The White Stag

The White Stag stood on the top of the pinnacle of stone looking down to them. He wasn’t enormous … in a way Magpie had expected him to be very big … but he was full of presence. That felt wild, huge, enormous; the beast at the centre of the presence was the size of a large ordinary stag but the aura surrounding him stretched on and on and on, covering them and going right on out over the Abyss of Mists.

And the White Stag wasn’t white.

His antlers were white, shimmering white, and there was a silvery aura around him. But his coat was bright and dark red while his hooves were shining black and his eyes were dark limpid pools of the night sky.

Delicately, hoof by hoof, the stag picked his way down the rocks until he stood in front of them. He eyed each of them in turn. It was a strange sensation, felt like you were being completely and totally examined from inside to out, all the threads that made up your life, all the joins and darns and mends and frays where things were only just holding together, as well as the parts that were rock solid. They each felt it. Owen & Seabhag  had felt it before, met the Stag, for the others it was new and each of them felt it differently.

Billy took one look at the Stag and gave a little whimper of delight, then ran up and hugged the Stag’s front leg. The Stag leaned down and licked Billy’s forehead.

‘Welcome, little one,’ the Stag said softly. ‘You are very welcome and all that you desire will come to pass. Now … what about the rest of you?’

Seabhag stood back. He was watching the Stag; the stag had thoroughly dissected him but he didn’t mind that at all, it was to be expected when you met one of the powers of the Land, he did it himself after all. He came to find Billy, had done this and now just has to get him back home. He nodded greeting to the Stag who nodded back.  Owen too held back; his life was as sorted as it ever was, he enjoyed it and was in need of nothing in particular. Magpie shuffled her boots and fidgeted with the horse’s mane. The Beast stepped forward.

‘I need to find myself …’ she whispered to him, stretching out her claws, pleading.

The Stag reached out his nose, touched her forehead. ‘Your brother is waiting for you,’ he told her. ‘Soon, I will send you to him. He will be able to help you.’

The Beast’s claws reached out, gently stroked the Stag, their eyes met.

Watching, Magpie thought both pairs of eyes looked the same, both were deer’s eyes.

The Stag looked at her. ‘Well …?’ he asked.

The Beast had moved away, was staring out over the Abyss of Mists – the presence she gave off was one of happiness, for the first time since Magpie had known her. Seabhag stood nearby and Owen too had moved closer to her. Billy was back with Seabhag too and the horses were chatting among themselves, comforting the Mousies who were getting over the shock. Magpie was all on her own … with the Stag.

‘You had no idea this was what you were coming to, did you?’ the Stag pushed his nose into Magpie’s stomach.

She shook her head, dumb; she really didn’t know what she was doing here. ‘I won this carpet,’ she began, ‘magic carpet. One of the players accused me of shuffling the cards to my advantage but I hadn’t, I didn’t! I’d been to that tavern before though. Long time ago, but …’ she tossed her hair back from her face. The Stag looked down his nose at her. ‘Well … but well, I’ve got a reputation. And yes, I had marked the pack.’ She paused, swallowed. ‘Anyway, I thought it best to leave. The carpet was faulty, that’s how I ended up at the Shapeshifters. It was nice there, everyone was kind, it felt like a break, and I sort of got snaffled up into the adventure. I like adventure.’ She stopped, found herself smiling into the Stag’s huge liquid eyes.

‘What do you want to do with your life?’ the Stag’s eyes held hers while he asked the question.

‘I’ve never known what I wanted to do with my life,’ Magpie muttered, looking down. ‘I fell into the School, by accident.’

‘You had to leave because you got yourself blown …’

Magpie nodded.

‘But Morningstar said you could still be of use, did he not?’

Magpie nodded again.

‘So … what did the eagles say to you?’

‘Said I had skills, and nouse, and gumption.’ Magpie glanced up at the Stag.

‘And what did you promise them?’

‘That I’d begin …’ Magpie stopped, looked up straight at the Stag. ‘Does that mean, does it mean … I can begin? I can be part of the School? I can do the work?’

‘I’d say so, wouldn’t you? It’s always been your choice, Magpie. You ran away. You thought you could never go back. You dived into adventure and trouble with both hands. Morningstar said you could still be useful, in a covert way. Perhaps getting yourself the thieves’ reputation is just that, useful … had you thought of that?’

Magpie shook her head. ‘I just ran … you’re right … I just ran.’ She stopped, her face changed, she was thinking. ‘As a thief … as a thief, I might be able to know all sorts of people that ordinary straight folk would never know …’

Now it was the Stag’s turn to nod.

‘I’m a stunningly good thief …’ she paused again. ‘But I want to steal everything! I love it. I’d steal the antlers off your head if I thought I could,’ she added, sotto voce.

The Stag looked down his nose at her again. ‘I wouldn’t advise you to try,’ he said gently.

‘You weren’t supposed to hear that,’ Magpie muttered.

‘Perhaps that’s what Morningstar wants you to do, only with some discrimination. And not actually stealing everything you set eyes on. And stealing for other people’s benefit …?’

‘I suppose … but it’s hard. I really want beautiful, fascinating things …

‘Well … you’re having some practice here at giving them up again …’

She snorted, glared at him, then grinned. ‘I suppose.’

His eyes smiled back at her. She somehow felt better, in spite of having to give up that wonderful golden horn. She grinned again, did a little two-step dance.

‘Now don’t get carried away,’ he told her. ‘To be a stunningly good thief is hard work. You’ll upset the competition and sometimes you’ll need to work with them not against them. You’ll have to carry lots of stories … legends … in your head and always know exactly where you are, when you are and who you are. Morningstar needs information, you can help him with that. Does that sound like a good career?’

‘I’ll give it a damn good try,’ Magpie told him.

‘Hmmm … then I think you’ll meet someone, fairly soon. Have you heard of Grymalkyn?’

Magpie’s eyes widened. ‘You mean Grym? Morningstar’s chief assassin? I’ve seen her, at the School, but I don’t know her. She’s something else … not sure how we’d get on!’

The Stag made a soft braying noise, Magpie realised he was laughing.

‘Well give it a try. She might not be as bad as you think. She tries to be invisible most of the time. But yes, that’s who I meant. I think you may get to meet her come the end of this adventure. If you do, stick with her, ask her to take you on, help you. You might,’ the Stag almost winked at her, ‘you might mention me to her. We go back a long, long way.’

‘Thank you!’ Magpie dropped to one knee and put her forehead against his hoof. ‘Thank you,’ she repeated. ‘And you’d better count the hairs on your fetlock to check I’ve not nicked any.’ She stood up, grinning.

‘You can keep the three you took,’ the Stag replied. ‘You’ll find them useful, sometime, I expect. But be prepared to give them away.’ Then the Stag gave a roaring bark. Everyone jumped.

‘Now …’ he began, ‘about this baby dragon. After her contretemps with a dyslexic pixie she has landed in the castle of a wizard up in the Pictlands. At present she’s in no immediate danger – except of overeating! – but she does need finding and bringing home. As it happens, your quest will be best concluded if you go up there too, Madam Beast. You will find your brother up in the Forest of Calydon and he needs your help as much as you need his, in fact you need each other. It’s high time Billy got home too. And Owen, you will like to see Jimson again, I’m sure. ‘The Stag looked down his nose at Owen who had the grace to nod agreement. ‘Magpie will do best to go along too and I’m sure the IBWs will find it both enlightening and amusing. In any case,’ the Stag glared at the wyzards, ‘I’m counting on you two to keep the rest of them on target. Seabhag, you’ll do as you please but I think you’ll enjoy accompanying this motley crew.’ In fact, you might like to transport them up to Bennachie …’

Seabhag smiled and bowed slightly. ‘It’s your show,’ he demurred.

There was a thunderous bray, a flash of lightning and thunder rumbled all around the sky. The sun went out temporarily too.

‘Flashy bugger, isn’t he?’ Kefn whispered to Iolo.

And they were gone …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enchanted Forest 2 – Window Tree

‘Harrumph! That’s a bit of a bother,’ muttered Magpie as she looked down over the cliff that the kelpie stood at the edge of.

Owen turned to her smiling, ‘You can say that again! No! Don’t!’ he added quickly as her mouth opened to do as he said. ‘We … or rather I … have to find our path. I’m sorry, I lost it, that’s how we’ve arrived here. Thank the gods the kelpie had the nouse to stop because I certainly didn’t.’

The kelpie looked mollified, tossed his head gently.

‘Anyway, I’ve got to sort the path so you might as well have a quick rest while I do. I hope I won’t be too long.’

Billy peered cautiously round Seabhag’s leg and down over the cliff edge.

‘Cooooooooo … !!!’ he whispered, awestruck. ‘It don’t half go down a long way.’

‘Yes,’ Seabhag agreed, grabbing onto the troll’s collar. ‘And we don’t want you sailing down there, so come back here and sit down. It would be a real nuisance to have to fish you out of those pine trees after you’d bounced through a few at eighty-six miles per second per second. And it would put back rescuing Sparky by quite a while.’

Billy looked up at the elf, worried, then he saw that Seabhag was smiling. He gave the elf’s leg a quick hug and backed away from the precipice to sit down in the crunchy leaves far enough away to be safe.

Iolo came up to have a quick look over the edge too. ‘Hmm!’ he said. ‘Nice drop.’

‘Good paragliding,’ Kefn said from right behind him.

‘Damnit! I wish you wouldn’t do that!’ Iolo spluttered, backing away from the edge and treading on Kefn’s toes, quite deliberately.

Kefn chuckled and they both backed off out of the way.

Owen crouched down at the edge of the first step that led off out into nowhere. He was hunting for threads. Where were all those nice rainbow-strands he’d seen as the path did its jiggling tricks earlier? Now, right at his feet, he found them, or ones just like them, tied into a neat double-bow over a good reef knot. Ha! that was pretty conclusive and made sense of the notice; the gods would not be helping anyone dumb enough to step out off those steps. He sighed, relieved, he hadn’t fancied the idea of making a bridge across forever out of rainbow strands to carry the party across wherever-it-was that was the gulf in front of them. OK, so they were meant to go another way. He turned back and took a few steps back the way they’d come.

The others had taken his advice and spread themselves to sit down comfortably and take a break, out of his way. But the landscape had changed.

The forest trees stopped a few yards from the cliff edge; no path was really visible but right where he was sure it had been was now a tree. A very big, odd tree it was; its massive trunk stretched up to just over his head; above that three enormous branches reached out, one horizontally to his left, another out to his right and the third went directly upwards. Just below them, in the centre of the trunk, was a hole, like a window.

The hairs on Owen’s neck rose and his skin prickled. It was a window; a window between worlds.

Owen went up to the tree. There was a humming around it, like a force field. He tried putting his hand gently towards it; the field let his hand in but instantly all his hair stood on end. He heard the muffled gasps of half-laughter behind him, knew he must look a sight. ‘Damnit!’ he muttered, ‘I suppose I have to look like a clown’. The field let his hand through so he could touch the tree; there was instant communication.

‘Remember that saying about camels and needles?’ the tree asked him.

Owen sighed. ‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Well, that’s what you gotta do,’ the tree told him.

Owen would have sworn it was chuckling too.

‘How?’ he was feeling terse and somewhat frayed.

‘Climb up and have a look, boyo,’ the tree replied.

The hole was a bit over the top of his head. He withdrew his hand and stood looking at it, wondering how to see through; there were no rocks or logs he could stand on.

Something, someone, tugged at his trousers. ‘I can do that,’ Billy whispered to him.

Owen crouched down to Billy’s level. ‘You can do what?’ he asked, kindly.

‘I can be a rock,’ Billy said patiently. ‘I’m a troll. We’re rocks, stone. I can be a rock.’

‘Did you hear what the tree said to me?’

Billy nodded, looking worried. ‘Shouldn’t I have listened?’ His brow was furrowed and his eyes looked nervous.

‘No, no, I mean yes,. I mean that’s quite all right. I just didn’t know you could hear trees.’ Owen was smiling and put a hand on the little troll’s shoulder. ‘Have you always been able to hear trees?’

‘No-ooo …’ Billy hesitated. ‘It really sort of started after we got going on this journey. I didn’t know what it was what was talking to me, just I sort of heard things. Then, now, since we comed through that gate into … here …’ Billy waved an arm to indicate the forest, ‘then and now when you put your hand on that there tree, I can hear what he said like.’ He grinned sheepishly. ‘I think it all sort of comed clear when your hair stood on end.’

‘That’s good, that’s good,’ Owen smiled encouragingly. ‘So … you could be a rock. And would you mind if I stood on you so I could see through the window?’

‘Nah, that’s what I meant. You stand on me then you can see through and see where we gotta go.’

‘OK, thanks. I think that’s part of what I’ve got to do.’

Billy slithered across the leaves, through the force field – it made him prickle all over but he wasn’t going to say anything, he was too proud to be useful again. He curled himself into a good solid rock-shape, keeping his back nice and flat so Owen would have a good platform to stand on and not fall off, then he shuddered gently and shifted.

One moment Owen saw a young troll, next a handy-sized rock platform at the base of the tree the top of which looked very level and easy to stand on. He stepped into the force field, putting up with his hair all standing on end again, and stepped as carefully as he could up onto the rock, Billy’s back. It was just the right height; his head came up level with the window; putting a hand each side of the hole Owen leaned to peer through it.

He jumped back and fell off Billy. The rock shifted slightly and Billy’s head reappeared.

‘You all right, Guv?’ the troll asked.

‘Yep, sure.’ Owen picked himself up. ‘Hope I didn’t hurt you.’

‘Not a bit. You seen enough?’

‘No, I need another proper look, if you don’t mind.’

‘Go for it, Guv.’ Billy turned himself back into a rock.

Owen climbed back up, more wary this time, and peered again through the hole. The rainbow lines swam before his eyes, it was like literally looking into, having your head inside, a rainbow. He felt slightly giddy, took a deep breath and remembered to put his roots down through his feet, being careful of Billy on the way, and down into the ground. That stabilised him, things stopped wavering in and out of focus and held their shape. Now he could see the path, straight and narrow but very strong. He pulled back, climbed down and peered round the side of the tree. No, as he’d thought; no path.

‘Sorry Billy, not quite done yet.’

Owen climbed back onto Billy’s back and looked through the hole again. Yes there it was, very plain. He felt a suction on himself. Next moment he was sliding through the hole and out the other side, falling onto the soft grass. He sat up and looked back. There, indeed was the tree … but beyond was a whole new country. Where the hell was he? And … worse … where the hell were the others?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow Dance

‘There it is!’ Magpie pointed ahead.

Billy, who was alongside her, stared up into the mass of twisting branches that largely hid the little hill just to the right of the path.

‘I can’t see it …’ he stared harder, scrunching his eyes up and holding one hand over his eyes despite the gloom of approaching night.

‘There …’ Owen put one hand on Billy’s shoulder and immediately  the little troll found he could see, quite differently from normal.

‘Coo-ool …’ he breathed.

Owen chuckled. ‘With all that snow it will certainly be cool, if not bloody freezing!’ he grinned down at Billy.

Snowy pine branches

The troll’s vision showed him a conical hill with an apparently flat top all covered in snow like a huge Yule Cake covered in sweet frosting. Silvery birch trees marched up its sides, their bare winter branches filigreed with fresh snow, a delicate fairy land. Across the top of the hill he noticed white balls flying from each side, crossing as they passed over the middle, making wonderful patterns against the night sky. After a moment  Billy realised the white balls were flying to the throbbing rhythm that seemed to be pulsing out of the very ground. His flesh prickled with excitement.

Owen slid off his horse, Magpie followed him and the others all dismounted too., he led the way up a path that turned off the main track right at their feet. The rest of the group followed him. They could feel the throbbing sound right through their boots.

As they came to the top Billy ducked under Owen’s arm, excited to see what was going on. Eyes agog, he never saw the white ball that caught him in the mouth and knocked him back into Magpie’s arms.

‘Hey!’ she caught him, steadied him back onto his feet. ‘You OK?’

‘Ummphhuggle glug,’ he replied disjointedly, spitting snow out of his mouth.

She helped him get rid of the snow, even for a troll his mouth looked blue with cold. They all peered carefully over the top.

The top of the hill was dipped like a cup, about ten feet deep. The sides were steep but the bottom was flat, the whole covered in snow that glimmered in the starlight and the beginnings of the rising moon that just managed to tangle with the topmost branches.

Down in the dip stood a circle of entwives, their tall, slender forms lightly wrapped in gossamer silk that clung to them and swirled out when they moved. In the centre sat a group of nine gnomes. They were drumming. Each gnome had a drum of a different size held between his black-breeched knees, and each played a different rhythm that blended and harmonised into a complex whole. Their hands flashed over the drum skins, the sleeves of their white shirts rolled up to show hairy, muscular arms adorned with complicated tattoos. Long beards twitched rhythmically. Their red hoods were decorated with holly, ivy and mistletoe, and strung with hawk-bells that rang sweetly as they moved their heads in time with the drumming.

Entwife dancing

The entwives dipped and swayed in time with the drumming as they bent to pick up a new handful of snow, roll it into a ball. They stretched and arched as they tossed the snowball across the circle, over the heads of the gnomes. The balls fell just over the head of the entwife opposite. The patterns they made were like shooting stars.

Owen and the rest of the group stood transfixed, hardly breathing.

A sudden roll of the drums and the whole dance stopped. The silence was electric. A swoop of wings and a wild cry over Magpie’s head broke the spell as a barn owl swooped over the circle. The gnomes put down their drums and the eldest turned to the strangers. The elder entwife followed his gaze.

‘Welcome, strangers,’ the gnome called. ‘Will you come down and join us?’

Owen raised a hand. ‘We will indeed, thanking you kindly for the invitation.’ He led his mount carefully down the hill, the others followed.

Magpie and Billy both stared around them. Iolo and Kefn looked at each other.

‘The snow dance …’ Kefn breathed.

Iolo nodded.  ‘I never expected to see this,’ he whispered back.

‘What’s the snow dance?’ Billy asked them.

The elder gnome had reached them now, he looked kindly at Billy. ‘At Twelfth Night we gather here at the Tump to celebrate the snow and the new moon, when they come together as they do this year. We dance and feast in honour of the Goddess Olwen, the Lady of the Moon. You have seen the dance – swallowed some of it,’ he chuckled and patted Billy on the head. ‘Now … will you feast with us and tell us how you come to be here so propitiously?’

‘The kelpies sent us,’ Billy blurted out.

‘Aha!’ the elder gnome looked round them all.

Magpie felt the threads move again, twining, weaving around and through her. It tickled her mind and made her blink. She’d really not expected to feel it like this although her tutors at The School had told her she would … if only she would allow herself to do so. She grimaced. Damn it! And she certainly wasn’t consciously allowing anything of the sort, not intentionally! It was just creeping up on her, grabbing her when she wasn’t looking.  The gnome was smiling at her, his eyes twinkling. Damn it again! He was reading her thoughts!

They followed the gnome into the circle. Other gnomes came to take their mounts, offering them food, while the entwives took each of the travellers and sat them in them comfortably circle, giving them rugs and furs to wrap around them. Soon food appeared, delicious soup, roast meats, new-made sourdough bread and fresh cheeses. Warm fruit pie followed, with stem-ginger and custard, and there was plenty to drink.

Magpie was sharing a rug and a couple of furs with Owen, feeling replete and satisfied. The entwives sang, the gnomes provided bass harmonies. She was nodding off when the singing stopped and the elder gnome turned to them.

‘You are well fed … would you now entertain us with a story? I sense the lady there,’ he looked pointedly at Magpie, ‘has a story to tell. Would you give it to us?’