Jack Shian and the King's Chalice (3 page)

BOOK: Jack Shian and the King's Chalice
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Jack slept late. When he awoke, he could hear his cousins downstairs as they clattered around the kitchen. Jack dreaded the thought of facing his uncle and grandfather. He decided to stay in bed for a while.

Gradually, the noise of his cousins and the smell of breakfast became too much for him. Dressing quickly, he slipped down to the kitchen, where Petros was at the sideboard, making toast on the open fire.

“You know the humans can make toast, perfectly brown on both sides?” he announced to his sisters. “I’ve seen the machine in the shops.”

“Hi, Jack,” called Rana, her face beaming. “That was exciting yesterday, wasn’t it? I wasn’t really scared. Dad would’ve sorted out those Brashat if they’d tried anything funny.”

“There’s hawberry pancakes here. Help yourself.” Petros shoved a plate over.

“Was it exciting up at the Stone last night?” asked Lizzie.

“It was great” replied Jack, warming to the conversation. “I got a really strange feeling from it, sort of warm and fuzzy. Have you felt that too?”

“Sort of,” replied Lizzie slowly. “I’ve only been there once. It doesn’t look like much, does it?”

“Dad says it might not be the real Stone,” pouted Rana. “There’s a story that the real Stone was hidden, and this one’s a fake.”

“Yes, but this Stone’s working, isn’t it?” said Petros, his mouth full of toast. “It couldn’t if it wasn’t the real Stone.”

“I think it’s the real one,” said Jack calmly, remembering the feeling he’d had sitting next to the Stone. “Grandpa says it’s working because it’s close to other sandstone. And Shian charms are working better again – even hexes.”

“Look, Jack, Mum bought us a squillo.” Lizzie reached into her skirt pocket and gently pulled out a small rodent. “Isn’t he sweet!” she cooed, and despite himself, Jack began to smile.

“We’ll call him Nuxie,” announced Rana, leaning over and stroking the timid creature. “Let’s take him out to the High Street,” announced Rana. “Who wants to come?”

“You’re getting used to the human spaces now, aren’t you, Jack?” asked Petros. “D’you remember your first time?”

Of course I remember it
, thought Jack.
It was only a few days ago



The Shian gate sprang open. Jack and Petros trebled in size as they emerged onto Edinburgh castle’s sunlit esplanade. Jack felt his stomach lurch upwards – he still wasn’t used to moving between the Shian and human spaces, but he concealed his queasiness from his cousin. If Petros saw that, he wouldn’t take Jack beyond the esplanade.

The pair moved briskly down towards the Royal Mile, whose ancient smoke-blackened buildings loomed high in front of them. Wide-eyed, Jack looked around him at the baffling mixture of old and new, foreign and local.

“Quick, this way!” Petros urged, dragging Jack by the arm.

They both broke into a run, heading away from the castle.

“What’s up?” panted Jack as he tried to keep pace.

“Over there,” hissed Petros, pointing at a small crowd gathered near St Giles’ Cathedral.

“Is it the juggler?”

Petros grimaced, and pointed at the far side of the crowd. A tall figure was slowly edging his way forwards. Inconspicuously dressed, he was nevertheless striking. Jack became aware of the muscles beside his eyes twitching. He’d had this feeling several times when out in the human parts of Edinburgh.

“He’s Shian,” whispered Petros. “Can’t you tell?”

The tall figure glanced across at the two youngsters. There was a flicker of a smile, and an almost imperceptible nod.

“Oh, right.” Jack grinned, feeling a bit safer. It was good to know they weren’t the only Shian in this crowd. Humans were all right, but they were a bit … jostly.

The juggler, who had been busy setting fire to the end of five wooden staves, now addressed his audience in a loud and imperious voice.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Jongo the greatest juggler in the northern hemisphere – that’s me, in case you were wondering,” he gave a cheesy smile to the audience, “requires the help of a glamorous assistant.”

A plump young woman stepped forward. Jongo regarded her briefly before looking round at the crowd and hissing in a stage whisper, “Not really glamorous enough.”

The woman turned scarlet, and hurried away, her eyes downcast.

Some of the onlookers started muttering.

“There was no need for that …”

“Poor soul …”

Jongo gulped hard, realising he’d overstepped the mark, and was grateful when the tall stranger distracted the crowd’s attention by stepping forward. The stranger stared hard at Jongo for a moment. Unable to hold his gaze, Jongo addressed the crowd in general.

“Ah, a volunteer!” he cried extravagantly. “And where, sir, do you come from?”

The figure did not speak, but mimed ‘far away’ with a wave of his arm.

“A visitor to this cold city, sir, so am I. Now, lie down there!”

Jongo was back on form, and with an imperious wave, he pointed to a grubby mat. In a barking voice, he then explained to the crowd how he would juggle and throw the flaming staves towards the mat, but catch them before they landed and burned the volunteer to a crisp, a feat nobody else this side of the equator could match.

Jongo grasped all five staves and began to juggle, deliberately (or was it?) fumbling one or two. Some of the crowd started laughing, and others began to clap. At last, Jongo launched the staves into the air, but before he could complete the trick, the recumbent body burst into flames. The surprised performer stumbled and fell, looking on aghast as the figure before him was enveloped in fire. Gasping in horror, the crowd stepped back.

And then the figure stood up. The flames fell off him, and he dusted himself down as if nothing had happened. The crowd, overawed, did not know what to make of this. Then someone started to clap, and others joined in. Soon they were cheering delightedly and stamping their feet in approval. Jongo seized the opportunity and milked the applause, while glancing ruefully at the remains of the smouldering staves.

The tall figure melted back into the crowd and disappeared.

“Come on,” said Petros. “That was cool, eh?”

Jack seemed frozen to the spot. Like the rest of the crowd, he was still trying to put a name to what he’d just seen. Then his eyes sparkled.

“A flame spirit!” he said, his face beaming. “I’ve never seen one before. That was brilliant.”

“I bet he’s here for the festival,” said Petros. “I can’t wait to tell Rana and Lizzie.”

The festival! Jack’s mind raced at the thought of the entertainment to come – just two days away now.

“I’m going to buy some floating charm stones too, and hexes that make humans forget who they are. Some of them are so stupid.”

Petros laughed as he steered Jack back up the road. At thirteen, Petros was a year older than Jack, and had started his apprenticeship under the castle the previous summer.

“Come and see this,” Petros announced, doubling back down the street and darting across the road.

Another shop full of human gadgets
, moaned Jack inwardly.
Petros can’t get enough if them
. Jack slowly began to cross the road to join Petros, who was gazing at a window display of cameras.


An ice-cold hand grabbed Jack’s shoulder roughly, its jaggy fingernails tearing through his shirt and drawing blood. Gasping in surprise and pain, Jack spun round. A man wearing a grubby hooded top, ill-fitting trousers and battered trainers snarled incomprehensibly. The hood up, Jack could barely see the man’s face. He was muttering, the words were indistinct …

Did he say ‘father’?

… but the tone was undoubtedly threatening. The muscles beside Jack’s eyes started twitching furiously, and yet this produced a mixed response.

He’s Shian. He’s like me.

But at the same time, a feeling of dread filled Jack, and he felt sick. Releasing Jack, the man swept the hood off his head, revealing a hideously scarred face, and he mumbled something that was unmistakably angry. Jack’s instinct was to run, and when the man made to grab him again, this cleared his mind:
Get out of here!

He ducked away, and began to run up the street, only slowing down as he neared the castle esplanade. Gasping for breath, he stopped beside the warhorse memorial, hands resting on his knees. From here he could get a good view of everyone approaching the castle.

Jack’s breathing slowly settled, and the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach eased a bit.

Why’d he try to grab me? And what about my father?

It was exactly one week since Jack had moved to his new home under the castle. One extraordinary week – the longest of his life.

Since arriving from Rangie with Rana and Lizzie, Jack hadn’t ventured further than the castle and the esplanade. The High Street could wait, said Petros, and indeed it had, until today. (Jack had quickly learned to copy Petros’s term, the ‘High Street’. Only tourists call it the Royal Mile, Petros had said. Petros the city boy.) Uncle Doonya had agreed with Petros, explaining that Jack shouldn’t cram too much in to the first few days. ‘Sensory overload’, he’d called it – a phrase that meant little to Jack. In the sheltered Shian glen of Rangie, little changed from one month or one year to the next.

Now Jack had to get used to living in the Shian square, away from Rangie’s woods and streams. He had to learn the charms that would get him into and out of the square without attracting attention, and he had to get used to being stretched up to full human height when out in the human spaces. This, he knew, was the secret of blending into his new surroundings. Relieved, he saw Petros jogging towards him.

“Where’d you get to?” gasped Petros. “I only went to look at some cameras. You shouldn’t run off like that. ’Specially not on your first proper outing.”

“S-Someone tried to grab me.”


“I don’t know who. He was Shian, that’s all I know.”

“What’d he look like?”

Jack described the man, his scarred face, his clothes and the way he’d behaved.

“That’s just an old tramp,” laughed Petros. “He was probably just after some money.”

“But I’m sure he was Shian,” persisted Jack.

“You just got confused by the shock,” replied Petros. “It takes time to learn how to tell who’s Shian in a crowd. Let’s get back inside. Better not tell Mum or Dad, though. They’ll only worry.”

Approaching the castle gate, Petros deftly steered Jack past the guides. A few yards on, he turned and blew softly, whispering, “
” A miniature cloud floated above a tourist group and began to discharge tiny raindrops. As tickets and guidebooks became wet, those holding them looked around, perplexed at the appearance of rain on a sunny evening.

A girl of about six or seven was looking on curiously. Seeing this, Petros winked at her. Then, chuckling to himself, he pulled Jack by the arm through the castle gate.

Edinburgh Castle

As they walked in silence up to the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, Petros took a sly peek at his younger cousin. Although Shian people could usually pass as human, Petros prided himself he could spot the difference straight away. He noted that Jack’s ears, sticking out from under a dark thatch of hair, were slightly pointed, and the short dark eyebrows – these gave Jack away instantly.
But humans don’t notice things like that
, thought Petros. Enlarged up to human height like this, Jack wouldn’t get a second glance from most humans – unless they looked him in the eyes. Then they couldn’t miss it. Not just the piercing eyes – most Shian people had that – but the different colours: the dazzling light blue one on the right, set against the nut-brown eye on the left. A look that makes some humans feel uncomfortable.

“Come on,” said Petros, “let’s go up to the chapel. The view’s really cool.”

Petros carried his extra height with the self-assurance of one who knows the ropes. Having moved to the Shian square the previous year to start his own apprenticeship, he was now learning how to do
Shian things, like use charm stones, and even – unofficially – hexes. He enjoyed this position of seniority, but longed for Jack to settle in. They would have a lot more fun when Jack was less startled by everything, less nervous.
But he’s always been a bit like that
, thought Petros.
I guess not remembering your parents can do that to you

They reached the parapet that stood high over the city, where the view looked over the majestic streets of Edinburgh’s New Town and beyond to the river and the hills of Fife.

“How can so many people be in one place?” gasped Jack.

“There’s half a million humans in Edinburgh.” Petros idly kicked a stone. “More in the summertime. Visitors come from all over the world.”

“But why?”

“There’s different things to see here. Edinburgh’s famous. People want to see the castle, and the city’s cool too – there’s loads to do.”

The small girl had caught up with Jack and Petros, her curiosity awakened. Darting back now, she tugged on her mother’s sleeve, demanding her attention.

“Come on.” Petros pulled Jack towards the small chapel that stood nearby. “Grandpa said he’d meet us in the house. The castle closes soon. They lock the gates once they’ve got all the visitors out.”

Or at least the gates they know about
, he thought with a wry smile as he and Jack walked to where the chapel’s west wall was embedded in rock. Petros looked carefully both ways. The small girl had followed them, watching inquisitively.
Oh well
, thought Petros.
Now she’ll really have something to tell her mum
. He nodded to Jack, and they both leant forwards against the rock, closing their eyes. Petros put his right arm around Jack’s shoulder, held up his left hand against the rock and whispered, “

Petros felt Jack tense up as they experienced the sensation of freefall movement. Seconds later they were at the side of the Shian square under the castle rock. Petros grinned as he saw Jack open his eyes.

“It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?”

BOOK: Jack Shian and the King's Chalice
7.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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