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.