Chapter 1

Rob Lancaster was quite a hard knock and he'd always been able to stick up for himself. His Nan, Gwennie Lancaster could also take care of herself because she'd had no choice. She'd struggled to raise Rob's mother by herself after 'that arsehole' took off with a barmaid called Olive. Rob's mother, Carol, found herself pregnant at sixteen and 'the other arsehole' also fled the scene and left her to it. Gwennie never could add her daughter to the arsehole club, even when she took off one morning and simply didn't come back. Rob was six months old and hadn't seen her for the twenty five years since. Gwennie found out she was shacked up with a drug dealer so he became 'the scummy arsehole'. Things certainly hadn't been easy for Gwennie and Rob but that only drew them closer to each other. The only thing Rob knew about his parents, apart from the basic arsehole status of the relevant parties, was that he got his green eyes from his 'other arsehole' father. Still, Rob just didn't care enough to be bothered. He was always fine and dandy with his Nan, thank you very much. Rob could remember when the council bought their house then demolished it, and its neighbours, to build an ugly, square estate. Both Gwennie and Rob had cried as the bulldozers moved in. Grandmother and grandson were rehoused in an abysmal two bedroomed flat with the promise of an ugly square two bedroomed flat when the estate was finished. Neither got the option. Gwennie died two years after moving into the flat and Rob wasn't allowed to keep the flat and its palatial two bedrooms, and he'd only been sixteen. The authorities had made noises about foster families so Rob had made noises back and in the end, they helped him find a 'nice' bedsit. Of course, it wasn't nice at all. It was tiny, cluttered, damp and as noisy as all hell due the exclusively male occupants of the other three bedsits in the block. Gwennie would have clouted their ears for them.

Rob was just about to indulge in his taboo, secret affliction, when Tommo hammered on his door and started roaring.

"Rob! You in? Rob? Rob, it's Tommo!"

"Gobshite." Rob heaved and yanked the door open. "Speak up Tommo. There are a couple of deaf old farmers in Cornwall didn't quite hear you." He said sarcastically and Tommo looked a bit confused. "Never mind. What do you want?"

"You coming down the Board and Elbow? Darts match on tonight."

"Nah. I can't be arsed with that lot telling me to hush because it's putting them off. It's a pub for sod's sake." Rob rolled his eyes.

"Just do what you did last time and crust him one." Tommo shrugged.

"I didn't crust him and you know I didn't. That was Baz." Rob argued. "Darts is lame anyway. I'll give it a miss."

"You're getting worse, you are. You're never out! You got a porn addiction or something? It'll drop off."

"So will your face if I kick it. Naff off to the pub." Rob shook his head and closed the door. He was in the process of looking for his keys to lock it when Baz the Crust, banged on his door. "No! Go away."

"Can I borrow your darts?"

"You did, four months ago. Knob off! I'm busy." Rob shouted. He sat on his bed with his keys and waited.

"Rob? You in? It's Wayne." Wayne tapped on the door rather than hammered on it. "If you're staying in, can I borrow a tenner off you?"

"No you can't, you cheeky tosser. Baz got his giro today, go bother him." Rob locked the door and drew the curtains. He opened the drawer of his tatty bedside cupboard and looked at its contents with a weary sigh. Was this normal? He was twenty five so shouldn't he be down the Board and Elbow? Was he getting worse? Rob eventually gave in and succumbed to his vice. Rob was a closet nerd. He got out his A4 pad and his pens and put them on the table, then he took out his folder of sketches. The sketches he could handle because they were his, they were good and there was nothing nerdy about being able to draw. It was the only thing he'd been good at in school. The notepad and Rob's own scrawling handwriting reminded him to feel nerdy when everyone else was in the pub. Rob's current condition was all the fault of Jonathan Styles and had begun ten years ago.

Rob was busy carving his name into the wooden support plank of the coat hooks when Jonathan Styles, the biggest nerd in the universe, made him jump. Jonathan looked like a nerd, complete with plastic glasses, buttoned up blazer and satchel so it was a bit of a surprise for Rob to find him lurking among the coats and scarves.

"Weirdo!" Rob snapped and pulled the coats back over the other boy. Jonathan peeped round a lapel and Rob just looked at him. If Banksy and Goggles saw him within ten feet of Styles, he's never live it down. "You creep. Bugger off before I splatter you." Despite his aggressive talk, Rob wasn't a bully and he'd never have hit Styles, even though he was being a little freak.

"I have a proposition for you." Jonathan emerged fully from the coats and Rob was horrified! Not only was he visible, he was also audible!

"A who? Go away!" Rob put away his penknife and glared at Jonathan, who smiled back at him. "You're wigging me out Styles. Do I get anything out of this proposition cack?" He looked over both shoulders for Goggles and Banksy.

"You get to play in the Inter-School Football Shield final." Jonathan smiled again.

"I am playing in the final. What are you on about?" Rob scowled.

"You won't be if you get two black slips. That's an automatic exclusion for non curricular events." Jonathan spouted.

"I know! I've had plenty. You're talking bollocks anyway, Styles. I only have one slip so go and haunt someone else." Rob tutted. Was this prat for real?

"You'll have another if you don't hand in your physics homework that you haven't done. Oh well." Jonathan shrugged his skinny shoulders and started to amble away.

"Oi!" Rob jumped in front of him. "You trying to set me up? I've farted bigger things than you! Anyway how do you know I haven't done my homework?" He hadn't. He never did.

"You haven't. You never do. I could do it for you." Jonathan looked very uncomfortable and went red. Rob burst out laughing and Jonathan looked at the floor.

"What the hell's got into you Jonty?" Rob shook his head. "That's cheating, you know."

"Crass idea. Sorry." Jonathan muttered and turned to leave. Rob was now officially bewildered. What was wrong with the kid? Had he been a bit intimidating? Rob had never bullied anyone into doing his school work, unlike some of the other lads he knew. If he didn't do it then it didn't get done. End of.

"Jonty! Hang on." Rob caught up with him and nodded towards the woodwork room where no one went until Thursday. "Get in there in case someone sees." He nudged Jonathan towards the door and Jonathan darted through it. "Weird boy." Rob followed after checking in all directions for other lifeforms. Jonathan was rummaging through his satchel when Rob swaggered in.

"Don't copy it identically otherwise they'll know it ..."

"Just hold up a bit Jonty." Rob sat on a bench. "I can't copy your homework. OK? I can't even spell physics!"

"That's why I advised you not to copy ... "

"We'd be found out in seconds, Jonty." Rob noticed how fed up Jonathan looked. "Another black mark and crappy grade won't even be noticed for me. You get lower than an A and there'll be hell on. Automatic Ungraded for cheating, Jonty. You'd be a dullard like me." Rob laughed and Jonathan didn't. "What the sod is up with you? Has someone told you to do this? Goggles? Sheppy? I'll snotter the pair of them." Jonathan shook his head and stood up leave. "Why? It doesn't make sense."

"As though I'd tell you for you to make fun of me until we leave school. It doesn't matter." Jonathan shrugged.

"I won't!" Rob objected. "Some of the others would but I don't do that. Anyway you only have to tell Banksy that we were in here chatting and I'll have to move schools. Now get on with it Jonty. Why would you risk your arse by doing my physics? Do you like me that much that you'd be devastated if I didn't make the footie match?"

"Don't talk rot. I don't know one end of a football pitch from the other." Jonathan tutted. "You can draw."

"I'm not bad at it." Rob said warily.

"I can't. I tried and I'm woeful at it." Jonathan sighed.

"So ... do I list the subjects I'm crap in now?" Rob was so confused he felt like clamping Jonty's blazer in the vice and leaving him there to think about it.

"I don't have a spare week." Jonathan mumbled and Rob bellowed a laugh. "I'm in the Junior Author's Club, ran by the council, not the school. Up to now I've won the annual contest seven times, the last three years in a row." Jonathan looked at Rob to see if he was smirking. Rob was far too bewildered and curious to smirk. "Under fifteens usually write short stories, like I do, or poems which are ... "

"As fruity as hell."

"Are not my favourite forms of writing." Jonathan ignored Rob's crass comment. "I'm fifteen now and classed as Intermediate so I have to submit a novella length piece."

"That's ... impressive, Jonty. What's a novella?"

"Shorter than a novel ... full book, and longer than a short story. That's not the problem though." Jonathan pulled out a sheet of paper from his satchel and Rob wondered why it wasn't crumpled. How did nerds keep their papers and books from creasing? Rob's school books looked like they'd been kicked round Europe and he didn't even have a bag. It all went in his pockets. "Mr. Danby decided that the Intermediates' submissions have to be illustrated. Silly old coot. It never was like that!" Jonathan said in agitation.

"No nerd rage, Jonty! Calm down. So you want me to draw stuff to go with your story?"

"Basically, yes." Jonathan clutched his satchel.

"And you thought you'd blackmail me into it with the football thing? Jonty, you treacherous nerd!" Rob smirked. Jonathan went red again.

"I suppose that was a bit ham fisted. Sorry. I didn't think there was much chance of you doing it just because I asked nicely."

"Bugger all chance." Rob agreed. "So what's this story about?" He asked then immediately regretted it when he saw Jonathan's face light up with glee.

"My genre is High Fantasy. That's wizards and things." Rob groaned as Jonathan began producing folders, files and papers from his satchel, all uncreased. "I have all the groundwork done. See?" He handed Rob a stack of paper. "That's the description of my Realm, Condetta, and also descriptions of my main city, Garreaux. They're quite detailed."

"So I see." Rob began to read found himself being gradually absorbed. "Blah! So you made all this up or is it based on somewhere you've been?"

"I made it all up. The furthest I've been is Manchester." Jonathan shrugged.

"Furthest I've been is North Greenwich." Rob observed, his eyes being drawn to Jonty's neat handwriting once more.

"What do you think? Do you like it?" Jonathan asked after about five minutes.

"Huh? Looks OK, yes." Rob said casually. "I don't do much reading." Rob continued doing just that.

"I have these character description too, just for the protagonist and antagonist." Jonathan put a cardboard folder on the bench next to Rob.

"Ant what? I think I had an aunt Freda, or great aunt. Can't remember. Archmage Verity Shindra. Protagonist." Rob nodded and read the beautiful description Jonty had given his character.

"Er ... Rob? Just one small limitation. It's a general age competition. No big boobs on my wizard, please." Jonathan coughed uncomfortably and Rob snorted a laugh. "Will you do it? If you don't want to, that's fine. Just don't tell that riff-raff Paul Banks or he'll torment me. I understand if you'd rather not."

"Will you stop twittering? I'm trying to read this. Archmage Tendris Gallows. Antagonist. Male or female?" Rob asked."

"Male. So you'll do it?" Jonathan was very relieved and very pleased.

"I'll give it a go. You'd better keep hold of these. I've no bag." Rob handed the folders back to Jonty.

"Will you need them for reference? I could upload then to the internet so you can access them." Jonty offered.

"I didn't understand any of that last sentence. I think I've got it. I'll give you a shout ... well a whisper ... if I need another look." Rob hopped off the bench.

"Rob? About that homework stuff. I really am sorry I tried to coerce you like that. Dr. Brewster isn't in this week anyway and don't shout at me."

"So no black slip? You devious boffin!" Rob couldn't help but laugh. "Now bugger off before someone sees me in here with you." Jonty smiled and darted out of the door. "Definitely weird." Rob would never admitted it out loud but he'd been completely impressed by Jonty's writing. Rob had never read a whole book in his life and he didn't even know there were books with wizards and magical realms. He wasn't just showing off when he said he had most of it memorised. Jonty's creative and well written descriptions made him feel like he was in Condetta with Verity Shindra and Tendris Gallows. He gave himself a shake and looked both ways along the corridor before sprinting in the opposite direction to Jonty.

Two weeks later and Rob could hardly believe what he'd drawn. He'd never produced anything on this scale, nor of this beauty. Rob smuggled his work into school at the ridiculously stupid time of 7.30 am when the place was deserted. He stashed them it all in the woodwork room and left a very vague and very anonymous note on Jonty's coat peg. That was that, or so Rob thought. Even without Jonty's input, Rob couldn't stop thinking about this fantastic and wonderful place called Condetta. He holed himself up in his bedroom and found himself drawing Condetta extras, such as more towns and villages and even more characters. Gwennie thought he was up to no good and threatened to tell the blue rinse brigade down at the hairdressers.

"Nan!" Rob tugged the door open and made Gwennie jump.

"Only joking. Teenage boys will be teenage boys." She quipped.

"No! Ugh, stop that. You're old. Listen, do you go to the library?" Rob asked.

"Sometimes. Why? They don't do magazines in there."

"Will you pack it in! I want to go with you." Rob nodded. "As in ... now."

"Rob you've never set foot in a library in all your fifteen years! Can you read?" Gwennie shook her head.

"'Course I can! Everyone and their aunt Nelly's has a computer except us. I need one for school." Rob bluffed. "OK I'm lying but I want on a computer. Come on, grab your hat."

Rob made Gwennie go in the library first to make sure no one under forty was in the place. Then he made a dash for the computers and sat down behind a bookshelf. He banished the image of Banksy's jeering mug to the back of his mind and pushed the 'ON' button. That's as far as he got before he had to make another dash to a starchy looking librarian called Michael for some assistance. Finally he was on the Council's Cultural web page, and it didn't take long to find the Junior Author's (Intermediate) section.

"Well bugger me." Rob blinked at the screen. Jonathan Hugh Styles had won! His complete story, titled Condetta's First Hour could be found here. It took Rob a while to click the word and then it was by accident. There it was! Condetta's First Hour accompanied by a selection of illustrations. Rob's illustrations. "Nan!" Rob hissed, waving at Gwennie. "Nan! Oh turn round and turn your deaf aid on. Nan!" Gwennie waved back and Rob grimaced. He sidled over to her instead. "Nan go and ask that bloke ... what the crap have you got there? You can't read Fifty Shades Of Grey!"

"Just you get on with your knitting." Gwennie sniffed. "What are you reading anyway?"

"Nothing." Rob stood in the way. "Just ... stuff. Boring stuff. Look, go and ask that bloke if I can print something out and if so, how. Tell him you're a senior citizen and he might not charge you. Go on."

Rob read Condetta, then returned to the library every day for two weeks until he'd read all the other entries. Jonathan Styles had infected him with Nerdism. His symptoms worsened when he ran out of land in Condetta and needed a new realm. Rob took the plunge and decided to create his own, in writing as well as pictures. His pictures were predictably stunning but his written words doesn't didn't measure up. How the hell did Jonty and his Nerd Herd manage it? Rob's words and sentences seemed clumsy and ill fitting. He had it all in his head and could see his realm and his characters. They all fell flat and vanished within paragraph one. Rob stuck at it for a whole year and his mates thought he had a girlfriend somewhere because he hardly saw them. At last, he had a rather short novella that just made the minimum word count and no more. He talked his Nan to taking The Castles of Craigwitch, illustrated, down to the town hall and enter it in the Junior Author's contest under the name of Bobby Gwen. He told Gwennie it was a plume name and she winked conspiratorially. Rob came twelfth out of fourteen. Which meant he was better than the bottom two losers. Jonty had turned sixteen three months earlier and was now an Adult Author. Rob thought that sounded a bit perverse, actually, and was pleased he was born in August. After reading the works of the Adults, he was absolutely stunned. He hadn't a snowball in hell's chance of ever writing like this and even Jonty had only come fifth. He knew he was no Anne McCaffrey but he was still infected. Rob carried on drawing, and struggled on with writing, privately of course.

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