Sunday, 26 May 2013

Princess Spireshine Meets Peregrine Pagebinder

The Kingdom of Spireshine woke up to find that the relative calm of the previous five days was at an end. The full stop to the sentence 'Anabyl Spireshine has returned home.' was made out of the smouldering wreckage of the carriage that had brought her to Caer Spireshine. The vehicle, or what was left of it, was strewn about the branches of a tree, known by the Spireshiners as the stout oak, that had stood for over twelve centuries not far from the entrance to the castle.

Such occurrences were not unusual in Spireshine. For the last half decade or so a pattern had established itself. Chaos reigned, an increasingly stringent number of security measures and disciplinary edicts were issued, the princess would disappear for a few days, a carriage would bring her back, chaos would resume.

About a year ago there had been the blessed two month period when Anabyl's eldest sister had been married to the third Lord Sommerslip. The kingdom had been left in the capable hands of a regent, heir to the throne Benedyct. Benedyct had done an excellent job and the period was seen as a brief golden age during troubled times. The fact that the current Lord Spireshine had decided to take Anabyl with him on that occasion could not have hurt Benedyct's brief period in office in the slightest.

Princess Anabyl was a child, everyone acknowledged this fact. So, surely, one day she would have to grow up, this everyone hoped. They hoped, more precisely, that their definition of 'growing up', which included not setting fire to so many things, was precisely the type of growing up she would do. Nobody liked to discuss the existence of alternative things that could happen. The words 'she could get worse' were only ever thought, not ever said.

The broken axles and sad rags of upholstery were not the only new thing a Spireshiner might have been able to see at the stout oak at sunrise. The early-rising resident of the kingdom would have to have been standing north of the tree, they would also have to be looking off to the side of the rising sun, just at the point where the flaming orb's presence in one's field of vision was starting to produce tearing from the eyes.

It was one of those days where the sun and the moon battled for dominance in the early morning sky. Unusually the moon was extremely close to the edge of the sun that day. Some, particularly stellar alchemists, might have said 'impossibly close'. It was at that precise proximity that one could just about see it although the peripheral brightness of the sun would cause you to squint.

Thus squinting one might have seen the unusual sight of a man appearing to walk out of the fading moon to hop down through the branches of the stout oak, like a large and flapping owl among the branches, to land on the road. One would, obviously be surprised to see such a thing, so one might believe that this thin man in ragged clothes wearing a tall hat seemed to squash and bend in the hard light of the red rising sun.

At this point one might decide to get out of the line of sight of the sun and take a closer look. Approaching the tree from a less eye-watering angle one would realise one had been mistaken. Obviously about a man climbing out of the moon, that goes without saying, but also about there being a thin man in a tall hat.

Now that one drew closer one could clearly see that it was a tall man, wearing a scholar's skull cap. He had a nose like the beak of a carrion crow and a pair of glasses hanging from this bony proboscis, two flat oblongs of clear glass in plain metal frames. The eyes behind the glasses were very dark, they glittered dangerously.

If one were to look into those eyes for too long all that stuff about tall hats and wide, white grins (that you most certainly wouldn't have seen with the sun in your eyes, so how do you even know about them, stop thinking this way) would come back into your head, if only for an instant. It was almost as if the whole man, spiky elbows to stern frowning mouth, were some sort of mask, concealing a far stranger interior. One would try to forget having such a thought even upon its occurrence and the thought would hasten within one's mind to be forgotten.

Instead our imaginary observer would possibly decide to look over the man's clothing and accoutrements. He wore long, black school master's robes. Under one arm the academic bird-man clutched a serious looking book. A switch of flexible wood was clutched in his left hand. Our observer would see this man cast a cold eye over the carriage carnage in the branches of the stout oak and tut disapprovingly. If they were close enough they might make out the merest whisper of a smirk at the corner of the man's mouth.

No one was there to observe this, not even an imaginary observer, which is a shame because they are often the ones who notice the most. So the incident passed unremarked upon and unthought about. The academic bird-man was alone as he turned towards Caer Spireshine and walked along the road towards it.

The first Spireshiner to observe the advance of the man in the black robes was Old Robson, the night guard. Being centrally located among the members of the One Hundred Kingdoms (a title of nomination only, there were far more than a hundred kingdoms signed up to the One Hundred Kingdoms Pact) Spireshine had limited use of stout night time defences. Soldiers signed up to military service in Spireshine were usually provided a position within the One Hundred Kingdoms Alliance. For this reason Caer Spireshine only had a skeleton guard during the night time.

Old Robson had watched the gatehouse of the Caer from Midnight Bell until Morning Bell for over seven decades at this point. In all that time he had never marked the approach of a lone schoolmaster to the castle gates.

Upon seeing the master making his way up the paved path to the drawbridge crossing Old Robson roused himself from his comfortable chair and made his way down the stone spiral stairs to the main gate. He opened the hatch in the wicket gate to peer out suspiciously shortly after the first precise volley of five knocks.

"Morning," Old Robson mumbled.

"My very warmest wishes of the new day," said the academic in a fluting tone that should not have been as filled with authority as it was. "Peregrine Pagebinder, reporting for service as tutor to Princess Anabyl Spireshine."

"I en't been told anything about no tutor," Old Robson said. This was true although even the ancient night watchman knew that if anyone was in dire need of a firm guiding hand it was the princess. If some fool was going to turn up at the gates of the castle and demand to be placed in a position of responsiblity for the little tearaway Old Robson was inclined to believe that they were telling the truth. The lie would not merely be fruitless it technically qualified as dangerous.

"That is because I have not yet been retained," Peregrine replied, a cold smile patronising Old Robson right through the eight inch by three inch slit in the wicket gate. "I have all of my certificates of authority in my pack and I have been assured that Princess Anabyl is precisely the kind of student I excel in educating. Show me through to the relevant waiting area for today's court session and I will occupy the position by sunset I can assure you."

"Gates don't open for court until mid-morning bell," Robson said.

"Ah," Peregrine said regretfully. "It seems that I have been misinformed as to the Princess's educational requirements. Please pass on my best wishes to Lord Spireshine, I shall be on my way."

Old Robson opened the gate purely on an intuition he would identify as 'gut feeling'. Had he possessed a more rational turn of mind he would have reasoned that if this man was what he represented himself as - i.e. someone who could tame the savage beast that concealed hobnail boots beneath a variety of frilly formal gowns - then it would only be a fool who would let him walk away from the castle. If the man was not all he claimed to be then he would run from Caer Spireshine screaming before the day was out.

In other words: What did Old Robson have to lose?

"You can come in and wait," he said to Peregrine.

A broad grin fled momentarily across the dour man's face. Old Robson got the impression of far too many teeth, all of them dazzling white.

Peregrine was shown into the main reception hall of the Caer, where a couple of hearth sprites were finishing up the job of cleaning a large stain of gravy, treacle and compost off the west wall. He sat on a chair in the public enclosure and waited patiently for noon bell, at which point there would be a session of court lasting until the day bell.

As he was the first to arrive Peregrine was the first to present himself before Lord Spireshine. He stood straight and proud before the ruler of the kingdom and waited for the gossiped enquiries at his back to silence themselves before speaking.

"Lord Spireshine," he said, "My name is Peregrine Pagebinder, it is my honour to present myself before you and my pleasure to offer my services as a tutor to your youngest child."

Lord Spireshine sat forward a little in his chair.

"I did not send for a tutor for Anabyl," he said. "She is, perhaps, a little young for the business of education."

"If by 'a little young' you mean 'the eye in a continually swirling typhoon of chaos'," Peregrine replied. "Then I sympathize with your perspective. I have references, signed and sealed, from many other monarchs of the One Hundred Kingdoms all of whom have been delighted to retain my services in the past. I specialise in challenging students."

Now Lord Spireshine didn't just sit forward, he also sat up.

"I do not think, Master Pagebinder, that you have, perhaps, ever encountered a challenge like Anabyl," he said. All the Spireshiners could hear the subtext of the remark clearly as: 'This is your last chance to run, take it and never look back you lunatic.'

"Maybe so," Peregrine said. "Neither do I think that she has encountered a scaffold for growth, development and discipline such as my good self."

"I hope for your sake that you are correct," Lord Spireshine said. "You are retained for the trial period of a fortnight. Chamberlain, find Master Pagebinder suitable quarters."

"It would be my pleasure," said the chamberlain, a jowly, unpleasant man who was already enjoying the mental image of the state in which this jumped up bookworm would leave the castle after Anabyl had finished with him.

Peregrine was given a small room in the cellar of the castle. It had a plain pallet bed which was not even made and a wardrobe with space for maybe three sets of clothes and half the door missing.

"Unfortunately," the chamberlain said. "We are somewhat pressed for space at the moment. I shall send someone to make up your room after evening bell, if that's agreeable." And if you're still here you poor fool, he thought to himself.

"I'm sure I shall be," Peregrine replied.

"Then I shall leave you to settle in," the chamberlain said. It was only ten minutes later that he realised that Pagebinder had responded to something that he was certain he had only thought.

After placing his serious book on the shelf of the broken wardrobe Peregrine left his room and walked up through the castle towards the quarters of Lord Spireshine and his family. Once he ascended above the court mezzanine he found it quite easy to pick his route, he only needed to follow the distant cacophany of shouting and screaming.

As he drew closer actual words and phrases began to make themselves heard amid the general clamour:

"I've got her ankle!"

"Grab the sponge, quick!"

"Why isn't it wet?"

"Wet it now!"

"She's wriggling, I think she's trying to bite me."

"The water's not soapy! What about the plan?"



"Why did you let go?"

"She bit me!"

"There's no blood."

"But it hurt."

"Look we've got her in the corner, come and help."

"What about the sponge?"

"We can deal with the sponge when we've got her again."

"She's making a run for it!"

"Stop her!"

There followed a series of bangs and crashes, a couple more howls of pain. Peregrine was drawing close to the doorway onto this scene of carnage now. A girl dressed in a striped bathing suit that covered her from neck to wrists from wrists to ankles came pelting out into the corridor a look of determination on her face, a small, tight grin lighting up the otherwise serious expression.

She hurried towards Peregrine without actually seeming to see him. She ducked left, presuming to dodge past him. As she passed him by on his right hand side he moved, swift as a snake, gripping the striped bathing suit in the middle of the back and hauling the princess into the air. He oriented his head so that they were almost nose to nose.

"Good morning, Princess Anabyl," he said.

The princess, having a fine set of instincts, wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"Who are you?" she asked, and then a moment later. "Put me down."

"I am your new tutor," Peregrine said. "And no."

"There's a man," came a voice from up the corridor. "He's got her."

"Has he?" another voice. "That won't last."

"You could just listen to them," Princess Anabyl said. "It won't last, you may as well just put me down. You don't have to get hurt."

"Are you threatening me, Princess?" Peregrine asked.

"Not really," the princess said. "I never intend to hurt anyone, it just sort of happens."

Peregrine smiled.

"Sir!" a voice called urgently, "you might want to consider putting Her Royal Highness down and backing away... slowly. No sudden motions."

"They seem concerned," Peregrine said.

"People usually are when it's bath time," the princess replied.

"Ah, bath time," Peregrine said, nodding sagely. "You don't strike me as someone who would be afraid of a little bit of water."

"I'm not," the princess pouted. "It's the principle."

"I must admit to being unfamiliar with that principle," Peregrine said.

"They want me to do something, I can't just let them do it to me," the princess explained.

"Why not?"

"It's the principle."

Peregrine did not say anything for a moment, his gaze slid sideways for a moment, the princess began to wriggle, the gaze slid back instantly.

"Here's how it's going to be," Peregrine said. "You'll have your bath, or vice versa."

"Vice versa?" the princess said. "What does that mean?"

"You can have your bath now," Peregrine said. "Or you can find out for yourself."

"Well," the princess said, "I'm not going to have my bath, I don't care what stupid words you use."

"Very well," Peregrine sighed, his voice tinged with a not-quite-sincere note of regret. "I'm putting you down now."

"Sensible man."

Peregrine let the princess go and she took off down the corridor as if her feet were on fire.

"He's lost her!" shouted the maid in the corridor.

"Doesn't surprise me," came another voice.

Peregrine moved up the corridor towards the bathroom, past the maid in the door way and into the scene of carnage that lay beyond. The room was very well lit from a high window that reflected the sunlight off a mirror across one wall. Steam hung in the air, picking out the underlying debris in pleasant swatches of rainbow colour.

Sponges, brushes, bars of soap and towels were strewn here and there about the room. All of these were responding in their own manner to the lake of water covering the floor. The bath that formed a backdrop to this forlorn and sorry scene looked pristine, untouched by the wriggling limbs of chaos.

Within this vignette of bath time hell were three maids, two standing, one seated. One of the standing ones was holding a lonely, soapy sponge, the other stood with her hands on her hips, incongruously her face bore a look of slack resignation and defeat. The seated maid sat on a low stool, morosely clutching her arm where red tooth marks were clearly visible.

"Ladies," Peregrine addressed the gathered maids. "You may wish to move aside."

All the maids, past the point of arguing, did as they were told. Peregrine stepped up to the bath and held aloft his wooden switch. In a flurry of wrist motion he described an incredibly complicated path with the tip of the switch in the air and then tapped the edge of the bathtub.

The water in the tub began to bubble, as if it was boiling, or as if there were something large beneath the water's surface that was about to emerge, dripping and angry. Neither was the case, instead the water itself surged upwards, forming into the approximate shape of a very large man that hopped out of the bathtub onto the wet floor where it proceeded to add to its bulk by sopping up the spilled water.

Not slowing for a second Peregrine tapped a bar of soap, two brushes, a sponge and a couple of towels with his switch. All of these items leaped into the air at the contact. The soap buried itself in the water man's chest and instantly dissolved turning the water a soapy grey-white. The brushes attached themselves to the man's hands, the sponge flew in after the soap, the towels wrapped themselves around his head like a turban.

"Excellent," Peregrine said. "If the girl won't have a bath then the bath must have her. Go and wash her, whether she likes it or not," he instructed the water man who ran out of the door after the princess.

Much of the disorder had been reversed, the bathroom was almost clean. The maids stared at Peregrine jaws slack with amazement. A final swish of the wood switch and a broom stood to attention in the corner and began busily sweeping up the rest of the mess.

"Marvellous," Peregrine said, a tightly disciplined space for a grin being allowed to light upon his lips. He turned to address the maids: "Good morning, Ladies," he said. "Now, if you'll excuse me I must catch up with my student. Important that we don't miss out on lesson review."

With that Peregrine strolled out of the bathroom and down the corridor. The maids, once the amazement that froze them in place had thawed a little, hurried to follow him. Bath time had been a monthly torture for the staff of Caer Spireshine to endure, if this was to be revenge for multiple soakings then no one was going to miss it for the world.

By the time they reached the courtyard the show was well under way. The water man had turned into a roiling sphere of soapy water, a planet of cleaniliness. The brushes, the sponge and the towels orbited the planet like moons. Unlike moons every so often one or another of them would dive into the ball of water and emerge moments later to resume their previous course.

The princess's head could occasionally be seen emerging, a damp and horrified expression upon her face, from within the water long enough for her to take in a lungful of air. Then the tide would suck her back in for a few moments as the brushes and sponges did their work.

A small crowd had gathered to watch the bath at work, there were a fair few faces that wore expressions of grim satisfaction. There were plenty more that were openly laughing, pointing at the helpless princess, washed whether she wanted it or not.

As quickly as the bath had begun it ended. The sphere of water shot into the air and over the castle walls, dumping itself in the moat. The sponge and brushes arranged themselves neatly on the courtyard floor, the towels swooped in, one wrapping itself around Anabyl's head, the other draping itself over her arm. The princess floated gently to the floor and stood, pink, clean and furious surrounded by a circle of satisfied onlookers.

"Next time," Peregrine said to her companionably, "I would possibly be tempted to have the bath. Vice versa's really no fun, is it?"

"Who are you?" demanded the princess.

"As I explained, Princess," Peregrine said. "I am your new tutor. My name is Peregrine Pagebinder. Now, shall we return to the dressing rooms so that your maids may make you presentable? Or do we want to do that the hard way as well?"

The atmosphere in the courtyard thickened. It appeared as if everyone was rooting for the hard way. Something even more remarkable happened.

"Well, then," the princess said. "I guess we'd better get it over with."

Pouting she presented herself to the maids who, with an air of suspicious gratitude, took the freshly washed little princess inside to get her dressed.

"I will see you after noon bell," Peregrine called after her. "This afternoon we begin your education."

Some of the crowd heard the princess as she passed by them mutter: "We'll just have to see about that, Peabody."

It looked as if things in Caer Spireshine were going to get a little calmer and a great deal more interesting.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Sir Cobb and the Cage Match

"I will never love again," Avan Weatherstrong said, tears stinging at his eyes.

"You are a ridiculous man," replied the phantom Kal'hath. "You knew when first we met that our time together would be this brief."

"Had I but perfected the potion we both sought," Avan said. "Then we could be together for all time."

"We will be," the phantom replied. "For now, the change of death has come upon me. I must go on my way. I shall never forget you my prince."

"Nor I you," Avan Weatherstrong replied. Now he was alone beneath the ragblossom tree in the Wylde Woods so his words were borne away upon the wind. He did not know if his first love heard them, but he chose to believe that she had.

Prince Weatherstrong performed many great deeds, and one day he met the woman who would be the love of his life. All of these adventures will be written of, but not at this time.

Well, I don't think anyone wanted it to end like that, Frederick mused, and I didn't even like her that much. He closed the bound copy of "The Tales of Avan Weatherstronge Volume VI" that he had picked up for a half crown in Bridgetown. He had bought the volume mostly to check up on what had happened after he left.

Frederick had noted that the entire volume V was peppered with references to Avan's plucky but hapless sidekick, Sir Cobbe. He had left wondering about whether these tales had existed before his diversion into the distant past for wiser heads; ones less likely to throb at the consideration of the topic.

Now that he had concluded the adventures of volume VI with the certain knowledge that Avan's love affair with the shapeshifter Kal'Hath had probably been a bad idea he wanted to see what happened in volume VII. He also wanted to reassure Avan that he had made it back to where he had started off without too much permanent damage.

The door of the inn room opened and Lester came in.

"Phoebe said if we're not all ready to go by morning bell that she would see to it we would be very very sorry," he said. "I, for one, am inclined to believe her."

"Sorry," Frederick said, slipping the book into his knapsack. As he did so he realised that, having finished it, the volume was now an encumbrance rather than a vital piece of research material. He decided that he would have to sell it at the market while they were searching for the little girl and the goblin trader this morning.

"No need to apologise to me," Lester said. "And I don't think it would do much good with Phoebe when she's in a temper. If there's one thing I've noticed it is that she is not fun to be around when she's angry."

A brief image of Phoebe's flashing eyes and plasma filled hands impressed itself on Frederick's mind.

"Oh, I don't know," he said with a little smirk.

"Yes, well," Lester appeared to find Frederick's response flustering. He crossed to the side of his bed and knocked gently on the lid of the small wooden box that the old goblin lady had sold them. "James, time to get up."

"I've been up for the past five minutes with all your banging around," came a muted tone of annoyance from within the box. "The lid's a little heavy. Either that or it's stuck."

"Oh, hang on," Lester said. He fiddled with the lid, after a small amount of exertion it popped open. "Oops," he said. "Yes, it is a little tight."

"Tonight I think I shall sleep with the lid open, if it's all the same to you," James said, sitting up inside the box. "That was far too much like waking up in a coffin."

"I shall not be pleased," an angry female voice came floating down the corridor from outside the room. "If I have to come in there. Come on, daylight's burning."

The two men did a quick circuit of the room to check that they had not forgotten anything, once they were satisfied James was allowed to climb up on to Lester's shoulder. Locking the inn room behind them they all went downstairs to meet Phoebe.

Phoebe had found them a less than hearty breakfast of fruit which they ate as they walked out of the inn and down to the market square at Steephill Fell.

Frederick concentrated very hard on his pear and even more on his apple. He had learned, in the last couple of days, to concentrate on a variety of objects and tasks that were not Phoebe. Only a few weeks ago he had been despairing at how pathetic Prince Avan Weatherstrong had seemed besotted with an exotic maiden in black pyjamas. Frederick was determined not to make the same mistake, not that Phoebe was wearing black pyjamas, and even if she were, Frederick would be too busy concetrating on things that weren't her to notice.

"Right, here's the plan for the day," Phoebe said, taking charge as always. Frederick did appreciate Phoebe's instinct to organise things but he assured himself this was just because it gave him a framework that, prior to his encounter with a certain prince of legend, he had been sorely lacking.

"We've got a couple of hours until the mid morning bell," Phoebe pressed on, "we are to spread out and search for the trader's wagon until then. At mid-morning, if we haven't found them I will go to the magic market where I will use the last of my money to buy a new blank spell book and some potions. Thereafter I can sell my services as a healer. Meanwhile Frederick will see if there's a fighting pit where he could earn us a few coins.

"Once either of us has made a Bronze Mark, or it gets to the mid afternoon bell we will come back to meet Lester under the market bell. After that we will continue to search and ask questions until evening bell. We will stay one more night in the Gryphon's Wing and then, in the morning, we must press on, unless we succeed in finding Rachel, in which case we shall come up with a new plan."

"Um, so, I just stay under the market bell?" Lester asked. He didn't sound happy with the arrangement.

"From midmorning until the both of us return, yes," Phoebe said.

"That doesn't seem like a very important job," Lester said.

"Neither selling healing services nor being beaten up for the entertainment of others are important Lester," Phoebe said. "But we all have to do what we can to keep ourselves fed on this journey. You will keep an eye on the market, you never know when we'll encounter someone who will have news of the trader's wagon."

"Just seems a bit tedious," Lester half-grumbled, half-muttered.

"You can have my book of stories to read, if you like," Frederick offered. He didn't expect Lester to greet this idea with enthusiasm. Frederick had found reading chore enough and he had been deeply invested in the contents.

"No," Lester said, "it's fine. I'll just sit quietly and wait for you to return."

"You could talk to me," James said from Lester's shoulder. "I could even read to you from the book. I like a good book."

Everyone took a moment to look at James as if he were crazy.

"What?" the mouse objected. "I find reading very relaxing."

"Look," Phoebe broke across the rapidly disintegrating conversational trajectory. "I don't really care what people do as long as they do it while sticking to the plan. We've only got two bells before mid-morning, let's see what we can find. Now."

Thus directed the party split up to cover the market at Steephill Fell and surrounding streets.

Frederick moved around the market, keeping his eyes open for signs of a goblin merchant accompanied by a young girl, or a young girl wandering alone, or a mermaid, or a mobile trader's wagon. He did have a brief conversation with a rainbow grease merchant, but the goblin's tins of product were imports from Trenchside.

He managed to get a conversation going with a general trader who bought the book from Frederick for the scandalous resale price of twenty shillings, the trader offered this as an improvement on his opening gambit of one hundred groats. Frederick was not particularly good at mental arithmetic but he believed the two figures may actually have amounted to exactly the same thing.

The point was not the poor price he attracted for the resale of the book. The point was rather that, whilst the trader was trying altogether far too hard to bamboozle Frederick, he let slip that there had been an upset in the fishmonger's alley near to the master's quarters the previous evening. As the deal was done the mid-morning bell tolled, indicating that it was time to report to the nearest fighting pit.

"I could have got you a better deal for that book," said a voice from Frederick's waist.

"Don't talk," Frederick said. "Remember Hamsamperburg."

"These are the Rolling Greens," the sword replied, "it's not some Midnight Forest backwater. Talking swords are probably commonplace in this area. Besides, I'm bored of sitting at your waist dumbly. I had myself transferred into this artifact in order to engage in social interaction."

"I thought you were transferred into the sword in order to travel and see the world," Frederick said.

"Both, I made the move for both reasons," the sword replied, its irritation showing. "Regardless, it's a good job I did, I'm clearly more worldly than you. Twenty shillings is a shocking price for a stout volume like the one you just sold."

"I needed to lighten the load, besides I obtained useful information from the deal." Frederick wasn't exactly certain why he felt he had to defend himself to a sword, he carried on nevertheless.

"You are not at all business minded, are you?" the sword asked.

"I'm a knight, I defend the helpless, I avenge wrong wherever I find it. I haven't got time for economics."

"So you're bringing a whole new level of inefficiency to your operation?" the sword countered. "Imagine the do-gooding that you could accomplish if you didn't have to spend up to a quarter of every day grubbing around for loose change."

"So what?" Frederick asked. "I should take a break and find a tutor in basic merchant craft?"

"That burly fellow, Sir Vaskorn, he's clearly had some lessons in efficient resource management," the sword said. "Look at him now."

"Oh, yes, because I really want to model myself after an enormous evil bully," Frederick said.

"Well, you won't ever beat someone like that whilst you're scrabbling on the floor after every meagre groat," the sword pointed out. "You said that you avenge wrong, difficult to do that properly when you have no liquid assets."

"So what do you suggest I do?" Frederick asked.

"Well, you're heading to the arena now," the sword said. "Why don't you simply let me do the talking?"

"If you say so," Frederick sighed, after all, what harm could it do?

Frederick asked about in the tavern and was directed down a small side street into a cellar bar where the local fighting ring was set up. The fight roster for any given pit was determined by which fighters happened to be in the room that day. There were always regular fighters of course, but then there were travelling brawlers, various monsters and, of course, wandering knights who all found occasions where they had to step into the ring of competition in order to earn a small purse.

Frederick presented himself to the bar owner and said that he would like to be added to the day's roster.

"Fights begin at noon bell," the owner said, he pulled a large, black ledger from under the bar and opened it to a fresh page. He took a pen and filled its nib from a pot of ink. "Fighting name?" the tavern keeper asked.

"Sir Cobb," Frederick said. "Champion of the Weak."

"Uh-huh," the tavern keeper said, he might have been less impressed by something he'd heard that day but, if this was the case, Frederick couldn't imagine a tone of voice any flatter or more hollow that he could have employed to indicate the fact. "Every fight earns a shilling for a win," the man said. "Amateur fights last until evening bell."

"I don't think you heard my client," piped up the sword from Frederick's side. "He said he was Sir Cobb, Champion of the Weak."

The tavern keeper looked Frederick in the eye.

"What's that?" he said, tone still flat.

"That, my good man," said the sword, "is Sir Cobb's agent. Sir Cobb is a fighter of rare character and distinction. He does not dirty his knuckles on a shilling fighter. Sir Cobb is a professional man-at-arms. You will not find a coistrel of greater skill between Bridgetown and the Shimmering Shore. I am sure you have a professional purse that would be more suited to my client's skills."

"Professional bouts begin in the evening, you need a Fighter's Guild mark to take part," the tavern keeper said, his facial arrangement moving only enough to allow his mouth to form the words.

"Are you telling me that your business would not benefit from a one-off special event, this very afternoon, against any fighter on the pit roster?" the sword asked, not in the least bit put off by the tavern keeper's manner.

"You'll fight anyone?" the tavern keeper asked Frederick, refusing to address a foot and a half of forged metal strapped to a man's waist.

"He'll beat anyone!" the sword announced proudly.

"There's been a fella here, paid for lodgings, don't like him, smells, is rude," the tavern keeper said. "He won't leave because he can't be beat. You beat him you can name your price."

"A silver crown" the sword cut in before Frederick could ask for a bronze mark.

"A sovereign," the tavern keeper shot back.

"Done," the sword said.

A slow smile spread across the tavern keeper's face. Frederick believed that he much preferred the previous stony neutrality.

"If I were you, friend," the tavern keeper said to Frederick. "I'd keep that sword from issuing edicts your backside might find it hard to enforce."

Frederick wasn't arrogant enough not to get a sinking feeling in his stomach at the tavern keeper's morbid glee. The tavern keeper's gaze slid sideways, away from Frederick, to settle on a small boy sat a table in the corner.

"Jinks!" he called out. "Go tell the crier that we got a fighter for the troll at noon. There's a bowl of Martha's gruel in it for you."

The lad slipped off his chair and ran off to market.

"Every fighter gets a free drink," the tavern keeper said, turning back to Frederick. "What can I get you?"

The news that he was to fight a troll was a matter of some concern to Frederick. Almost the first lesson he'd ever learned was 'if at all possible avoid any confrontation with a troll' and this fighting fixture necessarily ran counter to that general guideline. Still, there was a sovereign on the line. If Frederick could pull this off it would give the party a little financial security for the next few days.

Noon rolled by faster than Frederick might have liked. He was apprehensive at the sight of all the people who had turned out to watch him battle the troll. It appeared that the citizens of Steephill Fell were keen to see this monster get its comeuppance, or to see Frederick beaten to within an inch of his life. Perhaps they were not altogether that concerned which, as long as it was either.

At the noon bell Frederick took a step up into the caged pit area and stood under the harsh overhead dwarf crystal lamps waiting for his opponent to join him. There was a murmur from the crowd as a shadow fell across the entrance to the bar. A heavy tread crossed the distance to the cage and a familiar bulbous-nosed, bearded, warty head came into view in the light of the pit lamps.

"Well, well, well, Frederick Cobb," said Yelloweye Blackfang, grinning unpleasantly. "What a nice surprise waiting for me this afternoon, to be sure."

"You know this gentleman?" asked the sword which, within the cage fighting rules, had been strapped to the bars of the cage on the outside where Frederick could not reach it.

"We... have met on a couple of previous occasions," Frederick said. "I rescued a moon maiden from him, then, when next we crossed paths, I trapped him inside a mirror prison."

"You should have told me," the sword said. "I could have got more money for a grudge match."

"I didn't know!" Frederick complained.

"Oh, well," the sword said. "Nothing to be done about it now."

With that the cage door was closed and locked, the tavern keeper rang the pit bell and Yelloweye Blackfang hollered with wicked delight as he charged forward, intending to barge Frederick to the ground.

The one thing Frederick had going for him at this point was that, since his last encounter with the troll, he had spent three months in hero boot camp and a further month and a half in one of the strangest places that exists anywhere in the weave or beyond. He had learned plenty of good hero-ing tricks and had his capacity for being particularly freaked out by anything tested to its absolute limit.

Not feeling any more panicked than the original 'butterflies in tummy' he'd had now for over an hour he rolled his shoulder and hit the floor. Frederick tumbled to one side of the monster as it barreled past the point where Frederick had been a second previously.

The troll let out a cry of surprise as it ran straight into the stout metal bars at the edge of the cage. The troll bounced off the bars and almost fell backwards into the centre of the ring.

Excellent first move, Frederick thought as he spun to face his monstrous adversary, now, how to finish this off without dying, and without any kind of weapon?

There was really only one tactic that could end this in relative peace without anyone getting too badly hurt, Frederick hated it but the strategy was the only way to go. It didn't help that he had never actually tried to complete the move, although he had seen Avan execute it, once on an eight foot tall lizard man.

If Frederick's mentor could take down an annoyed giant gecko armed only with a length of chain Frederick could certainly apply the same technique to a troll. If he failed he probably deserved the beating.

Frederick ran towards Yelloweye Blackfang and, at the last moment before rebounding of the troll's solid torso he leaped up into the air, extending his leg to push off against the monster's right thigh. Getting a good, solid footing he pushed himself over the troll's right shoulder and, as he flew round, he reached his arms out to encircle its neck. He clamped down hard and began to squeeze, attempting to choke the creature into unconsciousness.

Frederick had been so intent on getting into position without screwing up too badly he hadn't had time to take in reactions from either his opponent or the gathered crowd. Prioritising the two Frederick noticed that Yelloweye Blackfang hadn't moved to throw Frederick off just yet. The troll must be surprised at Frederick's newfound capability but surprise wore off, Frederick did his best to tighten his hold.

Broadening his perspective Frederick realised that the cellar bar had fallen silent. His perception of time probably wasn't exactly normal at the moment. He had probably only taken maybe ten seconds to roll up to a standing position, decide on a strategy, enact it and end up here but in Frederick's mind the fight had already been going on for hours.

"He's choking the troll!" came a cry from the crowd.

"Go on! Give 'im what for!" a second voice piped up.

Suddenly the cage was awash with a lusty roar of excited fight spectators. Frederick didn't have any time to enjoy his sudden popularity as the sound of the crowd broke Yelloweye Blackfang's trance of shock.

"Get off me!" gargled the troll reaching up to grab at Frederick's arm. The advantage of the back position was that it made it an awkward job for the chokee to get a good grip on the choker.

Even as the troll grappled ineffectively with Frederick's arm it also staggered backwards, stumble-stepped but remaining upright. It hit the edge of the cage backwards at some momentum, Frederick had one of many opportunities that had come his way recently to have the wind knocked out of him.

As little flashing spots danced in front of his eyes Frederick marvelled to think that, as recently as ten weeks ago, he might have let go after being winded like that. Now he clung on for grim life and hoped that the troll was finding things a lot more unpleasant where he was standing.

Thankfully Yelloweye Blackfang appeared to be finding it harder to think, which, to be fair, probably wasn't the easiest activity for a troll to engage in even in optimum conditions. The troll staggered and stepped in lazy, broken circles, the grip on Frederick's arm was loosening. The troll dropped to one knee and then, in a desperation move, threw itself backwards onto the floor.

This time 'winding' wasn't the term for what Frederick experienced, this was far more like 'crushing'. Yelloweye Blackfang rolled away as Frederick let go of its neck but the damage was mostly done. Frederick's chest felt as if it had been on the wrong end of a dozen mallet blows, he was struggling for breath, his limbs lay in a sprawl not responding to his commands to get him to his feet.

He saw Yelloweye Blackfang stood, gulping down great lungfuls of oxygen, bent double, its hands on its knees. Frederick knew he did not have it in him to repeat the chokehold position. Now he was in serious trouble.

His body began to respond to his urgent commands to move. The first couple of serious fights Frederick had been involved in he had allowed the pain to keep him down. Very quickly the fledgling knight learned that it often wasn't the one who put people down you had to beware of it was the one who kept getting back up. Since then Frederick had always committed himself to a serious effort to get back up from anything that he possibly could.

He found himself on his feet with unexpected speed, the sound of his heart hammered in his chest, which, incidentally, felt like someone had filled it with broken glass and sand. He had, at most, a second to decide how to attack next, if he slowed for a second the troll would beat him bloody.

He didn't even really know what he was doing, his legs appeared to run towards the bars at the edge of the cage all by themselves. He jumped into the air, gripped the bars further up and hauled his body into the air.

Pushing off from the bars Frederick aimed his entire body towards Yelloweye Blackfang's head and attempted to ram both of his elbows into the top of the troll's skull. The blow made devastating contact sending spikes of agony up and down Frederick's arms.

The pain must have been mutual, Yelloweye Blackfang slumped forward, Frederick flopped down on top of the troll. For a few seconds there was nothing in the whole world except for the blessed relief of being laid out flat and not moving.

Then Frederick heard the cheering.

A couple of pairs of hands urged him upright again and held his aching, wobbly arms aloft in victory.

"The new ring champion!" announced the tavernkeeper, "Sir Cobb! Champion of the Weak!" He sounded a lot more enthusastic about the appellation post-victory.

After that incidents proceeded in a bit of a whirl. Frederick received his sovereign along with many cheers and admiring comments from the fight fans. Before long Frederick was walking slowly back towards the market bell to meet with the others.

He had to tread carefully because his head was still spinning a bit from the fight but as he reached the edge of the market square he was urged on to action. Something exploded on the side of the square near to the market bell and Frederick found himself jogging to return to the place where he expected to find Lester and James.

What had exploded and the things that happened when he got there are both things that I will tell you at another time.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

In Which Saeed Visits The City of Sorrowblade

Life, Saeed considered, is filled with hard lessons. The hard lesson that had occasioned this consideration was thus: Do not take the terms of a deal with the Master of the Patchwork Market lightly. Saeed had believed that the restoration of Princess Butterstone's brother, in reasonable health, from his place of captivity would satisfy the deal he had made with Kalico.

The Master of the Market had told Saeed upon his return to the Master's Tower that the agreement was null and void. If Saeed wanted a market seal he would have to do one more job. When Saeed had objected Kalico pointed out the clause in their verbal agreement that required the matter be handled 'with discretion'. Saeed took a moment to reflect and came to the conclusion that the explosion and resultant damage to Sir Vaskorn's plaza, not to mention the confrontation between Vaskorn's mercenaries and the Market Watch that had followed, could hardly be described as 'discreet'.

Saeed's only options were to get angry about the matter or to accept his own shortcomings. A thief Saeed was, hot tempered he was not. So Saeed had, with unspoken sadness and frustration, accepted the master's ruling.

"I knew you had wisdom," Kalico grinned, as he sat behind his large flat desk. The Master of the Market was relaxed, he exercised power with an air of great assurance. He smiled like a shark and had eyes like a snake. Underneath it all, Saeed believed, there was a heart that was, if not good, at least ethical. "Maybe the sting of my harsh ruling will be lessened if I tell you the nature of the job I wish you to do."

"Perhaps," Saeed said, although he could not imagine it.

"What if I told you that yesterday's little disturbance was not the first time that Sir Vaskorn's activities have attracted unwelcome attention?" Kalico asked, his tone smooth and measured.

Saeed could not help but lean forward a little. He had not liked the giant knight one little bit. Sir Vaskorn was a bully, filled with rage, who frightened people into obedience. Any chance Saeed was given to undermine a man like that was a chance to do good in the name of his mother.

Kalico's smile neither grew nor did it falter.

"A wise boy and an excellent thief," Kalico said. "I shall not be able to cut too many deals to my advantage with this one."

Only then did Kalico's facial expression change, it grew darker, the grin disappeared as Kalico sat forward over his desk.

"Before the close of market on Duesday," Kalico said, "One of Vaskorn's men has been observed leaving the market upon a certain bridge to one of the darker far off shadows. The same knight returns upon the following Stockday accompanied by two talking wolves pulling a cart of treasure, the treasure goes onto Vaskorn's plaza. At that point I lose track of it.

"I have, of course, performed routine inspections of Vaskorn's plaza, as I do all pitches in the market, in order to assess the dues to be paid for the upkeep of the market as a whole. My watch have never found evidence of the chests or their contents upon the plaza.

"Aside from the possible dues evasion issue," Kalico said, a new darkness settling into his tone at the mention of 'dues evasion', "there are other matters at hand. For a start nobody knows what is in the chest, nobody knows where the chest comes from and nobody knows what happens to the chest or its contents after it disappears onto Vaskorn's plaza.

"As you have already observed all confrontations between Vaskorn's men and my watch have the potential to turn ugly. It would not be the right play for me to directly confront a dues paying merchant when I do not know what the outcome will be for the market or its other patrons. The Patchwork Market has long held a reputation as being not only the biggest and best market in the lands of Faerie but also a far safer place to bring your coin purse than many smaller establishments. A street war is not something that anyone wants.

"The particulars of market lore prevent me from hiring a retinue of intelligencers but they say nothing about how I choose to reclaim the debt of a thief that I have found causing a disturbance on the plazas. So you see, as much as I may wish to dispense you a seal and send you upon your way, right now I need your particular skills more than I need to be praised for my benevolent generosity.

"Besides, I think I would be right in saying that you are not overly displeased to be offered an opportunity to redress the power balance problem I have with one of my wealthiest patrons."

Saeed could feel the beginnings of a smile start upon his own lips. Kalico's judgement was stern but it could not be argued against.

"Indeed you would not be wrong, Master," Saeed said. "I would be happy to provide you with this service, but I cannot, a second time, allow you the opportunity of a loophole. I am as keen as anyone to see Vaskorn properly hemmed in, but I am more concerned about the progress of my journey towards my mother. If I cannot be assured that I will secure the seal by the performance of this latest task I will have to leave the market and find another road upon my journey. I am sure that, as this would mean that everybody loses, no one here wants this to be the case."

"You argue eloquently," Kalico said. "Be assured that if I find out where the chest comes from, what it contains and where the contents end up, I shall happily furnish you with the seal you require. Discretion in this matter is obviously vital. If Vaskorn catches you I don't have to tell you how badly things would go for you. I also have to inform you that I will not be able to vouch for you if he brings you to me. This matter cannot be sensibly resolved if Vaskorn knows what I have been up to."

"I understand," Saeed said. "As I will not be encumbered by either a weakened prince in a state of confusion or a requirement to make noise it shall be just as if I am not there at all."

"Let us hope for all our sakes that you are neither proud nor boastful," Kalico said.

By the following Duesday Saeed had been given a good three nights to consider the extent of his own arrogance. He had come to the conclusion that a little arrogance was required of a thief, therefore he could only hope that his own was not excessive.

Vaskorn's knight appeared before the noon bell, heading out along the bridge that the Market Watch had pointed out to him. The bridge lead out through the rainbow mists to a shadow called Sorrowblade. This was not a land that Saeed was keen to visit again once he had left this time.

A large city sprawled up the sides of a valley directly upon the far side of the bridge. The sky here was a strange reddish purple. Upon the horizon Saeed could make out the tall stacks of vast chimneys constructed from dark mud bricks.

The same bricks were used to build everything in Sorrowblade, the walls, the roads, the buildings. There was no sign of nature excepting small walled beds of black earth from which there sprung coils of sickly white creeping plants with no leaves. The wind that blew through the valley was warm and dry, it filled Saeed's nose and mouth, drying his throat and leaving a taste like baked bricks and vinegar.

The domain of Sorrowblade was a sad place indeed, buried in bricks and steeped in wickedness.

Thankfully the city streets were a natural home to shadows and the rooftops were high. Saeed did not find it a challenge to follow along behind Vaskorn's agent unseen. The citizens of Sorrowblade all appeared to be talking animals of the ferocious variety. Many were wolves but there were bears and foxes alongside tall rodentine men who obviously had ancenstry among rats, mice, ferrets and weasels. There were also a fair few of the more evolved lizard men living and working in the city.

Saeed recognised the way that the people of Sorrowblade were divided as being very similar to the social divisions of the souk in Afsana. Many of the wolves, bears and foxes were well dressed, they treated the rodents and lizards with contempt, shouting at them and ordering them about. Saeed couldn't help feeling a little sorry for some of them, particularly those who resembled white-furred mice who were not just smaller than their lupine and ursine fellows but also a good deal meeker. In much the same manner as the meek souk residents had been regularly bullied and abused by the palace guards of Afsana so these little fellows were the butt of cruel practical jokes or bore the brunt of horrible abuse from the ferocious bears and wolves.

Saeed followed Vaskorn's knight along a number of streets and over a gigantic square. In the centre of the square was an enormous statue of a jackal sitting upon a throne. The statue's eyes glowered down upon the throng of Sorrowblade citizenry with suspicion.

Vaskorn's knight headed into an alley and down a set of steps into a cellar building. At the door of the cellar the knight's identity was confirmed before he was allowed entry. After he had gone inside the door was locked behind the knight.

He moved from the shadows where he was standing back to the corner of the alleyway. Thankfully there was a low building, two stories high not far away from which he could look at the cellar in the alley and also the front of the same building. That way he would be able to see if the knight returned to continue his journey before evening. Saeed scaled a drainpipe at the side of the building and took up a position at the edge of the roof.

It didn't take long until Saeed began to feel that he was being watched. The entire oppressive atmosphere of Sorrowblade was enough to generate a certain level of paranoia but Saeed began to feel that this was not all there was to his feelings. He surveyed the rooftop and it did not take him long to spot a pair of sleek black cats regarding him with almost total disinterest from the opposite side of the roof.

Upon making eye contact one of the cats stood up, stretched and slunk over to sit beside Saeed on the roof ledge.

"Monkey two legs," the cat said. "Not often we see one of your kind on our streets, let alone within the kingdom of the cats."

"Apologies for my intrusion," Saeed said. "I was not aware that this vantage point belonged to anyone. I promise I will be no trouble and I will be gone soon."

"I am not overly concerned about your presence here, monkey two legs," the cat said. "I barely care enough even to be having this conversation with you. Still, you are strange in my world and I do have a little time for strange things. Would you care to tell me why you come to Sorrowblade? This city is so hostile to your people that you have to hide away in the Cat Kingdom lest you be savaged by a wolf or bear."

"There is another man here," Saeed said. "He comes from the Patchwork Market of Bridgetown and soon he will return there bearing a chest. I just wished to know where the chest came from, and now I do."

"Why do you care?" the cat asked. "What is in the chest?"

"I don't know, this is something else that I need to find out."

"That building is one that has a hot roof," the cat said. "It is not part of the Cat Kingdom. A mischief worker plies his trade inside those walls. A cat goes in, it never comes out."

"What does the mischief worker do?" asked Saeed.

"Works mischief," the cat said in a tone of voice that communicated just how stupid it considered Saeed to be. "All kinds, many kinds fatal. The mischief man has a book of monkey markings, even though he is descended from the play food. We stay away."

"Thank you," Saeed said. "That is very helpful."

"It was not intended to be helpful," the cat said. "And I do not care for your thanks, they are neither soft to sleep on, nor good to eat. I am bored now."

The cat turned and walked away to its companion. After a brief conversation the two of them hopped off the edge of the roof and retreated away from Saeed's position.

The afternoon wore on, the stalls in the square began to close up, a lizard man swept up in front of a stall that advertised itself as a barber's. Saeed assumed the lizard was not the barber, after all who would trust a barber with scales instead of hair? Satisfied that the knight was not going to leave that day and keen not to be caught in Sorrowblade after dark Saeed returned to the Patchwork Market to report his findings to Kalico.

The following Stockday Saeed was waiting by the Sorrowblade Bridge as the knight, accompanied by two wolves on their hind legs, dressed in relatively fine clothes and pulling a cart behind them, returned to Bridgetown.

By the time they arrived the evening bell had rung and the streets of the market were mostly dark and silent. A few of the plazas, particularly those that offered food, entertainment and lodgings (all gathered into the cosmopolitan quarter), were still operating. The knight and the wolves avoided these plazas, sticking instead to the mercantile plazas, all of which were closed for business.

They were even careful to avoid the all night tobacconist stands and appeared to be on a constant lookout for the watch.

Not needing to gain access to Vaskorn's basement area this time, and having already located his prize, Saeed skipped along the beams of the roof tops, only coming down when he needed to cross a bridge behind the knight and the wolves.

Before long they reached Vaskorn's plaza. Saeed took the opportunity to quickly circle the high walls of the area checking for weak spots. This time, the urgency of his mission having decreased as no one's life was on the line, Saeed found a small hole which allowed access for plumbing pipes, gas works and ventilation ducts. Vaskorn's plaza was well defended but it did take advantage of some things that could only be distributed through the market network.

Saeed squeezed through this hole and found himself in the rafters above the plaza, looking down upon the neatly cobbled streets of Vaskorn's domain.

The knight, wolves and their cargo were admitted via the main portcullis and crossed into the small square where Vaskorn and Kalico had confronted one another the previous Longday. A scaffold had been erected over the covered ramp that Prince Butterstone had blown apart, the stocks that Vaskorn had vandalised remained broken.

The knight crossed the square and entered the main building on the plaza via a stout wooden door. After a few minutes the knight returned with another man Saeed did not recognize. The man wore a long dark cloak made of a rich material. He also wore a broad brimmed hat topped with s single green feather stuck into a silk band that was held in place by a jewelled buckle at the front. The quality of the man's attire lead Saeed to believe he was royalty.

"I don't like doing this in the square," the man complained as they crossed to the cart. "It's too exposed."

"Unfortunately the basement rooms are not safe at present, after our accident with the detonating powder," the knight said.

"I hope that teaches you to be more careful with explosives in the future," the man said. "I always thought that Vaskorn was too cavalier in such matters."

"Indeed," the knight said. "Would you care to inspect the shipment?"

"Of course," the man said. "The second thing they teach you growing up in the House of Mossdark is never to trust a Sorrowblader, no offence," he said to the wolves with no hint of sincerity. The wolves didn't appear to be paying much attention anyway.

Vaskorn's knight took a key from a chain about his neck and opened up the chest a little way. A sliver of white-green light spilled out from inside. Before Saeed could get a good look at the contents the man in the cloak held up a hand.

"Not too far," he said. "You can still see the light of dragon crystals from an open plaza, even if you can't see the plaza."

Dragon crystals, Saeed noted. He didn't know what dragon crystals were, but he noted the name for Kalico anyway.

The man in the cloak squinted past the light into the chest and, after a few moments, waved for the chest to be closed. Once that was done he pulled a purse of coin from his cloak and handed it to Vaskorn's knight. Then he produced a stubby stout wooden wand and waved it vaguely in the air in front of the treasure wagon.

A glittering portal opened up in the square and the wolves, who seemed unimpressed by all of the proceedings, followed the man in the dark cloak through the portal which immediately began to shrink and close.

Panic gripped Saeed's heart. He had seen where the chest had come from and he had discovered what was inside. All he knew of where the crystals went was that a man in a dark cloak took them through a magical portal.

Vaskorn's knight was already halfway across the plaza, his back to the closing hole in reality behind him. Thankfully the void had to be big enough to allow a cart pulled by two large man-wolves to pass through it. Without thinking too hard on the decision Saeed jumped down from the rafters sped across the square and dove through the closing portal before it had quite disappeared.

Saeed landed roughly upon a cold stone floor in a broad passageway. There were no windows and it was both damp and cold. Saeed guessed he must be somewhere underground. Up ahead some distance he could see the back of the cart as the wolves pulled it onwards. Once they had delivered the cargo Saeed reasoned they must be allowed to return to Vaskorn's plaza. Only the chest disappeared from view.

Saeed's only option was to follow on behind and hope he could get through the second portal to return him on his way. In the meantime he had to find out who the man in the black cloak was and, if at all possible, what he was doing with chest after chest of dragon crystals. This he did, and returned to the market with news for Kalico, but the ins and outs of the situation are a tale for another day.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

How Eos Got Her Land Legs

It is, of course, to be expected that the oceans of Faerie are not like the oceans of mortal man. Mortals have many stories concerning the adventures of those who become lost upon strange shores, hopping from island to island, unable to find their home port. Sometimes these tales are of sailors who are genuinely lost, sometimes they have chanced upon a crossway, a portal between worlds, that happens to be in the ocean.

The lands of Faerie are, to be kind in the telling of it, eccentric in their geography. The existence of places like the Patchwork Market of Bridgetown which are no more than a week's journey from just about anywhere do not help matters. The existence of magical doorways, far-flung fringe realities and sorcerous transportation devices make things even worse.

Faerie forests are renowned for being chaotically too easy to get lost in, the only reason that the oceans do not have greater notoriety is that there are very few long-lived Faerie sailors. When it comes to trade routes there are other ways to negotiate the oceans.

The most popular method of crossing the oceans is to walk across the sea bed. This is not as tricky a task as one might suppose, all that is required is the magic of a sea elemental and land-dwellers can become sea-dwellers in an instant. Some folk have found the environment so much to their taste that they have established whole kingdoms under the surface of the waves.

Merfolk, those who not only dwell beneath the waves but slide easily through the water with the use of sinuous tails, those who breath equally well in water and open air without the intercession of limnades, kelpies, potamides, ceffyl dwr, vodyanoy, nix, kappas, nymphs or selkies, are thought to have originated in those parts of the fringe that are wholly submerged in water.

There is a deep and somewhat unfair mistrust of merfolk because many of them can walk on land with legs before transforming to swim under the ocean with tails and fins. To some this makes merfolk kin to shapeshifters, but as shapeshifters can assume any form they choose where as merfolk have only legs or tails to choose from many other people identify this prejudice as unfair.

This does nothing to prevent irate magic users of various kinds from occasionally cursing merfolk to stick in one form or another. A merperson locked upon land pines for the ocean, greatly reducing their lifespan. A merperson locked into ocean going form is far happier but has the obvious disadvantage that they must be partially submerged in water at all times.

Princess Teleosti Shaleshore, Eos to her friends and close acquaintances, was one such unfortunate mermaid. Cursed by an evil witch (more properly a morally misaligned druidic practitioner but the common term is understood by all) she has spent the last three years unable to walk upon land. She has spent nine months out of the last year in a single tank.

Initially she had the bad luck to be sold to a circus, thereafter a sideshow proprietor won her tank during a game of six suit cramble. The sideshow owner loved all varieties of cramble, this is how he ended up losing his main attraction to a mysterious man sporting a tall hat, a narrow gaze and a grin that should teach people to be more careful. The man in the tall hat gave brief charge of the tank, now set up in a pitch in the Master's Quarter of the Patchwork Market, to a gangly youth in a fake moustache. After an incident involving a troll and a broomstick the gangly youth was transported away to destinations unknown, along with a talking mouse and a pumpkin, and Eos, at last, found herself in the hands of people who actually cared to hear her opinions, thoughts and feelings.

One of these people was a little girl called Rachel. The talking mouse, James, had been her friend in a place called the Skull Garden. Rachel assured Eos that the Skull Garden was a lot nicer than it sounded. Another of the people was the ghost of a talking owl called Micras Whitney. Micras had spent a long time living in a haunted doll's house, he was sometimes a little short-tempered as he had been out of the company of others for an undetermined length of time. The last of her new companions was...

...was arguing over the price of something, which was one of the places that Tabarnas Riseandshine, for this was the gentleman's name, felt most at ease. Eos knew, as did Rachel and Micras, that the item that Tabarnas was haggling over was something of a necessity for the smooth continuation of their journey. Tabarnas had them under stern instruction to keep this intelligence strictly to themselves.

"Without a recent inspection certificate from the Office I can't possibly part with more than a sovereign for this," Tabarnas said as he squinted through a jeweller's eyepiece at a small silver ring.

"I said it would be fine to slip it onto the young lady's digit," complained the old woman. "You do that and see what happens, fishtail gone, legs aplenty, you mark my words."

"And what if it runs out of charge whilst she's wearing it, eh?" Tabarnas asked. "Things could get messy."

"It's a constant single-user effect field, it doesn't have a charge, it just works," the old woman groused.

"And what if it develops a fault, what if it's faulty and you've just worked a couple of tricks to stop us finding out until it's too late?" Tabarnas asked, casually accusing an old goblin woman of being a thief or a con artist.

The old woman pulled a chain affixed around her neck from the top of her blouse. "Bellespire Merchant's Guild Tag," she said. "I think you'll find it's all in order. If it turns out to be a dud and you are not offered a full refund you can report me."

"Still," Tabarnas said. "Two sovereigns, seems expensive. How do I know I won't get to the next market place and find these on sale five crowns apiece?"

"You're welcome to try," the old woman said nonchalently. "You want to buy it here the price is two sovereigns."

"How about three bronze marks and a box of single charge pewter clover charms. Twenty in the box recommended retail price half a crown apiece."

"And how do I know that all twenty are in full working order?" the old woman asked, unimpressed.

"My magical goods are all certified by the Office," Tabarnas fiddled with his own collar and produced a chain similar to the old woman's. "Here is my tag from the Merchant's Guild of the Patchwork Market."

The old woman sucked in her lips, she appeared to be short quite a few teeth so her lips travelled a long way on their journey.

"I'm a fool to myself," she said eventually, sticking out a hand. Tabarnas shook it. "But I want to see the paperwork on those charms."

"Not a problem, dear lady," Tabarnas said, he appeared immensely pleased with himself. He disappeared into the back of the trader's wagon for a moment and returned with a plain box made of thin, light wood. He opened the lid of the box on its hinge to reveal an official looking document, he moved this aside to reveal twenty small metal charms moulded into the shape of four leaf clovers. "I think you'll find that to be in order."

"Very well," the old woman said taking the box and her three bronze marks. "There's your ring."

"A pleasure doing business with you, good woman," Tabarnas said. "I hope the Patchwork Market proves to bring you good fortune."

"Ay," the old woman said. "And I hope the trader's road is paved with gold."

The old woman stowed her charms in her pack and slipped the marks into her purse. She shouldered the pack and hobbled off along the way the trader's wagon had come. Tabarnas went over to Eos's tank.

"Deal done, legs are yours, my dear," Tabarnas beamed, holding out the ring.

"And I have a pretty dress all ready for you here," Rachel said. "I found it in a trunk in the back of the wagon."

"Yes, quite," Tabarnas said. "You can pay me back for the clothes later."

"Tabarnas!" Rachel said sharply. "Stop being a big old meanie-pop."

"That dress is stock," Tabarnas said, affecting a wounded tone. "I would not be doing my duty as a goblin trader if I did not redeem a fair market value for every item of stock in my inventory."

"Why don't you tell us a story?" Micras asked from his perch on the corner of the wagon's roof.

"Do we really have to cover that ground again?" Tabarnas demanded. It was an established fact that goblin traders did not tell stories, something that Tabarnas did all the time.

"Until you understand the concepts of compassion and generosity, yes," Micras said.

"Generosity?" Tabarnas asked. "I just traded for a counter-spell charm that will allow a mermaid to walk upon the land when she is otherwise incapable of doing so. I never mentioned remuneration for that item."

"Only because you intend to sell her tank once she's no further use for it," Micras replied. "I know the mind of a goblin trader."

"Humph!" Tabarnas said. "I'm sure we can all make some mutually beneficial arrangement at the appropriate time. For now, would you like to try out your new trinket, my dear?"

"Not while everyone's looking," Eos said, she felt her cheeks colour.

"Oh, indeed not," Tabarnas said. "Come on, owl, Rachel, let us give Eos some privacy."

"Rachel can stay and help me," Eos said.

"Very well," Tabarnas said as he retreated down towards the front of the trader's wagon. "Come Micras, maybe I shall tell you a story."

"Please hurry," Micras implored Eos before flapping after the old goblin trader.

Eos took the silver ring, a smooth, oval green stone set into it, onto the ring finger on her right hand, it fit snugly. No sooner was it in place than she felt a familiar tingle from her lower half, the water instantly appeared to become colder and, if possible, wetter.

Using her new legs Eos climbed out of her tank and down the side where Rachel helped her into the blue and purple tie-dyed summer dress that she had chosen.

"Oh yes," Rachel said, clapping with delight, "you look very pretty!"

Eos was already missing the water, but practicality had to trump creature comforts. While everyone else slept in the miniature castle strapped into the back of the trader's wagon Eos had been forced to sleep in her tank last night with only the iron golems Felix and Gerda for company. The water did get a little cold overnight for Eos's taste, even with her wearing her tail. If she could sleep in the castle, even being forced to walk on legs, it would feel a little more like the home she was so desperate to return to.

"Thank you Rachel," Eos said. "I think it's a lovely dress."

"Boys, you can come back now!" Rachel called up to the front of the trader's wagon. Micras and Tabarnas reappeared.

"So we can be on our way, then?" Tabarnas asked.

"We certainly can," Eos said. "We'll have to go to the next market and see if we can get news of Vespula Velvet."

Vespula Velvet was the witch who had cursed Eos's land. Eos believed that the curse had been placed so that Vespula could take over the kingdom of Deepshoal for herself. Eos was protected by a strong charm worked by her fairy godmother, Eos could not be harmed as long as Caer Deepshoal stood tall above the Plains Deep. Vespula had settled for exiling Eos to a faraway kingdom, cursing her so she could not walk upon the land.

The counterspell ring was a good thing, it would prove invaluable in allowing Eos the freedom to pursue justice for her kingdom. Even so, it was an artificial aid allowing her to do something she could once achieve all by herself. If someone stole the ring she would be in very deep trouble.

Eos did not like to look upon the dark side of any given situation. It is best to be grateful that I am, at last, among friends, she considered as she sat upon the front of the trader's wagon, with Rachel and Tabarnas to her left, Micras perched upon the corner of the footwell to her right. The mechanical horse trotted along the road to the next market at Steephill Fell and the day grew in warmth.

"Tabarnas," Rachel said, breaking Eos's reverie. "Why did you give that woman the box of charms? If she sells them for what you said she would you'll end up paying more for that ring than if you'd just given her the two sovereigns she asked for."

Tabarnas sniggered, keeping his eyes on the road. "You must have a touch of goblin trader in you, girl," he said. "That's very astute. What she didn't know, and I did, is that Farthingbright's general store received a massive shipment of pewter luck charms about three weeks ago, crashed the market. The recommended retail is a half crown apiece but at the moment you'd be lucky to shift one for more than a florin."

"So you lied to her," Rachel said, putting the matter into blunt terms.

Tabarnas knitted his brow and puffed out his cheeks in irritation.

"I did not," he protested. "I told her the recommended retail, which is true. If she holds on to them for a few months she may be able to get recommended on them. She's just unlikely to get that much right at this moment, and we have six boxes of the stupid things. It's called trade."

"Sounds like a fancy way of telling a complicated lie," muttered Rachel.

"That's very much what trade is," Micras said.

"It is not!" Tabarnas blustered. "It's... it's... beyond the comprehension of those without a nose for business. A category that I can now tell you both fall into."

And so the wagon continued upon the road to Steephill Fell with the small party bickering all the way. The journey took them no more than three more hours, the mechanical steed was pretty fast. When they reached the town Tabarnas found a place to park the wagon. After he had set Felix and Gerda to watch the stock Tabarnas locked up the wagon.

"Right," he said, pulling on the padlock that he had threaded across the back door of the wagon to test that it was properly closed. "We have about three hours until the evening bell. I will go and find a market pitch for tomorrow and suitable provisions for our evening meal. The rest of you may do as you please."

"I will head to the town square," Eos said. "Perhaps someone there knows about Vespula."

"Can I come with you?" Rachel said.

"I might have to go into the tavern," Eos said. "That's really no place for a child."

"I'm not a child," Rachel complained. "I'll be twelve next year, maybe thirteen."

"Maybe thirteen?" Micras asked. "Why the uncertainty?"

"Well, I lived all my life in the Skull Garden, until about four days ago," Rachel explained. "James told me about years and birthdays, we started counting but I don't know how old I was by then. We have guessed that I am somewhere around eleven years old, but we don't know for certain."

"You lived your whole life in the garden?" Micras asked.

"As far as I know," Rachel said.

"Just you and James?" Micras pressed on, it was clear that he was leading somewhere with his inquiry.

"Yes," Rachel said. "Just me and James."

"Well, then, who looked after you when you were too small to look after yourself?" Micras asked. "I have seen babies, until they grow to four or five years old they can't walk, or talk, or do much of anything. Someone has to take care of them."

"Oh, yes, I never thought of that," Rachel said. "I mean, I think I haven't... Now you come to say something I can't help but think that I must have noticed this, or thought something, or asked a question..."

Rachel stumbled to a stop, her face blank. Suddenly she inhaled, her gaze came up and swept round looking at the faces of all her companions.

"I remember... something... there was... there was a green lady," she said, excited. "I remember she used to sing me a song, she was so pretty, like Eos."

Eos blushed at Rachel calling her pretty, she'd have thought that she would have got used to the little girl's guileless compliments by now. The fact was that not since she had lost her status as a princess had anyone called her anything nice. The sideshow owner had always referred to her as 'fish face'.

"I can't remember any more," Rachel said, a note of sorrow in her tone. "It's all fuzzy, the harder I think the fuzzier it becomes."

"I think that someone is under a spell of forgetfulness," Micras said.

"How do you know about spells?" Tabarnas asked spikily, he still hadn't got over the argument about the difference between good business and bad fibbing. "And how would you know who is under one?"

"I wasn't always a ghost," Micras said. "When I was alive I was a shamanic familiar. That's why I can talk."

"A familiar?" Tabarnas scoffed, "that doesn't mean you know anything about magic."

"I know more than you," Micras said. "Anyway, I was just making an observation. Now I am going for a snooze. Goodbye."

The owl circled and swooped through the wall of the wagon and out of sight.

"You really should be less rude," Rachel said to Tabarnas.

"Well, he just acts like he knows everything," Tabarnas said. "It rubs me up the wrong way."

"That's no excuse," Rachel said.

"We should really get on with our chores," Eos interrupted another brewing squabble. "Rachel, you had best go with Tabarnas, I'm afraid I cannot guarantee that I will be going to places that you should come too."

"Alright, Eos," Rachel said. "Maybe I can teach Tabarnas some manners while I'm with him."

"Maybe so," Eos smiled. "I will see you both back here after evening bell."

So the friends took different roads, Tabarnas and Rachel heading along the main street to find the master of Steephill Fell Market and Eos alone headed for the town square to ask after news of Vespula Velvet and the kingdom of Shaleshore.

No one in the square could help Eos and so she was forced to visit the town tavern. The tavern building was large, offering a variety of halls and lounges that catered to different kinds of clientele. In the trader's bar Eos talked with a merchant who knew that in the jailhouse at Avon Temple he had seen a troll imprisoned that had claimed to once work for a witch in the caves beneath Deepshoal.

It wasn't much to go on but it was something. Before evening bell Eos returned to the trader's wagon where Felix and Gerda were sat at the side of the road playing a game of dice.

"Hello fish-lady," said Felix. "You don't have a tail."

The iron golems were strong, pleasant company, and completely immune to all forms of magic save for the alchemy that animated them, they were not, however, terribly bright. They had been built to fetch, to carry and to provide security, not to dazzle with conversational prowess.

"No Felix," Eos said. "I have a magic ring that allows me to use my land legs. Have Tabarnas and Rachel not returned?"

Felix did not have to answer, Tabarnas came hurrying around the corner, his face pale.

"Oh! Eos! Eos!" he cried running over to the side of the wagon. "Something terrible has happened!"

"What's the matter?" Eos asked. "Where is Rachel?"

"That's just it," Tabarnas explained breathlessly. "We had come out of the master's office and I was just cutting a deal for some fresh fish in the merchant's arcade nearby. I looked around and Rachel had gone, I searched and I searched but I couldn't find her anywhere. I thought maybe she'd come back here."

"She hasn't been here," Gerda said. "Would you like us to go find her?"

"One of you... Gerda," Tabarnas said. "Please find her."

Gerda stood straight up, towering over Tabarnas, Eos and the trader's wagon.

"I'll come with you," Tabarnas said to the golem. We have to find her."

"I agree," Eos said. "I'll come too."

So, as the evening bell sounded across Steephill Fell the golem, the goblin and the mermaid set out to find Rachel, and they did, but how and where will be told in another story at another time.