Tarquin climbed. His breath rose before him in billowing clouds – it wasn’t half cold in the mountains. But he didn’t mind. He savoured every fresh breath, and took a moment to stand and admire the spectacular view. He had left the duck behind in the underground room. He didn’t think he could put up with talking to a rubber duck inside his head for much longer. It was definitely more peaceful without it. An orangey glow now lit the sky as the Sun rose over the peaks of the mountains. She woke with a headache after getting no sleep the previous night - the Moon had been having a party. The Sun rolled her eyes. Teenagers nowadays.
After an hour of two of continuous climbing, Tarquin slowed. He thought maybe he ought to stop here for the night – his legs were beginning to ache.
As though he had spoken this thought aloud to the World, a reasonably sized tent presented itself before him. He had had no idea that the ground could supply tents. He unzipped it cautiously, and breathed in the smell of new plastic. There was nobody inside, just a sleeping bag and pillow, and an assortment of shampoos and conditioners. Apparently, thought Tarquin, someone, somewhere, had a sense of humour.
After a short debate with himself about whether or not he should except the random hospitality of the mountain, he gave in to himself. He was cold, tired and aching, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before the Moon appeared in the sky, playing stupid music again until silly o’ clock. So, grudgingly, he zipped up the tent, scrambled into the sleeping bag and switched off the light in his mind, which flickered and relit. He sat up irritably. By the dim light that forced its way through the walls of the tent, Tarquin could just make out a very small silhouette at the end of his sleeping bag. It looked to Tarquin like an awfully familiar rubber duck...
Well, yes. But I had to, don’t you know, it’s my duty to protect you. His tone of voice said only too clearly that, given his way, he would not be in a tent with the crazy man that sat before him.
Oh, well, if you’ve got things you’d rather be doing, be my guest.
No, no, not at all. They sat in the semi-darkness glaring at each other with thought-eyes. They stayed in this fashion for a while before Gerald ‘spoke’.
Look – I know neither of us want me here, but I have to be. I’ll be with you from now on, so you’d better get used to it. And anyway, that’s hardly the most important thing right now. In case you’ve forgotten, I’ve been sent to help you.
Tarquin bowed his head, now feeling slightly ashamed of his rudeness to his protector, however strange they might appear. It was with great effort that he managed a small “Sorry.”
That’s quite alright. Now, I suggest you get some sleep. I have plans for tomorrow.
At bloody last, thought Tarquin bitterly.
Hey. I heard that.
Light crept slowly over the mountain tops and pooled in the valleys next morning, as a reluctant Sun got out of bed. Sometimes, she thought bitterly, that Moon went too far.
The morning sunlight poured in through the fabric of the tent, causing Tarquin to stir. He awoke slowly, his eyes finally flickering open. He stood up suddenly, causing Gerald to roll away with a metaphorical scream. Paying no attention to the duck, Tarquin unzipped the tent and strode outside. He screwed up his eyes against the bright light, and finally found a voice.
“Where am I?” he muttered. He turned to look at the scene around him. Confused as he was, he could not help but appreciate its unique and stunning beauty. A muffled yelping within his own head pulled him from his thoughts. In a flood of realisation he remembered – the magic, Aeternus, the tent, and Gerald... How could he have forgotten? He returned to the tent to turn Gerald back the right way up. After apologising profusely for causing him to be turned upside-down, they turned their attention to the task at hand.
So... you said you had plans?
Gerald’s thought face broke into a smile.
Indeed I do.
And so it was that Tarquin took the gifts that the tent had provided and left, the tent mysteriously disappearing before they had turned any corners. Following Gerald’s somewhat vague and unhelpful directions, they managed to get themselves back down the mountain and at the edge of a large and deserted field. Tarquin’s eyes scanned the field for some sign of magic, or cottages popping out of the ground, but none appeared. He looked uncertainly at Gerald who lay in Tarquin’s open hand.
Tarquin looked. And there was the sweet little cottage he had been searching for earlier, sitting innocently and looking sweetly in their direction.
Tarquin approached with extreme caution, half expecting the cottage to get up and charge at him. But it remained motionless, just like any normal cottage. This one was a very good actor. It felt the footsteps on its path, and the rather hesitant knock on its door. It swung open, feeling at once the draft of cold air rush in.
“...Hello?” Tarquin called into the doorway, savouring the renewed use of his voice box. There followed the quiet yet distinct sound of shoes on a stone floor, which came gradually closer. Soon enough, a towering figure stood in the doorway, looking down upon the one and half visitors that stood before him.
“Why hello there, good sir and...” the figure nodded in the direction of Gerald, apparently unsure of what the duck should be addressed as. “I cannot say I have not being expecting you. Please, come in.”
They retreated into the depths of the cottage, and Tarquin and Gerald followed into a large and brightly lit living room. Sunshine streamed in through the windows, bathing them in light. They were now able to see, for the first time, the man whose home they had entered. Tall and intimidating, with a mane of wild grey hair, he smiled down at them, his face lined but surprisingly friendly. Dull green eyes met the vivid blue of Tarquin’s, and the small black dots that were Gerald’s.
“Thank you, Gerald,” said the stranger, “for guiding him thus far. I trust you will stay with him along the way?”
Gerald nodded without moving his head.
“Good good. Now... you, sir... what do I call you?”
Taken aback at the sudden swing of the conversation in his direction, Tarquin stammered.
“Tarquin. Hmm....” He looked uncertainly at Gerald. “You’re sure it’s him?”
“Well then, Tarquin. My name is Albert. I am going to try and help you. Okay?”
“Erm. Yes. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now. It seems you are the Container for one of the most powerful magical objects in existence. Do not ask me why, I do not know. The fact remains, however, that Aeternus are aware that you possess it. They are determined to take it from you in the hope that it will help them achieve their ultimate goal of immortality. We must do everything we can to stop this. Aeternus in possession of such power... They would be sure to attempt to take over the Universe, which of course, we do not want. Also, removing it from you would kill you. So it is advisable that we do not give them the opportunity to take it from you. "
Albert paused for a moment, long enough for Tarquin to think dully how much this was beginning to sound like an action movie.
"I suggest you stay here with me for the moment. Until...”
Albert trailed off into silence and Tarquin stood motionless, apparently too afraid to ask Albert to finish his sentence. They remained there, men and duck, in silence for a good few seconds, which became longer with each tick of the clock. Albert was the first to come to his senses.
“My son will show you to your room to deposit your things. I’m sure you will be quite comfortable here. Tarquin, Gerald, this is Adam. ”
A young man now stood beside them. Short, dark hair and grey-blue eyes, and just as tall as his father, Adam was certainly handsome. With a small gesture of the head he walked from the room, and with a last, uncertain glance towards Albert, Tarquin followed.