The way wound upwards amongst the green-black, lichen-covered trunks of ancient trees. Clip-clopping softly behind Owen, Magpie found herself slipping into a trance as her horse carried her up the narrow path. They had to go single file – Owen, with Corbie on his shoulder, led the way; Magpie followed then came Seabhag with Billy in front of him and the Beast behind him, Iolo and Kefn brought up the rear. A croak and Cadfan, the other raven, called her to lift him onto her shoulder.
‘Morning,’ he said. ‘Had a good night?’
‘Fine, thank you,’ Magpie tried to sound inconsequential.
Cadfan peered at her out of each eye in turn. ‘Hmmm!’ he said.
Magpie took no notice.
The way continued … dark trees … dripping lichen … red-gold bracken … they climbed and climbed. Magpie woke up with a start as her horse stopped abruptly with its nose in the kelpie’s tail; it tossed its head and backed up quickly straight into the elf-horse, who half-reared and twisted to get out of the way. Billy, also half-asleep, squawked as he nearly slid off and Seabhag grabbed him by the collar to hold him on board. The Beast stopped successfully not having been tailgating on the elf-horse and the Wyzards on the Mousies were fine too.
‘Hold up,’ Owen turned back to face them, the kelpie dance-stepping sideways in a neat half-pirouette. ‘We’re at the gate into the Enchanted Forest, we have to answer the challenge.’
‘Oh … ye gods!’ Magpie muttered. What the hell did that mean? She sat still, trying to keep her head down.
‘One of us,’ Owen went on, ‘will be chosen, will have get us through.’
‘Do you know what we’ll be asked?’ Seabhag asked.
‘No, it’s different every time.’
‘How do we know who the chosen one is?’ the Beast looked out from under her hood.
‘Each of us must go to the gate. The chosen one will be asked a question; for the rest of us nothing will happen. I’ll go first.’ He turned and rode the kelpie up to the gate.
Magpie couldn’t see anything very clearly; a white mist swirled gently across what appeared to be a gap in a bank across the path. She watched as Owen disappeared into it. A nasty feeling grew inside her, she tried to ignore it. It got worse, her stomach threatened to throw up her nice breakfast; she swallowed and tried to turn her thoughts elsewhere. Then something began to stick red hot pins into her backside.
‘Ow! Stop that!’ She jiggled about in the saddle, squeaking.
Not only did the pins not stop but the horse began to move towards the entrance to the enchanted forest. Magpie tried to dismount but her feet somehow got stuck in the stirrups. She found herself facing Owen who was just emerging.
‘It’s not me,’ he said.
‘I … Ow! Oh! Stop it! … Oh gods! The horse seems to think it must be me,’ she stammered. ‘I can’t get off!’
‘Well, good luck,’ Owen replied and patter her shoulder amiably as he went past.
‘Ouch! Hey!’ Magpie glared at his retreating back, her feet still well tangled in the stirrups and unable to run away. The horse pushed her past him into the mist.
As she entered it the red hot pins in her arse stopped.
For a moment she could see nothing but whiteness all around her then the mist cleared and she found herself alone, the mist behind her and in front of her a tall narrow gap between two high banks that stood up many feet above her head. The dark dripping trees loured over the gap, their lichen beards hanging down to almost touch her head. Her teethed clenched, this had not been her decision. What the hell was she supposed to do now?
The horse stopped. Her feet were suddenly free, she slipped down out of the saddle.
‘You were a great help!’ she told the horse. It whiffled softly, eyes glinting and gave her a hard shove further into the mist.
‘Huh! Don’t push me! Magpie growled, ‘I’m going.’ But she loosened her knife and tucked in her chin as she stepped forward.
The next three steps got darker and then, all of a sudden, light dazzled her. She blinked and put up her hands to shade her eyes; when she dropped them again the scene had changed completely. She stood now in an open place surrounded by birch trees, their white trunks brilliant in the light. Looking up, she found herself facing a very strange figure.
At first she thought it was an odd tree stump then she looked again. It was! It was a Frog. Or, at least, it was the top half of a frog, the head, with two strange antennae sticking out of the top of its head, big round eyes and a smile. She stared. The smile grew.
‘What the …?’ Magpie was quite speechless for once, her jaw even dropped a little. The frog’s smile deepened, its eyes crinkled to take up the smile and the antennae twitched slightly.
‘Good morning,’ said the frog.
‘G-g-good m-morning …’ Magpie replied. ‘What might I be able to do for you?’ she managed, keeping the question open and getting a grip on herself.
The frog grinned even more. ‘Nicely done,’ he replied. ‘That’s a question it’s fairly hard for me to catch you with.’ He paused, watching her, wrinkles formed between his eyes as he thought about how to respond to her.
Magpie’s eyes slitted, very wary, her old skill and panache had back. She had the nous to wait, not to jump in but to let the silence carry on until the frog should see fit to speak.
The frog smiled again. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that it’s maybe something I can do for you.’
Magpie held the silence for another moment, then, ‘Well, that sounds nice … what are you offering?’
The frog began to chuckle. ‘You’re a fly one, aren’t you? I suppose you don’t happen to know my old mate Morningstar?’
That caught her off guard again. He knew Morningstar? Harrumph! Well … she decided not to be drawn down that byway. ‘Maybe …’ she replied. ‘But, to get back to the point, you were saying there might be something you could do for me?’
‘Hmmph! Ye-es, it’s possible …’ the frog paused and eyed her closely. ‘Just where is it you’re off to, young lady, and for why?’
Instinct held good, as always. Magpie crossed both her forefingers with her thumbs and pulled on a couple of threads that were to hand. Morningstar would be pleased, she grinned to herself as she asked for the right words to answer the frog in the most appropriate way.
‘I … we … have a mission …’ she paused, pulled, called for the right words. ‘We’re all hunting the White Stag … for all sorts of reasons. But …’ she swallowed and took another pull. ‘But we have a group mission too. But the baby dragon’s still missing and we have to find her. The White Stag can help. We have to find him.’
‘Mmmm … OK …’ the frog frowned, pursed his lips, looked at Magpie from under his huge drooping eyelids. ‘The way to the White Stag is through the Enchanted Forest …’ he left the sentence hanging.
‘Well … great … I’ll tell the others we can get going.’
‘Not so fast! Not so fast, pretty lady. To enter the Enchanted Forest you have to pass me.’
‘So … I require a gift …’
Magpie felt in her pockets … nothing. A picture rose up behind her eyes … the golden horn.
‘Yes,’ replied the frog. ‘I need that horn …’
Magpie glared, what? She was not giving up that horn …
‘I need that horn,’ the frog repeated.
Swallowing hard, Magpie turned back to her horse. The horn was in her saddle bag. Slowly, sooooo slowly she opened the bag. Her hand hovered over it, she glanced back over her shoulder. The frog just smiled to her. She turned back, reached in, grabbed the horn, pulled her hand out fast and shut the bag. She took it over to the frog.
‘Will I ever see it again?’ she muttered.
One of the antennae-things reached over the frog’s head and took the horn out of her hand.
‘That depends,’ he replied, tucking the horn away somewhere behind him. ‘Come back and see me some time and we’ll see.’
‘I will, believe it!’ Magpie said as she remounted, then, ‘it’s done,’ she called to the others through the mist. ‘Come on, let’s go.’