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.’