Enchanted Forest 3 – Hole to Cloutsham Ball

Enchanted Forest 3 – Hole to Cloutsham Ball

Seabhag’s jaw dropped slightly as he watched Owen disappear through the hole in the tree. One minute he’d been peering through the hole, then there was slurrrrrp! Then there was no Owen. He started forward in the ridiculous hope of grabbing onto Owen’s no longer existent legs … well, no longer extant in the world in which he stood, he reminded himself. Please the gods Owen (and his legs) were all still extant somewhere.

Billy stood up, no longer stone but troll again, ‘Where’d he go?’ he said, looking round everywhere with a bemused expression and furrowed forehead.

Iolo went up to the tree and jumped up and down, trying to see through the hole just over his head. Billy promptly crouched down again into being a rock.

‘Thanks, Billy.’ Iolo made to climb aboard.

‘No you don’t!’ Kefn caught hold of the collar of his leather jacket. ‘Not without a sheet-anchor you don’t.’

‘Erm … yes,’ Iolo agreed sheepishly. He climbed more cautiously onto Billy’s stone back; Kefn’s arms were round his waist; the Beast, hung onto Iolo’s legs. ‘That ought to do it,’he said as he stuck his head through the hole.

Sluuuuurrrrrrrrrrppppppppppp !!!

Iolo, Kefn and the Beast had been slurped up by the tree-window.

Seabhag’s jaw dropped even further, ‘Oh … bother …’he muttered, ‘one of those!’ He rolled his eyes, surely he’d been in the company of competent wyzards … Hmmm! Perhaps not.

Seabhag sighed. He should have seen that coming but really! Surely Owen was more competent than that, getting wired by the forest. Hmm! It was a tricksy forest; Seabhag nodded his head to it in acknowledgement. The two outer branches of the window-tree waved slightly in return.

‘Now what do we do?’ Magpie was exasperated; if the forest could get Owen then what on earth were they supposed to do? She began to consider how to get herself out of the place. Billy crept over to her side and slipped his hand into hers, squeezed gently. She squeezed back, he needed the comfort. At the same time she hoped she wasn’t going to be saddled with a baby troll. Would there be a way of sneaking out on her own?

The elf horse pushed his way past them all to stand in front of the window-tree.

‘Well,’ said the horse, ‘that’s where we have to go. The tree says it’s a shortcut, since Owen got us lost up here in the first place. You’d better all climb aboard us and we’ll fly you through.’

‘Ahem!’ One of the Mousies coughed. ‘Ahem! We can’t fly! It’s all very well for you lot, kelpies and elf-horse and whatever … Ouch!!!’

Magpie’s horse nipped the Mousie’s rump. The pony turned and glared, offended. ‘Well, I don’t know what you are!’ the Mousie said crossly. ‘Anyway,’ he carried on, ‘we can’t fly!’

‘It’ll work as long as we’re all touching each other,’ the elf-horse continued. ‘You grab my tail in your teeth, your mate grabs your tail in his teeth, and you sort of fly-by-wire. You’re OK aren’t you?’ The elf-horse turned to the kelpie and Magpie’s horse.

‘No problem,’ said the kelpie. Magpie’s horse just grinned.

‘Come on then.’ The elf-horse nudged Seabhag gently. ‘And check the girths,’ he told the elf-lord.

‘I remember the story,’ Seabhag replied with an old-fashioned look to his horse. He pulled the girth-straps, they were tight and the pins firmly through the holes. He mounted lightly. ‘Billy, you want to ride with me? This is going to be fun.’ He smiled down at the young troll.

Magpie helped Billy up in front of Seabhag then went to mount her own horse. ‘You can do it?’ she asked.

The horse’s grin widened. ‘You’re going to love this!’

Resignedly, Magpie mounted up. The elf-horse led the line-up with a Mousie clutching his tail; the second Mousie grabbed a large lump of Mousie-tail in his jaws while the first Mousie whickered gently. The kelpie followed, grabbing the second Mousie’s tail in his teeth.

‘I thought you could do this …’ Magpie stared at the kelpie.

‘Itshch to make ssshuure,’ the kelpie replied in a muffled voice through the Mousie tail. ‘In cashe he dropsh hish end. I’ve got him sheckurely.’

‘Oh … right …’

The Mousies both whickered in an anxious manner.

‘Get a grip!’ said the elf-horse and took off.

‘Sheeeeeeesh !!! V-TOL !!!’ the second Mousie lost his grip on his mate’s tail. The kelpie snorted.

Magpie watched as her horse sprouted two huge wings, like swans’ wings. They rose up out of the shoulders in front of her, spread to twice the length of the horse and swept down hard as the horse’s back muscles bunched under her; the creature leaped into the air. Magpie’s stomach was still somewhere on the ground, she hoped it would catch up by the time they arrived wherever-it-was they were going. The picture in front of her was amazing; everything had extended, grown and gone slow-motion. The beautiful elf-horse galloped through the air very slowly; the Mousie clung to his tail, its legs threshing gently; the second Mousie dangled pathetically from the kelpie’s jaws while the kelpie himself appeared to be swimming through the air. She herself was riding a flying horse. The air shimmered all the colours of the rainbow. Magpie gasped; it was the rainbow! A rainbow bridge! The path they flew along had straightened itself into an undulating carpet of red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo stripes. It flowed through the hole in the tree like a ribbon.

All of a sudden the hole was in front of them. Just as Magpie was certain they weren’t going to make it the hole opened like an iris, a lens, and they all streamed through. Then they landed. The horse stopped almost instantly, Magpie flew over his head bounced twice in the soft turf and came to a stop at Owen’s feet.

‘Nice to see you,’ he bent and offered her a hand up.

‘Ugh … err … errrmm … thanks …’ Magpie climbed to her feet in time to watch her horse’s wings dissolve back into the shoulders. She stared around her; it was quite different to where they had been.

‘Do you happen to know where we are?’ Seabhag asked Owen.

‘Cloutsham Ball,’ Owen replied. ‘Managed to have a look around before you arrived.’

‘Does that help?’ Seabhag raised an eyebrow.

‘Well, it does … and it doesn’t. Dun Kerri is over there.’ He pointed across a mist filled and steep-sided valley to a peak on the near horizon that looked quite close.

‘What about that?’ asked Iolo.

‘Do we have to go down there to get over there?’ Kefn did not sound keen.

‘I hope not,’ Owen said. ‘I hope we’ll get some more help.’

‘The horses could fly us,’ Magpie offered.

‘If you think I’m eating any more Mousie tail you’re mistaken!’ said the kelpie, still spitting hairs out of his mouth. ‘Tastes disgusting!’

‘And I don’t fancy my tail being pulled out any more either,’ said the elf-horse acidly.

Both Mousies crept closer together, their noses twitching and eyes rolling.

‘I’m game to fly over,’ said Magpie’s horse.

All the other horses snorted derisively.

‘Enough!’ Seabhag took charge for a moment. ‘What do you propose, Owen?’

But Owen wasn’t listening. He stood on the hilltop, legs spread and slightly crouched, both arms up in the air and his head bowed. His hands were fists. He was singing a tuneless song of four notes, up and down, up and down.

There was a rush of air, the sound of great wings.

‘The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!’ the Beast stood with her claw shading her eyes, looking into the sun.

Four great golden eagles swept out of the sun. As they flew closer their huge shadows ran before them, climbed the hill of Cloutsham Ball and shrank to nothingness as the birds landed in front of Owen.

‘What can we do for you?’ the eagle’s voice was harsh, like stone grinding over stone.

Owen dropped to one knee on front of the great birds. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘We need to get to Dun Keri, to see the White Stag. We would like help crossing the abyss of mist.’

A strange coughing, gargling noise came from all four birds. It took Magpie a moment to realise they were laughing.

‘Not a good place for you to go!’ said the second bird.

‘We can carry them,’ said the third; the fourth nodded.

‘The horses can carry some of us,’ Owen said, ‘but we would be very grateful if you could carry the others.’

‘How grateful?’ asked the fourth bird.

‘What do you think would be a good exchange?’ Owen replied.

The four eagle heads conferred together. They turned to look at Magpie.

‘M-me …?’ she stammered. ‘B-but I don’t have anything!’

‘Yes you do,’ the first bird told her.

‘Skills,’ said the second bird.

‘Nouse,’ said the third bird.

‘Gumption,’ the fourth bird added.

‘You promised all these to Morningstar,’ the first bird went on. ‘You can renew your promise here, to us.’

‘You really will find it worthwhile,’ the third bird added in a kindly tone.

The four eagles gathered round Magpie. They were huge, enormous, as tall as she herself. They raised their wings, enfolding her in a great feather pyramid; their eight clawed feet touched hers so gently; their feathers just brushes against her; the four great beaks surrounded her head, she could feel their breath.

Words came to her …

Earth water fire and air

Met together in a garden fair

Put in a basket, bound with skin,

If I answer this riddle I’ll never begin …


She stopped. ‘I will begin,’ she whispered to the birds. ‘I’ll hold the riddle inside myself, know it is me; live it not talk about it.’

The warm eagle-breath breath flowed up her nostrils, filling her. She’d not felt like this for a very long time, not since Morningstar … she stopped that though before she burst into tears.

‘I will begin,’ she repeated to the eagles. ‘I will begin.’

The eagle-pyramid pulled back, became the four great birds again. Magpie found she was shaking slightly but felt better than she had since she’s left the school. ‘I … err … was that OK?’ she asked.

‘Yes. Come.’ The first eagle said. ‘Those of you who can ride the horses mount up. We will carry the others.’ He crouched down and spread his great wings, the Beast climbed onto his back. ‘Grip tight!’ the eagle told her.

The second eagle crouched beside Billy. ‘You’ll love this,’ the bird told him.

Billy looked up to Seabhag, would he approve? Seabhag nodded, smiled. ‘Yes,’ he told Billy, ‘you really will.’

Billy climbed onto the eagle’s back. His little short legs stuck out to either side; he looked round worriedly, wondering what to hang on to; he didn’t want to pull the eagle’s feathers out.

‘There’s big tufts in my ruff,’ the eagle told him. ‘Hang onto those, they won’t come out and you won’t hurt me.’

Billy took a firm grip … and a deep breath.

‘What about us?’ whickered one of the Mousies.

‘You’ll be fine,’ said the third eagle. ‘Just shut your eyes and think of spring grass.’

Seabhag leapt onto the elf-horse; Magpie mounted her horse, she was looking forward to those wings again, it was going to be fun. Owen leaped onto the kelpie’s back as the beast reared and neighed loudly, ‘Let’s do it!’ the kelpie cried, springing into the air.

The elf-horse followed him, along with the eagles carrying the Beast and Billy. Magpie’s horse unfurled its wings and lifted gently into the air. The two remaining eagles lofted, each hovered over one of the Mousies, then reached down their claws to grab a pony by the mane and tail.

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeek !!!’ and ‘Gadflies !!!!!’ shrieked the ponies. Both had opened their eyes for a crazy moment and, as their heads and legs dangled from the eagles’ claws over a misty nothingness they realised looking down into the abyss had been a mistake!

Steady, strong wingbeats carried them. Magpie on the horse found a similar sense. The strength of the birds and her horse was stunning. Watching the elf-horse and the kelpie was quite different but no less amazing; the two beasts seemed to dance in the air, galloping, tossing their heads, manes and tails streaming out in the wind … and all of it in slow motion again. The ride across the abyss seemed to take both forever and no time at all. She was really sorry when the landed.

She slid off the horse to stand knee deep in black heather. Ahead was a pinnacle of stone and there, on the very top, balanced like a dancer himself, was the White Stag.




Up, Up and Away …

Morning came far too quickly for Owen. Magpie was still asleep in the crook of his arm … his arm was asleep too but he decided it was well worth it. Bluish, crepuscular light filtered into the tent and he could smell the fire … and some bacon. That did it, bacon frying got all his other appetites going, he tried to slide his arm out from under Magpie without waking her, it didn’t work.

‘Mmm-rr-mmrr-cough-choke … What?’ Magpie sat up.

Owen watched her appreciatively. Tousled and muzzy from sleep she still looked gorgeous. She blinked at him with that ‘WTF’ sort of look, then she recognised him, then she remembered, colour slid delicately up her neck to her cheeks, she began to grin.

‘That good?’ Owen quizzed her.

She just nodded, still grinning, then fumbled about to find her clothes from amongst the heap of garments at their feet. Owen passed her a shirt and wriggled his way into his own gear. Pulling on boots, he headed out then turned and stuck his head back in.

‘Eggs? Bacon? Sausage? Fried bread? Mushroom? Tomatoes?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ Magpie responded in a muffled way as her head was still inside her shirt and she couldn’t find any holes for head or arms.

Owen headed off for the cook-fire. The Wyzards and Billy were in charge there; Billy really surprised at how well he could cook, admittedly it was only the bacon and sausages he was doing but he wasn’t burning them just getting them nicely browned. The smell was making his mouth water.

‘Turn them again, Billy,’ Iolo told him kindly. ‘What’ll you have? He smiled up at Owen.

‘The lot, please. Twice.’ Owen replied, squatting down beside the fire. ‘Want me to handle our eggs?’

‘Good idea, you’ll know how you like them. Here’s a spoon,’ he thrust one plus a hot frying pan to Owen.

Owen got both by the handles, scraped some fat into the pan from the large pot beside Kevn and set it to melt on the trivet over the fire while he grabbed a couple of eggs. Then he grabbed two more eggs, sensing Magpie’s hungry yowl in his head, grinned and broke them into a bowl.

Kevn eyed the four eggs. ‘Hungry work last night then?’

Owen chuckled in reply.

Platters piled high with hot food, Owen got back to the tent. Magpie was clothed and somewhat smoothed from last time he’d seen her, she’d tidied up a bit in the tent too. Owen made a mental note to check his valuables; gorgeous girl, but … kleptomania just wasn’t in it. He passed her one of the wooden platters. She took the platter and out her knife with a quick smile of thanks, and began tucking in. He sat down opposite and joined her.

Scraping every last drop of juice from the plate with the softest bit of fried bread, saved for the job, he looked up at her.

‘Ready to face the world?’

‘Mmmm …’ she nodded, stuffing the last bit of her own sausage into her mouth. She swallowed. ‘I’ll wash up,’ she took his platter and went outside.

Owen checked through everything; surprisingly, it was all still where he’d put it but he could tell from almost invisible changes that she’d had a look. He blinked on his second sight, yes, all the threads were in place but they had been moved, just a fraction. He smiled. Well, he’d just have to keep an eye on her, didn’t seem any point in hoping she’d grow out of it; she was already very well grown (in all the right departments, he recalled fondly) and stealing was just in her blood. Useful, at time, he could see that; probably one of the traits the School wanted her for and why she’d be good freelance. Morningstar was nobody’s fool. He went out of the tent, pulled all their gear out and packed the tent away. Magpie came back with the platters, stared at the small pile of gear that sat where the tent and all their clobber had been. Her pile was larger than his and his contained the tent and all.

‘Amazing what a compression stuff bag will do, isn’t it?’ she turned her dazzling smile on him.

‘Sure is,’ he agreed, his own dazzling smile beaming back at her.

The kelpie came up and nuzzled her in the back, she stumbled forward then turned.

‘Good morning, you!’ she greeted him.

‘And to you too,’ the kelpie eyed her. ‘Hmmm! Not enough sleep. Don’t fall off!’

Blushing slightly, Magpie turned away to find her own mount and get ready for the off.

‘Good?’ the kelpie asked Owen.

‘Not that it’s any of your business!’ Owen replied.

The kelpie grinned, as only horses can. ‘Come on then, let’s be off and at it!’

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.’

Choosing the Path

The way led down and down, down and down into the valley of the Withy River, the mother-water of the Shapeshifters’ country. It was a beautiful country … but not safe. Many critters, beings seen and unseen, inhabited the woods and not all were as friendly as might be. Owen sent out a thread into the woods …

Send us a good path down to the Tarr Dragon,’ he asked inside his mind. There was a soft caress in response, accompanied by a chuckle. Owen grinned sardonically to himself, the way would not be all plain sailing. A good path would be good from the perspective  of the Land, the countryside, the forest, the river and the dragon herself … Owen’s point of view might get a look-in after they’d all had their say! He felt tentatively within himself for a thread and then outwards, into the track to find the one that they were to take.

Several threads offered themselves, a red one, a white and a dark, smoky black one.

Owen could feel the others behind him, waiting for him to begin. His own kelpie-friend and the Mousies understood completely what he was doing, waited patiently for him to get it right. The dark stranger was sensing around the edges of him, almost snuffling and licking the edge of his aura as she kenned information from him. The two biker wyzards watched, they could see the threads too, he wondered what they made of them. Later, he would find time to talk with them about it later.

Seabhag was inscrutable. Owen was certain he could see – how not, from one as old as he? – but what he saw and how, ha! That was another story altogether. The little troll watched with eyes all agog, likely he could see too but he was very young, would likely have no idea what was what. And Magpie … ha! Again! That one kenned a thing or two but sensing into her mind over the brunch had shown Owen it was likely all upside-down to his usual way of looking at things. His mouth twisted into a sideways grin, that could be fun … later! Now, he must concentrate.

Carefully, and with an asking of permission of their spirits, Owen put a thread out to each of them, connecting them all together. They wouldn’t get lost too easily now.

Again he concentrated, this time on the three threads the Land was offering him.

The red one was hot, very hot. So hot it felt cold. It led directly down the most direct route to the Steps, the stone bridge where the dragon lived, where the dragon was.

The white one was cold, very cold, like ice. So cold it felt hot. It snaked a path through the trees, under the sunlight, stealing across the new-fell snow. Glistening blindingly in the far distance Owen thought he could make out the dragon’s bridge.

The dark path wavered in and out of vision, smoking at its edges. It was between the worlds, Owen knew. It drifted lazily, elegantly, down the easiest route, often following the contour lines, making its way to the dragon’s bridge. The bridge itself smoked around its edges, like the breath of a snoozing dragon.

That was the one.

It would a tricksy path but that was the way they must go if they wanted to find the Stag. Tricksy was the way Owen usually lived his life, he grinned to himself. He clucked to the kelpie who breathed the smoke in through his own grey nostrils and led off down the path.

The kelpie stepped lightly and gracefully through the heather onto the smoky path and was soon under the first of the soft birch trees. The others followed. The soft twigs rustled gently, leaflessly, the stark white of the trunks standing up like ghostly sentinels. Owen could feel their energy, their auras, they were quivering with anticipation. They would be watched. He hoped they would be allowed to at least get down to the bridge at Tarr, speak to the dragon, she would know where the stag was to be found.

Morgan Refreshed …

Morgan's Room

Morgan slipped into her room and slumped into the chair with a sigh.

Her room was large and at the top of the rambling old house, but not under the eves. She still had the high ceiling which she loved, giving her a sense of light and air. The tall south-facing windows opened onto a small balcony, hidden from the other rooms, giving her private space. As housekeeper for the Arms she needed it. Owen was quite a handful (in every sense!) to manage, it was essential that she have space to get away, be alone.

Coronae was already there before her, sat on the bow-perch by the French windows, Tabitha was coiled on the bed, her silver tabby stripes blending nicely with the soft, woven throw Morgan’s friend Joan had given her. Morgan let out a longer sigh and leaned back into the comfort of the chair. It silently pushed out its footrest, lifting her feet, while a cup of cinnamon chocolate floated across the room to settle on the table beside her.

‘Thank you,’ Morgan said to the room in general. It looked after her very well, she appreciated it.

‘Want a bath?’ called the bath from the bathroom

‘No time, thanks. Owen has acquired a houseful and I must get back in a minute to sort out brunch. We have a Shapeshifting stranger who appears not to have control over her own shifting. Then this lovely young girl arrived on a wonk flying carpet. I think she’s a thief and a gambler,’ Morgan added. ‘She smelled like one. I trust Owen keeps the valuable locked up, he obviously has an eye to her.’ Morgan chuckled, sipped at the delicious chocolate, it zinged its way through her, perking her up enormously. ‘Next came a couple of Interplanetary Biking Wyzards on the most fabulous machines. I think they really foxed Tyler, he got quite grumpy! The bikers brought a tall, handsome elf with them and a baby troll. And some news. Apparently Jimson’s  baby dragon has gone and got herself kidnapped!’

Morgan paused while most of the furnishings let out a gasp of horror at the potential consequences which even the dumbest tallboy could see. Coronae, Morgan’s familiar crow, let out a squawk.

‘Sheeesh! That’ll fry Jimson’s bacon an’ no mistake,’ she added, fluttering down to perch on the arm of Morgan’s chair and steal some of the cinnamon chocolate.  Morgan smacked her beak before she got the chance.

‘What’s they all come down here for?’ the crow asked, quite unruffled at the reprimand.

‘I think the elf and the troll are here to find the dragon. Magpie, the thief, I suspect is looking for somewhere to hole-up and maybe make a bit of cash. Oh and get her carpet mended, Owen put Dryw on that. The shifter-woman want the help of the White Stag. That’s what they all want, to ask the White Stag for answers to their questions.’

‘Think Daaf knows where the ditzy dragonet is?’

‘Certain sure,’ Morgan told the crow. ‘What they need is to learn how to ask the right question. Morgan drained the cup of the last of the chocolate, fishing the last grains of cinnamon out with a delicate fingertip. ‘Now, thank you all for the resuscitation but I must get back downstairs and help Drwyn sort the food. And make sure Owen brings out the right ales and spirits.’

She got up, made a quick sortie into the bathroom and came out further refreshed. She blew a kiss to the room and whisked herself down the twisting stairs to the main bar.

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.

The Dark Stranger …

Back in the bar, the dark stranger held out its mug for more beer.

‘Sorry about all that,’ Owen said as he refilled the mug, ‘but it’s being one of those sort of mornings. I think you were telling me you want to hunt the White Stag, just before the place caught fire and the carpet landed.  Do you know much about the Stag?’

Most of the latest pint of Ratspee went down the stranger’s throat in one long swallow. He – or she – can certainly hold his (or her) drink, Owen thought to himself, I wonder what they’d be like with the yard of ale? The yard-long glass horn hung over the huge inglenook fireplace at the far end of the main bar, it usually came out for a competition during the Hunting.

‘Dark ale!’

The guttural demand coming out of the hood pulled Owen out of his reflections.

‘You’d like some dark ale? Umm … we have Badger’s Broth, Hedgehog Treacle – that’s a lovely sweet ale with a hint of honeyed heather in it – and Otter Spraint. There’s a new barrel of that just gone up yesterday, lovely stuff. Jem Muxworthy makes it specially for the hunting season.’

‘Otter spraint.’

Nobody could accuse the dark stranger of being garrulous, in fact it – Owen had given up on genders – was brusque almost to a fault. He drew a pint of Spraint in a fresh pewter tankard and swapped it for the other.

‘Thank you,’ the stranger said, then opened up a little more. ‘Tell me something of the stag.’

Owen’s brows went up, he took a breath and slipped into taleweaver mode.

‘The white stag has been seen hereabouts so I’ve been expecting folk to come for the hunt. You know the stag gives wishes to those who manage to catch him.’ Owen paused, watching for reactions, there were none as yet. ‘I consider this a dubious boon. You always get what you wish for but, if you haven’t thought it out very carefully you find that what you wished for isn’t at all what you really wanted. And you’re stuck with it. I rarely go wishing with the white stag although I’ve met the beast several times in the deep forest under Kerri’s Fort. We just chat carefully now, Daaf has given up trying to tempt me with wishes, we just exchange news and gossip, pass the time of day.’

The tankard came forward again. ‘More Spraint … please.’

Owen complied, beginning to be quite awed with the beast’s capacity.

‘You realise the hazards?’ he asked, passing the refilled tankard across the bar. ‘Daaf  –  as I said before – is one of the patron spirits of our moors and woods here. He can and will give you exactly whatever you wish for.’ Owen paused again. ‘That, of course, can be hazardous since you always get exactly what you ask for. Consequently, the wise are extremely careful of what they wish for. I am happy to help you formulate the appropriate question.’

A low rumbling noise emanated from the stranger again, not like hounds baying this time but more like a tiger purring. The claws came up and pushed the hood further back. Now Owen could see the yellow vertical-slit pupils of the eyes. They stood out in the dark shadows of the face that still swirled without staying still in any one form.

‘You can see my difficulty,’ the beast said, catching and holding Owen’s eyes with its own.

As he was held by the gaze so Owen felt himself slip under the skin of the beast. He was everything, all at once. It was a dizzying, sickening feeling, nothing to hang on to, no edges or boundaries. He knew he was swaying on his feet, hoped he wouldn’t throw up.

The eyes let go of his. He rocked back into the world he knew, clutched at the solid oak of the bar with both hands and heard himself breathing like a traction engine.

‘Aach! Ugh! Ah! Ye-es … yes, I think I do,’ he managed after a moment.

‘I need to be able to hold my shape. Whatever shape I choose.’

‘How is that you cannot?’

‘Ah … tis a long story. I might leave it in full until the others come. I feel I shall not be alone on this quest although each hunter quests only for his own purposes and none infringe on the other.’ It took another swig of ale. ‘But briefly, it was a wizard.’

Owen groaned. ‘Spivs and assholes, the lot of ‘em,’ he said, not minding his language.

The rumbley purr sounded again. Was it a chuckle, Owen thought?

‘I cannot but agree,’ the beast replied. ‘They stole my choices away from me with kindly sounding and care-full words, but they are weasels all. And I like weasels although they can be as devious as dragons.’

‘And how do you hope the stag will help you? What question can you ask that will bring your choices back?’

‘Ah … that is my problem. I hope to journey tonight. That is why I am consuming as much of your local brews as possible. They help to dissolve the walls the wizard set around me. He knew I had to be contained since I could no longer contain myself, so he made these walls out of spinning threads that he wove on a dark loom, then he bound me within them. I am alone in here, alone and lonely until such time as I am set free.’

The voice was so matter-of-fact that it tore at Owen’s heart. The beast was patient, did not moan nor yet expect others to rescue it. That kind of courage was always special.

‘We will help,’ he said, his hand reaching into the dark folds of the stranger’s cloak to touch, to give comfort. He felt himself touch the claws and then … nothing. It was as if nothing was there.

Owen stared, narrowing his eyes and trying to hold his own focus. For a moment, just a fragment of a moment, he had the vision of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

The Three Wizards

It was Dmitri’s car and he loved it – a big, shiny, beautifully-polished Capri which he’d personally customised with the interdimensional portal he and Peter had cooked up and the Multi-Global Positioning System which Len had invented. Thus equipped for interdimensional travel, the three friends had decided to have themselves a road trip – and they’d found Yardoz. They liked Yardoz – the scenery was amazing, the beer was fabulous – although admittedly they’d been laughed off the dance floor when they’d entered that stupid tango contest at the paddle store the talking crocodile ran on Shit Creek. Still, while knocking back the cider the locals called Wyvern’s Flame and making moves on the pretty ladies (but failing to score), they’d heard about this place that had simply the most incredible beer on the whole world, everyone said – the Wolf’s Head or something. So, after the hangovers from the tango competition and its drinking had worn off, they’d decided they’d head for this Wolf’s Head and spend some time there.

Easier said than done – the MGPS didn’t seem to be able to locate the place, the directions they got along the way had added at least a couple of solar systems to their travelling distance and now they were parked on top of a moorland with nothing but heather and trees in all directions, as far as the eye could see. Discouraging, as Peter remarked, but they’d lucked out with Len’s pocket magic compass, which had indicated a lot of magic just to what the MGPS claimed was their north-west.

The open, unfenced road over the moor dropped suddenly into a hedged and ditched sunken lane with woodland either side as they motored on, following the compass now, then Dmitri screamed and stamped on the brake hard as something huge and white soared over the hedge to his right, landing in a bounce on the road in front of them. Len, who was in the front, grabbed the wheel and between them they managed to steer the Capri into the ditch in a wild swerve, just barely avoiding what turned out to be a large white stag with golden antlers and red eyes, which gave them a snooty look, posing in the middle of the single-track lane. Peter disentangled himself from their supply of beer in the backseat, confused.

The White Stag

“What happened?”

“That did!” Dmitri was shaking as he pointed at the stag, “Stupid bloody animal! My car! My beautiful car!”

As they scrambled out of the Capri, which was rakishly perched at a nose-down angle in the ditch, the stag let out a sound like a fart but from its front end, then bounced off down the road like Bambi (but bigger, smellier and spikier) before bounding apparently effortlessly over the hedge and out of sight again.

“If I ever get my hands on that damn animal again-!” Dmitri was stroking his car like a man consoling a wounded pet, but Len clapped his hands together.

“Let’s get her out of the ditch and see what’s what, Dmitri old mate! We might be lucky, you know?”

It took all three of them to move the car out of the ditch, and in the process they all slithered about in the mud and fell over a few times, so they were filthy, exhausted and more than cross as they sat in the road with the car safely level again. Peter cracked open a few bottles of beer to keep them going, then Dmitri tried the car’s engine. It started, raising a cheer from his friends, and they all climbed back in again as it started to rain.

“Can’t be far to that pub now!” Peter encouraged, hopefully, and Dmitri put the car in gear, moving off gingerly – in case there were any more stupid deer waiting to ambush them.

At the bottom of the hill, they came out from between the trees to see a bridge in front of them, and beyond it wide green fields and a driveway leading to a big cluster of buildings on the side of the hill. The bridge was wide and inviting so Dmitri put his foot down, but as they got closer he took it off the gas again, then put it on the brake – then realised the bridge was in fact narrower than the car and stood on the brake with both feet, letting out another scream of terror. The Capri lost traction and skidded down the road, fetching up with a horrible scraping and grinding – then stopped, wedged firmly between the stone walls either side of the bridge, which turned out now to be barely wide enough for a single person on foot.

“What were you doing?” Len demanded, astounded, “It’s too narrow for a car!”

“It wasn’t when we first saw it!” Dmitri tried to open his door and failed miserably. Len wound his window down and stuck his head out, then gulped. It was a surprisingly long way down to the water bubbling ominously under the bridge. He hauled himself carefully out of the window and slithered on his belly over the car’s roof and bonnet, ending up on the bridge in front of the car. Peter followed him and finally Dmitri, moaning at the horrendous damage done to his beautiful vehicle, crawled out after them. It took both Peter and Len, working together, to prise him away from the crushed Capri and lead him up the driveway to the house and barns ahead of them.

At the entrance to the spacious cobbled yard, a black snarling wolf’s head was painted on a sign that swung slightly in the wind. The rain running down the paint made it seem almost to move. The three wizards looked apprehensively at the gleaming yellow eyes, then realised what it meant.

“We did it! This is the Wolf’s Head!” Peter said it first, triumphant, and Len cheered damply,

“Home of the best beer on Yardoz!”

“My car….” Dmitri moaned faintly, and it was hard to tell if the water running down his face was the rain or tears of sorrow for his mangled treasure on the bridge.

“Come on, mate, you’ll feel better with a good drink in you!” Len encouraged, and they staggered through the wide, welcoming-looking door with ‘BAR’ painted above it.

The room was warm, spacious, liberally supplied with large, comfy-looking chairs and tables at just the perfect height for beer mugs, and immediately in front of them was a long bar stocked with a mouth-watering eye-dazzling array of bottles and taps and glasses.

“Oh my!” Peter breathed, awed, “So much beer!”

“Afternoon!” a sturdy-looking young man appeared behind the bar and began polishing an already immaculate glass in the traditional manner, “You gents look like you need a warming drink or three! What can I get you, sirs?”

“Oh, uh, ooh…” Len began, looking along the taps, “Flame, yeah! That’s good stuff… let’s start with three pints of Wyvern’s Flame, please!

“Three pints it is.”Jimmy acknowledged, pulling the first one expertly. The froth was as gold as new sovereigns above the rich fire-red fortified cider as he set the glasses down, and all three of the wizards sighed in delight and relief as they took long initial draughts from their glasses.

“Ooh, that’s the stuff!”Peter sighed again, the three of them trailing towards a table near the fireplace. Dmitri, in the lead, stopped dead as he came round the final high-backed armchair to see the fireplace – and the hearthrug – and the white stag, curled on the rug with his hooves tucked under him and his nose in his flank!

“That stupid bloody animal!!” Dmitri screamed, hurling his glass one way and his soaked scarf the other, then extended both hands in front of himself “Fireballs! I’ll fry the wretched thing!!”

The stag bounced to all four hooves, seemingly by levitation, let out the blarting noise again, then lowered his head and charged. A fireball hit his antlers and shattered into a thousand sparks dancing over the room, then half a dozen huge hairy wolfhounds surged from where they’d been snoozing in a heap behind the stag, baying ferociously as they joined in, and last of all, a knee-high white-bellied blue-backed dragon rolled over from where she’d been sleeping upside down in the fire and stared, then bounded into the fray, letting out possibly the most extraordinary draconic war-cry ever heard.

“Woof, woof, woof!!” Sparky shouted at the top of her voice, forgetting her species in her excitement, and grabbed Dmitri’s ankle in her teeth, yanking hard. He fell over backwards just in time for the stag’s next rush to miss hitting him and was trampled instead, Len and Peter knocked sideways by the stag’s plunge and turn as he headed back for another go.

Jimson heard the ruckus from his office and put his pen down. He hated doing the accounts and didn’t usually mind an interruption – but not on this scale! He opened the door in time to catch the glass that flew from Len’s hand as the hounds knocked the young wizard down; Jimson paused only to set the glass down safely on the bar and then lifted his voice in a powerful bellow,

“That’s enough! Everyone – quieten down!”

Total silence fell, broken by a faint rustling sound as Sparky let go of Dmitri’s trousers, which she’d managed to drag off the downed wizard, and they fell to the floor. Jimson surveyed the lounge bar critically. The hounds obeyed his gesture and slunk back to the fireplace, the stag considered for a moment then lowered his head and went along with them meekly, and Sparky reversed out of sight behind a chair hurriedly.

“That’s better. Put your trousers on, please, sir. We do request all patrons to remain clothed or furred, according to species, except in their own rooms. Jimmy, what happened?”

“I gather the gentlemen have some problem with the White Stag, Dad. They attacked him while he was sleeping by the fire.”

“I see. You have a vehicle somewhere?”

“My car! My beautiful car!” Dmitri hopped on one leg, his other foot in the air as he tried to put his trousers back on, furious again as he realised how undignified he looked, “My car is stuck on your bridge! And that animal attacked us in the road; he put us in the ditch! Who’s going to pay for my wrecked car? It’s ruined! A highly-expensive custom paint-job, hand-painted! Cost thousands!”

“If your car is stuck on the Bridge, sir, then I’ll be asking you to return to it. I think you’ll find you can reverse off the Bridge and leave safely. I think you’d be the three gentlemen my friend Sobek mentioned to me – you were at the tango competition at the Paddle Store, I believe? The Sally Bridge is rather good at judging who’ll be able to stay here and who won’t – for those who will, it is a fine, wide bridge – for those who won’t, it can be as narrow as a twig. Those who don’t understand its nature call it the Silly Bridge for that reason. As for the White Stag, he does jump into the road in front of people from time to time, it’s in his nature to do so. Had you picked up his challenge, he’d have led you on a wonderful quest and you’d have learned and grown a great deal. We’ve no rooms available at present here, sirs, so I’d advise you to try the Turf’n’Donkey, it’s at the other end of the valley, on your left as you’re leaving the village. Good day, gentlemen!” Jimson added, herding the three wizards out of the door expertly and shutting it firmly behind them.They trudged back to the car in the rain, dejected, and pushed the Capri backwards off the bridge before getting in and driving away, simmering with rage and humiliation.

The Turf’n’Donkey was a hovel in comparison to the Wolfshead, a low-ceilinged smoky place with the endless sound of hammers even in the night and the owner was a surly, one-eyed man with a limp who snarled as he showed them a single room to stay in. Len tried the beer but was almost immediately sick, and the food was so unappealing that they just pushed it around the plates and went to bed hungry.

“I’m going to get that Stag – and those people at the Wolfshead.” Dmitri vowed, lying on a lumpy mattress in the dark listening to the thudding of the hammers in the distance, “Somehow, I’m going to make them pay!”