By Will Barnard
What if I told you that the world wasn’t round, but was instead cuboid in shape. Something akin to a planet sized dice, floating through the endless abyss of space. Imagine a world where if you followed the horizon long enough you’d eventually find an edge that you could fall off.
Now on a world like this, you wouldn’t be surprised to discover most of the population would believe the edge of their world to be just that, an edge, with no way of getting to the folks on the adjacent side – some still don’t even believe that there’s anything at all over the edge. But some, a select handful of individuals who know the ins and outs of reality, are able to seamlessly transcend between these worlds.
Some believe them to have been trained in the arts of the Mage’s Manufactorum on the Third World, others think that they are dishonoured Assassins from the Gaiden Gardens of the Fifth World. But the one thing they all agree on, is that no one else in the worlds can do what the Post Masters do.
A Bottle of Opportunity
Ralph was not a Post Master, nor was he a Mage, an Assassin, Royalty or anyone even remotely resembling someone interesting. In fact, the most interesting thing about Ralph was that his older brother once threw a pig over a fence as a bet and the flying swine’s hoof caught Ralph’s forehead. Thus leaving him with a scar that he could bluff as a battle injury to try and impress girls – not that he had the confidence to do such things.
Whilst Ralph didn’t have any real friends, people found him easy to get on with. He was polite, largely kept to himself and tried to stay under other people’s radars. He regarded himself as a spectator of life, quietly doing his own thing in the background and letting the world pass him by, taking a note of everything that he saw for Ralph was a writer… or at least, that’s what he wanted to be.
Since he had been a child, Ralph had been addicted to the stories that Post Masters would bring back from their travels, their tales of adventure and heroism whilst traversing the worlds to deliver important messages. It was also the Post Masters that were standing in the way of Ralph’s dreams, for people wouldn’t take his fictional tales seriously whilst they had the option to read real stories of a Post Master.
Of course Ralph could be writer of a different medium and, being the scribe for Lord Cragge, his Mother would regularly tell him that he was a writer – but Ralph knew it wasn’t the same. His heart wasn’t in it and it yearned to be elsewhere
As it turns out, at this very moment the slim figure of a 25 year old Ralph, of average height and brownish blondish hair, also yearned to be anywhere except for the hall of Lord Cragge, in Eastingshire of the Fourth World, where our tale takes place. As the official Scribe of House Cragge, he was currently writing the dictated words of his Liege Lord, a stout man who had one foot atop a box and his gaze towards the heavens, as if reciting some legendary tale instead of giving out mundane planning permissions.
Ralph had tried to make his job more interesting once. Changing Lord Cragge’s crude and dull vocabulary into an eloquently written report with flair, beautiful descriptive terms and intriguing style. But it had been quickly dismissed beacuse “that kind of writing didn’t belong in official business”.
Not that Lord Cragge was a bad person, in fact he was actually quite pleasant for a Lord. That he had given the son of a blacksmith, a young aspiring writer, the gracious role as his scribe paid tribute to that. But saying that Lord Cragge was the better of the Lords and Ladies in the area wasn’t saying much as being pompous and bossy was part of the job description.
In reality Lord Cragge didn’t want to be a Lord, instead he had wanted to be a musician and, to this day, kept his mandolin under lock and key in a secret compartment underneath the rug in his bedroom. When he was younger he had dreamt about moving from town to town, travelling with a band of misfits and playing jolly music in taverns all over the Fourth World. But after his father had passed away and he had inherited the title, his dreams were struck down. He didn’t even enjoy being bossy, but if he was seen to be kind, the other Lords and Ladies would take advantage of his polite nature and likely steal land from him and his people.
Coming to the conclusion of his report, Lord Cragge removed his foot from off the box and looked down towards Ralph who was sat at his writing desk, ‘Have you got all that m’boy?’ he asked.
‘Yes Lord Cragge,’ Ralph replied, trying to ignore the patronising “boy” comment. ‘Just sign and seal at the bottom here,’ he continued as he stood up to allow Lord Cragge to take the seat.
‘Excellent! You know Ralph, you really are one of the best staff I’ve ever hired. Always punctual and on time, hardworking and clever – unlike most of the idiots around here.’
Somewhat surprised by the sudden complement and not knowing how to respond, Ralph eventually muttered a muted ‘Thank you?’
Looking towards the rug that hid his mandolin, Lord Cragge felt a sudden pang of recognition in the boy, dreaming of a career that he would never be able to achieve.
‘Tell you what,’ he said with the unrecognisable hint of a smile on his face, ‘Don’t let anybody see you with this, but take it and enjoy yourself this evening,’ he said as he stood and crossed the room, opened a cupboard and withdrew a bottle of whiskey.
Still a little startled and unsure as to what was going on, Ralph graciously took the offered bottle and thanked Lord Cragge once more before gathering his papers and leaving the room.
As he walked down the corridor with a confused expression on his face towards his “office” to file the notes, he could have sworn he heard the sound of an slightly off tune mandolin being played.
With his notes filed and the bottle of whiskey secure in his cloak, he headed home for the evening. Unable to afford a house of his own, Ralph lived with his family above their Blacksmith store in the town. His Father – who ran the shop – was a busy but kind and generous man. Though he could be stern when he needed to be, or when Ralph’s Mother was unable to when it came to Ralph and his siblings.
As a middle child to older brother Ted, and younger sister Tara, Ralph often felt overlooked in the eyes of his parents. With Ted away teaching at the Poppingdale school of Masonry and Tara having taken up the family business, Ralph’s dream of writing often seemed like a bit of a dead end in comparison and a disappointment to his parents.
Even now, Tara was earning whatever spare attention and praise their Father had as they discussed the long tiring day in the shop whilst their mother dished out the dinner that she’d prepared.
As usual, the two boisterous hard workers in the family got the king’s portion of the stew whilst Ralph just about managed ease his appetite with the left-over scraps. Knowing that bringing up the whiskey would simply result in Ralph not getting much – if any at all – he made his excuses and headed out to the valley.
For those unfamiliar with the geography of the Fourth World, Eastingshire is a relatively small town, and much like our protagonist, isn’t remotely interesting. There are no great schools like Farthingsworth’s Artist Academy, no signature architecture design like Dr Hampshire’s Avein inspired buildings in Warrinpool, nor has anyone of note ever come out of Eastingshire like Radshire’s famed warrior, Dame Clarice.
In fact, the most likely reason that Eastingshire still exists at all is probably due to the fact that it is located next to The Brink, the local synonym for the edge of the world that we discussed earlier. Because of this, it is often visited by Post Masters who intend to travel to the Fifth World. The valley, which runs parallel to The Brink, makes access to the very edge of the Fourth World rather difficult – a great incentive for estate agents trying to sell houses to families with younger children.
As Ralph perched on his favorite rock, he unrolled the cloak and decided to pull out his paper and pen to compliment the spirit on a perfect evening. Ralph couldn’t draw to save his life but at this very moment he wished he could. The sun was just starting to dip over the edge of The Brink, causing the surrounding clouds to turn most attractive shades of orange and deep red.
Having briefly courted with the idea of selling the whiskey, Ralph had assumed that it must have been a cheap or off bottle for Lord Cragge to have given it away so easily. Knowing nothing about Whiskey, Ralph’s assumption had been grossly incorrect. Removing the cork, he took a large swig of the rather fine and expensive single malt, a swig that, had it been bought in the pub, would have cost him a month’s wages.
Placing the bottle down and picking up his pen, Ralph picked up where he had left off; with Anna, the sole survivor of an attack on her village seeking revenge on the bandit John D.
Close by, the trained nose of a mysterious, hooded figure closed in on the unmistakable sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle, and not just any bottle, but a bottle of a 20 year old Wetland Single Malt. Squelching through the long grass – for the lady was rather wet – she finally spotted her target and was relieved to see that not only was her nose on point yet again, but that the bottle was also largely unscathed and unguarded.
Now as Lord Cragge mentioned earlier, Ralph was clever. So when the stranger appeared from the long grass, Ralph had already heard the strange squelching and sniffing approaching and was prepared to greet the soggy woman that was so blatantly looking to keep Ralph, or more likely, the whiskey company.
‘Good evening,’ he said, head down and still writing in his book, startling the woman.
‘Good evening young man,’ she replied, stepping out of the grass and onto the rocky outcrop.
After a moment’s pause, Ralph finished the section he was writing, closed the book and looked up at his new compatriot, ‘Can I help you at all?’ he asked quizzically, noticing how strangely wet she was considering that it a, wasn’t raining and b, there wasn’t a large body of water anywhere nearby.
Holding her hand out as if to make sure it wasn’t raining, the woman removed her hood to reveal a rounded, older face with grey, wild hair before lighting a pipe she’d conjured from out of nowhere.
‘I was just wondering if a tired and wet traveller would be able to sit and enjoy the sunset with some company?’ she asked, ‘Though I can leave you be if it’s too much trouble?’
Rarely having any willing company, he thoroughly understand that this was a ruse to get a hold of some whiskey. But Ralph decided that the soggy old lady must have had an interesting day, so parting with a few drops of his amber treasure for the tale was probably worth it.
‘Be my guest, but only if you explain why you’re so wet?’
Thanking her new host, she tottered around a little to find a comfortable rock to sit on before pulling out a brown paper bag of sorts from another hidden pocket. Removing a crisp from it, she offered the packet to Ralph.
‘Well it’s not really that interesting,’ she started nonchalantly as Ralph graciously took a crisp, ‘It’s just tipping it down over on the fifth world is all, what with it being hurricane season and all.’
After a moment’s silence she turned away from the sunset to look at Ralph to find his mouth almost unhinged as the crisp dropped out and onto the floor.
‘What’s the matter,’ she said, ‘Never seen a Post Master before?’