skin which covered her squinting eyes, Skarry couldn’t imagine.
“Good morning, Barbara.” Jack stepped forward and hunkered down beside the Skywaywoman.
“Jackie! Heh, heh, that you, is it, boy?” The blunderbuss was quickly swept aside, taking Anders with it. He picked himself up from the pebbles and dusted his trousers but his grandmother ignored him. “Jack! Ow nice t’see y’gain. Come n give old Babs a squidge.”
The captain grinned and embraced the old hag fondly. “Anders is a baddu’n y’know! Ee never said yous was comin!”
“Did actually, Gran,” Anders muttered, clapping his hands together softly and puffing breath-clouds into the cool air. “Look, it’s freezing out here, old girl, may we…?”
“You ‘old yer pega’tons y’liitle gutter louse!” Babs snapped. “Now then, Jack, it’s too long since we seed you ‘ere in Annwn, tell old Babs what y’ve bin up to, y’rogue. Raised Hull yet ‘ave yer?” she cackled gleefully and Jack grinned and (Skarry could find no better word for it) preened his feathered head.
“Not quite yet, Barbara. Oh, you know, the usual fun: demolishing towns with treacle, kidnapping a few magic masters, helping out a few chums, being taken advantage of by your delightful brood…”
“Heh, heh, heh!” Babs wiped a tear from her weathered cheek “Aw, bless ‘em, getcher good this time did they?”
“That remains to be seen.”
“Oh!” she laid a liver spotted finger to the side of her hooked nose, “come t’declare an affair then ‘ave yer? Heh heh! Anders is a baddun, ee never said!”
“Yes he did,” Anders muttered, stamping his feet and shivering. Jack turned and winked at him and he looked away.
“Well, that’s nice, in’t it eh? We ‘aven’t ‘ad a Parlour Affair in a long while. Brought yer tea set ‘ave yer? Yes, that’s nice that is. Well, yer a good lad, Jack, I’ll give yer that. Even y’are a brazen, brass blowin’ little salt mongerer.”
Anders chuckled and Jack shook his head and smiled. “Landships for the land, Barbara, and Airships for the skies, as they say.”
“Oh, sure! As you says maybe! An’ I suppose you’d be off wouldn’tcher? In one o’ them loony balloonies, if they ever manages t’build one!”
“The Teatime Lords are commissioning one even as we speak.”
“Are they, indeed! Well, it’ll never happen, lad, never. If a Tinker can’t do it, no one else can, n that’s a fact, unless y’want t’dispute it.”
“A dispute with you, Barbara, is something I would never beat the bushes for.”
The old crone cackled gleefully and slapped the captain’s knee, “Oh you are a one! Beat the bushes indeed!” She wiped another tear from her eye. “Well, what are y’all mincin’ round out ‘ere for eh? Get in, get in! That Ander’s, ee’s no hospitalarian! He’d ‘ave yous all out on the doorstep ‘ere till yer brass bugles shattered.”
“That’s very considerate of you, Barbara,” Jack smiled, rising to his feet, “and a pleasure it was to see you again, as always.”
“Heh! You fare well, lad.” She gestured with her weapon towards the rock opening and Anders shook his head and then spread his arms.
“After you, captain?”
Jack winked at him, touched his forehead in mock-thanks and disappeared into the cavern.
The rest of the crew followed with less enthusiasm and Skarry winced at the stream of foul-tongued insults that poured from Babs’ mouth as each pirate passed her roost:
“Yeasty, cud-munchin’ mast-rat!
Crock-worryin’, clay-witted, pot-sot
Bug-tailed, blunder-headed, man-mangler
Flailing, beef-brained, barnacle
Plume-plucked, harpy-spawned, cat-lapper
Leash-slacked, muzzy-eyed, doss-warmer
Hull-born, flabber-gobbed, rump canker”
“Nice to see you too, Babs. Don’t catch your death out here, will you? That would be terrible…”
“Ah, shut yer mewlin’ mouth y’rancid old goat,
Now then, oo’s this? Mincin,’ molly coddled, fag-fawner
Hag-spawned, noony-shirkin’, mammeteer
Gawk-faced, shuffle-footed, no-berry.”
Skarry decided to take the insult on the chin, ducked his head and followed Rowland and the others through the rock fissure and into a high-roofed cavern, dimly lit by flickering lanterns, which nestled in the many crevices pock-marking the walls. A long, similarly lighted, tunnel stretched out ahead of them, footsteps and voices echoed eerily in the dark and the air was warm, moist and scented with the sweet tang of moss and acrid bite of limestone rock. The latter ran in frozen rivers, marbling the walls like the smooth gullet of an ancient creature of the deep, and Skarry felt his footing carefully on the sleek undulations of the tunnel floor.
Progress along this stretch was laboured, punctuated by frequent curses and clunks, as Tross and Bones struggled to negotiate the enormous tea chest and others tripped and stumbled over them.
After what may have been an hour, or possibly even several, Skarry perceived a soft iridescence in the gloom ahead and, shortly afterwards, they emerged from the narrow passage into a wide open space populated by the most enormous toadstools he had ever seen, or even imagined in his wildest nightmares. The gargantuan fungal growths towered above them, as tall and broad as oaks, and each emitted a soft, eerie light – cyan, magenta, green, yellow… Skarry stopped counting the colours and simply gazed in awe. ‘The tea,’ he told himself, weakly. This must be some awful after effect brought on by his over-indulgence. Perhaps this whole thing was a waking nightmare and he would soon come to his senses back aboard the Agro – a forest of fungus just wasn’t possible! And where on Wiz’s good earth were they anyway? Beneath the lake?
“Oh, it’s even more beautiful than I imagined it would be!” The Witch exclaimed, “I knew it must be true! The scrolls would never lie! And I simply can’t believe we are here! How thrilling!”
“Yes, what a jolly little holiday it’s cracking up to be,” Mercurio sneered, glancing around in disgust, although Skarry thought he caught a faint glimmer of greed in the wizard’s eyes and made a mental note to keep a careful watch on his friend. What there could possibly be to excite him in a forest full of fungus, Skarry couldn’t imagine, but he was beginning to learn that Mercurio’s interests were of the nature esoteric and he was taking no chances. The last thing they needed now was more trouble.
The smooth limestone floor was now carpeted with moss, which heaped up in places like little hillocks, also glowing in the light from the technicoloured mycological canopy above, but a path was well worn through the thick trunks of the toadstools and along this they trooped single file, the going fairly easy now after their difficult passage through the tunnel.
At last, they came to a clearing where a group of Skywaymen and women were seated on wooden benches and rocking chairs around a crackling fire. Anders waved a hand in greeting “Hello! We’re here at last!”
“Ha! Jack! You made it then?” Gabriel rose from his seat by the fire and came to greet them, although his gait was cautious and he stopped a few paces short of the captain, allowing Jack to make up the distance. Jack smiled and shook his hand without a trace of warmth. “You know we were beginning to think…”
“Alas, a futile pastime for some.”
“Quite. Well, here you are, anyway.”
“Yes. Quite. Well, I suppose you’ve come to…”
“Declare an affair.”
“Yes. Of course. We expected it, you know…”
“Obviously. Shall we do this thing properly?”
“By all means.”
“Aw quit skirtin’ around!” Scarlet snapped, irritably. “Tross…no, Bones! Get the set out.”
“Aye, Miss Skarry.”
“Scarlet, dear!” Gabriel spread his arms apologetically. “What can I say?”
“Y’can keep yer bloody trap shut if y’know what’s good f’yer! I’ll not be half done with you in a lifetime y’theivin’, double crossin’ little toe rag!”
Gabriel laughed, nervously, and looked at Jack who simply shrugged and continued to smile. “Hull hath no fury, my friend,” he said quietly, “I wouldn’t buy your boots from the carter, I can tell you that.”
“Hmm.” The Skywayman scratched his neck uncomfortably.
“But what is it to be?”
“Well, you’re the challenger, old boy, I guessed you’d be thinking trial-by-tea.”
“You know me too well, Gabriel, far too well for the good of either of us, I imagine.”
“You have an excellent second then, I take it?”
“Oh I won’t be needing a second, old boy!”
“Not until the third cup, at least, I’m sure. But best to be on the safe side, I’m sure you’ve someone in mind.”
“I do, as it happens.”
“Possibly, I hardly know. A new face who stumbled into our ranks from the tea trampers a week ago. A Very Quiet Gentleman, by all accounts.”
“Come again?” Jack’s smile vanished.
“A Very Quiet Gentleman, that’s all I know. Volunteered, actually, when I said you were coming. Funny eh?”
Jack’s eyes narrowed for a second, but then he shook his head and smiled again. “Curious,” he said “Just a little curious.”
“My second?” the captain laughed loudly and clapped the Skywayman hard on the back “you never cease to amuse me, my friend! Perhaps that is why you are still strutting around on two legs?”
The Skywayman grimaced and steadied himself.
Jack wiped a tear from his cheek “All the same, I suppose we’d better play by the book.” He cast a critical gaze around the clearing “Ha! Splendid!” strode over to Mercurio and clasped the wizard by the shoulders. “You’ll do, my friend. Here you are Gabriel, my second.”
“Your what? Your what? Now look here, I have had just about enough of this nonsense, if you think…”
“Relax, my friend,” Jack said, quietly, putting his face far too close to Mercurio’s for comfort, “I have never needed a second in my life, and Master Hounds there is a notorious featherweight. We are all about the show, understand? The protocol.”
Mercurio gritted his teeth into a near snarl but, with his hands still bound behind his back, there was very little else he could do. Jack patted him on the back. “There now, that’s sorted then. Ah! Excellent, we’re all set up!”
“Who is officiating?”
“Anders, on our side.”
“And Rowland on ours. Gents?”
The two men stepped forward and grinned at each other. Skarry though they resembled nothing so much as insolent school boys conspiring in some outrageous prank. Certainly he would not have trusted them to ‘officiate’ any system requiring adherence to rules.
“Not Scarlet then?” Gabriel looked slightly confused.
“The only thing I’ll be seein’ over is yer day trip to Abney Park!” Scarlet growled.
Jack chuckled “there you have it, my friend.”
“Hm. Yes, bad lark all that.”
“Toasts then,” he turned to Rowland and Anders “We, the Chronic Agronauts, representatives of the Pirate King, William Blythe, claim justice for the brazen theft of property from us by the gentleman Gabriel Hounds, High Lord of the Skywaymen. Before this justice can be obtained, we recognise his right to be proven innocent or guilty by a trial-by-tea. The toasts for the trial will be as follows:
“Here’s to the health of Queen Victoria, may all her tea parties be perpetual
Here’s to the health of The Good Folk, may their revenue charts never tally
Here’s to the health of The Pirate King, may he rule the scattered isles forever
Here’s to the health of the Skywaymen, may their pega’tons never stumble
Here’s to the health of the Cake Smugglers, may they tramp forever
Here’s to the health of the Tea fiends, may their ways never mend and their habits never alter
Here’s to the health of The Relentless Rogues, present, absent and departed, may we all meet in Eldorado, blessed and eternal city of gold.”
Rowland nodded and Skarry noticed that both he and Anders had now folded their hands in front of them and their faces now bore sober and serious expressions.
“All in order,” Anders replied.
“The steepings,” Rowland said, gesturing to a row of teapots arranged on the trellis table behind him, “will be as follows:
One ounce, steeping twenty minutes
One point five ounces, steeping forty minutes
Two ounces, steeping sixty minutes
Two point five ounces, steeping eighty minutes
Ounces and steepings will continue to increase according to this ratio for as long as we have two challengers standing. If a first challenger falls, he may be replaced by his second.” He looked at Anders, who nodded.
“Although I’m sure we’re all familiar with the rules, Gents, for the sake of protocol… Jack, as the challenger, will go first. Each gentleman will grasp his teacup in the correct fashion, pinky up, and hoist it, stating the toasts in the correct order without fault. He will then consume what he can in one draft, no gulping please, and invert the cup upon the regulation cotton napkin provided. The officiators will then inspect the napkin to determine whether any liquid deposited there constitutes legitimate ‘dregs,’ or ‘spoils’ – indicating an inability to sufficiently drain the cup. Turn will then pass to the second competitor, who will draw from the same pot, and repeat the toasts, in the manner aforementioned. Turns will repeat until the pot is drained and then a new pot, with a stronger brew, will be drawn from. Play will continue until only one competitor is left standing. Gentlemen, you have heard the rules, do we have an accord?”
Anders and Rowland moved to stand behind the trellis table, which was covered in an ornate white lace table cloth. Militantly arranged along its length, a row of identical teapots stood sentinel, sighing steam, and two white, rose-patterned tea cups, each with gold gilt edge and matching fluted saucer, rested innocuously on two identical lace-edged cotton napkins.
“Then I declare this affair in order, let play commence.”