After the departure of Old Ged the hunter, the companions enjoyed much animated discussions on the topic of dragons, made more discursive and rather louder by the effects of the second and third pint of the light-coloured ale. They were all feeling sleepy after their long walk, plus of course the effect of the strong beer. By this time, it was getting quite late, and it seemed that most of the regulars had consumed their ration and made their way home.
Tom supped the last of his pint and then stretched, leaning back on the settle and trying - unsuccessfully, as it turned out - to suppress a yawn.
"Feeling tired, boys?" Bram enquired.
There was a general muttering of assent.
"All right then, I'll go and find out where we're billeted tonight."
Tom watched as Bram moved over to the bar and spoke to the landlady. After a few moments of conversation, the matron pointed in the direction of a doorway at the back of the room. She passed an old-fashioned lamp over the bar, already lit. Carefully carrying the lantern, Bram made his way back to where the other two were waiting.
"Well, come on, then," he instructed.
Alistair drained his glass and stood up, followed immediately by Tom. Evidently following the landlady's instructions, Bram directed them to a room downstairs, a small room with three narrow beds. Their bedroom was at the end of a corridor, which was cool and dark.
Tom was glad of the illumination from the lamp carried by Bram, which seemed to be curiously lacking any flickering caused by their movement. It looks like an oil lamp, Tom thought, but he was not sure how it was controlled. It was almost as if Bram was waving at it to make it brighter or dimmer, and Tom wondered sleepily how using gestures could have such an effect.
They entered the room, and Tom made a bee-line for the bed in the furthest corner of the room. He groggily untied and removed his boots and rolled onto the bed, falling asleep almost instantly.
Later in the night, Tom awoke, curled up on the bed and still wearing all of his clothes. There was a short period of confused alarm while he worked out where he was and how he had got there. Opening his eyes, he blearily caught sight of Bram writing in his notebook. Bram was dressed only in his shirt, and looked like he had just sat up on the edge of his bed.
Tom froze, trying not to move and to keep his breathing as soft and even as possible. He wondered what was going on. He knew that Bram carried this leather-bound jotter with him everywhere he went; it was never out of his sight. During the years of the War, he had frequently seen Bram writing in his notebook, and had even glimpsed some of the pages, which seemed to contain assorted notes, doodles and even poems.
The mysterious oil lamp was still burning, set very low, and most of the room was in near-darkness. It seemed to Tom almost as if the notebook was somehow itself faintly glowing in the darkness. Bram was apparently writing with his pencil, not on the pages but on the inside of the back cover. The letters appeared strangely in white against the dark leather, almost as if he was writing in luminescent chalk. The characters themselves were strangely shaped and looked, as far as Tom could tell, just like the script he had seen on the signboard outside.
Bram waved his hand, and the lettering faded instantly. He then shut the book with a soft slap and slipped it under his pillow. Looking around, it seemed to Tom, slightly shiftily, Bram then got back into bed, slipping under the covers and appearing to fall asleep immediately. Tom tried to keep watch for a while, but found himself drifting off within a few minutes.
Tom awoke feeling very refreshed and with no evidence of a hangover, much later than was habitual for him. Life on the farm, not to mention the Army, had conditioned him to rise very early. He wondered briefly whether he had dreamed what he had witnessed in the middle of the night. After a few minutes indecision, he concluded that he was not sure, and finally put the whole matter out of his mind.
The others had already arisen, so Tom leapt from his bed, washed rapidly using the old-fashioned bowl and pitcher of water that had been provided, and emerged to a hearty pub breakfast, served with the familiar accompaniment of hot, sweet milky tea.
The three young men set off soon after breakfast, with just a few minutes required to sort their belongings. As promised, Bram negotiated with the landlady and paid for their accommodation and meals. It was not until much later that Tom realised that no one asked to see their ration-books.
"Well, lads, let's be on our way," Bram exclaimed encouragingly, "We can be there in time for lunch. Three hours, no more."
"I didn't think this island was that big!" Tom wondered aloud.
Bram snorted in amusement.
"Oh, it's bigger than it looks, you know," he replied. "Things often are around here."
They set off down the road but, before they had gone more than two dozen steps, Tom stopped and turned to look back at the pub sign. Inspiration striking, he drew closer to the other two and asked, "Do you think that's a Dragon's Nest, then?"
"You know, I think it probably is," Bram responded, barely able to keep the laugh out of his voice.
The weather had started misty and cool, feeling distinctly autumnal in the morning, but the sun soon burst through and burnt off the mist. It was very pleasant walking along in the autumn sunshine in companionable silence, following a dusty track though a heavily wooded area. The road wended its way steadily uphill, passing in and out of the shade of the trees. They could see occasional rocky outcrops and crags emerging from the greenery on either side. The road did not seem to be very well-travelled, quite unlike the one to the causeway on the other side of the bridge.
After about an hour's stroll, the road emerged in more open farmland, and they continued between well-tended fields separated by low hedges. Tom could see that many of the crops had already been taken in and, in most cases, the fields already ploughed over, while a very few others were still waiting for harvesting.
Even so, he could see no movement, other than the occasional flutter of bird life in the hedgerows, birds that Alistair cheerfully identified in a familiar fashion. There was a noisy rookery in a stand of tall trees, a line of majestic Elms striding across the landscape. But there were no livestock visible, no people. They pressed on with the sun on their faces, pulling down their hats to shade their eyes, and taking an occasional drink from the water bottles they had refilled at the pub. It slowly occurred to Tom that, in the entire three hour walk, they had not seen a single living soul.
"Aha, here's our village," Bram announced, as they breasted a low rise. The companions could see a hamlet set in a valley in the rolling countryside, screened on all sides by mature trees and hedges. The tiny village comprised perhaps a dozen houses, no more, loosely clustered around a stream which had originally, Tom imagined, provided water for the occupants. It was clear that both buildings and gardens were well-maintained, with privacy assured by high stone walls decorated by climbing or creeping plants that Tom did not recognise.
Through the occasional openings in the walls, the companions could sometimes spot people working in their gardens. From one, smoke was rising from a bonfire where someone was presumably getting rid of dead leaves and other garden detritus.
"And there's my parents' house," he continued, as the three companions drew closer to the centre of the hamlet.
Bram's family home was a single-story building of relatively modest size, surrounded by fair-sized grounds which included a stable and coach-house, as well as other outbuildings of less easily determinable function. Following Bram, the companions made their way through the open gate and along the wide path of raked gravel that led to a small open area between the buildings which was paved with smooth cobblestones. Despite the fact that Bram had apparently been absent from home for many years, he did not hesitate in the slightest. He marched straight towards a passageway between the main house and the stable block.
"Here we are," he said, "Let's go in."
Bram pushed open a door which led to a kitchen. As he entered, an older woman Tom correctly guessed was Bram's mother turned and greeted him, her face lighting up at his arrival. The woman had the same unruly hair as Bram, thick and dark and curly. She was evidently extremely pleased to see Bram, rushing over to embrace her son warmly and murmuring something that Tom could not quite hear.
At that moment, a man whom Tom immediately took to be Bram's father entered the room through an inner doorway.
He was a large man, powerfully built with a full dark beard only lightly streaked with grey and an untamed shock of black hair frosted at the temples. Seeing his son, the older man grinned widely in a slightly lop-sided and ironic way. Tom thought he recognised that expression - it was one he had observed on Bram's face on a regular basis.
Seeing the other two in the doorway, Bram's father beckoned them further into the room.
"Brought some friends, then?" he said laconically to his son.
Bram nodded, grinning in a mirror image of his father.
Bram's mother and father did not seem particularly surprised at the arrival of their errant son in the company of his presumably disreputable companions, Tom considered; it was almost as if they were expected.
"Let me introduce you to my father," Bram said, proceeding to present each of the companions to his father in turn, in a rather formal fashion.
"Pleased to meet you, sir," Alistair said, offering his hand.
The older man grasped the proffered palm and shook it warmly. It seemed to Tom that Bram's father was not quite as stiff as Bram had made out. Then it was Tom's turn to be introduced.
"Good to make your acquaintance, Mr. Stoker," he said politely and also offering his hand.
At this last remark, the older man turned and looked quizzically at his son, raising an eyebrow. Bram shrugged his shoulders in response.
"Oh, we don't stand on ceremony hereabouts," his father said, turning back to Tom, "Please call me Briz."
"Briz," Tom said, correcting himself, as the older man grasped his hand.
Briz turned to face all three of the younger men.
"Well, I'm pleased to finally meet you both. Bram does write to his mother from time to time, although not quite as frequently as she might like."
Bram contrived to look slightly sheepish at this remark.
"Nevertheless, I have heard a little about each of you, and I am hoping to learn more," Briz continued, "So, please, make yourselves at home - my house is your house for as long as you wish."
Bram, who was still standing very close to his mother, interjected to introduce her to Tom and Alistair. Her name turned out to be Yellez. She immediately set about organising the young men, directing them to chairs in the kitchen - "to keep you from cluttering the place up" - and offering them hot drinks.
"I'm so very pleased to meet you both," she chattered as she set about the process of boiling the kettle and making the tea, "You've arrived at just the right time. I'm hoping we can take lunch outside today, as this may be the last opportunity this summer."
"I'm sure lunch will be wonderful," Alistair responded politely.
"Bram had in fact let me know that you were coming," Yellez continued, beaming, "So I've taken the precaution of getting in some extra provisions. I know just how hungry you young men can be."
The two men thanked her in a heartfelt manner as they drank their tea.
Briz rejoined the conversation.
"I need to talk to Bram for a few minutes, with my brother," he said, "There are some things which have come up while he been away which I need to discuss with them both."
Tom could see Bram nodding behind his father's back, and both he and Alistair took the hint and nodded their agreement.
"Good. So," he continued, turning around to face Bram, "Why don't you find your sister, and get her to show our guests around?"
"Of course," Bram responded promptly, "I'll be right back."
He stepped out through the outer door. True to his word, he returned only a few seconds later followed immediately by a rather striking young woman.
"Gentlemen, this is Yise, my sister," Bram announced, proceeding to introduce the two companions, who had both politely stood up with much scraping of chairs as she entered the room.
"Hello," she said brightly, "So you're to get the guided tour, then?"
"So it appears," Tom replied.
"OK. Let's go then," she retorted, then turned and set off briskly back out through the door she had just entered.
"See you shortly," Bram called cheerfully, as the two men set off through the kitchen door, hurrying to catch up with the young woman.
Yise and Bram were clearly brother and sister, even though she was blonde in contrast to Bram's dark colouring. Her long hair had the same unruly nature, even when tied back into a ponytail. She appeared capable and athletic, and was wearing a loose white blouse and close-fitting leather trews and boots, so that she resembled the land girls whose propaganda pictures Tom had frequently seen in the newspapers.
Tom thought he detected a suggestion of a strong, untamed nature behind Yise's demure appearance, and she seemed somehow slightly elfin in appearance. Perhaps, he mused, it was those high cheekbones and a slightest suggestion of pointed ears which made the siblings look so similar. Even so, it seemed to him that that Bram's facial features were more pronounced than he remembered.
Alistair seemed tongue-tied in the presence of the young woman, seemingly ready to blush if she so much as glanced in his direction. Yise appeared unaware of this, and chattered away gaily, pointing out the pathways and describing the layout of the estate. Tom found himself smiling and nodding in response, or making polite appreciative comments in order to keep some kind of a conversation going.
The pathway skirted a considerable expanse of well-trimmed lawns, which led down to several fenced-off paddocks for horses. To the side of the main house was a large vegetable garden. Alistair visibly relaxed when he saw the carefully-tilled plots of land, with cleared spaces where some crops had already been pulled, and others with late summer vegetables still growing. There was a very decent area of potatoes, some already dug up, and with a fork stuck in the ground to mark the place from which the spuds were currently being lifted. Alistair looked around with evident interest at the plantings and produce, relieved to be in comfortable surroundings.
Between the vegetable plots and the kitchen, there was a large and slightly overgrown herb garden. This was stocked with a wild profusion of plants, many of which were clearly known to Alistair, and even Tom could recognise mint, lavender and rosemary. Even so, some were unfamiliar. Alistair gently fingered the leaves of a herb that looked a little like sage, but smelt of some kind of rather tart fruit.
"I'm afraid I don't recognise this one," Alistair said to Yise, finally plucking up the courage to ask a question, "What's it called?"
"I don't know," she said, smiling directly at him, "At least, I'm not sure of its name in English."
Alistair appeared to be about to ask another question but, before he could open his mouth, a bell rang out, sounding distantly but clearly across the grounds.
"Time for lunch," said Yise, "Let's go back".
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