2020 by Allemande
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CHAPTER TWO – More questions than answers

“Who are you?” the old man whispered.

“Umm,” said Alex. He was feeling very nervous, without really knowing why. The old man looked like he’d seen a ghost. “I’m Alex. I, er, live in the village down in the valley?”

“How did you get here?” The old man was blocking the doorway and didn’t look like he was going to budge. “Nobody gets this far.”

“I… just walked. Nothing stopped me.”

“Which takes me back to my first question.” The old man’s voice now sounded stronger, his eyes narrowing. “Who are you?”

Alex frowned. “I’m… just Alex. Alex Carter. I’m no one special.” Great. As if this wasn’t driven home to him enough every day of his life.

The old man snorted “Right.” Without warning, he surged forward so that Alex jumped out of the way, then slammed the back door behind him and advanced on Alex, who retreated into the garden.

“Nobody gets this far, like I said.” The old man had started to circle him. “So what are you?”

What am I?” Alex was trying his best not to panic. If he could only remain calm, surely this old man, albeit slightly insane, would calm down. “I’m a human being. I’m… just a kid from Tawelfan.”

“Ah yes, Tawelfan,” spat the old man. “‘Quiet place’. You try to kid yourselves you’re so quiet, and then you come up here with your children and your dogs and your smells and your songs, and you snoop around, and don’t think I can’t hear you talk about me down in the valley!” His words came out in a rush and he stopped himself suddenly, but still continued to mutter under his breath as he stomped around the garden.

Alex thought he could hear his own heartbeat gain even more speed, and forced himself to concentrate on his breathing. When he had taken a few deep breaths, he braved the old loony again. “Look, I’m sorry there have been people troubling you in the past, and I really don’t want to interfere in your life or take up much of your time. I’m just… I wanted to ask you a few questions about this region, seeing as you’ve lived here so long.”

“And who told you how long I’ve lived here, eh? Eh?” The old man advanced again and started stabbing Alex’ chest with his forefinger. “Nobody knows how long I’ve been here!”

“It’s just… people told me,” said Alex, trying not to move. “People in the village say you’ve been here for a while. And your father before you, and so on.”

To his surprise, the old man’s ancient, withered-looking face split into a grin, showing yellowing teeth. “My father. The tales they come up with when they don’t understand something.”

Not understanding something was definitely a feeling Alex could relate to. Still, he wasn’t going to give in so easily. “Okay… so we don’t understand you. And you don’t want to be understood, I think. That’s fine. I just… wanted to talk to you for a bit. Ask you a couple questions for my paper.”

“What do you mean, paper?” the old man barked.

“My final paper, for my studies. I’m a medievalist. More specifically, I’m writing my final paper on King Arthur, and I was hoping I could ask you if you knew anything about this region, Caerleon having been linked to Camelot in many writings, and... well… I was just wondering if you knew anything that could help my research.”

The old man’s face had been unreadable as Alex had started to speak; now he leant forward until their noses almost touched, and fixed Alex with a piercing gaze. Alex almost had the feeling he was reading his thoughts, separating facts from fiction, making absolutely sure Alex was telling the truth. Then –

The old man threw back his head and laughed.

***

“… and if you could have all that info on my desk by eight tomorrow, that would be much appreciated,” James Roshannon was saying to his boss’s secretary. “Thanks, Susan.”Finally, he exited the office.

Susan the secretary finished typing her email. Then she said casually, as if to herself: “Anything I should know about?”

She kept on typing for a few moments, then turned around and gazed at the picture frame on her desk, as if looking at something beyond it. “Not his usual calm self at all. Wants me to compile all these lists of basic information about the bank, members, statistics… like he wants to get himself up to speed.”

Aurelia frowned. Susan had always been a little over-zealous. But getting the job done very well, these past three years. She pressed a few buttons on her switchboard, opening communications with Susan, who was still gazing into the camera in her picture frame, looking at her right out of one of the manifold screens in Aurelia’s office.

“Nothing to worry yourself with, operative,” said Aurelia. “He’s just a little strung up. Just get the info ready for him.”

Susan, on the other end of the line, sighed. “Fine. If there’s anything I need to know, well, let me know.”

“Absolutely.” Aurelia paused, then added, “And by the by, Susan, could you put in an extra shift and give us some more informal stuff on Roshannon? Such as his pals, favourite food and drink, any quirks you haven’t thought important enough to report so far…” She trailed off. She knew that she was just confirming Susan’s suspicion that something big was afoot. But Susan Clarke was enough of a professional to just follow orders until her superiors deemed it wise to fill her in.

“Sure,” replied Susan, not batting an eyelid. “You’ll have it by nine tomorrow. Oh, and try Paul Hartnell – I think he’s a pal of Mr Roshannon’s from college and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t turn up on your payroll somewhere. He came to this office once and had the whole room mapped in five seconds.”

“Understood. Thanks, Susan.”

She had a lot of work to do.

***

It was a strange laugh.

It seemed to rise from deep within his throat, sounding cracked, sounding… unused. It went on for a while, too. As though he hadn’t found anything this amusing in a long time.

Finally, the laughter subsided and the old man, having held on to Alex’ shoulder for support, steadied himself.

“A medievalist,” he repeated, then chuckled again. “And you really are, I can see it… I mean, I can also see something else, I think…” And he squinted and stared right into Alex’ eyes again. “You know, my boy, whoever instilled that notion in you that you’re ‘nothing special’ is an idiot. But then, all men are idiots these days.” He frowned. “Huh. That sobered me up.”

“So…” said Alex tentatively. “Why is it funny?”

The old man stared at him a little longer, then shrugged. “Never you mind, Alan.”

“Er… it’s Alex.”

“Whichever.” The old man waved a dismissive hand. “Cup of tea?”

Alex followed him inside. It was a surprisingly normal-looking house, albeit very old, with a lot of old things in it – furniture, books, strange-looking bottles and bowls, bunches of dried herbs and flowers hanging upside down from the ceiling… But all in all, a normal country house.

“Expected a bat cave, did you?” the old man commented, without turning around, as he prepared the tea.

“Er,” said Alex, and the old man just snorted. Alex shrugged and continued his exploration of the parlour. There were a lot of bookshelves, and he scanned the titles quickly. Literature, mostly. A few cook books, it looked like… but the rest were just novels.

“No history books, I’m afraid.” Alex checked, but the old man still had his back turned. What, did he have eyes in the back of his head or something?

“No bloody good, history books,” the old man continued. “Always wrong, Alan, always wrong.”

“Alex,” the younger man corrected automatically.

“Right.” Walking over to the table near the largest window, the old man appeared to be balancing the kettle, tea cups, milk and a sugar bowl. He seemed much steadier on his feet than Alex had expected. “Alex. Never liked that name since that tsar dynasty. Bloody gits.”

Alex smiled and accepted the teacup that was being offered him. He was sure he had never heard the Russian tsars referred to as such, and that was saying something considering the level of eccentricity at his college. “So how about you then? Have you got a name?”

“What do you mean, have I got a name?” the old man barked, suddenly sounding quite deranged again. “Of course I’ve got a name, the question is just which one, isn’t it?” He muttered some more to himself, then sighed. “Just call me Rhys.”

Alex blinked. Best just to ignore the old man’s cranky outbursts, he thought. “Okay. So, Rhys… mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“Fine. But only if I can ask you some of mine.” The old man grinned his wide, yellow-toothed grin again. “But you first. This should be interesting.”

“Er… right.” He wasn’t sure what he could possibly have to say that would be of interest to the old man. Perhaps some news from the outside world? Oh, great. That was bound to cheer him up immensely.

“So… how long have you lived in this area?” He took a sip from his tea. Strong, but very good.

Rhys snorted. “Easy questions first, eh? Let’s see. I’ve been here longer than you or any of your family would remember.”

“Not one for direct answers, are you?”

Rhys just grinned. It looked like he was starting to really enjoy himself.

***

As he shut the door of his flat behind him, James’ shoulders dropped, and he half-stumbled into the living-room, collapsing on his sofa.

He wasn’t ready for this. He’d been in the bank for no more than fourteen months, five of which as Howen’s personal assistant. There was no way he could just take over from his boss. He was only just beginning to understand how everything was linked together, how many threads Howen held in his hand and, more importantly, how he managed not to let go of a single one of them. How was he supposed to keep the bank running as it did now, without it running him over? And how were the other employees, never mind the world, ever going to accept him?

James curled up on the couch. He would just close his weary eyes for a minute and think this through.

Moments later, he was fast asleep.

***

“Do come by again,” said Rhys, in a tone that sounded almost friendly, as he shook Alex’ hand.

“And if you think of anything else…”

“I’ve got your address.” Rhys patted the chest pocket of his old-fashioned, actually rather ugly cardigan. “Be interesting to send a letter again. Do they still use stamps?”

“Er… yes.”

Alex said goodbye, and as he retraced his steps down the narrow path and through the brambles, he could feel Rhys’ stare in the back of his neck. Well, that had been interesting, albeit a complete waste of time academically speaking. Rhys had given him nothing. Only vague allusions and long speeches that sounded almost like riddles, and most frustratingly, a thorough pounding of whatever academic text Alex would happen to quote.

Then, the questions Rhys had asked him were also weird: none at all about politics or the state of the world, but personal questions about him, his life, his background, which he had all answered as truthfully as he dared.

Rhys reminded him very much of an old prof of his: He was either very, very clever, or completely insane.

Back in his garden, the old man was having very similar thoughts. “He’s either very, very clever or completely oblivious,” he muttered to himself, absent-mindedly tearing out a few weeds. “Still, this can’t be a coincidence… or can it? Certainly seen enough of those for three lifetimes…” He stopped, looking up at the stuffed fox that seemed to be standing in for a garden gnome. “What do you think?”

The fox didn’t reply, and the old man sighed. “Maybe I should get a cat again.”

“Wotcher, Catpaws.” Paul, Alex’s oldest pal from Tawelfan, had been mowing the lawn outside of his parents’ house as Alex walked past.

“Hey Paul.” They shook hands. “I can’t believe you’re still calling me that.”

“Well, you still move as quietly as a cat,” grinned Paul, clapping him on the shoulder. “Where you been off to? Crawling through thicket, by the looks of it.”

Alex looked down at his shirt and trousers and swore under his breath. His mother was going to kill him; she’d just mended those trousers the other day. “Yeah.” He looked up at Paul, and all remorse was forgotten. “I went up the hill, Paul. I met the old geezer.”

“No way!” Paul looked as delighted as he felt. “How did you get through?”

“It was really easy.” And he told him about the gap in the thicket and the path behind it.

“Fantastic. You’ve got to tell me everything, I’ve been wanting to meet the old man for ages. Hey, let’s go to the Owl – drinks are on me.”

Alex snorted. “Leave it to you to find a connection to beer consumption anywhere.”

“Yup, that’s me. Paul Hartnell, nothing but booze on his mind.”

***
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