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.

 

 

Advertisements

Snow Dance

‘There it is!’ Magpie pointed ahead.

Billy, who was alongside her, stared up into the mass of twisting branches that largely hid the little hill just to the right of the path.

‘I can’t see it …’ he stared harder, scrunching his eyes up and holding one hand over his eyes despite the gloom of approaching night.

‘There …’ Owen put one hand on Billy’s shoulder and immediately  the little troll found he could see, quite differently from normal.

‘Coo-ool …’ he breathed.

Owen chuckled. ‘With all that snow it will certainly be cool, if not bloody freezing!’ he grinned down at Billy.

Snowy pine branches

The troll’s vision showed him a conical hill with an apparently flat top all covered in snow like a huge Yule Cake covered in sweet frosting. Silvery birch trees marched up its sides, their bare winter branches filigreed with fresh snow, a delicate fairy land. Across the top of the hill he noticed white balls flying from each side, crossing as they passed over the middle, making wonderful patterns against the night sky. After a moment  Billy realised the white balls were flying to the throbbing rhythm that seemed to be pulsing out of the very ground. His flesh prickled with excitement.

Owen slid off his horse, Magpie followed him and the others all dismounted too., he led the way up a path that turned off the main track right at their feet. The rest of the group followed him. They could feel the throbbing sound right through their boots.

As they came to the top Billy ducked under Owen’s arm, excited to see what was going on. Eyes agog, he never saw the white ball that caught him in the mouth and knocked him back into Magpie’s arms.

‘Hey!’ she caught him, steadied him back onto his feet. ‘You OK?’

‘Ummphhuggle glug,’ he replied disjointedly, spitting snow out of his mouth.

She helped him get rid of the snow, even for a troll his mouth looked blue with cold. They all peered carefully over the top.

The top of the hill was dipped like a cup, about ten feet deep. The sides were steep but the bottom was flat, the whole covered in snow that glimmered in the starlight and the beginnings of the rising moon that just managed to tangle with the topmost branches.

Down in the dip stood a circle of entwives, their tall, slender forms lightly wrapped in gossamer silk that clung to them and swirled out when they moved. In the centre sat a group of nine gnomes. They were drumming. Each gnome had a drum of a different size held between his black-breeched knees, and each played a different rhythm that blended and harmonised into a complex whole. Their hands flashed over the drum skins, the sleeves of their white shirts rolled up to show hairy, muscular arms adorned with complicated tattoos. Long beards twitched rhythmically. Their red hoods were decorated with holly, ivy and mistletoe, and strung with hawk-bells that rang sweetly as they moved their heads in time with the drumming.

Entwife dancing

The entwives dipped and swayed in time with the drumming as they bent to pick up a new handful of snow, roll it into a ball. They stretched and arched as they tossed the snowball across the circle, over the heads of the gnomes. The balls fell just over the head of the entwife opposite. The patterns they made were like shooting stars.

Owen and the rest of the group stood transfixed, hardly breathing.

A sudden roll of the drums and the whole dance stopped. The silence was electric. A swoop of wings and a wild cry over Magpie’s head broke the spell as a barn owl swooped over the circle. The gnomes put down their drums and the eldest turned to the strangers. The elder entwife followed his gaze.

‘Welcome, strangers,’ the gnome called. ‘Will you come down and join us?’

Owen raised a hand. ‘We will indeed, thanking you kindly for the invitation.’ He led his mount carefully down the hill, the others followed.

Magpie and Billy both stared around them. Iolo and Kefn looked at each other.

‘The snow dance …’ Kefn breathed.

Iolo nodded.  ‘I never expected to see this,’ he whispered back.

‘What’s the snow dance?’ Billy asked them.

The elder gnome had reached them now, he looked kindly at Billy. ‘At Twelfth Night we gather here at the Tump to celebrate the snow and the new moon, when they come together as they do this year. We dance and feast in honour of the Goddess Olwen, the Lady of the Moon. You have seen the dance – swallowed some of it,’ he chuckled and patted Billy on the head. ‘Now … will you feast with us and tell us how you come to be here so propitiously?’

‘The kelpies sent us,’ Billy blurted out.

‘Aha!’ the elder gnome looked round them all.

Magpie felt the threads move again, twining, weaving around and through her. It tickled her mind and made her blink. She’d really not expected to feel it like this although her tutors at The School had told her she would … if only she would allow herself to do so. She grimaced. Damn it! And she certainly wasn’t consciously allowing anything of the sort, not intentionally! It was just creeping up on her, grabbing her when she wasn’t looking.  The gnome was smiling at her, his eyes twinkling. Damn it again! He was reading her thoughts!

They followed the gnome into the circle. Other gnomes came to take their mounts, offering them food, while the entwives took each of the travellers and sat them in them comfortably circle, giving them rugs and furs to wrap around them. Soon food appeared, delicious soup, roast meats, new-made sourdough bread and fresh cheeses. Warm fruit pie followed, with stem-ginger and custard, and there was plenty to drink.

Magpie was sharing a rug and a couple of furs with Owen, feeling replete and satisfied. The entwives sang, the gnomes provided bass harmonies. She was nodding off when the singing stopped and the elder gnome turned to them.

‘You are well fed … would you now entertain us with a story? I sense the lady there,’ he looked pointedly at Magpie, ‘has a story to tell. Would you give it to us?’

Meeting the Tarr Dragon

The way down from the Ent’s glade coiled steeply down between the trees. Tall beeches stretched their smooth, grey trunks upward giving a ghostly shade to the forest. Dark gnarled oaks stood between them, silver birches lit the way like tall white candles, the ground beneath their feet rustled from the myriad of fallen leaves. Winter, around the Shapeshifters’, was sometimes an eerie land, not built for men but for the forest itself and the seelie court and the faerie folk, built for the shifters themselves.

The kelpie carried Owen at the head of the party. Seabhag brought up the rear, with Billy in front of him at the beast’s withers, Billy’s head turning this way and that at the strange sounds and half-visions that teased the corners of his eyes. The dark stranger paced beside Owen, her clawed feet making no sound on the frost-crisped leaves. Magpie, next in line, wondered at this but said nothing. The two wyzards allowed their Mousies to carry them as they would, enjoying the ride, the strangeness of the land, the whispering of the trees. They were enjoying themselves.

‘Good idea of yours,’ Kefn told Iolo sotto voce.

‘Hmm?’ Iolo murmered.

‘Coming here.’

‘Ah … yes.’ Iolo allowed a grin to crawl up the left side of his mouth, lighting both his eyes. ‘It was, wasn’t it?’ he agreed.

The way narrowed, delving into a steep crack in the land. They passed between earth-walls that quickly rose up higher than the heads of even the riders, walls full of crystals, catching what light from the low winter sun managed to creep down out of the sky and through the bare skeletons of the branches. At one point the dark stranger paused, one foot just leaving the ground, looking just like a cat.

‘Hammering …?’ she breathed. ‘Gnomes …?’ the question was directed up to Owen.

‘Uh-ha,’ he nodded. ‘There are silver mines under the hills hereabouts, the jewel-smiths work the caves under here. You must have ears like a bat to hear them though.’

He turned to look at her as he spoke and coughed back a chuckle. Silver-grey bat ears did indeed stand to either side of her head.

‘You are everything, are you not?’ he asked her.

‘Uh-ha,’ she replied in her turn. ‘Everything but who I really am. I hope to re-find that, with the help of the stag.’ She paused sadly. ‘A long journey, I fear, and one that may not be ended by the time the quest for the dragonet is done.’

Owen looked down again at her, a frown creasing his brow. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘Nusuth …’ she replied. ‘No matter …’

They continued on in silence. The crystalline walls of the rock passage through which they passed throbbed softly with the sound of gnomic hammers.

Suddenly, the walls fell back and they were again amongst the winter trees. A brook crossed the open place a few yards off, making its way down to the river, and there was the bridge … the dragon’s back. Magpie, glad to be out of the stone tunnel, pressed forward to arrive at the first stones that led to bridge. They were huge, flat slabs. Each one probably weighed at least four tons, probably five. The horse stopped abruptly, dropping her head to stare into the silvery stone. Magpie, not expecting it, tumbled forward down the horses neck, realised she had the injured raven in the crook of her left arm and managed to convert the fall into a parachute roll. She came up to sitting, grimacing at the pain in her left shoulder and the loud squawk of the raven, to find herself staring into the mouth of a dragon about eighteen inches away. She squinted horribly as she tried to bring the row of enormous ivory knives in front of her eyes into focus.

‘Ooooof!’ Magpie wriggled hurriedly backwards and rammed her butt into the horse’s nose. The horse promptly bit her.

‘Ow!’ she cried out, levitating frantically to find herself now hovering about six feet above the ground … now on eye level with the dragon.

‘Do calm down, dear,’ the dragon hissed sinuously.

Raven & Ent Test

The kelpie stepped out softly, hardly cracking a twig as he made his way down the smoke-dark path. Owen had done this one before but not for a good while and it was always strange, always different. You would see something, then it would be gone, or moved, changed somehow. It felt as if you were walking between the fringes of many worlds, catching the tails of your coat on a little of each as you passed. He grinned, that was, of course, what you were actually doing.

‘Heads up, folks,’ he called softly back to the others. ‘If you’re not experienced in this sort of travel you may find this journey down to the bridge a bit dizzy-making as you touch into and out of different worlds.’

Owen paused to look back over his shoulder. There was a curving of the thin, blueish lips showing under the hood of the dark stranger, no need to worry there. Magpie’s expression suggested there could be some WTF bolshie going on in her head, Owen would wait to see on that one.

Seabhag put a reassuring hand on Billy’s shoulder, the little trow sat in front of him on his silver-maned golden elf-horse, ‘Don’t worry. Let the different threads just slide over yours and disengage again, don’t try and hold onto them or they’ll pull you off-balance,’ he said softly, then patted the horse’s neck lightly. ‘Snowmane here knows how to walk the path, you just stay on her back and it’ll be fine.’

The wyzards, safely ensconced on the Mousies, seemed to be enjoying themselves, the ride and the kaleidoscopic views on either side.

The kelpie carried on deeper into the path, smoke rising and twisting around each hoof as he put it down. It smelled of leaf-mould, wood-smoke and roses.

A huge cracking sound broke the reverie as one of the ancient oaks bordering the path dropped a massive branch right across their way. Everything stopped dead. For just an instant there was complete silence in the wood, not even a bird calling. The kelpie had one front hoof still in the air and seemed not to be breathing.

Oak Ent

A bird cheeped and a large, dark brown honey-coloured voice spoke out of the branches.

‘If I were you I wouldn’t start from here …’

That’s all we need, Owen thought, an Ent with a warped sense of humour! However, he pulled himself together and touched two fingers to his heart, lips and brow in greeting to the tree. ‘Unfortunately,’ he began, ‘here is where we are, so we’re stuck with it for now.’

Seabhag chuckled to himself and looked up into the branches. ‘What a magnificent oak you are, sir! I’ve rarely seen a finer in all the worlds. In point of fact, if I may say so, none of us is starting here. We’ve all started from various elsewheres and here is a point on this journey we make together. What we need to do, I believe, is to find a way of passing through this point to the mutual benefit of all concerned. Did you want that branch putting back across the path after we’ve passed on, by the way?’

The Ent chuckled back. ‘Well, no,’ he said. ‘I’d rather you diverted somewhat and came round this side. There’s something …’ The voice stopped and a smallish branch swept aside to show a very narrow track leading off to their left.

Magpie muttered impatiently under her breath. If everyone was going to stand around talking all the time…! She turned her horse’s head towards the path and urged the creature onwards. ‘Let’s go, then!’ she called over her shoulder, leading the way. ‘Come on, we’ve got a Stag to find!’

‘Fools rush in …’ Seabhag murmured to himself, tolerantly, then cocked his head as he sensed the twitching threads aligning themselves across Magpie’s path. Oh-ho, a test already!

Owen felt the threads twitch too and glanced over to Seabhag. Their eyes met and a grin stole onto Owen’s mouth. A tricksy path indeed and one that seemed to have Magpie well in its sights. He was certain she was up for the tests but it sure would be a bumpy ride!

Magpie’s horse jibbed abruptly, sticking his head down and snorting at a black feathery bundle that let out a sharp carking sound from under a bush at the side of the path. Magpie, surprised, just barely saved herself from shooting over the horse’s shoulder and onto the ground face-first, then peered downwards as well. Golden eyes glared back pugnaciously from the bundle and she hesitated, then dismounted. A half-open beak and another cark warned that the raven wasn’t taking any offers of help at face value but the healing instinct in Magpie tweaked her usually well-subdued conscience and she wrapped her cloak around her hands as she scooped the bird up.

‘Careful!’ Owen whispered across to her, seeing the thoughts of panic and hope twining in the bird’s mind.

Magpie freed one of her hands from the cloak and reached to touch the bird’s wing, sensing the wrongness there. Quick as a flash, the scissor-like black beak snapped shut on her finger and she yelped, ‘Ow! You ungrateful thing, I’m trying to help!’

The bird slowly considered her words, then let go of her finger – but the half-open beak remained poised ready to grab again, just in case.

Owen had to chuckle. ‘How’d you expect him to know you’re not going to make it worse? The poor bird’s in shock. Can you tell what’s happened?’

Magpie gently explored the wing with her fingertips, finding the break in the long upper bone. ‘Broken wing… I’m going to need knitbone to speed the healing and some straight hazel sticks to make a splint.’

In his own mind, Owen saw pictures of a crazy looking car veering about on the track above the hill. He looked at Seabhag. ‘Do you see that? Do you know who that is?’

Billy slithered off Seabhag’s horse, his tone eager. ‘I know knitbone and hazel – I’ll get them for you!’ he offered and ran off before anyone could answer.

Seabhag shook his head slowly, ‘I saw it but I don’t know who that was. I’d guess Billy might be able to say – I believe they’d had trouble with some wizards at the Wolf’s Head before I reached there, the same who stole the little dragon.’

Kevn slithered off his Mousie – a mere inch or three as his feet nearly touched the ground when he was aboard. ‘I’ll go after the little trow, he might get lost!’

Kevn's Mousie

Iolo slid off his own mount and put an arm over his friend’s Mousie’s shoulder. ‘OK. Whistle if you need extra help.’

‘He went thattaway,’ the Mousie said pointedly into both wyzards’ minds.

Seabhag dismounted, holding his hands out. ‘I’ll hold the raven for you if you’re wanting to set that broken wing?’ Magpie gratefully deposited the creature in his hands and manipulated the ends of the broken bone delicately back into place with her fingertips. Seabhag’s gyrfalcon watched critically from his shoulder but said nothing, and as Magpie finished straightening the wing, she felt Seabhag’s energy rise. Thread-weaving, she thought – trust an elf to be a thread-weaver healer! You still needed to get the bones set and splinted and the herbs would do the rest, there was no need to go mucking about with threads all the time!

The honey-voice reached them again. ‘How are you doing with my friend?’ the Ent asked them.

‘Working on it!’ Magpie answered absently, ‘Just waiting on the splints and the knitbone to make a dressing!’

Owen overheard Magpie’s mutterings about messing about with threads … hmmm! She’d learn, in time. They none of them lived in an either/or world, everything was and/and, and that included splints and herbs … and threads!

Billy could smell the furry warm smell of knitbone not far away, his big nose twitching as he scurried through the undergrowth. He gathered an armful of the wide green leaves and then realised he didn’t have enough hands to carry those and get the hazel sticks as well.

‘Here, let me carry those for you,’ Kevn said from right behind him, then hoped he wouldn’t scare the little trow out of his wits.

Billy jumped, then gratefully held the leaves out. ‘Thank you! Now, about these hazel sticks…..’ he reached out and grabbed a young sapling, about to pull it out of the ground roots and all.

‘Whoa!’ Kevn, his hands full of comfrey and itching like mad from the hairs, managed a two-tone whistle. Before you could say “knife” Iolo had beamed in beside him.

‘Aha,’ Iolo got the situation in a flash, took the hazel twigs in one hand and his knife in the other. ‘Allow me. About this long, do you think?’ he smiled down at Billy, deferring to him, hoping to give him confidence.

Billy let go of the sapling’s trunk, remembering that they were only needing to splint a bird’s wing and not an elephant’s leg.

‘Oh yes,’ he agreed, ‘That’s about right, I think!’

Kevn followed Billy back towards the injured raven with Iolo in the rear carrying the twigs.

‘Finally!’ Magpie muttered, unfairly (and she knew it even if she wouldn’t admit it) and took the twigs Iolo held out. A little quick smoothing with her knife and the splints were ready, so she carefully padded the wing with a couple of comfrey leaves, then bound the twigs in place with some bindweed that Owen pulled from a nearby plant and passed to her. She heard Owen whispering thanks to the plant as she worked. ‘There! That’s done.’ Magpie stood back from the raven. ‘You’ll be as right as rain in a few weeks, now.’

‘Better!’ said the Ent. ‘Now, about this accident … thoughtlessness, I call it, added to stupidity and selfishness! Will you help to bring the culprits to book?’

‘One moment!’ Seabhag requested, ‘Billy, the three wizards who stole Sparky – can you describe the car they were driving?’

Billy scratched his head. ‘I didn’t see it myself but I was told it was all dented out of shape. They tried to cross the Silly Bridge, see, and she wasn’t having any, so it got squeezed.’

The raven let out a long and complicated croak and scrambled to his feet in Seabhag’s hands, looking fixedly at Magpie. ‘I think he wants to stay with you.’ Seabhag suggested, and handed the bird over.

Magpie looked sideways as the raven climbed out of her hands and scrabbled up her sleeve, beak over claw, to sit on her shoulder. ‘You better be careful with your droppings!’ she warned. ‘I’m short on clean clothes just right now and you’ll be sharing the shirt with me as it is!’

‘That sounds like the thing we saw.’ Seabhag looked at Owen, ‘In which case, not only are the three wizards in the car responsible for maiming this poor bird, they’ve also offended the Sally Bridge and kidnapped Sparky the Dragon from the Wolf’s Head. We came firstly to rescue the dragon, but if we can help in bringing the wizards to book, I think that would be a good secondary purpose for our journeying.’

‘Harrrummmmpphhh!’ the Ent made agreeable noises in his leaves. ‘Gooooood … goooood! You are goooood folk!’

Owen, struggling with listening to three conversations at once, blinked. ‘Yes,’ he replied to Seabhag, ‘that does sound like what I saw too. And yes,’ he spoke to the Ent, ‘our paths are crossing, we will certainly help.’ He frowned in further concentration. ‘Err, you are Corbie’s second cousin four times removed on the distaff side, did you say? Very pleased to meet you.’

At that moment there was a loud “Cark”, a massive fluttering in the branches and corbie himself lighted down onto Owen’s shoulder with a very concerned expression on his beak.

‘Are you OK, old man,’ Corbie asked his cousin.

Seabhag’s horse nosed him in the small of the back, gently but pointedly. He turned, linking threads to understand what the horse wanted of him, and Ghearr agreed, bating on his shoulder with a soft cark. ‘You’re right – we’ve done what needed doing here. Is there anything else for us to do before we move on, Sir Oak?’ he turned to ask the Ent. ‘We’ve further challenges to face yet and a Stag to find!’

‘Yes, indeed, and thank you, kind folk. If you return the way you came you will find your way now clear,’ the oak replied. ‘I will tell my brothers along the way of you, ask them to help you as they can. Fare ye well.’

The Tarr Dragon

The Tarr dragon snoozed. The sun reflected by the snow onto her back where it stood out of the water was warming, sultry, but there was something … something … she couldn’t define it and didn’t want to come out of her snooze far enough to try.

Something landed on her tail. She twitched it, a loud splash followed by a small yelp was the result. She raised an eyelid. There, at the tail-end of the bridge stood a soft white glow, even whiter than the snow, it had a golden corona to it. It had touched her tail, she knew it.

Yeeeessss, she hissed softly to herself, she knew it.

She lifted her whole head out of the water and turned it to look back down her long length. The glow seemed almost to over under the bare beech trees that overhung her tail-end. She flicked up the first nictating membrane over her dark sapphire eyes and focused. Yes! It was him. The White Stag.

Sinuously, she unthreaded herself from the huge slabs of the ancient bridge and stared down its length.

‘And what can I do fffffor you,’ she breathed, sibilating the “ff”.

‘Rrrrarch …’ the stag coughed, barked. It was a greeting.

A silvery thread spun out from his forehead towards the dragon. Her tongue flicked out, caught the thread. The dragon’s eyes half closed as she savoured its taste, she gave a swift swallow and they were connected.

‘Coming, are they? Wanting you? And you want me to send them following the wild geese. What’s all this about then?’

The picture of a small dragon floated behind her eyes. She knew it, her brother’s sister’s cousin’s nephew’s niece.

‘Sparky!’ she exclaimed out loud.

Soothing vibes sped down the thread. ‘It’s all right, she’s all right,’ came the Stag’s bell-like voice ringing through her mind. ‘She has things to learn and is helping others to learn things too. We never, ever, kill only one bird with one stone.’ The voice ended on a chuckle that sounded like baroque oboe softly blown, it calmed her.

‘What am I to do, what is wanted?’

‘There are those who search for her. And there are those who have been given her. All need to learn things. You are good at those things. The hunting party will come to you. Owen leads them and he has chosen the dark path, rightly. There will be tests along the way. But one, at least, is for you, for you to give the test.’

‘I will do it.’