Authors: Fiona McIntosh
For my beautiful nieces,
Ellie Rogers and Gracie Hughes
Master Tyren squinted into the sun as he looked up to scan the rickety scaffolding. It always made him feel dizzy to see the grunters running around on the dangerous wooden skeleton that would form the grand tent. It was scary work, needing courage and confident, sure-footed movements. He was looking for Griffin, the younger brother of the Twisted Twins, a popular contortionist act. Tyren had originally assumed the boy possessed similarly brilliant skills as his brothers. Unfortunately Griffin did not and had shown he was good for little else but the physical labour associated with the setting up of the famous Master Tyren’s Marvels of Nature Travelling Show.
The showmaster prided himself on presenting some of the most rare beasts—human and creature—that existed in the land and he was very excited at the prospect of his latest acquisitions…because it meant wealth. Tyren privately cared little for the people and creatures in his acts but their potential to make him rich was unquestionable. And so he would continue to pretend. This latest group of creatures were special and they were the reason he was seeking the lad. He needed Griff’s help to make the newcomers feel part of the family as quickly as possible.
Tyren grumbled to himself and then his gaze locked onto the boy. ‘Ah, there you are,’ he murmured, noticing that the boy was assembling the top of the timber structure for the Grand Beracca, or main tent, that audiences filled each evening. ‘Griff!’ he bellowed.
The boy stopped hammering and lifted a hand in salutation. ‘Ho, Master Tyren,’ he called back, a look of query on his face, shining with the sweat of his effort.
‘Come down. I need to speak with you,’ Tyren yelled up.
He watched the boy nod and then, like one of the new Myrrh Monkeys, which Tyren had recently acquired at huge personal expense, Griff scampered down the creaking skeleton of struts that would soon be a tented wonderland of light and colour, activity and fantasy.
He arrived, breathing hard from all his exertions. ‘You wanted to see me, Master Tyren,’ Griff said, wiping dusty hands against his working clothes, his sleeve a convenient cloth to mop the beads of sweat from his forehead.
Tyren nodded. ‘Yes, it’s about—’
‘It’s just that I like what I do, Master Tyren. It’s quiet up there, and if I’m down here it’s always busy and hard work so it keeps my mind blank.’ His outpouring of rushed words stopped abruptly.
Tyren frowned. This was precisely why Griffin would never amount to much more than a lackey. The boy was feeble-minded, he was sure of it. Always prattling on about keeping his mind quiet or not being able to stand the noise in his head. ‘But you don’t even know what I’ve called you for,’ he said.
‘I know you want to take me off the Grand Beracca and give me a new task.’
Another of Griffin’s quirks was his strange ability to guess what someone else might be about to do or say. The three brothers had been with the travelling show for a few moons but Tyren had become aware of the boy’s uncanny ability only recently, when some of the other show folk had grumbled about it. He decided to test this curious skill that others claimed the boy appeared to possess.
‘Well, that’s right. I need you to help Chauncey with the new act. One that needs very special handling.’
‘What is the act?’ Griff asked and then answered for himself. ‘Oh, enchanted creatures,’ he said suddenly, his brow creasing.
Tyren stared at the dark-haired boy in amazement. ‘Now, that’s a secret, Griff. Who told you about it?’ Tyren was irritated that this
guarded information had been leaked to the general gypsy folk. If a mere grunter knew, then surely everyone did. Although they were a relatively close community, these people worked for Tyren and he had to ensure that respect for the chain of command existed. He was the boss, after all, the man who paid their wages and took all the risks. He glared at Griff. ‘Well? Who else knows?’
Griff suddenly looked awkward. ‘Er, no-one, Master Tyren. I don’t think so anyway.’
‘To my knowledge, only three people know. I am one of them but you are not. That means Chauncey or Jasper are the culprits. I’ll be talking to them,’ Tyren blustered, his face colouring with his rising irritation.
‘Master Tyren, no!’ Griff cried. ‘I mean, sir, it’s not either of them. They haven’t said anything.’
‘Then how do you know?’ The large man’s eyes narrowed. ‘Have you been spying?’
Griff shook his head.
Now Tyren’s plump cheeks wobbled as he shook his head with growing exasperation. ‘Eavesdropping then? I’ll cut an ear off for that.’
‘No, Master Tyren. I promise you.’
The master of the Travelling Show straightened, puffing out his vast chest. ‘Then, Griffin, unless you tell me how you know such a thing, I’ll have no option but to punish others on the suspicion that they have been spreading my private affairs when they should know better. Rules are rules, boy. I make them to keep control or the whole show will suffer.’
Griff looked beaten. ‘They haven’t said a word, sir. I’ll tell you how I know but you won’t believe me.’
‘Try me, boy.’ Tyren’s anger was cooling, replaced by confusion. ‘Are you protecting someone?’
This was met by silence and another shake of the head. ‘Not someone,’ he murmured.
‘Then what?’ Tyren demanded.
‘I hear things,’ Griff mumbled.
‘As I thought, eavesdropping and—’
‘No, Master Tyren,’ the boy interrupted. ‘Forgive me,’ he said, lowering his voice and eyes. ‘I don’t listen in on conversations. I hear thoughts.’ He kicked at a pebble and the showmaster could see the frustration of that action.
Tyren looked at the gangly child quizzically. ‘I don’t understand. What do you mean you “hear thoughts”?’
Griff shrugged. ‘Exactly that. I don’t mean to and I don’t want to. But I hear them all the same.’
‘So you can hear my thoughts?’
‘Sometimes. I…I do try to block it out, stay busy, get as far away from people as possible so I don’t have to listen.’
Tyren couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘So what am I thinking now? I’ll concentrate on something particular,’ he challenged, looking up and across the field where the Travelling Show was sprawling as it set itself up for the performances that would take place the following day.
Griff’s mouth twisted. ‘That you wish Madam Tyren wasn’t wearing that see-through dress today because it shows how big her backside is.’
Tyren took a step back, his hand lifting from his side, ready to give the upstart a clout for mentioning his wife’s rear, but shock prevented him making any further move. He gasped. ‘How did you do that?’
Griff shrugged again. ‘I don’t know, sir. It’s an affliction. I wish it would go or I could heal myself of it. But I’m cursed with it.’
‘You mean you can do this all the time?’
The boy nodded miserably. ‘I’ve learned to put up walls in my mind and to ignore it but sometimes people’s worries or anger, their sorrow or even happiness can bubble through very strongly and I can’t help but hear their thoughts.’ He looked anxiously at the showman. ‘That’s why I love my work, Master Tyren. Up there on the scaffold I can distance myself from people. It helps. It doesn’t stop it but it makes it easier for me to be distracted. Concentrating on not falling off helps to keep my mind away from other people’s thoughts.’
Tyren just stared at the boy, perplexed and confused by the
suggestion that such a talent existed, but also slightly excited by what he was hearing. ‘People have complained.’ It was all he could think to say as his mind began to rush in various directions.
Griff looked apologetic. ‘I’ve done my best to hide it since we joined the travelling show, sir. Sometimes I forget and things slip out. I…I shall be more careful, I promise.’
‘Just let me understand this correctly now, young man. You can hear what people think?’
Griff nodded. ‘Not everything, Master Tyren. Only thoughts that they’re casting out, er…things that they feel strongly about.’
‘I still don’t understand,’ Tyren said, shaking his head.
Griff’s expression became earnest. ‘Well, there is deliberate thought, I suppose, and then there’s just random thought that has no real purpose.’
‘Oh, so I was deliberately looking at my wife’s backside and thinking how big it looked so obviously that you could hear it.’
‘Exactly,’ Griff said, grinning. ‘And you were concentrating on that thought. But if you walked beneath the scaffolding and were simply thinking to yourself that you must remember to remind Jasper to do something or that you were thirsty, I don’t tend to hear those things.’
‘Only important thoughts then?’
‘Well, you could see it that way but,’ Griff shrugged, ‘I think of it as more forceful thoughts. Rather than the endless stream that we all have each day, such as it may rain today, I feel a bit cold, I wish we weren’t performing tonight—that sort of thing—I hear the thoughts that are worrying people or seem to be occupying them.’
‘How fascinating,’ the showman said, twirling the waxed tips of his long, luxuriant moustache.
‘You won’t tell anyone will you, Master Tyren? Our secret, alright? I give you my word that I will never use it against anyone.’
Tyren’s eyes narrowed and an idea formed in his mind as he watched the anxious boy shifting from foot to foot. ‘Fine, Griff. Don’t worry. Our secret. Now go and see Chauncey. The new act arrived this morning—the creatures are jumpy and their owner is grumpy. I’ve picked you—you’re about her age—to help
settle her nerves and help Chauncey secure the beasts, that sort of thing. Run along lad,’ he said, the new act forgotten for the time being as another one began to coalesce in his thoughts. It was priceless. He could make so much money!
Griff leaped to his task, clearly glad to be let off the hook. ‘Thanks, Master Tyren. I won’t let you down, sir.’
‘No, I’m sure you won’t, young man,’ Tyren agreed. He turned away and muttered beneath his breath, ‘In fact you may be the answer to my prayers.’
Griff was angry with himself for slipping up with Master Tyren. He wondered what the repercussions might be for his error in revealing the truth. But the showmaster sounded genuine enough when he said he would keep Griff’s secret. It was a curious skill he’d lived with since he was old enough to scamper unaided around his father and knew what the man was thinking before he said anything aloud to Griff or the twins. Phineas and Matthias weren’t really twins. Phineas was older but they looked so alike in height and colouring, even down to the freckles on their bright, open faces, that they passed as twins. Griff’s dark looks were the opposite to theirs and his father always told him he looked like his mother. He was told she had died when he was born so he had no memory of her and he noticed his father’s mind closed like a vault whenever any of the boys mentioned their mother, Griff’s looks or the day he was born.
When Master Tyren’s Travelling Show had come to the town a day’s ride from where they lived, the boys had badgered their father to take them to the Beracca. After much pleading by his three sons he had agreed, although it was Phineas and Matthias who had been mesmerised by the man with no legs—who got around on his fingers; and the amazing Swallowing Sweeney—who eased burning swords down his gullet, sometimes six and seven at a time. The blind woman whose empty eye sockets could still see the dead and terrified everyone in the tent was, nevertheless, no match for the Lizard Man, born with scales, or the performing dog with two heads. Griff had felt dizzied from the smell of the oil lamps and so many people crammed into the tent. The aroma of hair oil mingled
with perfume and sweat, soap and bad breath, liquor, and sweet lavender that the ladies waved beneath their noses. Far worse for Griff was the sense of being crowded by the audience’s thoughts, which had assaulted him once inside the vast tent. The showman’s calls for talent had captured his elder brothers’ attention and once they’d displayed their extraordinary skills at strength, balance and bendy bodies, Master Tyren had made an offer of work that even their father could not fail to see was irresistible. What he perhaps hadn’t anticipated was that Griff would also beg to be allowed to join his brothers. Tyren had welcomed the suggestion, for what’s another working hand in return for a couple of plates of food a day? In his mind, Griff had heard his father’s despair, although his father had simply nodded at Tyren and said it was entirely his boys’ decision. He was no farmer or blacksmith who needed his sons: he made his income from falconry, breeding and training the hunting birds for local lords and nobles. Although his father kept it to himself, Griff heard his pride that his sons were being offered a way to earn their own income but behind it lay the anguish that his family was being taken from him. Instead of voicing this though, he had simply added, ‘The boys have to grow up and earn their keep sometime.’ Phineas and Matthias had whooped with delight at what sounded to them like the go-ahead but Griff felt hollow. No-one had bothered to correct Master Tyren’s mistaken assumption that Phineas and Matthias were twins either, and so the Twisted Twins were born.
Griff sighed to himself. The shows were everything to his brothers. It’s how this small community of travelling folk existed. Each town looked forward to their arrival as the show passed up and down the realm of Drestonia. Right now they were headed east to west across the realm, leaving behind Griff’s home on the rugged far mid-eastern coast for the soft scenic beauty of the west almost at the capital, Floris. Griff couldn’t imagine being in the city; in fact this town of Tarrymonger was busy enough for his senses and yet Jasper had called it sleepy when they’d arrived, rolling into the main square with their brightly painted wagons and lots of noise and fanfare.
He wondered how things might change once Duke Janko returned to the capital from the wars in the far north. Griff had no interest in politics but he listened to the adults talking around the fires late at night and it seemed Tyren was concerned with Janko’s presence in Floris. Only last night the showmaster had been bemoaning that the King’s brother would likely threaten the peace and stability of the realm.
‘He’s the Duke! Why would his return create problems?’ his wife had chided.