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?








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.

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.

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?”

Seabhag Mac Shealgair

Briony and Billy came in from the gardens with the last ingredients for dinner – baskets of mange-tout and fresh herbs – as the sun was starting to sink. Annet was involved in cookery – she liked cooking for the Interplanetary Biker Wise-ards when they were around, they had big appetites and always complimented her on the flavours and textures of her work. She thanked them absently and Billy glanced warily around – Sparky was often around at cooking time, hopefully looking for another biscuit or the trimmings from the roast or a stray dish of chillies.

“No dragon?”

Annet looked up from stirring the soup, distracted,

“What? Oh… no. No dragon. Actually, that’s quite unusual, isn’t it? Could you find her, please, Billy? Before she chews through anything vital, this time!”

“If she chews the ethericnet again, she’s in for a shock.” Robin sauntered through, slotting his screwdriver into his back pocket, “I’ve put an alarm on it, it’ll scream like murder in her ear if she so much as licks the cables again!”

“Good lad. Could you get me some more wood for the fire, please?” Annet added, and Billy went to look for the dragon as Briony set about chopping the herbs to add to the various dishes on the range and in the ovens.

He searched the house, but all the doors denied the little dragon had been through them recently. The last door to have seen her was the back door into the yard, so he tried asking the chickens. They vaguely remembered that she’d been in the yard and left, but couldn’t remember which way she’d gone. He asked the gate post and that was more helpful, saying she’d headed towards the field gate. The field gate in turn sent him along to the cattle pasture, where the cows said she’d been stacking twigs and had then gone along the hedge and out through the gate at the bottom.

Billy followed the hedge, seeing Sparky’s little pawprints here and there, but his large, sensitive nose twitched as he picked up a boozy scent as well as the tang of dragon. In the soft mud in the gateway, he saw her tracks clearly, then he spotted the empty biscuit-box and bottle and ran to them, feeling upset. Sparky might be scary but she was part of the Wolfshead family and so was he – now – and if she was hurt…. It gave him a nasty fluttery feeling in his middle, somehow.

He looked around, spotting a flattened patch of grass where someone had sat, and when he went to look more closely, he saw two sets of footprints. One looked human, smelled of plastic and cheap aftershave – the other he knew far too well and he stuffed his kncukles into his mouth, chewing on them worriedly. His big brother Bully!

A questioning squeak made him look up, then around, and he blinked at the small white weaselly-creature which was standing nearby looking at him.

“Where did you come from? You haven’t seen a little dragon, have you? About as tall as this, with a white tummy and a pale blue back?”

“We haven’t seen any young dragons, nor old ones either, for a few weeks. Have you mislaid one?” a tall man came through the gateway, “Oh, hello! I think we’ve met before, haven’t we? At the Culbone Stone?”

Billy blinked, then remembered. The kind warrior-wizard who’d helped him when he was confused!

“Oh! Yes! You were the wizard. I can’t find Sparky, but there’s an empty biscuit box and a bottle, I think she’s in trouble-!”

“Seabhag mac Shealgair.” The man introduced himself, politely, pronouncing it ‘shevac mac hellager’, “Sparky is your missing dragon?”

The white weasel ran up Seabhag’s leg and coiled in his pocket tidily, nose just poking out to keep watch on the world. He sized up the young troll – slightly more with-it than on our last meeting, he thought, but still rather innocent and strangely kind, for a troll! He looked at the tracks, reading them expertly.

“Let’s see…. Your young dragon came down through this gate about three hours ago, not quite entirely steady on her paws, then found the rum and the biscuits.” He crouched, touching the grass by the empty box, “She poured the rum over the biscuits and ate the lot, the greedy little creature! She’s a bit young for spirits, isn’t she? Judging by these footprints, I’d say she’s only a few months old? Now, what’s this? Troll footprints – not yours, this is a big troll.”

“My brother Bully.” Billy admitted, unhappily, “He’s sort of…. Well, he’s very interested in money.”

“Ah.” The warrior understood, the breeze lifting his fine pale hair to reveal slightly pointed ears, “A mercenary troll, accompanied by a person wearing trainers and Lynx aftershave. H’m. They rolled your dragon up and carried her away with them….. towards the bridge down the valley, not the Sally Bridge. Why would your dragon have come down here to begin with? Shall we see what brought her here?”

Billy followed as Seabhag walked through the gate, then he tracked the dragon-prints up the hedge, pausing to crouch and sniff where she’d been rummaging in the hedge.

“A few charcoal crumbs and a smell of rum. I think someone’s kidnapped your dragon, my friend! They put out baited biscuits and she followed the trail, then found the rum and the whole boxful and scoffed the lot. Probably passed out and was easy to pick up and carry away! It’s quite an odd mix, a young troll and a baby dragon – were you looking after her?”

“No, she lives at the Wolfshead. They asked me to come find her… it’s nearly dinner time.”

“If Jimson’s mislaid a baby he was bringing up for his great-great-whatever-she-is, there’ll be ructions!” Seabhag predicted, but smiled, holding his hand out to Billy, “Come on – let’s go break the news and get a rescue party organised!”

Magpie and the bath part 2

Morgan lifted her head, pausing as she turned away from the window. That young person who’d just arrived on the carpet was about to drown in the bath, she thought, and whistled softly. A tiny golden creature appeared and ran up the outside of Owen’s boot, up his breeches and shirt to sit on his shoulder. Morgan looked the little creature in the eye and communication passed between them. The dormouse gave a satisfied squeak and ran back down, then disappeared through a hole in the wainscot.

The Dormouse

“Oh!” Owen caught up, “She’s be as wrinkled as a prune by now, too. Thank you, Morgan!”

“You’re welcome, dear.” She patted his arm and carried on out.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Magpie was drowsing comfortably in the soft warm water. The dormouse appeared on the rim of the bath, squeaking softly until her eyes opened again, then she realised how close she was to submerging and pushed herself up again with a jerk. A few drops of water splashed onto the dormouse, who gave an irritated squeak and started washing himself dry again, crossly.

“Oops! Sorry!” Magpie reached for the towel and helped, “You could have warned me I was trying to drown!” she reproached the bath, and it responded by pulling the plug out.

“I guess you’ll be wanting to get out, then!”

“I’d better.” She muttered, inspecting her water-wrinkled fingers ruefully, “My thanks yo you, dormouse. That was a timely wakening! And I’m sorry about the splashing.”

She dressed in her clean clothes and held out a hand to the dormouse,

“I think I smell sweet enough to be in company again now! Can I offer you a lift anywhere? No? Well, thanks anyway. I think I could probably eat whatever’s left downstairs, now!”

The dormouse squeaked again, appeased by her apologies, and disappeared back into the wainscoting. Magpie grinned to herself, liking this inn more and more, and went downstairs lightly, anticipating some food and perhaps some chat with the innkeeper, Owen. He looked like he might know how to flirt rather well, somehow.



Sparky was bored. Everyone was working, the hounds were sleeping, the White Stag had gone off into the woods to do staggy-things, and nobody had time to play with her just now. She sat in the yard in the sunshine feeling hard-done-by and listening to the noises of the Wolfshead – the chickens were clucking quietly around the compost heaps, gossipping as they liked to do, there was the occasional clop of a hoof or snort from the stables, some sparrows were living their soap-opera lives on the ends of their feathers on top of the thatched roof, and from inside there was the sound of the recently-arrived group of Interplanetary Biking Wyzards who were relaxing in the lounge bar. She’d left because they kept putting logs on the fire so she couldn’t even get any peace sleeping in the flames…. They’d just come in from a particularly chilly region of space, they’d said, and apologised for waking her up stacking logs on her, but they were all cold and needed to warm up. She liked them, they seemed polite and perhaps they’d be good at chin-rubbing and whisker-tickling later when they didn’t have cold hands any more, but just now….. no.

She brightened up as she remembered something. Jimson had said she was getting quite good at starting fires – she’d hardly singed the rug at all when she’d lit the snug fire that morning! – but she needed to practice on little twigs to get the knowing of just the right temperature flame really into her bones. She’d go and collect some twigs from the hedges in the field by the river and practice with them! That would be nice. Delighted with herself, she trotted out of the yard, tail high and tip wagging with satisfaction, and headed for the fields by the river.

She collected several good twigs and stacked them conscientiously in the middle of the field, well away from any trees and bushes so she wouldn’t start a forest fire – Tom had explained all aobut that to her once – and was just prospecting into the hedge for another twig when she smelled something…. Not a twig, but very nice. She rummaged carefully through the dead leaves, unearthing….. a charcoal biscuit! Now, how had a charcoal biscuit arrived here? She ate it, liking the warm, tangy flavour that had been added to the biscuit. By the time she’d licked all her whiskers thoroughly to make sure she’d got all the flavour, another biscuit had appeared. She stared at it, surprised, then sniffed. Yum, this one had more of the nice new flavour on it! Maybe charcoal biscuits grew in hedges? She ate it quickly, then sniffed another, a few feet along. Yes, charcoal biscuits must definitely grow in hedges…. She’d tell Jimson that, then he could get them straight from the wild and stop having to buy them from the village store for her! There was another, and the best flavour yet, too….

By the time she’d ferretted her way down the whole line of the hedge, following the trail of biscuits, she was feeling very mellow and a little bit snoozy. The biscuits led her through the gate at the bottom of the hedge and there she found a box of biscuits and a bottle of rum…. Ah, now that was the delicious extra flavour! Rum! How delightful. She grabbed the bottle in her teeth and emptied it over the biscuits, giggling to herself as the action of twisting her head nearly made her roll completely over sideways, then dropped the bottle and gulped all the biscuits down. After that, she hiccupped, incinerating a couple of nearby dandelions, and that struck her as hilarious. She giggled so hard she fell off all four paws and lay on her back in the grass, wriggling and snickering to herself…. But then the sun felt nice and warm on her tummy and she thought she’d just close her eyes for a moment and sunbathe…. That would be nice…. Mmmmm.

After the first snore had been followed by a couple more, Dmitri nudged the troll sitting next to him.

“Go on! Grab the spoilt little horror and wrap it in this fire-blanket, then bring it along!”

The Dark Stranger …

Back in the bar, the dark stranger held out its mug for more beer.

‘Sorry about all that,’ Owen said as he refilled the mug, ‘but it’s being one of those sort of mornings. I think you were telling me you want to hunt the White Stag, just before the place caught fire and the carpet landed.  Do you know much about the Stag?’

Most of the latest pint of Ratspee went down the stranger’s throat in one long swallow. He – or she – can certainly hold his (or her) drink, Owen thought to himself, I wonder what they’d be like with the yard of ale? The yard-long glass horn hung over the huge inglenook fireplace at the far end of the main bar, it usually came out for a competition during the Hunting.

‘Dark ale!’

The guttural demand coming out of the hood pulled Owen out of his reflections.

‘You’d like some dark ale? Umm … we have Badger’s Broth, Hedgehog Treacle – that’s a lovely sweet ale with a hint of honeyed heather in it – and Otter Spraint. There’s a new barrel of that just gone up yesterday, lovely stuff. Jem Muxworthy makes it specially for the hunting season.’

‘Otter spraint.’

Nobody could accuse the dark stranger of being garrulous, in fact it – Owen had given up on genders – was brusque almost to a fault. He drew a pint of Spraint in a fresh pewter tankard and swapped it for the other.

‘Thank you,’ the stranger said, then opened up a little more. ‘Tell me something of the stag.’

Owen’s brows went up, he took a breath and slipped into taleweaver mode.

‘The white stag has been seen hereabouts so I’ve been expecting folk to come for the hunt. You know the stag gives wishes to those who manage to catch him.’ Owen paused, watching for reactions, there were none as yet. ‘I consider this a dubious boon. You always get what you wish for but, if you haven’t thought it out very carefully you find that what you wished for isn’t at all what you really wanted. And you’re stuck with it. I rarely go wishing with the white stag although I’ve met the beast several times in the deep forest under Kerri’s Fort. We just chat carefully now, Daaf has given up trying to tempt me with wishes, we just exchange news and gossip, pass the time of day.’

The tankard came forward again. ‘More Spraint … please.’

Owen complied, beginning to be quite awed with the beast’s capacity.

‘You realise the hazards?’ he asked, passing the refilled tankard across the bar. ‘Daaf  –  as I said before – is one of the patron spirits of our moors and woods here. He can and will give you exactly whatever you wish for.’ Owen paused again. ‘That, of course, can be hazardous since you always get exactly what you ask for. Consequently, the wise are extremely careful of what they wish for. I am happy to help you formulate the appropriate question.’

A low rumbling noise emanated from the stranger again, not like hounds baying this time but more like a tiger purring. The claws came up and pushed the hood further back. Now Owen could see the yellow vertical-slit pupils of the eyes. They stood out in the dark shadows of the face that still swirled without staying still in any one form.

‘You can see my difficulty,’ the beast said, catching and holding Owen’s eyes with its own.

As he was held by the gaze so Owen felt himself slip under the skin of the beast. He was everything, all at once. It was a dizzying, sickening feeling, nothing to hang on to, no edges or boundaries. He knew he was swaying on his feet, hoped he wouldn’t throw up.

The eyes let go of his. He rocked back into the world he knew, clutched at the solid oak of the bar with both hands and heard himself breathing like a traction engine.

‘Aach! Ugh! Ah! Ye-es … yes, I think I do,’ he managed after a moment.

‘I need to be able to hold my shape. Whatever shape I choose.’

‘How is that you cannot?’

‘Ah … tis a long story. I might leave it in full until the others come. I feel I shall not be alone on this quest although each hunter quests only for his own purposes and none infringe on the other.’ It took another swig of ale. ‘But briefly, it was a wizard.’

Owen groaned. ‘Spivs and assholes, the lot of ‘em,’ he said, not minding his language.

The rumbley purr sounded again. Was it a chuckle, Owen thought?

‘I cannot but agree,’ the beast replied. ‘They stole my choices away from me with kindly sounding and care-full words, but they are weasels all. And I like weasels although they can be as devious as dragons.’

‘And how do you hope the stag will help you? What question can you ask that will bring your choices back?’

‘Ah … that is my problem. I hope to journey tonight. That is why I am consuming as much of your local brews as possible. They help to dissolve the walls the wizard set around me. He knew I had to be contained since I could no longer contain myself, so he made these walls out of spinning threads that he wove on a dark loom, then he bound me within them. I am alone in here, alone and lonely until such time as I am set free.’

The voice was so matter-of-fact that it tore at Owen’s heart. The beast was patient, did not moan nor yet expect others to rescue it. That kind of courage was always special.

‘We will help,’ he said, his hand reaching into the dark folds of the stranger’s cloak to touch, to give comfort. He felt himself touch the claws and then … nothing. It was as if nothing was there.

Owen stared, narrowing his eyes and trying to hold his own focus. For a moment, just a fragment of a moment, he had the vision of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.