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 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Elf, Troll and Hairy Bikers …

Down the stairs, round the corner and into the bar. Owen followed the light footsteps with both his etheric hearing and sight, he knew it was Magpie. She was a delight to the eyes, he thought, in the fresh clothes, her hair shining blue-black like polished ebony with the silver streak flying through it. He also caught her thoughts … so she liked the Arms, did she? Hmm! That was good. He was fairly sure Morgan was going to be seeing Gofannon in the next day or so, that would leave him free to pursue a new friendship.

And here she was.

‘There’s fresh coffee over here,’ Owen called to her from the Cosy.

The Cosy; view of Hurlstone

The views from this part of the bar were spectacular. It looked out over the moors from the top of the hill and down to the coast over Hurlstone Point to the estuary of the river Iwrydd. Old pictures, maps and prints adorned the bits of the walls that weren’t windows. The window seat and the chairs were comfortable and padded with cushions. The winter sun shone through the glass warming the place like a conservatory, the strange vines and tube-flowers Owen’s friend Sobek, who was guardian to the Shit Creek Paddle Store, had sent him from his own garden loved the semi-tropical climate the Cosy always seemed to have. Shit Creek was hot, a tropical paradise of bayous and lagoons, weird plants, amazing liqueurs made from the flowers and krokodilos who were the best tango artists he’d ever seen. Owen felt sure Magpie would appreciate the surroundings.

He rose as she approached and smiled, holding out a comfortable chair for her, his eyes twinkling with mischief.

‘Now, do sit down, let me pour you some coffee. And the toast and mushroom pate will take the edge off your appetite while you order. Just say what you’d like and it will be here in a jiffy. Drwyn has everything under control again in the kitchen now he’s got Klaus sorted. Klaus is the bat,’ he reminded her as he saw her eyebrows go up. ‘Are you here for the Hunt?’ he added, conversationally.

Magpie blinked, “Here for the Hunt? I didn’t even know I was coming here! I’m grateful for the hospitality. I’ll admit, I’m a novice flying-carpet-owner and don’t know enough about the, ah, vehicle. Now, what Hunt is this you speak of? I like a good quest.’

‘Ahh! The Hunting of the White Stag ….’ he paused, he seemed to be doomed to repeating himself about the spirit-stag this morning. ‘The white stag, Daaf, lives in the woods and on the moors hereabouts. Every year around the midwinter solstice he comes out and allows himself to be hunted. To those who are successful in cornering him he will grant wishes. Never,’ he stopped, turned and looked rather fiercely down at Magpie, ‘never does anyone ever attempt to kill him. For one thing, he’d kill whoever it was before you could say knife. For another if he didn’t get the person, I would. And I’d be a damned sight slower about the killing.’ He stopped, coughed, pulled a smile back onto his face. ‘Sorry! I dare say you had no such intentions but we do get some odd parties come to the Inn for the hunt. I tend to get extremely protective.’

At just that moment, there was yet another kafuffle out in the yard. Owen sighed. ‘Just put your breakfast order in,’ he told Magpie. ‘I’d better go and see what the devil is going on now.’

He got up. Just as I think I was making headway with her, he muttered inside his head.

Out in the yard he was stopped by the sight of an enormous, silvery-green-coloured, apparently jet-propelled motorbike throbbing sensuously by the horse trough. Tyler was staring at it too as its passengers dismounted. One was a large, good-looking wizardly person in full leathers. The other was a tall, pale and also good-looking elf.

‘I bain’t got no place for the likes o’ this kinda thing,’ Tyler said in his most dour tone of voice, pointing at the bike.

He was interrupted by a roaring and throbbing sound overhead. He ducked just in time as a second machine skimmed over his head and skidded to a halt when its front wheel banged into the trough.

‘Ouch!’ yelled the trough and spat a couple of gallons of water over the bike making sure the engine choked and it stalled.

‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have got some sugar to put in the petrol tank,’ the trough glared at the second bike and its riders … insofar as a trough can be seen to glare this one certainly could. It had had centuries of practice.

Owen bit off a chuckle, it didn’t do to offend potential guests and he was certain this foursome would be staying. The second bike had been ridden by another handsome wyzard and a baby troll. Owen’s eyebrows went up. What the hell was going on? And what did they all want.

‘It’s all right, Tyler,’ Owen began. ‘I think all these gentlemen need is a warm space in the barn to park their rides, where the oil won’t freeze. I’m sure we can find somewhere.’

Tyler grunted and headed back to his own place, leaving Owen to sort it all out.

‘Have a bite of mushroom pate on toast,’ said a dulcet voice in his ear.

Magpie had arrived beside him to see all the fun. Perhaps his luck was in after all.

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.

On The Road

Dmitri's beloved Capri

Dmitri was driving as fast as he dared, given the battered nature of his beloved car. They had to get to the Wam Barrows before the drunk and revolting minature dragon in the boot woke up and incinerated them all with a burp, and he was pinning all his hopes on what Len remembered hearing at the stupid Tango Contest. Whenever he thought about the size of the quote that surly wretch at the hovel called the Turf’n’Donkey had given him to fix the car – even just enough to get home again! – he could feel his throat closing up and his eyes started to water.

“Are you sure these barrow-wights will pay us for the nasty little brute?” he couldn’t help checking with Len again, anxiously, and Len sighed.

“For the fifth time – that’s what I heard! There was a woman at the dance competition talking to another bloke and he asked would something happen, and she said, ‘it’ll happen, sure as barrow-wights eat dragons’. So yeah, barrow-wights must eat dragons, right?”

“Yes, yes, you’re right, sorry…” Dmitri concentrated on the road again. They were heading due south from Pictland, following instructions from the MGPS – it might not have been able to find the Wolfshead but it seemed very confident about the Wam Barrows.

Bully, sitting hunched up in the back of the Capri with Peter sleeping on his shoulder, felt like giggling to himself despite being so cramped. They were paying well, these stupid wizards, and if he did this just right he could sell the dragon on again after they’d left, he had a good guess about where he’d find a buyer – either back at the Wolfshead, they’d be wanting their pet back, or he could find the baby’s mother and get a nice ransom there – maybe even both. The way this was going, he’d soon have a good haul of gold, be able to buy a bridge of his own and then he’d be well set up to propose to that nice troll girl from up on the fells. Her father had a whole viaduct though – she wouldn’t even glance at a young troll who didn’t have at least a good solid bridge to his name. These wizards, though – they hadn’t a clue. They’d had a stupid idea about luring the dragon into a trap using a maiden chained to a rock, the idiots – as if a baby dragon was a naive unicorn! Even unicorns knew better than that these days – and baby dragons only thought about their stomachs. It was Bully who’d suggested charcoal biscuits and spirits – and while they were worrying about the dragon waking up, he’d stashed a gallon of moonshine and a funnel in the boot next to the dragon just in case.

Wizards! Couldn’t even take a whizz without a map….

Bully Trow

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!”

I’m good at that!

Scrubbed and wearing clean trousers (slightly too big but Briony had given him a leather belt to hold them up with) and a shirt (sleeves pulled up a bit to fit), Billy admired himself in the bathroom mirror, then hurried out, hoping he could be useful. Things hadn’t come entirely up to his expectations so far in his short life – his first job had been one his mother had found for him, to bar the path into a sacred grove and challenge an entering wizard, but he’d got so confused that the wizard had had to help him out. That had been embaressing. He could feel his ears growing warm just at the memory – the tall and handsome wizard had stopped when he’d bounced out to block the path, that bit had been fine. But then he’d asked his question, which was supposed to flummox the wizard and force him to hand over a gift, a sacrifice. But instead of being stumped and manouvred into making a gift, the wizard had asked so many questions in reply that Billy had lost track, forgotten his lines and finally, nearly in tears, had taken the wizard’s offered hand and been led gently back to his mother in the sacred grove.

Billygoat Gruff

After that, he’d tried to find a bridge to guard, but he’d chosen a bridge where not one but a whole herd of big tough goats had gone back and forth every day. Billy had tried to frighten them – only to be butted repeatedly, trampled and then tossed contemptuously into the river under his bridge by the goats. That was when his big brother Bully had started calling him a wash-out. His sister Bella had found him a job next; she was a bouncer in a dwarf bar and she’d persuaded her boss to try Billy out as a general dogsbody, helping move deliveries in and rubbish out. After Billy had confused the barrels going in with the barrels going out, however, he’d fled ahead of a bunch of irate, axe-wielding dwarves who’d been offended at being served deep-fried battered potato peelings and carrot tops instead of chips.

Now here he was, being given another chance – and he’d already had the most wonderful meal he could remember out of it, even if there was a baby dragon in the kitchen. He put his cap onto his head as he hurried down the stairs – only for it to slip off, get under his feet and send him flying down the stairs in a tumbling whirl of limbs, wild flailings and a faint, pained yelp.

He landed flat on his back at the feet of a broad-shouldered young man who looked rather like a younger version of the kind man who’d said he could have a job. The young man looked at him with raised brows, then reached down with a hand extended to help Billy back to his feet,

“You must be Billy Trow. I’m Jimmy – welcome to the Wolfshead, Billy! You’re going to help me move some barrels in the cellar, I hear?”

“I am?” Billy struggled to his feet, “Yes, I am! Oh yes! I’m good at moving barrels!”

It was Bella who’d introduced Billy to positive affirmations. Tell yourself you’re good at something, she’d said, and you will be. Yer, you must have thought you were pretty good at eating then, Belly! Bully had jibed, but Billy had taken Bella seriously and he tried hard to be positive about things.

Jimmy regarded the unco-ordinated young troll with misgivings. Trolls were pretty clumsy anyway – this one seemed unusually inept even for a troll, and far too hopeful for that to be a fluke. What had his father wished on him now?

“Come along, Billy – the cellars are along here. Keep up with me and you’ll be fine – but don’t wander off! The cellars are very large and sometimes a little bit tricky.”

Billy kept up down the stairs into the cellars, his big eyes going to saucer-sized as he took in the huge rocks that made the walls, the corbelled ceilings of the great cool caverns that made up the cellars of the Wolfshead. There were crates full of bottles stacked over here – over there, barrels ranged three high and four deep, labelled with things like ‘pickled kraken’ and ‘giant clams in brine’. Jimmy glanced back frequently to make sure the little fellow wasn’t getting lost, but they went through the food stores and the wine alright, then reached the beer cellar. Here was where they needed to be, shifting the pipes over from a nearly-empty barrel of Wyvern’s Finest Metheglin to another before the tap in the bar above them ran dry. He had to pick the little troll up and sit him on the barrel to show him, carefully and patiently, how to pull the bung and draw the pipe out, then he told Billy to hold the end of the pipe up off the floor safely while he took the old barrel aside and moved a new one into place.

Eager to be helpful, Billy put the end of the pipe into his mouth so he could use both hands to climb up on top of the barrel, then handed Jimmy the pipe, swallowing the mouthful of fiery-spiced metheglin that had trickled out of the pipe into his mouth in the process. He coughed faintly, eyes watering – the spices had concentrated at the bottom of the barrel.

“Well done, Billy!” Jimmy praised him, discreetly wiping the pipe before inserting it into the new barrel neatly, “Now, there’s another just over here, it’s a bit stronger so you’ll need to be careful. This is Wyvern’s Flame, it’s a mix of cider and applejack that the Wyvern Brewery put out for special occasions. Dad got this one from the Shit Creek Paddle Store – they bought two for last year’s tango competition but the locals down there didn’t much care for it, so we got this barrel here cheap, you see. Remember, pull the bung out gently, like this, and you hold the pipe up off the floor…. That’s it!”

Jimmy brought the new barrel over and put it into place gently, then Billy stuffed the pipe into his mouth and scrambled up the barrel again. He was sure he was being useful and he could be really good at this! He slipped slightly as he hauled himself onto the top of the barrel, a powerful mouthful of the fortified cider shooting down his throat, but he handed the pipe to Jimmy, who carefully cleaned and then inserted it and patted the barrel lovingly.

“That’s good. Now, over here, we’ve got the ordinary ale. I’ll move this old barrel over here, see, and you go and bring me a new barrel from over there – think you can do that?”

“Oh yes!” Billy assured him, awash on metheglin and applejack for Dutch courage, “Us trolls are very strong for our size, you know!”

Jimmy disconnected the old barrel as Billy headed for the new one, the young troll’s gait perhaps not totally steady. Billy wrapped his arms as far around the barrel as they’d go and heaved – and failed to move it at all. He stood back and gave the barrel a glare. It wanted to make something of this, did it? Well, he’d see about that! Tilting his head back to see the top of the barrel, he noticed that there was a gap between it and the next barrel –just about the right size for a skinny young troll to slip in. He wedged his feet against one barrel and braced his back against the other, heaving hard, and sure enough, the barrel teetered, then tipped and landed heavily on its side.

“Take that then, you bamwit!” Billy cheered his own success, and got his shoulder behind the barrel to roll it over to Jimmy, getting it trundling along quite quickly.

“What the-?” Jimmy turned with a jump of shock as the barrel crashed over, then leaped hurriedly out of its path as it bowled across the cellar at him, Billy head down and heaving away behind it, “Watch it-!”

Too late. The barrel bounded back from the wall of the cellar and steamrollered straight over the little troll. Jimmy caught it in one hand and stopped it, standing it up again safely – although after that kind of treatment, it’d be months before the beer settled enough to drink again – then hurried over to the flattened troll, spread-eagled on the floor and blinking owlishly.

“Are you alright?” he asked, helping the little fellow up again, and Billy swallowed hard, shaking, then squared up his shoulders.

“I nearly had it then – I’ll do better with the next – “he started. Jimmy hurriedly broke in, afraid of the havoc if any more barrels were rolled so ferociously around the cellar,

“No, no! After a shock like that, you’d better go up to the kitchen and have a little sit down. A bit of fresh air would be good for you, too – you sit in the kitchen til you’re ready, then go and help my brother Hal in the stables. That’d be really good.”

By the time Billy reached the kitchen, the alcoholic haze was starting to dissipate and he felt a bit bruised and downhearted again. He hadn’t been as useful as he’d hoped…. But he’d be good in the stables, he told himself. Annet eyed him thoughtfully and passed over a jam tart from the baking, then shooed him out to sit in the fresh air and get himself ready to help in the stables.

Hal was just finished grooming a beautiful roan mare when he came out of the stable to find a slightly bruised and dusty little troll standing in the doorway, blinking at him.

“Please, I’m supposed to help in the stables now. I’m good at stabling!”

“Are you?” Hal was a little disconcerted, “Have you worked in a stables before?”

“No, but I’m good at stabling!” the little guy insisted, sounding very confident. Perhaps not the horses, then, Hal decided. What else needed doing then? Ah, yes – the hay in the end barn needed restacking to make room for the motorbikes due in that night. He showed Billy to the hay and explained how the stack needed tidying to make space for three bikes next to the immaculate carriage standing there already, then left him to it and went back to strap a matched pair of black Flemish geldings to a shine, ready for their owner’s departure later in the day.

Billy looked at the stack of haybales. They weren’t much bigger than him, he thought, and quite well squared off… they should stack up really easily. Mr Hal had said to stack them ten high, but he was sure they’d go to at least fifteen – that would leave even more room in the barn for the motorbikes! Filled with dreams of Hal congratulating him on his initiative and skillful stacking, Billy seized the first bale and hoisted it above his head briskly. He’d been quite right – trolls were very strong for their size – and it wasn’t long before the first fifteen bales were poised in a teetering tower in the corner of the barn. Billy started building the next stack of fifteen next to them, confidently.

Halfway up, he grabbed the first tower to help himself get the next bale up on top and then let out a wail of consternation as tower, troll, bales and all came toppling over. Bales bounced wildly – one landed neatly inside the carriage – and Hal hurried in to pull a bale off Billy’s head, concerned.

“Are you alright?” he asked, anxiously, and Billy opened his eyes slowly,

“My head hurts.”

“I think you bounced off it – no wonder it’s hurting! You’d better go and sit down in the fresh air for a minute, get yourself settled down again! Don’t worry, I’ll clear up here.” He added, eyeing the hay-covered carriage that now needed a thorough valeting, “Tell you what – when you’ve got your breath back, go and ask my brother Edwy if you can give him a hand. He’s stacking wood in the shed.”

Billy sat in the yard until he stopped seeing two of everything, then followed the sound of wood being split and stacked.

“Hello?” he ventured, and Edwy turned around from splitting firewood.

“Hello there! I thought you were helping my brother Jimmy today?”

“Oh, it’s the troll.” The little dragon peered around Edwy’s knee, her tone disparaging, “Boo!”

“Um, Mr Jimmy said I was to go help Mr Hal, and Mr Hal said I was to come help you. He didn’t mention the dragon.” Billy added, nervously, and Hal looked at Sparky, who bared her teeth and wiggled her ears at the troll. Billy took a step back, worried.

“Sparky! Don’t be mean.” Hal admonished, “I don’t really need any help at the moment, Billy – why don’t you go ask my cousin Robin if he needs a hand? Tom’s out hunting by now, but Robin’ll be in the scullery, he’s still fixing the ethericnet cables there.”

Robin had already heard about Billy – Jimmy had needed a drink to settle his nerves when he came up from the cellar and Robin, occupied in splicing new lengths of cable into the main trunking, had heard more than enough of what Jimmy had said to his mother about the troll.

Just to make sure he couldn’t be disturbed, he’d barred the scullery door and soldered the key into the lock. Billy tapped on the door heistantly.

“Um… hello? Mr Edwy said I should come and help you, Mr Robin sir?”

“I’m fine! Don’t need any help! Go help Briony!” Robin shouted back, hurriedly shoving a chair under the doorknob, just in case.

Briony was in the vegetable garden, weeding the carrots, when Billy went over to her, downhearted again. She looked up and smiled at the little troll.

“Hello Billy! How’s it going?”

“I think perhaps I wasn’t as useful in the cellar as Mr Jimmy thought I might be.” Billy admitted, mournfully.

“Oh, that’s a shame!” Briony pulled up a carrot absently, wiped it clean and handed it to Billy, “Go on, they’re lovely and tender when they’re fresh.”

Billy crunched up the carrot. It was sweet and delicious.

“Then I went and helped Mr Hal…. But I don’t think I was very helpful, really.”

“Oh dear. Look, aren’t these peas nice?”

Billy ate the peas, pod and all, and nodded.

“Very nice. Thank you. Mr Edwy said he didn’t need any help and he had that dragon with him.”

“Sparky’s just a baby, she’ll learn better manners when she’s a bit bigger.” Briony excused the dragon, “So then what?”

“Mr Tom has gone out hunting and Mr Robin said he didn’t need any help either. He said I should come and help you, Miss Briony.”

“Well, that’ll be lovely, Billy! Have you ever weeded carrots before?”

“No, Miss, but I’ll be very good at it!”

“If you haven’t done it before, then the first thing is to know what’s a carrot and what’s a weed.” Briony told him, sensibly, “See this? That’s a carrot. And that’s not. So, you carefully take a grip on the weed, like that, and you draw it gently out of the soil, and pop it in this bucket. See?”

“Oh yes!” Billy assured her, and carefully chose another weed, pulling it slowly out of the ground and putting it in the compost bucket.

“That’s it!” Briony smiled at him, “Well done! There’s no hurry, because the important thing is keeping the carrots in the ground and getting the weeds out of it. If you go too fast with the weeding, you’ll pull up a gnome and they swear when you disturb them sleeping in the roots. So take your time, don’t disturb the gnomes, and we’ll just work along the carrots together and get it done in due time. You’re going to be very good at weeding, Billy!”

Billy glowed with delight. He was going to be good at weeding!

Phoenix gets his message over …

There was a spluttering behind Owen as he chatted with the dark stranger. The Phoenix wobbled to his feet and staggered over to the bar.

‘Here! Here!’ he thrust a blackened metal object at Owen. ‘Here, take it. It’s the whole reason why I came. I hate to think of all this confloption being for nothing.’

Owen took the thing, the end-cap was stuck, he banged it briskly on the bar to get rid of the sticktion and the cap slid off, Jimson’s order fell out onto the floor. Owen picked it up and unrolled it.

‘Oh lord!’ he said.

Without him realising it Morgan had snuck up beside him.

‘What is it?’ she said.

Owen jumped. ‘Aach! Ah! Oh! It’s Jimson. He’s got a rush order of some fancy stuff that he needs by yesterday.’

‘What is it?’ Morgan repeated, taking the paper out of his hand. ‘Hmm! Yes … well … we can do this you know,’ she told him.  ‘He wants three pipes of Delamain Cognac. We’re all right for that because we had that shipping from Terra a couple of weeks back. We only want three for ourselves so that leaves us six spare.’

‘Oh … yes …’ Where would I be without her, Owen thought.

‘Hmm …’ Morgan was still reading the order note. ‘And he says can we let him have some Muxworthy’s Ratspee. He has a group of wizards coming – goodness, later today, I think – and they like that, had some of the batch we sent over to the Shit Creek Paddle Store. I’d better get onto Muxworthy’s and see what they can do.’

Morgan patted Owen’s arm affectionately – it always irritated him, and she knew it, did it deliberately.

Owen's Study

Wizards … did she say Jimson was having a bunch of wizards to stay? He didn’t like wizards. They were usually spivs in his experience, which was very large and spanned a great many years. He knew Jimson would cope but didn’t envy him the experience. He followed Morgan down to his study.

‘What the devil …?’

She was staring at the ethericnet. All the lights were out.

The phoenix came galumphing down the corridor in a right kafuffle of red and gold feathers and a lot of noise.

‘It’s all right! It’s all right!’ he was yelling his head off. ‘It’s Sparky. Robin is fixing it. I can take the message straight back. It will take Robin a while to do. What do you say? What do you say?’

Owen stood with his mouth open. Morgan took over again.

‘Yes, OK, I’ll just write a note. Owen, where do you keep the pens, dear? There never is one when I want one.’

She was furtling all over his desk, upsetting his carefully contrived heaps. He reached over and pulled an earthenware pot full of pens from where it had been hiding behind the flatscreen. It squawked indignantly as he retrieved a pen and handed it to her. She hastily scribbled an acceptance note.

‘But you’ve not called Muxworthy’s,’ Owen said, confused.

‘Well I can’t, can I?’ she replied acerbically. ‘With that ditzy dragonet mangling the ethericnet I’m stymied. I was going to ask Phoenix if he would call in on Muxworthy on his way back with this note. Then Jimson’ll get the answer straight. I’m sure it’ll all be OK.’

‘Oh …’

‘Owen, dear …’ Morgan sighed.

She coiled the note into the battered metal container and handed it to the phoenix. The bird hopped onto Owen’s window ledge and took off heading down the valley towards the Muxworthy farm.

‘Well, that’s sorted,’ Morgan took his arm and steered Owen back to the bar.

Billy Trow

It was always hectic first thing – well, not really first thing, of course, that was before the guests woke up when the house was quiet and only Briony was up, looking after the very earliest chores of the day. She liked those quiet starts to her days – getting the kitchen range going for the day, letting Sparky and the hounds out into the yard, feeding the chickens and then getting her breakfast in peace – but then the boys started to appear. Robin would be doing whatever he was doing at the time, Tom would be heading off into the woods and fields, Hal would go get the cow in from the paddock and Edwy would be mixing horse and cattle feeds while Jimmy was checking the breakfast room was laid and the menu on, and then Annet would arrive to start cooking and finally Jimson would be in, having checked whatever bookings had come in overnight and done the early-morning-office work. Then it was hectic.

After the rush had died down this morning, however, Briony heard the timid little tapping on the kitchen door. It was quite low down, and sounded nervous, and while Sparky was explaining to Annet why she needed thirds of breakfast and Robin was moaning about having to mend the ethericnet and reset all the systems instead of Jimson allowing him to upgrade to some new thing he’d read about, Briony went and opened the door.

Billy Trow

At first, she didn’t see anyone – then she looked down. He was about thigh-high, skinny, dressed in ragged looking tweed breeches that left his hairy shins and furry feet bare – quite big furry feet, she noticed – and an old lumberjack shirt missing most of its buttons, and in his hands he was clutching a weatherbeaten flat cap. His nose was large and round and carunculated, his teeth – exposed in what he probably hoped was an ingratiating smile – were yellow, sharp and jagged. On the other hand, he had huge soft brown eyes and his ears were nervously twitching.

“Hello.” Briony said, and crouched down to get on a level with the little fellow, “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?”

“Me mam said I was a waste of space at home an’ it were time I got a job.” He twisted the cap and his ears in a weirdly synchonised display of uncertainty. It was strangely endearing, “Please, lady, do you have a job I could do? I’m good at… at… well, I’m good.” He finished, and Briony blinked.

“I’m sure you are. You’re a troll, aren’t you?”

“Yes. But I don’t eat people.” He added, hurriedly, and she bit back a smile in case it offended him.

“I think you’d better come inside and talk to my aunt Annet and my uncle Jimson.”

Sparky had failed to convince thirds out of Annet and was sitting looking sulky about it, but pricked up her ears as the little troll followed Briony into the kitchen. Jimson wiped the last of his fried eggs up with the end of his toast and raised a brow, Annet merely sighed and turned back to the range.

“This, err, young gentleman is looking for a job.” Briony introduced her new friend, “He says he’s good.”

“Generally good, or good at anything in particular?” Jimson enquired, finishing his tea and reaching for the pot to refill the mug, “The only bridge we’ve got around here is hardly suitable as a troll-bridge!”

“I’d be good at being a bridge-troll!” the little fellow offered, hopefully, “Really good…. I mean, I can be really fierce? I’m sure I can be fierce.”

Sparky bounced to her feet and pounced in his direction, letting out a sound that wasn’t quite a cough but was more than a throat-clearing, and a faint smell of warm paraffin wafted into the troll’s face. He squeaked and dived behind Briony’s skirts hurriedly.

“The last thing we need is a fierce troll scaring the Silly Bridge into hiding again.” Annet pointed out briskly, “What you need, young troll, is a square meal. Sparky, behave yourself! You sit down here and get yourself round that, young troll!”

Sparky stopped pulling faces at the troll and he climbed nervously onto a chair and conscientiously spat on each big hairy hand in turn, wiping them carefully on his dirty breeks before picking up his knife and fork to tuck into the full English breakfast Annet set in front of him. He devoured the food slowly and with dedication, shovelling forkfuls into his mouth and chewing steadily until he’d cleared up the whole lot, then he put his knife and fork together tidily on the plate and burped loudly.

“We don’t need a bridge troll, but I’m sure we can find something for you to do.” Jimson added, as the little troll wilted unhappily. He perked up again, eagerly, and Jimson racked his brains for any idea as to what he could do with a small and pathetic troll, “What’s your name, anyway?”

“Billy…Billy Trow.”

“Alright, Billy Trow…. Let’s see what we can do about getting you into a nice clean set of clothes, and then you can help Jimmy in the cellars. He’s going to be changing some of the beer and ale barrels around today, you’ll be very useful to him in that.” Jimson suggested, hoping he was being accurate, and Briony held out her hand.

“Come on, Billy – I’ll show you a bathroom and find you some new clothes.”