Read an Excerpt
The Ghost of Magdalen College
Twilight had just fallen across the sky when the ghost pirate appeared at the base of Magdalen Tower. At first it seemed as if the ghost was on fire, but that was only a trick of the light. It was already quite dark along the cobblestone walk that crossed beneath the tower, so the light that emanated from the ghost filled the courtyard with an unearthly brilliance.
Eleven people were passing the tower in the moment that the apparition appeared. Three were professors who had seen many ghosts in Oxford, and so gave it no notice. Two more, also faculty at Magdalen, felt similarly about pirate costumes, and merely sniffed their annoyance as they passed, assuming as they did that it was some sort of student mischief. Four more were actual students, who reacted with surprise, awe, and no small amount of fear, and they scattered into corridors adjacent to the tower.
The last two people who witnessed the ghost’s appearance were Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica, and a ghost pirate was at least as interesting as some of the other fantastic things they had seen, so they moved closer to have a better look.
John had arranged to meet his friend Charles at the base of Magdalen Tower so that they might walk together to their friend Jack’s private rooms there at the college, and they met just as the sun was setting. It was in that moment that the apparition had appeared.
Even if they hadn’t been Caretakers, a ghost would have been nothing to cause them alarm—Oxford had long had a reputation of being a haven to spectres and spirits of all kinds, and as long as they didn’t disrupt the business of the university, no one made a fuss. Even in the midst of the Second World War, it was also good for tourism.
“I didn’t think I’d ever actually see this fellow,” John whispered to Charles. “I’ve heard about the Old Pirate for years but never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, uh, so to speak.”
“How many other ghosts have you met here?” asked Charles.
“Ah, none, I’m afraid,” John admitted, “although I haven’t exactly sought them out, either.”
“Well, why not?” Charles retorted as he approached the ghost, hand outstretched. “They could prove to be really helpful to my writing, you know. Worth asking, anyroad.”
The ghost simply stood there, hunched over, staring into the darkness as the Caretaker introduced himself. “Well met, old fellow. My name is Charles.”
Suddenly the ghost began to move, jerking about awkwardly, as if it were a puppet in a penny nickelodeon. It seemed as if speaking to it had engaged it in some way. Charles dropped his hand. “Are you in distress?” he asked the ghost. “Why are you here?”
The ghost stopped, then turned and focused its rheumy eyes on Charles, who took full stock of it for the first time. The spectre had presence and looked as if it stood in bright sunlight—but it was transparent, ethereal.
By appearance, it was certainly a pirate, no doubt, but an ancient one, many, many years old. His hair was long and straggly, and the clothes he wore, once fine, were tattered with age. His hands were shaking, and his head twitched nervously. But his eyes were piercing, intense—and, Charles thought with surprise, oddly familiar.
“Caretakers?” the ghost said with a trembling voice. “Be ye Caretakers, here, at Oxford?”
Charles and John exchanged surprised looks. This was no run-of-the-mill ghost. Not if he knew who they were. Then again, there had been stories of the Pirate Ghost appearing in this spot for two centuries, and no one had ever reported that he spoke at all, much less that he had mentioned anything about Caretakers.
“Who is asking?” said John, stepping forward. “Who are you looking for?”
“Jamie?” the ghost answered. “Jamie, is that you?”
John sighed. “The only one of us who ever quit,” he said to Charles, “and he’s the one everyone asks for in a crisis.”
“No,” the ghost said, shaking his head. “Ye be John, I think. Ron John Tollers, unless I miss my guess.”
John stepped back in surprise at hearing a mishmash of his nicknames. “That—that’s right,” he said. “I’m he. Do I know you?”
The ghost spread its arms and smiled. “In another life, another time,” he said, his voice weary, “I was your friend Hank Morgan.”
“Good Lord,” said John, glancing again at Charles, who was equally stunned. “We can’t even walk across Oxford without stumbling into an adventure.”
The old saying about absence making the heart grow fonder is overrated, John had thought to himself as he prepared to go out earlier that afternoon. Absence doesn’t do anything except create longing, and an ache that cannot be remedied until the waiting is through.
He and the other Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica, Jack and Charles, had been waiting for seven years for a chance to return to the Archipelago of Dreams. In earlier times, they had gone for longer periods without visiting, but there had been less urgency in those days—and maybe that was what stirred John’s unease. That, or the fact that they’d been forbidden to return. We never truly know we want something, he thought, until we’ve been told we can’t have it. Or perhaps it was the dark days of war covering the earth that made him long for the escape of the magical lands in the Archipelago.
Whatever it was, the price they’d had to pay for a victory in the future was steep. They’d jumped forward in time and defeated a terrible enemy, before returning to the time where they were meant to be. But to ensure that the victory remained certain, they had to stay away from the Archipelago, so as not to risk changing the outcome that had already happened.
They hadn’t realized how hard it would be to wait through most of the new Great War that had swept the Summer Country.
The Darkness of the shadows was hardest to bear. In those days when the shadows of the Dragons swept over all the Earth, John in particular struggled mightily against the impulse to act.
“We are acting,” Charles and Jack would remind him, “and we have. By waiting. We know that this is a battle we have already won, John. We just need to do our duty—and do nothing. Nothing but wait.”
Now, however, the waiting was almost over. The clock had caught up with the past, and the future was about to become the present again. And they could finally return and fully take up their mantle again as true Caretakers.
John had put on his jacket and looked at himself in the mirror. He was finally feeling the years of his life—and not just because of the Wars. He had now been a Caretaker for longer than he had not. It was one of the roles that defined him—and yet it was still one of the greatest secrets he kept from all but a few. Until, he thought with a smile, the new calling of Jack’s comes to fruition. If that works, well …
Everything could change. Everything.
He had kissed his wife and children good-bye and stepped out the door.
It was less than an hour later that he and Charles began their conversation with the Pirate Ghost of Magdalen College.
“Hank!” John exclaimed. “What’s happened to you? You look so … so …”
“Old?” Morgan replied with a cackle. “Two centuries of waiting will do that to a man.”
“Waiting for what?” asked Charles.
“For you,” the ghost replied simply. “I was waiting for you, Good Charlie, and Ron John, and Jack-Jack the Giant Killer. I was waiting for the three of you.” He narrowed his eyes. “Where be Jack, anyroad?”
“He’s finishing a discussion,” said John. “We, ah, we weren’t exactly expecting to see you, Hank.”
“And why should ye?” Morgan retorted. “I’ve only been appearing in this same spot for two hundred years, give or take.”
“No need to be snappish,” said Charles, “but you never spoke to anyone before now.”
“Because no one has ever spoken t’ me!” said Morgan. “It only works if you speak first.”
“What are you talking about?” John said, clearly puzzled. “You’ve lost me.”
“No time, no time,” said Morgan, waving his hands. Then, he laughed, wheezing. “Or just enough, I suppose. Yes—it was just enough.
“Listen to me,” the ghost insisted with a new urgency in his voice. “You must build the bridge. Shakespeare’s Bridge. You can’t get back without it. But the bridge won’t work without a trump.”
He stopped and pulled one of the familiar silver watches from a broad pocket. He flipped it open and grimaced. “I’ve told them,” he murmured to himself. “The loop should have closed.”
Charles gripped John’s shoulder, and looks of worry creased both men’s faces. They were missing too many pieces of a far bigger picture here.
“Hank,” John began, “perhaps if we—”
“You must build Shakespeare’s Bridge,” Morgan said again. “It’s the only way! The only way for you to—”
He stopped and looked down at his watch, which had begun ticking. “Oh, thank God,” he murmured as he adjusted the dials on the device. “You’ve finally managed to make a new—”
In midsentence, Hank Morgan vanished.
“Oh my stars,” said John. “What just happened here, Charles? What did we just see?”
“Nothing we can sort out on our own,” Charles replied as he looked around the courtyard. Morgan was indeed gone, and whatever his cryptic message had meant, it was apparently all they were getting. “Hank’s supposed to be joining us at dinner later at Tamerlane House, anyway. We’ll just take it up with him then. Maybe it’s some sort of joke. To welcome us back?”
John shook his head. Whatever else the ghost was, it was no joke. The age, the hard years that weighed on their old friend, were real. And that meant the warning was too.
“Let’s go,” he said, spinning away on his heel. “Jack will be waiting for us.”
“What is it?” Jack asked his friends as he ushered them into his rooms. “What’s happened?”
He knew by their demeanors that something was amiss. John went straight to the cupboard to fetch glasses for a drink, while Charles wearily draped himself in one of the chairs. “I’m not sure how to begin,” Charles said. “Let’s just say we’ve been having a little chat with a ghost.”
“Really?” said Jack, smirking, as John handed him a snifter of brandy. “Which one?”
“The Old Pirate,” Charles replied. “You know, the one that appears at the base of the tower.”
“Good Lord,” said Jack after a moment. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Quite,” John said, sitting next to Charles, “but that’s just the start of it.”
Over the next several minutes, and a round of drinks, John and Charles related to Jack their experience with the ghostly Hank Morgan. When they had finished, he sat back and rubbed his forehead.
“Amazing,” Jack said. “Two centuries is a long time to wait to deliver such a cryptic message.”
“I got the impression that’s all he could give us in the time he had,” John noted, “relatively speaking, that is.”
Charles rubbed his chin, deep in thought. “I think it’s more than that,” he mused. “He said it only works if we spoke to him first, remember? I think that ghost may not have actually been Hank, but some kind of avatar that could speak only when spoken to.”
“A recorded message?” asked Jack. “And interactive, to boot? That’s some trick.”
“Exactly,” said John. “Who else but Hank would have the skills to pull it off?”
“Manipulating space as well as time,” Jack said, pacing the width of the room. “Not too many, I think. Alvin Ransom, probably. Rappaccini’s daughter, maybe. Verne. Bert. Possibly Kipling. That’s about it. There are others, associates of the Cartographer, who might have the skills, but they wouldn’t have the need to send a message so indirectly. Not now.”
“Associates?” Charles asked. “You mean apprentices, don’t you?”
“Not necessarily,” replied Jack. “Several of them were, but others ended up joining with Burton’s Imperial Cartological Society.”
“Ah,” Charles said as he leaned back in his chair, crossing his legs. “I see.”
The Imperial Cartological Society had operated as a sort of shadow organization to the Caretakers Emeritis. Comprised of rejected Caretakers, former Caretakers, and those men and women of history who might have been Caretakers in another time and place, the Society was dedicated to spreading knowledge of the Archipelago of Dreams and all its secrets—by any means possible.
It was only after the Society was subverted by the Shadow King that there was a split among its ranks, and the de facto leader, Sir Richard Burton, brokered a truce with the Caretakers.
The Society would not attempt to spread knowledge about the Archipelago without the involvement and approval of the Caretakers Emeritis. And in return the Caretakers, under Jack’s supervision, agreed to start a formal educational program at Cambridge in order to begin creating a greater awareness of the Archipelago among those who proved worthy to know of it.
It was an imperfect alliance, and it was likely to go through a succession of growing pains. But a tentative peace was better than war—and they had all already had more than enough of war.
“I’ll just say it, then,” John said, rising to his feet. “Shouldn’t we consider that this could be some sort of trick of Burton’s? He’s done it before.”
Jack dismissed the question with a wave of his hands. “Not using Hank, no,” he said. “And besides, he’s sitting at the Caretakers’ table, so to speak. There’s nothing he can gain through deception that hasn’t already been offered to him on a silver platter.”
“We can just bring it up with Hank when we get to Tamerlane House,” Charles said, stretching as he rose to stand with his friends. “After all, it can’t be much of a crisis Hank was warning us about. Not if he had to go walking through two centuries just to deliver the message. Another day shouldn’t matter that much.”
“Speaking of walking,” said Jack, “we should start heading for the Kilns. That’s where Ransom is expecting to take us through, and besides, I want to check in with Warnie and see if Mrs. Morris has shredded Magwich yet.”
“Mrs. Morris?” Charles asked. “I thought your cat was a he.”
“Morris was a he,” Jack replied, “right up until the point she had kittens. It’s been Mrs. Morris ever since.”
“You have kittens? Charles asked. “I hadn’t seen any.”
“Oh, we don’t let them roam the house,” said Jack. “We keep them in the storeroom with that stupid talking shrub.”
“I really do appreciate you taking him on,” Charles said apologetically. “He and Michal were getting on horribly, and I had enough trouble with her already after I explained about the map tattooed on my back. Apparently, wives like to be consulted about that sort of thing.”
Jack shrugged. “Maybe I ought to put him at Cambridge,” he mused, “make him the centerpiece of the new Imperial Cartological Society. Sort of a living cautionary tale about what happens when an evil henchman turned green knight mismanages his chance at redemption.”
“Does it really count as a secret society if everyone knows it exists?” Charles asked.
“As I have begun to plan it,” said Jack, “it is most definitely not going to be a secret society. It’s more like an invisible college. Those who know about it don’t talk, and those who don’t know don’t care.”
“I think that’s half the reason the Caretakers Emeritis worked out a truce with Burton and the others,” said John. “The number of people on the planet who would even give a flying fig about the Society is going to be roughly the same as the number of people who can be trusted to know about it.”
“I still think we should have drawn straws,” Jack complained. “No one warned me that being the Caveo Secundus would mean going to Cambridge.”
“That was Burton’s call, not to base it here,” said John, “and besides, once we get you into a proper appointment there, you’ll have a good shot at redeeming the whole University.”
“It’s strange how far apart we once were with Burton,” said Charles. “We got the jobs he wanted, and he went renegade because he thought he could do it better. And now we have nearly identical goals. A bit chilling, that.”
“We’ve been very bad at the job, by my accounting,” said John. “After more than two and a half decades, the separation between the Archipelago and our world is more pronounced than ever. Sometimes I feel as if all we are doing is treading water.”
“Holding the line,” Jack echoed.
Charles let out a heavy sigh. “Our victories do seem to be becoming hollower and hollower, don’t they?” he mused. “Of course, it doesn’t help that we’ve had to put down the Winter King—Shadow King—Mordred.…”
“Madoc,” said Jack.
“Whatever his name is, three times,” said Charles. “Hopefully now he’s contented enough not to come back around looking to conquer or subvert or whatever it is that’s the fashion for dictators these days.”
“We’ve seen the last of him,” said Jack. “And time will prove we’ve made the right choices all along.”
“That’s what worries me,” Charles countered. “Whatever else we decide to do now, the possibility remains that everything we know—everything we have done—may be completely wrong.”
The Caveo Principia inclined his head in acknowledgment. “It’s possible,” he said. “I just get the impression that we’re still being trained, being tested. That we have not fully been given the mantles of Caretakers.”
“Well,” Jack said jovially, “if they haven’t made up their minds about us after almost a quarter century, then either they’re very indecisive, or they’re very, very selective.”
John shook his head. “I don’t know which one of those would be worse.”
“I’m sorry Hugo wasn’t able to come,” Jack’s brother Warnie said with real regret when they arrived at the Kilns. “It’s quite nice to have someone else around to chat with when you three are off on one of your, ah, jaunts. And besides,” he added with less regret, “I have this nice bottle of Château Lafite I was hoping to share with him.”
“You could save it for another time, or for our return,” Jack suggested.
“That wouldn’t do,” Warnie replied. “I’ve already begun to let it breathe. To recork it or set it aside would be criminal. No, I suppose it’s just going to be for myself and Magwich over there,” he finished, tipping his chin at the shrub sulking in the corner.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Magwich grumbled, “I don’t really have a mouth like I used to. I’m not exactly able to enjoy a fine wine anymore, thank you very much.”
“Oh, I have no intention of wasting good wine,” Warnie said, winking at the companions. “But I promised Jack I’d look after you while he was out—so I’m going to drink this wine myself, and then in an hour or so, I’m going to make sure you’re good and watered.”
“Eww,” said Magwich. “I think I’d rather be back in the room with the cat.”
“That can be arranged,” said Warnie.
At that Magwich started up such a clamor of moaning and whining that the companions thought Warnie might just chuck the plant straightaway into the fire.
“I don’t see why I can’t come,” Magwich sniffed. “I was a Caretaker’s apprentice too, you know. And after that, I was the Green Knight. Is it my fault I’m a weak-willed traitor at heart?”
“Well, that’s honest enough,” Jack admitted.
“We’re not taking him,” said John flatly. “All he’s ever done is cause trouble. Why take the risk?”
“Just as risky to leave him here,” said Jack. “Maybe more so. At least here, one of us has always been around to keep an eye on him.”
“Which Warnie is more than capable of doing,” John pointed out, “especially if he needs any kindling.”
“Murderers!” Magwich howled. “Cutthroats and murderers, the lot of you!”
“For heaven’s sake,” Charles said, exasperated. “All right, we’ll take you with us, you sorry excuse for an overgrown radish! But you’re going to ride in the burlap bag.”
“You know, Warnie,” John said as the others bundled up the still complaining Magwich, “you’re more than welcome to come along. There are a number of people at Tamerlane who would enjoy your company.”
Jack’s brother held up his hands. “Thank you for the invitation, but the first time Hugo and I went into the Archipelago has more than sated my thirst for adventure. Although,” he added with genuine regret, “I would not have minded a rematch with the centaur. That was an excellent game of chess.”
“It’s your right, as an honorary Caretaker,” John said, “as it would be for any others who know about the Geographica. I’m looking forward to finally taking my boy Christopher over myself.”
“And I Michal, now that we aren’t using the boats,” said Charles. “You know she hates the water.”
“It is easier on all of you, isn’t it?” Warnie asked. “Being allowed to share what you know with those closest to you, instead of keeping it all to yourselves.”
“Much easier,” Jack said, clapping his brother on the shoulder. “It halves the burdens and doubles the joys.”
“And besides,” added Charles, “if anyone slips up and mentions anything about the Archipelago, everyone just assumes we made it up anyway.”
Suddenly there was a knock at the door.
“I’ll get it,” said John, “although if it’s anyone who wants to give me a magical atlas, I’m going to flip a coin before I let him in.”
He strode into the next room and opened the door, holding it firmly against the gust of wind that entered with the tall, familiar visitor in a trench coat.
“Alvin!” John exclaimed in delight. “Come in, come in! So good to see you, old fellow!”
Alvin Ransom shook his head, scattering raindrops everywhere. “Sorry about that, old friend,” he said, accepting Jack’s offer of a dry towel. “It’s quite the night outside.”
“The storm’s just come up,” said Charles, “but we’d have let you in anyway.”
“Maybe you should stand guard at the door,” Ransom suggested to Charles, “in case someone with two shadows tries to enter.”
“Still smarting over that one, are we?” Charles asked with a barely suppressed grin. “If it helps, I was just having an exceptionally good day.”
Ransom scowled, then grinned back at Charles and clapped him on the back. “It doesn’t, but I’m not offended. I’m more embarrassed that I spent all that time trying to suss out the identity of the Chancellor, and you spend five minutes examining a few photos and nail it on the head.”
“That’s why we got the job,” Jack said, grinning, “and you’re still a messenger boy.”
Ransom took a playful swing at his friend and pretended to be insulted. “Fred sends his regards,” he said to Charles. “He can’t wait to see you tonight.”
“Twice,” Charles lamented. “Twice in seven years. That’s far too little time to spend with an apprentice—or a friend, for that matter.”
“Fred knows all the reasons you had to remain here,” said Ransom, “and he understands.”
“Alvin,” John said, his voice tentative. “Have you spoken to Hank Morgan recently?”
“Henry?” Ransom replied. “Why, yes, just yesterday, in fact. He’ll be at the dinner, if you’re wondering.”
“Glad to hear it,” John said, with a quick glance at Charles and Jack. “It’ll be good to see him again.”
Ransom rubbed his hands together. “Well, I’m all warmed up. Are we ready to go?”
“Ready enough,” Jack said, handing a pack to John. “We ought to take this along, don’t you think?”
“You have the Geographica there?” Ransom asked, pointing to the pack. “You haven’t left it in the back of your car again, I hope.”
John rolled his eyes and sighed. “That was twenty years ago!” he exclaimed. “Who told you about that?”
Ransom chuckled. “It’s one of James Barrie’s favorite after-dinner stories,” he said. “That’s not the worst of it, though. Laura Glue has told it too.”
“Uh-oh,” said John. “To whom?”
“Charys. And the centaurs. And the Elves. And the Dwarves. And—”
“Enough already!” John yelled as the others convulsed with laughter. “Let’s get going!”
Still grinning, Ransom removed a small case from his coat. In it were the trumps—the magical cards that allowed him and a few other associates of the Caretakers to traverse great distances as easily as walking across a room.
He removed the trump that held the drawing of Tamerlane House and held it out in front of him. Ransom concentrated on the card, and it began to grow.
The trump grew wider and wider, filling the anteroom. The smell of the sea swirled around them. In moments the passage was open, and they could see the towers and minarets of Tamerlane House.
Grimalkin was sitting at the front door, idly licking one of his two visible paws. “Hello there, Caretakers,” he said lazily. “Welcome back.”
© 2010 James A. Owen