Enchanted Forest 3 – Hole to Cloutsham Ball

Enchanted Forest 3 – Hole to Cloutsham Ball

Seabhag’s jaw dropped slightly as he watched Owen disappear through the hole in the tree. One minute he’d been peering through the hole, then there was slurrrrrp! Then there was no Owen. He started forward in the ridiculous hope of grabbing onto Owen’s no longer existent legs … well, no longer extant in the world in which he stood, he reminded himself. Please the gods Owen (and his legs) were all still extant somewhere.

Billy stood up, no longer stone but troll again, ‘Where’d he go?’ he said, looking round everywhere with a bemused expression and furrowed forehead.

Iolo went up to the tree and jumped up and down, trying to see through the hole just over his head. Billy promptly crouched down again into being a rock.

‘Thanks, Billy.’ Iolo made to climb aboard.

‘No you don’t!’ Kefn caught hold of the collar of his leather jacket. ‘Not without a sheet-anchor you don’t.’

‘Erm … yes,’ Iolo agreed sheepishly. He climbed more cautiously onto Billy’s stone back; Kefn’s arms were round his waist; the Beast, hung onto Iolo’s legs. ‘That ought to do it,’he said as he stuck his head through the hole.

Sluuuuurrrrrrrrrrppppppppppp !!!

Iolo, Kefn and the Beast had been slurped up by the tree-window.

Seabhag’s jaw dropped even further, ‘Oh … bother …’he muttered, ‘one of those!’ He rolled his eyes, surely he’d been in the company of competent wyzards … Hmmm! Perhaps not.

Seabhag sighed. He should have seen that coming but really! Surely Owen was more competent than that, getting wired by the forest. Hmm! It was a tricksy forest; Seabhag nodded his head to it in acknowledgement. The two outer branches of the window-tree waved slightly in return.

‘Now what do we do?’ Magpie was exasperated; if the forest could get Owen then what on earth were they supposed to do? She began to consider how to get herself out of the place. Billy crept over to her side and slipped his hand into hers, squeezed gently. She squeezed back, he needed the comfort. At the same time she hoped she wasn’t going to be saddled with a baby troll. Would there be a way of sneaking out on her own?

The elf horse pushed his way past them all to stand in front of the window-tree.

‘Well,’ said the horse, ‘that’s where we have to go. The tree says it’s a shortcut, since Owen got us lost up here in the first place. You’d better all climb aboard us and we’ll fly you through.’

‘Ahem!’ One of the Mousies coughed. ‘Ahem! We can’t fly! It’s all very well for you lot, kelpies and elf-horse and whatever … Ouch!!!’

Magpie’s horse nipped the Mousie’s rump. The pony turned and glared, offended. ‘Well, I don’t know what you are!’ the Mousie said crossly. ‘Anyway,’ he carried on, ‘we can’t fly!’

‘It’ll work as long as we’re all touching each other,’ the elf-horse continued. ‘You grab my tail in your teeth, your mate grabs your tail in his teeth, and you sort of fly-by-wire. You’re OK aren’t you?’ The elf-horse turned to the kelpie and Magpie’s horse.

‘No problem,’ said the kelpie. Magpie’s horse just grinned.

‘Come on then.’ The elf-horse nudged Seabhag gently. ‘And check the girths,’ he told the elf-lord.

‘I remember the story,’ Seabhag replied with an old-fashioned look to his horse. He pulled the girth-straps, they were tight and the pins firmly through the holes. He mounted lightly. ‘Billy, you want to ride with me? This is going to be fun.’ He smiled down at the young troll.

Magpie helped Billy up in front of Seabhag then went to mount her own horse. ‘You can do it?’ she asked.

The horse’s grin widened. ‘You’re going to love this!’

Resignedly, Magpie mounted up. The elf-horse led the line-up with a Mousie clutching his tail; the second Mousie grabbed a large lump of Mousie-tail in his jaws while the first Mousie whickered gently. The kelpie followed, grabbing the second Mousie’s tail in his teeth.

‘I thought you could do this …’ Magpie stared at the kelpie.

‘Itshch to make ssshuure,’ the kelpie replied in a muffled voice through the Mousie tail. ‘In cashe he dropsh hish end. I’ve got him sheckurely.’

‘Oh … right …’

The Mousies both whickered in an anxious manner.

‘Get a grip!’ said the elf-horse and took off.

‘Sheeeeeeesh !!! V-TOL !!!’ the second Mousie lost his grip on his mate’s tail. The kelpie snorted.

Magpie watched as her horse sprouted two huge wings, like swans’ wings. They rose up out of the shoulders in front of her, spread to twice the length of the horse and swept down hard as the horse’s back muscles bunched under her; the creature leaped into the air. Magpie’s stomach was still somewhere on the ground, she hoped it would catch up by the time they arrived wherever-it-was they were going. The picture in front of her was amazing; everything had extended, grown and gone slow-motion. The beautiful elf-horse galloped through the air very slowly; the Mousie clung to his tail, its legs threshing gently; the second Mousie dangled pathetically from the kelpie’s jaws while the kelpie himself appeared to be swimming through the air. She herself was riding a flying horse. The air shimmered all the colours of the rainbow. Magpie gasped; it was the rainbow! A rainbow bridge! The path they flew along had straightened itself into an undulating carpet of red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo stripes. It flowed through the hole in the tree like a ribbon.

All of a sudden the hole was in front of them. Just as Magpie was certain they weren’t going to make it the hole opened like an iris, a lens, and they all streamed through. Then they landed. The horse stopped almost instantly, Magpie flew over his head bounced twice in the soft turf and came to a stop at Owen’s feet.

‘Nice to see you,’ he bent and offered her a hand up.

‘Ugh … err … errrmm … thanks …’ Magpie climbed to her feet in time to watch her horse’s wings dissolve back into the shoulders. She stared around her; it was quite different to where they had been.

‘Do you happen to know where we are?’ Seabhag asked Owen.

‘Cloutsham Ball,’ Owen replied. ‘Managed to have a look around before you arrived.’

‘Does that help?’ Seabhag raised an eyebrow.

‘Well, it does … and it doesn’t. Dun Kerri is over there.’ He pointed across a mist filled and steep-sided valley to a peak on the near horizon that looked quite close.

‘What about that?’ asked Iolo.

‘Do we have to go down there to get over there?’ Kefn did not sound keen.

‘I hope not,’ Owen said. ‘I hope we’ll get some more help.’

‘The horses could fly us,’ Magpie offered.

‘If you think I’m eating any more Mousie tail you’re mistaken!’ said the kelpie, still spitting hairs out of his mouth. ‘Tastes disgusting!’

‘And I don’t fancy my tail being pulled out any more either,’ said the elf-horse acidly.

Both Mousies crept closer together, their noses twitching and eyes rolling.

‘I’m game to fly over,’ said Magpie’s horse.

All the other horses snorted derisively.

‘Enough!’ Seabhag took charge for a moment. ‘What do you propose, Owen?’

But Owen wasn’t listening. He stood on the hilltop, legs spread and slightly crouched, both arms up in the air and his head bowed. His hands were fists. He was singing a tuneless song of four notes, up and down, up and down.

There was a rush of air, the sound of great wings.

‘The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!’ the Beast stood with her claw shading her eyes, looking into the sun.

Four great golden eagles swept out of the sun. As they flew closer their huge shadows ran before them, climbed the hill of Cloutsham Ball and shrank to nothingness as the birds landed in front of Owen.

‘What can we do for you?’ the eagle’s voice was harsh, like stone grinding over stone.

Owen dropped to one knee on front of the great birds. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘We need to get to Dun Keri, to see the White Stag. We would like help crossing the abyss of mist.’

A strange coughing, gargling noise came from all four birds. It took Magpie a moment to realise they were laughing.

‘Not a good place for you to go!’ said the second bird.

‘We can carry them,’ said the third; the fourth nodded.

‘The horses can carry some of us,’ Owen said, ‘but we would be very grateful if you could carry the others.’

‘How grateful?’ asked the fourth bird.

‘What do you think would be a good exchange?’ Owen replied.

The four eagle heads conferred together. They turned to look at Magpie.

‘M-me …?’ she stammered. ‘B-but I don’t have anything!’

‘Yes you do,’ the first bird told her.

‘Skills,’ said the second bird.

‘Nouse,’ said the third bird.

‘Gumption,’ the fourth bird added.

‘You promised all these to Morningstar,’ the first bird went on. ‘You can renew your promise here, to us.’

‘You really will find it worthwhile,’ the third bird added in a kindly tone.

The four eagles gathered round Magpie. They were huge, enormous, as tall as she herself. They raised their wings, enfolding her in a great feather pyramid; their eight clawed feet touched hers so gently; their feathers just brushes against her; the four great beaks surrounded her head, she could feel their breath.

Words came to her …

Earth water fire and air

Met together in a garden fair

Put in a basket, bound with skin,

If I answer this riddle I’ll never begin …


She stopped. ‘I will begin,’ she whispered to the birds. ‘I’ll hold the riddle inside myself, know it is me; live it not talk about it.’

The warm eagle-breath breath flowed up her nostrils, filling her. She’d not felt like this for a very long time, not since Morningstar … she stopped that though before she burst into tears.

‘I will begin,’ she repeated to the eagles. ‘I will begin.’

The eagle-pyramid pulled back, became the four great birds again. Magpie found she was shaking slightly but felt better than she had since she’s left the school. ‘I … err … was that OK?’ she asked.

‘Yes. Come.’ The first eagle said. ‘Those of you who can ride the horses mount up. We will carry the others.’ He crouched down and spread his great wings, the Beast climbed onto his back. ‘Grip tight!’ the eagle told her.

The second eagle crouched beside Billy. ‘You’ll love this,’ the bird told him.

Billy looked up to Seabhag, would he approve? Seabhag nodded, smiled. ‘Yes,’ he told Billy, ‘you really will.’

Billy climbed onto the eagle’s back. His little short legs stuck out to either side; he looked round worriedly, wondering what to hang on to; he didn’t want to pull the eagle’s feathers out.

‘There’s big tufts in my ruff,’ the eagle told him. ‘Hang onto those, they won’t come out and you won’t hurt me.’

Billy took a firm grip … and a deep breath.

‘What about us?’ whickered one of the Mousies.

‘You’ll be fine,’ said the third eagle. ‘Just shut your eyes and think of spring grass.’

Seabhag leapt onto the elf-horse; Magpie mounted her horse, she was looking forward to those wings again, it was going to be fun. Owen leaped onto the kelpie’s back as the beast reared and neighed loudly, ‘Let’s do it!’ the kelpie cried, springing into the air.

The elf-horse followed him, along with the eagles carrying the Beast and Billy. Magpie’s horse unfurled its wings and lifted gently into the air. The two remaining eagles lofted, each hovered over one of the Mousies, then reached down their claws to grab a pony by the mane and tail.

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeek !!!’ and ‘Gadflies !!!!!’ shrieked the ponies. Both had opened their eyes for a crazy moment and, as their heads and legs dangled from the eagles’ claws over a misty nothingness they realised looking down into the abyss had been a mistake!

Steady, strong wingbeats carried them. Magpie on the horse found a similar sense. The strength of the birds and her horse was stunning. Watching the elf-horse and the kelpie was quite different but no less amazing; the two beasts seemed to dance in the air, galloping, tossing their heads, manes and tails streaming out in the wind … and all of it in slow motion again. The ride across the abyss seemed to take both forever and no time at all. She was really sorry when the landed.

She slid off the horse to stand knee deep in black heather. Ahead was a pinnacle of stone and there, on the very top, balanced like a dancer himself, was the White Stag.




Choosing the Path

The way led down and down, down and down into the valley of the Withy River, the mother-water of the Shapeshifters’ country. It was a beautiful country … but not safe. Many critters, beings seen and unseen, inhabited the woods and not all were as friendly as might be. Owen sent out a thread into the woods …

Send us a good path down to the Tarr Dragon,’ he asked inside his mind. There was a soft caress in response, accompanied by a chuckle. Owen grinned sardonically to himself, the way would not be all plain sailing. A good path would be good from the perspective  of the Land, the countryside, the forest, the river and the dragon herself … Owen’s point of view might get a look-in after they’d all had their say! He felt tentatively within himself for a thread and then outwards, into the track to find the one that they were to take.

Several threads offered themselves, a red one, a white and a dark, smoky black one.

Owen could feel the others behind him, waiting for him to begin. His own kelpie-friend and the Mousies understood completely what he was doing, waited patiently for him to get it right. The dark stranger was sensing around the edges of him, almost snuffling and licking the edge of his aura as she kenned information from him. The two biker wyzards watched, they could see the threads too, he wondered what they made of them. Later, he would find time to talk with them about it later.

Seabhag was inscrutable. Owen was certain he could see – how not, from one as old as he? – but what he saw and how, ha! That was another story altogether. The little troll watched with eyes all agog, likely he could see too but he was very young, would likely have no idea what was what. And Magpie … ha! Again! That one kenned a thing or two but sensing into her mind over the brunch had shown Owen it was likely all upside-down to his usual way of looking at things. His mouth twisted into a sideways grin, that could be fun … later! Now, he must concentrate.

Carefully, and with an asking of permission of their spirits, Owen put a thread out to each of them, connecting them all together. They wouldn’t get lost too easily now.

Again he concentrated, this time on the three threads the Land was offering him.

The red one was hot, very hot. So hot it felt cold. It led directly down the most direct route to the Steps, the stone bridge where the dragon lived, where the dragon was.

The white one was cold, very cold, like ice. So cold it felt hot. It snaked a path through the trees, under the sunlight, stealing across the new-fell snow. Glistening blindingly in the far distance Owen thought he could make out the dragon’s bridge.

The dark path wavered in and out of vision, smoking at its edges. It was between the worlds, Owen knew. It drifted lazily, elegantly, down the easiest route, often following the contour lines, making its way to the dragon’s bridge. The bridge itself smoked around its edges, like the breath of a snoozing dragon.

That was the one.

It would a tricksy path but that was the way they must go if they wanted to find the Stag. Tricksy was the way Owen usually lived his life, he grinned to himself. He clucked to the kelpie who breathed the smoke in through his own grey nostrils and led off down the path.

The kelpie stepped lightly and gracefully through the heather onto the smoky path and was soon under the first of the soft birch trees. The others followed. The soft twigs rustled gently, leaflessly, the stark white of the trunks standing up like ghostly sentinels. Owen could feel their energy, their auras, they were quivering with anticipation. They would be watched. He hoped they would be allowed to at least get down to the bridge at Tarr, speak to the dragon, she would know where the stag was to be found.

Morgan Refreshed …

Morgan's Room

Morgan slipped into her room and slumped into the chair with a sigh.

Her room was large and at the top of the rambling old house, but not under the eves. She still had the high ceiling which she loved, giving her a sense of light and air. The tall south-facing windows opened onto a small balcony, hidden from the other rooms, giving her private space. As housekeeper for the Arms she needed it. Owen was quite a handful (in every sense!) to manage, it was essential that she have space to get away, be alone.

Coronae was already there before her, sat on the bow-perch by the French windows, Tabitha was coiled on the bed, her silver tabby stripes blending nicely with the soft, woven throw Morgan’s friend Joan had given her. Morgan let out a longer sigh and leaned back into the comfort of the chair. It silently pushed out its footrest, lifting her feet, while a cup of cinnamon chocolate floated across the room to settle on the table beside her.

‘Thank you,’ Morgan said to the room in general. It looked after her very well, she appreciated it.

‘Want a bath?’ called the bath from the bathroom

‘No time, thanks. Owen has acquired a houseful and I must get back in a minute to sort out brunch. We have a Shapeshifting stranger who appears not to have control over her own shifting. Then this lovely young girl arrived on a wonk flying carpet. I think she’s a thief and a gambler,’ Morgan added. ‘She smelled like one. I trust Owen keeps the valuable locked up, he obviously has an eye to her.’ Morgan chuckled, sipped at the delicious chocolate, it zinged its way through her, perking her up enormously. ‘Next came a couple of Interplanetary Biking Wyzards on the most fabulous machines. I think they really foxed Tyler, he got quite grumpy! The bikers brought a tall, handsome elf with them and a baby troll. And some news. Apparently Jimson’s  baby dragon has gone and got herself kidnapped!’

Morgan paused while most of the furnishings let out a gasp of horror at the potential consequences which even the dumbest tallboy could see. Coronae, Morgan’s familiar crow, let out a squawk.

‘Sheeesh! That’ll fry Jimson’s bacon an’ no mistake,’ she added, fluttering down to perch on the arm of Morgan’s chair and steal some of the cinnamon chocolate.  Morgan smacked her beak before she got the chance.

‘What’s they all come down here for?’ the crow asked, quite unruffled at the reprimand.

‘I think the elf and the troll are here to find the dragon. Magpie, the thief, I suspect is looking for somewhere to hole-up and maybe make a bit of cash. Oh and get her carpet mended, Owen put Dryw on that. The shifter-woman want the help of the White Stag. That’s what they all want, to ask the White Stag for answers to their questions.’

‘Think Daaf knows where the ditzy dragonet is?’

‘Certain sure,’ Morgan told the crow. ‘What they need is to learn how to ask the right question. Morgan drained the cup of the last of the chocolate, fishing the last grains of cinnamon out with a delicate fingertip. ‘Now, thank you all for the resuscitation but I must get back downstairs and help Drwyn sort the food. And make sure Owen brings out the right ales and spirits.’

She got up, made a quick sortie into the bathroom and came out further refreshed. She blew a kiss to the room and whisked herself down the twisting stairs to the main bar.

Elf, Troll and Hairy Bikers …

Down the stairs, round the corner and into the bar. Owen followed the light footsteps with both his etheric hearing and sight, he knew it was Magpie. She was a delight to the eyes, he thought, in the fresh clothes, her hair shining blue-black like polished ebony with the silver streak flying through it. He also caught her thoughts … so she liked the Arms, did she? Hmm! That was good. He was fairly sure Morgan was going to be seeing Gofannon in the next day or so, that would leave him free to pursue a new friendship.

And here she was.

‘There’s fresh coffee over here,’ Owen called to her from the Cosy.

The Cosy; view of Hurlstone

The views from this part of the bar were spectacular. It looked out over the moors from the top of the hill and down to the coast over Hurlstone Point to the estuary of the river Iwrydd. Old pictures, maps and prints adorned the bits of the walls that weren’t windows. The window seat and the chairs were comfortable and padded with cushions. The winter sun shone through the glass warming the place like a conservatory, the strange vines and tube-flowers Owen’s friend Sobek, who was guardian to the Shit Creek Paddle Store, had sent him from his own garden loved the semi-tropical climate the Cosy always seemed to have. Shit Creek was hot, a tropical paradise of bayous and lagoons, weird plants, amazing liqueurs made from the flowers and krokodilos who were the best tango artists he’d ever seen. Owen felt sure Magpie would appreciate the surroundings.

He rose as she approached and smiled, holding out a comfortable chair for her, his eyes twinkling with mischief.

‘Now, do sit down, let me pour you some coffee. And the toast and mushroom pate will take the edge off your appetite while you order. Just say what you’d like and it will be here in a jiffy. Drwyn has everything under control again in the kitchen now he’s got Klaus sorted. Klaus is the bat,’ he reminded her as he saw her eyebrows go up. ‘Are you here for the Hunt?’ he added, conversationally.

Magpie blinked, “Here for the Hunt? I didn’t even know I was coming here! I’m grateful for the hospitality. I’ll admit, I’m a novice flying-carpet-owner and don’t know enough about the, ah, vehicle. Now, what Hunt is this you speak of? I like a good quest.’

‘Ahh! The Hunting of the White Stag ….’ he paused, he seemed to be doomed to repeating himself about the spirit-stag this morning. ‘The white stag, Daaf, lives in the woods and on the moors hereabouts. Every year around the midwinter solstice he comes out and allows himself to be hunted. To those who are successful in cornering him he will grant wishes. Never,’ he stopped, turned and looked rather fiercely down at Magpie, ‘never does anyone ever attempt to kill him. For one thing, he’d kill whoever it was before you could say knife. For another if he didn’t get the person, I would. And I’d be a damned sight slower about the killing.’ He stopped, coughed, pulled a smile back onto his face. ‘Sorry! I dare say you had no such intentions but we do get some odd parties come to the Inn for the hunt. I tend to get extremely protective.’

At just that moment, there was yet another kafuffle out in the yard. Owen sighed. ‘Just put your breakfast order in,’ he told Magpie. ‘I’d better go and see what the devil is going on now.’

He got up. Just as I think I was making headway with her, he muttered inside his head.

Out in the yard he was stopped by the sight of an enormous, silvery-green-coloured, apparently jet-propelled motorbike throbbing sensuously by the horse trough. Tyler was staring at it too as its passengers dismounted. One was a large, good-looking wizardly person in full leathers. The other was a tall, pale and also good-looking elf.

‘I bain’t got no place for the likes o’ this kinda thing,’ Tyler said in his most dour tone of voice, pointing at the bike.

He was interrupted by a roaring and throbbing sound overhead. He ducked just in time as a second machine skimmed over his head and skidded to a halt when its front wheel banged into the trough.

‘Ouch!’ yelled the trough and spat a couple of gallons of water over the bike making sure the engine choked and it stalled.

‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have got some sugar to put in the petrol tank,’ the trough glared at the second bike and its riders … insofar as a trough can be seen to glare this one certainly could. It had had centuries of practice.

Owen bit off a chuckle, it didn’t do to offend potential guests and he was certain this foursome would be staying. The second bike had been ridden by another handsome wyzard and a baby troll. Owen’s eyebrows went up. What the hell was going on? And what did they all want.

‘It’s all right, Tyler,’ Owen began. ‘I think all these gentlemen need is a warm space in the barn to park their rides, where the oil won’t freeze. I’m sure we can find somewhere.’

Tyler grunted and headed back to his own place, leaving Owen to sort it all out.

‘Have a bite of mushroom pate on toast,’ said a dulcet voice in his ear.

Magpie had arrived beside him to see all the fun. Perhaps his luck was in after all.

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?”

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.

Billy Trow

It was always hectic first thing – well, not really first thing, of course, that was before the guests woke up when the house was quiet and only Briony was up, looking after the very earliest chores of the day. She liked those quiet starts to her days – getting the kitchen range going for the day, letting Sparky and the hounds out into the yard, feeding the chickens and then getting her breakfast in peace – but then the boys started to appear. Robin would be doing whatever he was doing at the time, Tom would be heading off into the woods and fields, Hal would go get the cow in from the paddock and Edwy would be mixing horse and cattle feeds while Jimmy was checking the breakfast room was laid and the menu on, and then Annet would arrive to start cooking and finally Jimson would be in, having checked whatever bookings had come in overnight and done the early-morning-office work. Then it was hectic.

After the rush had died down this morning, however, Briony heard the timid little tapping on the kitchen door. It was quite low down, and sounded nervous, and while Sparky was explaining to Annet why she needed thirds of breakfast and Robin was moaning about having to mend the ethericnet and reset all the systems instead of Jimson allowing him to upgrade to some new thing he’d read about, Briony went and opened the door.

Billy Trow

At first, she didn’t see anyone – then she looked down. He was about thigh-high, skinny, dressed in ragged looking tweed breeches that left his hairy shins and furry feet bare – quite big furry feet, she noticed – and an old lumberjack shirt missing most of its buttons, and in his hands he was clutching a weatherbeaten flat cap. His nose was large and round and carunculated, his teeth – exposed in what he probably hoped was an ingratiating smile – were yellow, sharp and jagged. On the other hand, he had huge soft brown eyes and his ears were nervously twitching.

“Hello.” Briony said, and crouched down to get on a level with the little fellow, “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?”

“Me mam said I was a waste of space at home an’ it were time I got a job.” He twisted the cap and his ears in a weirdly synchonised display of uncertainty. It was strangely endearing, “Please, lady, do you have a job I could do? I’m good at… at… well, I’m good.” He finished, and Briony blinked.

“I’m sure you are. You’re a troll, aren’t you?”

“Yes. But I don’t eat people.” He added, hurriedly, and she bit back a smile in case it offended him.

“I think you’d better come inside and talk to my aunt Annet and my uncle Jimson.”

Sparky had failed to convince thirds out of Annet and was sitting looking sulky about it, but pricked up her ears as the little troll followed Briony into the kitchen. Jimson wiped the last of his fried eggs up with the end of his toast and raised a brow, Annet merely sighed and turned back to the range.

“This, err, young gentleman is looking for a job.” Briony introduced her new friend, “He says he’s good.”

“Generally good, or good at anything in particular?” Jimson enquired, finishing his tea and reaching for the pot to refill the mug, “The only bridge we’ve got around here is hardly suitable as a troll-bridge!”

“I’d be good at being a bridge-troll!” the little fellow offered, hopefully, “Really good…. I mean, I can be really fierce? I’m sure I can be fierce.”

Sparky bounced to her feet and pounced in his direction, letting out a sound that wasn’t quite a cough but was more than a throat-clearing, and a faint smell of warm paraffin wafted into the troll’s face. He squeaked and dived behind Briony’s skirts hurriedly.

“The last thing we need is a fierce troll scaring the Silly Bridge into hiding again.” Annet pointed out briskly, “What you need, young troll, is a square meal. Sparky, behave yourself! You sit down here and get yourself round that, young troll!”

Sparky stopped pulling faces at the troll and he climbed nervously onto a chair and conscientiously spat on each big hairy hand in turn, wiping them carefully on his dirty breeks before picking up his knife and fork to tuck into the full English breakfast Annet set in front of him. He devoured the food slowly and with dedication, shovelling forkfuls into his mouth and chewing steadily until he’d cleared up the whole lot, then he put his knife and fork together tidily on the plate and burped loudly.

“We don’t need a bridge troll, but I’m sure we can find something for you to do.” Jimson added, as the little troll wilted unhappily. He perked up again, eagerly, and Jimson racked his brains for any idea as to what he could do with a small and pathetic troll, “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Billy…Billy Trow.”

“Alright, Billy Trow…. Let’s see what we can do about getting you into a nice clean set of clothes, and then you can help Jimmy in the cellars. He’s going to be changing some of the beer and ale barrels around today, you’ll be very useful to him in that.” Jimson suggested, hoping he was being accurate, and Briony held out her hand.

“Come on, Billy – I’ll show you a bathroom and find you some new clothes.”

Magpie’s bath

Magpie went up the stairs, feeling a little hard-done-by after that traumatic flight and entrance, but – she grinned to herself – that innkeeper had a fanciable look to him – and a fancying look in his eyes, if she wasn’t mistaken, too! The woman leading her up the stairs showed her quietly into a room, indicating a door across the hallway.

“Bathroom’s just there – there’s food and drink in the bar as soon as you’re ready. Just say if you need anything and it will be provided.”

“Thank you very much.” Magpie said, politely, and waited until the woman had withdrawn before putting her bag down. It was a little damp but would dry out, so she emptied out the contents on the bed, making sure she shut the door first, then sorted her things out. A change of clothes – luckily still dry – went to one side, together with a purse that was a little thin but should be sufficient. On the other, Magpie put a set of well-used dice, only slightly loaded, a two-headed coin for winning coin-tosses, a rather elegant diamond ring – she paused to admire it, thinking how much nicer it looked sitting in her hand than on the last owner’s finger – and the gold horn. She’d had to leave town in quite a hurry after stealing the horn – it had screamed blue bloody murder until she threatened to drop it from the carpet in mid-air. She stroked the gleaming gold, admiring the intricate engraving and the beautiful emeralds set into the metal, then wrapped it carefully in her other spare shirt and tucked it under the pillow together with the purse, into which she slipped the two-headed coin, the dice and the ring as well. Done with that, she muttered a quick protection hex over them and picked up her clean clothes, heading for the bath. Boy, did she need that bath!

The Bathroom

In the bathroom, the fire was burning brightly and the bath had already turned itself on and was filling quickly with nice warm water.

“Bath salts?” the bath shouted as Magpie entered the room, “I can do relaxing, invigorating, sexy, orgasmic and ‘blow your mind’. Wottcha fancy?”

Magpie sighed with anticipated pleasure, peeling off her clothes.

“Relaxing, please! After that flight and entrance – I definitely need to relax.” She slid into the hot water, inhaling the scent of the balt salts as the refreshing, relaxing water enveloped her. She was tired after that stressful flight, and this place had all the marks of being a very superior hostelry – provided she kept her wits and her manners about her. And a quest for a wish-granting white stag as well… but what might she dare to ask, if she was lucky enough to find the stag? That would need some careful thought…. She shut her eyes, all the tension unwinding under the influence of the delicious herbal scent and water.