The Tarr Dragon

The Tarr dragon snoozed. The sun reflected by the snow onto her back where it stood out of the water was warming, sultry, but there was something … something … she couldn’t define it and didn’t want to come out of her snooze far enough to try.

Something landed on her tail. She twitched it, a loud splash followed by a small yelp was the result. She raised an eyelid. There, at the tail-end of the bridge stood a soft white glow, even whiter than the snow, it had a golden corona to it. It had touched her tail, she knew it.

Yeeeessss, she hissed softly to herself, she knew it.

She lifted her whole head out of the water and turned it to look back down her long length. The glow seemed almost to over under the bare beech trees that overhung her tail-end. She flicked up the first nictating membrane over her dark sapphire eyes and focused. Yes! It was him. The White Stag.

Sinuously, she unthreaded herself from the huge slabs of the ancient bridge and stared down its length.

‘And what can I do fffffor you,’ she breathed, sibilating the “ff”.

‘Rrrrarch …’ the stag coughed, barked. It was a greeting.

A silvery thread spun out from his forehead towards the dragon. Her tongue flicked out, caught the thread. The dragon’s eyes half closed as she savoured its taste, she gave a swift swallow and they were connected.

‘Coming, are they? Wanting you? And you want me to send them following the wild geese. What’s all this about then?’

The picture of a small dragon floated behind her eyes. She knew it, her brother’s sister’s cousin’s nephew’s niece.

‘Sparky!’ she exclaimed out loud.

Soothing vibes sped down the thread. ‘It’s all right, she’s all right,’ came the Stag’s bell-like voice ringing through her mind. ‘She has things to learn and is helping others to learn things too. We never, ever, kill only one bird with one stone.’ The voice ended on a chuckle that sounded like baroque oboe softly blown, it calmed her.

‘What am I to do, what is wanted?’

‘There are those who search for her. And there are those who have been given her. All need to learn things. You are good at those things. The hunting party will come to you. Owen leads them and he has chosen the dark path, rightly. There will be tests along the way. But one, at least, is for you, for you to give the test.’

‘I will do it.’

Choosing the Path

The way led down and down, down and down into the valley of the Withy River, the mother-water of the Shapeshifters’ country. It was a beautiful country … but not safe. Many critters, beings seen and unseen, inhabited the woods and not all were as friendly as might be. Owen sent out a thread into the woods …

Send us a good path down to the Tarr Dragon,’ he asked inside his mind. There was a soft caress in response, accompanied by a chuckle. Owen grinned sardonically to himself, the way would not be all plain sailing. A good path would be good from the perspective  of the Land, the countryside, the forest, the river and the dragon herself … Owen’s point of view might get a look-in after they’d all had their say! He felt tentatively within himself for a thread and then outwards, into the track to find the one that they were to take.

Several threads offered themselves, a red one, a white and a dark, smoky black one.

Owen could feel the others behind him, waiting for him to begin. His own kelpie-friend and the Mousies understood completely what he was doing, waited patiently for him to get it right. The dark stranger was sensing around the edges of him, almost snuffling and licking the edge of his aura as she kenned information from him. The two biker wyzards watched, they could see the threads too, he wondered what they made of them. Later, he would find time to talk with them about it later.

Seabhag was inscrutable. Owen was certain he could see – how not, from one as old as he? – but what he saw and how, ha! That was another story altogether. The little troll watched with eyes all agog, likely he could see too but he was very young, would likely have no idea what was what. And Magpie … ha! Again! That one kenned a thing or two but sensing into her mind over the brunch had shown Owen it was likely all upside-down to his usual way of looking at things. His mouth twisted into a sideways grin, that could be fun … later! Now, he must concentrate.

Carefully, and with an asking of permission of their spirits, Owen put a thread out to each of them, connecting them all together. They wouldn’t get lost too easily now.

Again he concentrated, this time on the three threads the Land was offering him.

The red one was hot, very hot. So hot it felt cold. It led directly down the most direct route to the Steps, the stone bridge where the dragon lived, where the dragon was.

The white one was cold, very cold, like ice. So cold it felt hot. It snaked a path through the trees, under the sunlight, stealing across the new-fell snow. Glistening blindingly in the far distance Owen thought he could make out the dragon’s bridge.

The dark path wavered in and out of vision, smoking at its edges. It was between the worlds, Owen knew. It drifted lazily, elegantly, down the easiest route, often following the contour lines, making its way to the dragon’s bridge. The bridge itself smoked around its edges, like the breath of a snoozing dragon.

That was the one.

It would a tricksy path but that was the way they must go if they wanted to find the Stag. Tricksy was the way Owen usually lived his life, he grinned to himself. He clucked to the kelpie who breathed the smoke in through his own grey nostrils and led off down the path.

The kelpie stepped lightly and gracefully through the heather onto the smoky path and was soon under the first of the soft birch trees. The others followed. The soft twigs rustled gently, leaflessly, the stark white of the trunks standing up like ghostly sentinels. Owen could feel their energy, their auras, they were quivering with anticipation. They would be watched. He hoped they would be allowed to at least get down to the bridge at Tarr, speak to the dragon, she would know where the stag was to be found.

The Dragon Bargaining Chip

Fergus stared at the party on the doorstep, still half-stunned with interrupted hibernation.

“We don’t need your silly pamphlets!” he announced, firmly.

Dmitri stared at the tall, thin, pale Wights, all dressed like his idea of Scrooge in pale nightgowns under heavy brocade dressing-gowns. Wisps of thin pale hair showed under the edges of their night-caps and he looked at their feet, unable to help himself. Two of them had plain pale fluffy slippers and the third – the one with the basebat bat – had fluffy white slippers with rabbit ears and eyes.

“What pamphlets?”

“Those stupid things you people always hand out. Announcing the end of the world and rubbish like that. You always get the dates wrong and your translations from Aramaic are laughable.” Fergus said, witheringly. Bewildered, Dmitri blinked several times.

“I don’t even know what Aramaic is! Look, are you a barrow-wight?”

Fergus drew himself up to his full height, which would have been an imposing seven feet if he hadn’t been so cavernously thin,

“Don’t be impertinent, young man! We are the Barrow Wights of the Wam Barrows.”

“Well, if you’re Barrow Wights, we’ve got a dragon.” Dmitri announced, getting a little belligerant. The Wights all took a half-step back in unison, looking shocked, then went into a huddle, whispering together.

“See? They are burglars!” Algy muttered, and Cedric whimpered slightly,

“We’ve hardly got our dinner-service back together after the last lot! It’s not fair, bringing a dragon to threaten us with! It should be against the rules!”

‘I think he’s bluffing. I can see a troll but I don’t see any dragons!” Fergus declared, and they all straightened up again. Algy hefted his club threateningly.

“We think you’re bluffing. What dragon?” Fergus demanded, and Dmitri grabbed the end of the fire blanket, which was now whimpering and wriggling, and jerked it hard. It unrolled and tumbled Sparky across the ground, where she cannoned heavily into Len and Peter’s legs and nearly brought them down like skittles.

“Ooh, I feel sick!” the little dragon moaned and promptly was, onto Peter’s shoes. He yelped and hurried out of range, scrubbing his feet in the heather frantically to clean them off.

The Wights all stared at Sparky, considering their options, and Dmitri demanded impatiently,

“Well? What’ll you give us?”

“That’s a very small dragon.” Algy pointed out doubtfully, and Cedric peered as Sparky coughed and whimpered simultaneously. Smoke puffed out of her long tufted ears and some of the heather began to shuffle away worriedly.

“It looks ill, too.”

“You’ve brought a small, sick dragon.” Fergus observed critically to Dmitri, and the wizard growled under his breath,

“Worth her weight in gold, that dragon! They’re not easy to find, you know!”

“Thank heavens!” Cedric muttered, and the Wights huddled swiftly to discuss.

“It doesn’t look very dangerous right now but what if they send it into the tunnels and it’s sick everywhere?” Algy demanded, worriedly, “It’ll take us all winter to clean up! And you know the smell of dragon vomit never really goes away….!”

“I need a drink!” Sparky moaned behind them and Bully fetched the moonshine jar from the car, pouring a generous slug down her throat, “Ooh, that’s worse!!”

“If they’re demanding the dragon’s weight in gold, let’s be grateful it’s only a small dragon!” Fergus pointed out, “And let’s get this over with before that troll makes the dragon any heavier! “

“My head hurts!” Sparky whined, “Oh, the sun’s too bright! Lemme into those nice dark tunnels-!”

All three Wam Wights screamed faintly in unison at the suggestion.

“Alright! Alright! Just wait here. And don’t let that dragon get into the tunnels or we’ll never catch it again! We’ll be back in a minute.” Fergus told Dmitri, hurriedly, and, to be on the safe side, slammed the door shut behind them as they hurried back into the barrow.

“There! I told you it’d work.” Len told Dmitri, “Now we can get the car fixed and get home!”

Peter was sitting in the heather nearby pulling his shoes off. They were disintegrating, smoking visibly, and he tossed them into a puddle, stamping back in his socks to join them.

“That’s a new pair of Nikes you owe me!” he told Dmitri, crossly, “And next time we kidnap a dragon, let’s not make it motion-sick like that!”

The door of the barrow opened and the three Wights hurried back into view, each one holding a stack of beautiful shiny gold. Fergus had the full eighteen-place setting of plates, Cedric was carrying the dishes and cutlery and Algy had the side plates and serving dishes.

“There!” Fergus thrust the armful of gold into Dmitri’s arms, “That’s the dragon’s weight in gold!”

“Wow!” Peter forgot his ruined shoes and took the dishes from Cedric, and Len took the rest from Algy. Bully quietly spread out the blanket for the gold to be piled up, while Sparky was sick again nearby in a patch of heather that hadn’t scurried off quickly away, then put her nose into a puddle and began sucking up water, making a sound like a very large milkshake approaching its end. The Wights watched as the gold was carried to the car and loaded into the boot, then the troll and the wizards all got in and drove off.

“Wait a minute!” Fergus shouted after them, just a little too late, “You forgot your dragon-!”

“I’m hungry.” Sparky wiped her nose on some of the long-suffering heather, “Please will you feed me?”

All three Wam Wights recoiled, letting out faint screams in unison.

A’ Hunting We Will Go

Owen was glad to see Morgan had returned from her rest, he needed her, there were an awful lot of people at the Arms all of a sudden. Drwyn was coping well, he’d seen that, had even come out with a bit of advice. Morgan had looked very harassed half an hour ago, time spent in her room seemed to have worked its usual magic. He put an arm round her and planted a quick kiss on her cheek.

‘Friends!’ he attempted to gather the assemble folk together. ‘Friends … brunch is served.’

At that very moment an enormous earthenware bowl floated out of the kitchen followed – like a mother duck with her ducklings – by a trail of smaller dishes that seemed to contain various vegetables and sauces. The big bowl itself was topped by a bonnet of flaky pastry that bubbled and squeaked with the game stew underneath. The scents the dishes all gave off were mesmerising, all eyes and noses turned to follow, feet carrying them almost without volition. Owen chuckled inside – it was just like the rats in the story.

In no-time flat the guests were seated around the big table near the inglenook fireplace. Jugs of ale hovered over glasses, telling their wares so the folk could choose their potions. Owen noted that Muxworthy’s Otter Spraint was getting the most calls and signalled for another jug to be drawn. Plates were passed and portions of the game pie were joined with sizzling roast spuds, juicy carrots and the finest sprouts and kale. Gravy boats vied for attention with butter dishes and jars of medlar jelly as the guests added sauce to their food. For quite several minutes there was no sound at all but that of satisfied munching.

As the brunch came to an end Owen signalled for them to listen.

‘I know some of you are here on a mission to rescue a young dragonet who has been abducted from her home, my friend Jimson’s tavern up in Pictland.’ He nodded to Seabhag and smiled at the little troll. ‘I gather that you’ve been told that the White Stag can help us find her and that’s just right because now is the beginning of the season when he comes down to the moors around Dun Keri and will offer answers to the questions of those who succeed in catching him.’

‘That’s what I want too.’ The dark stranger’s voice sounded deep and hollow, it brought a breath of cold wind across the brunch-table.

‘Then come with us,’ Owen told her. ‘The Stag can answer all questions if you ask rightly. And … we would be glad of your help on the quest for the dragonet. We don’t know what we will meet when we find her.’

‘I will come … I will help,’ she said.

‘I-I will come,’ Magpie put in quickly.

Owen smiled at her. ‘Thank you. We’ll be very glad of your skills.’

Magpie blinked …

‘We’d like to come too …’ the Interplanetary Biking Wyzards spoke with one voice (in a delicate close harmony).

It was Owen’s turn to blink. ‘Err … can you ride Mousies? That’s our ponies,’ he added.

‘We can ride anything,’ Kevn replied.

‘Well I’m not coming,’ Morgan put both elbows on the table and glared across at Owen. ‘Somebody had better be here to hold the fort,’ she temporised, ‘and the communications, assuming they stand up for more than five minutes. Now … we had better get started.’

The party assembled in the stable yard. Owen noticed Magpie was trying to artlessly look for the horse she had seen when she landed on the carpet so he sent a thread to Tyler to bring the beast out. That particular horse was quite as much fun as the wonky carpet she’d arrived on. The dark stranger needed no transport as she was well able to run for herself.

Owen's Kelpie Friend

Owen’s own horse was a kelpie he had befriended some years back when it was losing an argument with the Tarr dragon. He gave a peculiar double-whistle and a lovely dark grey pony with a white mane and tail trotted out from behind the barn followed by a couple of Mousies who looked up to the weight of the bikers. And the horse that Magpie had been looking for. Her face broke into a delighted smile. Owen touched the nose of the tall bay, Magpie had sidled up to him on the other side and he handed her the plaited ropes of the bitless bridle the horse wore.

‘Want a leg up?’ he asked her … too late, she was already astride the horse and attempting to make friends. He grinned, turning back to the bikers. ‘I hope you can handle these,’ he led the Mousies up to the two wyzards. ‘They really know their way around here and are the best friends we can have on this sort of journey.’

Kevn, stroked the nose of the darker pony then vaulted neatly onto its back. His friend followed suit.

Owen vaulted onto the kelpie. Everyone was ready. ‘Herd ‘em in! Ride ‘em out!’ Owen called out over everyone’s heads. He was very addicted to ancient Terran films!

Morgan Refreshed …

Morgan's Room

Morgan slipped into her room and slumped into the chair with a sigh.

Her room was large and at the top of the rambling old house, but not under the eves. She still had the high ceiling which she loved, giving her a sense of light and air. The tall south-facing windows opened onto a small balcony, hidden from the other rooms, giving her private space. As housekeeper for the Arms she needed it. Owen was quite a handful (in every sense!) to manage, it was essential that she have space to get away, be alone.

Coronae was already there before her, sat on the bow-perch by the French windows, Tabitha was coiled on the bed, her silver tabby stripes blending nicely with the soft, woven throw Morgan’s friend Joan had given her. Morgan let out a longer sigh and leaned back into the comfort of the chair. It silently pushed out its footrest, lifting her feet, while a cup of cinnamon chocolate floated across the room to settle on the table beside her.

‘Thank you,’ Morgan said to the room in general. It looked after her very well, she appreciated it.

‘Want a bath?’ called the bath from the bathroom

‘No time, thanks. Owen has acquired a houseful and I must get back in a minute to sort out brunch. We have a Shapeshifting stranger who appears not to have control over her own shifting. Then this lovely young girl arrived on a wonk flying carpet. I think she’s a thief and a gambler,’ Morgan added. ‘She smelled like one. I trust Owen keeps the valuable locked up, he obviously has an eye to her.’ Morgan chuckled, sipped at the delicious chocolate, it zinged its way through her, perking her up enormously. ‘Next came a couple of Interplanetary Biking Wyzards on the most fabulous machines. I think they really foxed Tyler, he got quite grumpy! The bikers brought a tall, handsome elf with them and a baby troll. And some news. Apparently Jimson’s  baby dragon has gone and got herself kidnapped!’

Morgan paused while most of the furnishings let out a gasp of horror at the potential consequences which even the dumbest tallboy could see. Coronae, Morgan’s familiar crow, let out a squawk.

‘Sheeesh! That’ll fry Jimson’s bacon an’ no mistake,’ she added, fluttering down to perch on the arm of Morgan’s chair and steal some of the cinnamon chocolate.  Morgan smacked her beak before she got the chance.

‘What’s they all come down here for?’ the crow asked, quite unruffled at the reprimand.

‘I think the elf and the troll are here to find the dragon. Magpie, the thief, I suspect is looking for somewhere to hole-up and maybe make a bit of cash. Oh and get her carpet mended, Owen put Dryw on that. The shifter-woman want the help of the White Stag. That’s what they all want, to ask the White Stag for answers to their questions.’

‘Think Daaf knows where the ditzy dragonet is?’

‘Certain sure,’ Morgan told the crow. ‘What they need is to learn how to ask the right question. Morgan drained the cup of the last of the chocolate, fishing the last grains of cinnamon out with a delicate fingertip. ‘Now, thank you all for the resuscitation but I must get back downstairs and help Drwyn sort the food. And make sure Owen brings out the right ales and spirits.’

She got up, made a quick sortie into the bathroom and came out further refreshed. She blew a kiss to the room and whisked herself down the twisting stairs to the main bar.

Elf, Troll and Hairy Bikers …

Down the stairs, round the corner and into the bar. Owen followed the light footsteps with both his etheric hearing and sight, he knew it was Magpie. She was a delight to the eyes, he thought, in the fresh clothes, her hair shining blue-black like polished ebony with the silver streak flying through it. He also caught her thoughts … so she liked the Arms, did she? Hmm! That was good. He was fairly sure Morgan was going to be seeing Gofannon in the next day or so, that would leave him free to pursue a new friendship.

And here she was.

‘There’s fresh coffee over here,’ Owen called to her from the Cosy.

The Cosy; view of Hurlstone

The views from this part of the bar were spectacular. It looked out over the moors from the top of the hill and down to the coast over Hurlstone Point to the estuary of the river Iwrydd. Old pictures, maps and prints adorned the bits of the walls that weren’t windows. The window seat and the chairs were comfortable and padded with cushions. The winter sun shone through the glass warming the place like a conservatory, the strange vines and tube-flowers Owen’s friend Sobek, who was guardian to the Shit Creek Paddle Store, had sent him from his own garden loved the semi-tropical climate the Cosy always seemed to have. Shit Creek was hot, a tropical paradise of bayous and lagoons, weird plants, amazing liqueurs made from the flowers and krokodilos who were the best tango artists he’d ever seen. Owen felt sure Magpie would appreciate the surroundings.

He rose as she approached and smiled, holding out a comfortable chair for her, his eyes twinkling with mischief.

‘Now, do sit down, let me pour you some coffee. And the toast and mushroom pate will take the edge off your appetite while you order. Just say what you’d like and it will be here in a jiffy. Drwyn has everything under control again in the kitchen now he’s got Klaus sorted. Klaus is the bat,’ he reminded her as he saw her eyebrows go up. ‘Are you here for the Hunt?’ he added, conversationally.

Magpie blinked, “Here for the Hunt? I didn’t even know I was coming here! I’m grateful for the hospitality. I’ll admit, I’m a novice flying-carpet-owner and don’t know enough about the, ah, vehicle. Now, what Hunt is this you speak of? I like a good quest.’

‘Ahh! The Hunting of the White Stag ….’ he paused, he seemed to be doomed to repeating himself about the spirit-stag this morning. ‘The white stag, Daaf, lives in the woods and on the moors hereabouts. Every year around the midwinter solstice he comes out and allows himself to be hunted. To those who are successful in cornering him he will grant wishes. Never,’ he stopped, turned and looked rather fiercely down at Magpie, ‘never does anyone ever attempt to kill him. For one thing, he’d kill whoever it was before you could say knife. For another if he didn’t get the person, I would. And I’d be a damned sight slower about the killing.’ He stopped, coughed, pulled a smile back onto his face. ‘Sorry! I dare say you had no such intentions but we do get some odd parties come to the Inn for the hunt. I tend to get extremely protective.’

At just that moment, there was yet another kafuffle out in the yard. Owen sighed. ‘Just put your breakfast order in,’ he told Magpie. ‘I’d better go and see what the devil is going on now.’

He got up. Just as I think I was making headway with her, he muttered inside his head.

Out in the yard he was stopped by the sight of an enormous, silvery-green-coloured, apparently jet-propelled motorbike throbbing sensuously by the horse trough. Tyler was staring at it too as its passengers dismounted. One was a large, good-looking wizardly person in full leathers. The other was a tall, pale and also good-looking elf.

‘I bain’t got no place for the likes o’ this kinda thing,’ Tyler said in his most dour tone of voice, pointing at the bike.

He was interrupted by a roaring and throbbing sound overhead. He ducked just in time as a second machine skimmed over his head and skidded to a halt when its front wheel banged into the trough.

‘Ouch!’ yelled the trough and spat a couple of gallons of water over the bike making sure the engine choked and it stalled.

‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have got some sugar to put in the petrol tank,’ the trough glared at the second bike and its riders … insofar as a trough can be seen to glare this one certainly could. It had had centuries of practice.

Owen bit off a chuckle, it didn’t do to offend potential guests and he was certain this foursome would be staying. The second bike had been ridden by another handsome wyzard and a baby troll. Owen’s eyebrows went up. What the hell was going on? And what did they all want.

‘It’s all right, Tyler,’ Owen began. ‘I think all these gentlemen need is a warm space in the barn to park their rides, where the oil won’t freeze. I’m sure we can find somewhere.’

Tyler grunted and headed back to his own place, leaving Owen to sort it all out.

‘Have a bite of mushroom pate on toast,’ said a dulcet voice in his ear.

Magpie had arrived beside him to see all the fun. Perhaps his luck was in after all.

Waking the Wights

According to the MGPS, they were at the Wam Barrows. Dmitri leaned into the back and prodded Peter awake, then got out of the car and stretched, wearily. Len climbed out the other side and looked around, clearly not appreciating the stunning view over the moors or the beautiful chorus of bird song around them in the early morning sunlight – Larks, blackbirds and robins were all singing busily, with an occasional comment from a raven or buzzard thrown in for good measure.

“Where are we?” Peter croaked, crawling out of the car still half-asleep. Bully unfolded his bulky length carefully out of the door after him without saying anything.

“In the back of beyond, mate.” Len yawned, then pointed to some humps in the heather some way off the road, “Those are barrrows, aren’t they?”

“Let’s go find out how to get into them.” Dmitri proposed, “Hey, you! Bring the dragon, would you?”

Bully chose not to comment on being addressed as ‘hey you’ either. They were paying him well and to avoid getting seriously riled up with his employers he thought about the bridge he wanted He opened the boot of the car and lifted out the silvery cigar-shaped object that was snoring still, although the snoring was getting mixed in with a few low groans now, indicating that the baby dragon would shortly wake with a monumental hangover. Carrying the dragon in his arms, he lumbered after the three wizards who were picking their way fastidiously through the dew-damp heather.

When he caught up with the wizards, they were debating the right spell to open the barrow. Bully sighed but put the dragon on the ground and prepared to wait. He glanced down as the bundle wriggled and let out a really solid groan: uh-oh, the dragon was waking up! He glanced at the wizards, who were still arguing, then walked over the Barrow a few steps and paused, sniffing and listening. Yep, this was about right….

All three wizards jumped nearly out of their skins as a huge pounding noise interrupted their debate, turning around to stare in alarm. Bully was thumping on the barrow heavily with his big fists.

“What are you doing?” Len nearly screamed, and Bully looked up.

“Waking up them wights for ya.”

Cedric didn’t want to wake up. He was having a lovely dream about a new sort of nutloaf, carefully baked in a lovely shining casserole dish and served on some of their best gold plates, the ones with the emeralds all around the edges. Having crumbs of earth falling on his head in his bed disturbed his hibernation and he snorted himself awake petulantly.

“Algy? Fergus? What’s happening? What time is it?”

“It’s the middle of winter and it’s Algernon, Cedric, how often do I have to tell you?” his brother Algy’s voice came sleepily out of the darkness. Fergus, their other brother, chimed in, equally drowsy and cross,

“Shut up, both of you, and go back to sleep! It’s months before getting up time!”

“How can I go back to sleep when the roof is falling on my head?” Cedric demanded, fretfully, and all three of them paused. In the quietness, the sound of muffled thudding resounded through their tunnels and some more earth trickled from the ceiling and pattered to the floor.

“Well really!” Fergus got out of his bed, sliding his long pale feet into his long pale fluffy slippers and straightening his night-cap on his head, “That’s very rude, knocking on our door like that! If it’s those Jehovah’s Witnesses again I shall be very cross!”

Algernon pulled on his dressing gown and carefully folded it around himself, tying the cord around his waist with neat, precise motions.

“What if they’re burglars?” he demanded, looking around, “Where did my club go?”

“Under your pillow, of course.” Cedric snorted, “Where you always put it when you go to bed! Since when did burglars knock on the door, Algy?”

“Algernon!” Algy corrected, retrieving his baseball bat from under his pillow. Bickering as they went, the three Barrow-Wights of the Wam Barrows shuffled slipper-shod through their tunnels to the door and opened it.

Flaky pastry thoughts in the Kitchen

Drwyn's Kitchen

Owen slithered off into the kitchen. It was relatively quiet there, Drwyn was creating a game pie. A couple of young dwarves, his minions, were scuttling about, one was peeling pigeons, splitting hares, carving sides of venison, getting them all into a huge cauldron hanging on a spit over the open fire in the huge chimney. The other was chopping vegetables at what appeared to be a suicidal velocity. His hands and the knife moved so fast Owen could hardly see them.

Drwyn was encouraging them both while making what Owen knew would be an incredibly light and tasty flaky pastry to top it off with.

‘C’mon boys, that’s the way,’ he was saying. ‘Speed o’ light, boys, speed o’ light’

Owen grinned behind his hand, speed of light was his universal for everything, and especially for any work, it all had to be done at the speed of light. It looked as though the boys were getting the hang of it.

‘An’ what can I do for’ee. Maister?’ Drwyn called over his shoulder as he saw Owen.

‘I’ve got all these folk who need to go hunting the White Stag. Should we be taking any food with us or will we need to hunt it all? You know about these things, help me.’

‘Why be they all need to go a’hunting of the Stag?’

‘There are two reasons, I think, but they seem to be inextricably entangled.’ Owen began. ‘First thing this morning this dark stranger came to the Inn.’

‘Aye, I see’d it … her?’ Drwyn cocked an eyebrow at Owen.

Owen grinned. ‘Yes, I think so, from what I’ve been able to see through the mists that surround her. She’s under a spell, a wizard took her choices away from her. She wants to find them back.’

‘And the other thing be this little dragonet what Jimson do have lost?’

‘Right on. That seems to be some kind of revenge – again of stupid wizards – because they were too seriously gross for the Wolfshead so the Silly Bridge squoze them.’

Drwyn chuckled into his beard. ‘T’aint never no good goin’ agin the Triple Goddess … Silly – Sally – Saille … the Willow Goddess will sort ‘ee out.’

‘I’d seriously doubt those idiot wizards would have faintest idea of what you’re talking about, but you’re quite right.’

‘Harrumph! Wizards! Wastes o’ space, I’m thinkin’, the lot of ’em.’

Having settled wizards to his satisfaction, Drwyn put the final touches to the flaky pastry then wound it in a cloth and put it in the fridge.

‘S’om what be’ee gonna do bout that dratted dragonet then?’ He brought the conversation back to the point.

‘Find the silly sausage, of course! She may be a pain in the arse half the time but she’s a sweet creature and doesn’t deserve to kidnapped and terrified. Her mother does all the terrifying she needs.’

‘Can say that agin,’ Drwyn agreed. Dragon mothers were direful when their offspring were threatened.

‘So … do I need to take food, supplies, what?’ Owen returned to his original question.

Drwyn twitched his beard as he considered the matter, staring into the highly-polished steel of the huge kitchen sink.

‘I’m thinkin’ yee oughta take some o’ the water. From the well here.’

No sooner said but Drwyn hurried over to a cupboard, climbed on a chair, stood on tiptoe and just managed to reach a crystal bottle down from the top shelf. Owen knew far better than to offer to help! He did take the bottle when Drwyn offered it to him though, once he’d reached ground zero again from off the chair.

‘You better get it direct from the well, not here from the tap,’ the dwarf told him.

‘What’ll I use it for?’ Owen aasked.

‘Haven’t a clue,’ the dwarf replied. ‘Just saw it when I looked i’ the sink.’

‘Hmmph! OK.’ Owen waited a moment to see if Drwyn had anything to add but the dwarf was back into cookery again. ‘OK, well, see you later … I suppose.’ Owen left the kitchen.

Drwyn did glance at his back as he went out, a worried frown hanging between his brows, but there was nothing he could do or say so he kept his mouth shut. Owen would find out sooner or later.

On The Road

Dmitri's beloved Capri

Dmitri was driving as fast as he dared, given the battered nature of his beloved car. They had to get to the Wam Barrows before the drunk and revolting minature dragon in the boot woke up and incinerated them all with a burp, and he was pinning all his hopes on what Len remembered hearing at the stupid Tango Contest. Whenever he thought about the size of the quote that surly wretch at the hovel called the Turf’n’Donkey had given him to fix the car – even just enough to get home again! – he could feel his throat closing up and his eyes started to water.

“Are you sure these barrow-wights will pay us for the nasty little brute?” he couldn’t help checking with Len again, anxiously, and Len sighed.

“For the fifth time – that’s what I heard! There was a woman at the dance competition talking to another bloke and he asked would something happen, and she said, ‘it’ll happen, sure as barrow-wights eat dragons’. So yeah, barrow-wights must eat dragons, right?”

“Yes, yes, you’re right, sorry…” Dmitri concentrated on the road again. They were heading due south from Pictland, following instructions from the MGPS – it might not have been able to find the Wolfshead but it seemed very confident about the Wam Barrows.

Bully, sitting hunched up in the back of the Capri with Peter sleeping on his shoulder, felt like giggling to himself despite being so cramped. They were paying well, these stupid wizards, and if he did this just right he could sell the dragon on again after they’d left, he had a good guess about where he’d find a buyer – either back at the Wolfshead, they’d be wanting their pet back, or he could find the baby’s mother and get a nice ransom there – maybe even both. The way this was going, he’d soon have a good haul of gold, be able to buy a bridge of his own and then he’d be well set up to propose to that nice troll girl from up on the fells. Her father had a whole viaduct though – she wouldn’t even glance at a young troll who didn’t have at least a good solid bridge to his name. These wizards, though – they hadn’t a clue. They’d had a stupid idea about luring the dragon into a trap using a maiden chained to a rock, the idiots – as if a baby dragon was a naive unicorn! Even unicorns knew better than that these days – and baby dragons only thought about their stomachs. It was Bully who’d suggested charcoal biscuits and spirits – and while they were worrying about the dragon waking up, he’d stashed a gallon of moonshine and a funnel in the boot next to the dragon just in case.

Wizards! Couldn’t even take a whizz without a map….

Bully Trow

Plotting Rescue

Annet and Briony had just finished serving up a huge and delicious meal to the Interplanetary Biking Wyzards, who’d thawed out. One of them was busy telling an eager Robin all about their refuelling trip to a nearby black hole – which was why they’d got so cold – around his plateful of food. Jimson and Jimmy had filled up all the glasses and left a couple of jugs on the table ready for topping up as people needed. Jimson was just heading for the kitchen in the hope of a brew of tea before anyone else arrived when a determined-sounding tap on the front door distracted him. The pheonix couldn’t be back already, the cockerel Bugler was in the henhouse strutting his stuff for the chickens – were they expecting anyone else on wings?

He opened the door, looking down, and a white falcon made an imperative yarping noise at him from the doorstep. Automatically, Jimson held his arm out for the bird and she flew up to land on his forearm, considerately not sticking her talons right through his sleeve but balancing with half-spread wings and looking him in the eye as she yarped again.

She looked him in the eye.

“I think we’ve met before, and I think you’re with the elf warrior-wyzard, aren’t you? In which case, there’s trouble coming soon.” Jimson remarked to the bird, conversationally, “I’ve never known trouble anywhere but Seabhag’s hot on its tail and ready to help! Briony, could you go get a room ready for another guest, please? One elf, one falcon, one ermine, as I recall – am I right?” he added, and the falcon yarped, ducking her head. Briony came out of the kitchen, looking inquisitively at the bird.

“That’s a fine gyrfalcon! Where’s she come from?”

“She’s… ahh…. associated with a half-elf warrior-wyzard of my acquaintance, as is the ermine. As I recall, her name’s Ghearr.” Jimson held his arm out for the bird to cross to Briony, which she did quite willingly, “I’ll tell your aunt to get the Russian Caravan tea out – Seabhag prefers hot tea to alcohol when he first arrives anywhere.”

“You’re a familiar, h’m?” Briony addressed the gyrfalcon and the bird ducked her head and let out a trilling squeak, almost as if she was giggling.

“It’s a good question whether she’s Seabhag’s familiar or he’s hers!” Jimson muttered, heading into the kitchen, “Annet, Seabhag’s gyrfalcon just turned up – he’ll be here soon, I’d guess, and he usually likes Russian Caravan tea.”

“I’ll get the kettle on, it’ll only take a minute to make a pot.” Annet responded, “Seabhag mac Shealgair? The elf?”

“The one and only! And watch out for that ermine that goes with him – as I recall, the creature’s not so much a familiar as a presumptuous!” Jimson added, but poured himself a cup of ordinary tea, “Where’s Billy got to?”

“He’s gone to look for Sparky.” Annet spooned Russian Caravan tea into a big earthenware pot, “She’s gone off somewhere by herself, the little monkey!”

“It’s in the nature of young dragons to explore the world and get into trouble – young trolls, I’m not so sure about! Sending Billy to look for anything – it’s a gamble what you’ll get back!”

A tap on the back door was followed by a distressed-looking Billy entering the kitchen, managing to look woebegone while still leading Seabhag by the hand.

“I can’t find Sparky. And there was rum and biscuits by the river. And this is a wizard.” He began, jumbling everything together in his eagerness to get the news out, “Bully was there, he’s my brother, and –“

“Whoa, young troll!” Seabhag laughed a little, “All in order, otherwise you’ll have Jimson’s head going round on his shoulders! I saw the White Stag up on the hill, Jimson, he said I’d best come this way and see what I found. Good evening, my lady Annet.”

“You found Billy, obviously – but not Sparky?” Annet tried not to be flattered by Seabhag’s courtly manners.

“No, not Sparky. Someone had laid a trail of charcoal biscuits soaked in rum down the hedge and then put the bottle and a full box in plain view at the bottom of the field. By the tracks, I’d say your little dragon guzzled the lot and passed out, then a human and a large troll rolled her up in something and made away with her, down the valley. Billy here says the troll was his brother Bully, who’s a mercenary. So my question is, who would hire a troll to kidnap your baby dragon?”

Jimson sat down. Sparky – kidnapped! Oh my, what would her mother say? And there he was with a houseful of guests and a rescue mission to organise around them! Annet poured out a cup of tea for the tall albino elf and put it on the table, practically.

“Russian Caravan, Seabhag – we remembered you like it.”

“I do indeed, and thank you very much, Annet.” Seabhag half-bowed, then sat down and picked up the cup. The ermine slipped out of his pocket and poured himself sinuously onto the table, heading for a plate of fairy cakes at the other end. Jimson picked the ermine up absently before he reached the baking and Annet put a dish of chopped rabbit down for him instead. He fell on it with gusto.

“I can’t think of anyone who’d have that much of a grudge against Sparky, she’s only a few months old. It usually takes longer to develop enemies! If her mother has enemies, they’d be suicidal to take it out on her baby.”

“What about those silly pratts who tried to attack the White Stag?” Briony asked, coming back in with the gyrfalcon now on her shoulder. Seabhag rose to his feet politely and she paused, her eyes widening slightly as she took him in. Six feet of albino elf was a graceful addition to the kitchen’s population!

“My niece, Briony. Briony, meet Seabhag mac Shealgair.” Jimson introduced them, still distracted, and Seabhag bowed elegantly,

“I’m honoured to meet you, Briony.”

“The pleasure is mine, Seabhag!” Briony bowed back and Ghearr yarped, gliding off her shoulder to land on the table, where she helped herself from the ermine’s dish. He chittered at her crossly, grabbed a piece of meat and made for Seabhag’s pocket as the elf sat down again.

“If it was those three spivs, I sent them on to the Turf’n’Donkey. Hal, would you get onto Goibniu on the ethericnet and find out what happened with them?” Jimson asked, and Hal nodded and went, quickly, “But where would they take her?”

“It’s questing season in the south – the White Stag there would answer the question if it was asked of him.” Seabhag suggested, and Billy took a tight grip on his courage.

“I’ll go and ask!”

Everyone looked at him. Of all the people who would volunteer, Jimson thought, exasperated, Billy would be the first – and the least suitable choice! But how to say that without totally destroying the little troll’s self-confidence?

“It’s my brother who’s helped steal her. I should help get her back.” Billy insisted, seeing the dubious looks, and Seabhag sipped his tea,

“Since the White Stag sent me along here to help you read the tracks, Billy, perhaps you’ll permit me to join your quest to rescue Sparky?”

Jimson and Annet breathed matching sighs of relief – Billy’s over-confident clumsiness would be well-balanced by Seabhag’s abundance of experience and competance!

“Goibniu at the Turf’n’Donkey says those three wizards went off together with their car after they’d had a quote from him for repairing it – they couldn’t pay the bill.” Hal came back in, and Seabhag nodded.

“I think we’d better go south and try to find the White Stag there, Billy. Around here, the White Stag brings challenges and quests – but in the south, he rewards those who can find him with answers to their questions. I don’t know the country there as well I do around here – do you know anyone in that area who could help us in the quest, Jimson?”

“Yes – my cousin Owen Corbie, he keeps the Shapeshifter’s Arms there – he’ll know where the White Stag is there is anyone does! How to get you there quickly?” Jimson mused, then snapped his fingers and got up, walking into the dining room, where the Wyzards had nearly reached dessert, “Excuse me, gentlemen – we have a problem. The little dragon who was here when you came appears to have been kidnapped – I’ve a couple of friends here who’ll go search for her, but they need to get to the Shapeshifter’s Arms as quickly as possible to find the White Stag – would it be possible for one or two or you to take them that far?”

“What, that pretty little blue and white dragon? The one who went outside when we put more wood on the fire? Gosh, if we hadn’t disturbed her, she wouldn’t have gone out to be kidnapped!” Kevn sat up, a guilty expression crossing his face, “Of course we’ll take them to the Shapeshifter’s Arms!”

“Thank you very much – after dinner?”

General noises of agreement came from all round the table and Jimson went back to the kitchen,

“They’re about ready for dessert through there, and they’ll gladly give you and Billy a lift down to the Shapeshifter’s Arms. You’ll be there, oh…. allowing for time differences and the special exception to relativity the Wyzards use, about in time for brunch?”