The two men left the house shortly afterwards, informing Roland that they were exploring the grounds. The butler nodded, although the fact that he was using a chair to support himself as he stood by the doorway gave them little confidence in his memory. As soon as they reached the woods, Alexander gave a whistle.
After a few minutes of whistling and shouting himself hoarse, Fortuno gave up.
‘Can I help you gentlemen?’ asked a matter-of-fact voice from above his head. Fortuno looked slowly up into the tree beside them and scowled.
‘Where on Earth were you, you furry miscreant?’
‘We cats do not respond to calls. We cats come when we choose.’
‘Is that so?’ Fortuno replied, before flinging a small pebble upwards. There was a hiss, a scraping of claws, and the black cat shot down from the tree.
‘That was uncalled for. May a thousand years of bad luck fall upon your head for your discourtesy.’
‘Yes, enough of the curses Sam. Now where’s Eduardo?’
‘He’s around here somewhere. Sleeping on the job probably. Maybe I should give him a little nip on the…’ Sam stopped, because he suddenly noticed the small lion cub moving towards him, having emerged from under a large evergreen.
‘Little nip on the where, sorry?’
‘Erm, nothing, nothing.’
‘Because I’m sure that you…’
‘Oh don’t try to intimidate me, you feckless…’
‘Forget that! We need you to take us to the crater.’ Miguel interrupted, standing between the two bickering animals.
‘Right this way sir.’ replied Eduardo, who moved off with speed that was more fitting for a cheetah than a lion cub. Sam followed on behind, leading the sorcerers through the woods, leaping at the occasional passing fly and pulling faces at his fellow familiar. The two animals shared a great many similarities with their masters, their personalities developing to match. Eduardo was a carefree, energetic optimist, much like Miguel, while Sam had never quite recovered from Alexander’s cynical phase and remained caustic and wary.
‘It makes a change being in mortal company for once, doesn’t it? They do so much living in their brief spans, and then we, with our centuries of life, complain that there is nothing worth living for.’ Fortuno suddenly stated.
‘Oh don’t start another of your wistful observations on life Alexander. Your problem is you hit your mid-life crisis too late and it’s never let up since.’ Sam snapped at him.
‘Alex has a point though Sam. And it does make one disheartened. I mean, look at Bernard. Nearly two thousand years old, never been married or had children.’ Miguel sighed. ‘We live a lonely life, we sorcerers. Like weary travellers we walk on to our destination, with only our familiars for company to prevent us from being driven completely mad, only to reach a precipice. We can do nothing but sit on the very brink, and sometimes one will push another into the chasm, or despair and plunge in himself.’
‘And all this time, the mortals try so hard to cling on to the edge, not knowing how lucky they are to be finite.’ added Eduardo.
‘You’re starting to depress me, kindly shut up.’ Sam interjected, breaking the thoughtful mood.
Eventually, they reached a glade. At least, it appeared to be a glade until Alexander and Miguel stepped out from under the shade of the trees and noticed the deep crater that had lurked just below their eyeline.
‘What a mess.’ Alexander commented. The crater was about the size of a small house, but the devastation it caused was at least triple the size, as if it had caused a spreading infection in the trees, that had caused them to rot and fall apart. Though the impact had been several days ago, an acrid smell remained hanging in the air, almost choking the sorcerers as they examined the carnage.
‘I’ve never seen anything like…’
He stopped, realising that he had trodden on something, grimacing as he realised it was a skeleton’s rib cage. Miguel unhesitatingly picked the skeleton up and began to examine it with a trained eye.
‘I’m not sure. Whoever he was, from the look of the charring on the inner rib cage, it appears that this man was killed by intense heat from the inside, as if he swallowed hot coals or something. It is unlike any sorcery… or even necromancy I have ever seen.’
‘So, what could have caused it?’
Miguel shrugged and dropped the skeleton unceremoniously on the floor.
‘I have no idea. And there are no footprints, see. Just patches of scorched earth.’
Fortuno circled the crater and managed to find several other skeletons littered around the edge.
‘Curious locals. Such a pity.’
‘Well, you know what they say about curiosity.’ said Eduardo, shooting a glance at Sam, who glared at him.
‘So, we have no leads, no tracks…what do we have?’
‘No hope.’ Muttered Sam, whilst cleaning his paws.
‘I hate to admit it Alex, but he’s right. We’re best off returning to the manor and waiting for further activity.’
‘And what if the ‘activity’ consists of someone else dying?’ asked Fortuno, a little harshly.
‘What would you do then?’ Miguel retorted, not looking up. Alexander did not reply and Miguel turned to go.
‘Very well then.’
The two tromped back through the woods, not noticing the mysterious figure lurking in the trees across the glade.
‘No need to fear Mr. Fortuno. I have all the life I need.’ The figure whispered to itself, silently slipping away.
Upon returning to the mansion, Fortuno and Miguel headed into the manor garden, where they noticed a number of noblemen practicing their fencing skills.
‘Up for a challenge Alex?’
‘Oh I wouldn’t dream of challenging you. What was it Wellington said ‘the greatest swordsman of our time, just a shame he’s a bally foreigner’. I tend to agree with him.’
Miguel mimed being hit in the heart with an arrow.
‘You always know just how to hurt me Alex.’ he replied with mock sadness, before clapping his friend on the back and making for the course.
‘Would you mind if we joined you?’
‘Certainly not sir, the more the merrier.’
Miguel and Fortuno took out their blades and began to practice, clearly outshining the others on the course, who were clad in the full fencing regalia and armour, and wielding fine epées. The two fencers closest to them both used swirling movements, Miguel moved fluidly, seeming more like a flamenco dancer than a swordsman, whereas Fortuno fought more like a gentleman, straight and upright. Eventually, the two warriors parted, and one of the other fencers came up to Fortuno, raising his mask. He had a noble bearing, with grey, curly hair and a huge beard. It was clear from how he held himself that he was of an aristocratic background.
‘Would you care to trade partners sir, it seems you have quite a skill with the blade.’
Miguel swapped places with the other masked swordsman, and they began to fight again. Miguel soon gained the upper hand over his opponent, who threw his arms down in defeat, but with a satisfied grin on his face, content that the best man had won. Fortuno, on the other hand, was enjoying a challenge with his partner, who had managed to match both his hits. Eventually, the two of them both went for the deciding blow at the same time, scoring a draw. Miguel looked on with bemusement at his friend, who saluted his partner.
‘You clearly practice often Mr…’
‘Miss.’ The duellist lifted up the mask to reveal the young servant girl who he had seen with Rosemary earlier that day.
‘Alexander Fortuno, at your service madam.’
They shook hands, gently.
‘Now, if you’ll excuse me sir, I’ve got to start setting out dinner.’
‘Of course Miss.’
Miranda smiled coolly, and left the field after removing the padded armour and leaving her sword on a low stone wall. Miguel and the other duellist joined Fortuno on his court.
‘Odd, usually very talkative that one.’ commented Miguel’s duellist, who introduced himself as the Earl of Leicester.
‘It must just be Alexander’s natural charm, leaving her dumbstruck.’ Miguel smirked, patting his friend on the back. By then, the duellist had noticed a number of other fencers that had assembled, ready to take him on.
‘You go back Alex; I’ll be there in…’ He looked at the queue of men, which equalled seven in all. ‘About five minutes.’