Sunday, 27 January 2013

Avan Weatherstrong and the Stalker Wolf

He turned to face the creature and understood now why the people of this land called it the Stalker Wolf. The beast stood, seven and a half feet tall, on its hind legs. 

On occasion it would do us all well to be reminded that there are real heroes who wander between the realms of man and the realms of the folk. One such was the great magician Avan Weatherstrong, a braver, wiser and kinder wandering prince one could not hope to find.

The knight was the youngest of an embarrassingly large number of male siblings. For this reason Avan Weatherstrong was compelled to search hard for his path in life. He required a social position that would allow him to be appropriately royal. At the same time, it could not be so royal that it sparked political difficulties between himself and one of his brothers.

Thankfully he had a talent for magic. This would have been a disaster if Avan Weatherstrong was a serious contender for his own royal seat. Or if one of his brothers had got there first. Happily, neither was the case. Because of this serendipity the prince became a fine and disciplined alchemist. He learned his craft under some of the finest tutelage available in his land at the time.

When Avan Weatherstrong came of age the celebrations were somewhat muted. At twenty one, he had only nine years to work out what to do with the entire rest of his life. By thirty a prince is expected to have made all the important decisions. Further he is expected to be ready to go forward into a future filled with stability and prosperity.

Avan Weatherstrong was a student of some accomplishment. Despite this, he had no life experience. He was wise enough to know that, unless he acquired some, he risked being an embarrassment to his family line. He did not want to be the sad kind of prince who never found ease with their station in life. Such men were always reversing direction and indulging in fads and fancies. Much apart from anything else Avan Weatherstrong did not believe that suited his own sense of self. Something had to be done.

What Avan Weatherstrong did was to make a road pack, saddle up a steed and set out into the world to find adventure. Today's story is about one of those adventures.

When the young prince set out upon his journey he determined to explore some of the far off places. In the fringes of reality magic is more potent and strange things are commonplace. His desire was to gain an insight into the heart of magic, the Liminus, a point in the great weave that is between all things.

There are tales of his time at the edges but nobody knows whether Avan Weatherstrong did get his insight. There are facts to suggest that he did. He returned from the soft places and undertook further adventure. he eventually settled to happiness and stability. Storytellers offer these facts as the proof. Only he could have told us and it would appear that he never did, for stories of his exploits are all very old and there will be no more that are new.

It came about that on his way from Weatherstrong outward to those soft places Prince Avan passed through the land of Skulkmite. A land that was caught within a moment at the edge of winter, cold and bitter, with little in the way of daylight. Avan had been riding since morning as the sky had darkened and the air had slowly turned to bitterness.

He had been in the saddle long enough by this time to have developed some sense of a day on the road. He only stopped to make camp or, occasionally to stay at a coaching inn for the night. He had passed through three large cities and had taken some time to learn a little of each of them.

Avan Weatherstrong was not a young man who would rush into peril. Even so, he always felt that something was lacking when time was passing too pleasantly. So, as the warm weather of the summer he had left behind was cut to ribbons by a constant north wind. As he was forced to stop to pull on a heavier riding coat. As the outline of trees on the horizon began to resemble clawed hands more than soft green clouds. Avan got a taste of something amiss in the air.

The prince had not considered what he would do if he encountered evil or mischief on his wanderings. He was not a knight for he obeyed protocol, which is neither code of law nor spiritual path. Seeing the desolate wasteland that surrounded him he understood that evil was now close at hand.

Avan Weatherstrong decided that he should seek it out. He resolved that if it was in his power he would put an end to this evil, whatever it proved to be. As he rode his horse along the main road that lead into the land that he had entered he approached a farm house in the distance.

He spurred his steed on to reach the dwelling, dismounted and rapped upon the door of the house. After a few moments a hatch in the door, decorated with the symbol of a shooting star, opened. A man looked out through the barred slit, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.

"Who are you?" asked the man.

"A traveller in this land," Avan replied. "I notice that the weather here is significantly worse than in the bordering lands, unusually so. I wonder if you would be able to tell me why that would be."

"This land belongs to the Stalker Wolf," the man behind the door replied. "It hunts under a fat, autumn moon, it has made the land this way for many years. You would best to be off the road by nightfall."

"Is this wolf dangerous?" Avan asked. "Can no one drive a lone wolf from your realm?"

"This is the Stalker Wolf," the man replied. "Sir Skulkmire battles with the beast whenever he is able, but the wolf is cunning, it eludes capture."

"Maybe Sir Skulkmire would benefit from a helping hand," Avan said. "Where might I find him so that I may offer him my assistance?"

"Many have come, traveller," the man said. "None have left alive. If you are another fool you will need to follow the road for Skulkmire Woods. At the end of the road is Skulkmire Manor. Good luck."

His speech finished the man closed the door hatch without waiting for thanks. Avan got back up on his horse and made his way along the road into Skulkmire Woods.

The woods were sparse and marshy, filled with mist. Avan had to ride across several bridges to find the manor. The house was made of stone blocks that may once have been a light grey, or white, now they were black and grimy. The manor was not just old but looked to be in bad repair.

As Avan rode up the path towards the manor he was met by a figure dressed in hunter's garb.

"Who goes there?" the man asked.

"I am a traveller in these lands," Avan replied. "My name is Avan Weatherstrong, I seek Sir Skulkmire."

"And you have found him," the hunter replied. "What business do you have with me, stranger?"

"I understand that it is your duty to find the Stalker Wolf," Avan said. "I offer my assistance."

Skulkmire said nothing, just nodded his head.

"You're most welcome here," the knight replied. "Whether you will find the Wolf so friendly I severely doubt. Come, eat with me, we will set out when the moon rises."

Avan and Skulkmire sat down together at an old, worn table that would have gladly provided seating for twenty guests. Skulkmire's servant, a tall, thin man with gleaming eyes, brought a meal of cold meats and boiled vegetables. The prince observed the servant carried out his duties with a tall, crooked top had sat atop his head.

"Is it just you and your servant?" Avan asked Skulkmire as the meal was served. He was curious to find out the story behind the top hatted servant. Protocol and diplomacy prevented him from asking directly.

"My family are dead," Skulkmire explained. "Killed by the Stalker Wolf. I cannot marry till the beast is dead."

Skulkmire fell silent. That was the end of the conversation. Avan felt that he was not truly welcome at the manor. He could not understand why.

While they ate night fell, a Hunter's Moon rose over the land pale and fat. The moon was so large and so bright that it provided almost as much light as filtered through the greasy, grey clouds of the daytime. The night sky was clear, making the air even colder, but the Hunter's Moon was so bright that no stars shone in the inky sky.

"Come then, if you're coming," Skulkmire said as he lead his own horse out from the stables. "And may the Hunter's Moon bring you the luck to live through till morning."

With that the dour knight climbed up on to his horse and rode out of the Manor Estate. Avan mounted his own steed and followed after.

For hours the two rode together, searching Skulkmire woods for sign of the wolf. The hour grew later and later, then earlier again. Not long after midnight Avan believed that they would not find the wolf that night.

"I hear something!" Sir Skulkmire said. "Wait here!"

The knight spurred his horse and rode into the trees. Avan had not heard anything. He was not confident that separating was the best course of action. Skulkmire was too hasty, already gone before Avan could voice his concerns.

Before long Avan did hear something, the sound of heavy paws squelching through the marshy ground of the woods. Avan heard the snuffling breath of the beast, from the rumbling noise he guessed that the Hunter's Wolf must be large indeed.

Avan dismounted his steed and drew his sword, tilting his head in an attempt to identify the location of be beast. The wolf was fast. Before Avan could work out where it was it charged him, bursting out from between two trees, claws extended, jaws open.

Avan dodged and managed to evade the first attack. One look at the beast told him that it was no ordinary wolf, it was not even the larger dire wolf that terrorised some lands. All mundane wolves hunted in packs. A hunter encountering one alone could best them. The reason the Stalker Wolf dominated this land was that it was clearly a supernatural beast.

This beast was bigger than a man, more like the size of a bear. Missing Avan it sailed past, tucked and rolled to a stop. Avan knew the beast had magic but he didn't know exactly what that magic was. He didn't intend to stand still and ponder the matter if he was not swift he doubted he would get any second chances.

He knew that, short of a swift beheading, sword wounds would only make the animal more angry. Avan did not have the necessary equipment to win a fight. He knew he needed to retreat and come back with a more suitable weapon.

He hurried to the pack he had slung over his horse and picked a vial of powder from one of its front pockets. He could hear the wolf was coming for him, it had recovered and he could hear a slow tread approaching him. It was only five feet away now, but Avan knew that to live he would have to be calm and act with purpose.

He turned to face the creature and understood now why the people of this land called it the Stalker Wolf. The beast stood, seven and a half feet tall, on its hind legs. If there had been any doubt in Avan's mind regarding the nature of the wolf its loping two legged gait dispelled them in an instant.

Avan unstoppered the vial and threw its contents into the wolf's face as the beast leapt toward him again. He dodged out of the way a second time. As he did so he knew that he had succeeded in his goal. He could hear the sizzle of the wolf's skin burning. He could smell blood in the air.

The vial had contained powdered iron. Iron was an extremely dangerous substance for anything that had magic running in its veins. The wolf would recover but Avan bet that he had a chance to escape while the beast was surprised.

Avan lost no time, he climbed up into his horse's saddle and rode the animal away from the wolf as fast as he could. Before long he passed through the gates of the manor house and closed the gates behind him. He rode up to the front of the house where he was met by Sir Skulkmire's servant.

"I think your master is in some trouble," Avan said to the man.

The servant looked up at Avan with his sparkling eyes, a slow smile spread across his face.

"The master is home and in bed," he said. "He came back not long ago. I shall take your horse and prepare you a room, sir."

Avan dismounted.

"Sir Skulkmire came home?" he asked the servant.

"That he did, sir," the servant replied.

"But he left me in the woods!" Avan said, shocked.

"He believed the wolf would surely end you. He told me so before the pair of you even left, sir," the servant said as he tied the horse up in the stable building.

"He planned for the wolf to kill me," Avan said.

"I probably wouldn't go that far, sir," the servant replied. "But you are the first to survive a night in the woods. The first ever since the wolf came."

"It is a magical beast," Avan said. "It will need a special weapon to kill it."

"That it will, sir," the servant replied. "And a special man to wield the weapon. Come with me."

The servant lead Avan into the manor house and up three flights of stairs into an attic storage room. In the room piles of dusty crates and boxes stacked up to the ceiling, seemingly at random. The servant picked his way through the clutter with ease.

It was a silver short sword, the emblem of
the shooting star engraved into the blade.
In the very back of the room there was a display cabinet, that contained a single item. It was a silver short sword, the emblem of the shooting star stamped onto its blade.

"What is this?" Avan asked.

"It is a weapon that will kill the beast," the servant replied.

"Why are you showing it to me?" Avan asked.

"You are the man to wield it, sir," the servant replied. "You will need one more thing from me."

The servant reached up into the cabinet and appeared to grapple for a moment with empty air, he turned back to Avan with his hands raised.

"Please, approach," the servant said.

Avan came forward and the servant moved around, making motions as if hanging something on Avan's shoulders. Avan was amazed to find the sensation of heavy cloth landing there, even though it appeared that the servant held nothing at all.

"What is this?" Avan asked.

"Invisible cloak, sir," the servant explained. "It were best that the master believes you to be dead. I will tell him your horse returned alone. You take the sword and wrap yourself in the cloak. When the master goes out tomorrow night you can follow and observe."

Avan Weatherstrong was not one to back down from confrontation but he did as the servant asked. Skulkmire Woods and the Stalker Wolf had claimed many lives, neither should be underestimated.

When the night came round again Avan left the attic rooms and moved slowly and carefully down to a side entrance to the manor. From there he left the house and moved out to the front expecting to see Sir Skulkmire mounting his horse.

The knight did leave the house by the front entrance but he remained on foot and took a path through the estate into a small walled garden. Avan Weatherstrong followed on behind. Sir Skulkmire walked through the walled garden. Its beds were overgrown and wild with neglect. Skulkmire walked on, out through a gate into the woods.

There was another, hidden, path laid out from the walled garden. It wound through the trees to a small clearing. In the clearing was a stone table, bolted onto the surface of the table was a metal box, old and weathered.

"That foolish stranger can't have had any meat on his bones," Sir Skulkmire complained. "I am absolutely ravenous."

With that he opened the box on the table. Then he reached up to the sides of his face and fiddled around behind his ears.

Avan Weatherstrong had seen a few things whilst he had been apprenticed as an alchemist. What he saw next caused his eyes to widen and his breath to catch. Sir Skulkmire's face came away from his head, revealed as a mask held over another face by no more than a thread of gold.

As the mask came away the whole of Skulkmire's body changed. His knightly attire, his very shape and substance became smoky and indistinct. The smoke rose quickly in the night air, evaporating under the Hunter's Moon. Avan believed that he could see images in the smoke, cackling demons, squirming snakes. So many evil, hungry things.

The images appeared to reach out for Avan, through his eyes and into his mind. He believed that he could feel claws scratching at some part of him, deep inside. He felt a mounting panic, he was giddy with the sensation of falling.

He scrambled through his thoughts for something to ward off the sensation that he was being attacked. In amongst the jumble of concepts and memories was a clear picture of the emblem of the shooting star. For no reason that he could define the image brought him comfort and stability, so he concentrated on it.

Avan's senses returned to his control. He breathed deeply and returned his gaze downward from the smoky vapour, all that remained of Sir Skulkmire's form. The Stalker Wolf, now revealed under the mask with the golden thread, placed the mask into the box and closed it tight. Avan knew that it was time to reveal himself.

"What should I call you," Avan asked as he shook the cloak from his shoulders. "Stalker Wolf? Or Skulkmire?"

"Call me what you will," the wolf replied. "I will eat you either way!"

The wolf stepped forward, jaws open, claws raised and shining in the moonlight. Avan Weatherstrong swung the silver sword he had taken from the manor's attic. In a single motion he cut the wolf's head from its shoulders, killing it in an instant.

The death of the Stalker Wolf raised more questions in Avan Weatherstrong's mind than it answered. Avan knew that he was a competent swordsman, but he was nothing special. There were a dozen men who could have used the silver sword, so why had the servant entrusted him with the task?

"It is not your sword arm, Prince Weatherstrong," said the servant, emerging from the shadows of the wood. "It is your mind and your heart that I had to assess. It seems I am not yet so old that I could be called a fool."

"Who are you?" Avan Weatherstrong asked the man.

"Just an old sprite who serves his lord," the servant says. "I have many names, and one secret one."

The servant opened the box on the stone table and removed the mask.

"I also have many faces, and sometimes those faces are lost, or stolen," he said. "Thank you for returning this one to me."

The servant put the mask up to his face and, in the last moment before it made contact with his skin he said:

"Keep the sword but change its nature. There is a moon maiden who can imbue it with a power over evil. When she does this tell her to keep it safe, for the boy-fool who will save a hundred worlds."

"Who shall I say sends her this message?" Avan Weatherstrong asked.

"Tell her that humble Pombero bids the great goddess Arasy greeting," the servant said. That was the last thing he said, for as the mask fit snug over his face he vanished. For just a moment Avan Weatherstrong believed that he got a brief glance at the servant's true face. Yet, when he came to think on it further, all he could remember was a strange thrill. A shiver at the presence of something terribly old and fearfully cunning.

Avan Weatherstrong took the silver sword to the moon maiden and delivered the servant's message. The task was maybe not as straightforward as he had expected, but that is a story for another time.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Princess Visits A Haunted House

 It took Princess Anabyl approximately ten minutes to achieve the largest, and sootiest explosion of her young life with the aid of the alchemist's lab. She sat in the centre of the room, ears ringing, flashing lights before her eyes, and grinned from ear to ear.
Generally speaking the land of Spireshine is an average enough kingdom far from the crossways with the world of man. For many generations Spireshine has been completely unremarkable in about every important respect. It may have remained as such, were it not for the occupational choice of a prince from the neighbouring land of Weatherstrong.

Avan Weatherstrong, being the youngest of a large number of male children, had to carve out a niche to occupy in the small world of his court. Carve it he did when he founded the only library in the whole of Faerie in the faraway land of Sommerslip. The Faerie Archive, as the library is known, is a strange and wonderful building. One that most right-thinking residents of Faerie could only imagine existing in a land near by the strange world of mortal men.

The kingdoms containing roads to the world of mortal men have a reputation for troublesome times. There is a lot of what the folk refer to as 'fluctuation' at the crossways. Those who dwell away from such unreliable lands enjoy great periods of stability and happiness. This is generally how all things are expected to be.

So Avan Weatherstrong became the first Lord Sommerslip and opened a library. The people of both Weatherstrong and Spireshine heard the news and muttered in corners. They knew that it was only a matter of time before this strange career choice would have an upsetting effect upon their own lives.

For three generations, however, nothing untoward happened in Spireshine. Weatherstrong fell to civil war over a new design for the kingdom's coat of arms, but even this was not a great surprise. War is a part of Faerie life much as it is a terrible waste, inconvenience and evil in all other realms belonging to all other species.

The wisest, or perhaps most stubborn, heads in Spireshine insisted still. Before long, they declared, Sommerslip would affect the lives of the ordinary folk of Spireshine. The youthful exuberance of Lord Spireshine's youngest daughter, Anabyl was well known. Her antics were seen by most as the sign that things were starting to become much more interesting, and not in a good way.

There were tomboys, of course, throughout the Hundred Kingdoms and beyond. Girls who acted like boys were not an uncommon thing and, for some people, they formed the basis of some of their favourite romances. After all, at some point a tomboy met her match in the world of men. Tthe two of them settled down and he became a husband and she hung up her dungarees, grew her hair out and became a wife.

Some people are just suckers for that part where everyone realises she was beautiful all along.

It was possible there would be a day when everyone realised that Anabyl Spireshine had been beautiful all along. If that day was coming it is not due yet. Anabyl Spireshine wore steel toe-capped boots because they were comfortable. She wore pink, frilly dresses because they kept her mother from complaining. She put her hair in pig-tail plaits because it was easy to tie up. She completed her ensemble with boy's short breeches for the pocket space that she required.

There were other princess tomboys in the Faerie realms but none of them were willing to dress in frills and boots together. In fact, if you really thought about it, a tomboy of a certain age began to devote quite a lot of thought to their boyish ensemble. Far more thought than actual boys did.

Princess Anabyl didn't give any thought to what she was wearing, she had too much else to think about. Such as how to make a 'stealth' turnip catapult, or whether a pig could be used in a jousting tournament. Or which combination of cleaning chemicals could be used to produce the biggest explosion.

It was, in fact, this last question that was occupying the Princess's mind as we join her. On a golden day in the autumn not so long ago  she was pouring various bottles of chemicals into an alembic. The small glass flask belonged to the court's head alchemist, Gimbal Dweezlepuff.

Dr Dweezlepuff was exceptionally house proud. It was probably for this reason that he did not like Anabyl one little bit. These factors had not affected Anabyl's decision to make use of the fully equipped laboratory in his quarters that day.

That morning the unfortunate doctor had left the castle. He was attending an alchemical conference in Spireshine City. Anabyl had waited three hours, just to be sure he wouldn't come back, before gaining access to his room. She had accomplished this with the aid of a couple of hairpins and some kitchen grease. She was pleased to note that lessons from the cutpurse father had once kept in the dungeons had been well worth the time invested.

Anabyl had never been into Dr Dweezlepuff's study before. She had to admit to admiration for the variety of magical artifacts that the head alchemist had collected. The princess had always been of the opinion that Dweezlepuff was 'as boring as cook's sprouts'. The evidence of her eyes on this occasion lead her to the belief that the old fuddy duddy had been holding back.

Amongst Dweezlepuff's belongings were an Apple of Discord, a Compass of Desire and an Arrow of Chronos. Each had been displayed nestled in the stone hands of a statue. The Apple of Discord held aloft by a beautiful young woman with the sly grin of a fox. The Compass of Desire clutched close to the breast of a young man of court. The young man presented himself to the world bedecked in a stupid outfit. One that some people would have regarded as fashionable five years ago. The Arrow of Chronos mounted into a bow, the string permanently drawn by a bearded hunter, an hourglass strapped to his thigh.

Each statue bore a small metal plate. Engraved into each was some information about the magical effects of the artifact. Anabyl, like most folk, had no time for words, so she declined to read them. Instead she started pulling the bottles of cleaning fluid from her breeches. She assembled them into a small collection at the edge of the lab bench.

It took Princess Anabyl about ten minutes to achieve the largest, and sootiest, explosion of her young life. She sat in the centre of the room, ears ringing, flashing lights before her eyes, and grinned from ear to ear.

It took her two further minutes to regain use of her eyes and ears, enjoying, as she did, the vigour of youth and the luck of the mischievious. She picked herself off the floor and made for the door. Her luck would not hold if she was caught in Dweezlepuff's room after the explosion. She had to believe the noise of the blast would have brought castle guards running and she had been still far too long already.

She opened Dweezlepuff's study door and hurried down the steps of the magician's tower. She hoped to get to the water butt where they let the horses drink. Once there she was planning to use the lace trim on her dress to wipe some of the soot from her face. When she stepped out from the tower she began to suspecy that her explosion had caused some problems. Problems more pressing than the irreversible soot damage done to Dweezlepuff's levitating rug.

The courtyard of Caer Spireshine was silent, it was as if all the people had disappeared from her home. It was mid-afternoon three weeks after harvest. The castle yard should throng with bustle and noise. Instead it was as silent as the grave.

The people had not disappeared, however, they had just frozen, like statues, all in the middle of their business. For a few moments Anabyl wondered if she had turned everyone to stone. Then she realised that there were a couple of the other palace children skipping near the gatehouse.

Lynsey Crowbeak, the midwife's daughter, was frozen mid skip, both feet at least four inches above the ground. Two of her friends, Jessica and Jemima Needleeye, twin daughters of the seamstress, held either end of a skipping rope. The rope was frozen in mid-turn, a solid wave of rope curving through mid air.

Anabyl was a bright girl and she realised that these people were not petrified.

"They're frozen in time," she mused examining the stupid look on the face of Theodore Gorp, the stable boy. The gormless fellow was caught right in the middle of spitting. A small gob of saliva was leaving his mouth, a gleaming icicle of sputum.

"I'm never ever going to spit in my entire life if it makes you look that much of an idiot," Anabyl decided.

Which was all very well, but the question remained: how had she frozen the castle, and its inhabitants, in time? She had escaped this fate, how had she managed that?

She had no doubt that she was the one who was responsible, after all, she could move, unlike everyone else. Besides, when stuff like this happened there were only two people she knew could possibly be responsible. One of them was her and the other one wasn't. He lived far away in the human world, unless, that was, he was here right now and watching her.

"You!" a voice came from the battlements over the castle. "This is your doing!" That voice didn't sound like Anabyl's friend Morton. Morton didn't shout and he didn't ever sound cross about anything other than a shortage of cake.

Anabyl realised she had been sprung, but that wasn't unusual. She didn't recognise the voice so she couldn't guess at the consequences. The princess's policy for dealing with accusations from people she didn't know was strictly 'wait and see'. After all, what was the point of worrying unnecessarily?

She turned to look at her accuser. At first she couldn't make out anything against the blue sky over the battlements. Then a small figure with little insect wings came into view. A sprite in a pinstripe suit, carrying an hourglass and a clipboard.

This did not look like a fun sprite, not like her friend from Levercastle. It looked like a sprite from the Office, the administrative organisation that regulated the use of magic in Faerie. This one looked like a proper bureaucrat. From his horn-rimmed specatacles to his brightly polished shoes he radiated officious tedium.

"You are responsible for this anomaly!" the sprite said.

"Might be," Anabyl replied with a shrug. "What's it to you?"

"What's it to me?" the sprite asked, taking offense. "I am Wesley Smoothcog, a representative of the Chronological Services Division of the Bureau of Time. That's what it is to me, young lady. So what do you think of that?"

"There's a Bureau of Time?" Anabyl asked.

Wesley tutted.

"Indeed there is," he said. "And a very important place it is too. Can you imagine what would happen if there were no Chronological Services Division? Chaos! That's what. Effect could cease to follow cause. Day could decide not to follow night. Things need not be all well even if they end well. What went up might not necessarily come down."

"You mean we could fly?" Anabyl asked.

"Yes, I suppose, I mean I already can, but... what I mean is... that's not the point!" Wesley replied. "The point is that you have endangered causality. Endagered it in an area with a diameter of..." he consulted his clipboard, "...thirteen miles. Such a massive anomaly could cause a timephoon, a timequake or even a time-al wave. The consequences of your irresponsible actions could be wide reaching and extremely serious."

"Wow," Anabyl said. "I was only trying to make a better cherry bomb. This is much better."

"Better?" Wesley made the question into a statement. One  that left no doubt that he could not have heard anything more outrageous or upsetting. "Better? Young lady this is the kind of thing that leads to innocent young men becoming their own grandfathers. The kind of thing that ends up with innocent young women giving birth to themselves! That doesn't happen! Not on my watch!"

"Okay," Anabyl said. "So what do you want me to do about it?"

"Stop it, of course!" Wesley replied. "Let time go back to normal and do so before the sands in this hourglass run all the way through." He held the small device up for inspection. A thin sparkling stream of sand trickled through the pinch at the center. "So get to it."

"I don't even know what I did," Anabyl said. "I was just messing around in the alchemist's lab."

"Well, you'd better work it out," Wesley replied. "Because this is serious trouble young lady. You fix this or you could find yourself in Terminus. You want to go to the prison at the end of forever, hey?"

Intriguing as a tour of Terminus might be Anabyl had no desire to be an inmate there. She thought over her time in the alchemist's lab as she studied Wesley's hourglass. The hourglass tipped off a memory in her head, the statue of the bearded hunter, the one holding the bow on which was mounted...

"What's an Arrow of Chronos?" Anabyl asked. "Could that have done this?"

"An Arrow of Chronos," Wesley sounded appalled. "Who would let a child mess around with an Arrow of Chronos?"

"No one let me," Anabyl replied. "I just did it anyway. I do that kind of thing."

"Well we'd better undo it. The Arrow of Chronos is a powerful artifact, freezing time is just one of its many powers, the most basic. It's not intended for wide scale or long term use. When it runs out of power the pent up time in its field will spill out in a massive circle with this as the epicenter. It will be a catastrophe."

Mess was something Anabyl was comfortable with. Chaos, disorder, muddle all these things were her bread and butter. Catastrophe was, however, a little beyond her ambitions. She had no desire to claim responsibility for hurting anyone beyond an injury to pride.

"Come on then, Wesley," she said. "We'd better see what happened to the arrow."

The two of them went into the magician's tower and climbed up to Dweezlepuff's study. The problem became clear immediately. The statue of the bearded hunter was in place but the arrow no longer sat in the bow. The string had sprung forward, the arrow loosed through a nearby window.

"People should not be allowed to display a Chronos Arrow loaded into a bow," Wesley complained. "That's far too dangerous, a clear breach of health and safety."

"You can tell Dweezlepuff about that later," Anabyl said. "For now I imagine we have to find the arrow and return it, am I right?"

Wesley nodded.

"Well," Anabyl said. "The statue was pointing the arrow out of this window," she pointed to the smashed pane of a window in the far wall. "Let's see where it could have gone."

Anabyl peered out through the hole to see that there was  only one destination that the arrow could have found. On the top of a nearby hill was the dark and forbidding presence of the old Spireshine Hunting Lodge. Nobody used the old lodge since Grandfather Roland Spireshine had built a new lodge by the lake to the south. He had done so, it was understood, because the old lodge had a dark and mysterious reputation.

"I think the arrow went to the haunted lodge," Anabyl said. "That's where we'll have to go."

"Did you say... haunted?" Wesley asked.

"Yes," Anabyl said. "Everyone knows, the Old Hunting Lodge is riddled with ghosts. I bet some of them are headless."

This news seemed to be the source of some upset for Wesley. Anabyl had to endure him fussing and fretting as they picked their way along the dark and forbidding path leading to the lodge. You, dear reader, have not caused a fundamental breakdown in the chain of cause and effect near to your family home. For this reason I will spare you a full catalogue of Wesley's complaints. Suffice to say that after a short walk they arrived at the doors of the Old Spireshine Lodge.

"Well, I'm not going in there," Wesley said. "I'm an administrator of time. Ghosts are not my department."

"Fine," Anabyl said. "I could do with a break from your whingeing anyway. I'll go in and see how the professionals wail and moan. I'll be back shortly, if they don't drink my blood or freeze me into stone."

Anabyl walked over the threshold of the lodge and set about searching for the arrow. She wasn't frightened because she'd never met a ghost. Besides, back at the castle she was what most people were afraid of when it got dark.

As it turned out the arrow was not that hard to find, due to the fact that it glowed with a soft green light. Anabyl found a freshly broken window upstairs in the lodge and the arrow was stuck in the wall opposite. The only problem was that it was far too high up for her to reach it.

As she stood pondering this predicament there was the sound of clanking chains and ghastly screaming. A ghost emerged, floating out of a nearby wall.

The spirit had the look of an older man, with some resemblance to Lord Spireshine, probably a deceased relative then. He had the shafts of several arrows protruding from his torso. When he saw the Arrow of Chronos protruding from the wall above the stairs he appeared to flinch back in horror. Anabyl spotted her opportunity.

"Not keen on arrows then, Mister Ghost?" she asked.

"I was accidentally shot to death after my cousin left me in the woods with antlers on my head after my stag party," the ghost moaned. "Do you think I should be happy to see an arrow?"

"Well I'd be happy to take it away," Anabyl said. "But I can't reach it."

"Oh, well," the ghost replied. "I will get it but you must promise to take it away with you."

"Of course," Anabyl replied. "I need to take it back to the castle anyway."

"You live at the castle?" the ghost asked.

"I am Princess Anabyl Spireshine," Anabyl told the ghost. "My daddy is Lord Spireshine the Fourth."

"The Fourth, eh?" the ghost said. "That would make me your great cousin Cedric Spireshine, the third son of Lord Spireshine the Second. How come nobody visits anymore?"

"Grandfather Roland built a new lodge by the lake," Anabyl said. "I think you make people uncomfortable. It's probably not personal just, well, you're dead and all."

Cedric nodded. "I know, I was a bit grumpy when I was first dead but now it would be nice just to have someone to talk to upon occasion. It's not much fun haunting alone."

"Well, you get me that arrow," Anabyl said. "And I promise I'll come back and visit from time to time."

"Very well, great cousin Anabyl," Cedric replied. He floated up to where the arrow protruded from the wall. He gripped the offending item and began wiggling it free. The arrow was stuck fast and Cedric ended up cursing in an old but still crude vernacular. Eventually with some grunting, and a few oaths, the arrow came free and fell to the floor.

"There we go," he said. "Sorry for the delay, I'm not really much of a poltergeist."

"That's fine Great Cousin Cedric," Anabyl said. "I'll get this back and then, I promise, I'll come back and visit soon. Maybe tomorrow."

Anabyl definitely considered the haunted lodge a possible destination for the near future. nNot least because it would be a great place to hide from Dr Dweezlepuff when he returned to find his lab in pieces.

All in all, Anabyl considered, today had turned out more interesting than she could possibly imagine. Once she returned the arrow, she could do something else with her second afternoon. When fortune could provide such riches  for the mischevious, why would Anabyl Spireshine be any other way?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Sir Cobb and the Moon Maiden

Yellow-eye Blackfang screamed with rage and Frederick could hear the monstrous creature's footsteps booming like thunder as the troll gave chase.

All the people of the Hundred Kingdoms know that a wandering knight, of good heart, will do all in his power to rescue a maiden in distress. Rescuing maidens in distress is one of the main requirements common to the popular codes followed by knights of all kinds.

As such the 'rescuing' of 'maidens' who are 'in distress' tends to be universally viewed as a good thing. There has been the odd report of knights interpreting these  rules somewhat broadly. Reading between the lines of certain accounts you can sometimes go as far as to say they may have completely taken the wrong end of the stick.

One day it may be time to tell the tale of 'Sir Macken and the Accidental Slaughter of the Kind Dragon Abducted by the Evil Princess'. That is, perhaps, a tale for a time when one wants to be appalled and amused at the same time. Your narrator is not confident of his capability to pull that off today.

So, instead, we will consider the more traditional tale of 'Sir Cobb and the Moon Maiden'. I am sure that you will find it to be far more suited to the needs of a cold winter day. A day when the cockles (not to mention the other sea-creatures) of the heart are in deepest need of warming.

Sir Cobb was a brave man and your typical knight. Well, mostly your typical Knight. If truth be told he was not as well-heeled as most knights are expected to be. This was mostly due to the unfortunate fact that he had not been born into a class of society where sons generally  grow up to become knights.

Sir Cobb had, in fact, been born rejoicing in the name of Frederick Cobb, the cooper's son. For generations the Cobb family had made barrels in the village of Nether Morphus in the kingdom of Scatterthorne. For all those generations Cobb men had been burly and sweet and earnest in nature.

Until Frederick everyone of the Cobbs had also been humble and realistic in their expectations of life. They made barrels, they sold barrels, they lived, married, had sons who grew up to make barrels and so the world turned.

Nathaniel Cobb, Frederick's father, had not made many mistakes in his life. One of the few you could pick out was his courtship of Lorna Archer. a woman that most people agreed was somewhat above his station. She was certainly bright and beautiful.  Neither of these are reasons for a cooper to turn away from asking for a woman's hand in marriage, rather the reverse. Nathaniel Cobb was a cooper, not a fool. So he had married Lorna Archer.

Little Frederick had been a delight to one and all when he had been born in the second year of Nathaniel and Lorna's happy marriage. He had remained a delight until the moment that he had become mobile, at which time the problems had started.

It was not that Frederick was a bad child, indeed he had inherited the sweet, happy and earnest nature of all Cobb men. The problem was that he had inherited his mother's imagination along with her desire to be helpful. Where he had picked up complete disregard for the opinions of others on the way a life should be lived is a matter still hotly debated.

From the time he first crawled Frederick was determined to help people, whether they wanted his help or not. Further, whether he was, in fact, capable of helping them or not. Frederick would see a loaf in a tin on a table and know that loaves needed to be turned out of tins. He would decide that someone had clearly forgotten this vital step in the process. He would determine that, despite the fact that the surface of the table was a foot above his head, he would be the one to complete the job. He would pull the tablecloth, he would have a hot loaf tin containing a cooling loaf land upon his head. He would sit and cry. The loaf would be ruined.

And so it went on.

He would terrorise cats that wanted to sleep upon a warm slate roof on a sunny day by throwing rocks at them. When quizzed about this obnoxious behaviour he would explain.  He had _tried_ to call out for the stranded kitty to leap into his arms but that the poor things were just too scared. At least, they were once Frederick had thrown a few well-intentioned gravel chips in their direction.

He was the kind of child who would help an old woman to cross the road even if the old woman had started out on entirely the correct side of the road. He loved to help but he couldn't get the hang of listening. His early childhood was a trial only made worse by the fact that no person could possibly have meant better.

Nathaniel and Lorna insisted that Frederick would 'grow out' of his unfortunate habits as he came to manhood. That tender hope was dashed upon the day in Frederick's fourteenth year that a passing messenger left a parcel at the Cobb's home. The package had arrived from: "The Academie of Home Knighthoode". A helpful stamp informed the world that this organisation had been: "Est. Year of the Red-Tailed Sand Lizard in the City of Kree".

Upon returning from the lopping down trees in the forest Frederick was asked to explain himself. He said that he had given the matter some thought. He had determined that the life of a cooper was not for him, so he had taken the decision to become a knight.

A long and intense discussion followed, taking the whole family far past sunset and into the night. On the one side of the discussion Frederick had been intractable, he would be a knight though the world should call him a fool. On the other side was everyone except his mother who told him that a fool was precisely what he would make of himself.

Lorna, who loved her son and his wayward imagination, managed somehow to work a compromise. She somehow managed to convince Nathaniel that all Frederick needed was 'an outlet'. She pointed to his past misadventures and promised that this would be an end to those problems.

Cousin John was to take over the tree cutting duties. Younger brother Benjamin was to begin helping Nathaniel in the cooper's yard. Frederick had seven years in which to make his fortune as a knight. If he had not become a figure of heroism and renown within that period he was to return to Nether Morphus to settle down. Or, as his father had put it, "stop being such a block head little idiot".

Frederick found himself filled with delight at the prospect of this opportunity. His younger brothers had started a sweepstake among the children of the village. They all took bets on how long Frederick's grand adventure would last before he returned to Cobb Bottom. Everyone believed that he would return sad and defeated, humbled by the experience.

The kit Frederick had received contained within it a selection of shoddy paraphernalia. Amongst the items  were: a silly tin hat sprouting a floppy yellow plume, a tin breastplate, a tin shield,and a blunt tin short sword. Nestled in amongst this tat was an endorsement printed on thin parchment. It read: 'It is the size of a man's heart, not the build quality* of his equipment, that marks him out as a knight'. On the reverse side was printed: '*Nor, for that matter, its suitability for use in combat'.

Frederick took this advice to heart. He donned his knightly attire and strode forth from Nether Morphus to find his fortune. The sun sank below the horizon before long. Frederick found himself, for the first time, away from his bed at night, forced to find shelter on an empty road. In that moment he began to understand a little of the hardship that knights were bound to face on a daily basis.

Undaunted by goose-flesh or chattering teeth, Frederick curled up in a ball, attempting to sleep in a ditch. He did not think he would achieve sleep and so awoke in a state of confusion some time later. He awoke to the sound of two voices nearby, involved in a conversation that he had not heard the start of.

"Look at it, how can it be alive? It has no blanket, it's in a ditch, only dead things lie in ditches," the first voice said.

"Very well then, you go and steal its hat," the second voice said.

"Don't think that I won't," the first one said. "Besides, it's not theft, its salvage. Dead things don't need no hats."

"I don't care what you call it. You're making excuses and arguments, fussing and fretting. I know you're too scared to do anything," the second voice mocked the first.

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Am not."

"Are are are."

"Not not not."

Frederick quickly reached his limit. He sat bolt upright to look at the two argumentative creatures who were thinking of stealing his hat.

"It is not a hat, it is a knightly helm!" he proclaimed. "And I am not dead. I am Sir Cobb of Nether Morphus!"

The two tiny glowing men stood at the lip of the ditch yelped in fear and surprise. They embraced one another at the sound of Sir Cobb's voice. One closed his eyes, refusing to look at the enormous creature they had disturbed.

Both creatures were dressed as fine gentlemen of court. Resplendent in white breeches and white jackets that sparkled in the moonlight. Underneath they wore fine white waistcoats and white smocks next to their pale skin. Both had white stockings, white shoes and white wigs. They both had white faces. They both glowed, emanating a soft, clear light that illuminated the grass around them turning it black and silver.

"Now, who are you two, considering theft from a knight on a dark road?" Frederick demanded.

"Nothing," one of the little men quavered. "Not a thing that a mighty hero like yourself should worry about, milord. We are just two lost and wandering stars, trying to make our way in the world without a mistress to keep us safe."

"You are stars?" Frederick asked. "Then how comes it that you are not in the sky, shining above? For this is your time."

"Why, did I not say," the little star replied. "We have no mistress and so we must wander until she finds a release from her imprisonment within the deep, dark woods of Piteous Woe."

Frederick, being a part-time woodcutter, knew well of the woods of Piteous Woe. The tree trunks there were hard as granite, you would not find wood as easily as broken axe-heads in that cursed place. The thought that there could be a knightly quest so close to his own home struck Frederick as more lucky than somewhat unlikely. So he did not question.

"Your mistress," Frederick said to the star as if he was not in the least bit interested, "an old crone is she? I expect she must be."

"Oh no, milord," the star replied. "She is young and beautiful, a moon maiden she is, sir. A kinder and more elegant mistress a star sylph could not hope to attend."

"And she's in prison," Frederick said, still aloof. "She did something wrong, I take it."

"The heavens forfend!" the star sylph replied. "Our mistress did no more than catch the eye of a despicable troll,  Yellow-eye Blackfang. He drugged her to sleep and stole her away to be his pet, a caged bird. A terrible fate, she will surely not live more than a week or two in his clutches and then... and then..."

Both of the little men sat on the lip of the ditch and began to cry. Copious floods of tears traced their sparkling lines over their ivory cheeks.

"What?" Frederick asked. "What should happen if she dies?"

"We shall surely die as well!" the star sylph wailed and the two little men sobbed all the harder.

"Well then," Frederick said, all pretence that he was not intrigued and enthused disappearing. "It is fortunate that you should have met, er," he stopped himself. Remembering the manual he had read in his Home Knighthood Starter Kit he corrected himself:

"I mean," he continued. "Tis fortunate indeed that thou shouldst have encountered one of brave heart and sharp, uh, steel such as this one... st." He wasn't entirely confident on the last 'st' but he thought it was better to be safe than sorry in the usage of such things.

Frederick stood, displaying his tin armour with pride. He  declared: "I am Sir Cobb of Nether Morphus and, yea, I shall liberate the moon maiden. For such is my purpose in this life and such is the goal of a heart that beats true."

For a moment he thought he had overdone it. Then the sounds of two sets of tiny hands applauding enthusiastically told him that he had pitched his speech at the right level.

"I must strike out, immediately, for the woods of Piteous Woe. I will return to this place with the moon maiden. By this deed shall ye know me."

"Oh bravo," said the star sylph Frederick had so terrified five minutes ago.

"Indeed, worthy sirrah," the other added. They were both beaming brightly, enthralled at Frederick's fine words.

Frederick toyed with the idea of declaiming further but decided that less was probably more in this case. He, instead, stepped from the ditch and struck out in the direction that he believed that the woods of Piteous Woe should lie.

It didn't take Frederick long to realise that it was far too dark for him to find the woods without help. So he had to return, somewhat sheepishly, to the ditch.

"Er," he said in a manner that he did not find in the least knightly. "Could you possibly light my way? The night is a little dark and my eyes are not accustomed to it."

The two star sylphs exchanged a glance.

"You want us to..." the first star sylph was so appalled at the thought running through his mind he could not bring himself to complete it.

"...into the woods..." the second breathed, beside himself with terror once more.

"...the woods of Piteous Woe?" the first completed the thought in piecemeal.

Frederick believed that the two little men shuddered.

"But, I will find my own way when we reach the troll, " Frederick said, pleading. "I must protect the weak, but I can only do so if I am shown the way. I promise no harm will come to you."

"Well... alright," the first star sylph said, although the words appeared to limp out of his mouth all unsure of themselves.

"But if you are wrong and harm does come to us we shall complain," the other insisted.

"We shall complain in... in... in no uncertain terms," the first star sylph backed up his companion.

"You must be quite certain," the second agreed.

"Our terms must be certain indeed," the first confirmed.

"Most certain," the second concluded. With that warning in place they lifted from the ground and flew around Frederick's head.

"Come on," the first called back. "We should be about this business for dawn is on its way."

The little man had not lied. For as they made their way over the gnarled and twisted roots of the cold trees of the woods of Piteous Woe a weak, grey light came into the sky. By the time they had found the cave of the hideous troll Yellow-eye Blackfang a bitter, misty dawn had come to this melancholy place.

"Here we are," the second star sylph said, landing in a tree, stretching and yawning.

"And not a moment too soon," the first star sylph agreed, joining his brother and lying on his side.

"Indeed, so... sleepy..." the second said.

"Time for..." but the first never completed his sentence, for he had fallen into a deep sleep.

Frederick was on his own.

Now that he was stood on the dark, hard earth outside the inky maw of a grey, forbidding cave. Now that he found himself wreathed in strong odours of blood and rotten things. Frederick understood a little better why it was knights were held in such high regard. No ordinary man would choose to come to this place. No mere cooper would face off against a hideous troll in the hopes of rescuing a beautiful maiden.

Frederick had to admit to some mild concern about where it was his path had lead him. Still, this was the life he had chosen and so he strode forth towards the cave mouth setting his jaw with determination.

In the oppressive silence of the dawn the first thing Frederick noticed was that his breastplate was clanking. The second thing he noticed was that his helmet pinched his head, which was quite distracting. The third thing he noticed was that the handle of his tin shield was loose making it awkward to hold. The fourth thing he noticed was that his tin sword would probably not do much to wound a troll.

He stopped in the clearing, still ten paces from the cave mouth, and removed all of his knightly garb. Focus and stealth were likely to be more use to him than any number of items forged out of tin.

As Frederick reached the cave's entrance he heard the snarling bass rumble of a mighty snore. Frederick thought he'd once heard that trolls always slept until noon, being lazy and ignorant. Heartened at this half-forgotten piece of knowledge he crept quietly into the cave.

It was only when he had ventured deep into the pitch blackness, feeling his way along the wall, that he stopped to reconsider. Was that thing about trolls sleeping till noon something he had heard? Or was it, rather, something he had just made up about five minutes ago?

He had the distinct feeling that it might well have been the latter. The snoring was louder now, Frederick began to feel that maybe his father had been right, maybe he was an idiot. He was an idiot who had made a promise to two star sylphs who would die without his help, however, so he crept on a few more paces.

Frederick was forced to freeze put when the snoring rhythm suddenly caught mid snore. A worrying silence descended upon the cave. Now Frederick was absolutely certain that the only thing he had ever heard about trolls was that they were light sleepers. That and possibly that they had exceptional hearing.

Then there was the noise of a loud and sticky splutter. The snoring resumed much as it had been before. Frederick told his mind to stop making him think he had heard things when, in actual fact, he was just making them up on the spot.

Cross with his own brain Frederick continued to feel his way through the darkness. A little futher on Frederick's outstretched fingers encountered something unusual. They brushed against an object that was not the rough surface of the rock walls. It was solid and cold, it felt as if it was not natural but forged, an item, a picture frame. This was something that the troll had no doubt stolen from one of his victims.

Frederick moved his fingers over the frame and onto the cool glass surface of the picture. He ran his left hand forward and it to join his right.

"No!" a sharp voice cried, cutting through the silence. "I will not have you paw me with those sticky digits you disgusting beast!"

The snoring stopped again. This stoppage continued on and on, seeming in Frederick's mind to last forever.

"What is happening?" rumbled a deep, rough voice. "Who disturbs my sleep."

"You can force me to sing. yYou can make me provide you with light in the darkness but do not presume to touch my prison with those rough and brutish hands!" said a voice behind the glass of the picture frame.

"Moon girl glow!" bellowed Yellow-eye Blackfang. "Glow! Glow!"

Suddenly the darkness of the cave was filled with a gentle silver-blue light. Frederick found himself looking into the icy blue eyes of the prettiest silver-skinned girl he had ever seen in his life. He didn't have time to drink in her beauty. Instead he was forced to look round to see the gigantic, dirty, hairy, lumpy form of the troll pulling itself upright. The troll emerged from a mass of greasy, smelly animal skins, some of which still had the heads attached.

"Oh..." Frederick said. "Dear."

"Thief!" Yellow-eye shouted setting his shoulder towards Frederick.

Frederick had no other choice. He lifted the silver frame from its hook on the wall and ran for the cave entrance.

For his part Yellow-eye Blackfang screamed with rage. Frederick could hear the monstrous creature's footsteps. They boomed like thunder, as the troll gave chase.

"Don't worry," Frederick said to the moon maiden. "I've come to rescue you."

"I see," the moon maiden said. "So this is all going to plan?"

"Uh," Frederick said.

"You didn't have a plan, did you?" the moon maiden asked.

"Ah." Frederick was glad that he was out of breath from running. The shame of admitting that planning had not been a part of Operation Moon Maiden Rescue would have overwhelmed him.

"Boys," the moon maiden said, tutting. "Close your eyes dummy."

"Um," Frederick said.

"Now!" the moon maiden said crossly.

Frederick closed his eyes.

Even through closed eyelids Frederick could discern the bright blue light that followed. It bursting out of the maiden's prison so fierce it sizzled. He heard Yellow-eye Blackfang cry out in pain and confusion.

The light faded, so Frederick opened his eyes. The cave entrance was only a short distance and from somewhere he pulled a little extra strength.

"I'm blind!" the troll hollered. There were a few more thundering footsteps and then a thump as the clumsy giant collided with something.

"Ow! I can't see! I can't see!" it cried. "Thief, I will find you and when I do I will make soup from your guts and gravy from your brains! You will regret the day you stole from Yellow-eye Blackfang."

The troll's protestations faded as Frederick left the cave to run for his life across the clearing.

"I got her!" he cried out in a most un-Knightly fashion to the star sylphs. He saw the two little men awake and they flew down from the tree to flutter beside Frederick's head.

"See, mistress," one said to the moon maiden. "We said we would find someone to rescue you."

"And this is the best you could do," the moon maiden asked with a raised eyebrow that signalled she was not in the least bit impressed.

"I rescued you, didn't I?" Frederick protested as they ran through the woods.

"Barely," the moon maiden conceded.

"It, er, well, I didn't think it was too bad for my first quest," Frederick objected. "I mean, I got the job done."

"And what about when Yellow-eye Blackfang comes looking for revenge?" the moon maiden asked.

"Um, I shall, deal with that... at the time," Frederick said.

The moon maiden smiled at that.

"You," she said to Frederick. "Are a fool, but you are a brave one."

And so the brave fool, the moon maiden and her two star sylphs ran from the woods of Piteous Woe.

When they had run far enough Frederick broke the surface of the magic mirror in which the moon maiden had been imprisoned. To thank him for his service the moon maiden rewarded him with a moon-blade. It was a short sword that would bite deeply against the dark and vile things of the night.

Frederick went on his way, light four items of tin armour. He found himself enriched by adventure, excitement, honour and a pretty nifty gift from a rescued maiden.

Next time, he decided as he continued on his way, he would definitely have to devote more thought to a plan.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

How Rachel And James Escaped The Skull Garden

Rachel lived in a tree at the foot of the great Skull Rock. James lived in the hollowed out dried gourd of a pumpkin that nestled in the exposed roots of the tree.
There once was a little girl called Rachel who lived within the Skull Garden. The garden is, to this very day, nestled in a far away wrinkle of the Great Weave where reality itself becomes frayed and worn thin.

Maybe for this reason Rachel did not know how she had come to live in the Skull Garden, she must have arrived when she was too small to remember. She was nearly alone in the lush groves and sweet glades. She ate fruit and vegetables and drank clear, cool spring water. It was a pleasant life if maybe too quiet and sometimes a little lonely.

Not that Rachel was entirely alone in the garden. She had one friend, James the Mouse. Rachel lived in a tree at the foot of the great Skull Rock. James lived in the hollowed out dried gourd of a pumpkin that nestled in the exposed roots of the tree.

So Rachel would make her way around the Skull Garden in the daytime and she would talk with James and James would talk back. Rachel did not know that mice cannot usually speak, so neither of them saw anything strange in that.

Mostly Rachel and James would talk about the seasons, and which fruits or vegetables were growing, and the weather. James was a mouse and not terribly imaginative so he never raised any other topics of conversation. Rachel, however, would sometimes talk about leaving the garden. Or she would talk about being somewhere that wasn't a garden. Sometimes she expressed a wish to meet another little girl just like her. When she talked this way she often imagined herself in another place that wasn't the tree in the shadow of the great Skull Rock.

"I do not understand you sometimes," James said once. It was not the first time he had become exasperated by Rachel's daydreams. "You know that this is all there is, so I do not see the sense in talking about things being different, because they are not different. Things are what they are."

"But James," Rachel replied. "Do you not think of what it would be like to meet another mouse just like you? Are you never sad that you are the only mouse in the Skull Garden?"

"Why would I be sad?" James answered. "This is all I know. I cannot be sad about something unknown because I do not know it."

"So what if I wasn't here?" Rachel asked. "Would you be sad then?"

"I don't know," James said. "You have always been here, I don't know what it would be like if you weren't."

"Impossible mouse," Rachel said and this always meant that the conversation was over.

You may be asking yourself why it was that Rachel never ventured far from her tree in the shadow of the great Skull Rock. She had the vision to send her imagination out into the world beyond, so to wander would be a natural thing.

The problem was that Rachel and James lived in the daylight world of the Skull Garden. When night fell the world was the domain of a giant bat that lived within the hollow of the Skull shaped cave at the summit of the great Skull Rock.

The giant bat hunted in the night. Lying in the hollow of her tree Rachel could hear the slap of the bat's leathery wings through the night sky. Sometimes she would hear the terrified squeal of an animal that the bat had caught to eat. In those times she hugged herself tight, scared in the darkness, waiting for the dawn.

Rachel never wanted to be outside in the night time. To leave the Skull Garden would have risked the bat catching her in its black claws, to bear her away to its lair. Rachel feared that if that happened she would never see daylight again.

So Rachel lived in the daytime garden and her dreams were just dreams. That was until the day that she discovered the four leaf clover growing by the banks of the sparkling spring.

Rachel would sometimes gather clover that grew by the spring to feed it to James as a treat. She knew that clover always came with three leaves. When she picked one from the ground with a fourth leaf she took the time to  stop and look at the unusual plant.

She knew that many things were possible in the world and a clover with an extra leaf was one of the least of the unusual things that could occur. Yet, she could not quite bring herself to put it in the small cloth bag with all the rest of the clover for James's meal.

Instead she did something different and if you asked her to this day she wouldn't have been able to tell you why she did it. She pulled the four-leafed clover to her lips and whispered softly:

"I wish that I could leave the Skull Garden and go on an adventure with James so that he could see all that the world could be."

And she blew on the clover so it flew into the air. She fully expected that this would be the end of her moment of madness. She did not know that in the frayed places toward the edges of reality even tiny fragments of magic had enormous power.

The clover blew up and over and began to shower down blue-white sparks so bright they rivaled the sun for light. Rachel found herself forced to blink and turn away her head. When the hissing and spitting of the shower of sparks had concluded Rachel opened her eyes. It took a moment to see what the clover had left behind.

Standing there, near to the water's edge was a tiny little man with a pointy hat and a long white beard. This was the first person that Rachel had ever seen who looked anything like her, even though he was only about as tall as her head.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"I'm a gnome, missy," the little man said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Rachel," Rachel introduced herself. "Where did you come from? Was it from the clover?"

"Gnomes don't come from anywhere in particular, but they come from everywhere all at once," the gnome said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rachel asked.

"It means that gnomes come from mind-your-own-business. That's in the land of don't-be-nosey," the gnome said. "Do I go around asking if you came from the clover?"

"I don't," Rachel said. "I come from the tree that grows at the base of the great Skull Rock. It's not a secret."

"It's not a secret," the gnome said. "But it's also not something that I wanted to know. My home in mind-your-own-business is named don't-bother-me-with-nonsense."

"I think you would probably like James then," Rachel said. "He does not seem to have any imagination at all and he never speaks out of turn."

"Yes, he sounds tolerable," the gnome said. "But I have to give you your wish and then be on my own way."

"You know I made a wish?" Rachel asked. "But you weren't here then."

The gnome gave Rachel a look that indicated the little man had little left in the way of patience."

"Gnomes must grant the wish of the person who made them," he said. "Don't you know anything?"

"I made you?" Rachel said.

"By wishing upon the magic clover," the gnome snapped. "One of the ways in which you can bring a gnome, sylph, ifrit, genie, undine, nymph, salamander or other sprite into being. Each of these elemental races must grant the wish that brought them into the world. After that they are free to be for as long as they don't dissipate back into aether. Simple. Or apparently not so simple, to one as thick headed as you."

"I didn't know," Rachel whispered, too lost in wonder to feel insulted.

"I would never have guessed," the gnome said, a vein of sarcasm rich in its voice. "Anyway let's get you on your adventure and then I can find something more useful and interesting to do with myself.

"You'd better take me to this James. Then the two of you can go and come back and I can live my life free of obligation. There's a happy ending for you."

Rachel did not need telling twice, or more pleasantly, it seemed. She picked up her bag of clover and started back to her tree. The gnome followed on behind. When he complained that she was walking too fast and tiring him out Rachel scooped him up. She ignored his protests, and carried him on her shoulder all the way back through the garden.

Before they had quite got to the end of the path that lead to the foot of the great Skull Rock Rachel cried out:

"James! James! Something amazing has happened!"

James crawled up to the top of the hole in his pumpkin and looked out. When he caught sight of the gnome sitting grumpily upon Rachel's shoulder he ducked back into the pumpkin with a squeak.

"James?" Rachel asked. "What are you doing?"

"Stranger!" came back James's terrified reply from within the hollow of his pumpkin.

"He's not a stranger James, he's a gnome, I made a gnome!"

"He's still a stranger," James said. "I'm not coming out."

"But you must come out," Rachel said. "We are to go on an adventure outside of the garden. I wished it and the gnome must grant my wish."

James's head popped out of its hole. Rachel had never been terribly good at reading his expressions. She could never work out whether this was because she was no good at looking at mouse faces or that mice were not very expressive. Right now, Rachel could tell that James was not impressed at her news.

"So this tiny, white-bearded gnome is going to protect us in the night from that enormous, terrible, stinky bat?" he said.

"What makes you think I can't?" the gnome piped up, clearly insulted.

James did not reply he just stared at the gnome.

"I can!" the gnome protested. "You don't have to believe me, I can."

"I don't believe you," James said. "You're mad if you do, Rachel. We need to stay here, where it's safe. If we try to leave the bat will get us for certain."

"Your timid friend is as bone-headed as that skull up there," the gnome said to Rachel. "You made a wish, and when a wish is made right it is the second most powerful magic in all the worlds of the weave. No giant bat can stop this now and nor can a tiny scared mouse in a rotting pumpkin."

"It's dried!" James shouted at the gnome and popped his head back inside the pumpkin.

"Fine," the gnome said. "The wish requires that James come on the adventure, it doesn't need his permission. Shall we get on with things?"

"But... but..." Rachel could not help but feel bad. It had not occurred to her that James would not want to take the opportunity to leave the skull garden. "We can't just force him to leave," she said. "That wouldn't be right."

"One way or another," the gnome said. "You two are going on an adventure. The wish doesn't care. It will just do what it does."

"I'm not leaving this pumpkin ever again," James's voice floated up.

"Oh, you will," the gnome said. "It's a wish, there's nothing you can do about this."

"I don't care," James said. "I'm not coming out, you can't make me."

"I don't know what to do," Rachel said. "It's getting late, soon it will be time for the bat to start hunting. We will sort this out in the morning."

"No," the gnome said. "You won't."

"I wished to go an adventure," Rachel said. "I didn't say when. The morning is as good a time as any."

"If I were to tell you wishes don't work like that," the gnome said. "Would you listen?"

"No," Rachel said.

"Then I won't," the gnome replied.

With that Rachel and the gnome climbed inside the tree and waited for night to fall.

The presence of the little sprite, irritable as he was, comforted Rachel and she soon fell into a deep sleep. She jumped up, awake in an instant, in the middle of the night.  A deep booming noise was rumbling and shaking the trunk of her tree.

"What's happening?" she shouted.

"You make a wish," the gnome said, "you live with the consequences. One day, you'll listen to me."

"But the earth is shaking!" Rachel said.

Before the gnome could reply there was a ripping sound followed by a number of thumps. James cried out in panic.

Looking out of the tree Rachel saw the pumpkin illuminated by the moonlight. The earth tremor had dislodged James's home and sent it rolling down the hill.

"James!" Rachel cried but found her voice drowned out by a mighty chittering screech. The giant bat had caught sight of the pumpkin and was even now diving down to investigate.

Not thinking about her own safety Rachel hopped out of the tree. She chased James's pumpkin trying to retrieve it before the bat could get to it. She was too slow. Just as she reached out and grabbed the pumpkin she felt the talons of the bat close upon her shoulders and haul her into the air.

Rachel couldn't help it she screamed in terror. She wriggled to free herself but it was no good, the bat held her fast and flew back towards the empty socket of the skull cave.

And then, something incredible happened.

A star dislodged from the sky and fell downwards towards them. It shone out, white-blue as the shower of sparks from the four-leafed clover. It fell faster than the giant bat could fly and before they knew it all of them were enveloped in a cloak of bright light.

The claws of the bat seemed to slip away, the light dimmed and Rachel looked about. She was in a smooth brown cube. The floor was made of rocks wedged tightly against one another. Rachel was clutching James's pumpkin to her chest and the gnome was standing beside her.

"The wish is always granted by midnight," the gnome said. "But it was pointless to tell you that. Welcome to your adventure."

"Where are we?" Rachel asked.

"If I knew that I would tell you," the gnome said. "But then it wouldn't be much of an adventure would it?"

James popped his head out of the pumpkin.

"Do you mean to tell me we're not in the garden?" he asked.

"I would guess not," the gnome said.

"And we don't know where we are?" James continued, his voice starting to break with panic.

"No, we don't," the gnome said.

"Then we're lost, and alone, far away from everything we ever knew!" James cried out.

"Well," the gnome said. "I'm given to understand that's what being on an adventure means."

"I'm excited," Rachel said.

"I'm scared," James said.

"And, as seems to be my lot," the gnome complained. "I am totally bored."

"Well," Rachel said, "maybe there's something more interesting nearby. We should go and find out."

"If we must we must," said the gnome.

So Rachel stood up, still keeping careful hold on James's pumpkin, the gnome following on behind. Rachel went to find her adventure and find it she did.

But that is a tale for another time.