Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Princess Comes Home

This week's tale comes via the interaction of the claimant of the first-subscriber treat Seri. He chose to roll (with the assistance of yours truly) the Fairy Tale dice and opted to re-roll the full allotment of four dice to make the images referred to in this tale. The images were: Moon, Jail, Storm, Hourglass (time), Bow and arrow, Witch, Forest, Castle

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Wish Forbetter was a little disappointed. The far future appeared to be, in most respects, identical to the present. If anything there was less in the future than there was in the past.

As a street thief brought up in the City of the Seven Spires Wish didn't know all that much about Faerie time and space. He knew that tomorrow never came and yesterday had a nasty habit of catching up with you. Other than that time was a way of telling whether it was before lunch, during lunch or after lunch. Space was a way of telling whether the Watch had caught up with you or not.

Even given this limited understanding of these big concepts Wish was underwhelmed. Only the Twenty Kingdoms had grown bigger in the thousands of years since he and Anabyl had trapped themselves in a magic crystal. Even then apparently there were only a hundred kingdoms now.

Add to this the things that were lost and it appeared that Faerie had actually shrunk. The stories had it that Araby had fallen to dust. Of course the Terra Draconis had vanished but that had been a year or so before Wish was even born.

The basic properties of Faerie had not altered, not in all that time. The Patchwork Market had a new master, but it was still there. There was a giant forest that connected all places. The shadow kingdoms were still full of magic and mayhem. The Undone still chewed its implacable way through the soft places. All fishermen were miserable and lunatic.

What was the point of travelling through time, Wish wondered, if all the places you could go were exactly the same?

Right now Anabyl and Wish were riding on Anabyl's horse through the Forest of Grymm. They were heading towards Anabyl's home kingdom of Spireshine. She had promised that Wish would be welcome there and that he would be safe. Anabyl, meanwhile, would not be able to stay. She had her small wooden box to deliver. Until she had completed her task she was in great danger.

Wish understood that the Dragon Guardians had held a meeting, they had put the Quintessence Crystal in a box. Then they had put two similar looking dragon crystals in two more identical boxes. Then each party had taken one box somewhere safe. They hoped that they might, this way, keep the real crystal safe. Safe enough for someone to have some time to work out how to extract the continent contained within its lattice safely.

So right now maybe Anabyl was carrying the crystal that had been a prison cell for her and Wish for millennia untold. Or maybe Frederick and Phoebe were taking it to the place that Phoebe had nominated. Or maybe Eos held it in her underwater kingdom. The only ones that knew for sure were the Dragon Guardians.

None of them liked the name, bestowed upon them by the little girl Rachel Rummage, nevertheless it had stuck. The thing about having an important name was that it made you look silly if what you did wasn't as important as the name. In this case what they were doing was so important it kind of made the name look silly. That was probably even worse.

Phoebe had told Wish a little about the Princess when she was young. These were stories Wish had some trouble believing. Stories about mechanical dragons and chicken tsunamis and general havoc. The Anabyl Spireshine that Wish Forbetter knew was quiet, intense and determined. He could not picture the Last of the Dragon Warriors jousting from the back of a pig.

As evening drew on the wind picked up a little through the trees. Anabyl took a path signposted for a nearby town.

"We can't be out on the road in bad weather during the night," she said. "We'll have to stop at an inn."

"Is it too far to get to Spireshine now?" Wish asked.

"It's still at least half a day. We'll carry on tomorrow," Anabyl replied. "Tonight we'll stay in Lesser Barlow, that's right on the borders with my kingdom."

"Have you been there before?" Wish was curious to see somewhere near to where the princess had been born.

"I think they instituted a lifetime ban against my return in the year of the stuttering phoenix," Anabyl replied. "I have to hope that will have been lifted, even though, technically, it was only three years ago at this point."

"What did you do to get a life time ban?" asked Wish.

"Was that the sheep and the flying potion or the frogs and the peanut butter?" the princess mused. "It was something anti-social."

"Were you really like that?" Wish asked. "A little terror? That's what I was told."

"I lacked purpose and direction," Anabyl replied. "I had to learn to focus my energy productively."

"Harness your energy," Wish said. "Like a horse or something?"

"Something like that," Anabyl smiled.

The sound of rain could be heard in the tree canopy above. As they came into Lesser Barlow the rain began to fall in earnest. In the distance a fork of lightning split the sky, soon after a rumble of thunder followed.

Lesser Barlow was no more than five streets and a tiny market square that would host no more than twenty stalls at a push. The local inn 'The Tasty Squirrel' was one of the largest buildings in the whole place.

The princess tied up her horse by the stables and looked about for the ostler.

"Come on, Wish," she said. "I bet he's inside, hiding from the storm."

Anabyl and Wish made their way into the bar of the Squirrel. Only then did it occur to them that there might be more to the quiet streets of Lesser Barlow than an instinct to hide from bad weather. The Squirrel's bar was empty aside from the barman and a couple of men slumped in the corner, neither of them drinking.

Wish didn't even see the other man. The one that Anabyl reached out and grabbed by the collar. She flung the shifty individual against the bar. He struck the edge of the counter with a worryingly loud crunching thump. There was a knife to his throat before anyone could even react.

"What's going on?" she asked the man conversationally, as if she wasn't threatening his life. "Where is everybody?"

"Curfew," the man replied. "Everyone's home after curfew."

"So why aren't you at home?" the princess asked. "It being after curfew and all."

"I live here," the man said.

Anabyl didn't shift her eyes away from where they locked the man in place like an insect caught on a pin.

"No you don't," she said. "So why are you here. Last chance before I'm having to mop your blood off the floor of this inn and apologising for the upset."

"Evlin Shadowcrook," the man said, gabbling the words out now. "She told me to sit here every night, look out for strangers headed toward Spireshine."

"Who is this woman? A sorceress?" Anabyl asked.

"Witch," the man said. "Wicked witch."

"Last question, why does this witch care who goes to Spireshine?" Anabyl eased her feet apart slightly, bracing herself in case her captive chose to fight back. He didn't.

"She owns Caer Spireshine now, the shadows have come in, three deep, this is the shadow's edge now," the man said.

"What about Lord and Lady Spireshine?" Anabyl demanded forgetting she'd promised that previous question as the last.

"In the dungeon is what I heard," the man said. "Only been a few days, we were waiting for a response, from the other kingdoms."

Anabyl eased back on her heels. She brought her knife down.

"You'd best get home," she said to the man. "It's after curfew."

The man made his way past Anabyl and Wish. He ran through the door as if the devil was at his heels. The atmosphere at the bar of the inn did not get any lighter.

"I don't want any trouble," the innkeeper said. He stood at the far end of the bar. The innkeeper preserved the greatest possible distance from Anabyl. Anabyl did not make any move closer to the man from her position near the entrance.

"It's a little late for that, don't you think?" Anabyl asked. "Or was it this quiet in here before an evil witch set up home in my kingdom?"

"Your kingdom?" the innkeeper asked. "Who are you? Elspyth? Marjyram?"

"No, they're both happily married and living the lives of ladies in kingdoms far away," Anabyl said.

"Surely not Sophya!" the innkeeper said. "Word was that your marriage is imminent."

"Oh, yes," Anabyl said. A chime of recollection rang in her voice. "Now that I'm of age I will have to remember to send a gift, thank you. No. Sophya is, no doubt, preparing for her own nuptials in far away Sommerslip."

"Then... but that means... oh no..." The tremor that shook the innkeeper's voice only deepened as the understanding dawned in his mind. "Anabyl?" he asked. The three syllables were wreathed in dread.

The man had shown less concern to have a woman threaten a man with a knife over his bar a few moments earlier. Now he knew the identity of his mystery patron it appeared that he could wish for nothing more than the ground to open and swallow him whole.

"You remember me!" Anabyl said, her voice light with joy. "Glad to see I am not easily swept aside by the passage of time."

"But how?" the innkeeper said. "You were small... so small... and you looked so sweet and... Ohhhh... How?"

"I think it had something to do with the Master of Mischief," Anabyl said. "But you know how dreadfully hard he can be to pin down."

The question of Evlin Shadowcrook and her assault on Spireshine was forgotten for the moment. Wish marvelled at the effect the princess was having on those near to her family home. The stories of pig jousting were no less fantastic but he couldn't argue with the evidence.

Evlin Shadowcrook was evidently not keen on being upstaged. An almighty thunderclap shook the inn building. The vibration so hard that all the oil lamps extinguished, plunging the inn into shadowy darkness. The only light illuminating the scene came from the moon.

"Moonlight?" Anabyl said. "That's not... I hate wicked witches."

With that she spun on her heel and stormed over to the door. Wish, receiving no instruction to stay put, followed her out into the inn yard.

Outside the storm was raging. Dark clouds swirled in the sky and the source of Anabyl's exasperation was now clearly visible. A fat, yellow moon hung in front of the storm clouds in bald defiance of the way things usually worked.

As if on cue the shadow of a broomstick bearing a single passenger swooped in front of the strange glowing sky circle. The broomstick wheeled round and soared down towards the inn yard. As it approached the sound of evil cackling became louder and louder.

"Always with the aerial attacks," Anabyl muttered. She pulled her bow from her back and thumbed the catch to make it full size. "They never learn."

With that she pulled an arrow from a pouch in her boot, put it to the bow string and fired the shaft directly at Evlin Shadowcrook. The arrow scored its target, the cackling ceased as the witch tumbled from her perch with an undignified squawk.

"Don't mess with Spireshines," Anabyl said, pouting. Her jaw set with pugnacious determination.

At last Wish saw it. The whole time he had known Anabyl she had appeared quiet, intense and a little sad. Now he understood that the princess had not coped well with being lost and homesick. The fire that burned in her heart was fierce indeed.

Even in the long ago days and trapped within the crystal it had burned so all could see it. Now she was home, near to her family and someone was interfering in her return. That fire had become an inferno and Evlin Shadowcrook should probably be very, very frightened indeed.

"I'm going to get her," Anabyl said to Wish as she mounted her horse. "You stay here at the inn. I'll be back soon."

"I want to stay with you!" Wish objected.

"We don't always get what we want," Anabyl said. "Mind you, when I was your age and I didn't I used to burn things. Are you going to burn things?"

"No," Wish said before he could think of a better answer.

"Then stay here, I'll be back soon," Anabyl said.

So Wish did, and Anabyl returned with the wicked witch in tow, but what happened next is a story for another day.

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