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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.’

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.

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.

Kidnap!

Sparky

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.

The Three Wizards

It was Dmitri’s car and he loved it – a big, shiny, beautifully-polished Capri which he’d personally customised with the interdimensional portal he and Peter had cooked up and the Multi-Global Positioning System which Len had invented. Thus equipped for interdimensional travel, the three friends had decided to have themselves a road trip – and they’d found Yardoz. They liked Yardoz – the scenery was amazing, the beer was fabulous – although admittedly they’d been laughed off the dance floor when they’d entered that stupid tango contest at the paddle store the talking crocodile ran on Shit Creek. Still, while knocking back the cider the locals called Wyvern’s Flame and making moves on the pretty ladies (but failing to score), they’d heard about this place that had simply the most incredible beer on the whole world, everyone said – the Wolf’s Head or something. So, after the hangovers from the tango competition and its drinking had worn off, they’d decided they’d head for this Wolf’s Head and spend some time there.

Easier said than done – the MGPS didn’t seem to be able to locate the place, the directions they got along the way had added at least a couple of solar systems to their travelling distance and now they were parked on top of a moorland with nothing but heather and trees in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Discouraging, as Peter remarked, but they’d lucked out with Len’s pocket magic compass, which had indicated a lot of magic just to what the MGPS claimed was their north-west.

The open, unfenced road over the moor dropped suddenly into a hedged and ditched sunken lane with woodland either side as they motored on, following the compass now, then Dmitri screamed and stamped on the brake hard as something huge and white soared over the hedge to his right, landing in a bounce on the road in front of them. Len, who was in the front, grabbed the wheel and between them they managed to steer the Capri into the ditch in a wild swerve, just barely avoiding what turned out to be a large white stag with golden antlers and red eyes, which gave them a snooty look, posing in the middle of the single-track lane. Peter disentangled himself from their supply of beer in the backseat, confused.

The White Stag

“What happened?”

“That did!” Dmitri was shaking as he pointed at the stag, “Stupid bloody animal! My car! My beautiful car!”

As they scrambled out of the Capri, which was rakishly perched at a nose-down angle in the ditch, the stag let out a sound like a fart but from its front end, then bounced off down the road like Bambi (but bigger, smellier and spikier) before bounding apparently effortlessly over the hedge and out of sight again.

“If I ever get my hands on that damn animal again-!” Dmitri was stroking his car like a man consoling a wounded pet, but Len clapped his hands together.

“Let’s get her out of the ditch and see what’s what, Dmitri old mate! We might be lucky, you know?”

It took all three of them to move the car out of the ditch, and in the process they all slithered about in the mud and fell over a few times, so they were filthy, exhausted and more than cross as they sat in the road with the car safely level again. Peter cracked open a few bottles of beer to keep them going, then Dmitri tried the car’s engine. It started, raising a cheer from his friends, and they all climbed back in again as it started to rain.

“Can’t be far to that pub now!” Peter encouraged, hopefully, and Dmitri put the car in gear, moving off gingerly – in case there were any more stupid deer waiting to ambush them.

At the bottom of the hill, they came out from between the trees to see a bridge in front of them, and beyond it wide green fields and a driveway leading to a big cluster of buildings on the side of the hill. The bridge was wide and inviting so Dmitri put his foot down, but as they got closer he took it off the gas again, then put it on the brake – then realised the bridge was in fact narrower than the car and stood on the brake with both feet, letting out another scream of terror. The Capri lost traction and skidded down the road, fetching up with a horrible scraping and grinding – then stopped, wedged firmly between the stone walls either side of the bridge, which turned out now to be barely wide enough for a single person on foot.

“What were you doing?” Len demanded, astounded, “It’s too narrow for a car!”

“It wasn’t when we first saw it!” Dmitri tried to open his door and failed miserably. Len wound his window down and stuck his head out, then gulped. It was a surprisingly long way down to the water bubbling ominously under the bridge. He hauled himself carefully out of the window and slithered on his belly over the car’s roof and bonnet, ending up on the bridge in front of the car. Peter followed him and finally Dmitri, moaning at the horrendous damage done to his beautiful vehicle, crawled out after them. It took both Peter and Len, working together, to prise him away from the crushed Capri and lead him up the driveway to the house and barns ahead of them.

At the entrance to the spacious cobbled yard, a black snarling wolf’s head was painted on a sign that swung slightly in the wind. The rain running down the paint made it seem almost to move. The three wizards looked apprehensively at the gleaming yellow eyes, then realised what it meant.

“We did it! This is the Wolf’s Head!” Peter said it first, triumphant, and Len cheered damply,

“Home of the best beer on Yardoz!”

“My car….” Dmitri moaned faintly, and it was hard to tell if the water running down his face was the rain or tears of sorrow for his mangled treasure on the bridge.

“Come on, mate, you’ll feel better with a good drink in you!” Len encouraged, and they staggered through the wide, welcoming-looking door with ‘BAR’ painted above it.

The room was warm, spacious, liberally supplied with large, comfy-looking chairs and tables at just the perfect height for beer mugs, and immediately in front of them was a long bar stocked with a mouth-watering eye-dazzling array of bottles and taps and glasses.

“Oh my!” Peter breathed, awed, “So much beer!”

“Afternoon!” a sturdy-looking young man appeared behind the bar and began polishing an already immaculate glass in the traditional manner, “You gents look like you need a warming drink or three! What can I get you, sirs?”

“Oh, uh, ooh…” Len began, looking along the taps, “Flame, yeah! That’s good stuff… let’s start with three pints of Wyvern’s Flame, please!

“Three pints it is.”Jimmy acknowledged, pulling the first one expertly. The froth was as gold as new sovereigns above the rich fire-red fortified cider as he set the glasses down, and all three of the wizards sighed in delight and relief as they took long initial draughts from their glasses.

“Ooh, that’s the stuff!”Peter sighed again, the three of them trailing towards a table near the fireplace. Dmitri, in the lead, stopped dead as he came round the final high-backed armchair to see the fireplace – and the hearthrug – and the white stag, curled on the rug with his hooves tucked under him and his nose in his flank!

“That stupid bloody animal!!” Dmitri screamed, hurling his glass one way and his soaked scarf the other, then extended both hands in front of himself “Fireballs! I’ll fry the wretched thing!!”

The stag bounced to all four hooves, seemingly by levitation, let out the blarting noise again, then lowered his head and charged. A fireball hit his antlers and shattered into a thousand sparks dancing over the room, then half a dozen huge hairy wolfhounds surged from where they’d been snoozing in a heap behind the stag, baying ferociously as they joined in, and last of all, a knee-high white-bellied blue-backed dragon rolled over from where she’d been sleeping upside down in the fire and stared, then bounded into the fray, letting out possibly the most extraordinary draconic war-cry ever heard.

“Woof, woof, woof!!” Sparky shouted at the top of her voice, forgetting her species in her excitement, and grabbed Dmitri’s ankle in her teeth, yanking hard. He fell over backwards just in time for the stag’s next rush to miss hitting him and was trampled instead, Len and Peter knocked sideways by the stag’s plunge and turn as he headed back for another go.

Jimson heard the ruckus from his office and put his pen down. He hated doing the accounts and didn’t usually mind an interruption – but not on this scale! He opened the door in time to catch the glass that flew from Len’s hand as the hounds knocked the young wizard down; Jimson paused only to set the glass down safely on the bar and then lifted his voice in a powerful bellow,

“That’s enough! Everyone – quieten down!”

Total silence fell, broken by a faint rustling sound as Sparky let go of Dmitri’s trousers, which she’d managed to drag off the downed wizard, and they fell to the floor. Jimson surveyed the lounge bar critically. The hounds obeyed his gesture and slunk back to the fireplace, the stag considered for a moment then lowered his head and went along with them meekly, and Sparky reversed out of sight behind a chair hurriedly.

“That’s better. Put your trousers on, please, sir. We do request all patrons to remain clothed or furred, according to species, except in their own rooms. Jimmy, what happened?”

“I gather the gentlemen have some problem with the White Stag, Dad. They attacked him while he was sleeping by the fire.”

“I see. You have a vehicle somewhere?”

“My car! My beautiful car!” Dmitri hopped on one leg, his other foot in the air as he tried to put his trousers back on, furious again as he realised how undignified he looked, “My car is stuck on your bridge! And that animal attacked us in the road; he put us in the ditch! Who’s going to pay for my wrecked car? It’s ruined! A highly-expensive custom paint-job, hand-painted! Cost thousands!”

“If your car is stuck on the Bridge, sir, then I’ll be asking you to return to it. I think you’ll find you can reverse off the Bridge and leave safely. I think you’d be the three gentlemen my friend Sobek mentioned to me – you were at the tango competition at the Paddle Store, I believe? The Sally Bridge is rather good at judging who’ll be able to stay here and who won’t – for those who will, it is a fine, wide bridge – for those who won’t, it can be as narrow as a twig. Those who don’t understand its nature call it the Silly Bridge for that reason. As for the White Stag, he does jump into the road in front of people from time to time, it’s in his nature to do so. Had you picked up his challenge, he’d have led you on a wonderful quest and you’d have learned and grown a great deal. We’ve no rooms available at present here, sirs, so I’d advise you to try the Turf’n’Donkey, it’s at the other end of the valley, on your left as you’re leaving the village. Good day, gentlemen!” Jimson added, herding the three wizards out of the door expertly and shutting it firmly behind them.They trudged back to the car in the rain, dejected, and pushed the Capri backwards off the bridge before getting in and driving away, simmering with rage and humiliation.

The Turf’n’Donkey was a hovel in comparison to the Wolfshead, a low-ceilinged smoky place with the endless sound of hammers even in the night and the owner was a surly, one-eyed man with a limp who snarled as he showed them a single room to stay in. Len tried the beer but was almost immediately sick, and the food was so unappealing that they just pushed it around the plates and went to bed hungry.

“I’m going to get that Stag – and those people at the Wolfshead.” Dmitri vowed, lying on a lumpy mattress in the dark listening to the thudding of the hammers in the distance, “Somehow, I’m going to make them pay!”