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.
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.