The White Stag

The White Stag stood on the top of the pinnacle of stone looking down to them. He wasn’t enormous … in a way Magpie had expected him to be very big … but he was full of presence. That felt wild, huge, enormous; the beast at the centre of the presence was the size of a large ordinary stag but the aura surrounding him stretched on and on and on, covering them and going right on out over the Abyss of Mists.

And the White Stag wasn’t white.

His antlers were white, shimmering white, and there was a silvery aura around him. But his coat was bright and dark red while his hooves were shining black and his eyes were dark limpid pools of the night sky.

Delicately, hoof by hoof, the stag picked his way down the rocks until he stood in front of them. He eyed each of them in turn. It was a strange sensation, felt like you were being completely and totally examined from inside to out, all the threads that made up your life, all the joins and darns and mends and frays where things were only just holding together, as well as the parts that were rock solid. They each felt it. Owen & Seabhag  had felt it before, met the Stag, for the others it was new and each of them felt it differently.

Billy took one look at the Stag and gave a little whimper of delight, then ran up and hugged the Stag’s front leg. The Stag leaned down and licked Billy’s forehead.

‘Welcome, little one,’ the Stag said softly. ‘You are very welcome and all that you desire will come to pass. Now … what about the rest of you?’

Seabhag stood back. He was watching the Stag; the stag had thoroughly dissected him but he didn’t mind that at all, it was to be expected when you met one of the powers of the Land, he did it himself after all. He came to find Billy, had done this and now just has to get him back home. He nodded greeting to the Stag who nodded back.  Owen too held back; his life was as sorted as it ever was, he enjoyed it and was in need of nothing in particular. Magpie shuffled her boots and fidgeted with the horse’s mane. The Beast stepped forward.

‘I need to find myself …’ she whispered to him, stretching out her claws, pleading.

The Stag reached out his nose, touched her forehead. ‘Your brother is waiting for you,’ he told her. ‘Soon, I will send you to him. He will be able to help you.’

The Beast’s claws reached out, gently stroked the Stag, their eyes met.

Watching, Magpie thought both pairs of eyes looked the same, both were deer’s eyes.

The Stag looked at her. ‘Well …?’ he asked.

The Beast had moved away, was staring out over the Abyss of Mists – the presence she gave off was one of happiness, for the first time since Magpie had known her. Seabhag stood nearby and Owen too had moved closer to her. Billy was back with Seabhag too and the horses were chatting among themselves, comforting the Mousies who were getting over the shock. Magpie was all on her own … with the Stag.

‘You had no idea this was what you were coming to, did you?’ the Stag pushed his nose into Magpie’s stomach.

She shook her head, dumb; she really didn’t know what she was doing here. ‘I won this carpet,’ she began, ‘magic carpet. One of the players accused me of shuffling the cards to my advantage but I hadn’t, I didn’t! I’d been to that tavern before though. Long time ago, but …’ she tossed her hair back from her face. The Stag looked down his nose at her. ‘Well … but well, I’ve got a reputation. And yes, I had marked the pack.’ She paused, swallowed. ‘Anyway, I thought it best to leave. The carpet was faulty, that’s how I ended up at the Shapeshifters. It was nice there, everyone was kind, it felt like a break, and I sort of got snaffled up into the adventure. I like adventure.’ She stopped, found herself smiling into the Stag’s huge liquid eyes.

‘What do you want to do with your life?’ the Stag’s eyes held hers while he asked the question.

‘I’ve never known what I wanted to do with my life,’ Magpie muttered, looking down. ‘I fell into the School, by accident.’

‘You had to leave because you got yourself blown …’

Magpie nodded.

‘But Morningstar said you could still be of use, did he not?’

Magpie nodded again.

‘So … what did the eagles say to you?’

‘Said I had skills, and nouse, and gumption.’ Magpie glanced up at the Stag.

‘And what did you promise them?’

‘That I’d begin …’ Magpie stopped, looked up straight at the Stag. ‘Does that mean, does it mean … I can begin? I can be part of the School? I can do the work?’

‘I’d say so, wouldn’t you? It’s always been your choice, Magpie. You ran away. You thought you could never go back. You dived into adventure and trouble with both hands. Morningstar said you could still be useful, in a covert way. Perhaps getting yourself the thieves’ reputation is just that, useful … had you thought of that?’

Magpie shook her head. ‘I just ran … you’re right … I just ran.’ She stopped, her face changed, she was thinking. ‘As a thief … as a thief, I might be able to know all sorts of people that ordinary straight folk would never know …’

Now it was the Stag’s turn to nod.

‘I’m a stunningly good thief …’ she paused again. ‘But I want to steal everything! I love it. I’d steal the antlers off your head if I thought I could,’ she added, sotto voce.

The Stag looked down his nose at her again. ‘I wouldn’t advise you to try,’ he said gently.

‘You weren’t supposed to hear that,’ Magpie muttered.

‘Perhaps that’s what Morningstar wants you to do, only with some discrimination. And not actually stealing everything you set eyes on. And stealing for other people’s benefit …?’

‘I suppose … but it’s hard. I really want beautiful, fascinating things …

‘Well … you’re having some practice here at giving them up again …’

She snorted, glared at him, then grinned. ‘I suppose.’

His eyes smiled back at her. She somehow felt better, in spite of having to give up that wonderful golden horn. She grinned again, did a little two-step dance.

‘Now don’t get carried away,’ he told her. ‘To be a stunningly good thief is hard work. You’ll upset the competition and sometimes you’ll need to work with them not against them. You’ll have to carry lots of stories … legends … in your head and always know exactly where you are, when you are and who you are. Morningstar needs information, you can help him with that. Does that sound like a good career?’

‘I’ll give it a damn good try,’ Magpie told him.

‘Hmmm … then I think you’ll meet someone, fairly soon. Have you heard of Grymalkyn?’

Magpie’s eyes widened. ‘You mean Grym? Morningstar’s chief assassin? I’ve seen her, at the School, but I don’t know her. She’s something else … not sure how we’d get on!’

The Stag made a soft braying noise, Magpie realised he was laughing.

‘Well give it a try. She might not be as bad as you think. She tries to be invisible most of the time. But yes, that’s who I meant. I think you may get to meet her come the end of this adventure. If you do, stick with her, ask her to take you on, help you. You might,’ the Stag almost winked at her, ‘you might mention me to her. We go back a long, long way.’

‘Thank you!’ Magpie dropped to one knee and put her forehead against his hoof. ‘Thank you,’ she repeated. ‘And you’d better count the hairs on your fetlock to check I’ve not nicked any.’ She stood up, grinning.

‘You can keep the three you took,’ the Stag replied. ‘You’ll find them useful, sometime, I expect. But be prepared to give them away.’ Then the Stag gave a roaring bark. Everyone jumped.

‘Now …’ he began, ‘about this baby dragon. After her contretemps with a dyslexic pixie she has landed in the castle of a wizard up in the Pictlands. At present she’s in no immediate danger – except of overeating! – but she does need finding and bringing home. As it happens, your quest will be best concluded if you go up there too, Madam Beast. You will find your brother up in the Forest of Calydon and he needs your help as much as you need his, in fact you need each other. It’s high time Billy got home too. And Owen, you will like to see Jimson again, I’m sure. ‘The Stag looked down his nose at Owen who had the grace to nod agreement. ‘Magpie will do best to go along too and I’m sure the IBWs will find it both enlightening and amusing. In any case,’ the Stag glared at the wyzards, ‘I’m counting on you two to keep the rest of them on target. Seabhag, you’ll do as you please but I think you’ll enjoy accompanying this motley crew.’ In fact, you might like to transport them up to Bennachie …’

Seabhag smiled and bowed slightly. ‘It’s your show,’ he demurred.

There was a thunderous bray, a flash of lightning and thunder rumbled all around the sky. The sun went out temporarily too.

‘Flashy bugger, isn’t he?’ Kefn whispered to Iolo.

And they were gone …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Enchanted Forest 2 – Window Tree

‘Harrumph! That’s a bit of a bother,’ muttered Magpie as she looked down over the cliff that the kelpie stood at the edge of.

Owen turned to her smiling, ‘You can say that again! No! Don’t!’ he added quickly as her mouth opened to do as he said. ‘We … or rather I … have to find our path. I’m sorry, I lost it, that’s how we’ve arrived here. Thank the gods the kelpie had the nouse to stop because I certainly didn’t.’

The kelpie looked mollified, tossed his head gently.

‘Anyway, I’ve got to sort the path so you might as well have a quick rest while I do. I hope I won’t be too long.’

Billy peered cautiously round Seabhag’s leg and down over the cliff edge.

‘Cooooooooo … !!!’ he whispered, awestruck. ‘It don’t half go down a long way.’

‘Yes,’ Seabhag agreed, grabbing onto the troll’s collar. ‘And we don’t want you sailing down there, so come back here and sit down. It would be a real nuisance to have to fish you out of those pine trees after you’d bounced through a few at eighty-six miles per second per second. And it would put back rescuing Sparky by quite a while.’

Billy looked up at the elf, worried, then he saw that Seabhag was smiling. He gave the elf’s leg a quick hug and backed away from the precipice to sit down in the crunchy leaves far enough away to be safe.

Iolo came up to have a quick look over the edge too. ‘Hmm!’ he said. ‘Nice drop.’

‘Good paragliding,’ Kefn said from right behind him.

‘Damnit! I wish you wouldn’t do that!’ Iolo spluttered, backing away from the edge and treading on Kefn’s toes, quite deliberately.

Kefn chuckled and they both backed off out of the way.

Owen crouched down at the edge of the first step that led off out into nowhere. He was hunting for threads. Where were all those nice rainbow-strands he’d seen as the path did its jiggling tricks earlier? Now, right at his feet, he found them, or ones just like them, tied into a neat double-bow over a good reef knot. Ha! that was pretty conclusive and made sense of the notice; the gods would not be helping anyone dumb enough to step out off those steps. He sighed, relieved, he hadn’t fancied the idea of making a bridge across forever out of rainbow strands to carry the party across wherever-it-was that was the gulf in front of them. OK, so they were meant to go another way. He turned back and took a few steps back the way they’d come.

The others had taken his advice and spread themselves to sit down comfortably and take a break, out of his way. But the landscape had changed.

The forest trees stopped a few yards from the cliff edge; no path was really visible but right where he was sure it had been was now a tree. A very big, odd tree it was; its massive trunk stretched up to just over his head; above that three enormous branches reached out, one horizontally to his left, another out to his right and the third went directly upwards. Just below them, in the centre of the trunk, was a hole, like a window.

The hairs on Owen’s neck rose and his skin prickled. It was a window; a window between worlds.

Owen went up to the tree. There was a humming around it, like a force field. He tried putting his hand gently towards it; the field let his hand in but instantly all his hair stood on end. He heard the muffled gasps of half-laughter behind him, knew he must look a sight. ‘Damnit!’ he muttered, ‘I suppose I have to look like a clown’. The field let his hand through so he could touch the tree; there was instant communication.

‘Remember that saying about camels and needles?’ the tree asked him.

Owen sighed. ‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Well, that’s what you gotta do,’ the tree told him.

Owen would have sworn it was chuckling too.

‘How?’ he was feeling terse and somewhat frayed.

‘Climb up and have a look, boyo,’ the tree replied.

The hole was a bit over the top of his head. He withdrew his hand and stood looking at it, wondering how to see through; there were no rocks or logs he could stand on.

Something, someone, tugged at his trousers. ‘I can do that,’ Billy whispered to him.

Owen crouched down to Billy’s level. ‘You can do what?’ he asked, kindly.

‘I can be a rock,’ Billy said patiently. ‘I’m a troll. We’re rocks, stone. I can be a rock.’

‘Did you hear what the tree said to me?’

Billy nodded, looking worried. ‘Shouldn’t I have listened?’ His brow was furrowed and his eyes looked nervous.

‘No, no, I mean yes,. I mean that’s quite all right. I just didn’t know you could hear trees.’ Owen was smiling and put a hand on the little troll’s shoulder. ‘Have you always been able to hear trees?’

‘No-ooo …’ Billy hesitated. ‘It really sort of started after we got going on this journey. I didn’t know what it was what was talking to me, just I sort of heard things. Then, now, since we comed through that gate into … here …’ Billy waved an arm to indicate the forest, ‘then and now when you put your hand on that there tree, I can hear what he said like.’ He grinned sheepishly. ‘I think it all sort of comed clear when your hair stood on end.’

‘That’s good, that’s good,’ Owen smiled encouragingly. ‘So … you could be a rock. And would you mind if I stood on you so I could see through the window?’

‘Nah, that’s what I meant. You stand on me then you can see through and see where we gotta go.’

‘OK, thanks. I think that’s part of what I’ve got to do.’

Billy slithered across the leaves, through the force field – it made him prickle all over but he wasn’t going to say anything, he was too proud to be useful again. He curled himself into a good solid rock-shape, keeping his back nice and flat so Owen would have a good platform to stand on and not fall off, then he shuddered gently and shifted.

One moment Owen saw a young troll, next a handy-sized rock platform at the base of the tree the top of which looked very level and easy to stand on. He stepped into the force field, putting up with his hair all standing on end again, and stepped as carefully as he could up onto the rock, Billy’s back. It was just the right height; his head came up level with the window; putting a hand each side of the hole Owen leaned to peer through it.

He jumped back and fell off Billy. The rock shifted slightly and Billy’s head reappeared.

‘You all right, Guv?’ the troll asked.

‘Yep, sure.’ Owen picked himself up. ‘Hope I didn’t hurt you.’

‘Not a bit. You seen enough?’

‘No, I need another proper look, if you don’t mind.’

‘Go for it, Guv.’ Billy turned himself back into a rock.

Owen climbed back up, more wary this time, and peered again through the hole. The rainbow lines swam before his eyes, it was like literally looking into, having your head inside, a rainbow. He felt slightly giddy, took a deep breath and remembered to put his roots down through his feet, being careful of Billy on the way, and down into the ground. That stabilised him, things stopped wavering in and out of focus and held their shape. Now he could see the path, straight and narrow but very strong. He pulled back, climbed down and peered round the side of the tree. No, as he’d thought; no path.

‘Sorry Billy, not quite done yet.’

Owen climbed back onto Billy’s back and looked through the hole again. Yes there it was, very plain. He felt a suction on himself. Next moment he was sliding through the hole and out the other side, falling onto the soft grass. He sat up and looked back. There, indeed was the tree … but beyond was a whole new country. Where the hell was he? And … worse … where the hell were the others?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting the Tarr Dragon

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

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

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

‘Hmm?’ Iolo murmered.

‘Coming here.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nusuth …’ she replied. ‘No matter …’

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

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

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

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

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

Raven & Ent Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oak Ent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevn's Mousie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tarr Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sparky!’ she exclaimed out loud.

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

‘What am I to do, what is wanted?’

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

‘I will do it.’

The Dragon Bargaining Chip

Fergus stared at the party on the doorstep, still half-stunned with interrupted hibernation.

“We don’t need your silly pamphlets!” he announced, firmly.

Dmitri stared at the tall, thin, pale Wights, all dressed like his idea of Scrooge in pale nightgowns under heavy brocade dressing-gowns. Wisps of thin pale hair showed under the edges of their night-caps and he looked at their feet, unable to help himself. Two of them had plain pale fluffy slippers and the third – the one with the basebat bat – had fluffy white slippers with rabbit ears and eyes.

“What pamphlets?”

“Those stupid things you people always hand out. Announcing the end of the world and rubbish like that. You always get the dates wrong and your translations from Aramaic are laughable.” Fergus said, witheringly. Bewildered, Dmitri blinked several times.

“I don’t even know what Aramaic is! Look, are you a barrow-wight?”

Fergus drew himself up to his full height, which would have been an imposing seven feet if he hadn’t been so cavernously thin,

“Don’t be impertinent, young man! We are the Barrow Wights of the Wam Barrows.”

“Well, if you’re Barrow Wights, we’ve got a dragon.” Dmitri announced, getting a little belligerant. The Wights all took a half-step back in unison, looking shocked, then went into a huddle, whispering together.

“See? They are burglars!” Algy muttered, and Cedric whimpered slightly,

“We’ve hardly got our dinner-service back together after the last lot! It’s not fair, bringing a dragon to threaten us with! It should be against the rules!”

‘I think he’s bluffing. I can see a troll but I don’t see any dragons!” Fergus declared, and they all straightened up again. Algy hefted his club threateningly.

“We think you’re bluffing. What dragon?” Fergus demanded, and Dmitri grabbed the end of the fire blanket, which was now whimpering and wriggling, and jerked it hard. It unrolled and tumbled Sparky across the ground, where she cannoned heavily into Len and Peter’s legs and nearly brought them down like skittles.

“Ooh, I feel sick!” the little dragon moaned and promptly was, onto Peter’s shoes. He yelped and hurried out of range, scrubbing his feet in the heather frantically to clean them off.

The Wights all stared at Sparky, considering their options, and Dmitri demanded impatiently,

“Well? What’ll you give us?”

“That’s a very small dragon.” Algy pointed out doubtfully, and Cedric peered as Sparky coughed and whimpered simultaneously. Smoke puffed out of her long tufted ears and some of the heather began to shuffle away worriedly.

“It looks ill, too.”

“You’ve brought a small, sick dragon.” Fergus observed critically to Dmitri, and the wizard growled under his breath,

“Worth her weight in gold, that dragon! They’re not easy to find, you know!”

“Thank heavens!” Cedric muttered, and the Wights huddled swiftly to discuss.

“It doesn’t look very dangerous right now but what if they send it into the tunnels and it’s sick everywhere?” Algy demanded, worriedly, “It’ll take us all winter to clean up! And you know the smell of dragon vomit never really goes away….!”

“I need a drink!” Sparky moaned behind them and Bully fetched the moonshine jar from the car, pouring a generous slug down her throat, “Ooh, that’s worse!!”

“If they’re demanding the dragon’s weight in gold, let’s be grateful it’s only a small dragon!” Fergus pointed out, “And let’s get this over with before that troll makes the dragon any heavier! “

“My head hurts!” Sparky whined, “Oh, the sun’s too bright! Lemme into those nice dark tunnels-!”

All three Wam Wights screamed faintly in unison at the suggestion.

“Alright! Alright! Just wait here. And don’t let that dragon get into the tunnels or we’ll never catch it again! We’ll be back in a minute.” Fergus told Dmitri, hurriedly, and, to be on the safe side, slammed the door shut behind them as they hurried back into the barrow.

“There! I told you it’d work.” Len told Dmitri, “Now we can get the car fixed and get home!”

Peter was sitting in the heather nearby pulling his shoes off. They were disintegrating, smoking visibly, and he tossed them into a puddle, stamping back in his socks to join them.

“That’s a new pair of Nikes you owe me!” he told Dmitri, crossly, “And next time we kidnap a dragon, let’s not make it motion-sick like that!”

The door of the barrow opened and the three Wights hurried back into view, each one holding a stack of beautiful shiny gold. Fergus had the full eighteen-place setting of plates, Cedric was carrying the dishes and cutlery and Algy had the side plates and serving dishes.

“There!” Fergus thrust the armful of gold into Dmitri’s arms, “That’s the dragon’s weight in gold!”

“Wow!” Peter forgot his ruined shoes and took the dishes from Cedric, and Len took the rest from Algy. Bully quietly spread out the blanket for the gold to be piled up, while Sparky was sick again nearby in a patch of heather that hadn’t scurried off quickly away, then put her nose into a puddle and began sucking up water, making a sound like a very large milkshake approaching its end. The Wights watched as the gold was carried to the car and loaded into the boot, then the troll and the wizards all got in and drove off.

“Wait a minute!” Fergus shouted after them, just a little too late, “You forgot your dragon-!”

“I’m hungry.” Sparky wiped her nose on some of the long-suffering heather, “Please will you feed me?”

All three Wam Wights recoiled, letting out faint screams in unison.

Waking the Wights

According to the MGPS, they were at the Wam Barrows. Dmitri leaned into the back and prodded Peter awake, then got out of the car and stretched, wearily. Len climbed out the other side and looked around, clearly not appreciating the stunning view over the moors or the beautiful chorus of bird song around them in the early morning sunlight – Larks, blackbirds and robins were all singing busily, with an occasional comment from a raven or buzzard thrown in for good measure.

“Where are we?” Peter croaked, crawling out of the car still half-asleep. Bully unfolded his bulky length carefully out of the door after him without saying anything.

“In the back of beyond, mate.” Len yawned, then pointed to some humps in the heather some way off the road, “Those are barrrows, aren’t they?”

“Let’s go find out how to get into them.” Dmitri proposed, “Hey, you! Bring the dragon, would you?”

Bully chose not to comment on being addressed as ‘hey you’ either. They were paying him well and to avoid getting seriously riled up with his employers he thought about the bridge he wanted He opened the boot of the car and lifted out the silvery cigar-shaped object that was snoring still, although the snoring was getting mixed in with a few low groans now, indicating that the baby dragon would shortly wake with a monumental hangover. Carrying the dragon in his arms, he lumbered after the three wizards who were picking their way fastidiously through the dew-damp heather.

When he caught up with the wizards, they were debating the right spell to open the barrow. Bully sighed but put the dragon on the ground and prepared to wait. He glanced down as the bundle wriggled and let out a really solid groan: uh-oh, the dragon was waking up! He glanced at the wizards, who were still arguing, then walked over the Barrow a few steps and paused, sniffing and listening. Yep, this was about right….

All three wizards jumped nearly out of their skins as a huge pounding noise interrupted their debate, turning around to stare in alarm. Bully was thumping on the barrow heavily with his big fists.

“What are you doing?” Len nearly screamed, and Bully looked up.

“Waking up them wights for ya.”

Cedric didn’t want to wake up. He was having a lovely dream about a new sort of nutloaf, carefully baked in a lovely shining casserole dish and served on some of their best gold plates, the ones with the emeralds all around the edges. Having crumbs of earth falling on his head in his bed disturbed his hibernation and he snorted himself awake petulantly.

“Algy? Fergus? What’s happening? What time is it?”

“It’s the middle of winter and it’s Algernon, Cedric, how often do I have to tell you?” his brother Algy’s voice came sleepily out of the darkness. Fergus, their other brother, chimed in, equally drowsy and cross,

“Shut up, both of you, and go back to sleep! It’s months before getting up time!”

“How can I go back to sleep when the roof is falling on my head?” Cedric demanded, fretfully, and all three of them paused. In the quietness, the sound of muffled thudding resounded through their tunnels and some more earth trickled from the ceiling and pattered to the floor.

“Well really!” Fergus got out of his bed, sliding his long pale feet into his long pale fluffy slippers and straightening his night-cap on his head, “That’s very rude, knocking on our door like that! If it’s those Jehovah’s Witnesses again I shall be very cross!”

Algernon pulled on his dressing gown and carefully folded it around himself, tying the cord around his waist with neat, precise motions.

“What if they’re burglars?” he demanded, looking around, “Where did my club go?”

“Under your pillow, of course.” Cedric snorted, “Where you always put it when you go to bed! Since when did burglars knock on the door, Algy?”

“Algernon!” Algy corrected, retrieving his baseball bat from under his pillow. Bickering as they went, the three Barrow-Wights of the Wam Barrows shuffled slipper-shod through their tunnels to the door and opened it.

Seabhag Mac Shealgair

Briony and Billy came in from the gardens with the last ingredients for dinner – baskets of mange-tout and fresh herbs – as the sun was starting to sink. Annet was involved in cookery – she liked cooking for the Interplanetary Biker Wise-ards when they were around, they had big appetites and always complimented her on the flavours and textures of her work. She thanked them absently and Billy glanced warily around – Sparky was often around at cooking time, hopefully looking for another biscuit or the trimmings from the roast or a stray dish of chillies.

“No dragon?”

Annet looked up from stirring the soup, distracted,

“What? Oh… no. No dragon. Actually, that’s quite unusual, isn’t it? Could you find her, please, Billy? Before she chews through anything vital, this time!”

“If she chews the ethericnet again, she’s in for a shock.” Robin sauntered through, slotting his screwdriver into his back pocket, “I’ve put an alarm on it, it’ll scream like murder in her ear if she so much as licks the cables again!”

“Good lad. Could you get me some more wood for the fire, please?” Annet added, and Billy went to look for the dragon as Briony set about chopping the herbs to add to the various dishes on the range and in the ovens.

He searched the house, but all the doors denied the little dragon had been through them recently. The last door to have seen her was the back door into the yard, so he tried asking the chickens. They vaguely remembered that she’d been in the yard and left, but couldn’t remember which way she’d gone. He asked the gate post and that was more helpful, saying she’d headed towards the field gate. The field gate in turn sent him along to the cattle pasture, where the cows said she’d been stacking twigs and had then gone along the hedge and out through the gate at the bottom.

Billy followed the hedge, seeing Sparky’s little pawprints here and there, but his large, sensitive nose twitched as he picked up a boozy scent as well as the tang of dragon. In the soft mud in the gateway, he saw her tracks clearly, then he spotted the empty biscuit-box and bottle and ran to them, feeling upset. Sparky might be scary but she was part of the Wolfshead family and so was he – now – and if she was hurt…. It gave him a nasty fluttery feeling in his middle, somehow.

He looked around, spotting a flattened patch of grass where someone had sat, and when he went to look more closely, he saw two sets of footprints. One looked human, smelled of plastic and cheap aftershave – the other he knew far too well and he stuffed his kncukles into his mouth, chewing on them worriedly. His big brother Bully!

A questioning squeak made him look up, then around, and he blinked at the small white weaselly-creature which was standing nearby looking at him.

“Where did you come from? You haven’t seen a little dragon, have you? About as tall as this, with a white tummy and a pale blue back?”

“We haven’t seen any young dragons, nor old ones either, for a few weeks. Have you mislaid one?” a tall man came through the gateway, “Oh, hello! I think we’ve met before, haven’t we? At the Culbone Stone?”

Billy blinked, then remembered. The kind warrior-wizard who’d helped him when he was confused!

“Oh! Yes! You were the wizard. I can’t find Sparky, but there’s an empty biscuit box and a bottle, I think she’s in trouble-!”

“Seabhag mac Shealgair.” The man introduced himself, politely, pronouncing it ‘shevac mac hellager’, “Sparky is your missing dragon?”

The white weasel ran up Seabhag’s leg and coiled in his pocket tidily, nose just poking out to keep watch on the world. He sized up the young troll – slightly more with-it than on our last meeting, he thought, but still rather innocent and strangely kind, for a troll! He looked at the tracks, reading them expertly.

“Let’s see…. Your young dragon came down through this gate about three hours ago, not quite entirely steady on her paws, then found the rum and the biscuits.” He crouched, touching the grass by the empty box, “She poured the rum over the biscuits and ate the lot, the greedy little creature! She’s a bit young for spirits, isn’t she? Judging by these footprints, I’d say she’s only a few months old? Now, what’s this? Troll footprints – not yours, this is a big troll.”

“My brother Bully.” Billy admitted, unhappily, “He’s sort of…. Well, he’s very interested in money.”

“Ah.” The warrior understood, the breeze lifting his fine pale hair to reveal slightly pointed ears, “A mercenary troll, accompanied by a person wearing trainers and Lynx aftershave. H’m. They rolled your dragon up and carried her away with them….. towards the bridge down the valley, not the Sally Bridge. Why would your dragon have come down here to begin with? Shall we see what brought her here?”

Billy followed as Seabhag walked through the gate, then he tracked the dragon-prints up the hedge, pausing to crouch and sniff where she’d been rummaging in the hedge.

“A few charcoal crumbs and a smell of rum. I think someone’s kidnapped your dragon, my friend! They put out baited biscuits and she followed the trail, then found the rum and the whole boxful and scoffed the lot. Probably passed out and was easy to pick up and carry away! It’s quite an odd mix, a young troll and a baby dragon – were you looking after her?”

“No, she lives at the Wolfshead. They asked me to come find her… it’s nearly dinner time.”

“If Jimson’s mislaid a baby he was bringing up for his great-great-whatever-she-is, there’ll be ructions!” Seabhag predicted, but smiled, holding his hand out to Billy, “Come on – let’s go break the news and get a rescue party organised!”

Magpie and the bath part 2

Morgan lifted her head, pausing as she turned away from the window. That young person who’d just arrived on the carpet was about to drown in the bath, she thought, and whistled softly. A tiny golden creature appeared and ran up the outside of Owen’s boot, up his breeches and shirt to sit on his shoulder. Morgan looked the little creature in the eye and communication passed between them. The dormouse gave a satisfied squeak and ran back down, then disappeared through a hole in the wainscot.

The Dormouse

“Oh!” Owen caught up, “She’s be as wrinkled as a prune by now, too. Thank you, Morgan!”

“You’re welcome, dear.” She patted his arm and carried on out.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Magpie was drowsing comfortably in the soft warm water. The dormouse appeared on the rim of the bath, squeaking softly until her eyes opened again, then she realised how close she was to submerging and pushed herself up again with a jerk. A few drops of water splashed onto the dormouse, who gave an irritated squeak and started washing himself dry again, crossly.

“Oops! Sorry!” Magpie reached for the towel and helped, “You could have warned me I was trying to drown!” she reproached the bath, and it responded by pulling the plug out.

“I guess you’ll be wanting to get out, then!”

“I’d better.” She muttered, inspecting her water-wrinkled fingers ruefully, “My thanks yo you, dormouse. That was a timely wakening! And I’m sorry about the splashing.”

She dressed in her clean clothes and held out a hand to the dormouse,

“I think I smell sweet enough to be in company again now! Can I offer you a lift anywhere? No? Well, thanks anyway. I think I could probably eat whatever’s left downstairs, now!”

The dormouse squeaked again, appeased by her apologies, and disappeared back into the wainscoting. Magpie grinned to herself, liking this inn more and more, and went downstairs lightly, anticipating some food and perhaps some chat with the innkeeper, Owen. He looked like he might know how to flirt rather well, somehow.

Kidnap!

Sparky

Sparky was bored. Everyone was working, the hounds were sleeping, the White Stag had gone off into the woods to do staggy-things, and nobody had time to play with her just now. She sat in the yard in the sunshine feeling hard-done-by and listening to the noises of the Wolfshead – the chickens were clucking quietly around the compost heaps, gossipping as they liked to do, there was the occasional clop of a hoof or snort from the stables, some sparrows were living their soap-opera lives on the ends of their feathers on top of the thatched roof, and from inside there was the sound of the recently-arrived group of Interplanetary Biking Wyzards who were relaxing in the lounge bar. She’d left because they kept putting logs on the fire so she couldn’t even get any peace sleeping in the flames…. They’d just come in from a particularly chilly region of space, they’d said, and apologised for waking her up stacking logs on her, but they were all cold and needed to warm up. She liked them, they seemed polite and perhaps they’d be good at chin-rubbing and whisker-tickling later when they didn’t have cold hands any more, but just now….. no.

She brightened up as she remembered something. Jimson had said she was getting quite good at starting fires – she’d hardly singed the rug at all when she’d lit the snug fire that morning! – but she needed to practice on little twigs to get the knowing of just the right temperature flame really into her bones. She’d go and collect some twigs from the hedges in the field by the river and practice with them! That would be nice. Delighted with herself, she trotted out of the yard, tail high and tip wagging with satisfaction, and headed for the fields by the river.

She collected several good twigs and stacked them conscientiously in the middle of the field, well away from any trees and bushes so she wouldn’t start a forest fire – Tom had explained all aobut that to her once – and was just prospecting into the hedge for another twig when she smelled something…. Not a twig, but very nice. She rummaged carefully through the dead leaves, unearthing….. a charcoal biscuit! Now, how had a charcoal biscuit arrived here? She ate it, liking the warm, tangy flavour that had been added to the biscuit. By the time she’d licked all her whiskers thoroughly to make sure she’d got all the flavour, another biscuit had appeared. She stared at it, surprised, then sniffed. Yum, this one had more of the nice new flavour on it! Maybe charcoal biscuits grew in hedges? She ate it quickly, then sniffed another, a few feet along. Yes, charcoal biscuits must definitely grow in hedges…. She’d tell Jimson that, then he could get them straight from the wild and stop having to buy them from the village store for her! There was another, and the best flavour yet, too….

By the time she’d ferretted her way down the whole line of the hedge, following the trail of biscuits, she was feeling very mellow and a little bit snoozy. The biscuits led her through the gate at the bottom of the hedge and there she found a box of biscuits and a bottle of rum…. Ah, now that was the delicious extra flavour! Rum! How delightful. She grabbed the bottle in her teeth and emptied it over the biscuits, giggling to herself as the action of twisting her head nearly made her roll completely over sideways, then dropped the bottle and gulped all the biscuits down. After that, she hiccupped, incinerating a couple of nearby dandelions, and that struck her as hilarious. She giggled so hard she fell off all four paws and lay on her back in the grass, wriggling and snickering to herself…. But then the sun felt nice and warm on her tummy and she thought she’d just close her eyes for a moment and sunbathe…. That would be nice…. Mmmmm.

After the first snore had been followed by a couple more, Dmitri nudged the troll sitting next to him.

“Go on! Grab the spoilt little horror and wrap it in this fire-blanket, then bring it along!”