Magpie’s 2nd Test

Eye-level with a huge and ancient mother-dragon whilst maintaining levitation is a strain on the spiritual muscles. Magpie’s gave up. She did manage to hold enough energy to come down fairly slowly, her arse was injured enough without crashing it into the rock. Landing with only a slight bump, the raven escaped from the crook of her arm and scuttled ungainly-fashion over to Owen and Corbie.

‘Sheesh!’ he muttered to them out of the side of his beak. ‘Live wire, that one! Lots of good intentions but doesn’t think it through.’

Owen chuckled, dismounted, crouched down and held out an arm so the new raven could hop aboard.

‘Ta mate,’ the raven thanked him. ‘Name’s Cadfan, by the way,’ he added as he settled on Owen’s spare shoulder. ‘Think I’ll stop with you for a bit and let her get settled down afore I goes back.’

‘That’s fine with me,’ Owen told him, putting up a hand to stroke the silky feathers.

‘Seen any good battles lately?’ Corbie asked, peering politely round Owen’s nose to see the other bird.

‘Not really. Not unless you call the contretemps I had with that Capri a battle. Bloody half-baked wizards!’

‘Ha! They never stay in the athenor long enough to cook properly,’ Corbie agreed. ‘What about her?’ His beak indicated Magpie.

‘Loads of spunk and a very good brain, good mind too. Needs sorting …’

‘And …’ Corbie prompted.

‘And I drew the short straw!’ Cadfan growled. ‘Too many shots of Bruichladdich,’ he added. ‘That bloody Ent has one helluva stock of single malts. Fatal! Gets you so well-oiled you agree to anything.’

‘You did?’

‘I did!’

‘Hmmm!’ Corbie muttered. ‘Thanks for the tip. I’ll remember that if I ever get to calling in there again.’

Magpie, meanwhile, was again sat crouched on the rock before the mother-dragon, desperately trying to remember the calming breathing regime she’d learned at the Fferylt School and not doing too good a job of it. Soft, warm dragon-breath wafted over her from the slightly open jaws, it smelled of frankincense and burnt charcoal, her heart-rate slowed down immediately, lungs lost their tightness and she realised she could now see beyond the end of her nose.

‘Err … thanks …’ she said.

The dragon grinned slightly, it was impressive.

‘Now then, young lady, what is it you be wanting then,’ the dragon asked her as she sat up right out of the water and folded her forelimbs neatly across her enormous silvery-blue chest.

‘Erm … well … it’s complicated …’ Magpie began.

‘Just start at the beginning,’ the dragon advised her in a motherly way, ‘go on until you reach the end and then stop.’

Ha! Magpie thought, her face grimacing and eyes bugging slightly. That was easier said than done. Where, for a start, was the beginning? She decided just to dive in and hope for the best, her usual modus operandi.

‘Sparky’s been stolen and we need to find the White Stag,’ she blurted out.

The dragon’s head jerked back and up, her arms spread out and she unsheathed her claws. Magpie sat as still as death.

‘Please don’t eat me!’ she managed in a suffocated squeak. ‘I’m only the messenger!’

The dragon – who, of course, already knew all this – was a very good actress as well as one of the best trickster-teachers on Yardoz. She allowed a slight trickle of flame to slide between her lips, just enough to make Magpie’s long black hair stand on end, and hissed like a boiling kettle. That made even the elf-horse jump fractionally. Billy hid his head in Seabhag’s shoulder while Seabhag patted him gently, whispering cooing and calming noises to him. Everyone else sat to attention, wondering what would come next.

‘We want to rescue the little dragon,’ Magpie managed to add.

‘Goooooooooooood … goooooooooooood …’

The dragon settled herself back down amongst the huge waves that now whipped back and forth across the river, swamping the enormous bridge-stones and making rainbows over the dragon’s back.

‘The White Stag will help you but you will have to go a circuitous route to find him, there are others who need your help, injured by those wizards. Will you do this?’

‘We will.’ Magpie took on answering for the whole group. Sheer madness, the other part of her brain told her. Too bad, she told it back.

‘The stupid fools were driving about all over my land in that wretched car,’ the dragon explained. ‘As well as Cadfan they damaged Mole’s Chamber. Will you go and rescue him? He was buried alive when the tunnels fell in after the car stalled in the mud they’d churned up right above his home and caused a cave-in.’

Magpie gulped. So, further off, did Seabhag. He was not at all keen on tunnels or caves.

‘Yes,’ Magpie tried visualising a blue-steel thread stiffening her backbone which otherwise felt as though it was about to cave in too. It worked. She was always surprised when thread-work actually worked, her own experiences with it had not been good while she was at the School.

‘Then go first to Mole’s Chamber. Mole has more directions for you when you find him. Owen!’ The dragon’s eye fixed on him, he felt his own spine stiffen in an effort to look intelligent. ‘Owen, you know the way. The luck of the little folk be with you.’

The dragon seemed to sink, shrink and become transparent. She was actually shifting and blending and merging with the stones of the bridge.

Billy’s head had come out of the folds of Seabhag’s cloak by now, he watched. ‘Coo-ool!’ he whispered. ‘I wish I had a bridge like that to care for.’

‘One day,’ Seabhag told him, smiling, ‘I expect you will.’

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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.

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.

Owen Gets his Act Together

The Main Bar at the Shapeshifters' Arms

Owen was glad to see the back of Magpie, literally as she sashayed up the corkscrew stair behind Morgan who was showing her to her room. She was clutching a small satchel with a somewhat lumpy shape. Somehow Owen didn’t believe it was just boots and clothes. However he did hope there were some clothes in there, pretty as she was he didn’t feel he could quite handle it if she came down for breakfast – or would that be brunch by now? – without clothes. Meanwhile there was a soggy phoenix and a sooty bat to be dealt with.

He plonked the phoenix down in the hearth beside the big open fire. Immediately, steam began to rise from the bird. It was really very pleasant, the phoenix smelled of sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh. Owen thanked his stars it wasn’t a dog, nor yet his wolf-friend who, while less rancid than wet-dog-smell, was still a pungent nose-full when he steamed by the fire. Be thankful for small mercies, he told himself as he poured a half-pint mug of his very best Delamain cognac and took it over to the bird. He had to hold the mug for him, he really was weak, it wasn’t his customary playacting.

‘Thank you … thank you,’ the bird was very grateful. The drink put new life into him, and colour, the gold and red literally flowed back into the feathers, he transformed before Owen’s eyes.

‘Aach! That’s better.’ The bird coughed and spluttered slightly but was now able to sit up without support. ‘I think I could manage that hot toddy now.’

Sailing over the bar and across the room came a small brass tray with a tall glass on it that steamed and gave off a delicious aroma. It hovered beside the bird who took the glass in both wings and sucked up the warm rum, honey and cinnamon mixture greedily.

‘Will you be OK now?’ Owen still crouched in the hearth.

‘Ummmg, mmm, aaahhh … yes. Thank you, Owen.’

‘Right I’m going to see how Klaus is.’

Owen headed out behind the bar and into the kitchen. There, he saw Drwyn ministering to a small furry and leathery bundle curled in a warm fluffy towel in a proving basket on the side of the huge range stove. Drwyn was carefully dripping warm milk into his mouth through a miniature icing funnel. Drwyn looked up as Owen came in.

‘He’ll be OK,’ he assured his boss. ‘Twas the shock of seeing – and smelling – fresh blood that did him in. I had to waft some burnt feathers under his nose to bring him round. He gets better with every sip o’ the milk he takes.’

‘Good.’ Owen leaned against the big and well-scrubbed beech chopping block, allowing himself to relax for just a moment as he watched the tough and sinister-looking dwarf being a gentle and motherly nurse to the sick bat.

‘He’s an annoying little tyke,’ Owen went on,’ but I don’t want him to peg out on us, at least not quite yet. If all’s well here I’ll leave him with you while I go and find out what’s happening with our Mythical Beast.’

Slowly, he allowed his vision to take on a more general focus rather than the tight and tense one he had maintained since he first saw the beginning of the fire. As he came back round the bar he realised the dark stranger was still seated at the bar, the dark hood drawn back over its head again.

I’m sorry,’ he began. ‘It’s not usually this hectic. Not sure what’s got into the world today.’

‘Threads,’ the beast grunted at him. ‘There’s a cut … and a bunching. Threads all tangled.’

‘You see all that?’

‘I do. So do you.’

‘What brings you here, if I may ask?’

The beast was silent for a few moments. Owen took the opportunity to refill the pewter mug. After a few more moments and several glugs of the beer the beast spoke again.

‘I was told to look for a stone. It belongs to the Silly Bridge. It was stolen and now the bridge has no guardian and doesn’t know where it is.’

‘Goodness …’ was all Owen could think of in reply.

Bats without Belfries

Magpie sighed, organising her thoughts as she got to her feet, dripping. The carpet sizzled again and to relieve her feelings, she kicked it – hard. It made a soggy noise and rolled over. She glanced surreptitiously at the horse again then pinned a bright smile on her face.

‘You don’t have anyone here who’s good at fixing flying carpets, I suppose, do you?’ After sizing up the crowd in front of her she picked on the large, handsome man with the raven to address herself to. ‘I think I need a room for the night and a hot meal after that drenching!”

Owen sized her up in return, liked what he saw but knew she was as tricksy as they come, however young and appealing-looking she made out.

‘Very wise,’ he replied, pinning his own smile on. ‘A bath followed by some hot food and a nice drink would be very appropriate just now. It all awaits you in the Inn. We also have a young person who is very good at mending magical technology, you can speak with him after you’ve bathed. In the meantime, with your permission, I’ll get him to take the carpet over to the workshop and begin drying it out for you … Dryw!’ Owen shouted – he pronounced it ‘Drew’.

A small, dark boy of apparently sixteen or so came slouching around the edge of the hay barn.

‘What?’ he said ungraciously as he arrived beside Owen and began looking Magpie up and down.

Owen clipped him lightly across the top of the head, the boy half ducked and grinned impishly.

‘You see this carpet?’ Owen pointed. ‘The young lady needs it mended. See to it.’ He slung the carpet towards the youth.

‘Right on!’ the boy grinned again, catching the carpet and slinging it over his shoulder. The carpet squawked at such irreverent treatment. The boy sketched a bow in Magpie’s direction and headed off to the barn. The carpet made a faint wailing protest and sent out a few sparks as it was parted from Magpie, it seemed to feel quite uncertain about its fate.

‘He’ll fix it.’ Owen chuckled , turning back to Magpie. ‘He’s very good, despite the rather dreadful manners. Now, we need to fix you.’

He was about to lead her inside and looking to see if she had any other baggage when he was interrupted by the Phoenix.

‘I say,’ he said. ‘I’m awfully wet and my fires are going out and I really need a large shot of brandy. And a hot rum toddy as a chaser.’

‘Oh, ye gods!’ Owen moaned. ‘What are you here for? And how did you get in that frightful condition?’

‘It was her!’ the phoenix pointed a damp wing at Magpie. ‘I was just trying to thaw out the horse trough so I could get some water to clear my throat. That was after your damned cockerel had tipped me into the hay and started the fire. So I’m just getting some nice flames going and the ice is coming along nicely when she …’ he glared soggily at Magpie, ‘has to fling herself, and her beastly carpet, into the trough. The trough, naturally enough, spat her out. Along with a lot of water which went all over me. Then she gets up and shakes horse-shit all over me. And then, to add insult to injury, she flings the bloody carpet on top of me. I shall never be the same again!’ He sighed heavily, staggered and made as if he was going to faint.

Klaus - looking respectable & well-brushed

Before Owen had time to grab him another bedraggled creature flew clumsily out of the hay barn, landing in  a skid on the ice and finally screeching to a halt against Owen’s once-clean boots.

‘Eeeeeek!’ it squealed, grabbing with the claws on the ends of its leathery wings at Owen’s second best trousers.

Oh for goodness sake!’ Owen bent down and grabbed the bat, carefully detatching it from his clothing. ‘What’s the matter with you now?’

‘I shall make a complaint,’ the bat began. ‘In writing. In triplicate. Copies to all the bat guilds in Loegr. It really cannot be born. It is too much. We are not slaves. We are sentient beings. We do not deserve to be treated and humiliated, and disrespected in this appalling manner.’

The bat was really quite filthy, dust, cobwebs, soot and grime covered its coat, Owen’s hands were black already.

‘What happened? Try to be brief and I’ll get you in a bath.’

‘Brief? Brief! I have suffered the slings and arrows of ignoble insults and been in peril of my life and you ask me to be brief. Very well. In the time honoured tradition of all vampire bats I will attempt to accommodate your wishes. Despite  this, and the fact that I should really explain to you that I’ve been trying to warn you of the health and safety aspects which have never, so far as I know, been covered adequately, despite my frequent protestations. However, in light of your desire I will make the attempt to update you on my perilous condit…’

‘Quiet!’ Owen shook the creature, succeeding in shutting it up, at least temporarily. A lot more soot fell off it too. ‘I guess you were in the barn when it caught fire.’ It was a statement, not a question.

‘Caught fire?’ the bat shrieked. ‘That was an extremely dangerous conflagration brought about by the irresponsible attitudes and actions of that abominable cockerel. He’s an anarchist. A terrorist. A fanatic. A bomber, an assassin. A member of the radical guerrilla extremist organisation, the Al Quedapeck. He should be lock…’

Again, Owen shook the bat, this time clamping his nose with one hand.

‘I’m really sorry about this,’ he told Magpie who was staring, while shivering and dripping and stinking, and hoping they could go inside soon. ‘Klaus has this little problem.’

‘Did he, you, say vampire bat? Perhaps he’s hungry, needs a quick drink (like the rest of us, she thought but didn’t say). I cut my hand on the trough, here …’ She held out her wrist from which blood slowly dripped.

The bat managed to get its nose free and began screaming at ultrasonic levels. It was quite excruciating to everyone in the vicinity of the yard. Owen grabbed her arm nad pushed it away, hiding the terrified bat behind his back the meanwhile.

‘What did I do?’ Magpie was seriously worried.

Drwyn had come out of the kitchen, again armed with his axe. Owen handed him the bat in silence. The dwarf took it into the kitchen.

‘Warm milk’ll fix ‘un,’ he muttered.

‘I said Klaus has this … err … problem. He’s has ironophobia, he’s allergic to haemoglobin.’

Magpie blinked, then got it. ‘That must be seriously difficult for a vampire bat,’ she said.

‘Sure is,’ Owen grinned. ‘We try not to make it obvious, it undermines his self-confidence terribly. He compensates by being senior representative of the Ancient and Honhourable Guild of Master Vampire Bats. He does a very good job and is, I think, likely to be voted in as the next president when the office comes up for re-election in two years’ time. Ahem …’ Owen coughed, scooped up the phoenix under one arm and led the way into the Inn. Magpie followed, feeling very bemused.

Enter Magpie, Wetly.

Magpie's Arrival

Magpie leaned hard over on the carpet, trying desperately to get the wretched thing to turn the way she wanted. She was aiming for a nice quiet place she knew of where she could rest up for a few days and get to grips with this contrivance she’d won – at least she thought she’d won – in a poker game. Maybe it had been an elaborate sting and she’d got the booby prize – a deaf flying carpet. She’d been clinging grimly to the thing and trying to steer it for the past hundred miles or so, and apart from her fingers turning blue and numb and her throat getting sore from yelling at it in every language she knew, there was no effect at all.

A standing stone loomed out of the mist at her and she hurled her weight the other way with a faint shriek, just about avoiding a crash. The carpet clipped the stone and cartwheeled, narrowly missing plastering itself around a huge tree, then flipped over the top of a stone wall, somersaulted with Magpie clinging spread-eagled, fingers and toes cramping on the colourful weave, and flopped heavily into a horse trough.

Magpie surfaced spitting water and flailing wildly for the edges of the trough, her feelings for once expressed loudly,

“I don’t believe it! Of all the places in existence, why do I land in a miserable wet bucket?”

“Well, excuse me!” the trough replied huffily, “We haven’t been introduced and I don’t remember inviting you to drop in!”

A magnificent black horse nearby squealed in shock, prancing around the tethering ring, ears pricked so hard they nearly met at the tips, eyes wide and startled, just as the trough spat Magpie out. She landed heavily on her face in the steaming heap the nervous horse had just deposited on the cobbles,. A few seconds later the sodden carpet, sparking slightly around the corners, landed with a splosh on top of her.

“And don’t come back until you apologise!” the trough added, sending another splash of water in Magpie’s direction.

Magpie prised herself out of the muck and peeled the soggy carpet off her head and shoulders, dropping it on the cobbles, then looked around.

“Oh my, what a way to arrive in any civilised habitation!” she muttered, realising she was in a stableyard attached to what looked like quite a large and prosperous inn. Several astonished people were staring at her, one of them clutching a wicked looking axe.

Despite the axe her eye was caught by the really quite stunningly beautiful horse. Gorgeous, looked fast and strong… maybe the owner could be persuaded to swap the horse for a flying carpet? She looked down at the carpet, which was making pathetic sizzling noises at her feet, and sighed. Maybe not. Unless there was someone at this place who could fix flying carpets, it looked like she’d be walking when she left. She looked up again, seeing the ostler calming the horse between slightly annoyed glances her way. Oh well, time to start apologising for the rude entrance.

“I’m sorry, things seem to have gone rather badly wrong for me here. I was trying to reach the Wolfshead Inn but I seem to have ended up somewhere else. Could you tell me where I am, please?”

Tyler regained his composure first, gazing at the strange woman. It wasn’t the first time someone had landed in the horse trough and he was sure it wouldn’t be the last. From a branch high in a tree next to the corral he could hear, “Who…who…,”

“Don’t know who,” he mumbled a response to the awoken owl, who sounded rather cross. “Least you could do is use one of the perches I made you.”

Then he realized the woman had spoken to him. He went over to comfort the horse. No way could he refer to it as stallion. He had seen the wavering in its form and though the beast had all the right equipment to be a stallion he knew darn good and well the beast or being was female.

“I’d say your transport has dropped you at the wrong place M’Lady. Wolfshead Inn is quite a ways from here. You’re at the Shapeshifter’s Arms. And, lady, I wouldn’t be leaving your carpet lying about, the critters around here just might think it something to chew on.”

There was a sound like a damp squib and the bedraggled phoenix crept out from under the carpet that Magpie had accidentally thrown on top of him.

‘I could really use a drink,’ he coughed, miserably.

Cock-a-doodle-do

Chanticleer saw him first. The phoenix landed on the porch of the hay barn, settled and spread his tail feathers to flow elegantly down over the roof so they hung within scenting distance of the hens. He posed enticingly close to where Tyler had put down barley for them but they were no longer interested in food. All of their beady little eyes were directed upwards, towards the fabulous, glowing bird that had just settled in their midst.

Chanticleer ground his beak, hissed and ruffled his feathers. He hated that damn phoenix with a passion. He wasn’t overly keen on Jimson’s cockerel either but the phoenix was one bird where the two cocks were in perfect agreement. As far as they were concerned he couldn’t go up in flames fast enough. The only trouble was he always came back.

Chanti stalked out of the kitchen – he’d been assisting Drwyn with some meringue – and made his way towards the hay barn. His hens – his hens, mark you! – were all ogling the damned phoenix. He crowed lustily. Florrie, the cute little bantam, looked his way but none of the others noticed him at all and Digger, the matriarch who ruled the roost (even Chanti minded his Ps and Qs with her), actually sniggered.

That was it. That was definitely IT!

Chanticleer did a VTOL – well, the vertical take-off bit, if not the landing – and flew straight at the phoenix.

He hit. Full square on, knocking the preening pansy down into a hay bale where, for a full 5 seconds he looked like the favourite for Pratt-of-the-Month.

And then the phoenix coughed.

Some dust from the hay must have got in his throat for it set off a real long coughing fit. And that, of course, was when the sparks began to fly. And, oh my, did they fly!

It took the hay bale a good second and a half to catch light. The breeze from the phoenix’s gorgeous wings, as he struggled to get upright again, fanned the flames and blew a few smouldering wisps of hay towards the rest of the stack back in the barn.

Chanti decided it was well time to holler. Crowing like a banshee he fled across the yard to run screaming back into the kitchen.

Drwyn, startled from his contemplation of the meringue confection which he was creating, dropped three hours’ work on the kitchen floor. For a second he was speechless, then he reached for his axe and headed straight for Chanticleer yelling, “Coq au vin! Coq au vin!’

Chanti managed to brake and duck before the axe reached him. He then reversed at full tilt back into the yard again, tripping Tyler in the process. Tyler had seen the blaze begin and was running for water and a horse-rug to put it out.

Drwyn, at full tilt himself and with the weight of the axe pulling him on, couldn’t stop. The all went down together in a heap.

The ensuing welter of legs, arms, bird feet, crowing and swearing stopped Owen in his tracks when he arrived on the scene half a minute later.

‘What the ffffff…’ he yelled.

Man, dwarf and cockerel disentangled themselves and all began to speak at once.

Owen smacked the cockerel on the beak, glared at Tyler and parted Drwyn from his axe.

‘Now then, you silly sods, the hay barn’s on fire. Get some water and sacking and put it out!’ He was roaring by the end of the speech.

Drwyn grasped the point and scuttled off to get the kitchen hosepipe. Tyler sprinted for the stables and grabbed a couple of old rugs. Owen picked up a bucket of water and dashed it over the hay bale. In a very few minutes they had dowsed the blaze.

‘Phew! That was close. What the hell did you think you were doing?’ Owen addressed the question to the cockerel, experience told him the bird was the real source of the trouble. ‘Don’t answer that!’ he added immediately knowing the cock could bore the hind legs off a whole beach-full of donkeys once he got going justifying himself.

The phoenix, meanwhile, had flown over to the horse trough in the hope of getting some water to clear his throat, only to find it was frozen. He was busily melting the ice with little gusts of flame, in between coughs, when the next event of the morning arrived.

Walking the Dragon

The Silly Bridge

Jimson had turned the job of mending the ethericnet cables over to Robin, his technologically-fixated nephew, and now he was hurrying down the driveway to find, reassure and persuade back into service the Silly Bridge. Unless he was much mistaken, at least one would-be guest had already discovered the hard way that the Wolfshead had withdrawn itself from the worlds – hopefully the automatic divert would have delivered any stray guests safely to the Shapeshifters, where at least he knew Owen would take good care of them. Once the ethericnet was back up that would be one thing, but the Silly Bridge had undoubtedly heard what had happened and would be hiding somewhere – possibly at the bottom of the river or maybe somewhere in the woods. A noisy gambolling sound made him glance back – Sparky, the baby dragon, was prancing heavily down the track after him.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked her, surprised.

“Going for a walk with you! That will be fun. Annet is still cross.” She added, clearly not so much sorry about causing trouble as puzzled that anyone should be upset about the consequences, “Where are we going?”

Jimson sighed. There was simply no point trying to reason with baby dragons – adult dragons were bad enough but babies…. life was too short for that! At least while she was with him, he knew she wouldn’t be causing any more mayhem at the Wolfshead. He stooped and picked up a stick.

“We’re going to find the Silly Bridge; it’s hiding somewhere. Here you are, then. Fetch!”

While Sparky bounced after the stick, Jimson pulled out his gloves and put them on. It was bad enough walking the wolfhounds and dealing with dog-slobbered sticks, but dragon-slobber was much worse. Sure enough, when she returned and put the stick down on the ground in front of him, grinning, it was sodden and covered in a glutinous layer. He picked it up and peeled off a couple of leaves and a pebble that had already stuck to it, then threw it again – making sure he threw it the right way and the wind blew the slobber away from him, not into his face.

When they reached the river, Sparky lay down and chewed the stick up while Jimson searched the bank carefully, both upstream and downstream of the bridge’s usual position.

“Seen a bridge around here anywhere?” he muttered, hoping for a clue, “Long, thin job in a nice shade of pink and grey granite?”

“Yer, it went that-a-way.” A fox replied, pausing in hunting worms along the edge of the river, “About an hour ago. Moving quite fast.”

Jimson sighed but said thank you politely. Of course, if the bridge was going to hide, it was bound to hide in the woods on the other side of the river! He’d have to wade across, getting wet to the waist, and that river was cold at this time of year. Sparky crunched damply through the stick, enjoying the noise and spitting splinters all around herself. An idea occurred to Jimson and he looked speculatively at the young dragon. She was only a few months old but she had all the usual draconic sense of self-esteem – in fact she was blithely convinced the entire world revolved around her pampered little self. Perhaps it was time for a challenge – and a reality check.

“Sparky, do you know why the Silly Bridge has hidden?”

“Because it’s silly?” Sparky suggested, and wiped her mouth on a paw carefully to remove a last few chunks of soggy wood from her chin, then wiped her paw in the grass fastidiously to dislodge the slobber.

“Because it’s scared. It’s scared because the Wolfshead shut down all communications with the worlds. And the Wolfshead did that because someone attacked its ethernicnet cable and chewed through it.” He added, severely. Sparky looked loftily in the other direction, suddenly fascinated by a passing crow.

“Now the question is, Sparky, given that the bridge is hiding in the woods on the other side of the river somewhere, why should I have to wade through that freezing cold water and find the bridge, when I didn’t chew through the cable?”

“Because you’re the one who wants the bridge to come back and sit in the river again?” Sparky came right back at him smartly.

“Just think about it like this, Sparky. You like a nice dish full of firelighters before bed, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. They’re very tasty.” she sounded faintly suspicious.

“Well, the firelighters have to come from the shop down the road there, and they can’t bring them to the Wolfshead for you to eat without the bridge in its proper place. So, here’s the deal. You want me to carry on ordering firelighters for your supper – and that nice lemon-flavoured lamp oil you like with your pancakes at breakfast! – you’ll have to go find the bridge and convince it back into its proper place. You scared it, so now you go find it.”

“You want me to swim through that freezing cold water?” she sounded offended, and Jimson nodded.

“That’s right. Swim across the river, find the bridge and get it back in place. Otherwise….. no more firelighters and no lemon-flavoured oil on your pancakes!”

She looked at him, then at the river, then turned and gave the fox a glare as he sniggered slightly around a juicy beetle. The fox gulped and hurried through the hedge. Finally, she heaved a deep sigh and then mournfully stood up and shook herself, approaching the water’s edge with the gloomy demeanour of one nearing the guillotine. It wasn’t that deep on her, only reaching her shoulders, but her air of heroic self-sacrifice made it look as if she was paddling across a small ocean for the greater good. She scrambled out onto the other bank, shook herself, then put her nose down and started sniffing like a bloodhound with a head cold before trailing the bridge away into the woods. Jimson sat down to wait, satisfied. No dragon would let a mere bridge out-talk it, even a baby dragon, and eventually Sparky would get the bridge back into position – somehow. Even baby dragons need learning experiences, he justified it to himself, and he was staying nice and dry and warm rather than getting soaked and catching pneumonia.

The sun was dropping in the sky and it was getting a bit chilly when the bridge hurried out of the woods and slithered into place in the river, trembling slightly, but Sparky marched across the bridge looking triumphant and smug, then sat down in front of Jimson.

“So, do I get an extra helping of firelighters tonight?”

“I think you might. And you’ll have to tell us all about how you talked the bridge back into position, too, over dinner. Speaking of which, let’s go and see if Annet’s still cross with you.” Jimson patted Sparky’s head fondly and they walked back to the Wolfshead together.

The Dragons that Teethe in the Night…..

There was a sudden loud commotion in the kitchen that disturbed Jimson’s attempts to compile a list of special items he needed to order from his friend Owen – a combination of a small dragon hissing furiously like a dozen kettles all on the boil, a cacophony of falling pans and his beloved wife Annet’s yelp of consternation. He put his pen down on the wine list he was scanning and hurried through to find out what had gone so badly wrong.

Sparky

Annet was in the kitchen, brightly-polished copper kettles and pans strewn around her feet, nose to nose with the baby dragon, who looked thoroughly unrepentant despite still having something sticking out of the corner of her mouth. Jimson looked more closely – a rainbow-coloured bundle of fibres, sparking slightly at one end and smoking at the other.

“Tell me that’s not the ethericnet cabling!” he requested, and Annet shot him a glare, interrupted in haranguing the dragon,

“Of course it’s the ethericnet! This stupid little idiot was teething and decided to chew on it – next time your great-great-whatever-she-is drops by and asks you to babysit for one of her eggs, say no!”

“My teeth itch!” the dragon justified herself, still chewing, “This is nice for itchy teeth!”

Jimson sighed, rubbing the back of his neck as he felt tension building there.

“You’ve just cut us off from all the worlds, dear. The Wolfshead will have shut down everything if it sensed an attack on the ethericnet – even the Silly Bridge will have hidden. I’d better send a message to Owen – it’ll take a few days to get the cabling repaired and we really need to get that order through before tomorrow!”

“You can send that dratted phoenix with any message – it insists on roosting in the chicken shed and I’ve been collecting hard-boiled eggs for a week.”Annet suggested rather firmly, and Jimson patted the dragon, deciding that it was safest if they both left the house for a bit while Annet picked her kitchen up and got herself back on terms with the world.

“You’d better come out with me and we’ll find you something safer to teeth on, baby, then I’ll ask the phoenix to go to the Shapeshifters with a list of what we need for the bar.”

Jimson found some wood for the baby dragon, poured lamp oil over it for flavour and left her contentedly gnawing on a log in the woodshed while he went to find the phoenix. He was standing with rather conscious nonchalance in the line of sight of the chickens, posing elegantly on a fencepost while the cockerel glared from the top of the compost heap, clearly feeling upstaged in front of his ladies.

“Excuse me, phoenix! I wonder if I could request a favour?”

“Oh, good morning, cousin Jimson!” the phoenix pirouetted on the post, flaring out his red-and-orange tail feathers like a peacock, “For you, dear man, anything! You have only to ask.”

“Little Sparky just chewed through the ethericnet cables – she’s teething and they do taste good to dragons – so I really, really need to get a message to my cousin Owen at the Shapeshifters Arms – he has an order going through to a specialist supplier for some rare spirits and I need to add a few things to his list.”

“Darling, of course I’ll fly down to the Shapeshifters with your message! Owen’s always good for a stiff brandy or two. Just scribble it down and I’ll be off as soon as I’ve had a quick one for the road.”

“I’ll bring you a double brandy and the list in just a minute – and thank you very much!” Jimson hurried back to his office, leaving the phoenix admiring the reflection of his long, yellow-and-orange crest in the henhouse window as he swished it to and fro. It took a little while to write the order out and then seal it securely in a metal envelope, but the great thing about the phoenix was his patience when a wait involved an adoring audience, a mirror and the promise of a strong drink. Armed with a double Corvoisier Special Reserve and the heat-proofed list, Jimson returned outside and saw his messenger safely off.

Quests … ???

Owen stopped still watching the big white flakes fluttering down outside the window. ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens!’ he muttered half under his breath.

That brought movement. The hood of the figure at the bar came up, he felt himself being looked at although he could see only the faintest glimmer of light, eyes perhaps, inside it. He paused a moment, took a breath, careful not to show it and spoke directly to the hood.

‘Snow’s come early this year. We don’t normally see it til after the first hunting of the white stag but this year, here it comes with Himself.’ Owen paused, hoping for some response.

There was a sound of breathing from within the hood, reminding Owen of an old film sci-fi he’d seen when he last went to Terra. He hoped this person would turn out less menacing than the character from the film.

‘H-himselfff ?’

The sound issued from the hood. It took Owen a moment to work out what the word was. He tuned his hearing up, fumbled under the bar and then surreptitiously pushed the Babel Fish into his ear. Immediately his hearing became 3D and surround-sound, he could hear the mice chittering in the wainscot up in the attics. He quickly turned the radius down.

‘Himself?’ he said, standing up straight again as if nothing had happened. ‘That’s how we call the Stag. His name is Daaf – he pronounced it Dave – but he’s a spirit of the land hereabouts so we give him the title.’

Owen paused again, hoping to draw the figure out but it merely shuffled inside its robes. A claw-like appendage emerged from within and grasped the pewter tankard Owen had set in front of it, raised the beer and took it within the hood. Soft slurping sounds came, the tankard re-emerged now only half full. Well, Owen thought to himself, at least it seems to be able to drink. His etheric vision still would give him no clear picture of whaterveritwas in there.

‘Hear of stag …’

‘Sorry … what did you say?’ Owen didn’t properly catch the words at first.

‘Heard of stag,’ the figure repeated. ‘Came to ask question. It is permitted?’

Owen supressed a chuckle. ‘Well, you have to catch up with him first,’ he replied. ‘But if … when … you do, it is not only permitted but compulsory. Daaf demands a question from those who catch him.’

‘Or what?’

‘You don’t want to know,’ Owen did chuckle this time.

‘But I do!’

The figure threw back the hood. Owen had never seen anything like it in life. He’d seen pictures … they had titles like the Questing Beast and were completely fabulous. As he watched Owen saw the flesh and energies flowing, swirling from one shape to another, first appearing to have the head and neck of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion and the feet of a hart. Then, as it perched there on the bar stool staring back at him, he heard a rumbling from within it. At first this was like thirty couple hounds questing, then it changed to the yelping of a vixen. As he watched it shifted its shape again becoming pure white, smaller than a fox and beautiful.

Questing Beast by Arthur Rackham.

All the time, behind Owen’s eyes, shimmered the ancient drawing by the Terran fairy painter of the fabulous Questing Beast of legend.

What would one fabulous beast be wanting with hunting another of its kind?