Chapter 2

The afternoon waxed into early evening and the dark robed man toiled with care along a winding path that skirted the sloping sides of Mount Syzywyg. His aged form bent to the task with an eagerness born of ambition, for each weary step drew him closer to his goal. Aided by the great stick that was more than it seemed, he knew he was on the right track.

Trogon Yield remembered an earlier time when he toiled up a winding path to the summit of a sacred mount. He was learning of altitude, of the limitlessness of nature, and the way one's knees ached, lungs burned and eyes watered when upon the top of such a blessed peak.

"Behold, young Trogon," his master said, sweeping a shrivelled hand over the tiny world below, curving and majestic and dotted with slow moving clouds of white and purple. "We are the guardians of all this. Tinker lore and Tinker law ever seeks to heal world's flaw." His white beard fluttered in the faint breeze and he wheezed in the thinness of air. Rhyming jingles were a favourite hobby of the withered old teacher and Trogon recalled how much fun it was to think of discordant words whenever he was solicited to make some profound observation on an obvious fact. Only he could rhyme profundity with deepness.

It was cold too on that sacred peak and Trogon Yield, back then but a Tinkerling of ten years old, shivered till his young bones rattled.

"Mighty is the responsibility laid upon us from times of yore," his master continued once he regained breath. "Each and every piece of the mechanism seeks our aid, from the large to the small, and we heed its call."

"We fix what's broke," the boy declared.

"In a nutshell."

Now Trogon Yield was reliving that moment of profound revelation with a different purpose. To break what should never have been fixed. He was also reliving the sore knees, burning lungs and watery eyes, seemingly with greater intensity, though Mount Syzywyg was neither so high nor so cold as Holy Yantralt in the Realm of Affinity some five thousand miles from this accursed place. The pathway amid the dark trees seemed endless.

A flash of sunlight upon glass and the sound of girlish voices suggested he was nearing his destination when round a deep cut bend in the hillside he was suddenly confronted by a girl of such an extraordinary appearance he had to seat himself upon a conveniently placed log.

"I am perhaps as that boy down yonder suggested, decrepit. Too old for this venture." He shook his head to try clearing the double vision that afflicted him in his fatigue but to no purpose. The girl approached in duplicate still.

"A tourist come up and gone astray, Divvy," one of her said.

"We could tumble him back down again, Fizzy," the other suggested. Then she sniggered, or they sniggered. The man could not tell which.

"Are you lost sir? May we be of help?" one then asked politely, swishing a blonde pigtail over her shoulder as she did so. The other, to confuse matters, mirrored this action as perfectly as can be.

"We?" The word seemed a revelation to Trogon Yield and he sighed. Fanning himself with the floppy hat he smiled a yellow smile. "Twins. How charming. Am I on the right road to Cherryball Flats?" he asked.

"You are," the twins piped up in unison, for the path would indeed take the man to his apparent destination. Then they remained silent and stood there, smiling too. Cunning little things, the man thought. Attempting to play games with words and meanings. Ever mischievous. It seemed a facet of childhood universal in its sway.

"Up or down?" he asked in a voice that suggested he was more than a match for their befuddlements. As he spoke he swung his formidable stick left and right along the line of the track. It hummed as it swayed as if potent with power alien to its substance. The girls watched it with big blue eyes, seemingly hypnotised by its rhythmic motion.

"Behind you," Fizzy Massking said, pointing over the man's shoulder so abruptly he thought she was warning him of danger. He stood and turned.

Behind him indeed lay scattered houses that were the outlying district of the Flats. Viewed from on high they appeared as colourful little boxes dropped at random from the sky by a wayward god of town planning on a spree.

"Only, don't go that way sir. It's a four hundred foot drop," Divvy Massking advised seriously, full of concern anyone might be so foolish. The seat upon which Trogon Yield had rested was on the edge of a precipice. There was fencing of a sort but not sturdy enough to prevent a plunge if one were to slip on something slippery.

"That is certainly not my intention," he said with a cough. The heights of Holy Yantralt were grander by far but there was something unnerving about the proximity of such a fall. "Is this track frequented much? It seems a dangerous way for young ladies such as yourself, yourselves," he corrected, "to be skipping along so blithely."

"We don't skip," one of them laughed.

"This is a sort of secret way," the other confided. "Don't tell anyone. Up there is a gate to the grounds of our school. We sneak off occasionally if a teacher has shouted at us too much."

"What school is that?" the man said casually, as if it were of no importance and the revelation of such a thing a matter of vague surprise. He was going to sit down again but thought better of it.

"Miss-" one twin began but the other punched her shoulder.

"Hush. Remember what happened last time some nice gentlemen questioned us about things. You know when we had the Triple Shield and they persuaded us to get them into the grounds of that nice house where the lady lived. They stole stuff!"

"Oh yes!" the other twin recalled the events of that day when thieves had tricked them into using the Triple Shield's teleportation properties to get past an extremely well guarded security boundary. "Mustn't say."

"Triple Shield," Trogon stuttered, his composure crumbling a little at mention of this famous trophy.

"Oh yes. We Plazenby girls won it in a swimming contest and it sits in the trophy cabinet just up there," Fizzy said helpfully.

"It's the holidays now so the place is quite empty, almost unguarded," Divvy added more helpfully still.

"This trophy cabinet. Is it in some room somewhere?" the man asked conversationally.

"Mustn't say," came a terse response.

"Though when you enter the main foyer you can't really miss it," and both girls nodded stupidly. "Have we been helpful? It gets drummed into our heads a lot to be helpful and kind and everything."

"Especially to the elderly," was an added observation. "Would you like some snail shells? We collect them. They're awfully fascinating. So many different patterns and they make a wonderful crunching noise when you step on them." This additional information, not directly to the point, was followed by both girls retrieving small objects from skirt pockets and giggling, before replacing them again when their generous offer was ignored.

Trogon Yield looked at the two girls who stood there on the unfrequented path, smiling expectantly after this performance. He placed his hat upon greying locks, suggesting that matters were coming to a conclusion.

"This way for Cherryball Flats?" he said, indicating with his stick the downward slope. "And this for your school, uh, Plazenby's?" pointing upwards with a cough.

"Miss Plazenby's," the girls nodded. "Where the Triple Shield is."

The man fumbled in his robes a moment and produced not one but two shiny coins.

"Thank you. You have been most helpful. I too keep valuable or interesting things in my pockets," and he distributed his largesse to each girl in turn before ambling thoughtfully down the hill and out of sight. The Massking twins stood there and watched him depart until they were all alone, when a clump of ferns parted and the slim figure of a young woman appeared, bonnet askew. She skipped onto the path.

"See?" she said, straightening the bonnet as she spoke. "Crazy old man. Told you he'd give you something just for a chat. What did he talk about? Couldn't hear it all due to a noisy butterfly munching away on flowers where I was hiding."

"Curious about our school," Divvy said. "Tried to hide it of course."

"Curioser about the Triple Shield," Fizzy said. "Couldn't hide that. Face went red as a tomato, a very old tomato," and she sniggered.

"Triple Shield? What's that?" Floy then asked, always seeking a little more knowledge which might be to her advantage. The twins soon squashed this idea.

"Mustn't say."

"Very valuable so probably going to steal it or something," one of them helpfully added as if forgetting secrecy. The Nordeyer twins were so full of eagerness about everything they often had two conversations at the same time, quite often in opposition to each other so that a slap fight was always in danger of breaking out.

"Seemed pleased about something, and gave us what he thought were rewards," chirped up the other.

"What did he give you?"

"Just some measly singles," the girls said, examining the coins.

"We used to skim these things across our lakes back in Nordeyer."

"Well, if you don't need them, may I claim them as a reward for putting you in the way of an entertaining old fossil?"

"He wasn't really that funny," Fizzy complained. "Not half as grumpy as I hoped."

"Still, we don't need these funny little coins," and by mutual agreement the girls handed them over to the other. Floy held one up in the sunlight and her tanned face, with its swathe of freckles across the bridge of her nose that accentuated her prettiness, grinned happily before depositing both coins in her cloth bag, thereby doubling her wealth yet again.

"Well I hope he doesn't get hold of this Triple Shield thing," she then said, "and you should be more careful what you tell strangers."

"Oh, we're always very careful about what we say, when we say it and how it is said." This pronouncement was shared between the twins, each offering up a clause as her part of the conversation.

With that, holding hands, they skipped happily up the hill and out of sight, in spite of their previous denial of ever indulging in such an activity. They had things to do involving snail shells that must no longer be delayed.

"Sharp little things," Floy muttered. Then she jingled her bag a moment contentedly, before pausing for more considered thought. "This game has perhaps not yet played itself out," she eventually declared to the ferns and pines around her, before she too exited the path, following back down where the man had retreated, knowing for a certain he would be back. She would make sure of being a witness to it all, if she could.