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Latet Anguis in Herba by Slide
Format: Short story collection
Chapter 1: Prologue
A downpour of rain is normal anywhere in the British Isles at any time of year. Even in the middle of summer, if every other corner of the world were bright and sunny and warm there is a near-guarantee that every Brit foolish enough to stay at home would be sopping wet.
Pleasant weather strikes from time to time, but it is so rare and random that the natives cherish it as if it were a gift from God above himself. They suddenly develop outdoor habits normally unavailable to them in the harsh climate (with the sole exception of rugby, a sport which is not a true sport if the wind isn’t howling at the players’ legs and the rain lashing at their faces. It is a man’s game, after all, and men can be quite particular about such things).
But most of the time ideal rugby weather prevails in Britain. As such, inhabitants of the Isles have mastered the art of enjoying themselves indoors, devising a whole range of activities to suit this necessity. Badminton is one such sport - a tennis which doesn’t destroy the decoration, as the fattest king of the English discovered. Cards is presumably another (for truly, who but the insipidly royalist Brits would put kings and queens on them?). Tiddlywinks is almost certainly one - who else would come up with such a ridiculous name? And, finally, there is the most honoured tradition of all: drinking.
Not solely the consumption of alcohol, though that indeed is a big part of it. No, tea will do a Brit very nicely, as a leftover from their imperialistic ways and a habit possibly mandated by royal decree. But they are dedicated to their alcohol, even if the Brits don’t produce much drink of note save their gin. Their beer is rather like one of their chief food exports, Marmite: loved or hated and with very little in between, and the continentals as a rule cannot stand it. Nevertheless, British pubs are a unique invention upon this Earth, and not even the most modern or trendy of bars can compare to a traditional British pub, a temple to one of the great British pastimes.
Ironically, a rainy evening in summer is something of a mixed blessing for a pub owner. Yes, it chases people away from barbecues and other outdoors (and thus un-British) events, but going to a pub would, in itself, require braving the rain. Those who wish to go out are thus tempted to take the car, a device which, in the eyes of a British pub owner, is the creation of Satan itself for its discouragement of drinking.
But Terry Bennett, owner of the White Stag pub, was quite pleased with a spot of rain. His establishment, while one of several in Kittering, nevertheless sat on the main road of a village so small that driving across it would be the height of stupidity. As such he had a comfortable collection of regulars who would see the rain as a reason to abandon their summer barbecues and walk down to the Stag for the evening.
Terry had run his pub for ten years now, and was an accepted part of Kittering’s community. These regulars kept his business afloat and meant he spent his evenings pouring drinks for friends and familiar faces, getting gossip and working in pleasant company. It wasn’t a dodgy area. His pub chain demanded he take a few management courses, and despite his initial disdain, Terry had learnt a thing or two from them - and from other pub owners had heard stories in less savoury places of pool cues needing replacing every week, or slews of broken tables, broken glasses, and broken noses. No, Kittering was a good place, with good people.
There was the old woman who lived by herself on the south side of the village. She owned a billion teapots and about as many cats and was called a witch by small children. Then there was the new couple who had moved into the area because they deemed it ‘quaint’. There wasn’t much wrong with them, but the people of Kittering objected to being described like a Christmas card painting. And then there was the unmarried man who spent half his time at home, and the other half away from town on Mysterious Business. And he had a son.
Well, actually, he didn’t. The rumour-mill ran wild on why someone as eccentric as William Rayner had adopted the equally odd boy Caldwyn Brynmor - or something similarly excessively Welsh - and just what had happened to the boy’s parents in the first place. Nothing ever came of it. The general consensus was that Rayner was merely the boy’s deeply unsuitable godfather, and had thus found himself with the offspring of now-deceased friends thrust upon him.
As a pub landlord, Terry was not inclined to turn away anyone who would enjoy a drink, and had no ill-feelings towards guardian and charge. Rayner spent most of his time away on whatever his business was, and Brynmor went to some boarding school, the two of them only seen in the holidays. And this summer holiday Brynmor had brought a bunch of friends with him, the whole lot of them proving fond of the White Stag. They were just as weird as the rest, but they drank enough for Terry to not care.
Besides, from what he’d overheard of a conversation an earlier evening, tonight was their last day in Kittering before they left on a hiking trip. Rayner would likely flit off to whatever work demanded his attention, and all would go back to normal.
But they weren’t here yet. It was only seven o’ clock, and only the most dedicated regulars had got here through the rain. This was the quiet time, after the rush of pub dinners and before the bigger rush of evening drinking. Terry it; he had the chance to look everything over, check the glasses were cleaned, ensure the bottles were filled and the casks full, and settle himself in readiness for a busy evening. He was proud of the White Stag. The establishment was a century old, and though he’d done his best to keep it in good nick, he’d preserved as much of the old charm as possible; the polished wooden panelling, the old (fake) hunting trophies on the walls, a few relics of the Edwardian period decorating the place. It was a typical British pub. But it was his British pub, and he was lucky for it to not be destroyed week after week.
The door laughed open at last to allow in the young Caldwyn Brynmor and his friends, as prompt in their arrival as ever. Instead of taking their usual table in the corner, the three of them headed to pull up stools at the bar.
‘Evening, Mister Brynmor.’ Terry picked up a pint glass to polish, sure he’d need it. ‘Glad you could stop by before your holiday. Is it still just the three of you?’
‘Doyle’s not coming,’ said one of Brynmor’s friends, a slender girl of average height, choppy dark hair, and severe features one would describe as striking, but struggle to call pretty. She sounded dismissive and disinterested, but in Terry’s experience, she always did. ‘Maybe at Christmas.’
‘I doubt it,’ said the final member. He was the tallest of them, with fastidiously neat blond hair at the top of his lofty, wiry frame, piercing blue eyes peering from behind his glasses.
‘He keeps promising since last year,’ the more solidly built Cal Brynmor grunted, running a hand through his bristly dark hair. ‘I’m not holding my breath.’
Terry nodded, like a landlord was supposed to - as if he really cared. Idle curiosity alone didn’t take him too far. ‘Drinks?’ he prompted instead. He knew the trio were only seventeen, and they knew he knew, but this was a country pub. They drank, they behaved, and better here than out on the streets. And, truth be told, you didn’t challenge the odd people in Kittering.
‘I’ll have a Guinness,’ said Cal, still lost in frowning ruminations on his friend’s absence.
‘Right you are. Mister Grey, Miss Cole?’
Tobias Grey and Tanith Cole - what was it with these people, they all had dodgy names - glanced at each other before the tall boy gestured to her to order first. ‘Vodka and orange,’ she said, enunciating it a little too clearly, like she thought he was simple.
‘Cider,’ said Tobias.
Terry sighed. ‘We have several ciders -’
‘Which is the local one?’
‘I don’t stock Derbyshire cider.’ This one was trouble. He insisted on sampling anything and everything, and always had a slew of questions. Terry normally liked people who took an interest in their drink, but anyone who thought Derbyshire cider might be worth drinking obviously wasn’t paying attention in the first place. ‘We have the usual brands and then there’s a Herefordshire press -’
‘Oh, Herefordshire. I’ll try that.’ Tobias’ eyes brightened like he was in for an illuminating experience. Terry thought he was in for a cider.
Cal had the good grace to give Terry an apologetic look, then turned to his friends as the landlord set about pouring pints and glasses. ‘It’s just cider. You’ll drink it. You’ll like it.’
‘I don’t see the point in being here and not sampling what I can,’ said Tobias huffily.
‘Do what Cal and I do, Grey,’ drawled Tanith. ‘Find what you like. Drink it. In Cal’s case, usually to excess.’
‘You make it sound like I’m the one who needs helping home in the evenings,’ said Cal, indignant. ‘I’ve got the stamina of an ox. Body of an athlete, after all.’
Tanith pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘Oh, no, I’ve got him started on sports.’
‘Ah, yes.’ Tobias turned to Cal. ‘Montague’s still addled after the closet incident. Why do I get the feeling you’ll be trying to weasel your way back onto the team? You haven’t played in years.’
‘I’m betting that Montague, in his new and enlightened state of mind, will set aside all prejudice and kick off one of those brain-dead goons he calls Beaters.’ Cal waved a lofty hand. ‘I can take either of them on my worst day and their best. We’re going to kick Gryffindor’s arse this year.’
‘What’s this?’ Terry asked cheerfully, putting Cal’s pint down to settle. ‘School rugby?’
For some reason, the three looked amused as their drinks were handed over. ‘Something like that,’ said Tanith with an arched eyebrow.
‘The last two team captains didn’t like me, even though I can out-play either of them.’ Cal remained full of fervour. ‘The latest one won’t keep the job, so if all goes well, I’ll be back on the house team. That’ll show the ponces.’
Terry looked at the glass he was polishing. The three went to some fancy boarding school, and as a product of a local comprehensive, the landlord wasn’t sure Cal should throw the word ‘ponces’ around. He was never one for rugby himself, much preferring football, and wondered if he shouldn’t have left them to their conversation. But he was still a pub landlord, and so it always paid to keep one ear open as he sorted out the bar and served others.
‘Times are changing,’ Tobias said when Terry tuned back in. ‘Big things are coming, for good or ill. I just find it typical that you decide to land that on the pitch instead of the wider world.’
Cal shrugged. ‘I’m a simple man of simple tastes.’
‘Still,’ said Tanith, ‘in a few weeks we’ll be leaving for the start of the last year. Doesn’t that worry either of you?’
Tobias grimaced. ‘A little.’
Cal threw an arm around both their shoulders, big and burly enough to manage whether they liked it or not. ‘Oh, lighten up. Whatever happens, we’ve had a great six years. We’ll do fine, whatever the future holds. Besides, there’s still one year left.’
Tanith rolled her eyes and reached for her drink. ‘Six long years with you two, and you threaten me with a whole future?’
‘It’s not just us.’ Tobias grinned despite her arch words. ‘There’s Doyle, too.’
‘When he’s here.’
‘He’s here when we need him,’ said Cal stubbornly. ‘Just never here when we need him to buy a round.’
They laughed, and left as one for their usual corner table, speaking of a school with a strange name and strange words for things. Talking of a past soon leaving them behind, and a future looming ahead of them, full of the nostalgia of short, youthful years, and the anticipation of endless opportunities.
Terry watched them go with mixed feelings, before he was back to cleaning dirty glasses and filling pints for those regulars whose orders he could anticipate without reminder. He couldn’t say why, but he was glad they’d left the bar, gone to a table. When he thought about it, only the most determined of his customers came to order drinks when they sat there. And when he talked about it, none of them could explain why.
They were just weird folks, Terry reasoned. The world had lots of them. And they, and their world, were not in the slightest his problem.
A/N: So after all this time, I’ve decided to take this story back to the shop, so to speak, and rework it. It’s old. Normally I’d accept that a tale’s ten years old and so’s my writing, and just cope with it, or delete it if it was that much of an embarrassment.
But the Anguis Series is a long-running one. This anthology is where it all starts, the stories introduce the characters and the concepts and the conflicts, but they’re not good enough when I want people to stick it out through the whole series. My prose is old, mangled, unsophisticated; my introductions of the characters stilted and their characterisation inconsistent even within itself, let alone when compared to more polished later stories. A lot of dialogue is rambling and goes nowhere and a lot of scenes or exchanges genuinely contribute nothing to storytelling. So while my later stuff in the Anguis Series stands up pretty well, Latet here just isn’t up to scratch as a starting point for a new reader. I am confident that readers who might enjoy the series from Shade to Shade onward could find Latet Anguis in Herba inaccessible in its present shape.
I am trying to not George Lucas this. I am intending for the events of the characters’ school years to remain unchanged; I will just spruce up the prose and the dialogue and the characterisation. It’s telling that the strongest, most memorable of the chapters need changes to my writing style rather than the events. Some will go down differently to how older readers remember, usually because that chapter needed more substance, and whatever was added will probably be something inferred or directly referenced somewhere in the stories already, but which I decided in my childish wisdom to Tell, not Show my audience.
I will discuss in brief, in each chapter, what I changed and why, because I’m pretentious like that. Returning readers may notice that this chapter hasn’t changed a lot; I just spruced up the language and smoothed out the character introductions. Sharp-eyed amongst you may have realised this prologue originally went on to clash with the start of Shade to Shade, where Tobias, Cal and Tanith were in Kittering for their holiday without Gabriel at all. This prologue’s been adjusted to be the night before Chapter 1 of Shade and consistent with that canon, instead of its original state where apparently all four characters were in Kittering the night before September 1st, which was not how events panned out. Otherwise this is mostly a cosmetically altered chapter.
Oh, and the entire story should be fully updated and changed by now.