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 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Plotting Rescue

Annet and Briony had just finished serving up a huge and delicious meal to the Interplanetary Biking Wyzards, who’d thawed out. One of them was busy telling an eager Robin all about their refuelling trip to a nearby black hole – which was why they’d got so cold – around his plateful of food. Jimson and Jimmy had filled up all the glasses and left a couple of jugs on the table ready for topping up as people needed. Jimson was just heading for the kitchen in the hope of a brew of tea before anyone else arrived when a determined-sounding tap on the front door distracted him. The pheonix couldn’t be back already, the cockerel Bugler was in the henhouse strutting his stuff for the chickens – were they expecting anyone else on wings?

He opened the door, looking down, and a white falcon made an imperative yarping noise at him from the doorstep. Automatically, Jimson held his arm out for the bird and she flew up to land on his forearm, considerately not sticking her talons right through his sleeve but balancing with half-spread wings and looking him in the eye as she yarped again.

She looked him in the eye.

“I think we’ve met before, and I think you’re with the elf warrior-wyzard, aren’t you? In which case, there’s trouble coming soon.” Jimson remarked to the bird, conversationally, “I’ve never known trouble anywhere but Seabhag’s hot on its tail and ready to help! Briony, could you go get a room ready for another guest, please? One elf, one falcon, one ermine, as I recall – am I right?” he added, and the falcon yarped, ducking her head. Briony came out of the kitchen, looking inquisitively at the bird.

“That’s a fine gyrfalcon! Where’s she come from?”

“She’s… ahh…. associated with a half-elf warrior-wyzard of my acquaintance, as is the ermine. As I recall, her name’s Ghearr.” Jimson held his arm out for the bird to cross to Briony, which she did quite willingly, “I’ll tell your aunt to get the Russian Caravan tea out – Seabhag prefers hot tea to alcohol when he first arrives anywhere.”

“You’re a familiar, h’m?” Briony addressed the gyrfalcon and the bird ducked her head and let out a trilling squeak, almost as if she was giggling.

“It’s a good question whether she’s Seabhag’s familiar or he’s hers!” Jimson muttered, heading into the kitchen, “Annet, Seabhag’s gyrfalcon just turned up – he’ll be here soon, I’d guess, and he usually likes Russian Caravan tea.”

“I’ll get the kettle on, it’ll only take a minute to make a pot.” Annet responded, “Seabhag mac Shealgair? The elf?”

“The one and only! And watch out for that ermine that goes with him – as I recall, the creature’s not so much a familiar as a presumptuous!” Jimson added, but poured himself a cup of ordinary tea, “Where’s Billy got to?”

“He’s gone to look for Sparky.” Annet spooned Russian Caravan tea into a big earthenware pot, “She’s gone off somewhere by herself, the little monkey!”

“It’s in the nature of young dragons to explore the world and get into trouble – young trolls, I’m not so sure about! Sending Billy to look for anything – it’s a gamble what you’ll get back!”

A tap on the back door was followed by a distressed-looking Billy entering the kitchen, managing to look woebegone while still leading Seabhag by the hand.

“I can’t find Sparky. And there was rum and biscuits by the river. And this is a wizard.” He began, jumbling everything together in his eagerness to get the news out, “Bully was there, he’s my brother, and –“

“Whoa, young troll!” Seabhag laughed a little, “All in order, otherwise you’ll have Jimson’s head going round on his shoulders! I saw the White Stag up on the hill, Jimson, he said I’d best come this way and see what I found. Good evening, my lady Annet.”

“You found Billy, obviously – but not Sparky?” Annet tried not to be flattered by Seabhag’s courtly manners.

“No, not Sparky. Someone had laid a trail of charcoal biscuits soaked in rum down the hedge and then put the bottle and a full box in plain view at the bottom of the field. By the tracks, I’d say your little dragon guzzled the lot and passed out, then a human and a large troll rolled her up in something and made away with her, down the valley. Billy here says the troll was his brother Bully, who’s a mercenary. So my question is, who would hire a troll to kidnap your baby dragon?”

Jimson sat down. Sparky – kidnapped! Oh my, what would her mother say? And there he was with a houseful of guests and a rescue mission to organise around them! Annet poured out a cup of tea for the tall albino elf and put it on the table, practically.

“Russian Caravan, Seabhag – we remembered you like it.”

“I do indeed, and thank you very much, Annet.” Seabhag half-bowed, then sat down and picked up the cup. The ermine slipped out of his pocket and poured himself sinuously onto the table, heading for a plate of fairy cakes at the other end. Jimson picked the ermine up absently before he reached the baking and Annet put a dish of chopped rabbit down for him instead. He fell on it with gusto.

“I can’t think of anyone who’d have that much of a grudge against Sparky, she’s only a few months old. It usually takes longer to develop enemies! If her mother has enemies, they’d be suicidal to take it out on her baby.”

“What about those silly pratts who tried to attack the White Stag?” Briony asked, coming back in with the gyrfalcon now on her shoulder. Seabhag rose to his feet politely and she paused, her eyes widening slightly as she took him in. Six feet of albino elf was a graceful addition to the kitchen’s population!

“My niece, Briony. Briony, meet Seabhag mac Shealgair.” Jimson introduced them, still distracted, and Seabhag bowed elegantly,

“I’m honoured to meet you, Briony.”

“The pleasure is mine, Seabhag!” Briony bowed back and Ghearr yarped, gliding off her shoulder to land on the table, where she helped herself from the ermine’s dish. He chittered at her crossly, grabbed a piece of meat and made for Seabhag’s pocket as the elf sat down again.

“If it was those three spivs, I sent them on to the Turf’n’Donkey. Hal, would you get onto Goibniu on the ethericnet and find out what happened with them?” Jimson asked, and Hal nodded and went, quickly, “But where would they take her?”

“It’s questing season in the south – the White Stag there would answer the question if it was asked of him.” Seabhag suggested, and Billy took a tight grip on his courage.

“I’ll go and ask!”

Everyone looked at him. Of all the people who would volunteer, Jimson thought, exasperated, Billy would be the first – and the least suitable choice! But how to say that without totally destroying the little troll’s self-confidence?

“It’s my brother who’s helped steal her. I should help get her back.” Billy insisted, seeing the dubious looks, and Seabhag sipped his tea,

“Since the White Stag sent me along here to help you read the tracks, Billy, perhaps you’ll permit me to join your quest to rescue Sparky?”

Jimson and Annet breathed matching sighs of relief – Billy’s over-confident clumsiness would be well-balanced by Seabhag’s abundance of experience and competance!

“Goibniu at the Turf’n’Donkey says those three wizards went off together with their car after they’d had a quote from him for repairing it – they couldn’t pay the bill.” Hal came back in, and Seabhag nodded.

“I think we’d better go south and try to find the White Stag there, Billy. Around here, the White Stag brings challenges and quests – but in the south, he rewards those who can find him with answers to their questions. I don’t know the country there as well I do around here – do you know anyone in that area who could help us in the quest, Jimson?”

“Yes – my cousin Owen Corbie, he keeps the Shapeshifter’s Arms there – he’ll know where the White Stag is there is anyone does! How to get you there quickly?” Jimson mused, then snapped his fingers and got up, walking into the dining room, where the Wyzards had nearly reached dessert, “Excuse me, gentlemen – we have a problem. The little dragon who was here when you came appears to have been kidnapped – I’ve a couple of friends here who’ll go search for her, but they need to get to the Shapeshifter’s Arms as quickly as possible to find the White Stag – would it be possible for one or two or you to take them that far?”

“What, that pretty little blue and white dragon? The one who went outside when we put more wood on the fire? Gosh, if we hadn’t disturbed her, she wouldn’t have gone out to be kidnapped!” Kevn sat up, a guilty expression crossing his face, “Of course we’ll take them to the Shapeshifter’s Arms!”

“Thank you very much – after dinner?”

General noises of agreement came from all round the table and Jimson went back to the kitchen,

“They’re about ready for dessert through there, and they’ll gladly give you and Billy a lift down to the Shapeshifter’s Arms. You’ll be there, oh…. allowing for time differences and the special exception to relativity the Wyzards use, about in time for brunch?”

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!”

Kidnap!

Sparky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!”