The catastrophe of the e.., p.8
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       The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen, p.8
 

           LR Manley

   “Is that CLEAR?” the woman snapped.

   “Yes Ma’am,” the tiny figure said, almost in a whisper.

   Still retaining her serious expression the woman, picked up a piece of paper in front of her and held it up. “Now let this be the last time I have to speak to you about your manners.” 

  “Yes Ma’am,” the boy stammered and looked up at the visitors, clearly embarrassed and scared.

   “Now, off you go,” she said, writing a comment on the paper and handing it back to the boy who scurried out the room.

   “Now then,” the woman said, turning to the newcomers and smiling. “What brings you here Takoba? I must say I am pleased to see you again.”

   Mordalayn replied formally. “The pleasure is all mine Madame Veer. “I see you are still strict with your charges.”

   She stood up, extending her hand which Mordalayn shook. She turned to Jorehlo. “Thank you. You may go”

   Jorehlo looked to Mordalayn. “Speak to you later Takoba.”

   “Indeed you will my old friend,” Mordalayn said. He turned back to Madame Veer as the door closed. “This is a serious situation we find ourselves in. I am sure you have been made aware of the gravity of the current situation regarding the Emerald Queen?”

   The woman adjusted her neat, long, green skirt and sat back down, gesturing to Mordalayn and Jared to do the same. They took up seats opposite her and she looked at Jared for a few moments before replying. “Is it safe to discuss this in front of this child?”

   Mordalayn nodded. “This boy is the only link to what happened and he also needs our protection.”

   Jared glanced at both of them, unsure as to where this conversation was going.

   “I am happy to take him in. Need I remind you that this is unusual to say the least?”

   “I am aware of that Ma’am but this boy needs protection. While he is with you he is safer than if he is with me or the Council. Our enemies have spies everywhere.”

   The woman looked at Jared and smiled, her face transforming from a serious, scary look to a pleasant one. “Don’t be scared boy, we are all friends here. How old are you?”

   “Eleven” Jared replied. “Can I ask, why do I need to stay with you?” 

  “Here you will be safe, this place is protected by agreement. No-one may enter here without permission, my permission to be precise.”

   Mordalayn stood and turned to Jared. “I have to go now, there is work to be done. However I will return for you as soon as I can.” He turned back to Madame Veer. “Thank you kindly. Your generosity is appreciated.”

   “You are always welcome here Takoba. May Our Lady protect you.” 

  Mordalayn left the room, closing the door quiety behind him.

   Jared felt scared and looked at Madame Veer. Her face was very serious but she appeared to realise his discomfort. “Don’t be nervous, I promised we would help you and we will.” She took a sheet of paper from a sheaf on her desk and took a feathered quill pen. She wrote a note and handed it to Jared. “Go back the way you came. The first door on your left. Challandra will see you and give you something to eat and allocate you a bed for the night.”

   Jared felt his stomach grumble at the mention of food and Madame Veer smiled. “All is safe for you here.”

   Jared walked down the corridor holding the piece of paper. At the first red door he came across he paused and glanced down the corridor. The boy from outside the classroom was gone and the singing had stopped. He raised his hand to knock when the door suddenly opened. Standing in front of him was a woman not much taller than him. She had shoulder length black hair with two lighter streaks of brown at the front. The hair was dangling in her face and she pushed it to one side as she opened the door. She was pleasant and friendly-looking, like the sort of person you could imagine taking care of little kids at a nursery school. She appeared to be young. 

  “Hello there,” she said chirpily. “What can I do for you?”

   “I…I’m not sure.” Jared stammered, handing her the piece of paper.  

  “Let’s have a look,” she said, squinting at the page and then said excitedly. “AHA! So you’re the special guest. OK we need to get you something to eat.” Reaching down she took his hand and with her other closed the door behind her. “We’ll get you to the dining room. I bet you’re hungry.” 

  “Just a bit,” Jared said, his stomach rumbling.

   She led him down the corridor, her shoes squeaking on the hard marble floor. “The boys will be so pleased to see you. We’ve had no one new for a while now. By the way my name’s Challandra.”

   They came across two large red double door, arched like all the others. Jared could hear laughter and the clattering noises that a busy school dining room made at lunch. “Here we are” she said brightly, pushing the doors open with both hands.

   As they entered the room every head turned in their direction and the conversations instantly ground to a halt. Jared was facing two long, wooden tables with about six boys on each. All were dressed in green shirts like he’d seen as he came in to the place. Their trousers and shorts were in varying states of repair and most boys were wearing leather slip on shoes with no laces. He looked at them blankly feeling embarrassed as the silence hung in the air. Behind the two tables was a hatch in the wall where a fierce looking woman with a face like a rhino stood holding a ladle and wearing a green apron. The ferocious expression was softened somewhat by the cap she was wearing on her head. At waist level were several large metal containers of food.

   Challandra smiled and as the boys stared at Jared with mute curiosity she beamed at them brightly and clapped her hands together. “Hi there everyone, this is Jared. He’s going to be staying with us. Can you please make him welcome.”

   There was another long pause and then suddenly a rush of excited voices began babbling.

   “What’s he got on his feet. Never seen shoes like that before.”

   “Where’s he from? Don’t recognise the clothes. You think he’s from Coulen?” 

  “Strange haircut. How come we can’t get ours like that?”

   They continued to talk amongst themselves like Jared was a species of interesting monkey in a zoo. While he was standing there feeling like an ant under a magnifying glass he looked up and saw the boy that had been outside the classroom earlier stand up from halfway down the left hand table and walk towards him and Challandra. He smiled at her. “It’s alright Miss, I’ll look after him.”

   “Good lad Bue and thank you.” She turned to Jared and put her hand on his arm. “Now Jared if you need anything please come to me or Madame Veer ok? You are safe here provided you stay within the confines.”

   “I’ll be fine,” Jared said smiling but still feeling incredibly nervous.

   “Come on mate you can sit by me,” Bue said smiling his crooked smile and taking Jared by the arm as Challandra left the room, the double doors banging a few times as she went through.

   Bue moved back to his original seat while the excited buzz of conversation continued. All the boys were looking at Jared, the ones on the other table craning their necks to get a look at the newcomer in their midst. Jared noticed there was only one chair and paused but Bue slapped the boy to him on the back of the head. “Beevor, where’s your manners? Get our guest a seat.”

   The other lad complied and scurried off to a stack of chairs against the wall of the large hall they were in. He pulled the top one free with a grunt and tottered back, setting it down between Bue’s chair and indicating Jared should sit before squeezing back into his own seat. Bue looked at the boy opposite and jerked his head towards the hatch where the rhino faced creature stood looking bored.  

  “Makeo, get him some grub. You’re hungry yeah?” he said to Jared. 

  Jared nodded. “You don’t know how much,” and Bue laughed.

   “Get him everything, tell Penny it’s for him in case she kicks off.”

   The other boy made
for the hatch. He took a tray from a stack to the right of the serving window and approached the disinterested looking woman. She lazily shifted her eyes in his direction as he walked up.

   “What do you want?” she growled as the boy stood grinning brightly in front of her. 

  “A portion of your best stew and vegetables and one of your delicious puddings please Miss Penny,” Makeo said keeping his forced smile plastered to his face. 

  “You’ve already eaten you greedy little twit!” She fumed, her grip on the ladle tightening and what looked like steam erupting from her nostrils as she snorted loudly. “Do you want me to call Madame?” 

  The boy’s smile slipped only fractionally and he continued beaming as he replied. “It’s not for me Miss, it’s for that new boy.” He turned around and pointed to where Jared sat, the object of everyone’s attention. Anticipating what Penny might say next he then added, “he’s a guest of Madame Veer, he’s not a pupil here.”

   Penny took a wooden plate, separated into various compartments for different portions and snorted again. “Well, I don’t see why he can’t come and get it himself. I work here all day and it would be nice if I was introduced to a guest occasionally,” she grumbled. Penny used the ladle to scoop up a portion of a meaty stew and then putting it down took a spoon and put some mashed potato on top of it. The she put an assortment of vegetables in the slot next to it and finally a sweet dish next to that in the remaining compartment. “Cups are over there” she gestured to Makeo, who smiled brightly and turned around. His smile dissapeared as he grimaced and grabbed a metal cup from the stack near the trays and made his way back to Jared and Bue.

   Bue was holding court, the other kids around him silent as Bue probed Jared with questions.

   “So you’re not from here? Where are you from?”

   Jared paused, not sure what to say. “Errr, a long way away.”

   Bue didn’t seem fazed but pressed on. “So, how do you know the Caracalic? You know he’s the Queen’s bodyguard?”

   “Err, yeah I was told.”

   Another boy piped up. “How long are you staying for?”

   “Not sure, maybe just tonight.”

   Bue looked up at Makeo, hovering over them with the tray.

   “Here you go mate, dig in. It’s not the best but it’s not bad either.”

   Jared could smell the stew and saliva instantly sprang into his mouth. He was so hungry and couldn’t remember the last time he ate. Grabbing the fork next to the segmented plate he stuck it into the meaty sauce and pushed the food into his mouth quickly. It was hot and he had just enough self control left to remember to chew before swallowing it. He shovelled in another mouthful and then tore off a strip of bread from the cob Makeo had brought him. He continued to wolf down the stew, thinking he’d never tasted anything so delicious in his life.

   Bue and the other boys watched him and Bue chuckled. “Steady on mate, you’ll do yourself an injury.”

   Jared barey heard him and continued to eat. He devoured the stew and bread and then started on the vegetables, the like of which he’d never seen before. One was purple and spiral shaped, another looked like a cactus but the spines were soft and bendy as he cut through them with his knife.

   When he’d finished the vegetables he noisily sloshed down several gulps of water from the cup that Makeo had filled for him. The other boys still watched him in silence as he started on his pudding. It was like the sponge puddings his grandmother used to make but when he bit into what he thought were sultanas, they momentarily fizzed in his mouth.

   Finally he finished and sat back, pushing the tray away and wiping his mouth with a serviette from the stack in front of him.

   Bue smiled. “Enjoy that?”Jared nodded.

   “Yes, lovely. I was starving.”

   “Really, I wouldn’t have guessed.” Bue replied clapping Jared on the back. 

  “Well boys, he likes the grub. Guess he passed the first test”

   The othed boys laughed and one of them extended his hand across the table. “I’m Bolla”

   Jared shook his hand and other boys came up to say hello. The names were many and Jared knew he wouldn’t be able to remember them all. 

  “Stone,” one fat boy said, squeezing Jared’s hand in a friendly but too-hard grip.

   “Declain,” another said.

   “Jerean,” said a third.

   When the introductions had stopped Jared noticed that most of the boys had gone back to their own conversations, only the group around him still appeared fascinated by him.

   “If you’re only staying one night you must be being protected from something,” a thin boy with shoulder length black hair sitting opposite him said. “We know the Takoba brought you here. You in trouble?” 

  “Yes, but…I can’t say,” Jared said feeling embarrassed.

   The boy looked at Bue. “Nice to see a new face though, don’t you think?”

   “I’ll say” Bue replied, putting his arm around Jared’s shoulder. “Tell me Jared, you any good with a bow?”

   “Like archery?” Jared said surprised. “My father is a member of a club, I’ve had a go a few times.”

   “No, no.” Bue said shaking his head. “Not the giant’s toothpick, a crossbow.”

   Jared paused for a second then said, “err…no can’t say I have.”

   “Well my friend we’ll have to teach you.”

   A bell suddenly rang loudly and the boys stood up, picking up their trays and cutlery. They noisily scraped their leftovers into a large bin and put their trays into a rack near the hatch. Penny ignored them and was busy sorting out her own area.

   As Jared passed the hatch he looked at her. “Thank you, that was nice.”

   Penny froze and looked up at him, snorting loudly and snapped even louder. “WHAT did you just say?”

   The boys near Jared froze and looked at him and then the floor. They began to edge away quickly, a space clearing around him until he was on his own.

   “Err…thank you for lunch. It was really nice,” he repeated, blushing slightly. 

  There was a pause where you could have heard a pin drop while Penny stared at him, the deep dish she was holding in both hands looking more like a weapon with every passing second.

   Suddenly Penny smiled and put the dish down. “Why thank you young man. So nice to be appreciated occasionally. So few young men your age have any manners any more.”

   The boys around him breathed out heavily and as Jared was about to move away Penny reached to the side of the hatch and beckoned him towards her.

   As he cautiously approached she handed him a paper bag. “For you young man. I’m sure you’ll be hungry after your travel here.” Jared looked in the bag. Inside were two cakes, square with red and black icing on the top.

   “Thank you,” Jared said smiling and Penny smiled back, humming a little tune as she continued to clear up.

   Bue was waiting for him by the door. “See you made friends with Penny,” he chuckled looking back to where the hulking figure was smiling to herself while clearing up.

   “Just being polite, don’t think she’s used to that.” Jared whispered following Bue’s gaze.

   “Come on, it’s sports time,” Bue said enthusiastically. “You can’t miss that.”

   “I’m not very good at sports, I prefer a game of chess”

   “Of what?” Bue said looking puzzled then beamed broadly. “Come on, let’s get to the range. I’m going to show you how to fire a crossbow.”

   Jared submitted to the persistent pull on his arm and followed Bue and the other boys down the corridor. They cut across the open space near Madame Veer’s office. Jared noticed that no one stood on the grass, even by accident and kept to the path as they herded into a large hall. At one end were four round targets like Jared had seen at his father’s archery club. They were made of compacted straw and appeared quite large, even at a distance of what seemed about fif
ty metres. The biggest difference to the targets Jared had previously seen was that they didn’t have any markings on them, they were just bare straw. On one side of the room was a serious looking man of about 60 with a mane of shaggy hair. He looked fit and athletic and was wiping a crossbow with a rag as the boys entered. As they milled about he put down the bow and barked. “FORM UP!!!” 

  The boys moved into lines, one behind the other until there were three lines of three and Jared forming an odd line of four. The man looked at him and smiled kindly, beckoning him over. As Jared nervously moved forward the man turned him around so they could talk more privately. He said quietly, “hello Jared my name’s Leppard. I know you’re probably still nervous but don’t be. I know Takoba Mordalayn and he’s explained that we need to look after you. Just try and relax. This is the fun time of school for the boys so just join in ok?”

   Jared nodded and the man turned round with Jared and in a loud voice barked. “Right you lot. This is your fun time today. Don’t spoil it and it’ll stay that way. Where’s Blautin Nola?”

   A boy with brown hair and a scar on his cheek raised his hand. He was blushing as if anticipating trouble. 

  “Ah, young master Blautin,” the man said smiling and shaking his head. “I think you know why I’ve called your name?”

   The boy looked at the floor.

   “While you may have very strong opinions about the janitor the rest of us don’t wish to read about them, especially in letters two feet high.” 

  Blautin opened his mouth to speak but the man raised his hand for silence and the boy shut it quickly.  

  “Don’t waste your time denying anything. A word of advice for you. Next time you wish to deface orphanage property don’t do it in front of the door keeper. It’s not like it’s got anything better to do than spy on people.” 

  The boy mumbled something but still gazed at the floor.

   “So, you can help the janitor for the next two hours, cleaning a latrine or two. Off you go”

   The boy mumbled. “Yes Master Leppard,” and sloped off and the man then grinned brightly at the boys.

   “So, anyone else done anything they thought no one saw? Be easier if you tell me now than if we find out later?” 

  The boys just looked at him and one or two shook their heads.

   “Splendid! Not a guilty conscience amongst you. That’s the spirit. Now, we have a guest with us today so we’re going to introduce him to the fine art of the crossbow. Master Bue, step forward please.” 

 
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