Enchanted Forest 3 – Hole to Cloutsham Ball

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.

Sluuuuurrrrrrrrrrppppppppppp !!!

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.

 

 

Enchanted Frogs

Enchanted Frogs

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 …?’

‘So … I require a gift …’

Magpie felt in her pockets … nothing. A picture rose up behind her eyes … the golden horn.

‘No!’

‘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.’

Up, Up and Away …

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!’

Magpie’s 2nd Test

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.’

‘You did?’

‘I did!’

‘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.

‘Sparky’s been stolen and we need to find the White Stag,’ she blurted out.

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.’

Meeting the Tarr Dragon

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.

‘Coming here.’

‘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.

Raven & Ent Test

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.

Oak Ent

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.

‘Careful!’ Owen whispered across to her, seeing the thoughts of panic and hope twining in the bird’s mind.

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!’

Kevn's Mousie

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.’

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.

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.