Sunday, 7 April 2013

How Cressidia Ended Up Watching The Shop

...even as small as he was Sir Cobb used the potion of strength to lift the book of spells above his head and cast it into the fire. Perdita Baleclaw howled with pain and anguish to see the source of her power consumed in flames but it was too late.

Along with her power the wicked sorceress lost her pleasant appearance. The weight of the years she had cheated withered her in an instant. Within a few moments all that was left of Perdita Baleclaw was the impervious ice of her blackened crystal heart.

Already feeling the strength begin to ebb from his tired, aching muscles, Sir Cobb raced to the frozen heart. He scooped it up from the nest of ashes, the witch's remains. The heart was so cold that it burned his hands, turning his fingertips blue. Sir Cobb ignored the discomfort. The young knight carried the prize to his mentor and companion.

Avan Weatherstrong's skin burned red, the sweat that would have cooled his body was turning to steam. Sir Cobb was afraid that it was already too late. Using the magical resizing mirror he inverted the lens and attained his full size once more.

Without time for decorum Sir Cobb pressed the frozen heart hard against the prince's cheek. The cold of the heart was all that could fight the infernal poison in Avan's veins. His strength failing fast Frederick pressed the heart to his friend's skin. He kept it there until Avan could reach up and grasp the crystal for himself...

"You look annoyed," Rachel said, "and puzzled. Yes, definitely, puzzled... and annoyed. Is everything alright?"

Tabarnas broke his attention away from his reading book.  Rachel had entered the little study nook he had made for himself. He had built it in the model throne room, deep inside the replica of Caer Frogfellow. If just about anyone else had interrupted him he would have found himself seriously irritated. As it stood he was, in fact, just annoyed, but not with her, and it was true he was puzzled.

In Tabarnas's life there had never been anyone with whom he could share the magic of stories on a regular basis. Not until Rachel had come along. He told as many tales as he could for a coin in the market but he was a goblin merchant, not a showman. These encounters were singular and often more of a free gift than a matter of trade.

On the rare occasion that Tabarnas could sneak away he would visit the Circus Quarter. There he would pay to hear more stories, or old stories told with flair, by the professionals. The story tellers plied their trade amongst the coloured tents of the market's most frivolous area. He had a special place in his heart for such theatrics. Even so, Tabarnas much preferred to read a story from a leather-bound volume. This made him feel as if he somehow 'owned' the story.

Books were rare in Faerie. Most of the folk could read a notice, a proclamation or a road sign, but they lacked the  powers of concentration to read a whole story. This is one of the reasons why Tabarnas was particularly keen on the tales of Avan Weatherstrong. The Prince who had become the first Lord Sommerslip had defeated the evil ogre Urbegor. He founded the Faerie Archive over the remains of the ogre's tower.

The Faerie Archive was the one place in Faerie dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the written word. Avan Weatherstrong was more than a brave and handsome prince to Tabarnas, he was a role model and a hero.

Goblin merchants, by and large, did not really subscribe to notions of heroism. Nor did the have role models, except insofar as having them helped to get product into the hands of paying customers. Tabarnas was not a usual goblin merchant. Sometimes he suspected that he could be some kind of a reverse changeling. Maybe his true goblin merchant parents brought him up as a true goblin merchant but always to nurse a secret shame.

Tabarnas had made peace with his story habit long ago, he loved his stories without shame. He still kept out of Cressidia's way when he was reading. She found the whole business distasteful and upsetting.

Today Tabarnas may have had an inkling what that felt like. While thumbing through one of his favourite story books he had seen something new and different. He didn't know what it meant and he didn't like it.

"The stories," Tabarnas said. "They've changed."

"What do you mean, silly?" Rachel asked sitting down on a model chair set off to the side of the throne room.

"I've read all twelve volumes of the Tales of Avan Weatherstronge," Tabarnas explained. "I have read them more than once. I am currently reading about his exploits in volume four. That's the one with the tale of Seditas Wolfjaw, the evil sorcerer who enslaved the land of Frogfellow, you remember? This is a scale replica of the castle."

"I remember that you said there _was_ a story," Rachel replied. "You didn't tell the story because I didn't want to hear it, and I still don't."

"Well, fine," Tabarnas said. "Because I remember exactly what happened last time I read it and it's not what happened this time."

"I don't understand," Rachel said.

"Neither do I!" Tabarnas wailed. "There's a whole section of the chronicle that's completely different. In the tale of 'How Avan Weatherstrong Defeated Seditas Wolfjaw' a young knight falls out of nowhere. He just appears above the fountain in the courtyard, accompanied by a gnome, no less.

"They team up to defeat the sorcerer. This is an incident that never took place in the original. Then they go on to have several adventures together. This is all in the service of returning the young knight to his home destination.

"These adventures are sometimes completely original. At other times they're ones I recognise but they resolve very differently. like this one: 'How Avan Weatherstrong Vanguished Perdita Baleclaw'. Avan Weatherstrong always uses the sorceress's frozen crystal heart to cure the infernal poison. He didn't have help before, he never needed help. The last time I read it he used a potion of invisibility. With his last few breaths he managed to cast the Book of Spells into the fire, only able to stand with the help of his sword."

"Maybe you just remembered wrong," Rachel said.

"I have read all the Tales of Avan Weatherstronge! At least twenty times apiece, I'll have you know," Tabarnas snapped. "These stories are different, it's upsetting."

"It's upsetting," said Rachel, "that you don't know why. Maybe you should ask the person who wrote them about it. Maybe they're supposed to refresh themselves from time to time. It could be magic."

"I should..." Tabarnas couldn't speak, it was as if Rachel had set off a firework inside his mind. The thought of meeting the author of his favourite twelve volume chivalric epic had never before occurred to him. The thought that his books could be magic had not occurred to him. There were about a dozen other things about Rachel's suggestion that had not occurred to him. If he were going to sit and think about them now then he would have no room left in his head to make his mouth work.

The bloom of hope and excitement at the unexpected prospect of a quest burst into colourful life within his mind. So Tabarnas dutifully took a mental hobnail boot and crushed it back down again.

"Impossible," he said. "I have to stay here and help mind the stall."

"So," Rachel said. "You've never left Bridgetown? You've never left the Master's Island?"

"Well, when we were younger, of course," Tabarnas said. "Cressie and I would go for a trip along the trade roads. We would move some stock we didn't find so useful, receive some stock that we knew would find a profit back home. We used to take a year out of every ten. Of course that was before we got this pitch on the Master's Island. We're only seventy paces from Kalico's door here. We can't give that up. Besides, Cressie never liked travelling, she said it gave her the vapours."

"How did you feel?" Rachel asked. "And what are vapours?"

"I don't know what vapours are," Tabarnas said. He didn't want to answer the other question. He knew that if he told Rachel that he loved travelling, meeting people and having adventures he would never hear the end of it.

"So you liked the travelling then," Rachel said. This was the girl's problem, she was far too sharp for her own good.

"Well, it doesn't matter if I did or if I didn't. We're not giving up a pitch under a hundred paces from Kalico's door at our age," Tabarnas snapped. "Besides Cressie wouldn't want to go travelling at her age. The vapours would plague worse than ever."

"Well, she could always stay here and mind the pitch," Rachel shrugged. "That way everyone gets something they want."

"Don't be ridiculous," Tabarnas said. "Cressie and I are business partners, that's the closest and strongest bond two goblin traders can share."

"Yet, in the couple of days I've been here I've never seen you spend more than five minutes in one another's company," Rachel said. "You both take advantage of the vast amount of space available in your stacks."

"I don't know what you mean," Tabarnas said. There was a small spark of exuberant joyful hope kindling in his chest. Tabarnas had become used to the idea that anything nice that happened to him was an accident, not deliberate. He had become used to a world in which no one cared what Tabarnas Riseandshine wanted, they all only cared about themselves.

At that thought a filthy, slimy morsel of bad faith dropped out of the upper shadows of Tabarnas's mind.  Despite the misanthropic nature of the thought he couldn't help but believe in its truth.

"What do you care anyway?" he asked Rachel, warming to his bad mood. "Why should it make any difference to you whether I take the trader's wagon along the routes one more time? Why do you want me to be happy?" He peered over the top of his reading spectacles into Rachel's innocent, brown eyes. "What do you get out of it?" he asked grimly.

"Well," Rachel said, looking down at the floor and chewing on her bottom lip. Tabarnas was right, she did want something. In that moment Tabarnas learnedthat being right did not necessarily equate to being happy about the fact. "I did come to see you about Eos. I was talking to her. She's been trapped in that tank now for about six months, she's rather claustrophobic. So I was wondering when it was you were going to release her, and how you were going to manage it. So, if we were to go on a trip..."

"...Then you could set the fish girl free in the ocean along the way," Tabarnas said. He tried to project a tone of  moral superiority. One appropriate catching someone who was up to something. As it turned out she was 'up to' trying to help out a claustrophobic mermaid he felt his moral indignation lacked a certain punch.

"Also," Rachel said. "I would like to see if I could find James. I'm worried about him."

"Oho!" Tabarnas crowed, playing the triumph for all it was worth. "So you don't want to come with me on a trade journey that would also cast light onto my misbehaving story books? You just want to put cod lips back in the ocean and find your little mouse. You thought that you could sucker me into taking you along on that ride, did you?"

"Well, you said you liked to travel," Rachel said, there was a quaver in her voice and it had become breathy. Tabarnas was wrestling with an odd dizzy feeling. He also had a sensation like someone had punched him in the gut with a fist full of feathers. "I just thought... if everybody had a job to do... and I can't help it... James is... James is my dearest friend... I lay awake last night because I couldn't sleep... because... what if... I mean... he's just a mouse and..."

The jumble of thought and emotion overwhelmed Rachel, she sat on the chair and dissolved into great heaving sobs.

Tabarnas rifled through his extensive memories for instructions on what to do when you had been a blustering idiot. An idiot who had moved an innocent little girl to tears. He found that someone must have borrowed these instructions and not returned them. All he could do was stand still, helpless, allowing his shoulders to sink and his chest to deflate. He had not been defeated but he had lost.

"Good going, foolish flim flammer," said Micras flying in at the window. "What's your follow up trick? Liberating sweetmeats from a baby's crib."

"I didn't know she was going to cry," Tabarnas snapped waspishly.

"What did he say?" Micras asked Rachel as he flapped down to perch on the top of the throne. "What's all this hoo-hah about?"

"I'm sorry," Rachel said. "I didn't mean to cry. I miss James. I'm sorry."

"So," Micras said, "you're bullying sad little girls who have lost their closest friends. How is that good for business?"

"It's not," Tabarnas admitted, sitting down on the edge of the dais under the throne. "I was trying to work out why she would be suggesting that I take the trader's wagon out of storage and go on a merchant's trail. She said we could stop off at the Faerie Archive on the way to ask why my favourite stories are misbehaving."

"Do you not want to do that?" Micras asked.

"Well, I... well, of course I do," Tabarnas said shocked into honesty by the direct question. "It sounds like a very pleasant idea. I have always wanted to visit the archive."

"So why did you think it would be a good idea to make Rachel cry over suggesting it?" Micras asked.

"Uh, I didn't. I mean I didn't mean to, I mean... look, we'll go and find the wagon, we'll hitch up the mermaid's tank, we'll look for James, we'll do it. Cressie can stay behind and mind the pitch. I'm sure she'd be pleased of the peace, anyhow."

"You will? We will?" Rachel said, still a bit sniffly but now, at least, smiling.

"As the owl pointed out," Tabarnas said. "It would be foolish not to."

"You have something else to say," Micras said to Tabarnas. "Before we leave this place."

"I do?" Tabarnas said. He thought he'd covered everything, "What's that?"

"Don't you think that for acting like such a foolish buffoon you should apologise?" Micras asked.

All eyes were on Tabarnas, and although that was only four eyes in total it still felt like rather a lot. Tabarnas felt some sort of colour, likely a sickly beetroot, making his cheeks glow.

"Uh, but, goblin traders, they, um, don't..." he said.

"As I understand matters," Micras said sternly, "goblin traders don't read storybooks. You've had no problem doing that."

"Oh," Tabarnas said. "Well, in that case, I'm very sorrugh."

"Not to me," Micras said, "to the little girl you made cry, and don't mumble the important word."

"Um, right," Tabarnas said. Feeling about as awkward as he'd ever felt in his entire life he turned to Rachel. "I'm very sorreh," he said, not quite being able to get the final 'y' to come out straight, "that I made you cry."

"Apology accepted," Rachel said happily. "Now, are we going to find the trader's wagon?"

On the long walk from Mini Caer Frogfellow to the garage, deep in the stacks, Tabarnas had a chance to reflect upon what had just happened. In his long life Tabarnas had never made anyone cry before, at least not about any matter that wasn't purely financial. Tabarnas had never felt guilt before. He had never found himself with a need to apologise before. Since he had signed the partnership contract he had never considered leaving his partner's side.

Now he got the novelty of not knowing how he felt about that. Cressidia and he had never been what someone might describe as close. Despite this they had bailed each other out of trouble on more than one occasion, as business partners should. If Tabarnas was to be honest he had probably had more requirement for bailing out than Cressie. Even so, she had never tried to have the contract broken. In goblin merchant terms this was a clear indication that she must be fond of him. He knew in his heart that he was not the world's most efficient and value-driven partner.

All this had started when he met Rachel. Had he known what telling her that story would lead to he might have kept his mouth shut. Then again, maybe he was having fun. It was either fun or a peculiar sort of indigestion.

In one short day at the market he had rescued a mermaid, lost a mouse, given shelter to a lost little girl and rehomed an owl. That was to say nothing of the incident yesterday evening with the acrobatic street thief. He hadn't actually seen any of that. They did say that one day in the Patchwork Market was enough to turn your world on its head. Usually that applied to the customers, not to the merchants.

Hadn't Rachel mentioned a gnome? And a wish? Gnomes, generally speaking, did not grant wishes. If a gnome was granting a wish that meant that it was a new gnome. If it was a new gnome then it was likely to be out of control, spewing mischief into the world. It was clear to Tabarnas that he was a victim of such mischief right now.

As he found the entrance to the garage, covered over with a large sheet of tarpaulin. He gripped the edge firmly and  lifted the canvas to one side. He would have liked to whip the cover away with a dramatic flourish but feared that he may dislocate his shoulder doing so.

Underneath the canvas a pair of battered wooden doors leaned against a pile of crates at an angle. Rachel poked her head between the edge of the door and the next stack to look at the gap of the angle. Tabarnas could see her puzzled expression by peering down the other side. His face was hurting, he realised that's because he was smiling.

"I don't understand," Rachel said. "What are these doors for?"

"An alchemist of Almanreik once had an idea for a magical barn," Tabarnas explained. "You put the space into a special pocket in the ether anchored to a doorframe. Then attach some lockable doors and, hey presto, instant storage space. The only problem was that they were quite pricey. The process for attaching a barn sized space to a set of doors was very complex and took a lot of time. This is one of only maybe five hundred ever made. Look."

Tabarnas moved around to the front of the garage. He fished the key from the appropriate pocket in his waistcoat to unlock the doors. The doors swung back to reveal the space beyond.

Rachel's mouth described the expected little 'o' as she beheld the gigantic space.  She marvelled at this tiny pocket dimension stowed away behind the door jamb. A smell of dust and aging (although well-preserved) metals wafted out from the gigantic space. The doors were tilted at an angle but the floor of the barn was perfectly straight. From inside the doors appeared to be upright, even though they weren't. Alchemists were tricky fellows for certain.

"Go on," Tabarnas said, "take a look around."

Rachel took a few steps into the barn, looking up and around, her eyes like saucers. She approached the large shape in the centre of the space, also covered by a sheet of canvas.

"Is this-?" she didn't finish the question. Tabarnas guessed that she was still trying to fit the space beyond the doors into her mind. That could easily occupy parts of the brain usually reserved for asking questions.

"The Trader's Wagon," Tabarnas nodded. "I'll have to find a couple of golems to help me move the doors but I think it should all be in fine fettle."

"So we're really going?" Rachel asked. "We're going to find James? And we're going to take Eos home?"

"And we're definitely stopping off in Sommerslip, yes. I shall ask questions about my story book," Tabarnas said. "Although obviously, we have to clear it with Cressie first."

As it turned out clearing things with Cressida was not as hard a job as Tabarnas had believed that it might be. Tabarnas had never broached the idea of going off somewhere by himself. He'd always believed that Cressie would not stand for it.

As it happened Cressida's business sense totally overrode any sentimentality in her character. As soon as she understood what it was Tabarnas was flapping about she  immediately produced a list she had made. A list of stock that she believed needed to be taken away for any chance of a sale.

She set eight clay golems about retrieving the stock to place on the wagon. Then she located two more iron golems to move the doors into the yard between the pitches. By late afternoon the wagon was loaded with stock for the road, so there was only one problem remaining.

"Where are we going to sleep?" asked Rachel, looking into the stuffed interior of the covered caravan.

It was true that Cressida may have underestimated the amount of stock that she had earmarked for the travelling stall. There was barely room for Rachel to stand in the wagon, let alone for her and Tabarnas to find somewhere to sleep.

"Oh, yes," Tabarnas said. "That is a problem. We may have to leave some things behind."

"Ridiculous," Cressida snapped. "I thought you wanted to take your silly books with you."

"Of course," Tabarnas replied. "That's one of the reasons we're going."

"Well, you keep them all in that magic doll's house thing, the castle. Why don't you sleep in there?"

"Oh yes!" Rachel said. "That would work. Besides, I'd love to sleep in a castle, even a toy one."

"But... thieves," Tabarnas said. "How will we guard the stock if we're miniaturised inside a toy castle?"

"You don't think I'm looking to a little girl and a foolish old goblin to protect our stock on the road are you?" Cressida asked, desbelief ringing in her voice.

"Well, I..." Tabarnas said.

"No, don't even bother talking!" Cressida said sharply. "You know listening to idiocy gives me earache. Of course you'll take Ferris and Gerda, they can stay in the castle by day and watch the wagon at night."

"But what if you need help here in the market?" Tabarnas asked.

"We have eight stone golems," Cressie shrugged. "And we're in the Master's Quarter. That means that we're surrounded by the Master's Watch. If we're honest Ferris and Gerda have been more ornamentation than security since we got this pitch."

Tabarnas had to agree. He closed the door on the back of the wagon and climbed up onto the front of the wagon.

"Um, Tabarnas, what about horses?" Rachel asked. "How are we going to go anywhere without horses."

"Horses are expensive to keep, girl," Tabarnas replied. "The trader's wagon cost Cressie and I a great deal but we don't have to pay for feed, watch."

Tabarnas picked up the reins and flicked his wrist. From the front of the cart sprang two wooden shafts. From each of these sprang a startling profusion of metal plates, all attached to hinges, levers and axles. As the wagon's steed assembled itself in front of Cressida and Rachel there was a loud noise. It sounded like someone rattling a dozen cutlery drawers whilst someone else was banging a hammer against a sheet of metal.

After just a few seconds a gigantic, colourful metal horse stood in front of the trader's wagon. Tabarnas flicked the reins a second time and the mechanical horse pulled the wagon out of the storage barn to stand in the yard. The wagon complained a little as it began to move, probably because the golems had loaded it up from roof to rafters. The time the wagon had spent in the barn can't have done it too much harm. As tje cart started off it creaked and complained. By the time the steed had brought it into the yard it appeared to have settled on its axles.

"Come on then," Tabarnas said to Rachel as Ferris and Gerda started moving Eos's tank around to hook it onto the back of the wagon. "Hop up and we'll be off to find adventure."

"And to make us a good deal of profit," Cressidia said her tone still sharp.

"Of course, dear, of course," Tabarnas said a smile painted from ear to ear. And they did both, but those are all stories for another time.

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