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 …’
‘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 …