I have now completed all 29 chapters of this book and sent it off. Here is the first chapter as a taster. ©Joseph R. Mason 2019
Chapter 1. The Hidden Cave.
Chapter 1. The Hidden Cave.
In the village where Tom lived, not much happened, in the county where Tom lived, not much more happened. In fact, in the whole of the country of Wales, in Tom’s eyes at least, nothing ever happened. As he walked out towards the small mountain at the back of his village, he pondered the fact, in his world, nothing happened, nothing ever had happened, never did and never would. Life was dull. But that was about to change.
Tom was thirteen. He came from a small ex-mining village in Wales, it doesn’t matter which one, for that is neither important nor relevant. For those who do not know, Wales is a principality of the United Kingdom.
Now Wales is actually a great place to be. But in Tom’s eyes, as a country, it stank, but as somewhere to be, it wowed. It had mountains, forests, rapid streams, gold, caves, and caverns to explore and snow in winter. It was a land of magic and mystery, dragons and wizardry, adventure, and even great danger; at least it was like that in the eyes of the storyteller.
However, Tom lived in an ex-mining village, “ex” because the coal mine closed in 1985 after the miners’ strike. Now, many very odd years later I would like to say what a prosperous area it now is with industry all around and everyone happy in their jobs. But of course, that’s not true, only four out of ten adults had proper jobs, the rest had very little. Somehow, despite having so little to live on, most of the adults still smoked and the men still went to the so-called “Working Men’s Club” and got drunk on a Friday night, got even worse on a Saturday night…..and then went to chapel on Sunday, for the forgiveness of their sins! ‘Working Men’s Club,’ thought Tom as he strode by, more like a dosser’s paradise! Even at his age, he could not understand why they had the money for beer and cigarettes but not for food for their families or rent for the landlord. Not his thoughts, of course, he had heard his foster parents, the Hadley-Smythes, say it many times before.
The Hadley-Smythes had moved to South Wales from Oxfordshire a couple of years ago to retire ‘near their roots’ with some vague claim on Welshness. Apart from the fact that neither of them was Welsh, had no relatives in Wales, neither had a Welsh name nor could they speak a word of the Welsh language, they were indeed very Welsh, well at least they lived there anyway. In reality, Tom didn’t know anyone who spoke Welsh in South Wales, but that was not the point.
They had both been university professors at one of the universities in Oxford. They were never clear about which one nor did they ever manage to say what they lectured on. All Tom knew was that they spoke in a very funny manner, pronouncing every letter and syllable. They couldn’t pronounce some simple words, to them a house was ‘a hise’, they would never say bike, always bicycle. The drunk only the best red wine, or red wane as they called it and referred to fizzy wine as champers, always followed by a haw, haw, haw, which was their version of a laugh. Anyway, Tom was stuck with them, despite what he thought about them and adults in general, they had always been kind to him and only lived a few doors down from his mum’s house in an end-terrace with quite a nice garden. Why people so grand lived in a small miners cottage was a mystery to Tom, but somehow their cottage seemed much bigger on the inside, they had a grand piano in the front room and a huge candelabra hung in the centre of the room. They had always welcomed his friends and seemed to be able to produce fantastic cakes and sweets for him and his mates out of thin air. He had been with them for a couple of years, they arrived just after Howl, a small Jack Russel terrier which had sort of adopted Tom but then moved into his mother’s house.
Tom went to the local comprehensive school; it was a small affair with less than four hundred pupils. Every few years, the council would try to close it and merge with a couple of other schools in neighbouring villages, but they all kept protesting and marching on the council offices, so the council would back down and let it lie for another couple of years. Tom didn’t really like school, not helped by Mrs Glynn, his form tutor, who was, in Tom’s eyes, a tyrant and a bully. Tom could not see that she was hard on some of them because she cared for them and wanted them to succeed. In many ways, Tom could only see the worst in grown-ups, he judged them all the same as his father who had left him, deserted him, and didn’t care at all.
The only good thing about school was his mates and rugby. He loved rugby, he didn’t exactly have the build of a prop forward, but Tom was a good scrum half, he was quick and almost seemed to run between the legs of the opposition. His slightly too long red hair looking like a human torch as he ran, his bright blue eyes flashing left and right, always looking for an opening. Tom was a popular lad and was always picked for the school under fifteens rugby team.
Tom and his mates used to love the countryside, and at weekends they would explore the small mountains that surrounded the village. They would pretend to be spies, sent to find out about a secret hideout somewhere in the village, they would run across the fields, hide behind the dry-stone walls shooting pretend rifles, build bases inside the mouths of the many caves, watching the village below through old loo rolls which they pretended were binoculars.
However, some days he preferred his own company, sometimes he liked to walk out onto the mountain at the back of the village to a cave about halfway up, sit in the entrance and look out over the valley to the village below with its tiny little people all rushing about their dull lives, rushing about despite the fact most had nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Tom was no worse off than some but far worse off than many. In fact, Tom was very close to the bottom of the heap. He only had a Mum and didn’t know where his dad was; he had left when Tom was a week old and took his only brother with him. His brother Jon would be about fifteen now; he had never seen him, if he had, he couldn’t remember him, and his mother never spoke much of either of them. So, neither did he. All he knew was that his brother had the same flame-red hair that he did. All he had to remember his dad by was a small gold signet ring. The ring was made of pure Welsh gold with a black onyx stone with the emblem of a dragon carved into the face. It just fitted onto his right-hand ring finger, he had never thought much about it, he had always worn it for as long as he could remember. It was small and difficult to come over his knuckle, otherwise, he was sure his mum would have taken it away and pawned it by now. His mum was ill, in a wheelchair, crippled by life she used to say, she had trouble breathing and had an oxygen bottle strapped to the wheelchair. The only visitor his mum ever had was Father Seamus O’Reilly, a Catholic priest, strange that, they weren’t even catholic.
Anyway, to summarise Tom was fostered by these English people who thought they were Welsh, and Tom had very little in life he could call his own except his dreams, his happiness and his dad’s ring. Why he was happy no one knew, but still, he was uncharacteristically happy with his lot.
Tom believed in his own mind that he was the only person who knew of the cave, none of his friends ever mentioned it, he never saw anyone else near it and there were none of the normal signs of human activity, cigarette ends, empty beer cans, discarded empty bottles of cheap cider, and discarded instant bar-b-ques. There were several caves around here; all had the signs of humanity and waste, but not this one. It was named Dragon’s Hole, Tom didn’t know why; no one believed in dragons, this was the 21st century after all. But Dragons Hole it was, always had been and probably always would be. The fact it had a name meant that others knew it was there, it was on the maps and everything, you could even see the entrance on Google Earth, but no one ever came up here except Tom.
Tom had now reached the edge of the village and proceeded up the road to the style which bridged the dry-stone wall. He crossed the field of sheep climbed another wall and started up the steep path to the cave. He never wondered why, if no one ever came here, why was there was a path? He never worked out the reason why none of the local youth came here for their illicit smoking, underage drinking and stuff….
He had come up the rough path to the cave many times and sat at the cave entrance to look and think but had never ventured any further in than the few feet or so that the entrance light allowed. Inside it was dark, very dark, very, very dark! Today he felt adventurous and had brought a torch. He thought about this very hard, did he want to go further in than the light allowed? What if there was someone in there? A mass murder escaped from prison hiding there? Bats? A huge snake? But no, he was Tom, he feared nothing and did not believe in ghosts or witches or anything scary, in Britain we did not have poisonous cave snakes. Bats could do you no harm at all and if there was a mass murderer on the loose, he would have seen it on the tele.
He gingerly ventured in, scrambling across rocks until the light was just behind him. He could hear dripping water as it seeped through the rocks and from the ceiling. He could feel his heart pounding inside his chest. Torch time he thought, the light penetrated the darkness so quickly it seemed the darkness retreated into the rocks. Tom climbed across a couple more boulders and to his surprise found that, once he was a few feet in, the scattered rocks were behind him and there was quite a flat path ahead. The small torch threw up huge shadows as he moved, shapes formed and dissolved on the walls of the cave like ever changing fast moving clouds. He could make out a huge spire in the distance, but soon realised it was the shadow of a rather small stalagmite or was it a stalactite? Never could remember which was up and which was down. “Now, what was the memory jogger?” He said to himself. “stalactites have to hold on tight!” So, he was right. He saw the shapes of monsters, dinosaurs, trees, all for a fleeting moment before their form dissolved to another shape. Tom ventured on, deep into the cave. Then he saw two green things floating just in front of him a good eighteen inches apart, it gave him quite a start and he stopped in his tracks. For some reason, he did not turn and run, for an even less explicable reason he was not even scared. As his eyes focused, he could see they were eyes, big eyes, several inches across, pearlescent green with long vertical slits to let the light in. In front of them, he could make out a couple of nostrils at the end of a very long nose. What on earth was a cow doing this far back in the cave he thought, albeit a big cow he thought, he even verbalised his thought.
“What are you doing here then cow?” Tom said in his best Welsh accent.
“Cow?” a voice came back, but this time with a perfect, crisp and clipped Oxford accent.
“Who in the Makers name are you referring to as a cow?” beads of sweat instantly formed on Tom’s brow and the blood drained from his face. Tom dropped the torch, which of course went out……
“Hadley-Smiff! What are you doing here?”
“Hadley-Smythe is the correct pronunciation, however, I am not he.”
“Mass murderer then?”
“No, No my dear boy, it is I Howel” the voice replied.
“Howel the talking cow?”
“NO! Not Howel the talking cow for crying out loud! Oh alright,” there was a small ‘pop’ and the eyes and nose joined up to what appeared to be an enormous purple dragon. He must have been forty, fifty, maybe sixty feet long, scales, long neck and huge teeth, in fact, all the normal mythical creature features! But purple? He just looked so the wrong colour! More caricature than reality.
“Don’t be stupid!” Tom said. “Dragons don’t exist, especially purple ones.”
“Well,” said the dragon. “If I had a penny for every time someone said that to me, I’d have enough money now for a cup of tea and a small Welsh cake.”
“How can I see you in the dark?” Tom said.
“Simple, dragon light,” the dragon said in a matter of fact sort of way.
“Not going to eat me, are you?” Tom didn’t quite know where that question came from but was somehow glad he had got it in early.
“No dear boy, I am not going to eat you………unless of course….. no, no, dragon humour, take no notice.”
“Are you magic then?” Tom asked.
“Of course I am,” Howel said. “otherwise you would not see me.”
“Don’t believe in magic,” Tom said.
“Oh great, now I have enough money for a cucumber sandwich as well,” he replied irritably
“I’ve got a dog at home; his name is Howl. We call him that because that’s what he does when we don’t take notice of him. He howls.”
“Enchanting, and what sort of dog is this Howl?
“He’s a Jack Russell we think. We’ve had him a couple of years. But he’s quite cute, though rather bad-tempered though. Dunno where he came from, just turned up and stayed one day. Anyway, how come you speak English then?” Tom didn’t know why he was telling a dragon about his dog, nerves he suspected.
“Because dear boy, if I spoke Welsh you wouldn’t understand a word I said!” There was now an even bigger hint of irritation in his voice.
“So, you can speak Welsh then?”
“I can, I speak over one hundred languages, fluently!”
“Latin?” Tom asked.
“Yes, Latin as well, we speak it more and more nowadays to sound authentic,” he lied, with more than a hint of sarcasm.
” Okay,” Tom replied, “and there’s no need for sarcasm.”
“Whatever!” said the dragon with a wearisome sigh, sounding more like a post-pubescent teenager than a sixty-foot dragon.
“So then, why are you here? In this cave like?” Tom said, again in his best Welsh accent.
“I am the keeper of the gate to the Land of Trymyll,” the dragon replied with a certain amount of pride.
“So, you have to stay in this old cave all the time then?” asked Tom.
“No, every Tuesday, Thursday and alternate Saturdays,” he replied, again sarcastically. “of course I don’t, but it is a full-time job,” Howel said, “have you never seen the advert in the corner shop ‘part time keeper of the gate required, enquire within’?” The dragon calmed, “Sorry about that, life can be a little tiresome, I have been the gatekeeper for a little under five hundred years and you are only the thirteenth person who has come through the gate.”
“Five hundred years don’t be daft, no one lives that long,” Tom said.
Howel ignored the interruption and continued. “I am the gatekeeper, but the cave is locked to all unless I or my master opens the cloaking spell, only then do I need to be here in this horrid, damp little hole.”
Then in reply to Tom’s earlier statement, Howel continued without drawing breath…
“Maybe humans do not live for five hundred years but dragons do, anything up to two or three thousand years for most of us, some, red dragons, even longer. Anyway,” he continued, “My time here is almost ended, I will be gone quite soon.”
“You going to die or something then?”
“No dear boy, contract runs out in five years, then I’m off to the Himalayas for a holiday before returning to Trymyll,” he then said as an afterthought, “are you saying I look old? I’ll have you know I am barely six hundred years old and in my prime, at least another millennium and a half left in me if not two millennia! Even more if I eat well!”
“Sorry,” Tom said semi-apologetically, “lights not too good in here.”
“Anyway,” Howel continued, “Tom?” Almost as a question.
“Well yes,” Tom replied warily. “How do you know my name?
“Because, my dear boy, I have been watching you since the day of your birth and calling you for the last two months.”
“Yes, calling you. How else do you think you are here?”
“But I am always here, I come here all the time”
“In reality, you have only been coming here for the last eight weeks, you only think you have been coming here forever. Have you never wondered why you always come here alone?” Howel did not wait for an answer but continued. “It is because this place only exists for you. No one else can see it or find it.”
“But I can see it on maps and Google Earth and stuff.”
“Yes, I know you can, but no one else can.”
“But I’ve shown it to my mates on the computer.”
“Yes, I know that as well, but as soon as they turn away, they forget what they have seen, children have such short spans of concentration.”
“What about the path?”
“Now we are being silly. Of course, the mountain is there. But people can only see what I let them see. Now we must get on, there is much to do.”
“Sorry mate, you might have lots to do, but I have to get back for my tea.”
“Oh contraire,” Howel replied. “we have lots to do and you dear boy are going nowhere.”
“But the Hadley-Smiffs are expecting me.”
“No we’re not, not tonight anyway,” Howel replied.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oops, slip of the tongue dear boy, forgot to mention, the Hadley-Smythes are just a figment of our imaginations and other people’s imagination. Now they are as if they never existed, which of course they didn’t. So, as I said, we must push on.”
“Hang on, hang on, you don’t get away with it that easily, I’ve been stuck with those two phony Welsh people for two years, I get one sentence of bad explanation and you say, we must push on?”
“Well,” Howel said, “there’s not that much to say, they did exist, sort of, but they were sort of magicked up by Llewellyn the Brave and me in the imaginations of all who met them. Oh, and you only think you’ve been with them for two years, it was actually only two months, it just seemed longer,” he paused, “for both of us.”
“But they were real, solid, there,” Tom said frustrated, “I saw them with my own eyes, not with my imagination,” He stopped short. “what do you mean only two months? I was with them for two long years!” His voice lifting to a slight screech.
“It is so difficult to explain to a non-magical person, yes they were there, without a doubt, but then again, they weren’t there at all. If that makes sense. Anyway, they’re gone now and no one in the village will remember them.”
They started to go along the cave’s path further and further from the entrance, further and further into the darkness.
“I still remember them.”
“Well of course you do,” Howel continued, “that is because without knowing, you helped form both the illusion and the reality, their images were woven into your thought patterns in a far more intricate way which one day soon you will hopefully understand.”
“What about my mum?”
“She remains on the other side. She knows you are here; she knows you are in safe hands.”
“I wish I did.”
“Oh! Dear boy. You can be so hurtful, of course you are in safe hands, if you were not, I would have probably eaten you by now,” he said with a chuckle. “and not only are children are so tasty, they add years to one’s existence.”
“Why am I here? Cos I’m not going nowhere till I know,” Tom said while still walking.
“My dear boy, you really are in the safest of hands,” Howel said again, but this time in a concerned almost warm voice. “The reason for your being here is simple, it is, in fact, the reason for your very being, it is your destiny dear boy, your raison-d’ être.”
“Is that Latin?”
“All will be revealed in good time. My job is just to get you over the threshold and one day’s journey in, and then you will be met by Llewel the Elder who will take you on from there.”
“What if I don’t want to go, what if I decide to turn back and run back to the village?”
“You can’t, and you know it. You are so like your brother; he is petulant as well.”
“You know my brother?”
“Yes, and your father too, both have trod this path before you. Many, many times.”
“But Jon was only two when he and my dad disappeared.”
“Maybe, but he and your father came this way and have been back and forth many times.”
Tom continued in silence, he might meet his dad and brother; that was a good enough reason to go on if he ever needed one. But what if he did? What would he say? How would he feel? How would they feel? They deserted him after all. Would he love them? Should he love them? Could he love them?
“Painful thoughts,” said Howel, “and ones I cannot answer, questions only you can sort out if and when you meet them. Oh, excuse me! Did I mention dragons can pick up thoughts.”
“So, you can read my mind?”
“No, your thoughts, not your mind. There is a difference, a thought is just a suggestion of what is going on in your mind, I can only get the thought.”
If and when? thought Tom. Forget the ‘if’ word. He continued to walk silently. Just think about ‘when’.
Now, of course, Tom had never met a dragon before, he had much to learn about them. He never imagined them to be purple, did not know they could talk and did not realise they were so pompous!
“…and I heard that thought! I am not pompous……and I still might eat you” he added as an afterthought to make himself sound harder.”
“And I don’t believe you will eat me because……” He was interrupted by Howel mid-sentence.
“And what brings you to that epic conclusion?”
“……because if you have been watching me since I was a baby and have gone to all the effort with the Hadley-Smythes and the cave and all that, you would have wasted a lot of time and trouble for such a small snack. Especially if you have a close look at me, I’m just skin and bone, there’s more meat on a butcher’s apron!”
“Oh, brother! Another one of those clichés that you humans use to try and buy time before my dinner. Don’t eat me, I have a fat friend. They all whine the same pathetic line or a variation of it!”
“What! You do eat people then?”
“Well yes,” the dragon replied with a slight awkwardness, “but not all the time and always with good reason.”
“Yes, good reason,” Howel replied. “you see, some consider it a sport to hunt and kill dragons, and it can be done if you know what you are doing, the only way is with an enchanted sword, spear or arrow of cold iron. Oh, and you have to know where to stab me.”
“Where’s that then?”
“That dear boy is very privileged information. Anyway,” he continued. “it inevitably ends in them being eaten. Now, this is the interesting bit, every time a dragon eats a human, four things happen. As I am sure you know a humans life is three score years and ten. When you eat one, every year they are under the age of seventy is then added to the dragon’s life and every year older is deducted by the same amount. Fortunately, all these knights are young and foolish, so we often put on a few dozen years every time. Plus, when you eat them you gain all their knowledge plus their language, and if from a wizard family, their magic powers as well. So, it’s win, win, win, win, win!”
“That’s five wins and only four points,” Tom said.
“Oh yes, the fifth win is, they do taste so good!” Howel said this with a definite smile and a wink.
He and Tom continued their walk through the cave, it seemed like miles to Tom, the fact was, it was linking his world to a parallel world on the other side of the universe, so miles didn’t come into it, it was light years! Howel started to talk……
“There are things you need to know, and I will teach you some as we walk. First, as we have already started, let us continue to talk of dragons, obviously my most expert subject, but I excel in so many. Dragons come in many shapes and sizes, but what matters is their colour. Golden dragons are the most magically powerful, and if you can align yourself with a Golden Dragon, you will share their powers. Golden Dragons are always for good and never evil. They can change their size and shape, their normal ‘disguise’ is a sparrow-hawk, but they can metamorphose to any shape they wish, even take on the form of a human if desired. Queen of the Golden Dragons is a graceful female called Máthair. I doubt that you would ever meet HRH Máthair, Queen of the Golden Dragons, but if you do, always best behaviour and watch your manners.
Red dragons are to be sought after as a companion; they are very magical, faithful, trustworthy and have longer lives than any other dragons. Unfortunately, their metamorphic other is a hen or cockerel according to their gender. They are also, in many ways, quite mad. Their queen, Aelwyd, Queen of the Red Dragons, is actually, completely bonkers. But please don’t tell her I said that should you ever meet her. Unlikely as that is.
Purple dragons are of course the most cultured, intelligent, good looking and modest of all dragons and grossly underrated in my opinion. Our alternative shape is a most undignified and unhappy affair, that of a small dog of an indeterminate breed but akin to a Jack Russel. Oh why, oh why could it have not been something more magnificent, a golden eagle, or at least a beautiful pure-bred dog. A proud Weimaraner, a noble Doberman or even a loving Labrador?” His voice trailing off whimsically at the end.
“You mean you’re a mongrel then.”
Howel ignored the remark and continued….
“Black dragons are the most dangerous, they have no scruples and will eat you as soon as look at you. They normally disguise as black cats, so never trust a black dragon and never trust a black cat. They are not very magical and can only hold their alter-ego shapes for a few minutes before reverting to a dragon again, the little magic they have is dark, very dark. They also tend to be very stupid. Above all, treat all dragons with suspicion, as many are both able to change their shapes and some their colour if they have the right magic. So, before you approach any dragon, make sure you know their true colours.”
By the time Howel had finished his long instruction, and there was much, much more which was not recorded here, they had reached the end of the tunnel, the exit was tiny, just big enough for Tom’s skinny little thirteen-year-old body to squeeze through.
“Well, I suppose this is goodbye for now,” Tom said.
“And why do you say that my young child?”
“Well, for a start, you are about 20 foot too fat for a hole that’s about one-foot across,” Tom said rudely.
“I’m so glad you listened to my lesson on dragons,” Howel said wearily. There was an audible ‘pop’ and when the smoke cleared the 60-foot dragon reappeared about the size of a small dog. In fact, he was a small dog, a very small dog, albeit a purple one. Tom laughed at such a sight but tried to hide it as a cough, Howel looked as scornfully as he could at Tom, (being a purple dog did not help him look angry at all). Tom laughed even more at the scowl and headed for the open air. Howel shook and settled into a white, black and tan patched Jack Russell.
“Quickly though the hole. Thankfully, I can hold this shape for a quite a while, long periods if I must, but it is so undignified.” They scurried through into the light and emerged atop a huge wooded valley.
“What! You look just like Howl!”
Another ‘pop’ and the dragon was back.
“Of course I do, that is because, I am he.”