“Are you sure it’s tonight, Thrimble?” asked the mayor, adding a third spoonful of sugar to his tea. He stirred the warm brew around in the delicate porcelain tea cup, carefully balancing it in the matching saucer before making himself comfortable in the soft brown leather armchair. This was his favourite chair in the study, and as the professor was busy in the other room, he saw no reason not to avail himself of its inviting form. Taking a sip of tea, he looked around wonderingly at the numerous books, maps and instruments the professor had placed in prominent positions around the room. No-one could say for sure whether or not he really was a professor, but with his conflated speech, his eccentricities and the wild tales he told of past scientific expeditions to far away lands, the authenticity of his scholarship was to all extents and purposes moot, and it was generally accepted amongst the village folk that he was simply the professor. For one thing he possessed an almanac, a small book of astronomical dates, events and strange occurrences, to which he was often referring. It was also said that he possessed a remarkable compass, one which instead of pointing to the magnetic north, pointed to one’s heart’s desire. He claimed to have obtained this miraculous device from a pirate’s ship on one of his many fantastical journeys, but, as always, the details remained nebulous, and anyway he kept this treasure under lock and key in a small mahogany chest, also from the aforementioned pirate ship.
“Fetch me my almanac would you, there’s a good fellow!” professor Thrimble called out, just as the mayor was reaching out to dip his hand into the biscuit jar to secure one of the raisin specialities. The mayor sighed, and attempted to extricate himself from the clutches of the armchair, a feat far more challenging than the reverse. Having just managed not to spill his tea in the process, he made his way over to the bookshelf where he knew the professor kept the famous volume. He scanned the spines till he found the one he was looking for, then brought it to the professor in the next room.
Professor Thrimble was seated on an antique looking chair with spindle legs, plumped up with a soft cushion. The window was thrown wide open, and he was studying the night sky with theatrical thoroughness. He accepted the almanac with a gruff nod, and proceeded to study it for the next few minutes, with many a “hmm”, a “ha” and a “so so”. The mayor, shifting from one foot to the other and thinking of his tea going cold, finally couldn’t contain his impatience any longer.
“Well, out with it man!” he cried. “Do I have to wake up the whole village or not?”
The professor, who had of course known the answer from the start without needing the almanac, started at the mayor’s outburst. Setting his glasses straight, he turned to the mayor and nodded.
“Yes, yes, the signs are all there. The moon is full, Venus is ascending and Mars is in declination. Tonight is the night.”
The mayor clapped his hands together, and stood straighter. He loved looking important, and this was one of the most important events in the year. He would have to gather together all the villagers, and together they must harvest the moon grapes, which would then be processed to make the moon wine, one of the most revered wines for far and wide. The timing of the harvest was crucial in lending the wine it’s full bodied and magical flavour. Everyone must play their part, and even he would roll his sleeves up and muck in, for tonight they all worked towards a common goal. He grabbed his hat and stick from the other room, tea and biscuits long forgotten, and, bursting with anticipation, he marched off to rouse the village.
Jack watched the spider make its slow progress up the leg and onto the surface of the table. He lowered his head to try and make eye contact with the small creature, and, failing this, he placed his hand on the table palm down so that the spider ran onto his fingers. He lifted his hand to his face to look more closely, letting the spider run from finger to finger, then onto the other hand. He let out a deep sigh, then reached over to open the window and let the spider freefall slowly to the ground below. He left the window open to savour the warm air, and looked up into the deep night sky.
He sighed again, this time more loudly, and Sebastian, who was lying on the floor dreaming of rabbits, woke up and cocked one ear. He gave Jack a sympathetic look, before settling down again to continue his dream, leaving Jack to ruminate alone. It wasn’t that he was dissatisfied, or even mildly unhappy. He had everything he wanted, for example a house with a roof that didn’t leak so much when it rained. He also had a small business making ceramic bowls in the most wonderful shapes, sizes and colours, which always sold well on market days. And he had a true and loyal companion to share his life with, even though he did sometimes take up too much space in bed, and slobber in his ear at the most unexpected moments. It was just that he craved, well, excitement. Adventure! He often dreamed of accompanying the professor on one of his wild trips, visiting the exotic places he only heard about in tales. On summer evenings he would lie on the grassy riverbank and watch the airships pass slowly overhead, bound for London or Paris, or maybe even Vienna, where the Council for Science and Religion discussed the latest matters of pressing importance. He sometimes heard their drones as he lay awake at night, and imagined he was flying with them high up in the sky, looking out over the whole land from far above. He wanted to visit the towns beyond where the river became the great waterfall, or see the dwarves in the northern mountains.
He was aroused out of his reverie by a sharp rat-a-tat-tat on his front door. He leaned out of this window and saw the mayor standing below, stick in one hand and carrying a wide open basket on his back.
“Hullo Jack, are you ready to join the party?” the mayor called up to him.
Jack guessed what he had come for. He had really no desire to be picking grapes in the middle of the night, and his bed now looked like the most wonderful place in the world. But rules are rules, and a chore shared is a chore halved. Jack suspected that Sebastian was only pretending to sleep now, so he gave him a good scratch behind the ears and consoled him that the vineyards were a really good place to go rabbiting. Especially in the middle of the night, he added somewhat unconvincingly, and his conscience twinged him slightly as Sebastian gave him a knowing look. He rummaged around in the spare room for his collecting basket – every villager had one – then set off with his friend at his side in the direction of the vineyards.
The man stood by the window in the astronomy tower and looked up at the night sky. It was a clear night, and the gibbous moon was just coming up over the horizon. He nodded to himself, then went over to another window, and then a third, checking the sky and confirming the positions of the planets to himself. A small movement on the rich woven rug on the floor caught his attention. He watched with interest as a spider made its slow progress across the rug and onto the stone floor, before he crushed it under his foot. He strode over to a doorway covered by a purple velvet curtain. Moving the curtain aside, he tugged the bell-rope hanging next to the door sharply three times, then went to the drinks cabinet to pour himself a large whiskey.
A short while later, footsteps could be heard from the stairwell, getting gradually louder, until their owner stopped reverently at the threshold and cleared his throat. He was a very short, stocky man, his head rising no more then three feet above the ground. A huge scruffy beard grew out of his face, and one eye was covered over with an eye-patch, below which a scar could be seen extending down his cheek until it disappeared into the mass of facial hair. He walked over to his master now, his nose only reaching up to the black leather belt his master wore.
“You rang for me, lord?” he asked, straining his neck upwards to look his master in the face.
“Yes,” replied the man in an oily voice. He moved his hand as though he wanted to pet the dwarf on the head, but then thought better of it and let his hand drop to his side. “I have a little task for you,” he continued. “In three days from now it will be a full moon, and the planets will be in a certain fortuitous alignment. Twenty leagues from here there is a small village called Bridlington-on-Tyne. Here lives a man calling himself a professor” He poured scorn into the last word, and paused briefly for emphasis before continuing. “This professor owns a very remarkable object, one which I desire greatly, and one which you will fetch for me.
“He keeps it hidden away in a small mahogany chest. Don’t ask how I know this” he snapped, as the dwarf looked about to interrupt, “I’m a lot cleverer than you, and know a great many more things. Now, in three days from now, at the full moon, the whole village, every last man, woman and child, will be out at night picking their jolly little grapes. Which is the perfect time for you,” he poked the dwarf in the chest as he said this, “to fetch this item for me. As usual, you will be well rewarded.” He waved his hand in disdain, dismissing his servant, and turned back to the window to contemplate the night sky.
Jack’s mood brightened as he walked down the hill in the direction of the vineyards. The night was warm, and the sky was a wonder to behold, the full moon high up in the sky, the myriad stars shining brightly in the crystal clear sky. He got caught up in the beauty of it all, and he kept turning his head up to look left and right, and sometimes even walked backwards, just to take in as much of the spectacle as possible. Sebastian seemed to pick up on his master’s mood, and gambolled happily along at his side, stopping often to sniff at this hole or that tree. As they got nearer to the vineyards, they met more and more of the village folk, and Jack stopped often to exchange pleasantries. The children thought is was a huge lark, and ran around shrieking at each other, running rings around their often tired-looking parents.
Jack bumped into the professor along the way, and greeted him politely.
“Jack, my boy!” exclaimed the professor, “isn’t it the most wonderful evening? Just look at that sky!”
Jack was about to reply that it was indeed a most wonderful evening, when Sebastian suddenly stopped stock still, lifted his nose to the air with a concentrated look, and let out a low growl. This was most unusual behaviour for the dog, and both the professor and Jack stopped and looked at Sebastian in astonishment.
“I say, dear boy, there’s something up with that hound of yours,” remarked the professor, as the growling intensified.
“What’s up, old thing? Have you seen a rabbit?” Jack asked, though he knew how Sebastian acted when he’d smelt a rabbit, and this definitely was not it. Before he could say another thing, Sebastian let out a loud bark, and set off at a pace back the way they had come, in the direction of the village. Jack and the professor looked at each other with astonishment, before they both set off at a run, following the dog into the night.
What luck it’s a full moon, Jack thought, as he gave chase. It was also lucky that Sebastian had a light coloured fur, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to keep track of him, despite the moonlight. They ran on and on, Sebastian never looking back, until they arrived in the centre of the village and were standing outside the professor’s house. Sebastian was standing outside, his hackles up and emitting a menacing growl, the like of which Jack had never heard him make before, and which made him glad that Sebastian was on his side. The professor came panting up behind him, and stood now with his hands on his knees, taking huge gulps of air. His front door, which he was sure he firmly closed before leaving, now stood ajar. The professor laid a hand on Jack’s arm, and mouthed “the door”. All that came out though was a croaky rasp, but Jack understood well enough. With his hand on Sebastian’s collar, he approached the front door and stepped quietly inside, the professor following.
It wasn’t hard to find what they were looking for, as loud noises were coming from the professor’s study. He grabbed Jack’s arm now with both hands. “They’re after the compass!” he said in a strangled voice. They all crept to the study door, and were astonished to see a small bearded man crouching over the mahogany chest, prising it open at that very moment with a heavy crowbar. The lock sprang apart and the lid flew back, and the dwarf quickly grabbed the contents and stuffed it into his pocket. Sebastian gave a loud bark, and the dwarf spun around, eyes wide open, suddenly realising he was trapped in the room. He reacted quickly, hurling the crowbar at the group in the door, which made them jump back, before he dived through the glass of the study window and was swallowed up by the night.
“He mustn’t get away!” shouted the professor. They ran out of the house and saw the dwarf sprinting away towards the river. Jack and Sebastian took off in pursuit, the professor following more slowly behind them. The dwarf was fast and had a head start, but his legs were too short for a real sprinter, and Jack was catching up on him. Jack was close on his heels as he reached the long wooden bridge which spanned the river Tyne. The moon shimmered in the turbulent water, which flowed deep and fast through the village.
Jack and Sebastian rushed onto the bridge. They caught up with the dwarf in the very middle, and Jack brought him tumbling down by leaping onto his back. He tried to get the compass out of the dwarf’s pocket, but the dwarf fought back furiously, scratching and biting wherever he could. Finally Jack managed to grab hold of the compass and sprang back off the dwarf with a cry of triumph, quickly stowing the compass firmly away in an inside pocket. But he didn’t reckon with the dwarf’s next action. He ran and hurled his whole body at Jack with such a force that he tumbled back heavily against the railing. With a sickening crack the railing gave way, and Jack found himself plunging off the bridge and into the raging water below.
“Jack, my boy!” cried the professor, who had arrived just in time to see the fateful fall. With a howl of despair, Sebastian leapt into the river after Jack, and swam towards him.
Jack couldn’t swim. This may sound strange for someone brought up by a river, but he couldn’t, and that was that. He flailed with his arms and legs as he was carried swiftly downstream, often going underwater, only to surface again choking and spluttering. Sebastian tried valiantly to pull him to the shore, but the current was too strong. In fact it was the basket that saved Jack. He was still carrying it on his back, and it provided enough buoyancy to keep him just about above water. Holding on to Sebastian for dear life, he was swept quickly away from the village.
He was conscious of the water, and the bright moon overhead, and sometimes he caught glimpses of the shoreline, and the welcoming lights of houses lining the banks, but they were hopelessly out of reach, and he was swept further and further away. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, he heard the water roaring up ahead, and realised with dread that they had been swept so far that they were now approaching the waterfall.
“We’re done for, old chap!” he cried to Sebastian, as he felt the ever-increasing tug of the waterfall. With a crash it was upon them. The water was overwhelming, there was no way he could fight this. He felt himself helplessly tumbling, over and over. Suddenly he felt his head knocked hard against a rock, and then there was only blackness.
He woke up to the sound of something slobbering in his ear. He opened his eyes. He was alive, and what’s more, he was on land! Sebastian gave a grunt of satisfaction, and lay back down again. Jack sat up and rubbed the back of his head, then with a start he felt his inside pocket. The compass was still there! He brought it out and flicked it open. It glowed with a faint blue light, and the needle swung around wildly at first, before coming to rest pointing in one direction.
Showing his heart’s desire, adventure lay to the east.