Friday, 26 February 2010

New episode today!

Jack solves one problem by "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants". And McNab saves him from being shot in the back by Caitou, but now it looks like the inspector has got him in his sights. Fun and games are over; from here on the bad guys will be closing in.

Read today's episode here and the whole story so far here. And don't miss next week's episode which has never been seen before in any form.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Free interactive fiction

UPDATE: Oct 14 2012 - I've taken down the free Heart of Ice file because the book is due to be re-released in spring 2013 by Osprey Books, along with half a dozen other gamebooks by me and Jamie Thomson - with more to come after that, we hope. Read all about it on the Fabled Lands blog. Still haven't picked up your copy of the Heart of Ice e-gamebook? What are you waiting for? It's free!

Oh, I get it. You're worried that you might not enjoy it. You're saying to yourself, "I know it's a whopping 453-section adventure game with multiple routes through the story, loads of mutated monsters to fight, characters to interact with and intriguing mysteries to solve. And I know it's a completely diceless game system and has an auto-fill character sheet so no need to fuss around with pencils and stuff. But can I be sure it's a more worthwhile use of my time than watching Jedward-v-Lady Gaga mashups on YouTube?"

Ooh, you're hard to please, you are. Well, this snippet from an interview with gamebook aficionado Efrem Orizzonte may help you to make up your mind:

EO: Heart of Ice is arguably the most mature gamebook ever written. The plot is superb, character design and development is among the finest ever seen, the atmosphere is perfect and the multiple endings mean that if you survive to the end, you can always “win” – if you can call any of the ambiguous, bittersweet finales a victory! Heart of Ice is a story full of deeper meanings, and it is so good that it may even have inspired a movie, called Post Impact. What inspired you to write such an original and mature story in gamebook format? Is there some particular message you wanted to convey to your readers?DM: I’m not so much into trying to give my readers messages, I just have certain topics that interest me and I like to get readers thinking about them. Questions, not answers. Heart of Ice got started as a role-playing session. I can pinpoint it exactly to Christmas 1976. I was back home after my first term at college and I needed a scenario for a large number of players. Believe it or not, I started with the idea of doing a serious version of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, kind of the way Failsafe Point is a serious version of Dr Strangelove. The idea of Du-En came from marvelling at the buildings of Christ Church, absolutely deserted late on a frosty night after the end of term, with the buildings lit up pale against this immense field of stars and the unyielding smell of cold sandstone, I love that. After the first game session, I was walking home with one of the players and he said how he was imagining Du-En as a movie, and what he liked was that the focus of the session had been in the tension among the characters camped out in this ruined, snow-filled city. It was big end-of-the-world action but it was centred on a small group of characters. And a mere 18 years later I took all that and put it into the book.
Made up your mind yet? 'Cause I've done all I can. The Earth is dying, ultimate power is up for grabs, and what the human race needs now is a hero. If you think you fit the bill, grab your barysal gun and get to world-saving right here.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Up above the world so high

This one is for Peter Richardson, co-creator of the brilliant Cloud 109. He and writer David Orme are going the right way about bringing their brainchild into the world: they own it, they have total control of it, and they're building an enthusiastic following by showing it off for free online. If you haven't yet latched on to the exploits of Cary, Gina and Rabby then head over and start reading here and pick it up here.

Anyway, Peter mentioned recently the vertiginous effect of some of the scenes in Mirabilis, and that set me to noticing how many instances there are in the story of our heroes teetering on high places or falling from a long way up. A glance through the Silver Age covers will show you what I mean, and that's just a (long) drop in the ocean compared to what we've put Jack and Estelle through. I hope they have a better head for heights than I do.
Take the panel above, from the start of Chapter Five: "The Darkest Hour". Now I know what you're thinking - ah, that's just a dream. But no, it's actually a lot stranger than that...

Friday, 19 February 2010

New episode

"Bad Blood", in which Estelle escapes death but the engine driver does not, Inspector Simeon ponders the curious incidence (sic) of the blood on the rug, Gargantua plays with trains, Gus describes the experience of a life lived backwards, and Jack swipes McNab's coat again.

Read it here. Start the story from the beginning here.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

On the other channel...

All this week on the Fabled Lands blog, a 15-page trailer for SF comic Gifted, by the fabulously talented Siku of Judge Dredd and The Manga Jesus fame. In 2032, life on Earth has been transformed by a literal windfall of alien technology. But what happens when the bill comes due?

And, whether you are a Christian or not, I can unreservedly recommend Siku's Manga Jesus trilogy. It's comics storytelling at its very best: a literate, exhilarating, cinematic experience that is sure to surprise you.

And if sci-fi and religion aren't your bag, don't fret. There'll be an all-new Mirabilis episode tomorrow.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

What's in store

So, now that we've run all the episodes that were originally published in short-lived UK comic The DFC, what now?

Starting this Friday, there are three more weekly episodes to come that have never appeared before in print.

That'll make three chapters (out of nine) from the Winter book that are available to read online absolutely free. Gosh, it's like stowing away aboard the Orient Express and having somebody bring you Camembert sandwiches.

Friday, 12 February 2010

New episode today!

Jack’s on the Orient Express and Gus shows up with bags of important stuff to tell him about the green comet, the Kind Gentleman and the year ahead. But is Jack even listening? It looks like he’s too busy eavesdropping on Estelle and McNab. Oh, and trains aren’t built to fly, but try telling that to a one-year-old. Especially a one-year-old who’s as tall as a cathedral. All in “Outside Looking In” right here.

This is the last of the 10 episodes that were originally serialized in The DFC, so make the most of them while they’re still up as the publishing company that has the rights could ask us to take them down at any time. (I’m not aware that they have any plans to publish them, but who knows.) Anyway, from next week we’ll be running all-new episodes that have never been seen in print. Warm yourself up for some steam-powered fantasy action with the whole story to date here.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Bald sand elf

No, Mirabilis hasn't gone all elves and dungeons, that's a page from the Fabled Lands comic written by Jamie Thomson and drawn by Russ Nicholson. To tell the truth, it's the only finished page they did, although you can read the whole comic in rough pencils as a work in progress - issue #1 and issue #2. It's based on Jamie's BBC Radio adventure serial "The Heart of Harkun" that gets repeated every couple of years. He's currently at Lionhead Studios writing the script for Fable 3, so you know to expect a high standard.

If high fantasy action is your thing, you might want to check out the Fabled Lands blog, which has updates about stuff like the upcoming iPhone game, the FL boardgame and so on. Make sure to stock up on potions of +3 healing before you head over there. Dragons abound.

Meanwhile Mirabilis steams on into the east, with the next episode seeing Jack renew an acquaintance and finding out more about the green comet. Catch up on earlier episodes so you're ready for "Outside Looking In" tomorrow.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Five rounds rapid

Here's another of Martin McKenna's spectacular illustrations that were originally intended for the Gazetteer. I wantonly vandalized this for use as one of our counterfeit Silver Age covers recently, but here it is in all its glory - because, although a firm believer that the future of comics is on mobiles and e-readers, I prefer paintings to have tangible form, and this, like all of Martin's work, really should be appreciated at full size emblazoned across two big pages of high-quality art paper.

As I mentioned before, Martin and I conceived the idea for this picture to set the record straight on unicorns, which in twee fantasy novels these days are too often reduced to rather soppy critters. Bromfield and Clattercut are of exactly the same opinion (funny, that) and here's their reply to a correspondent who wrote in with unicorn trouble:

Dear Dr Clattercut and Prof Bromfield

To the rear of my country house there are fields bordered by extensive woodland, so that it is not unusual to look out in the early morning to find deer on the lawn. No doubt the poets would have words to describe the tug on one’s soul in gazing on such a beautiful sight, the doe and her fawns like wanderers from Eden in the golden dawn. It is sometimes all I can do not to fetch my gun and join in “with both barrels” – but my wife would not appreciate being woken in such a robust fashion.

A few days ago a still more breathtaking apparition awaited me on rising. It was a magnificent stallion, as white as a statue of marble, with a straight horn in the middle of its forehead. I reached out towards it, but with the merest touch of my fingertips on the window pane, it bolted into the fields and was gone.

But, gentlemen, this is not the only marvel I have to relate. For this morning I looked out from the window to see the unicorn had returned. And my daughter, still in her nightgown, was there standing in the dew beside it. Have you ever witnessed a unicorn taking grass from the hand of a young girl? It is more humbling than bagging a dozen rhinos.

Now I have conceived a purpose, and I would be grateful for your advice on how best to achieve it. For I have a mind to capture this unicorn, and tame it to the bridle. I fancy that I will excite quite a stir at the Old Berks when I turn up riding a unicorn behind the hounds!

Sincerely, Sir Samuel Wadwough, K.G., Hinton Waldrist

Dr Clattercut replies: You will excite quite a stir too, my dear sir, when you are found dead on your lawn with a two-inch hole punched through you from sternum to spine.

Prof Bromfield: Quite so. Tame a unicorn? You may just as well attempt to put a leash on the Sirocco or teach Cleopatra’s Needle to dance the Argentine tango. I don’t know how the idea gained currency that unicorns are shy and gentle creatures, but I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.

Dr Clattercut: Consider Pliny’s words: “The most fell and ferocious beast of all is the Unicorn or Licorne. His body resembles a horse, his head a stag, his feet an elephant, his tail a boar. He loweth after an hideous manner. One black horn he hath in the mids of his forehead, bearing out two cubits in length. By report, this beast is so wild that it cannot possibly be caught alive.”

Prof Bromfield: There you are; I knew Clattercut would have an obscure quotation on the subject. On a more practical level, I can assure you that a unicorn is quite capable of killing an elephant with a single thrust of its horn, and nor would it be averse to doing so. Its amenableness towards your daughter is also cause for concern – though of a different nature, too delicate for me to discuss here – and I advise you to keep her indoors while this creature remains in the district.

Friday, 5 February 2010

New episode!

This week’s instalment is “Carried Away”. Estelle’s looking for a knight in shining armour - could romance blossom with a young man from the wrong side of the tracks? Before you start fretting that it’s all getting too lovey-dovey, there’s the return of McFabulous and a blooming great pterosaur too. Oooh, ahhh, that's how it always starts. But then comes the running and the screaming. Read it here or go here for all the episodes.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Cave canem

There’s something outside on the pavement (the sidewalk, to our American cousins). Nobody wants to touch it. We’re waiting for the rain to wash it away. One of the neighbours has pinned a big notice on a tree nearby: PLEASE CLEAN UP AFTER YOUR DOG.

My point? That little brown pile, that’s how UK publishers view comics. By and large they wouldn’t actually want to pick one up.

Having grown up with comics and got my love of fiction from them, I really don’t get it. Movies, comics, novels, games – aren’t those all valid and effective ways of leading somebody on an imaginative journey?

I’m sure American and continental European readers will simply be baffled by this, but most adults in Britain see comics as a mean and contemptible medium. I tell people I’m writing a graphic novel and they look at me like I’ve joined the Hare Krishnas. It goes beyond blank uninterest; it's more like pity. Some (and these are the worst) will say, “Oh, I think comics can be ever so helpful in getting reluctant readers to pick up proper books.” Nobody can do condescension like a British literary snob.

Leo, Martin and I have sometimes toyed with writing Mirabilis as a prose novel instead of a comic. Just to get some respect, you understand. I think publishers would sit up and take notice then. Some of them might even read it!

We’re not going to do that because – well, for a bunch of reasons. Because we like comics. Because we love making comics. Because Mirabilis is a visual story. And because anyway who needs respect from those twits? Stuff ‘em if they don’t like comics. Me, I don’t like crap novels where nothing actually happens. We’ll have to agree to differ.

But all the same, Mirabilis was conceived to be medium-agnostic. I’ve worked in games, television, books, you name it, and any way that gets the story across is fine by me. So Mirabilis is a comic but it isn’t only a comic. We have all the Royal Mythological Society
story snippets, for example. And there are other bits of prose that got written for various reasons. Some of them we’ll use in that form, some get repurposed.

This vignette for instance. It was originally planned as a prose story to go in the Gazetteer, but got reworked as the basis for one of our newspaper comic stories. Though the pterodactyl didn't make it into the comic version, it got airlifted to Paris for a screech-on role in the main Jack and Estelle story instead. (And, as you can see from the picture, it had to dress up in a pteranodon costume.)

Hope you like our little amuse-cerveau. Tomorrow we’re back to picture stories. With flying dinosaurs. Promise.

Never Never on the Portsmouth Line

"You know, Jennings, it's getting worse if anything," remarked Sanderson over the glass bubble-helmet of the little green man on the seat next to him.

"I think you're right," his friend said in the same matter-of fact tone. "Take that last station. I could have sworn the sign said Never-never Land. Never-never Land didn't use to be on the Portsmouth line, did it?"

"That's not all. Do you know, just as we were leaving the office, there was something rather large perched on the top of Nelson's Column." Sanderson hesitated. "I didn't like to say at the time, but..."

"No need to apologise, old chap. Pterodactyl - no mistaking it. That's the second time this week it's been there. I suppose it's been keeping an eye out."

"For pigeons?"

"Well, I was thinking more of tourists."

"It's this comet that's to blame, of course."

"Without a doubt. No other explanation. Chap on the radio last night saying the same thing. Oh I say! What a cheek!"

The Martian sitting on the other side of Jennings had clamped a tentacle onto the page of his newspaper and was silently reading the share prices.

Jennings tugged the paper away and folded it up. "The nerve of these blighters, reading over a fellow’s shoulder like that."

"Tickets please," said the inspector.

Mr Sanderson handed over his ticket. The Martian beside him sat immobile. The inspector leaned down and rapped his knuckles on the glass dome. The green brain inside opened several eyes like a crab waking up inside a shell.

"Tickets," repeated the inspector.

The train rattled on through the dusk. The Martian sat in dumbfounded silence.

"He wants your ticket," explained Jennings, enunciating one word at a time as though the Martian was a very small child.

The Martian turned its eyes in several directions at once. Reaching into its little silver knapsack, it pulled out a ray gun.

"Ticket," said the inspector stolidly.

The Martian seemed taken aback. It leaned over Jennings' lap to confer with its comrade. The two buzzed and twittered at each other for a few moments, while Jennings stared at the ceiling of the carriage with a disdainful expression and pretended to ignore them. Finally the ray gun was put away and the Martian produced a ticket.

"Tak uz to yir leader," the second Martian said. Sanderson thought that its accent sounded faintly Scottish.

The inspector glowered at their tickets. "You want London, then. This is the down train."

The Martians sat bolt upright like glove puppets and started waving their tentacles. There was more buzzing, quite heated now. The inside of the glass helmets was beginning to steam up.

"He said you're going the wrong way!" said Jennings, losing his patience. "No use arguing about it."

"You'll have to go back to Woking and change there," said the guard. He gave the Martians their tickets and went on to the next compartment. They looked at each other glumly, silent now inside the fishbowl helmets.

Sanderson looked up at the window. "This is my stop," he said, rising.

Jennings nodded. "Looks like it.” He raised his paper and leaned over to speak confidentially. “What do you know? Martians. It’ll be Venusians next week.”

Sanderson paused as he stepped down to the platform. He thought about what Jennings had said and brightened. There was even a bit of a twinkle in his eye that had not been seen since Mrs Sanderson was a Miss.

“Venusians…” he said dreamily. “Marvellous!”

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


Talking of fight scenes: when we ran our Silver Age mock-up covers around Christmas, one glaring oversight was not showing you the whole fabulous Charge of the Centaur Brigade picture used to illustrate"Boom - like that!" Well, here it is. A shame that it never got the full color treatment it deserved, but c'est la guerre... (No, we didn't go to Angoulême this year, but I guess we've got it on the brain.)

If you appreciate Mr McKenna's masterful artwork (who doesn't?) but somehow managed to miss his story of death, parenthood and early motor cars, you can still read it right here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A sock on the jaw

Fights are tricky in fiction. When you have your hero deal with a problem using cunning, the reader can see you're playing fair. As long as his clever ruse impresses them, they'll accept that it would catch out the bad guy too. But when fists start flying, the writer can just pull victory out of a hat: "They punched each other and it looked like Billy would lose. But then he won!"

You can write the scene so as to pump up adrenaline and engage the reader that way, but you can't disguise that it's entirely at your whim who wins and who loses. To some extent it's possible to emulate the satisfying inevitability of a clever ruse with a fight's "moral rightness". Deep down, we still believe that fortune favours the brave and that the plucky underdog deserves victory just because the odds were against him. But I don't like that; it's not convincing the reader your outcome is right, it's just talking them into looking the other way.

So if you are writing a fight scene, your best bet is to make sure that the scene is about something more than just the fight itself. Reichenbach, Moria, the climax of Rocky, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift duking it out at the end of Red River - those scenes are all about more than who wins.

Creative writing enthusiast and urban fantasist Mireyah Wolfe is currently running a Fight Scene Blogfest. Although this is nothing to do with Mirabilis, it falls within our occasional discussion of the writing process. And indeed, we do have fights in Mirabilis - knock down, drag out slugfests where people may get killed - but I can't show any of those to you yet because of spoilers. So instead, here is a fight scene from the Fabled Lands novel The Lost Prince. Most of the book was written by Jamie Thomson, based on the gamebook series I wrote with him, but I helped out by writing this scene, in which we and the hero start to glimpse that he may not be the eternal klutz he always thought he was:


Sir Grazenor’s sword was half out of its scabbard with a noise like a grindstone throwing sparks, and Varren read fear in the downturned mouths of the four bandits. They had probably hoped to catch a rich merchant or fat priest coming down this road, but not an armoured knight of the realm. But the bandit leader, a man with a mottled face and darkly ringed eyes, kept his nerve. Varren saw the flash of a tinderbox in his hand. A moment later, he ran in close with a lighted firecracker and threw it at the ground below Voltiger’s hooves.

TOK! TAK! The firecracker popped loudly, its sharp retorts echoing off the brick walls of the bridge. Pungent gunpowder smoke laced the air.

Startled, Vortiger reared up, lashing out with his iron-shod hooves. Used to the din and chaos of battle, the old warhorse was not going to be panicked into fleeing by just noise and smoke.

Apparently the bandit leader expected as much. Instead of flinching back, as most men would, he ducked right under the scything hooves and sliced his sword through the saddle strap. As Vortiger reared, Sir Grazenor went flying from the saddle – right over the side of the bridge.

“My lord!” shouted Varren in horror.

But there was nothing he could do to help Sir Grazenor. He had enough worries of his own. His inexperienced horse was wheeling around. Unlike the doughty Vortiger, it had no intention of hanging around while the firecracker jolted and bounced on the road like a giant angry hornet.

Varren realized he had better dismount before the horse bolted with him on it. He pulled one foot out of the stirrup and swung it over his horse’s back just as one of the bandits ran in aiming a blow of his club at Varren’s head. At the same time, the horse swerved around. Varren’s foot swung in a wide circle and caught the bandit right across the mouth. Varren winced. That had to hurt. The bandit swayed and went down like a sack of flour.

The horse, confused by the noise, turned right around and charged along the bridge towards the other bandits. Varren, with one foot still caught in the stirrup, was carried along backwards. His horse barged past Vortiger, who now stood stolidly in the middle of the bridge waiting for the command of his master. Varren had to twist around to avoid being squashed between his own horse and Vortiger. He grabbed for something to hold onto and found himself clutching one of the arrows from Sir Grazenor’s saddlebag.

As his horse reached the bandits, Varren tugged his other foot out of the stirrup, dropped to the ground, and was flung by the momentum of the charge straight towards the nearest bandit.

He saw the man’s yellow-toothed grin. Smelt his bad breath. Sensed the axe-blow aimed at his vitals. But then the yellow grin turned to a look of dismay.

“Oh,” said the bandit. He sounded disappointed.

Varren looked down. By accident, he’d driven the point of the arrow into the man’s neck. The bandit dropped his axe, turned and staggered off to fall into the long grass by the side of the road.

“Deal with this brat!” snarled the dark-eyed leader to his remaining comrade. “I’ll finish off the old knight.” He pushed through the hedge beside the road and started down the river bank to where Sir Grazenor lay.

The other bandit gave Varren a wary look. He had just seen the boy lay out two battle-hardened men. On the other hand, Varren had no weapon while the bandit had a sword. The thought gave him courage. With a wild cry, he ran forward and swung his blade in a wide chopping arc towards Varren’s throat.

Varren ducked and felt the wind as the sword went over his head. The blow sent the bandit stumbling off-balance. He leaned forward just as Varren straightened up. There was a sickening crack as Varren’s head cannoned into the man’s chin.

The bandit, with blood pouring from his mouth, dropped his sword and staggered into the dazed Varren. As he fell to the ground, his weight knocked Varren right back over the edge of the bridge.

Varren was falling. He had the sickening sense that he was going to land and crush his skull on the sharp flints of the dried-up river bed. Flopping in midair, however, he had the good luck to land on his feet.

Still half-stunned by the blow to his head, it took him a split-second to realize that he was standing right over the body of his master, while the bandit leader came running down the river bank, howling like a demon, sword swinging wildly. There was murder in the deep-set eyes.

Sixth sense made Varren look up. Something bright was tumbling in the sunlight towards him. He put up his hand and it closed around the hilt of a sword – the one the other bandit had dropped on the parapet of the bridge.

Not expecting the weight of the sword, Varren swung it down in a swift, strong arc. The bandit leader, taken by surprise, barely had time to raise his own sword in a parry. The force of Varren’s blow knocked it from his hand.

Varren pushed the point of the blade against the bandit’s chest. He was as astonished as the other man to hear himself say, in a remarkably calm voice, “Surrender.”

“In the name of the nineteen devils, who are you?” growled the bandit. “The High King’s great-grandson?”

A groan from Sir Grazenor caught Varren’s attention, and the bandit immediately seized his chance to get away. He scrambled back up the bank calling to his dazed colleagues.

Varren knelt beside Sir Grazenor. The old man lay motionless in a few inches of water. It was impossible to say how badly he was injured, encased as he was in armour, but Varren had already noticed the hard rocks dotting the sand of the river bed.

Sir Grazenor groaned again. His eyes stayed shut.

“My lord, lie still…”

Varren felt around the knight’s unarmoured head and neck. No injury there, at least. He looked up to the parapet. It was a good fifteen feet. Easily enough to break a man’s back.

Just then, something moved in a bush beside the river. Varren was instantly on his feet, sword in hand.

Had one of the bandits crept back to ambush him? If so, they had made a big mistake. The fight had happened so quickly that Varren had simply been surprised by all that happened. But now, seeing his lord badly hurt, his blood was up. He moved towards the bush with sword raised, feeling a black knot of anger rise in his throat.

The bush rustled again. Varren leapt forward and drove his sword in a lunge. It chopped through leaves and twigs and he felt the tip bury itself in the soft earth of the river bank.

The bush gave a cry of outrage: “Oo EE-i-ot!”

It wasn’t any language Varren recognized, but it sounded human. He stuck his hand into the bush and felt around.


Varren was so startled that he took three steps back, tripped over a branch, and sat down in the stream.

The bush shook and a figure kicked and wriggled out into the open. Varren saw that the stranger was gagged. That explained the odd noises. The stranger’s arms were tied by a rope wound right around them. The gag hooked on a twig, and the stranger furiously used the twig to pull it off.

“You idiot!” she said the moment the gag was loose.

“What did I do?” said Varren defensively.

She pointed her chin at his sword. “You could have had my eye out with that.”

Varren got to his feet. “Who are you? And what were you doing in that bush?”

She tilted her head on one side and squinted at him with a look of undisguised scorn. Varren saw she was a girl of about his own age. Her sharp features were set off by a wide clever mouth, large nose, and clear eyes the colour of the sky before a thunderstorm. She wore a blue silk shirt, of fine quality but torn by the brambles, and grey leather boots and leggings. Her wavy corn-coloured hair was tangled with leaves and twigs and, although having been bundled into a bush probably had a lot to do with that, Varren figured it was the sort of hair that was permanently unruly anyway.

He realized that her gaze was getting more scornful by the second. “Well?” she said. “Are you going to cut me free?”

He scrambled to his feet. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“Questions, plural,” she said. “Well, it should be pretty obvious that I’m one of the bandits that attacked you. As a cunning ploy, I cut my own purse, tied myself up, stuck a gag in my mouth, and jumped headfirst into a hedge.”

Varren didn’t know what to say. As he sawed through the ropes binding her arms, he said sullenly, “Well, I’m Varren from Castle Dromstone and this is – oh, Sir Grazanor!”

Suddenly remembering the old knight, Varren rushed back to where he lay in the stream. Clear water sparkled over the wet pebbles, sifting sand into the knight’s armour. A thin thread of scarlet ran into the shallow stream from a wound Varren couldn’t see.

“My lord - !” cried Varren, kneeling beside him.

The girl had no sooner got free of her bonds than she was rummaging around in the bushes again. She emerged with a round three-stringed guitar.

“Never mind that,” snapped Varren. “Give me a hand here.”

With a shrug, the girl hung the guitar across her back and came to help Varren. They both tugged in vain at Sir Grazenor’s unconscious form.

“We’re not going to shift him in all this armour,” she said, starting to unstrap it.

Varren hesitated, but what else could they do? He helped her remove the heavier plates of Sir Grazenor’s armour.

“Are you his squire, then?” said the girl as they worked.

“Yes,” said Varren, instantly wondering why he’d lied. But he knew the reason. If he told her he was a mere stableboy, she’d be even more disdainfully superior.

“I’m Charyss Willow,” she said. “You might have heard of me. Some people call me Weeping Willow on account of the sad songs I sing. Sad songs are worth more, you see, in these troubled times. Give people a few bars of a song about a son or sweetheart lost in the wars, and they’ll pay for my supper five times over.”

“I’m glad you’re able to make a living out of it,” said Varren acidly, thinking of the starving refugees he’d seen on their way out of the city.

Charyss glared at him. “We can’t all be wealthy gentlefolk and live in a fine castle,” she said. And now Varren wanted to tell her that he really slept on a bed of dry straw at the back of the stables, but it was too late. She thought he was a knight-in-training.

They found that Varren’s horse had run off – along with the donkey Charyss had been riding when the bandits ambushed her. But Sir Grazenor’s faithful warhorse Voltiger still stood in the middle of the bridge, patiently waiting while they retied his saddle strap and lifted the unconscious body of his master across the saddle.

“So, which way were you headed?” asked Charyss.

“Towards Trefoille,” said Varren. He started to lead Vortiger along the road, looking back when he realized Charyss wasn’t following.

“Trefoille’s not exactly the safest of cities these days,” she said. “The citizens refused supplies to General Marlock’s army a few months back. After he dealt with rebels in the north, he came back to lay siege to the place.”

Varren thought for a moment, then turned Vortiger around. “I’d better go back, then. I need to get Sir Grazenor to safety. The message can wait.”

Charyss fell into step beside him “Message?”

“We had a letter to deliver to a nobleman in Trefoille.” Varren glanced around to check the saddlebags and gave a start. “It’s not here!”

He looked around in panic. Maybe the scroll-case had got dislodged in the fight. It might have fallen by the side of the road.

“Is this it?” said Charyss, picking up a black leather tube.

Varren grabbed it from her. “Where did you find it?”

“Just in that clump of grass beside the ditch there. Why? Is that it, or not? It looks like a scroll-case to me…”

“It is,” said Varren in dismay. “But it’s been opened. The letter has gone!”