COMING TOGETHER

There I was, writing away on the next book, concentrating hard to get the words on the page while I had the radio playing in the background, and an ad came on for the stations annual five hundred word short story competition for youngsters. I was working on a short story myself so it was good to hear the drive to get others going in the field.

What Radio 2 did in the promo was to expand what you could get out of it.

Rather than simply being a relative call to arms, that particular promo also gave a small tip. It was done because they had webchats and other resources available on the website so was just an example of what else the kids taking part could use to deliver the best possible story they could.

But that little nugget was awesome.

As a way of getting going, think about putting two things together that wouldn’t normally go together. If you’re struggling to find a way of starting out, look at the way that you can subvert the normal.

It was so basic yet summed up everything that I’ve been trying to do in so much of my writings. It had boiled down my writing process to a single sentence.

In my first novel, The Circle of Fire, the central idea was doing just that. The big scary monster was the good guy. The main character was created to be a representation of a stereotype of the gym going man so I could turn it on it’s head as the series went on. My short stories include ideas around what we all think, and how we interpret words and I’ve tried to look at things in a very different way.

Don’t we like the idea of turning things on their heads?

Don’t we like the idea of what we’re all used to seeing being shown to be wrong?

Rooting for the little team versus the huge club. The David versus Goliath.

Excitement comes from looking outside the norm and by slamming things together that shouldn’t be together under normal circumstances. It can allow all manner of topics to be explored. The film Enemy Mine has the story based around a human and an alien being stranded on a planet. They’re sworn enemies and have been fighting in space prior to their crashing. Everything grows from there. The Odd Couple indeed.

Then think of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet again, we see the strange bed fellows. The court room, the home of justice and all things honest is shown to be a terrifying place if you come from the wrong population. Truth, that which we all know that we have to maintain, becomes an irrelevance before the glare of twisted ideology.

All kinds of stories are out there to prompt thought and to entertain, and very often, by bringing things together that shouldn’t normally interact, you can uncover some interesting stuff.

Now I’m off to write a story about an HR performance review of someone on the Death Star.

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ROLLING

You know it’s important to plan. You know it’s important to manage your time. You know, that even though you don’t feel like it sometimes, you have to keep plonking along steadily towards the goal.

Doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you have to be smashing up against the clock to get the best results.

Over the last few weeks I’ve really put the hammer down on the next collection of short stories and you know what? The more I write the more it’s been flowing.

No you can see regularly as a writing tip, the more you do it, the easier it’ll get, but the reality is just that. The concerted effort is having the desired results.

Now being creative is a tough journey.

It’s not as if you can just turn your creativity on or off with the barest hint of effort. Sculpting a story isn’t something that just happens you know. Concentration and focus and inspiration all have to work together which takes time, and that’s when things are going well. Add in Writer’s Block and things get really tough.

Happily though, I’ve been able to get onto a real roll and the more that I’ve written, the more the ideas have been flowing. I’ve been able to really pour energy and urgency into the words and things have been going pretty well.

All in all, the purpose of this post was more to wave the flag of positivity.

It’s all too easy to get trapped into the spiral of negativity when we work on any and all projects. Trying to push onwards, even when it seems that everything you try is just fizzling out to nothing. We all have to deal with the nastiness of failure, if we try anything there’s always going to be the risk that it’s not going to unfold as planned. But that shouldn’t mean that we don’t give the project our everything just in case.

You know what all?

If you’ve got a project or hobby on the go, the more you do, the more you do. Practice may not always make perfect but make the most of those good days when they come along.

Now I’m off back to the fighting on the crippled starship I’ve been working on.

Good times.

PATTERNS

This is post number 201 so in an attempt to come up with something exciting, I decided to look at the importance of the number itself. I did the same thing with posts 100 and 101 (the century as an important point and Room 101 and Dalmatians) so why not look at the same again?

You know what I unearthed?

It’s the area code for the state of New Jersey. Apparently it means my Guardian Angel is communicating with me that I need to stay on my path and results will come. It’s a Blum Integer, apparently. 201 Penelope is the name of an asteroid. And 201 written in binary is used as the name of a Star Trek The Next Generation episode.

All in all, 201 has been used in all manner of ways.

But my search for meanings to that number is the point of the post.

We all seem to be pre-programmed to look for meaning in what would appear to be totally random.

The Da Vinci Code details a chase after information which is hidden in ancient code and many films have used code, order in chaos, to act as a jumping off point for the narrative.

So why do we all seem so keen to be hunting for any and all possible hiding connections which may or may not even be there?

All of us throughout history have been hunting for some kind of meaning we can overlay onto our lives. Humans have a deeply rooted desire to know more, be it about weather, the origins of the universe or why we’re all here. That curiosity has driven all of the great discoveries of humanity so it must be a good thing, right?

Yes and no.

Yes we need to always be striving to learn more and expand that knowledge we hold, but expecting there to always be a new layer of coded information just waiting to be deciphered is what can ultimately lead to the tin foil hat.

Patterns are indeed everywhere.

It’s great to do a word search and hunt through the field of play. Crosswords and Sudoku too. We collect up the puzzles and burrow through them with an almost rabid glee, hunting down all of the answers. Our TV shows, books and films regularly have all shapes and sizes of detectives and investigators chasing after anything and everything they can. We want to see the patterns get followed to the end point, we want to see if we can work the patterns out either at the same time or faster than the protagonist.

I watch the quiz Only Connect and this is a great example of how we’re always looking for connections and patterns. Rather than just question and answer, the contestants have to recognise the connection between a group of clues as each is revealed in turn.

The show takes the understanding that we like patterns, the search for connections, and presents that to us, happy that we’ll be coming up with all manner of other possibilities than just the one the question setters selected.

Patterns and connections exist in nature and in all of the things we see and do. There shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise that we want to have our stories filled with them as well.

Keep on searching, I’ll get the tin foil hats.

SOCIETY

I spent yesterday working on a new short story for the next collection and it’s a precursor to a book I will write at some point in the future. I was looking at machine / human interaction and interface as a place to start but it made me consider how everything we all do and how all of our hopes and desires feed in to how societies as a whole function.

I’m sure we’ve all read a story where the world that the characters find themselves is in someway broken, with there being a vast and unequal difference between the few and the masses. The different examples of these stories all put us in the shoes of the ‘have-nots’ as they fight against injustice and correct the problems but I’ve been looking at all of the little steps that had to have taken place along the way to bring the horror the story starts with.

Humans are a social species. We arrange ourselves into groups rather than exist on our own.

Evolutionarily, this meant that we could pool our resources and take advantage of the safety those numbers provided and over time, hierarchies were formed. Now I’ve read that due to our brain physiology, we are predetermined to organise in this way but the ability to build an ever growing population in a ‘mostly’ harmonious society isn’t something which should be written off so simply.

So how do societies break?

At no point would anyone vote for a party in an election which intended to jump to the very final stage of the collapse of society. Societal fall has to come in stages. Each tiny shuffling step hiding a wider truth. Heavily armed troops roaming the streets executing people out after curfew would never just appear, rather it would be the result of constant little erosions, probably designed at each point on the way, to be as part of a plan to keep people safe.

But rules and order are vital so allowing a population to have free reign to do whatever they desire isn’t the answer. Very quickly there would be swathes of gangs taking things from others by force, leaving the weak at the mercy of the strong, just in a different way.

Our societies are linked together by ordered rules to allow for no-one to take steps they shouldn’t and with an equal account of freedom to give all of us the chance to do things we want to.

The brutally authoritarian or chaotically anarchic both mean that things have broken down but the result is equally as bleak for the majority. We all recognise that to create a society in the grasp of a power crazed lunatic in a book means that readers will see the potential horrors of regimes gone wild so side with the characters who are on the outside looking in, think The Hunger Games. But all along the way, the tiny steps that went into making a Panem or an Airstrip One had to have been agreed to. There may not have been a great choice, but there was always going to be a choice.

Society is a wonderful thing. It binds us all together and allows us all to exist in a more controlled fashion than if we had to do everything ourselves. I for one, have no clue about hunting for food. We all fulfil a set part and the society trundles on.

The steps that would have to be made to take us towards a dystopia akin to 1984 will never seem like the steps they are but as each one follows on from the one before, the chance to undo the changes shrinks.

I like society. Human societies are wonderful things and they should be protected at all cost so we need to be acutely aware of the details of all of the choices we make along the way.

Panem didn’t happen overnight and at one point, it was what was wanted.

 

P.S. This is blog post number 200.

Who would have thought I could keep it up for so long?

PROPHECY – ISH

In so many stories, the way that the action is kicked into action is in response to a dusty and long since overlooked prophecy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars, Bright and lots of other TV shows have an element of the tale taking place which had been foretold way back when and no matter what activities unfold, it all fits into the planning which had been laid down all those years ago.

So why do we seem to lean on the prophecy idea as being such a solid point to start from?

Someone who most people will recognise is Nostradamus. So very much about the details of his life aren’t important to this point but his writings are regularly cited as being portentous of future events. Born in 1503, he wrote about activities which he felt were going to come to pass as the years marched on and there have been a great many occasions where it’s been claimed that a particular world event was indeed one of the predictions.

Now scholars have widely disregarded the writings of Nostradamus as being terrifyingly accurate but what they do show is the almost palpable desire for people to believe that somehow we could see into the future and predict what’s going to take place.

So why do we enjoy the idea of actions now having been foretold?

In religions across the world, there are holy texts which explain what will be happening at the end times and having that knowledge can be a comfort. If you know what’s coming, there’s no way that you’re going to be surprised when it arrives. Prophecy can show that a particular group has the truth of what’s coming so when something happens that can have the prophecy overlaid on it, everyone jumps to match them up.

In stories, the prophecies are surprisingly accurate in terms of the details which draw characters together but when prophecies in the real world are tested, they’re all oddly vague, with sweeping comments which could apply to any number of things. Claims of wars being foretold years ago aren’t really that reliable. War happens all of the time and has happened all of the time. There are never specific details which could pin down the prophecy to a specific conflict.

So again, why do we like the prophecy?

As a story telling tool, a prophecy shows that every character is merely a piece being moved into the correct position under the guidance of a greater hand and that all of the choices that are being made are inexorably going to lead to a predetermined end point. The people involved were always the special one, they were just taking the steps they were always going to before their importance was revealed.

Is it as simple as we all want to believe that deep down, we’re the special one in our own story, heading to the valiant conclusion?

I think I am. We’ll just have to see what the future holds.

VIOLENCE

Violent acts are all around us one way or another every single day. If you’ve indulged in a bit of road rage on your way to work or barged past someone who was walking too slowly, holding everyone up, that’s violence. Dragging someone into the street and giving them a damn good thrashing with a baseball bat is also violence. Threatening someone is also violence.

All in all, it’s everywhere.

I’m writing book three of The Circle series at the moment and like the others, there will be conflict between different people and creatures which means I’m going to have to include some violence. So why is it that violence, which can cause so very many negatives, is so popular in our fiction?

We see every day on the news, a seemingly unending supply of examples of brutality from all over the globe. Acts of terrorism, murders, wars, and any other act of violence that you could possibly care to dream up yet we all love stories which include just those very acts. Now it would be too easy just to say that as a people, we’re all becoming desensitized to violence because we see it so often that when it pops up in a book or on TV we just see it as being part and parcel of life, but for e that seems too simple.

Computer games and films are regularly blamed when a violent act is perpetrated as being what pushed a person over the edge. The music of Marilyn Manson has been pointed at as a driving force behind violent behaviour from someone who listened to it.

I can’t recall a time where a book was held up as an example of driving someone to violence.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned way back when amid a moral panic regarding it’s contents and we’re all no doubt familiar with the phenomenon that is 50 Shades. Books of an erotic nature like these immediately make people angry but all manner of depictions of violence are held in the pages of a library so anyone can dive in and swim around.

After the 50 Shades book was released, there was an increase in the number of injuries of a sexual nature which were reported to hospitals as people gave the practices in the pages a go without doing all of the research they needed to. Yet there seems to be no qualms about descriptions of violence in other books. Granted, we’re unlikely to see a Val McDermid book be released and than have thousands of people set off on macabre killing sprees but why is it that there’s never the clamour for the books with violence in them to be sanctioned?

Now I recognise that 50 Shades books are held up as examples of normalising violence against women and the dynamics of the relationship in the novels is far from healthy, but people found it a way to explore their own sexuality and decided to give some things a go, potentially unwisely, which resulted in the injuries.

We see books where serial killers conduct almost unspeakably brutal actions as the hero chases after them. I’ve read books which included people being tied up in the mouth of an underground tunnel like a spider at the centre of a web and left to be killed by the arrival of the train. Val McDermid and a description of a torture device involving a naked man, a chair with no seat and a razor and hook covered and electrified cone is not something that I would ever wish to see come to pass in the real world and the entire works of Clive Barker seem to speak for themselves yet that violence doesn’t appear everywhere after the release.

Violence is a great tool in story telling. Violence can provide a level of connection that the reader may not have without it. We recognise what it would feel like to experience the violence so can empathise. We can also see just how far a character may have been pushed if they are willing to commit an act of violence. We know that we would never do something like that but also, exactly just how bad things must be if they’d reached that point of striking out.

But violence is not a thing of it’s own. Violence doesn’t exist separate from anything else just randomly doing it’s thing for no reason. Violence is the tool of a stimulus. Control of people can be maintained by acts or threats of violence. Emotion bring violence to the fore. Anger spilling out, envy and also sadness. People are driven to violence because of their situations and we’ve got to remember that it isn’t always something which should be squashed. Violently breaking free of oppression, self defence. These things mean that we need to recognise that violence isn’t the end point.

The works of Shakespeare and so very many religious books all have examples of the kind of brutality that would make your toes curl yet we encourage our young people to explore these books when they’re young as positives.

I’ll continue to use violence in what I write when the story requires I do. Just throwing it in there because you’re feeling bored won’t add to the story and could just look sensationalist. When my characters are violent, they have to be because of the story I’m putting together. I won’t have them being sadistic just because. There’s always a cause to violence and very often, the journey that matters is finding out what that cause is.

CROSSING THE LINE

It’s Christmas day so rather than create a usual blog post for everyone, I’ve decided to give everyone a gift of my own.

Here’s the latest short story from my collection and it sits after the events of The Circle of Duty and before the events I’m currently working on in book three of the Circle series, The Circle of Stars.

Enjoy.

 

Have you ever moved house?

I have.

When you find yourself in the new environment you can’t help but look back fondly at the old location and think of all of the good times that happened there. Every time you hear your old home town mentioned on the news you can’t help but pay just a little more attention to what was taking place.

Now I’d moved from the metropolis of London, to the slightly more ‘out of the way’ South Wales so there tended to be mentions of London on the news quite often but recent life within The Circle had added in the extra layer of interest which comes with instances of the supernatural.

I’d just jumped all of my estate’s forces back home to Wales from somewhere in Africa and I was done in. There’d been so much fighting recently that all of the different locations around the world we’d been to were kind of bleeding together which, considering that included jungle, desert, city and ice field you can see that I truly was done in.

Climbing the steps at the front of the mansion I felt as if the weight of the world was sat squarely on my shoulders. Every inch of my body ached from a co-ordinated attack on a newly established stronghold of some kind of creature that despite lots of help, I still couldn’t pronounce, but that wasn’t the worst part about it.

As the troops all marched quickly back into the house either to the infirmary or their rooms, that now all too familiar gnawing sensation was buried deep in my stomach. We’d just wiped out a vast colony of whatever they were called, all under the banner of saving the world, but at no point had there been any kind of aggressive action from our would be enemies. Instead, we’d been the ones taking on the role of the aggressor. All in the name of the protection of the human race, we’d jumped ourselves, two Guardians and their forces, into what was barely a shanty town in the middle of nowhere and ripped the place apart.

As you’d expect there had been a response from our enemies that tried to match ours but despite what could only really be called a bloody nose in terms of injuries to our party, we’d overwhelmed them quickly and with the utmost brutality.

Add to that the fact that my former teacher and, I thought possible partner, Andrea, was avoiding me completely – even to the point of refusing to be a part of any missions which I was, that feeling of being done in had nothing to do with exertion but with the ever growing weight of guilt that I was dragging around with me.

Finally arriving at the top of the stairs, I found Mark, my massive general, waiting for me.

“Welcome home, my Lord. A successful campaign?” His voice was its usual basso rumble but I could feel the question more as a comment on the performance of his troops in his absence.

I humpfed and continued walking. I had too much on my mind.

“Sir?” enquired Mark as I passed by, no doubt worrying that he’d somehow displeased his lord and master. Sighing at the futility of our positions, I beckoned him to follow me towards my rooms at the top of the house.

Taking my armour off with as much grace and poise as I could manage, not wanting to too greatly destroy the image Mark had of the lord of the manor, I tried to explain to my colleague exactly what I was feeling.

“Mark, what do you do for relaxation? What are your hobbies?” I’d been a part of so much since joining the fray but I was feeling more and more each day, the weight that came with my role, and with it a detachment from those people around me. Everything was built on the single premise of the protection of the human race from the creatures that would tear it down.

Mark didn’t answer and his expression creased in thought. Finally he replied.

“I enjoy my role within The Circle, sir.”

He spoke without any fear of the words being somehow wrong. He spoke with just the slightest hint of question, as if it would be self evident that he say what he did. Obviously he enjoyed what he was doing. What more was there to say?

Still unhooking the multitude of plates which comprised my armour, I could immediately feel frustration. I was finding it more and more each day as every step we all took seemed to always have that ever so slight shadow of moral ambiguity to it and I swear that it was only me who could even recognise that the shadow was there. I asked again.

“Beyond your roles in the fighting or the cooking. When you’re not doing those things, what do you do to relax? To unwind after a long day of protection?”

Mark’s expression remained the same.

“I train, sir. Magically, physically. And culinarily.” He tried a smile but it just didn’t look comfortable.

“But what beyond that?” My frustration at my friend was rising again.

“There’s nothing beyond that though, sir?” Now he frowned. “Isn’t the protection of the whole human race enough for one life?”

I just stopped fishing and resigned myself to further circular arguments. I really was in The Circle after all. It’d been the same from everyone since I’d taken my first faltering steps into the service within The Circle but I’d hoped that by now there would have been at least some movement. Instead, one of the men I was able to call my friend was either totally immersed in what he was doing in his job so he had nothing beyond it, or I just still knew nothing about him because I was his master and he my servant.

I clenched my fists at the futility of it all, the social programming all the way through to the questions of ethics, and tried to force my mind away from the anger in my head.

Mark took the final pieces of my battle dress and turned to head out of the room to return them to storage when I stopped him.

“Wait.”

He stopped immediately and span to face me again, his face a calm mask of neutrality.

“That’s not acceptable.”

Now he looked worried. Time to use the system to my advantage.

“We are the guards of the whole human race and that includes all of us as well. I expect that everyone will be using the life that we protect for more than just their jobs. Do you understand?”

Silence thickened the air as Mark did his best to find the appropriate way to respond.

I moved forward and clasped his arm by way of reassurance.

“We’re all doing what we do to keep the world safe but that should never mean that we’re totally apart from it. We never forfeited the right to enjoy the fruits of our labour.”

Mark tried harder still to find the correct response. Still nothing.

“Look Mark. The world’s a massive place which holds the most beautiful wonders and, as we know, the worst horrors, imaginable. We see the latter all of the time, so why not take a second to at least acknowledge the former?”

“I see.” He was trying his best.

“Look, all I want is to have a handful of minutes out of the world that is The Circle and to relax into the normality of what everyone else gets to see on a daily basis. And I want a friend to go with me.”

“I see,” he repeated but it didn’t sound that he did. I’ll give him credit though, he was saying something which didn’t prove his position in any direction. Very non-committal. Just how uncomfortable was I making him?

“You and I are going for a pint,” I declared with enthusiasm.

Mark’s face didn’t register any opinion of the statement, his eyes simply blinking once as he again struggled with the same internal question.

“I see,” he stated after another pause, though with a tone of uncertainty and fear.

Still a work in progress.

“Go and get changed and I’ll meet you on the steps at the front of the house in twenty minutes.”

He bowed deeply and was out of the room before I could say anything else. Heading towards the shower I was beginning to mull over the potential details of what a quiet pint with Mark could really be.

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

I made my way down the stairs a mere fifteen minutes later, dressed in what I hoped was the effortless casual style which just screamed that I was just like everyone else. Mark was already at the door waiting for me and his dress sense was a little different. He was wearing a very official looking charcoal grey suit.

“Is this you trying to relax?” He just maintained that flat expression and nodded slightly.

“Not quite what I was expecting for two fellas just going for a drink but I suppose you could have come straight from the office.” I was suddenly feeling under dressed and this whole thing had been my idea.

“Do me a favour big guy. Take your tie off at least, this is supposed to be relaxing, not anything official.”

“I see,” he answered and casually removed the tie with a deft flick of his wrist.

We climbed into one of the cars outside the house, a sporty Mercedes of some shape, and I put my foot down, heading us along the winding drive way and the world beyond. I’d eschewed the use of a Cascade Bridge in favour of the more ‘usual’ mode of transport to show Mark that the time we were about to have to ourselves was going to be more normal than magical but that said I was already fully planning on leaving the car outside wherever we ended up and bridge jumping us home after a few snifters.

After a few miles of winding roads, the straighter ones followed and I could feel the burble of excitement rising in me at the thought of what was coming. Not that I’m some kind of raging alcoholic you understand, rather I recognise the power for healing that talking over a drink with a friend can bring.

Finally, we arrived.

I’d aimed for the centre of Neath as a decent place to start. Not too small that we’d stick out as not being locals but also not too busy that you get swept into the masses. All in all it looked like a pretty decent place to unwind.

Making my way around the small streets, I was doing my best to locate somewhere to park but as with almost every town or city these days, residents only parking seemed to be all that was on offer. After the third circuit, I was getting a little cheesed off.

“Well this is a great start,” I moaned absent-mindedly, turning the car round and starting into circuit number four.

“You don’t have to look for a specific place to park you know. Leave the car wherever is easiest for us and I can have a member of the staff arrange for whatever steps may need to be taken.” Mark replied. He hadn’t even been directing the comment at me as such, rather he just spoke into the car, as if giving the correct answer to a posed query.

“Whatever steps may need to be taken? What does that mean?” A bit too sinister for parking surely?

“That should the car be ticketed, be towed away or should we be in need of someone else to drive the car back, we have the facilities to resolve any and all eventualities.”

Interesting indeed.

Time to put this to the test.

Armed with the knowledge that I was free of responsibility for any parking indiscretions, I started out small.

Pulling the car into a side street, I slid into one of the many ‘residents only’ spaces and turned off the engine. Close enough to the pub that we wouldn’t have to walk far but also not parking like an utter knob and daring someone to complain.

By the time we entered the pub, the evening crowd was already starting to build. I hadn’t been expecting much in the way of crowds, it being a Tuesday, but by the looks of things, there was some sporting event taking place on the TV which had a pretty sizeable group watching. I had a quick check but it wasn’t rugby.

To the bar.

The woman behind the bar greeted us with a smile and did the very slightest double take when she looked at Mark. There was no denying that a seven foot tall, heavily muscled man would be out of the ordinary almost anywhere, but she didn’t dwell on any kind of fear.

“Evening boys. What can I get you?” She spoke with a casual confidence that had no doubt come from years working in this trade. She looked to be in her late thirties and had the baring of someone who’d had to deal with more than a few drunks in her time. Standing a shade over five feet and built strongly, she looked as if she’d been born to be a pub landlady. Her name badge declared her as the Assistant Manager and that she was called Steph.

“I’ll have a pint of lager,” I replied before turning to Mark, “and my friend will have ……..”

He missed his cue.

“Mark. What do you want to drink?” I poked his arm but still there was nothing. He just stood there, his eyes scanning madly over every label on every bottle, his brow furrowing more and more by the second. I cursed myself for a very basic oversight. He didn’t know what he wanted to drink. He’d never done this before so he had absolutely zero understanding of what he should say next. Nice one Anthony.

“And my friend will have the same,” I finished for him.

His shoulders sagged at the release of the tension of choosing a drink and he did his best to fix an apologetic smile for Steph as she set about pouring. By the way she was moving she’d already forgotten about his indecision, happy to get the order and to move on to the next.

Handing over the cash, I picked the drinks up and handed one to Mark.

“There you go. Get your laughing gear around that.” I was quickly reverting to the persona I’d had way back when all of this magic and Dragons was just a fairy tale. You take on different behaviours dependant on where you are and here I was, just having a pint with a mate.

Mark clutched the glass in one gargantuan hand, his index finger and thumb able to meet, making the glass look like nothing more than a child’s toy.

“This is lager?” he asked as he considered what I’d given him.

“It is. Now have a drink, that’s the best part you know,” I replied and took another swig of my own.

He considered it, paused, then took a testing sniff, before delicately raising it to his lips and imbibing the most dainty of sips.

I almost spat my own mouthful all over him. All it needed was for him to raise his pinky finger to really sell the point.

I struggled to gulp down the drink to at least allow me the chance to laugh at him a bit but was beaten to it.

“It’s a pint of Troll Nectar,” he declared and without a second thought, dumped the whole pint down his throat as if he’d been a highly trained professional speed drinker. Less than two seconds, and the glass was empty.

“Another?” he asked brightly and started looking to attract Steph’s attention.

“What? Where the Hell did you learn to do that? Two minutes ago you were stuck choosing what to order and now you throwing them back like it’s been second nature all along? Explain please?”

He looked terrified.

Again, he’d just done something that the Master of the estate wasn’t expecting and knew nothing about so now he was panicking that he’d somehow insulted me.

“I meant no offence my Lord, merely that I have tasted this drink before, though never have I heard it described as ‘lager’ before.” He raised his glass, as if to emphasise the point. “This is Troll Nectar and is something I’ve enjoyed a great many times when collecting some of our more unique supplies for the kitchens.”

And suddenly, there was more information. Whatever he’d been doing over the years, he’d gone for a drink before. Though the location of that drinking sounded to be a little off the beaten track.

“What unique supplies do you collect?” I prodded. This seemed more than a little odd.

Mark still looked concerned but at least he’d shed the utter terror.

“Food and drink, mostly,” he replied with the tone of a man who was walking on very thin ice. “I’ve been buying and selling goods like Mr. Christian did before me.”

Sounded harmless enough.

“What kind of things do you buy? Just stuff you can’t get in the usual supermarkets? Local meat etc?”

He considered the possible wording for the answer.

“Of a kind, my Lord,” he was still dancing around the point despite the fact all I wanted to know was a bit more about the life of my friend.

“We bring in and maintain a store of very specific supplies in readiness for the arrival of members of other parties or groups. We exhausted our rather extensive supply of four week aged, rotted tree bark, beetles still alive, following the fighting in Bress Tal. The Tayne don’t feast in the same way we do.”

His words were factual, almost boring in their delivery but the mention of Bress Tal felt more akin to a scorching axe to the chest. My poker face must have been getting better as Mark didn’t pick up on my pain.

Bress Tal had been a victory in the wider context of what had taken place but watching Em, The Messenger, sacrifice herself whilst almost dooming another, will always be something that will haunt me. The big picture must be considered but I was finding that the detail of that picture was tough to stomach.

Keep on the surface, don’t dwell on the pain. Going for a pint was a good thing.

“And you have a drink when you go there? Are you encouraged or expected to join in?”

“Most certainly. It is the expected behaviour when undertaking the task so I have always been at pains to behave in a certain way.”

Interesting. So far, all I’d heard about The Circle was that we had a mighty role to play in the protection of the human race, but that we were the biggest and baddest that were out there. I’d never really stopped to consider the fact that the mansion and all of the people in it would have to be managed and maintained just like anywhere else, and that old saying of ‘an army marches on its stomach’ clearly came from somewhere. I’d just assumed that magic was the answer to all of the feeding and watering needs. Clearly not.

“And you stick to the behaviour etiquette? Why hasn’t The Circle just taken what we need when we need it?”

Mark tilted his head at the thought, very much akin to an inquisitive dog. It reminded me of Em again.

“The supply chains for all that we need are not always easy to maintain and it has proved to be easier to show deference than to fight. The Circle don’t like to waste power on simple food.”

Made sense. Why waste energy and resources on a fight that would just make life tougher even if you won? There was logic to the thinking but that seemed to be at odds with everything that had been happening in terms of the ‘public’ appearance of The Circle. So far they’d been more we’re the power so we do what we want.

“So this place is a market?” Back on track.

He considered his words again but now it was without the previous fear.

“It’s a place where you can acquire, exchange and explore all manner of things, of tastes. It’s less a market, more a meeting place where anything and everything can take place.”

“And there’s a bar?”

“There is indeed, and it has a much wider selection of beverages to explore than are on display here.” Mark had clearly seen some amazing things at this place, wherever it was.

“Then you’re taking me along the next time you go on one of your shopping runs. I suspect that this is a place I could do with knowing more about.” I winked at him and took another drink. This mystery location was very interesting indeed.

His expression dropped and his eyes widened to saucers.

“You couldn’t possibly attend my Lord. I could never take someone such as you to a place like, that.” The emphasis he placed on the final word showed clearly what he really thought of the trading place. Despite all that we’d seen together, he was still falling back into the tried and tested routine of making sure that the master of the estate would never be sullied by attending somewhere so very menial and therefore, beneath them.

I wasn’t having that.

“Come on,” I protested and did everything I could not to come off sounding like a petulant child. “This is exactly the sort of thing that I need to understand if I’m going to do what I do properly. Besides, having a place to go to unwind is an often overlooked necessity.” The ball was now back in his court.

“Attending this place is not something which the wider community of The Circle would be pleased to discover at the best of times but taking the Guardian there would be completely beyond acceptable. Please my Lord, I cannot take you.”

That was more interesting. Not only didn’t he want to take me to such a low place, but he also didn’t want to let anyone else in The Circle know that he’d been going there at all. Very interesting indeed.

“So let me see if I understand what you’re saying.” Let’s see what we can see. “You go to a place you potentially shouldn’t be going to, in search of all kinds of foods etc. and you’re afraid of taking the Guardian of the estate with you because the place you go to is too, seedy?”

Mark didn’t look well. I’d put him on the spot with the question and he was now feeling the full weight of all of the perceived expectation of my position bearing down on him. I did feel guilty about doing this but if I could show him that I wasn’t going to rip his head off because he’d been doing something a little questionable, maybe he’d be more comfortable in the long run.

He responded as best he could.

“I meant to say that I wish to protect you from exposure to that place. As my master, you shouldn’t have to be involved in such menial tasks or their locations.”

I’ll say this for my giant general, he was certainly getting better at standing his ground in the name of The Circle but I was still going to that location.

“Thank you for looking out for me but believe me, I’m more than capable of looking after myself, and besides, I can just order you to take me you know.” I cocked an eyebrow to try and show I was joking with the order comment. It seemed to work as Mark’s posture relaxed slightly and his expression softened.

“Very well my Lord,” he replied and bowed his head ever so slightly. I think Steph caught it but no-one else.

“Excellent stuff. The next time you go on a shopping trip, I’ll be there with you.” It felt positive to have the idea that there was somewhere new to go and more detail to paint into the picture of this world.

“We could go sooner than that should you wish my Lord?”

“Really? When do you suggest?” Hoping I knew what he was about to say.

He frowned at the question, yet another example of me not knowing something I should have done?

“We can go now. You have had less than a single pint so you should be safe to drive.”

“Drive? Where is this place?” I didn’t fancy having to drive hundreds of miles but I also would have thought that I would have heard of any magical meeting place which was close by.

“It’s just down the road from here, maybe ten minutes drive.”

My drink was on the bar, still half full and I was heading for the door even before Mark had finished his sentence. We were that close to something that was that chock full of all things magical. There was a place where, as Mark had described it, the world I was used to met the magical lands of The Circle. It was a place where I could be both, Anthony Johns, Personal Trainer and Anthony Johns, Guardian of The Circle. That sounded exactly like the kind of place I needed right about now.

“So where’re we going?” I called over my shoulder as Mark fought to catch up.

“I’ll direct you in but head towards Cwmgwarch. We’re going to the Valley of the Witch.”

 

Now I’ll admit that I was a little excited.

Who wouldn’t be?

I was being directed to a place that seemed to hold all of the possibilities of a middle ground for the two worlds I inhabited and therefore had the potential to salve a spiritual wound I’d been picking at ever since I’d been introduced to all of this. I’d be able to have a relaxing drink surrounded by people and creatures who knew all about the magical landscape that surrounded us all and not have to worry about accidently revealing everything that I was. I could be the Guardian and still just kick back in a drinking establishment as a way of letting off steam. I’m pretty sure my uncle David would have been over the moon if he’d known I was going to do this.

Which made me think.

“Mark,” I asked as I pushed the car hard along the main road towards our destination. “Did my uncle ever come here?”

“I am unaware of the wider movements of the former Guardian I’m afraid my Lord. When he was in role, I was a mere functionary so was very far from ever knowing anything more than the widest details of campaigns and the like.” Mark’s response was measured as he relayed the facts but there was still that hint of apology that he wasn’t able to give his master what he wanted. I’d have to ask Mike when we got back to the mansion.

Eventually, after me jumping the gun on the directions Mark was giving, and sending us down cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac, he told me to pull in to a small lay by, proclaiming that we had arrived. Turning the engine off and looking around, I was sceptical. There was nothing around us but fields, bushes, the road which had been shrinking all the way up here, and what looked like a gate to quarry or the like?

“We’re going in there?” I gestured beyond the gate, hoping that this wasn’t going to mean that I was going to end up wandering about a muddy field.

“We are,” Mark confirmed brightly and vaulted the gate.

Great.

I followed him but was a little more careful when climbing the gate. The last thing I needed was to find myself up close and personal with the after effects of a cow’s dinner.

Happily, we didn’t have to travel that far into the depths of nature before we arrived.

One minute we were making our way through the great outdoors and the next we were surrounded by small buildings and a wide variety of people and, indeed, not people. I recognised a similar magic to that which was encasing the prison site under Neath Abbey and felt the tingle of power as we passed through the barrier to the world of the interior.

The buildings inside were all stone built and looked as if they’d been there for a great many years. Placards, flags and other types of sign adorned the outside of each of these establishments, all giving some kind of clue as to the contents or purpose of the buildings. Some I could work out as being smiths of different kinds, some looked to be all about different potions and lotions and by the noise from at least two of them, some were clearly drinking establishments.

“So which is the best place for a drink?” I asked, my eyes bouncing from glowing doorway to glowing doorway, with my feet already inching me towards the nearest option. I was feeling like a kid at Christmas.

“We have quite a way to go into the compound until we arrive where I’m taking you my Lord. These are not places you would wish to spend a great deal of time as a first visit.” He paused to look me in the eye before continuing. “These establishments are of far too low a quality for a Guardian of The Circle.”

He marched off purposefully into the irregular lanes and pathways of the place, and as I followed him, it was only now that I could make out just how many other shacks and hovels there were all around us. There was a thick mist squatting over every inch of the surrounding streets and alleys which not only obscured the sights but also the sounds around us, deadening the environment around us. This place was clearly massive and it instinctively drew out a feeling of subtle threat in me. It wasn’t as such that I felt that there was going to be trouble, rather that due to the clearly high numbers of people around me and the environment they were all crammed into, there was a better chance that I’d be crossing paths with someone who may be on the lookout for something violent. Add to that what Mark had said about this place being a trading station for almost anything and the sheen of going for a drink was quickly turning into a potentially very risky idea.

“In for a penny …………” I muttered to myself and continued to walk, exuding as much self confidence as I could drag together. Dragon or not, I was very new to this.

We’d walked less than ten feet before I sensed the problem. It wasn’t my spinning head magical spidey-sense, rather, that feeling we all get from instinct, when we just ‘know’ that something is off. Flicking my eyes back and forth, hunting for anything and everything I could imagine, I became aware of eyes on me from all directions. Some were glowing brightly, pin pricks in a shadowed window, while others were sunken voids, empty within the tortured faces of those who watched on. There may have been the smallest handful of shapes moving around the streets as we’d entered the location, but now I was really looking, I could pinpoint that there were a massive number of beings crammed into any and all space, and all of them seemed to be tracking me.

“Keep calm Anthony,” I whispered to myself. My rational mind knew that I could do some real damage as my huge red Dragon form but being the centre of attention like this was making my rational mind want to hand over the reins to irrational mind and just run. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all?

“Mark,” I called into the mist. “Does the attention always happen when you come here?”

“Attention?” he replied, clearly not sure what I meant. “No, this is very new,” he finished as he’d clearly taken in all of the details I had. In a flash, he was at my side with his hands raised to a defensive posture, that familiar blue fire wreathing his balled fists.

“What do they all want? Never seen a Guardian before?” My attempt at levity was more for my good than anyone else’s.

“It was a mistake to expose you to this place. I am sorry my Lord, but it would appear that we must leave.”

What? Already? We’d only just got here and all of a sudden we were being pushed away by the first crowd we came into contact with? The idea that I was suddenly in mortal danger so should run just put my back up.

“Leave? I’m not going to be scared away at the first sign of curiosity.” I stepped out from behind Mark and raised my hands in what I hoped would be understood as a gesture of no harm.

“I’m not here to hurt anyone. I’m only here to see this place and everyone in it.” I was speaking slowly and clearly, making sure that there could be no come back if it did kick off. I was friendly and just one of the guys, not any trouble. I’d only act to defend myself.

From within the mist, I could hear hushed voices creaking and rasping as there were myriad discussions about what I’d just said.

“I do really believe that we should leave this place and allow them all to return to whatever they were doing before we arrived.” Mark was on edge again but in a way that he didn’t seem embarrassed by. He was preparing for a fight and this was clearly an arena he was familiar with.

“Guardian,” was belched out in a deep roar from a rundown hut directly before me. I couldn’t see anything through what was passing as a door and window but there was a slimy, squelching, dragging sound coming from within which suggested that there was something very large filling all of the available space. The ‘Guardian’ call was then repeated by a small, sharp voice behind me which brought to mind fragments of broken glass, then by a third voice, this one shaking and hissing the word from a position which seemed to be above me.

More and more voices joined the call, repeating that single word again and again and again. Each added to the layers of sound and each and every one cast the word as an accusation, singling me out as the focus of their ire.

That thought made me mad. Not just angry, but violently furious, that these creatures had decided that they wanted to have some kind of violent confrontation. Didn’t they know who I was? Well they must have done, they were all calling me Guardian.

Mark announced into the murk, “I am a familiar visitor to this place. I have shown that I respect the laws here and my Master is sworn to the same pact. Let us be in peace and we shall leave this place.” He was still dead set on appeasement then.

In response, the voices started up again, though this time they were chanting the single word in unison. The word drummed a constant rhythm around us and I swear that I could feel the power of that call through my chest.

“GUARDIAN. GUARDIAN. GUARDIAN,” just stomped in place, forming an almost tangible barrier to our progress.

Well if they were going to start a fight I was more than willing to oblige them.

Raising my hands before me, I called fire to my mind and a wall of roaring orange flame blasted skyward in a ring, circling Mark and I. The chanting stuttered as fear spread throughout the crowd but was quick to recommence.

I held the fire for a further second before releasing it and it fell back to the ground with an audible thud, leaving behind a scorched and smouldering patch around us. Sporadic flames still flickered and danced as fuel on the ground was consumed and it cast out light enough for me to begin to see the faces of the nearest members of the gathered crowd and what I saw chilled me.

There were all manner of creatures wedged together in that crowd. Some giant, others far from it, some clothed, others very far from it and some carrying weapons and others with weapons as a part of their anatomy. But the chilling factor was that there were at least the same number of humans mixed into the mass as well.

I was here to see the sights and yet I was being confronted. I was a Guardian of The Circle yet there was a crowd of humans, those I was sworn to protect, the very reason for The Circle itself, who were standing against me.

In that instant, my anger flickered in my mind, usurped by confusion.

They all knew.

Every being surrounding me knew that I was the Guardian yet all of these people didn’t seem to care. It’s not that I was expecting a fawning, servile crowd, I just wanted to have a pint and somehow I was hated.

I hadn’t even been aware of any spinning early warning before the small stone hit me in the side of the head. I’d been aware of the whistling sound and then there was an explosion of white before my eyes, and pain in my temple. Through the immediate confusion, I could quickly make out the blood starting to flow down the side of my face.

I’d been attacked and for nothing more than being there. One of the creatures had launched a missile at me. I couldn’t entertain the thought that it had been one of the humans but either way the end result had been the same.

Shaking my head to try and force my focus back into place I was dimly aware of Mark nudging me away from the crowd with his back to me. He was shouting into the misty air as he kept himself between me and the mob, barking out some very choice phrases as he covered our retreat. A handful of steps more and I felt the shield wall part around me as I re-entered the field where we’d started. I was still a little fuzzy in the head so it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that I face planted into the mud.

Mark came through to find me laying still.

“My Lord,” he yelled as he panicked at the sight of what he could only assume was, at best, his master unconscious or at worst, dead.

Rolling me over he started to run through checks on my breathing and if my heart was still beating.

“Hey,” I protested. “The mud was soothing.” My anger had drained away thanks to the bang to the head and the relaxing mud so I tried to let Mark know I was OK. He let out a massive sigh of relief and slumped to the floor himself.

But were those things coming through after us?

I started to climb to my feet just in case but Mark took a casual grip on my arm and made sure that I stayed put.

“They won’t leave that place. We can relax a while before we head back to the estate.”

“Perfect,” I replied. “But you’re driving.”

We decided that it would probably be wisest to avoid description of where we’d been and what we’d been up to and instead rely on the old faithful response when returning from a night out looking a little worse for wear. I’d drunkenly decided to go marching through a field and had slipped over on the way. It seemed to work.

I showered and after the briefest inspection from Llewellyn, my medical guru, who declared that I must have a pretty hard head, I was left alone in my room. I’d been half expecting the knock on the door so when it came and Mark entered the room, I was sat on the end of the bed, waiting.

“I am extremely sorry for placing you in harm’s way my Lord,” he started and bowed his head, clearly feeling a burning shame within.

I sighed.

“It’s not your fault that we went there, it was mine. I pushed the point and from there, everything that happened can be lumped on my shoulders. You were the one looking after me despite my best efforts.” I was tired and needed him to know that he wasn’t to think he was a failure. I think he relaxed a bit but I wasn’t certain.

“But I do have a question for you,” I added.

“Anything I can provide,” he replied, seemingly happy to resort to doing things he was told.

“No-one wanted me there. Every single creature there was dead set in opposition to me and they all knew who I was.” It was a statement of fact so there was no need to Mark to confirm it.

“The Guardians and The Circle aren’t liked, are we?”

“We are never here to be liked, we have a vitally important role to fulfil so surely, the outcome is all that matters.” Mark’s response had all the feeling of something which had been learned at a very young age and was now just being regurgitated. It was doubtful if he ever considered what the words really meant.

I nodded slowly and gestured weakly that he was dismissed. He bowed and hurried from the room. Maybe that was the way he was used to being dealt with? Maybe my attempts to loosen the environment around here had been banging against such powerfully learned rules, that it had always been doomed to failure?

Laying back on my bed, I could feel a weight settling on my chest.

I’d gone out with the intention of finding some way to put my role as Guardian to one side, to find somewhere that I would be able to relax and not have to worry, just for a short time. Instead, I walked smack into a very real dose of the world I was a part of. There was no middle ground. I was there to protect the human race as a Dragon Guardian but that meant that I was going to be viewed with suspicion from all sides. I was a figurehead of something which was not viewed well and, as such, would forever be treated as a threat. Maybe this would have been a part of my uncle’s thinking when he decided to leave the estate and live permanently in London to look after my brother and I?

When you move away from an area you’re familiar with, it’s all too easy to romanticize the memories and gloss over the bad bits. The new home will always have that to work against but as I lay there, being surrounded by a world that had chosen it hated me, for every second of every day, it became too much.

I was going to be the best Guardian I could be, birthright and all that, but I was going to need to be more than just that to keep myself sane.

I knew what I needed to do.

I was going home.