Sunday, 27 October 2013

How Tabarnas Came To Sommerslip

Tabarnas always felt nervous whenever he was separated from his stock. It wasn't just a matter of distance, if the stock could be left outside a walled city whilst negotiations took place with the Master Chief of the town's trader's guild then it didn't matter; these were negotations and something any goblin trader would be well used to.

The separation anxiety began to bite when the stock had to be cached because outside circumstances, not conducive to trade, dictated that carting a load of sale items around might not be prudent, in the strictest sense of the term. Then your stockpile could be safely under lock and key in the next street and you'd still be worried.

It wasn't the distance, it was the prospect of thievery, or acts of nature, or acts of deliberate plunder and villainy. In short, it was generally acknowledged that any kind of risk was bad for business. The prospect of risk sent a shudder down Tabarnas's spine. Well it might, because if a risk matured then money would be lost. And if money was lost... well, what was the point of trying to wed that self-evident disaster with a 'then'? Money... would be lost. There would be a loss of money. How could anything be worse than that?

What made matters worse, at least in Tabarnas's opinion, was that they were well within the bounds of the Hundred Kingdoms, surrounded by crossways, not even in the brightest of shadow realms. Most people were perfectly safe here, protected under the rule of law. Not Tabarnas though, not with his current cargo and his current travelling companions, not with his current business.

He had to stop for a moment and ask himself why he was doing any of this.

The answer, of course, was stories. His story books had continued to evolve and change over the week that it had taken them to come to the edge of Sommerslip woods. Tabarnas had checked the main points of the Chronicles of Avan Weatherstrong and the new work detailing the life and adventures of Princess Anabyl, the Dragon Warrior.

The general shape and tone of the stories was the kind of stuff that Tabarnas liked best. Tales of derring-do and high heroics. There were little notes, swatches of darkness, where heroism, it was implied, was not enough and the battle, it was suggested, may not be won by the correct side.

These scurrilous passages, nestled away in the reams of epic prose needed to be excised, redacted, reversed, put right. The only people in the whole of Faerie who could wrangle a story were the Story Keepers of the Faerie Archive. It was these individuals that party or parties unknown had determined should never meet with Tabarnas, or his little band of helpers. Tabarnas had graduated from reading tales of heroics to being in them.

The only slight disadvantage to this being that Tabarnas did not feel, had not ever felt, and was extremely unlikely to feel in the future, like a hero. He was a trader, a business man: along with knowledge of the deeply important mission that he had accidentally become a part of was a natural curiosity as to whether he could broker a deal with the paymaster of the mercenaries who were currently pursuing him for the very items that he was supposed to protect.

There was nothing Tabarnas could do about this, it was his nature. So, altogether the best idea would be to sit here in the Sommerslip Inn and not do anything. He didn't want to end up betraying anyone by following his instincts.

A plain looking. burly farmer with a low brow and a missing tooth slipped into the booth opposite Tabarnas.

"Tabarnas," the farmer said. "Don't worry, it's me, Harvey."

The farmer reached up to his chin and pulled forward his face, the narrow jaw and high cheekbones of the djinn peeked out from the shadowy interior space that opened beneath the man's face. The farmer returned the chin to its initial starting place before continuing:

"I adapted some masks that I took from the House of Mirth," Harvey explained. "It means that we can all get around without causing too much panic."

"So why didn't you give one to me?" Tabarnas asked. "I'm positively sick sat in this nook, trying to be unobtrusive."

"Only the three masks, I'm afraid," Harvey said. "Don't worry, the trolls aren't bright enough to spot you. Freddie, Feebs and I are much easier to identify. I don't think anyone knows much about you beyond the fact that you're a goblin trader, and there's lots of them."

"So, what? I just have to sit here until you've... done... something...?" Tabarnas asked. He found the djinn terribly condescending. Tabarnas believed that Harvey regarded him as nothing more than a talking animal, and not one of the sophisticated types either. Like a dog that someone had enchanted to ask for food or beg for a stick to be thrown.

"Feebs seems to think she can give Freddie a boost," Harvey shrugged. "Then we can work out a strategy for getting the trolls off our back."

"I've got the distinct feeling," said a gawky looking young woman who slid into the seat next to Tabarnas without warning, "that things may, shortly, begin to get a bit frantic. I invested in a crossbow, and some new vambraces."

"Phoebe?" Tabarnas tried.

"No, it's Frederick!" the woman objected. "I would have thought the talk of weapons and armour would give it away."

"It's just, you're..." Tabarnas didn't know quite how to put it.

"I look like a girl, yes," Frederick said.

"Which some people might think was closer to reality," Harvey said. Frederick shot the djinn a look of tired disappointment and annoyance.

"Actually, Phoebe was going to take this mask," Frederick said. "But then she realised that if we swapped masks then it would probably help throw the trolls off the scent."

"But..." Tabarnas said. "There's still a male mask and a female mask, presumably, how does that help?"

"They're looking for a man buying weapons and a woman buying witchy things," Frederick explained. "Not the other way round."

"You have to remember," Harvey said. "These trolls are not much for subtlety and they're pretty easy to fool. In fact, the only advantage that they've got is that there do seem to be quite a few of them. Also they are all very strong."

"So what did you find out?" Frederick asked Harvey.

"There's three patrols walking around Sommerslip. The locals are pretty happy and peaceful, so they stick out a bit, that plays to our advantage," Harvey explained. "Unfortunately there isn't much in the way of a town watch, that I can see, anyhow. So if trouble comes our way then it looks like we could be on our own.

"The rest of the goons are assembled near the Archive building, there's a folkish chappie ordering them about and looking like his trollish soldiers are treading continually on his last nerve. The operation, as a whole, does not appear to be going smoothly.

"Oh, and he was wearing one of those rings, like the one we pulled off the fellow at The Castle."

"If we could find out who that ring belonged to," Tabarnas said. "Maybe we could work out how to get rid of them."

"Maybe," Harvey said. "But I think, at the moment, the small army of armed trolls hunting us down are the immediate concern. As long as trolls get paid they don't worry overmuch about who's doing the paying, and they're incredibly difficult to reason with. I think Feebs was right when she said we should deal with the immediate threat before identifying the general one."

"Did you just say I was right about something, Harvey Raine?" a toad-like middle-aged man said, sliding into the booth next to Harvey.

"Well, you said pretty much what I was thinking," Harvey said. "So obviously it was the correct thought to be having. How did the shopping trip go?"

"Immensely well," Phoebe said. "Turns out that this town is riddled with crossways, not only that but the town on the other side is pretty normal, not really mortal at all. There was a magic shop, down on the sea front, no trolls, I went there to get the supplies."

"So, what have you got for us?" Frederick asked.

"Ingredients for a nice piece of sympathetic witchcraft," Phoebe said. "Also, I was passing a shop as I came back to the crossway that had this in the window."

She held up a slim black-jacketed book.

"It's an alchemical guide to the classical elements. I think it's intended for students, it has some pretty impressive quick recipes for pre-prepared fire potions," she said.

"That you can mix up in an alley? Before the Day Bell?" Frederick asked.

"In theory, as long as the book's recipes are accurate." Phoebe shrugged.

"And if they're not?" Frederick asked. "What are the chances that those close by will be rendered into some sort of thin red paste?"

"Are you suggesting that I lack skills in alchemy?" Phoebe asked.

"I just don't like alchemy, generally speaking," Frederick replied. "It's really nothing personal. I am suspicious of all alchemy on an equal basis."

"Well, I think everything will be fine. I know how to stay safe when mixing potions," Phoebe said sniffily.

"Maybe," Tabarnas broke in. "We could stop arguing about it now and see if we can actually commit to some sort of action."

Everybody appeared to be able to agree on that point. Frederick hired a room and the party all went upstairs to allow Phoebe to work. By the time she had finished soaking things, burning things and infusing things with plasma energy the Noon Bell had rung. Phoebe presented the fruits of her labour, an hourglass, to Frederick.

"So, what does this do?" Frederick asked. "It's not going to explode is it?"

"Oh, heavens, no," Phoebe said. "That magick's a lot less subtle. This is a single use charm of enhanced vigour. It will make you stronger as long as the sand is travelling from the top bulb to the bottom bulb. I didn't have time to properly bake it, unfortunately so it will only work once. It's highly important that the hourglass is not smashed before the charm is finished or the remaining energy will disperse with a nasty snap."

"Define 'a nasty snap'," Frederick said, still regarding the charm with suspicion.

"She means," Harvey explained. "That the previously organised and directed magical energies will, all of a sudden, revert into a localised mischief field and they will be rather cross about it, so it won't be gentle mischief."

Frederick did not look happy about this.

"It's alright Freddie," Harvey said. "I'll come along and take care of the charm. They won't smash it while I'm looking after it."

"Bind him to that," Frederick said to Phoebe. Phoebe opened her mouth to say the fateful words, before she could speak Harvey cut her off.

"Now wait a minute!" he said. "Binding me to protect that charm is tantamount to declaring that you don't trust me to do it by myself."

Phoebe and Frederick looked over at Harvey with eyes that said: 'Seriously? You believe that morally indignant outrage is your right at this point?' far more eloquently than mere words could have expressed the sentiment.

"Further," Harvey said, warming to his theme. "You are implying that I'd rather see Sir Freddie beaten to a pulp than get rid of these trolls."

The look from the other two did not change.

"Well, I think that's a bit much," Harvey complained. "If Sir Dimwit there gets pulped then I will surely follow shortly thereafter. To damage our strong arm is to damage all of us. I don't mind you thinking of me as a sneak and a traitor, but stupid? I am not stupid."

Phoebe bound Harvey anyway before he and Frederick went off to find some trolls to beat up. Tabarnas stayed behind to help Phoebe with the fire bombs.

"I'm not sure I like this," Tabarnas said to Phoebe whilst he was stirring a flask of clear yellow liquid for her. "Violence tends to be bad for business."

Phoebe nodded.

"Mhmm," she said, emptying some red crystals into a pestle, while looking at the open page of her book. "I have to say I absolutely loathe violence. Unfortunately I'm very good at it."

"I know they're trolls and everything," Tabarnas said, trying to approach his misgivings from a different angle, "but I'm a goblin myself. We're genetic cousins. I've never really been a big fan of fighting and such."

"You read all those stories," Phoebe pointed out. "They're full of fighting."

"Well," Tabarnas said, although he couldn't think of what to say after that single syllable. He had a nasty feeling his pacifist agenda was about to be completely undermined. "I mean, Avan Weatherstrong, that was a long time ago, before... well, before."

Phoebe finished grinding the red crystals into a powder. She took the yellow liquid from Tabarnas and dumped the powder into the flask. She stirred it and the whole mixture turned into a black slime. Phoebe rested the flask on a stand over a burner.

"So you don't mind old violence, from the past?" Phoebe asked Tabarnas. "You just don't like the violence when it's in the present? Have I got that the right way round? What do you feel about violence in the future?"

"It's not that simple," Tabarnas complained. "In the past... Times are different now. The Hundred Kingdoms are at peace, the shadows are mostly stable, the Shadow Emperors have been defeated, the Black Dragons disappeared in the Vanishing. The age when there were great evils that needed to be vanquished have passed."

"Have they?" Phoebe asked. "Then why are people chasing us for your books? What do they not want us to find in the Archive? How do you think people like us felt when they had a problem with a single unit of Emperor Shymak's army, for example? Do you think those people didn't pray for a hero to liberate them from oppression? And when the hero came along do you think he stood aloof because peaceful oppression was better than violent liberation?"

"But nobody's oppressed here," Tabarnas objected. "Sommerslip is under the rule of the third Lord Sommerslip, direct descendant of Avan Weatherstrong. The trolls are only bothering us."

"And what happens if the trolls steal the books? What do you think the person who is paying the trolls will do with them? What do you think their plan is?" Phoebe asked.

"I don't know that," Tabarnas asked. "How could I?"

"We could give them what they want, stand back and see what happens," Phoebe suggested. "How do you fancy that?"

Tabarnas didn't know how to respond to that. Phoebe was pretty adamant that what they were doing was necessary. The only way Tabarnas could argue otherwise was to take a position where he was, underneath it all, wrong, or at least mistaken about something. If the paymaster of the trolls really was ultimately harmless then where was the sense in not giving them the books?

Did Tabarnas believe that nothing bad would happen if whoever was behind the small army of mercenary trolls got what they wanted? No. Tabarnas decided he did not believe that. He had no proof that fighting would make the world a better place but he felt very strongly that not fighting could make it a worse one.

"Very well," he said as the liquid in the flask turned white. "Just try not to hurt anyone."

"I always do," Phoebe smiled. "Now, were did I put that packet of Coagula Powder?"

As Phoebe rummaged in her satchel a noise floated up from the street outside, a shout, the speech too indistinct for Tabarnas to hear through the shutters over the room's windows. Tabarnas opened the shutter enough to peek outside, he saw a small boy running through the streets shouting something out. By the time Tabarnas's ear had started to make sense of the words the boy was too far away to be heard.

It didn't take too long before one of the squads of trolls came hurrying past underneath the window. They were headed in the direction of the archive.

"I think the trolls have called everyone back together," Tabarnas said. "Frederick must have begun fighting."

"Just give me a couple of minutes," Phoebe said. "Then I'll be ready." Then, after a brief pause: "Why don't you walk down there. Take your books. The trolls are probably too busy to mess with you now."

Not having another idea Tabarnas complied. It was nice to get out into the fresh air anyway after spending the morning sweating in a corner of the inn. Tabarnas did see one other squad of trolls hurrying down towards the sea but they were far too busy to concentrate on anything but forward motion.

It took Tabarnas about ten minutes to walk out to the Archive. He dared not get too close because the scene that greeted his eyes upon arrival was chaotic to say the least. Frederick jumped, ducked and punched his way around the twenty or thirty trolls that were attempting to take him down. The huge monsters were shouting at Frederick and each other in some confusion as to what, exactly, was going on. They knew that a single young man should not be able to fight all of them together and yet Frederick was there, holding his own against this small army.

Of course not all of this was due to Phoebe's strength charm. Anyone could see that Frederick was actually a pretty skilled fighter. Wherever a troll's fist or foot happened to be Frederick tended not to be. Frederick's defence was all him. It was the punishment he was dishing out that was down to magic but Tabarnas knew that Frederick was fighing on borrowed time. Tabarnas hoped that Phoebe would not be too long.

Indeed she wasn't. Shortly after Tabarnas arrived she swooped out of the air on a broomstick and started dropping off little paper wrapped parcels from a height. As soon as the packages hit the floor they bloomed into bright white flowers of flame.

For a couple of minutes this just gave Frederick something else to think about, as the sudden additon of fireballs into the melee served only to confuse the trolls. When they worked out that the fire was against them, not supporting them they sensibly began to cry out and one by one thought better of fighting the super strong knight with fireball air support.

Maybe the trolls would come back when they knew it was safe but in the meanwhile Tabarnas went unimpeded up the path to the Faerie Archive. The Story Gatherers welcomed the goblin and his friends inside the high walls of the Archive and were extremely interested in the contents of his books but the hows and whys of that situation are a story for another time.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Eos and Rachel in the Casa Perdita

"What if he's dead?" Rachel asked.

"Where did you get such a morbid thought from?" Eos asked, although looking out from the mouth of the cave at the charcoal sky and continual fall of rain told her the probable source of Rachel's dark feelings.

"They disappeared, didn't they, into the undone," Rachel said. "Then we turned around and the gnome had gone, then the rain started. Why would the gnome have disappeared if nothing bad had happened?"

"From what I understand from talking with the little gentleman," Eos said. "The gnome has to remain equidistant from the two people involved in the wish he granted. If James had died then the gnome would be bound to you, he wouldn't have been able to leave. So he must be somewhere inbetween you and James, who must, logically, be alive. Don't you think?"

Rachel did not look convinced. She cast her gaze over the glossy black tree trunks down at the swollen muddy earth and up to the bruised skies.

"So what if he's hurt, or in danger?" she asked.

Eos sighed. She really wished that Lester had made more of an effort to remember James when they had run from the undone. Eos had decided that she didn't dislike Lester as intensely as she had when he had been trying to sell her rainbow grease from a market stall, that still didn't mean that she liked him, at all.

He gave every appearance of being some kind of guileless, naive and clumsy idiot. Not that she really thought that was a front. Some of the things Lester did no one would do as part of an act, in her opinion anyway. The problem was... intuitive.

Eos believed that there was this whole other layer to Lester that no one else could see. The trouble was that she didn't even think that Lester could see it. That sounded a bit mean and more than a bit crazy, so she was probably wrong. Feelings, Eos realised, could be wrong and no one could do anything about them. You couldn't just change a feeling because it didn't fit. So she was stuck with it.

Happily, she didn't have to deal with that at the moment because she was sheltering from a heavy storm in the mouth of a cave with a scared, tired and upset little girl who had lost her closest companion. Not only that Rachel had lost Tabarnas, her second closest companion a couple of days ago, after spending a long period (hours? days?) hiding in a completely different cave whilst Eos had been bewitched by the evil Lady Crimzona.

The immediate problem, therefore, became how to distract Rachel's thoughts away from the dark mental images of what she imagined might be hapening to James at this very instant. Eos looked at the skies, if the storm would just clear then walking would provide adequate distraction, but they would be drenched if they stepped outside now, besides they would likely sink up to their waists in mud before too long and that would be no good for anyone.

The only problem was if the storm continued on until after dark. Then there would be the issues of cold and hunger.

"We need a fire," Eos said firmly, and she meant it.

"How are we going to make one?" Rachel asked and Eos was pleased to note this was the first thing Rachel had said that didn't centre on James and the possible calamity that might have befallen him in the last half hour.

"We'll have to scout the cave, while there's still enough light," Eos said.

"Okay," Rachel said. "I was beginning to get a bit chilly anyway."

"Don't go too far," Eos said, she removed the corded belt that looped several times around her waist forming a belt to her dress. Unwound the cord made a single string about ten feet in length. "Here," Eos said. Take one end of this. We should never be further apart than the ends."

"Okay," Rachel said, taking the end of the cord.

The two of them went back into the angular shade of the cave. Searching for dried wood or some other kind of kindling. After a few moments Rachel cried out:

"Ow! My leg!"

"Rachel!" Eos called, alarmed, "what's the matter?"

"There's something back here," Rachel said. "It's big and solid, it's not a rock."

"What is it?" Eos asked following the cord back to Rachel.

"I don't know," Rachel said, "it's too dark to make out."

It was very dark in the corner Rachel had found. Carefully Eos felt about and her hands made contact with something smooth but textured. It had the warmth of wood but it had been carved and varnished. Eos believed that Rachel had found some sort of box. Eos felt the edges of the box and pulled it out into the light for inspection.

What was revealed was more than a simple container. It was an ornate chest decorated with scrollwork in the shape of leaves. Engraved into the top of the chest was something surprising:


Rachel and Eos swapped a surprised look upon reading this. Eos looked back down at the chest a note of nervous energy fluttering near her throat.

"Well," Rachel said. "Should we open it?"

"I suppose we should," Eos said. "Owls of wisdom are not known for this kind of thing."

Eos reached out and undid the chest's latch. She eased open the lid. Inside was a folded parchment on a velvet cushion, sealed shut with red wax. Eos picked up the parchment. She could feel that it was wrapped about something contained within. Closer examination revealed the end of a red ribbon poking out of the seal she imagined the other end of the ribbon was bound around the item inside the parchment.

Using her finger Eos broke the seal and unfolded the document. The red ribbon, freed from its folds, slid to one side and pulled tight as the object tied to the end dangled off the edge of the parchment. Eos picked up the object in her hand to look at it more closely. It was a shard of mirror, the edges appeared sharp.

"What do you suppose it means?" Rachel asked. Eos was pleased to note that Rachel was now entirely consumed with the notion of the mysterious parchment and the shard and not so worried about the health and well being of her tiny companion.

"Well, the edges mean that you definitely shouldn't touch it," Eos said. She transferred her attention to the parchment. The document was a map. Across the top was written: 'Return the shard. Make a wish.' To the right of this directive there was a simple compass rose indicating which direction was North (although compasses were a lot more complicated in Faerie than in the mortal world due to the somewhat lazy approach Faerie had to reality and geography).

The main part of the map showed an area of the forest, the cave, a road way that Eos had not spotted before the storm and, at the side of the road, not too far away if the map's scale was to be believed, an old house marked: Casa Perdita. A dotted line connected the cave and the house.

"Is that where we are supposed to go?" Rachel asked, although the dotted line made it quite plain what was expected.

"I can't say I don't have questions," Eos said. "However, I must admit that I don't have a better idea."

"Okay," Rachel said. "What about the rain?"

"I was scared that we'd get stuck in a swamp," Eos said. "If this road is as nearby as the map suggests I don't think that will be a problem. We might get a bit wet though, not that I particularly mind that."

Eos left Rachel in the cave for a couple of minutes to see if she could find any sign of the road from the map. Sure enough not even fifty paces from the cave mouth Eos found a crook in the cobbled road that was clearly marked on the map. The cobbled throughfare was clearly old, possibly even ancient, but it existed and it looked to be in good shape.

Soon, holding coats over their heads and trying to move as quickly as possible through the belting rain, Eos and Rachel were making good progress along the road. A good job, too, because, by the time they reached the Casa Perdita, the first shades of evening were beginning to draw in.

The house was not in the best shape, it needed more work than the old road that ran in front of it, but the roof was mostly in one piece. The door to the porch in the front of the house was locked but they found a side door, next to a wood pile, that lead into a long kitchen with a stove at the back end. Eos quickly located kindling for a fire and before long she and Rachel were enjoying the first warmth they'd experienced since the sun on top of the Eyrie.

After a brief period in which Rachel and Eos sat and stared into the yellow tongues of fire licking at the walls of the stove Rachel stretched and yawned.

"So, we should find the place to put that bit of mirror," Rachel said.

"I imagine that we should," Eos replied. "After all, we don't really have another plan. I don't know about you but I'm starting to get hungry. We were lucky with the wood but I don't imagine there's much food about here."

"No, I don't think anyone's used this kitchen in a long while," Rachel agreed. "Maybe we could wish for some, when we find the mirror."

"I'm not sure," Eos said. "Wishcraft has a nasty habit of appearing simple but winding up complicated. Also the map said 'make a wish', not 'make as many wishes as you would like'. If we only get one wish each it should be for something a bit more than a sandwich."

"Oh, well," Rachel said. "Mine's easy. I shall wish for all my friends to find their way, safe and sound, back to the Patchwork Market."

"I guess, if I had a wish, I'd wish away the curse that stops me enjoying my tail on demand. This ring still feels like a bit of a risky necessity."

"Well, we won't get to wish for anything if we don't find the mirror," Rachel said. "So I suppose we'd better get on with it."

With the matter decided upon Rachel and Eos left the kitchen by a door that led into the hall. To their right a set of steps lead upwards to the top floor of the house, the front door was to their left, two more doors were on the opposite side. One door lead through to a room at the front, the other, adjacent to the stairwell, lead to a room at the back of the house.

"Upstairs?" Rachel asked, her tone of voice told Eos that Rachel regarded the shaded gloom at the top of the stairs with the same suspicion as Eos.

"Maybe we should try the parlour," Eos suggested, indicating the door directly opposite.

"Okay," Rachel appeared happier with that decision.

Eos and Rachel stepped through the door into what remained of the house's front parlour. A door to their left in the back wall lead through to the back of the house. In the room there was a single wooden chair near the remains of a fireplace. Parts of a couple of other wooden chairs littered the bare floorboards. The walls still had peeling paint that was a murky colour like pale olives, in places the colour was a lighter green in squares, indicating the places where pictures had once hung.

"This is like the house that got undone," Rachel said, Eos could detect a note of panicked melancholy in Rachel's voice. Clearly this was not a time to slow down.

"Well there's no mirror in here," Eos said, so let's take a look out the back."

Eos crossed the parlour quickly and threw open the door. The disorienting sense of confusion was instant but the rationalisation of it was slightly slower to come along.

At first Eos believed she had got turned around and had wandered back into the kitchen, or mistaken the layout of the house. She turned and looked behind her, verifying that Rachel was still there and the front room was still there. Both were true.

Then Eos's head began to go to war with her in a more serious fashion. She had seen the hall, crossed the hall and entered the front room. The kitchen only had two doors, the one to the hall and the one to the outside lean-to containing the woodpile. She was stood in the door that should go to the hall.

It appeared as if someone had built an exact replica of the kitchen in two places within the house. Then Eos realised that the stove was lit and radiating warmth into the room. If this room were a replica it couldn't possibly have a lit stove, unless there was someone else in the house.

"I don't understand," Eos said under her breath.

"What?" Rachel asked. "Why is the kitchen there?"

"I don't know," Eos sighed. "I am as confused as you. Let's backtrack."

Eos left the door open and crossed the parlour headed back to the hall. She opened the door. Still a hall. Not the same hall.

Now the top of a set of stairs was visible set directly to the left of the open doorway, a short landing went ahead of her with a second door immediately to her right, another one adjacent to it at the far end of the landing and one set directly opposite her. Eos looked back into the front room and over to the kitchen, still visible through the door way on her left inside the room.

"Um," Eos said.

"What's happening?" Rachel asked.

"Something's very wrong, is what's happening," Eos said.

"The house is jumbled up, isn't it?" Rachel said, cutting through the shroud of impossibility covering Eos's mind.

Rachel, taking matters into her own hands, once more distracted from upsetting thoughts, opened the door adjacent to the one Eos had just opened.

"Yes," Rachel's voice said, with a curious ringing tone that appeared to be, simultaneously right in front of Eos and a little way off over to her left. "Very jumbled indeed."

Eos looked back towards the kitchen but now the kitchen wasn't there. Instead there was Rachel, standing in the doorway to the left. Eos turned her head, her senses reeling, and saw Rachel standing in front of her just at the door of the room she was standing in. Eos wondered, for a moment, if she could catch sight of herself leaving the front room if she were to hurry past Rachel fast enough.

"Rachel," Eos said, battling nausea that appeared to settle into her stomach after it had fallen from the brain she believed was actually starting to ache now. "Please, close that door."

Rachel complied and Eos heard the door to the left latch shut in perfect time with the door Eos's eyes told her were right in front of her.

"So..." Eos said, turning to the left and walking back to the door that had, moments ago, shown the kitchen. "Where now?"

She opened the door to find herself looking at the bottom of the stairs. This time viewed as she might have expected from the other door out of the front room. The front door of the house was immediately to her right.

"I hope that this magic stops at the exterior doors," Eos said and turned the handle on the front door. The door was locked on the inside as well as the outside and there was no key in the lock. Panic growing Eos opened the door to the kitchen and found herself looking down the upstairs landing at Rachel stood almost ten feet away at the top of the stairs the bottom of which were now immediately to her left.

"Oh, Eos," Rachel said. The little girl moved to the staircase and started down the stairs. Eos turned her head to look up the staircase and see her companion now descending from above, looking just as miserable as Eos felt. "I think we've walked into a trap," Rachel said.

Eos was hard pressed to disagree on that point.

"We shouldn't panic," Eos said, she was looking at Rachel but the comment was largely intended for her own sense of sanity. "I don't think that this is entirely random, it's not just a trap, I think it's also a puzzle, a test."

"What, to see if we're clever enough or something?" Rachel asked.

"Absolutely to see that, yes," Eos said. "So there must be some logic to this somewhere."

"So how do we work out what that is?" Rachel asked.

Eos thought about this for a moment. Eos had never really had much concern about whether she was clever or not. She had always appeared clever enough, at least in her own reckoning. However, this had meant that she had been taken from her family, cursed and, for a brief while displayed for tourists and otherwise exploited. These indignities had always appeared to be moral, maybe, if she had been clever enough, she might have escaped them.

This left the problem that now she had to face up to the real possibility that she was not clever enough to solve the current riddle. As much as she didn't know if she was clever enough she also did not know for certain that she wasn't. So now was the only and also the ideal opportunity to find out.

"Let's see if the rooms cycle, or join up in any particular fashion," Eos said. She crossed the hall and opened the door to the parlour. She found herself looking into a gloomy bedroom, there was a light rectangular area on the floor where the bed had once stood and the left half of a wardrobe lying on the floor to her side, the missing half having been removed forcibly leaving the sad remains of one door and a jagged edge of the back of the wardrobe flush to the wall.

"Right," Eos said, Rachel had come to stand beside Eos and had grabbed hold of her right hand. Eos looked down at the little girl and gave her what she hoped would be interpreted as a reassuring smile. "Let's see what happens now."

She closed the door, then opened it again, same room. She closed the door and opened it again, upper hallway, closed, open, a long, empty room, some cutlery was scattered on the floor, from the shape of it, and the position of the doors and windows it looked like this room was the final room that was intended to be on the ground level. Closed. Open. Upstairs Hall. Closed. Open. Bedroom. Closed. Open. Kitchen. Closed. Open. Upstairs Hall. Closed. Open. Parlour. Closed. Open. Bedroom. Closed. Open. Kitchen.

They continued to close and open the door for the next couple of minutes, no pattern was discernable. Eventually, one time that they opened the door and found the kitchen Eos went over to the side entrance to ascertain whether they could, at least, escape.

Thankfully the house appeared quite content to allow them to leave. The side door consistently continued to open up to the outside and the lean-to. So there was no progress to be made inside but always an invitation to leave.

"Maybe we should just give up," Rachel suggested unhappily.

Although there was, in truth, a good deal of sense to this suggestion Eos found it to be an irksome one. She did not want to walk away from the house feeling that it had, in some sense, beaten her. She had always found brain-teasers and puzzles tiresome and frustrating, the less she had the answers the more she burned to possess them. Maybe that was why she had always avoided them.

Unfortunately this left her with no strategies to cope with the puzzle at hand.

"Maybe we should," Eos said. "Let's have a rest and, if that doesn't help, we can think about leaving. I'll put some wood on the stove."

"Okay," Rachel said and sat back in her chair by the fire.

Eos went out to the lean to and began picking up wood. The lean-to was really just a tall fence with a frame built off the top of it and a canvas roof applied across the top of the frame like the skin of a drum. It looked like the kind of thing the homeowner had done by themselves rather than hire a carpenter or builder to do it for them.

Even so it was a pretty good effort. The person who had put the structure together had even included hooks screwed into the beams from which hung gardening implements, lengths of rope and, in the back corner a small bin had been defined in which was stacked a rolled up bundle of fencing made out of wire and wooden stakes.

Eos turned to take her bundle of firewood back inside but, at the threshold of the door she hesitated, thinking about the items she had just seen in the lean-to. She looked back across the roof hooks, specifically at the coils of cord hung on the inside corner.

Eos began to think that she might be clever enough to solve this after all.

"I think I've worked this out," Eos said as she put the firewood into the stove.

"I knew you would," Rachel beamed. "You're clever."

Am I? Eos thought, she imagined that she might, in fact, just be lucky but she didn't say anything because she didn't know for certain that Rachel was mistaken.

Instead of worrying about the relative state of her cleverness she went outside and took down the loops of cord. There were three hung up, all reasonably lengthy. She tied all three together and then tied one end of the super long cord she had made tightly to the hook.

She then took the rest of the looped cord and walked in through the kitchen door. She crossed the kitchen to the door and opened it until she opened it onto one of the hallways. Fortunately this happened to be the lower one.

She crossed the lower hall and opened the door opposite until she opened it onto the parlour, as was intended in the normal layout of the house. She walked through the door continuing to pay out rope behind her and opened the opposite door she opened and closed that until she found what she considered to be the "right" room, the one with the cutlery on the floor. Once she had that room correct she opened the other door into the back of the downstairs hall until that came up correctly.

During this process she noticed that the number of rooms the next door could open onto never included any of the ones the rope ran through. The rope was creating a single line, preventing the doors from randomly closing when you couldn't see them, preventing the enchantment from including those areas in the jumble of rooms that could be behind the next door.

When she opened the door to see her cord crossing the area at the bottom of the stairs and going in through the parlour along the parlour to end up in her hands in the remains of the dining room Eos went to the foot of the stairs. She wound the rope around the bannister in one complete loop and then went up the stairs to the landing above where she turned and immediately opened the door to her right at the top of the stairs.

After a few more doors and a little more cord strung out there was only one door left in the whole house. The door at the front of the house in the upstairs. As Eos reached this door she realised, in all the random rooms she had seen everywhere else in the house she had never seen the room behind this door come up, not once.

Only now that she had, in a very real sense, strung the other rooms together, could she see that this was the room that was the end of the path. The only way to reach it was to make it impossible for there to be any other room behind the door than the one that was actually, geographically, structurally, intended to be there.

Feeling a small thrill of excitement Eos reached out and opened the door to the last room in the house.

"Make it quick!" said a little voice as the door swung open. A little woman, no more than six inches high kneeled down at the edge of a bedside table stood next to the remains of a sturdy wooden bed. "I'm sorry I hid, but... I just didn't want to die."

Eos stopped at the threshold and looked over to the little woman. She was dressed in the mode of the common house wife, thick skirts, pinafore tied to the waist, heavy high neck blouse and a frilly dust cap. She reminded Eos of the housekeeper from Caer Shaleshore. Being only six inches high Eos guessed she must, in fact, be a sprite.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I thnk you must have me confused with someone else. I'm not here to kill you."

"You're not?" the little woman said, opening one eye and looking Eos up and down suspiciously. "You've been tramping through the house, opening the doors, wailing and carrying on. If you weren't trying to find me then what were you doing?"

Eos reached into her belt and carefully pulled out the shard of mirror.

"There is a broken mirror somwhere here," Eos said. "I was told to come here and repair it with this."

"Oh," the little woman said, the surprise completely overriding her fear. "That will be the mirror in the porch. You'll need the key."

The little woman turned around and opened a small box on the bedside table. She reached in and pulled out the key. Eos crossed the room and took it from the tiny woman. The sprite had found the key to be something of a burden, the key was half the little woman's height. Eos took the key between her thumb and forefinger.

"Thank you," Eos said.

"Oh, anything I can do to help," the little woman said. "It's my job, not that I've been able to do it for a long time."

"I'm sorry to ask," Eos said. "But why did you think I would want to kill you?"

"Well, I'm a house daemon," the woman said. "I look after the owners, but this place hasn't had owners in an awfully long time. This used to be a stop on the way to the coast, before the Vanishing. When the coastline disappeared all the trade routes dried up and people had to move on. The last owners of this house left me behind. It was only a matter of time before one of the agents of the undone came to scrub me away.

"As the mistress of this house I was able to rearrange the insides, made it very difficult to get to this room. It's the only one I feel comfortable in, they left behind this furniture, the old owner's wife said that the room was old-fashioned, so they just abandoned it."

"Well," Eos said. "You'd better not stay long, the undone itself is nearby, less than a day's journey from here. It might get slowed down swallowing the mountains but it won't take forever to reach here."

"Oh, dear," the little woman said. "But I do love this house. If the house is going to go then I suppose I had better find somewhere else to be."

"Me and my friend, we're going to the Patchwork Market," Eos told the sprite. "If you came too maybe then you could find somewhere else to settle."

"Well, yes, I suppose if I must, I must," the little woman said. "Never let it be said that Ivy Cosynook outstayed her welcome. If I have a fault then I guess it could be said I get a little attached. I'm only a bit houseproud, where's the harm in that, particularly for a house daemon."

"I must confess," Eos said. "I don't really see it as a problem, but then I've never met a house daemon before."

"We're not much for fuss," Ivy said. "I don't think the owners of this place ever knew I was here, that's just the way we like it. Shy, see?"

"I see," Eos said, instantly wondering if she'd ever unwittingly stayed in a house with a daemon of its own before.

"Anyway, didn't you say you needed to fix the mirror, hadn't we better be about it?"

"Oh, yes, I suppose we should," Eos said.

With the key Ivy had given her Eos opened the porch, Rachel and Eos got their wishes and they took Ivy with them to the Patchwork Market, what happened when they got there is surely a story for another day.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

In Which Saeed and Avan Find Vasky Jantnor

"I don't deal with criminals," Avan said flatly.

"Too bad for you," Vasky Jantnor replied. "What are your options? I'm already under threat of execution, you can't harm me without becoming a criminal yourself."

"I can force you to share what you know," Avan growled, he pushed his face closer to the bars. Vasky Jantnor met Avan's glare steadily, his yellow eye glittering in the light from the torches on the walls.

"You won't," Jantnor said coolly. "You don't believe in using that kind of magic."

"I can deal with criminals," Saeed cut in. Since he had met Avan he had been happy to allow the prince to lead. After all Avan Weatherstrong was a legend and Saeed was just a thief who had made some poor decisions. Over time, however, Saeed had come to realise that there were disadvantages to being Avan Weatherstrong and advantages to being Saeed. An example was the fact that Saeed did not feel compelled to indulge in a circuitous political pantomime to associate with street trash.

"Look at you, Prince Weatherstrong," Jantnor said, a white toothed grin spreading across his face, "fraternising with the enemy."

"What do you want me to do?" Saeed asked before Avan could become defensive. "Ask and, if I am able, it shall be done."

"You could take a leaf out of your servant's book," Jantnor said standing and coming towards the bars of the cell, looking Saeed up and down. The draco was very tall, his movement lithe and sinuous. Saeed would not have liked to face Jantnor in unarmed combat, even half-blind as he was, thankfully the mercenary was caged. "This boy is very polite. I like it when people are polite, makes me cooperative."

Jantnor delivered his statement without removing his gaze from Saeed.

"I just want some comfort in here, son," Jantnor said to Saeed, "in my last days, something to bring a little light into this dark cell. I'm sure you'll find this a hoot. I keep a pet, a small white mouse, the type my more backward cousins regard as a snack but I call him Snowdrop and I keep him at my home. I left him two days ago with fresh food and water. If I don't have him returned to my care he will die. Probably he will anyway when I am executed. Until then I would appreciate it if you would bring Snowdrop to me, so I can tend to him as long as I am able."

"That's what you want?" Avan said. "Your pet?"

Jantnor still hadn't looked away from Saeed. He held a hand up, dismissing Avan.

"This ain't your deal, Prince," Jantnor said. "This is on the boy now. What do you say, junior? You bring a man his only comfort and joy in exchange for the information you seek?"

Saeed opened his mouth to do the deal and Jantnor moved his hand waving at Saeed to be quiet.

"Be careful, son," Jantnor said. "If you agree to this you have to enter the White Woods alone to go fetch. I won't take kindly to you sharing the burden. So only accept if you're up for the journey."

"If this is what must be done to find Miranda Felix," Saeed said. "And it is I who must do it, then that is how it shall be."

"Excellent news," Jantnor said, his tone quietly satisfied. "The prince and I shall eagerly await your return. You will know my house by the wooden training dummy in the front yard. I painted the symbol of my old troop on the wall, so that friends would know a welcome and enemies would be warned."

Jantnor displayed a brand burned onto the inside of his left forearm before turning his back on them and crossing his cell to lie out on his bed.

"If you want me," he said, "I will be napping here, be advised Prince Weatherstrong, I will hear you leave, and if you do I will never tell anyone where Felix is, whatever they bring to me for aid and comfort."

Saeed looked over to Avan. The prince did not appear to be in the best of moods. He turned to Saeed.

"I suppose you'd better be about your business," Avan said although his eyes betrayed another conversation lurking in his mind.

"I suppose I better had," Saeed agreed. Saeed did not know what objection Avan would have to this enterprise but, at this stage, he did not really care. "I will be back as soon as I am able."

With that Saeed left the dungeon, on his way to the White Woods.

Saeed was not so much of a fool that he had believed that acting as a companion to the greatest hero who had ever lived would be a position free of problems. However he had been badly mistaken as to the nature of those problems. The dangerous situations and fighting were inevitable, of course. However, Saeed had believed that the problems between himself and the noble prince would mostly be ethical, or differences in approach to a particular problem.

Actually, that's exactly what most of the issues were. However the final resolution of such issues was usually an urgent requirement. The sooner objectives could be completed the better for everyone. What was left behind, however, was a vast ocean of problems unresolved and conversations that there simply wasn't time to have.

Saeed was surprised that he felt some hurt that Prince Weatherstrong actually didn't appear to really like him. Of course, their initial meeting had not been optimal in this regard. Saeed was a thief and had engaged in an act of mercenary thieving when Avan interceded. Add to this the fact that Saeed proved himself a dupe, fooled into actions whose consequences were far in excess of what he had expected and he could fully understand the disapproval of wiser minds.

Where the hurt came in was that this first impression never appeared to be replaced in the Prince's eyes with anything closer to the person that Saeed was trying to put forward during his tenure as Avan's companion. Saeed wanted to show a greater consideration of ethical concerns, a deeper wisdom with its roots in the humility and shame of ill-advised actions that could not easily be undone.

Saeed had committed to this atonement and that commitment had not changed. However, he couldn't help but feel that Avan was, in a rather mean-spirited way, not giving Saeed any credit for these decisions.

It was this array of points: how Saeed's reform was not acknowledged in any way by his travelling companion, why the fact of this bothered him, and what he could do to reverse the situation, that occupied Saeed's mind as he rode his horse into the White Woods.

So distracted was Saeed that he quickly found himself at the end of the trail near to an abandoned hunting lodge. It didn't take Saeed long to see that this was not Jantnor's home so he turned his steed around and picked his way back to the last fork he had taken.

The White Wood was a quiet, cold place and Saeed had not encountered another living soul since he had arrived. Trying out a few more paths lead to more dead ends. Abandoned paths, paths that had been overgrown or turned into swamp, circular paths to abandoned mines or clearings that may once have furnished herbs but were now no more than barren scrub.

The day was almost over as Saeed realised that Jantnor had not been honest and straightforward in his request. The White Woods were a larger space than he had implied and Saeed, even given his excellent sense of direction, realised that he had no way of telling where Jantnor's home might be. There were hundreds of paths criss-crossing the wood, if the home were off the path in a secret corner of the forest then Saeed had no hope of retrieving the prize.

Saeed had never experienced such frustration, he felt foolish, but beyond that there were unpleasant currents of anger and humiliation. The prospect of failure in such an apparently simple task filled Saeed with a cold dread. What made it worse was that it wasn't the mockery of Jantnor that upset him so much as the quiet disdain that was almost inevitably going to come from Avan's direction.

Here was the issue with projecting new wisdom and humble acceptance of one's own past failings: once you realised that you still had failings after that acceptance things got complicated. You could easily begin to understand that your new wisdom wasn't as deep as you might have hoped; present humiliation had even more burn to it when stacked on the embers of past humiliation.

"Sad boy! Sad boy!" a voice rang out from up above.

Saeed looked up to see a small bird, a sparrow, sitting in a tree.

"Sad boy! Sad boy!" the sparrow chirped.

"Are you talking to me?" Saeed asked the sparrow.

"Technically," the sparrow replied, "I was talking about you. Now I'm talking to you."

"You have an impudent mouth for one so small."

"Small birds are always impudent," the sparrow replied. "We have to tease the bigger birds to maintain our territory."

"I see," Saeed said. "I had always heard of talking animals, but I have never met one properly. Oh, I once encountered a talking mouse but I understand he used to be a man. I don't know how that changes things."

"Is this why you are sad?" the sparrow asked. "Because you have never met a talking beast. Maybe you have and you just weren't ready to hear what they had to say."

"I can imagine that being the case," Saeed said. "I think... It makes some kind of sense. But no, that is not why I am sad. I am sad because I promised to do something and now I find I cannot do it."

"Well, that was a stupid thing to do," the sparrow said. "I never understand the actions of folk. You appear, at least to me, to be entirely contrary creatures. I have never promised to do something I could not do, nor would I."

"I didn't know I couldn't do it," Saeed said. "At the time I imagined it would be a simple matter to find a house with a wooden dummy in the yard and a strange symbol painted on its wall. I had no idea how big the White Woods were."

"I see," the sparrow said. "If that house had bread or seeds in it would you give them to me?"

"If you could show it to me and if it has any kind of bread or seeds inside its walls then you could happily have as much as you could eat," Saeed replied.

"Then I hope for my sake that you can keep this promise," the sparrow replied. "Follow closely, I have no time for laggards"

The bird hopped off its perch in the tree and flew into the forest. Saeed followed the bird closely, never losing sight of the fluttering black punctuation mark of its body. Sure enough the house was found within the hour, Jantnor's pet was retrieved within its home (a large skull that may once have belonged to a beast man or similar large animal). Using his thieves senses Saeed found his way out of the woods and returned triumphant to the jail.

Upon being presented with his pet Jantnor's expression became shifty and awkward.

"I am much obliged, son," the draco said to Saeed. "Now I must admit that I cannot tell you exactly where Felix hides herself away, but I do know a step along the route."

"I knew this would all be a big waste of time," Avan said.

"Hold on there," Jantnor said. "I'm a mercenary, that makes me a business man, I don't believe in short changing folk. What I've got may not be everything but I think it's close. You probably know that in our line of work there are people you can deal with that you may not exactly trust one hundred per cent. Felix, well I'm not sure I trust her even ten per cent. So when I took that job from her, the one that ended with me in here, I tailed her after the meet."

"She must have known you were following her," Avan said. "She's like that."

"Normally I would agree," Jantnor said. "It was one of those things that I figured wouldn't pan out, but in the back of my head I thought 'what if it does', so I did it anyway. I followed her to an abandoned tollhouse, used to stand to the side of the bridge connecting the Twenty Kingdoms to the Okulan Empire. Obviously Okulas didn't take too kindly to having the forces of order so close at hand, his men destroyed the bridge."

"So how did she get across?" Saeed asked.

"She didn't," Vantnor replied. "From behind a rock I watched her pay a ghost with silver and he opened up a different kind of bridge, a rainbow bridge, up to the moon over the Empire."

"You expect us to believe that?" Avan asked, his face impassive.

"Believe whatever you wish," Jantnor shrugged. "I traded my mouse for what I know, that's what I know."

"I know the bridge he's talking about, it is some distance away," Avan said to Saeed. "We shall have to use magic to get there."

Having no other option Avan prepared a magic portal that brought them within half a day's walk from the tollhouse. Vast mountains stretched upwards around a broad valley path in which were visible the remains of an old brick road. Many of the stones from the road were missing, weeds and grasses grew up in between those that remained. Avan and Saeed walked with silent purpose along the road towards their destination.

At the end of their journey the companions cautiously approached the ruined tollhouse that stood at the lip of the great chasm.

"I have travelled extensively for one so young," Saeed said. "But this is the first time I have ever trafficked with a ghost."

"They're really just a form of sprite," Avan said. "They are a sort of elemental, filled with the powers of death."

"That's not reassuring," Saeed said.

"It is not intended to be," Avan replied. "The dead can see the forces of the weave and the wheel with a clarity that the living seldom achieve. They have knowledge because they are almost totally unable to use their powers of insight. They know all the consequences of telling you about things that are to come, as a result they tend to keep their own counsel. It is almost impossible to coerce them, so they are often aloof."

"A fine grasp of the academics Prince Weatherstrong," said a voice from the shell of the tollhouse. The ghost emerged through a wide crack in the wall, a gentleman in a formal tunic, he had the appearance of wearing a wig and carrying a lantern. His face was thin, deeply lined and grave.

All Saeed could think of were questions about this apparition. One found its way out of his mouth before he could think better of it:

"I always thought," he said, "that ghosts could walk through walls."

"One day, no doubt, you shall learn better, Saeed ibn Abihi," the ghost replied. "Today, however, you are here on a business other than metaphysics."

"We seek access to the rainbow bridge," Avan said in the formal tone of voice the prince used whenever rehearsing a matter of protocol.

"Then it is best that you furnish me with the toll," the ghost said.

Avan pulled a silver piece from his money pouch.

"Will this suffice, tollkeeper?" he asked.

"Only honest hands have touched that metal, Prince Weatherstrong," the ghost answered. "I cannot take it in payment."

"Give it to me," Saeed said. "I am a thief. If it's dishonest hands he wants well, mine are as bad as anyone else's."

"Noble humility," the ghost addressed Saeed, "but you misunderstand, great sage. The silver itself must be dirty; stolen, to employ the vernacular."

"The toll to cross the rainbow bridge is a piece of stolen silver?" Avan asked, more in the spirit of confirmation than actual enquiry.

"Just so," the ghost confirmed.

Saeed reached into his own belt pouch, even as he did so he felt his cheeks begin to burn. The topic of the silver key that he had placed within the pouch had never appeared relevant to the current situation. As long as no one asked about it directly he was not compelled to talk about it. Paying the toll with it was going to raise questions, but if their journey was to continue without delay there was nothing to be done about it.

"Will this suffice?" Saeed asked the ghost, holding out the small silver key.

"Indeed it will Saeed ibn Abihi," the ghost said, a humourless grin lighting upon his face. "Then, you already knew that it would."

The ghost held out his right hand and Saeed dropped the key onto it, curious as to what would happen. As the silver hit the palm of the ghost's hand it sparked bright white for a second, a flat chime appeared to sound and the key disappeared.

"I shall open the way," the ghost said and raised his lantern up. The light within the housing intensified, starting to shift within the glass like a thing alive. The liquid glow spilled forth from one side of the lantern in a spray of unexpectedly intense colour stretching up over the chasm, piercing the clouds above and continuing on to the flat silver orb of the moon in the sky.

"Step forth, travellers," the ghost said. "The continuation of your journey is at hand."

Avan and Saeed stepped into the rainbow light and were transported along its length towards the Okulas Moon. What they found on the moon and what they did when they got there are stories for another time.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sir Cobb and the Amateur Rogue

Frederick had not often had the privilege of staying in an actual castle. At least, not one local to his own time and place. When he had trained with Avan Weatherstrong in the time of heroes, of course, the opportunity to stay under a roof with nobility had cropped up more often.

Frederick liked castles, they had high walls, portcullises, gatehouses, guard stations and, on occasion, moats. Until Frederick had settled on the course of his life he had always slept well. In the early days of being a knight errant the number of nights actually spent in beds had dropped dramatically. During his training the unpleasant nature of the world became more apparent. Sleeping in a large stone structure with forbidding entry ways and a round the clock guard started to show itself as a sensible precaution.

Roadside inns that called themselves 'The Castle' were, at the least, optimistically named. They were just as secure as any other dwelling place. Experience had taught Frederick that this meant nothing. Guards were a rare thing indeed and miniature portcullis features had never really caught on, being a pain to install.

'Sleep with one eye open' was not a piece of advice for a knight-errant, more a description of how they slept all the time. Even so, a good rest was a vital weapon in a knight's arsenal. There were not many aged insomniac knights, in fact, Frederick had never met one.

Frederick often found that looking out of the window and enjoying some night air before retiring helped him to drop off. This evening, staying in 'The Castle', a coaching inn on the Sommerslip Road, it allowed him to catch sight of a suspicious, shadowy figure mooching about the stables.

There was a time, not so long ago really, when a shadowy figure, moving in a series of darting shuffles from point to point, shortly after sunset, might have caused Frederick to raise an eyebrow, shake his head and continue on with whatever he was doing. These were the days before the hero's paranoia had taken hold.

Now all Frederick could see was a threat, skulking nearby, waiting to strike. Maybe the threat wasn't directly aimed in his direction, this was irrelevant. Frederick was a knight-errant. Whoever was endangered by the presence of this black-clad rogue was someone Frederick was honour bound to protect.

Frederick was not yet so jaded by his role that he regarded this fact as tedious. It was still inconvenient, he mused, casting one final glance towards the warm and inviting blankets neatly arranged upon his bed.

One of the things that really annoyed Frederick about common rogues was their inability to master even basic roguing. If you hired a guild-approved rogue for light espionage and workaday dirty deeds then most of those seeking to foil them would be entirely unaware of their presence until it was too late. If people just had the common indecency to have these things done properly then assassination attempts would be far less regularly foiled.

The fact Frederick had seen this chap by glancing out of his bedroom window told him that his quarry was in no way affiliated to any of the major thieving federations, he was, essentially, a bodger in the world of stealth.

This made him a nuisance, the longer the incompetent rogue were free the more he contributed to the common misconception that a proper thief was not such a big deal. Frederick wasn't just stopping this fellow for the good of his target and the detriment of his employer but, in a very real sense, Frederick was helping to erase the notion that stealth was easily achievable by the common man on the street.

As Frederick crossed the stable yard in the shadows, knowing he was only visible, and even then as an indistinct black lump, for less time than it would take for fifty grains of sand to settle in the lower chamber of an hourglass, he considered that he was a knight and would never pass the basic exams for affiliation to any self-respecting thieves' guild. Yet, here he was, silently lifting the substantial mass of a spade from against a wall, hefting it in his hand to assess weight and balance and swinging it down upon this foolish man's head. Frederick had not made a single sound, his breathing was calm and controlled, his tread careful, his actions fluid and discreet.

Frederick knew 'knight-stealth' a short term, quick and dirty profile of tricks used by men who preferred to fight face-to-face wherever possible. Yet this idiot had completely failed to detect him. If this man was any sort of rogue Frederick should have a knife between his ribs right now. As the spade made contact with the amateur's head Frederick glanced down to check he wasn't being triple bluffed.

Thankfully there was no stealthily concealed knife jabbing at the side of Frederick's stomach, the poor-man's thief was unconscious on the floor.

"I'm almost disappointed," Frederick muttered, bending down and pulling two lengths of cord from the belt loops at the top of his breeches. Having some lengths of cord handy to tie people up with was a trick Frederick had learned from Avan Weatherstrong. Of course, Prince Weatherstrong had a bewildering array of magicks at his command to restrain those who required it, but Avan, like Frederick, was a guy who liked to be prepared.

As Frederick was tying the man up he noticed a large amethyst signet ring on the pinkie of the man's right hand. There was a crosshatch of silver holding the amethyst down, five lines diagonal across the circular surface of the stone.

Recognising evidence when he saw it Frederick removed the ring to show to Phoebe and Harvey. Then he hoisted the man onto his shoulder and headed for the inn entrance. Before he made the mistake of blundering through the door carrying an unconscious rogue, an action that could lead to discovery and questions, Frederick stopped.

He returned with his burden to the stables where Gerda and Ferris waited impassively by Tabarnas's coach.

"Lads," Frederick said to the golems. "I found this fella sneaking about the stables and I would like to discreetly question him in my room. Any chance you could help me get him upstairs quietly?"

The golems were very helpful. Frederick went back to his room and Gerda stood on Ferris's shoulders. Between them all they lifted the thief in through Frederick's window.

A few moments later Harvey and Phoebe had been summoned. Harvey was the first to arrive and he cast an appraising eye over the bound thief as Frederick explained what had happened in more depth.

"So, you're basically saying that you saw someone you didn't like the look of and took it into your head to swipe him over the head with a shovel?" Harvey asked as Frederick's account came to a close.

"There was a bit more to it than that," Frederick complained. "Trust me, he was up to no good."

"There's a town in the Skyleg mountains where they award the largest swine of the year's herd to the person with the best knee-jerk reflex," Harvey said. "I think you should seek that place out, you'd be eating fresh bacon the next day for certain."

"I think it's better to apologize for over-caution than die for complacence," Frederick said.

Harvey's sly, narrow gaze fixed on Frederick's earnest face for a few more moments. The faint smirk twitching the corner of the djinn's lips communicated a level of smugness it would have been hard to describe in actual words.

"I'm only teasing," Harvey admitted eventually. "I think it's great that you're taking the law into your own hands, very chaotic. I'm a big fan of chaos. The right to a fair trial is highly overrated."

"I'm not trying to deny anyone..." Frederick snapped.

"Boys!" Phoebe said from the doorway. "I am about sick and tired of your arguing. Harvey, you know I have the power to apply a severe attitude adjustment to you so don't bait Frederick so much. Frederick... well... try to be a bit less easily baited. You have to understand that every word that falls from Harvey's lips is utter nonsense. The sooner you do the better for all of us."

"Every word?" Harvey objected. "Isn't that just a tad harsh?"

Phoebe only had to look in Harvey's general direction to get the mischievous sprite to lapse into silence.

"He's still not awake, then?" Phoebe said, inspecting the still unconscious rogue. "How hard did you hit him exactly."

"I tend to hit hard enough to give me a decent head start," Frederick shrugged. "Anything softer and you'd end up on the wrong end of a cross country pursuit, or a term in a castle dungeon with the looming prospect of probable execution."

"I never realised that whacking someone with a shovel was such a precise science," Phoebe remarked drily, uncorking the small bottle that she'd fetched from her room. "Get ready," she said, holding the bottle under the rogue's nose and moving it back and forth.

The rogue's head rolled, twitched and then jerked upwards as the man came back to consciousness. The muscles in his shoulders bunched as he attempted to reach up to massage the sore spot on the back of his head. As he realised he was bound to a chair his eyes widened as he focused on the three people intent on his every move, standing too closely for his comfort as the inn's lodging rooms were not intended for gatherings of this size.

"One false move," Harvey said to the man, truculence dripping from every syllable, "and we'll give you a smile from ear to ear via your throat, get me?"

The man panicked and started straining at his bonds, muffled yells tried to find their way through the gag improvised from Phoebe's collection of coloured handkerchiefs.

"You are treading the line," Phoebe warned the djinn. "Apologies sir, whilst you are, temporarily our captive we do not intend to kill you, my associate believes that he is funny."

"We just want to know what you were doing sneaking around the stables in the middle of the night," Frederick said. "And, more importantly, on who's behalf. Don't bother telling us it's none of our business and there's no point acting innocent. I'm a knight, she's a witch and he's a djinn. We can practically smell mischief."

The rogue looked from Frederick to Phoebe, not liking the expression on her face he tried looking at Harvey's face, although everyone could have told him that would be a waste of time and energy.

"Thief," he said eventually, "Horse thief... I am... just looking for horses... to thieve."

"So," Harvey said, moving in closer to the man. "You are so scared of your employer you'd rather pretend to be a horse thief than reveal your true allegiance. That means you're working for a noble. Probably one with a fair degree of power and influence, someone whose name is known in the region."

The rogue's eyes widened and his mouth opened, even at amateur level this fellow hadn't been rogueing for long.

At that point the door to Frederick's room opened and Tabarnas shuffled in.

"I heard voices..." Tabarnas said before catching sight of the prisoner. He stumbled to a stop with a perturbed 'ah, I see'.

"Sorry," Phoebe said. "We didn't want to disturb anyone."

"Who is this?" Tabarnas asked.

"That's what we're trying to find out," Frederick said. "Although now I come to think of it we may be taking the wrong angle. Tabarnas, does this tell you anything?"

Frederick reached into his pocket and retrieved the signet ring he had taken from the unconscious rogue's finger. Tabarnas adjusted his eyeglasses and squinted at the ring.

"Ring of fealty," Tabarnas said. "Silver would indicate a moon tribe, the circle is usually a light stone, the purple, particularly occluded like that is the new moon. Unfortunately these items are not really traded. If I were to buy one I would have to melt it down for parts, they're not magical but they do have very particular meanings in the One Hundred Kingdoms. Any kind of civil servant should be able to tell us specifically who this belongs to in the morning."

"So," Phoebe said, looking over at the prisoner. "Either you are a horse thief in the employ of a local noble, or, as we already worked out, you are lying to us. You also must be aware that it is only a matter of hours before we know who you are working for anyway."

"You have two choices," Frederick chipped in. "Either you come clean and, as long as we like what you say, we may even let you go. Or I can go get the constable now and you can go to jail for... what was it, horse theft?"

The rogue didn't look as if he really knew what to do. His gaze travelled around all of the room's occupants, the light his eyes distant as if he were doing some immense calculation. Before any concrete result manifested an explosion outside sent a shudder through the inn's frame and rattled the window panes.

"Too late," Harvey chimed in.

It definitely looked that way, and the wise man knows that when things look that way, often they are that way, and, indeed, in this case they were. But the why's and the how's of what followed are a tale for another day.