This is the beginning of Hunting the White Stag
The White Stag stood on the top of the pinnacle of stone looking down to them. He wasn’t enormous … in a way Magpie had expected him to be very big … but he was full of presence. That felt wild, huge, enormous; the beast at the centre of the presence was the size of a large ordinary stag but the aura surrounding him stretched on and on and on, covering them and going right on out over the Abyss of Mists.
And the White Stag wasn’t white.
His antlers were white, shimmering white, and there was a silvery aura around him. But his coat was bright and dark red while his hooves were shining black and his eyes were dark limpid pools of the night sky.
Delicately, hoof by hoof, the stag picked his way down the rocks until he stood in front of them. He eyed each of them in turn. It was a strange sensation, felt like you were being completely and totally examined from inside to out, all the threads that made up your life, all the joins and darns and mends and frays where things were only just holding together, as well as the parts that were rock solid. They each felt it. Owen & Seabhag had felt it before, met the Stag, for the others it was new and each of them felt it differently.
Billy took one look at the Stag and gave a little whimper of delight, then ran up and hugged the Stag’s front leg. The Stag leaned down and licked Billy’s forehead.
‘Welcome, little one,’ the Stag said softly. ‘You are very welcome and all that you desire will come to pass. Now … what about the rest of you?’
Seabhag stood back. He was watching the Stag; the stag had thoroughly dissected him but he didn’t mind that at all, it was to be expected when you met one of the powers of the Land, he did it himself after all. He came to find Billy, had done this and now just has to get him back home. He nodded greeting to the Stag who nodded back. Owen too held back; his life was as sorted as it ever was, he enjoyed it and was in need of nothing in particular. Magpie shuffled her boots and fidgeted with the horse’s mane. The Beast stepped forward.
‘I need to find myself …’ she whispered to him, stretching out her claws, pleading.
The Stag reached out his nose, touched her forehead. ‘Your brother is waiting for you,’ he told her. ‘Soon, I will send you to him. He will be able to help you.’
The Beast’s claws reached out, gently stroked the Stag, their eyes met.
Watching, Magpie thought both pairs of eyes looked the same, both were deer’s eyes.
The Stag looked at her. ‘Well …?’ he asked.
The Beast had moved away, was staring out over the Abyss of Mists – the presence she gave off was one of happiness, for the first time since Magpie had known her. Seabhag stood nearby and Owen too had moved closer to her. Billy was back with Seabhag too and the horses were chatting among themselves, comforting the Mousies who were getting over the shock. Magpie was all on her own … with the Stag.
‘You had no idea this was what you were coming to, did you?’ the Stag pushed his nose into Magpie’s stomach.
She shook her head, dumb; she really didn’t know what she was doing here. ‘I won this carpet,’ she began, ‘magic carpet. One of the players accused me of shuffling the cards to my advantage but I hadn’t, I didn’t! I’d been to that tavern before though. Long time ago, but …’ she tossed her hair back from her face. The Stag looked down his nose at her. ‘Well … but well, I’ve got a reputation. And yes, I had marked the pack.’ She paused, swallowed. ‘Anyway, I thought it best to leave. The carpet was faulty, that’s how I ended up at the Shapeshifters. It was nice there, everyone was kind, it felt like a break, and I sort of got snaffled up into the adventure. I like adventure.’ She stopped, found herself smiling into the Stag’s huge liquid eyes.
‘What do you want to do with your life?’ the Stag’s eyes held hers while he asked the question.
‘I’ve never known what I wanted to do with my life,’ Magpie muttered, looking down. ‘I fell into the School, by accident.’
‘You had to leave because you got yourself blown …’
‘But Morningstar said you could still be of use, did he not?’
Magpie nodded again.
‘So … what did the eagles say to you?’
‘Said I had skills, and nouse, and gumption.’ Magpie glanced up at the Stag.
‘And what did you promise them?’
‘That I’d begin …’ Magpie stopped, looked up straight at the Stag. ‘Does that mean, does it mean … I can begin? I can be part of the School? I can do the work?’
‘I’d say so, wouldn’t you? It’s always been your choice, Magpie. You ran away. You thought you could never go back. You dived into adventure and trouble with both hands. Morningstar said you could still be useful, in a covert way. Perhaps getting yourself the thieves’ reputation is just that, useful … had you thought of that?’
Magpie shook her head. ‘I just ran … you’re right … I just ran.’ She stopped, her face changed, she was thinking. ‘As a thief … as a thief, I might be able to know all sorts of people that ordinary straight folk would never know …’
Now it was the Stag’s turn to nod.
‘I’m a stunningly good thief …’ she paused again. ‘But I want to steal everything! I love it. I’d steal the antlers off your head if I thought I could,’ she added, sotto voce.
The Stag looked down his nose at her again. ‘I wouldn’t advise you to try,’ he said gently.
‘You weren’t supposed to hear that,’ Magpie muttered.
‘Perhaps that’s what Morningstar wants you to do, only with some discrimination. And not actually stealing everything you set eyes on. And stealing for other people’s benefit …?’
‘I suppose … but it’s hard. I really want beautiful, fascinating things …
‘Well … you’re having some practice here at giving them up again …’
She snorted, glared at him, then grinned. ‘I suppose.’
His eyes smiled back at her. She somehow felt better, in spite of having to give up that wonderful golden horn. She grinned again, did a little two-step dance.
‘Now don’t get carried away,’ he told her. ‘To be a stunningly good thief is hard work. You’ll upset the competition and sometimes you’ll need to work with them not against them. You’ll have to carry lots of stories … legends … in your head and always know exactly where you are, when you are and who you are. Morningstar needs information, you can help him with that. Does that sound like a good career?’
‘I’ll give it a damn good try,’ Magpie told him.
‘Hmmm … then I think you’ll meet someone, fairly soon. Have you heard of Grymalkyn?’
Magpie’s eyes widened. ‘You mean Grym? Morningstar’s chief assassin? I’ve seen her, at the School, but I don’t know her. She’s something else … not sure how we’d get on!’
The Stag made a soft braying noise, Magpie realised he was laughing.
‘Well give it a try. She might not be as bad as you think. She tries to be invisible most of the time. But yes, that’s who I meant. I think you may get to meet her come the end of this adventure. If you do, stick with her, ask her to take you on, help you. You might,’ the Stag almost winked at her, ‘you might mention me to her. We go back a long, long way.’
‘Thank you!’ Magpie dropped to one knee and put her forehead against his hoof. ‘Thank you,’ she repeated. ‘And you’d better count the hairs on your fetlock to check I’ve not nicked any.’ She stood up, grinning.
‘You can keep the three you took,’ the Stag replied. ‘You’ll find them useful, sometime, I expect. But be prepared to give them away.’ Then the Stag gave a roaring bark. Everyone jumped.
‘Now …’ he began, ‘about this baby dragon. After her contretemps with a dyslexic pixie she has landed in the castle of a wizard up in the Pictlands. At present she’s in no immediate danger – except of overeating! – but she does need finding and bringing home. As it happens, your quest will be best concluded if you go up there too, Madam Beast. You will find your brother up in the Forest of Calydon and he needs your help as much as you need his, in fact you need each other. It’s high time Billy got home too. And Owen, you will like to see Jimson again, I’m sure. ‘The Stag looked down his nose at Owen who had the grace to nod agreement. ‘Magpie will do best to go along too and I’m sure the IBWs will find it both enlightening and amusing. In any case,’ the Stag glared at the wyzards, ‘I’m counting on you two to keep the rest of them on target. Seabhag, you’ll do as you please but I think you’ll enjoy accompanying this motley crew.’ In fact, you might like to transport them up to Bennachie …’
Seabhag smiled and bowed slightly. ‘It’s your show,’ he demurred.
There was a thunderous bray, a flash of lightning and thunder rumbled all around the sky. The sun went out temporarily too.
‘Flashy bugger, isn’t he?’ Kefn whispered to Iolo.
And they were gone …
Enchanted Forest 3 – Hole to Cloutsham Ball
Seabhag’s jaw dropped slightly as he watched Owen disappear through the hole in the tree. One minute he’d been peering through the hole, then there was slurrrrrp! Then there was no Owen. He started forward in the ridiculous hope of grabbing onto Owen’s no longer existent legs … well, no longer extant in the world in which he stood, he reminded himself. Please the gods Owen (and his legs) were all still extant somewhere.
Billy stood up, no longer stone but troll again, ‘Where’d he go?’ he said, looking round everywhere with a bemused expression and furrowed forehead.
Iolo went up to the tree and jumped up and down, trying to see through the hole just over his head. Billy promptly crouched down again into being a rock.
‘Thanks, Billy.’ Iolo made to climb aboard.
‘No you don’t!’ Kefn caught hold of the collar of his leather jacket. ‘Not without a sheet-anchor you don’t.’
‘Erm … yes,’ Iolo agreed sheepishly. He climbed more cautiously onto Billy’s stone back; Kefn’s arms were round his waist; the Beast, hung onto Iolo’s legs. ‘That ought to do it,’he said as he stuck his head through the hole.
Iolo, Kefn and the Beast had been slurped up by the tree-window.
Seabhag’s jaw dropped even further, ‘Oh … bother …’he muttered, ‘one of those!’ He rolled his eyes, surely he’d been in the company of competent wyzards … Hmmm! Perhaps not.
Seabhag sighed. He should have seen that coming but really! Surely Owen was more competent than that, getting wired by the forest. Hmm! It was a tricksy forest; Seabhag nodded his head to it in acknowledgement. The two outer branches of the window-tree waved slightly in return.
‘Now what do we do?’ Magpie was exasperated; if the forest could get Owen then what on earth were they supposed to do? She began to consider how to get herself out of the place. Billy crept over to her side and slipped his hand into hers, squeezed gently. She squeezed back, he needed the comfort. At the same time she hoped she wasn’t going to be saddled with a baby troll. Would there be a way of sneaking out on her own?
The elf horse pushed his way past them all to stand in front of the window-tree.
‘Well,’ said the horse, ‘that’s where we have to go. The tree says it’s a shortcut, since Owen got us lost up here in the first place. You’d better all climb aboard us and we’ll fly you through.’
‘Ahem!’ One of the Mousies coughed. ‘Ahem! We can’t fly! It’s all very well for you lot, kelpies and elf-horse and whatever … Ouch!!!’
Magpie’s horse nipped the Mousie’s rump. The pony turned and glared, offended. ‘Well, I don’t know what you are!’ the Mousie said crossly. ‘Anyway,’ he carried on, ‘we can’t fly!’
‘It’ll work as long as we’re all touching each other,’ the elf-horse continued. ‘You grab my tail in your teeth, your mate grabs your tail in his teeth, and you sort of fly-by-wire. You’re OK aren’t you?’ The elf-horse turned to the kelpie and Magpie’s horse.
‘No problem,’ said the kelpie. Magpie’s horse just grinned.
‘Come on then.’ The elf-horse nudged Seabhag gently. ‘And check the girths,’ he told the elf-lord.
‘I remember the story,’ Seabhag replied with an old-fashioned look to his horse. He pulled the girth-straps, they were tight and the pins firmly through the holes. He mounted lightly. ‘Billy, you want to ride with me? This is going to be fun.’ He smiled down at the young troll.
Magpie helped Billy up in front of Seabhag then went to mount her own horse. ‘You can do it?’ she asked.
The horse’s grin widened. ‘You’re going to love this!’
Resignedly, Magpie mounted up. The elf-horse led the line-up with a Mousie clutching his tail; the second Mousie grabbed a large lump of Mousie-tail in his jaws while the first Mousie whickered gently. The kelpie followed, grabbing the second Mousie’s tail in his teeth.
‘I thought you could do this …’ Magpie stared at the kelpie.
‘Itshch to make ssshuure,’ the kelpie replied in a muffled voice through the Mousie tail. ‘In cashe he dropsh hish end. I’ve got him sheckurely.’
‘Oh … right …’
The Mousies both whickered in an anxious manner.
‘Get a grip!’ said the elf-horse and took off.
‘Sheeeeeeesh !!! V-TOL !!!’ the second Mousie lost his grip on his mate’s tail. The kelpie snorted.
Magpie watched as her horse sprouted two huge wings, like swans’ wings. They rose up out of the shoulders in front of her, spread to twice the length of the horse and swept down hard as the horse’s back muscles bunched under her; the creature leaped into the air. Magpie’s stomach was still somewhere on the ground, she hoped it would catch up by the time they arrived wherever-it-was they were going. The picture in front of her was amazing; everything had extended, grown and gone slow-motion. The beautiful elf-horse galloped through the air very slowly; the Mousie clung to his tail, its legs threshing gently; the second Mousie dangled pathetically from the kelpie’s jaws while the kelpie himself appeared to be swimming through the air. She herself was riding a flying horse. The air shimmered all the colours of the rainbow. Magpie gasped; it was the rainbow! A rainbow bridge! The path they flew along had straightened itself into an undulating carpet of red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo stripes. It flowed through the hole in the tree like a ribbon.
All of a sudden the hole was in front of them. Just as Magpie was certain they weren’t going to make it the hole opened like an iris, a lens, and they all streamed through. Then they landed. The horse stopped almost instantly, Magpie flew over his head bounced twice in the soft turf and came to a stop at Owen’s feet.
‘Nice to see you,’ he bent and offered her a hand up.
‘Ugh … err … errrmm … thanks …’ Magpie climbed to her feet in time to watch her horse’s wings dissolve back into the shoulders. She stared around her; it was quite different to where they had been.
‘Do you happen to know where we are?’ Seabhag asked Owen.
‘Cloutsham Ball,’ Owen replied. ‘Managed to have a look around before you arrived.’
‘Does that help?’ Seabhag raised an eyebrow.
‘Well, it does … and it doesn’t. Dun Kerri is over there.’ He pointed across a mist filled and steep-sided valley to a peak on the near horizon that looked quite close.
‘What about that?’ asked Iolo.
‘Do we have to go down there to get over there?’ Kefn did not sound keen.
‘I hope not,’ Owen said. ‘I hope we’ll get some more help.’
‘The horses could fly us,’ Magpie offered.
‘If you think I’m eating any more Mousie tail you’re mistaken!’ said the kelpie, still spitting hairs out of his mouth. ‘Tastes disgusting!’
‘And I don’t fancy my tail being pulled out any more either,’ said the elf-horse acidly.
Both Mousies crept closer together, their noses twitching and eyes rolling.
‘I’m game to fly over,’ said Magpie’s horse.
All the other horses snorted derisively.
‘Enough!’ Seabhag took charge for a moment. ‘What do you propose, Owen?’
But Owen wasn’t listening. He stood on the hilltop, legs spread and slightly crouched, both arms up in the air and his head bowed. His hands were fists. He was singing a tuneless song of four notes, up and down, up and down.
There was a rush of air, the sound of great wings.
‘The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!’ the Beast stood with her claw shading her eyes, looking into the sun.
Four great golden eagles swept out of the sun. As they flew closer their huge shadows ran before them, climbed the hill of Cloutsham Ball and shrank to nothingness as the birds landed in front of Owen.
‘What can we do for you?’ the eagle’s voice was harsh, like stone grinding over stone.
Owen dropped to one knee on front of the great birds. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘We need to get to Dun Keri, to see the White Stag. We would like help crossing the abyss of mist.’
A strange coughing, gargling noise came from all four birds. It took Magpie a moment to realise they were laughing.
‘Not a good place for you to go!’ said the second bird.
‘We can carry them,’ said the third; the fourth nodded.
‘The horses can carry some of us,’ Owen said, ‘but we would be very grateful if you could carry the others.’
‘How grateful?’ asked the fourth bird.
‘What do you think would be a good exchange?’ Owen replied.
The four eagle heads conferred together. They turned to look at Magpie.
‘M-me …?’ she stammered. ‘B-but I don’t have anything!’
‘Yes you do,’ the first bird told her.
‘Skills,’ said the second bird.
‘Nouse,’ said the third bird.
‘Gumption,’ the fourth bird added.
‘You promised all these to Morningstar,’ the first bird went on. ‘You can renew your promise here, to us.’
‘You really will find it worthwhile,’ the third bird added in a kindly tone.
The four eagles gathered round Magpie. They were huge, enormous, as tall as she herself. They raised their wings, enfolding her in a great feather pyramid; their eight clawed feet touched hers so gently; their feathers just brushes against her; the four great beaks surrounded her head, she could feel their breath.
Words came to her …
Earth water fire and air
Met together in a garden fair
Put in a basket, bound with skin,
If I answer this riddle I’ll never begin …
She stopped. ‘I will begin,’ she whispered to the birds. ‘I’ll hold the riddle inside myself, know it is me; live it not talk about it.’
The warm eagle-breath breath flowed up her nostrils, filling her. She’d not felt like this for a very long time, not since Morningstar … she stopped that though before she burst into tears.
‘I will begin,’ she repeated to the eagles. ‘I will begin.’
The eagle-pyramid pulled back, became the four great birds again. Magpie found she was shaking slightly but felt better than she had since she’s left the school. ‘I … err … was that OK?’ she asked.
‘Yes. Come.’ The first eagle said. ‘Those of you who can ride the horses mount up. We will carry the others.’ He crouched down and spread his great wings, the Beast climbed onto his back. ‘Grip tight!’ the eagle told her.
The second eagle crouched beside Billy. ‘You’ll love this,’ the bird told him.
Billy looked up to Seabhag, would he approve? Seabhag nodded, smiled. ‘Yes,’ he told Billy, ‘you really will.’
Billy climbed onto the eagle’s back. His little short legs stuck out to either side; he looked round worriedly, wondering what to hang on to; he didn’t want to pull the eagle’s feathers out.
‘There’s big tufts in my ruff,’ the eagle told him. ‘Hang onto those, they won’t come out and you won’t hurt me.’
Billy took a firm grip … and a deep breath.
‘What about us?’ whickered one of the Mousies.
‘You’ll be fine,’ said the third eagle. ‘Just shut your eyes and think of spring grass.’
Seabhag leapt onto the elf-horse; Magpie mounted her horse, she was looking forward to those wings again, it was going to be fun. Owen leaped onto the kelpie’s back as the beast reared and neighed loudly, ‘Let’s do it!’ the kelpie cried, springing into the air.
The elf-horse followed him, along with the eagles carrying the Beast and Billy. Magpie’s horse unfurled its wings and lifted gently into the air. The two remaining eagles lofted, each hovered over one of the Mousies, then reached down their claws to grab a pony by the mane and tail.
‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeek !!!’ and ‘Gadflies !!!!!’ shrieked the ponies. Both had opened their eyes for a crazy moment and, as their heads and legs dangled from the eagles’ claws over a misty nothingness they realised looking down into the abyss had been a mistake!
Steady, strong wingbeats carried them. Magpie on the horse found a similar sense. The strength of the birds and her horse was stunning. Watching the elf-horse and the kelpie was quite different but no less amazing; the two beasts seemed to dance in the air, galloping, tossing their heads, manes and tails streaming out in the wind … and all of it in slow motion again. The ride across the abyss seemed to take both forever and no time at all. She was really sorry when the landed.
She slid off the horse to stand knee deep in black heather. Ahead was a pinnacle of stone and there, on the very top, balanced like a dancer himself, was the White Stag.
‘Harrumph! That’s a bit of a bother,’ muttered Magpie as she looked down over the cliff that the kelpie stood at the edge of.
Owen turned to her smiling, ‘You can say that again! No! Don’t!’ he added quickly as her mouth opened to do as he said. ‘We … or rather I … have to find our path. I’m sorry, I lost it, that’s how we’ve arrived here. Thank the gods the kelpie had the nouse to stop because I certainly didn’t.’
The kelpie looked mollified, tossed his head gently.
‘Anyway, I’ve got to sort the path so you might as well have a quick rest while I do. I hope I won’t be too long.’
Billy peered cautiously round Seabhag’s leg and down over the cliff edge.
‘Cooooooooo … !!!’ he whispered, awestruck. ‘It don’t half go down a long way.’
‘Yes,’ Seabhag agreed, grabbing onto the troll’s collar. ‘And we don’t want you sailing down there, so come back here and sit down. It would be a real nuisance to have to fish you out of those pine trees after you’d bounced through a few at eighty-six miles per second per second. And it would put back rescuing Sparky by quite a while.’
Billy looked up at the elf, worried, then he saw that Seabhag was smiling. He gave the elf’s leg a quick hug and backed away from the precipice to sit down in the crunchy leaves far enough away to be safe.
Iolo came up to have a quick look over the edge too. ‘Hmm!’ he said. ‘Nice drop.’
‘Good paragliding,’ Kefn said from right behind him.
‘Damnit! I wish you wouldn’t do that!’ Iolo spluttered, backing away from the edge and treading on Kefn’s toes, quite deliberately.
Kefn chuckled and they both backed off out of the way.
Owen crouched down at the edge of the first step that led off out into nowhere. He was hunting for threads. Where were all those nice rainbow-strands he’d seen as the path did its jiggling tricks earlier? Now, right at his feet, he found them, or ones just like them, tied into a neat double-bow over a good reef knot. Ha! that was pretty conclusive and made sense of the notice; the gods would not be helping anyone dumb enough to step out off those steps. He sighed, relieved, he hadn’t fancied the idea of making a bridge across forever out of rainbow strands to carry the party across wherever-it-was that was the gulf in front of them. OK, so they were meant to go another way. He turned back and took a few steps back the way they’d come.
The others had taken his advice and spread themselves to sit down comfortably and take a break, out of his way. But the landscape had changed.
The forest trees stopped a few yards from the cliff edge; no path was really visible but right where he was sure it had been was now a tree. A very big, odd tree it was; its massive trunk stretched up to just over his head; above that three enormous branches reached out, one horizontally to his left, another out to his right and the third went directly upwards. Just below them, in the centre of the trunk, was a hole, like a window.
The hairs on Owen’s neck rose and his skin prickled. It was a window; a window between worlds.
Owen went up to the tree. There was a humming around it, like a force field. He tried putting his hand gently towards it; the field let his hand in but instantly all his hair stood on end. He heard the muffled gasps of half-laughter behind him, knew he must look a sight. ‘Damnit!’ he muttered, ‘I suppose I have to look like a clown’. The field let his hand through so he could touch the tree; there was instant communication.
‘Remember that saying about camels and needles?’ the tree asked him.
Owen sighed. ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Well, that’s what you gotta do,’ the tree told him.
Owen would have sworn it was chuckling too.
‘How?’ he was feeling terse and somewhat frayed.
‘Climb up and have a look, boyo,’ the tree replied.
The hole was a bit over the top of his head. He withdrew his hand and stood looking at it, wondering how to see through; there were no rocks or logs he could stand on.
Something, someone, tugged at his trousers. ‘I can do that,’ Billy whispered to him.
Owen crouched down to Billy’s level. ‘You can do what?’ he asked, kindly.
‘I can be a rock,’ Billy said patiently. ‘I’m a troll. We’re rocks, stone. I can be a rock.’
‘Did you hear what the tree said to me?’
Billy nodded, looking worried. ‘Shouldn’t I have listened?’ His brow was furrowed and his eyes looked nervous.
‘No, no, I mean yes,. I mean that’s quite all right. I just didn’t know you could hear trees.’ Owen was smiling and put a hand on the little troll’s shoulder. ‘Have you always been able to hear trees?’
‘No-ooo …’ Billy hesitated. ‘It really sort of started after we got going on this journey. I didn’t know what it was what was talking to me, just I sort of heard things. Then, now, since we comed through that gate into … here …’ Billy waved an arm to indicate the forest, ‘then and now when you put your hand on that there tree, I can hear what he said like.’ He grinned sheepishly. ‘I think it all sort of comed clear when your hair stood on end.’
‘That’s good, that’s good,’ Owen smiled encouragingly. ‘So … you could be a rock. And would you mind if I stood on you so I could see through the window?’
‘Nah, that’s what I meant. You stand on me then you can see through and see where we gotta go.’
‘OK, thanks. I think that’s part of what I’ve got to do.’
Billy slithered across the leaves, through the force field – it made him prickle all over but he wasn’t going to say anything, he was too proud to be useful again. He curled himself into a good solid rock-shape, keeping his back nice and flat so Owen would have a good platform to stand on and not fall off, then he shuddered gently and shifted.
One moment Owen saw a young troll, next a handy-sized rock platform at the base of the tree the top of which looked very level and easy to stand on. He stepped into the force field, putting up with his hair all standing on end again, and stepped as carefully as he could up onto the rock, Billy’s back. It was just the right height; his head came up level with the window; putting a hand each side of the hole Owen leaned to peer through it.
He jumped back and fell off Billy. The rock shifted slightly and Billy’s head reappeared.
‘You all right, Guv?’ the troll asked.
‘Yep, sure.’ Owen picked himself up. ‘Hope I didn’t hurt you.’
‘Not a bit. You seen enough?’
‘No, I need another proper look, if you don’t mind.’
‘Go for it, Guv.’ Billy turned himself back into a rock.
Owen climbed back up, more wary this time, and peered again through the hole. The rainbow lines swam before his eyes, it was like literally looking into, having your head inside, a rainbow. He felt slightly giddy, took a deep breath and remembered to put his roots down through his feet, being careful of Billy on the way, and down into the ground. That stabilised him, things stopped wavering in and out of focus and held their shape. Now he could see the path, straight and narrow but very strong. He pulled back, climbed down and peered round the side of the tree. No, as he’d thought; no path.
‘Sorry Billy, not quite done yet.’
Owen climbed back onto Billy’s back and looked through the hole again. Yes there it was, very plain. He felt a suction on himself. Next moment he was sliding through the hole and out the other side, falling onto the soft grass. He sat up and looked back. There, indeed was the tree … but beyond was a whole new country. Where the hell was he? And … worse … where the hell were the others?
The way wound upwards amongst the green-black, lichen-covered trunks of ancient trees. Clip-clopping softly behind Owen, Magpie found herself slipping into a trance as her horse carried her up the narrow path. They had to go single file – Owen, with Corbie on his shoulder, led the way; Magpie followed then came Seabhag with Billy in front of him and the Beast behind him, Iolo and Kefn brought up the rear. A croak and Cadfan, the other raven, called her to lift him onto her shoulder.
‘Morning,’ he said. ‘Had a good night?’
‘Fine, thank you,’ Magpie tried to sound inconsequential.
Cadfan peered at her out of each eye in turn. ‘Hmmm!’ he said.
Magpie took no notice.
The way continued … dark trees … dripping lichen … red-gold bracken … they climbed and climbed. Magpie woke up with a start as her horse stopped abruptly with its nose in the kelpie’s tail; it tossed its head and backed up quickly straight into the elf-horse, who half-reared and twisted to get out of the way. Billy, also half-asleep, squawked as he nearly slid off and Seabhag grabbed him by the collar to hold him on board. The Beast stopped successfully not having been tailgating on the elf-horse and the Wyzards on the Mousies were fine too.
‘Hold up,’ Owen turned back to face them, the kelpie dance-stepping sideways in a neat half-pirouette. ‘We’re at the gate into the Enchanted Forest, we have to answer the challenge.’
‘Oh … ye gods!’ Magpie muttered. What the hell did that mean? She sat still, trying to keep her head down.
‘One of us,’ Owen went on, ‘will be chosen, will have get us through.’
‘Do you know what we’ll be asked?’ Seabhag asked.
‘No, it’s different every time.’
‘How do we know who the chosen one is?’ the Beast looked out from under her hood.
‘Each of us must go to the gate. The chosen one will be asked a question; for the rest of us nothing will happen. I’ll go first.’ He turned and rode the kelpie up to the gate.
Magpie couldn’t see anything very clearly; a white mist swirled gently across what appeared to be a gap in a bank across the path. She watched as Owen disappeared into it. A nasty feeling grew inside her, she tried to ignore it. It got worse, her stomach threatened to throw up her nice breakfast; she swallowed and tried to turn her thoughts elsewhere. Then something began to stick red hot pins into her backside.
‘Ow! Stop that!’ She jiggled about in the saddle, squeaking.
Not only did the pins not stop but the horse began to move towards the entrance to the enchanted forest. Magpie tried to dismount but her feet somehow got stuck in the stirrups. She found herself facing Owen who was just emerging.
‘It’s not me,’ he said.
‘I … Ow! Oh! Stop it! … Oh gods! The horse seems to think it must be me,’ she stammered. ‘I can’t get off!’
‘Well, good luck,’ Owen replied and patter her shoulder amiably as he went past.
‘Ouch! Hey!’ Magpie glared at his retreating back, her feet still well tangled in the stirrups and unable to run away. The horse pushed her past him into the mist.
As she entered it the red hot pins in her arse stopped.
For a moment she could see nothing but whiteness all around her then the mist cleared and she found herself alone, the mist behind her and in front of her a tall narrow gap between two high banks that stood up many feet above her head. The dark dripping trees loured over the gap, their lichen beards hanging down to almost touch her head. Her teethed clenched, this had not been her decision. What the hell was she supposed to do now?
The horse stopped. Her feet were suddenly free, she slipped down out of the saddle.
‘You were a great help!’ she told the horse. It whiffled softly, eyes glinting and gave her a hard shove further into the mist.
‘Huh! Don’t push me! Magpie growled, ‘I’m going.’ But she loosened her knife and tucked in her chin as she stepped forward.
The next three steps got darker and then, all of a sudden, light dazzled her. She blinked and put up her hands to shade her eyes; when she dropped them again the scene had changed completely. She stood now in an open place surrounded by birch trees, their white trunks brilliant in the light. Looking up, she found herself facing a very strange figure.
At first she thought it was an odd tree stump then she looked again. It was! It was a Frog. Or, at least, it was the top half of a frog, the head, with two strange antennae sticking out of the top of its head, big round eyes and a smile. She stared. The smile grew.
‘What the …?’ Magpie was quite speechless for once, her jaw even dropped a little. The frog’s smile deepened, its eyes crinkled to take up the smile and the antennae twitched slightly.
‘Good morning,’ said the frog.
‘G-g-good m-morning …’ Magpie replied. ‘What might I be able to do for you?’ she managed, keeping the question open and getting a grip on herself.
The frog grinned even more. ‘Nicely done,’ he replied. ‘That’s a question it’s fairly hard for me to catch you with.’ He paused, watching her, wrinkles formed between his eyes as he thought about how to respond to her.
Magpie’s eyes slitted, very wary, her old skill and panache had back. She had the nous to wait, not to jump in but to let the silence carry on until the frog should see fit to speak.
The frog smiled again. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that it’s maybe something I can do for you.’
Magpie held the silence for another moment, then, ‘Well, that sounds nice … what are you offering?’
The frog began to chuckle. ‘You’re a fly one, aren’t you? I suppose you don’t happen to know my old mate Morningstar?’
That caught her off guard again. He knew Morningstar? Harrumph! Well … she decided not to be drawn down that byway. ‘Maybe …’ she replied. ‘But, to get back to the point, you were saying there might be something you could do for me?’
‘Hmmph! Ye-es, it’s possible …’ the frog paused and eyed her closely. ‘Just where is it you’re off to, young lady, and for why?’
Instinct held good, as always. Magpie crossed both her forefingers with her thumbs and pulled on a couple of threads that were to hand. Morningstar would be pleased, she grinned to herself as she asked for the right words to answer the frog in the most appropriate way.
‘I … we … have a mission …’ she paused, pulled, called for the right words. ‘We’re all hunting the White Stag … for all sorts of reasons. But …’ she swallowed and took another pull. ‘But we have a group mission too. But the baby dragon’s still missing and we have to find her. The White Stag can help. We have to find him.’
‘Mmmm … OK …’ the frog frowned, pursed his lips, looked at Magpie from under his huge drooping eyelids. ‘The way to the White Stag is through the Enchanted Forest …’ he left the sentence hanging.
‘Well … great … I’ll tell the others we can get going.’
‘Not so fast! Not so fast, pretty lady. To enter the Enchanted Forest you have to pass me.’
‘So … I require a gift …’
Magpie felt in her pockets … nothing. A picture rose up behind her eyes … the golden horn.
‘Yes,’ replied the frog. ‘I need that horn …’
Magpie glared, what? She was not giving up that horn …
‘I need that horn,’ the frog repeated.
Swallowing hard, Magpie turned back to her horse. The horn was in her saddle bag. Slowly, sooooo slowly she opened the bag. Her hand hovered over it, she glanced back over her shoulder. The frog just smiled to her. She turned back, reached in, grabbed the horn, pulled her hand out fast and shut the bag. She took it over to the frog.
‘Will I ever see it again?’ she muttered.
One of the antennae-things reached over the frog’s head and took the horn out of her hand.
‘That depends,’ he replied, tucking the horn away somewhere behind him. ‘Come back and see me some time and we’ll see.’
‘I will, believe it!’ Magpie said as she remounted, then, ‘it’s done,’ she called to the others through the mist. ‘Come on, let’s go.’
Morning came far too quickly for Owen. Magpie was still asleep in the crook of his arm … his arm was asleep too but he decided it was well worth it. Bluish, crepuscular light filtered into the tent and he could smell the fire … and some bacon. That did it, bacon frying got all his other appetites going, he tried to slide his arm out from under Magpie without waking her, it didn’t work.
‘Mmm-rr-mmrr-cough-choke … What?’ Magpie sat up.
Owen watched her appreciatively. Tousled and muzzy from sleep she still looked gorgeous. She blinked at him with that ‘WTF’ sort of look, then she recognised him, then she remembered, colour slid delicately up her neck to her cheeks, she began to grin.
‘That good?’ Owen quizzed her.
She just nodded, still grinning, then fumbled about to find her clothes from amongst the heap of garments at their feet. Owen passed her a shirt and wriggled his way into his own gear. Pulling on boots, he headed out then turned and stuck his head back in.
‘Eggs? Bacon? Sausage? Fried bread? Mushroom? Tomatoes?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ Magpie responded in a muffled way as her head was still inside her shirt and she couldn’t find any holes for head or arms.
Owen headed off for the cook-fire. The Wyzards and Billy were in charge there; Billy really surprised at how well he could cook, admittedly it was only the bacon and sausages he was doing but he wasn’t burning them just getting them nicely browned. The smell was making his mouth water.
‘Turn them again, Billy,’ Iolo told him kindly. ‘What’ll you have? He smiled up at Owen.
‘The lot, please. Twice.’ Owen replied, squatting down beside the fire. ‘Want me to handle our eggs?’
‘Good idea, you’ll know how you like them. Here’s a spoon,’ he thrust one plus a hot frying pan to Owen.
Owen got both by the handles, scraped some fat into the pan from the large pot beside Kevn and set it to melt on the trivet over the fire while he grabbed a couple of eggs. Then he grabbed two more eggs, sensing Magpie’s hungry yowl in his head, grinned and broke them into a bowl.
Kevn eyed the four eggs. ‘Hungry work last night then?’
Owen chuckled in reply.
Platters piled high with hot food, Owen got back to the tent. Magpie was clothed and somewhat smoothed from last time he’d seen her, she’d tidied up a bit in the tent too. Owen made a mental note to check his valuables; gorgeous girl, but … kleptomania just wasn’t in it. He passed her one of the wooden platters. She took the platter and out her knife with a quick smile of thanks, and began tucking in. He sat down opposite and joined her.
Scraping every last drop of juice from the plate with the softest bit of fried bread, saved for the job, he looked up at her.
‘Ready to face the world?’
‘Mmmm …’ she nodded, stuffing the last bit of her own sausage into her mouth. She swallowed. ‘I’ll wash up,’ she took his platter and went outside.
Owen checked through everything; surprisingly, it was all still where he’d put it but he could tell from almost invisible changes that she’d had a look. He blinked on his second sight, yes, all the threads were in place but they had been moved, just a fraction. He smiled. Well, he’d just have to keep an eye on her, didn’t seem any point in hoping she’d grow out of it; she was already very well grown (in all the right departments, he recalled fondly) and stealing was just in her blood. Useful, at time, he could see that; probably one of the traits the School wanted her for and why she’d be good freelance. Morningstar was nobody’s fool. He went out of the tent, pulled all their gear out and packed the tent away. Magpie came back with the platters, stared at the small pile of gear that sat where the tent and all their clobber had been. Her pile was larger than his and his contained the tent and all.
‘Amazing what a compression stuff bag will do, isn’t it?’ she turned her dazzling smile on him.
‘Sure is,’ he agreed, his own dazzling smile beaming back at her.
The kelpie came up and nuzzled her in the back, she stumbled forward then turned.
‘Good morning, you!’ she greeted him.
‘And to you too,’ the kelpie eyed her. ‘Hmmm! Not enough sleep. Don’t fall off!’
Blushing slightly, Magpie turned away to find her own mount and get ready for the off.
‘Good?’ the kelpie asked Owen.
‘Not that it’s any of your business!’ Owen replied.
The kelpie grinned, as only horses can. ‘Come on then, let’s be off and at it!’
‘There it is!’ Magpie pointed ahead.
Billy, who was alongside her, stared up into the mass of twisting branches that largely hid the little hill just to the right of the path.
‘I can’t see it …’ he stared harder, scrunching his eyes up and holding one hand over his eyes despite the gloom of approaching night.
‘There …’ Owen put one hand on Billy’s shoulder and immediately the little troll found he could see, quite differently from normal.
‘Coo-ool …’ he breathed.
Owen chuckled. ‘With all that snow it will certainly be cool, if not bloody freezing!’ he grinned down at Billy.
The troll’s vision showed him a conical hill with an apparently flat top all covered in snow like a huge Yule Cake covered in sweet frosting. Silvery birch trees marched up its sides, their bare winter branches filigreed with fresh snow, a delicate fairy land. Across the top of the hill he noticed white balls flying from each side, crossing as they passed over the middle, making wonderful patterns against the night sky. After a moment Billy realised the white balls were flying to the throbbing rhythm that seemed to be pulsing out of the very ground. His flesh prickled with excitement.
Owen slid off his horse, Magpie followed him and the others all dismounted too., he led the way up a path that turned off the main track right at their feet. The rest of the group followed him. They could feel the throbbing sound right through their boots.
As they came to the top Billy ducked under Owen’s arm, excited to see what was going on. Eyes agog, he never saw the white ball that caught him in the mouth and knocked him back into Magpie’s arms.
‘Hey!’ she caught him, steadied him back onto his feet. ‘You OK?’
‘Ummphhuggle glug,’ he replied disjointedly, spitting snow out of his mouth.
She helped him get rid of the snow, even for a troll his mouth looked blue with cold. They all peered carefully over the top.
The top of the hill was dipped like a cup, about ten feet deep. The sides were steep but the bottom was flat, the whole covered in snow that glimmered in the starlight and the beginnings of the rising moon that just managed to tangle with the topmost branches.
Down in the dip stood a circle of entwives, their tall, slender forms lightly wrapped in gossamer silk that clung to them and swirled out when they moved. In the centre sat a group of nine gnomes. They were drumming. Each gnome had a drum of a different size held between his black-breeched knees, and each played a different rhythm that blended and harmonised into a complex whole. Their hands flashed over the drum skins, the sleeves of their white shirts rolled up to show hairy, muscular arms adorned with complicated tattoos. Long beards twitched rhythmically. Their red hoods were decorated with holly, ivy and mistletoe, and strung with hawk-bells that rang sweetly as they moved their heads in time with the drumming.
The entwives dipped and swayed in time with the drumming as they bent to pick up a new handful of snow, roll it into a ball. They stretched and arched as they tossed the snowball across the circle, over the heads of the gnomes. The balls fell just over the head of the entwife opposite. The patterns they made were like shooting stars.
Owen and the rest of the group stood transfixed, hardly breathing.
A sudden roll of the drums and the whole dance stopped. The silence was electric. A swoop of wings and a wild cry over Magpie’s head broke the spell as a barn owl swooped over the circle. The gnomes put down their drums and the eldest turned to the strangers. The elder entwife followed his gaze.
‘Welcome, strangers,’ the gnome called. ‘Will you come down and join us?’
Owen raised a hand. ‘We will indeed, thanking you kindly for the invitation.’ He led his mount carefully down the hill, the others followed.
Magpie and Billy both stared around them. Iolo and Kefn looked at each other.
‘The snow dance …’ Kefn breathed.
Iolo nodded. ‘I never expected to see this,’ he whispered back.
‘What’s the snow dance?’ Billy asked them.
The elder gnome had reached them now, he looked kindly at Billy. ‘At Twelfth Night we gather here at the Tump to celebrate the snow and the new moon, when they come together as they do this year. We dance and feast in honour of the Goddess Olwen, the Lady of the Moon. You have seen the dance – swallowed some of it,’ he chuckled and patted Billy on the head. ‘Now … will you feast with us and tell us how you come to be here so propitiously?’
‘The kelpies sent us,’ Billy blurted out.
‘Aha!’ the elder gnome looked round them all.
Magpie felt the threads move again, twining, weaving around and through her. It tickled her mind and made her blink. She’d really not expected to feel it like this although her tutors at The School had told her she would … if only she would allow herself to do so. She grimaced. Damn it! And she certainly wasn’t consciously allowing anything of the sort, not intentionally! It was just creeping up on her, grabbing her when she wasn’t looking. The gnome was smiling at her, his eyes twinkling. Damn it again! He was reading her thoughts!
They followed the gnome into the circle. Other gnomes came to take their mounts, offering them food, while the entwives took each of the travellers and sat them in them comfortably circle, giving them rugs and furs to wrap around them. Soon food appeared, delicious soup, roast meats, new-made sourdough bread and fresh cheeses. Warm fruit pie followed, with stem-ginger and custard, and there was plenty to drink.
Magpie was sharing a rug and a couple of furs with Owen, feeling replete and satisfied. The entwives sang, the gnomes provided bass harmonies. She was nodding off when the singing stopped and the elder gnome turned to them.
‘You are well fed … would you now entertain us with a story? I sense the lady there,’ he looked pointedly at Magpie, ‘has a story to tell. Would you give it to us?’
Eye-level with a huge and ancient mother-dragon whilst maintaining levitation is a strain on the spiritual muscles. Magpie’s gave up. She did manage to hold enough energy to come down fairly slowly, her arse was injured enough without crashing it into the rock. Landing with only a slight bump, the raven escaped from the crook of her arm and scuttled ungainly-fashion over to Owen and Corbie.
‘Sheesh!’ he muttered to them out of the side of his beak. ‘Live wire, that one! Lots of good intentions but doesn’t think it through.’
Owen chuckled, dismounted, crouched down and held out an arm so the new raven could hop aboard.
‘Ta mate,’ the raven thanked him. ‘Name’s Cadfan, by the way,’ he added as he settled on Owen’s spare shoulder. ‘Think I’ll stop with you for a bit and let her get settled down afore I goes back.’
‘That’s fine with me,’ Owen told him, putting up a hand to stroke the silky feathers.
‘Seen any good battles lately?’ Corbie asked, peering politely round Owen’s nose to see the other bird.
‘Not really. Not unless you call the contretemps I had with that Capri a battle. Bloody half-baked wizards!’
‘Ha! They never stay in the athenor long enough to cook properly,’ Corbie agreed. ‘What about her?’ His beak indicated Magpie.
‘Loads of spunk and a very good brain, good mind too. Needs sorting …’
‘And …’ Corbie prompted.
‘And I drew the short straw!’ Cadfan growled. ‘Too many shots of Bruichladdich,’ he added. ‘That bloody Ent has one helluva stock of single malts. Fatal! Gets you so well-oiled you agree to anything.’
‘Hmmm!’ Corbie muttered. ‘Thanks for the tip. I’ll remember that if I ever get to calling in there again.’
Magpie, meanwhile, was again sat crouched on the rock before the mother-dragon, desperately trying to remember the calming breathing regime she’d learned at the Fferylt School and not doing too good a job of it. Soft, warm dragon-breath wafted over her from the slightly open jaws, it smelled of frankincense and burnt charcoal, her heart-rate slowed down immediately, lungs lost their tightness and she realised she could now see beyond the end of her nose.
‘Err … thanks …’ she said.
The dragon grinned slightly, it was impressive.
‘Now then, young lady, what is it you be wanting then,’ the dragon asked her as she sat up right out of the water and folded her forelimbs neatly across her enormous silvery-blue chest.
‘Erm … well … it’s complicated …’ Magpie began.
‘Just start at the beginning,’ the dragon advised her in a motherly way, ‘go on until you reach the end and then stop.’
Ha! Magpie thought, her face grimacing and eyes bugging slightly. That was easier said than done. Where, for a start, was the beginning? She decided just to dive in and hope for the best, her usual modus operandi.
The dragon’s head jerked back and up, her arms spread out and she unsheathed her claws. Magpie sat as still as death.
‘Please don’t eat me!’ she managed in a suffocated squeak. ‘I’m only the messenger!’
The dragon – who, of course, already knew all this – was a very good actress as well as one of the best trickster-teachers on Yardoz. She allowed a slight trickle of flame to slide between her lips, just enough to make Magpie’s long black hair stand on end, and hissed like a boiling kettle. That made even the elf-horse jump fractionally. Billy hid his head in Seabhag’s shoulder while Seabhag patted him gently, whispering cooing and calming noises to him. Everyone else sat to attention, wondering what would come next.
‘We want to rescue the little dragon,’ Magpie managed to add.
‘Goooooooooooood … goooooooooooood …’
The dragon settled herself back down amongst the huge waves that now whipped back and forth across the river, swamping the enormous bridge-stones and making rainbows over the dragon’s back.
‘The White Stag will help you but you will have to go a circuitous route to find him, there are others who need your help, injured by those wizards. Will you do this?’
‘We will.’ Magpie took on answering for the whole group. Sheer madness, the other part of her brain told her. Too bad, she told it back.
‘The stupid fools were driving about all over my land in that wretched car,’ the dragon explained. ‘As well as Cadfan they damaged Mole’s Chamber. Will you go and rescue him? He was buried alive when the tunnels fell in after the car stalled in the mud they’d churned up right above his home and caused a cave-in.’
Magpie gulped. So, further off, did Seabhag. He was not at all keen on tunnels or caves.
‘Yes,’ Magpie tried visualising a blue-steel thread stiffening her backbone which otherwise felt as though it was about to cave in too. It worked. She was always surprised when thread-work actually worked, her own experiences with it had not been good while she was at the School.
‘Then go first to Mole’s Chamber. Mole has more directions for you when you find him. Owen!’ The dragon’s eye fixed on him, he felt his own spine stiffen in an effort to look intelligent. ‘Owen, you know the way. The luck of the little folk be with you.’
The dragon seemed to sink, shrink and become transparent. She was actually shifting and blending and merging with the stones of the bridge.
Billy’s head had come out of the folds of Seabhag’s cloak by now, he watched. ‘Coo-ool!’ he whispered. ‘I wish I had a bridge like that to care for.’
‘One day,’ Seabhag told him, smiling, ‘I expect you will.’
The way down from the Ent’s glade coiled steeply down between the trees. Tall beeches stretched their smooth, grey trunks upward giving a ghostly shade to the forest. Dark gnarled oaks stood between them, silver birches lit the way like tall white candles, the ground beneath their feet rustled from the myriad of fallen leaves. Winter, around the Shapeshifters’, was sometimes an eerie land, not built for men but for the forest itself and the seelie court and the faerie folk, built for the shifters themselves.
The kelpie carried Owen at the head of the party. Seabhag brought up the rear, with Billy in front of him at the beast’s withers, Billy’s head turning this way and that at the strange sounds and half-visions that teased the corners of his eyes. The dark stranger paced beside Owen, her clawed feet making no sound on the frost-crisped leaves. Magpie, next in line, wondered at this but said nothing. The two wyzards allowed their Mousies to carry them as they would, enjoying the ride, the strangeness of the land, the whispering of the trees. They were enjoying themselves.
‘Good idea of yours,’ Kefn told Iolo sotto voce.
‘Hmm?’ Iolo murmered.
‘Ah … yes.’ Iolo allowed a grin to crawl up the left side of his mouth, lighting both his eyes. ‘It was, wasn’t it?’ he agreed.
The way narrowed, delving into a steep crack in the land. They passed between earth-walls that quickly rose up higher than the heads of even the riders, walls full of crystals, catching what light from the low winter sun managed to creep down out of the sky and through the bare skeletons of the branches. At one point the dark stranger paused, one foot just leaving the ground, looking just like a cat.
‘Hammering …?’ she breathed. ‘Gnomes …?’ the question was directed up to Owen.
‘Uh-ha,’ he nodded. ‘There are silver mines under the hills hereabouts, the jewel-smiths work the caves under here. You must have ears like a bat to hear them though.’
He turned to look at her as he spoke and coughed back a chuckle. Silver-grey bat ears did indeed stand to either side of her head.
‘You are everything, are you not?’ he asked her.
‘Uh-ha,’ she replied in her turn. ‘Everything but who I really am. I hope to re-find that, with the help of the stag.’ She paused sadly. ‘A long journey, I fear, and one that may not be ended by the time the quest for the dragonet is done.’
Owen looked down again at her, a frown creasing his brow. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘Nusuth …’ she replied. ‘No matter …’
They continued on in silence. The crystalline walls of the rock passage through which they passed throbbed softly with the sound of gnomic hammers.
Suddenly, the walls fell back and they were again amongst the winter trees. A brook crossed the open place a few yards off, making its way down to the river, and there was the bridge … the dragon’s back. Magpie, glad to be out of the stone tunnel, pressed forward to arrive at the first stones that led to bridge. They were huge, flat slabs. Each one probably weighed at least four tons, probably five. The horse stopped abruptly, dropping her head to stare into the silvery stone. Magpie, not expecting it, tumbled forward down the horses neck, realised she had the injured raven in the crook of her left arm and managed to convert the fall into a parachute roll. She came up to sitting, grimacing at the pain in her left shoulder and the loud squawk of the raven, to find herself staring into the mouth of a dragon about eighteen inches away. She squinted horribly as she tried to bring the row of enormous ivory knives in front of her eyes into focus.
‘Ooooof!’ Magpie wriggled hurriedly backwards and rammed her butt into the horse’s nose. The horse promptly bit her.
‘Ow!’ she cried out, levitating frantically to find herself now hovering about six feet above the ground … now on eye level with the dragon.
‘Do calm down, dear,’ the dragon hissed sinuously.
The kelpie stepped out softly, hardly cracking a twig as he made his way down the smoke-dark path. Owen had done this one before but not for a good while and it was always strange, always different. You would see something, then it would be gone, or moved, changed somehow. It felt as if you were walking between the fringes of many worlds, catching the tails of your coat on a little of each as you passed. He grinned, that was, of course, what you were actually doing.
‘Heads up, folks,’ he called softly back to the others. ‘If you’re not experienced in this sort of travel you may find this journey down to the bridge a bit dizzy-making as you touch into and out of different worlds.’
Owen paused to look back over his shoulder. There was a curving of the thin, blueish lips showing under the hood of the dark stranger, no need to worry there. Magpie’s expression suggested there could be some WTF bolshie going on in her head, Owen would wait to see on that one.
Seabhag put a reassuring hand on Billy’s shoulder, the little trow sat in front of him on his silver-maned golden elf-horse, ‘Don’t worry. Let the different threads just slide over yours and disengage again, don’t try and hold onto them or they’ll pull you off-balance,’ he said softly, then patted the horse’s neck lightly. ‘Snowmane here knows how to walk the path, you just stay on her back and it’ll be fine.’
The wyzards, safely ensconced on the Mousies, seemed to be enjoying themselves, the ride and the kaleidoscopic views on either side.
The kelpie carried on deeper into the path, smoke rising and twisting around each hoof as he put it down. It smelled of leaf-mould, wood-smoke and roses.
A huge cracking sound broke the reverie as one of the ancient oaks bordering the path dropped a massive branch right across their way. Everything stopped dead. For just an instant there was complete silence in the wood, not even a bird calling. The kelpie had one front hoof still in the air and seemed not to be breathing.
A bird cheeped and a large, dark brown honey-coloured voice spoke out of the branches.
‘If I were you I wouldn’t start from here …’
That’s all we need, Owen thought, an Ent with a warped sense of humour! However, he pulled himself together and touched two fingers to his heart, lips and brow in greeting to the tree. ‘Unfortunately,’ he began, ‘here is where we are, so we’re stuck with it for now.’
Seabhag chuckled to himself and looked up into the branches. ‘What a magnificent oak you are, sir! I’ve rarely seen a finer in all the worlds. In point of fact, if I may say so, none of us is starting here. We’ve all started from various elsewheres and here is a point on this journey we make together. What we need to do, I believe, is to find a way of passing through this point to the mutual benefit of all concerned. Did you want that branch putting back across the path after we’ve passed on, by the way?’
The Ent chuckled back. ‘Well, no,’ he said. ‘I’d rather you diverted somewhat and came round this side. There’s something …’ The voice stopped and a smallish branch swept aside to show a very narrow track leading off to their left.
Magpie muttered impatiently under her breath. If everyone was going to stand around talking all the time…! She turned her horse’s head towards the path and urged the creature onwards. ‘Let’s go, then!’ she called over her shoulder, leading the way. ‘Come on, we’ve got a Stag to find!’
‘Fools rush in …’ Seabhag murmured to himself, tolerantly, then cocked his head as he sensed the twitching threads aligning themselves across Magpie’s path. Oh-ho, a test already!
Owen felt the threads twitch too and glanced over to Seabhag. Their eyes met and a grin stole onto Owen’s mouth. A tricksy path indeed and one that seemed to have Magpie well in its sights. He was certain she was up for the tests but it sure would be a bumpy ride!
Magpie’s horse jibbed abruptly, sticking his head down and snorting at a black feathery bundle that let out a sharp carking sound from under a bush at the side of the path. Magpie, surprised, just barely saved herself from shooting over the horse’s shoulder and onto the ground face-first, then peered downwards as well. Golden eyes glared back pugnaciously from the bundle and she hesitated, then dismounted. A half-open beak and another cark warned that the raven wasn’t taking any offers of help at face value but the healing instinct in Magpie tweaked her usually well-subdued conscience and she wrapped her cloak around her hands as she scooped the bird up.
Magpie freed one of her hands from the cloak and reached to touch the bird’s wing, sensing the wrongness there. Quick as a flash, the scissor-like black beak snapped shut on her finger and she yelped, ‘Ow! You ungrateful thing, I’m trying to help!’
The bird slowly considered her words, then let go of her finger – but the half-open beak remained poised ready to grab again, just in case.
Owen had to chuckle. ‘How’d you expect him to know you’re not going to make it worse? The poor bird’s in shock. Can you tell what’s happened?’
Magpie gently explored the wing with her fingertips, finding the break in the long upper bone. ‘Broken wing… I’m going to need knitbone to speed the healing and some straight hazel sticks to make a splint.’
In his own mind, Owen saw pictures of a crazy looking car veering about on the track above the hill. He looked at Seabhag. ‘Do you see that? Do you know who that is?’
Billy slithered off Seabhag’s horse, his tone eager. ‘I know knitbone and hazel – I’ll get them for you!’ he offered and ran off before anyone could answer.
Seabhag shook his head slowly, ‘I saw it but I don’t know who that was. I’d guess Billy might be able to say – I believe they’d had trouble with some wizards at the Wolf’s Head before I reached there, the same who stole the little dragon.’
Kevn slithered off his Mousie – a mere inch or three as his feet nearly touched the ground when he was aboard. ‘I’ll go after the little trow, he might get lost!’
Iolo slid off his own mount and put an arm over his friend’s Mousie’s shoulder. ‘OK. Whistle if you need extra help.’
‘He went thattaway,’ the Mousie said pointedly into both wyzards’ minds.
Seabhag dismounted, holding his hands out. ‘I’ll hold the raven for you if you’re wanting to set that broken wing?’ Magpie gratefully deposited the creature in his hands and manipulated the ends of the broken bone delicately back into place with her fingertips. Seabhag’s gyrfalcon watched critically from his shoulder but said nothing, and as Magpie finished straightening the wing, she felt Seabhag’s energy rise. Thread-weaving, she thought – trust an elf to be a thread-weaver healer! You still needed to get the bones set and splinted and the herbs would do the rest, there was no need to go mucking about with threads all the time!
The honey-voice reached them again. ‘How are you doing with my friend?’ the Ent asked them.
‘Working on it!’ Magpie answered absently, ‘Just waiting on the splints and the knitbone to make a dressing!’
Owen overheard Magpie’s mutterings about messing about with threads … hmmm! She’d learn, in time. They none of them lived in an either/or world, everything was and/and, and that included splints and herbs … and threads!
Billy could smell the furry warm smell of knitbone not far away, his big nose twitching as he scurried through the undergrowth. He gathered an armful of the wide green leaves and then realised he didn’t have enough hands to carry those and get the hazel sticks as well.
‘Here, let me carry those for you,’ Kevn said from right behind him, then hoped he wouldn’t scare the little trow out of his wits.
Billy jumped, then gratefully held the leaves out. ‘Thank you! Now, about these hazel sticks…..’ he reached out and grabbed a young sapling, about to pull it out of the ground roots and all.
‘Whoa!’ Kevn, his hands full of comfrey and itching like mad from the hairs, managed a two-tone whistle. Before you could say “knife” Iolo had beamed in beside him.
‘Aha,’ Iolo got the situation in a flash, took the hazel twigs in one hand and his knife in the other. ‘Allow me. About this long, do you think?’ he smiled down at Billy, deferring to him, hoping to give him confidence.
Billy let go of the sapling’s trunk, remembering that they were only needing to splint a bird’s wing and not an elephant’s leg.
‘Oh yes,’ he agreed, ‘That’s about right, I think!’
Kevn followed Billy back towards the injured raven with Iolo in the rear carrying the twigs.
‘Finally!’ Magpie muttered, unfairly (and she knew it even if she wouldn’t admit it) and took the twigs Iolo held out. A little quick smoothing with her knife and the splints were ready, so she carefully padded the wing with a couple of comfrey leaves, then bound the twigs in place with some bindweed that Owen pulled from a nearby plant and passed to her. She heard Owen whispering thanks to the plant as she worked. ‘There! That’s done.’ Magpie stood back from the raven. ‘You’ll be as right as rain in a few weeks, now.’
‘Better!’ said the Ent. ‘Now, about this accident … thoughtlessness, I call it, added to stupidity and selfishness! Will you help to bring the culprits to book?’
‘One moment!’ Seabhag requested, ‘Billy, the three wizards who stole Sparky – can you describe the car they were driving?’
Billy scratched his head. ‘I didn’t see it myself but I was told it was all dented out of shape. They tried to cross the Silly Bridge, see, and she wasn’t having any, so it got squeezed.’
The raven let out a long and complicated croak and scrambled to his feet in Seabhag’s hands, looking fixedly at Magpie. ‘I think he wants to stay with you.’ Seabhag suggested, and handed the bird over.
Magpie looked sideways as the raven climbed out of her hands and scrabbled up her sleeve, beak over claw, to sit on her shoulder. ‘You better be careful with your droppings!’ she warned. ‘I’m short on clean clothes just right now and you’ll be sharing the shirt with me as it is!’
‘That sounds like the thing we saw.’ Seabhag looked at Owen, ‘In which case, not only are the three wizards in the car responsible for maiming this poor bird, they’ve also offended the Sally Bridge and kidnapped Sparky the Dragon from the Wolf’s Head. We came firstly to rescue the dragon, but if we can help in bringing the wizards to book, I think that would be a good secondary purpose for our journeying.’
‘Harrrummmmpphhh!’ the Ent made agreeable noises in his leaves. ‘Gooooood … goooood! You are goooood folk!’
Owen, struggling with listening to three conversations at once, blinked. ‘Yes,’ he replied to Seabhag, ‘that does sound like what I saw too. And yes,’ he spoke to the Ent, ‘our paths are crossing, we will certainly help.’ He frowned in further concentration. ‘Err, you are Corbie’s second cousin four times removed on the distaff side, did you say? Very pleased to meet you.’
At that moment there was a loud “Cark”, a massive fluttering in the branches and corbie himself lighted down onto Owen’s shoulder with a very concerned expression on his beak.
‘Are you OK, old man,’ Corbie asked his cousin.
Seabhag’s horse nosed him in the small of the back, gently but pointedly. He turned, linking threads to understand what the horse wanted of him, and Ghearr agreed, bating on his shoulder with a soft cark. ‘You’re right – we’ve done what needed doing here. Is there anything else for us to do before we move on, Sir Oak?’ he turned to ask the Ent. ‘We’ve further challenges to face yet and a Stag to find!’
‘Yes, indeed, and thank you, kind folk. If you return the way you came you will find your way now clear,’ the oak replied. ‘I will tell my brothers along the way of you, ask them to help you as they can. Fare ye well.’