"What do you mean the bridge is closed?"
"Bridge is closed till the burning. Can't risk allowing a witch to get to Bridgetown."
"Witch? There's a witch? Can't be a witch, surely not. Not a witch."
Lester was not doing well in this negotiation. James felt that he had to chip in.
"Without wishing to seem backwards," he said, sitting to attention on Lester's shoulder. "Is it not the case that witches go to Bridgetown all the time? From my recollection there are specialist stalls there catering to every need a witch might have."
"Did you know that mouse could talk?" the guard asked Lester.
This was one of the things that annoyed James on a regular basis. Whilst people acclimatised to the fact of a talking mouse they could really be rather rude.
"Oh, yes, sure," Lester replied. "And... well... what the mouse said."
When Lester was rude it was an entirely different matter, James felt himself bristle:
"My name," he grated. "Is James." Both Lester and the guard ignored him. It irritated James even further that he was becoming used to this.
"While it is true that there is nothing wrong with the vast majority of witches," the guard said, speaking slowly. "This particular witch is one of the bad kind. The good people of Hamsamperburg cannot allow that witch to disappear. If this witch escapes into the coloured awnings, smoke and noise of the Patchwork Market we... well... we could get a reputation. The Master of the Market could close the bridge."
James couldn't work out why this man was speaking this way. Maybe it was because he was trying to communicate with people he thought were stupid. Or possibly because he was trying not to say anything that could be diplomatically misconstrued. It could just be that he was trying to dredge this speech up from some murky corner of his mind. A place he'd abandoned it earlier, believing that he would never be given cause to recite it for an audience. Whichever it was it did not convince him.
"Oh, so, most witches are fine," Lester said, the relief in his voice was both palpable and quite pathetic. "So, uh, when can we expect the bridge to be open?"
"Burning's at dusk, will run all night," the guard responded, already glad that the conversation was over. "Refreshments will be available, I understand there may also be a carousel."
"Nothing like a public execution. Especially when you need something different for the family outing," James muttered. Everyone over five and a half feet tall with opposable thumbs and no whiskers continued to ignore him.
Lester turned away from the guard at the gatehouse. He started back along the road towards Hamsamperburg town square.
"I guess we'll just have to stay for the night then," Lester said, half to himself, half to James. "The princess might like the carousel."
"Oh, so you're talking to me now?" James said.
"Sorry?" Lester said. "Was I not talking to you before?"
"Never mind," James sighed. "Forget I said anything."
"Did you say anything? That made sense, I mean," Lester asked.
James thought back to the earth-shaking destruction of Vikor Moorshade's pleasure dome. There was a tiny sliver of the recollection that played out as a fantasy where a very large rock hit Lester in the head. This hadn't happened. James instantly felt horrendous guilt at even imagining his companion felled by a falling chunk of marble.
At the moment, James didn't really understand much of anything, least of all himself. He just wanted to find Rachel so that they could get their stupid adventure finished and return to the Skull Garden. He could get another pumpkin, life could go back to the way it had been before.
Except it couldn't.
James didn't know why but he did not want to return to the Skull Garden. Admittedly the prospect of having to sleep in terror under the piercing gaze of a giant bat had never appealed. James had altered his world view enough to think that if they wanted to 'deal with' the bat then this was now something that they could do. Maybe even with some help from others.
That wasn't it. After everything that had happened so far in the last few days dealing with one giant flying cousin was the least of his worries. What troubled James was that he was beginning to believe that, he had not lived his entire short life in the shadow of the Skull Rock. This was in direct contradiction to all other beliefs he'd held in his entire life. There were recurring twangs of familiarity about the outside world. Some echo of recollection about Bridgetown, princesses, sorcerers, mountains. He felt as if he had lived another life, in another way. He felt as if his current state was some cruel trick that had been played on him.
At the same time he was inordinately proud of being a talking mouse, he felt it was a fine thing to be. This is why it irritated him that many other people, Lester in particular, seemed not to agree with him.
In the end it was all too much for a simple talking mouse to have to think about. As they approached the well at one side of the village square he decided to shelve the matters of his clouded memories. His feelings of otherness could wait until they resolved into something it was worth his while thinking about.
"We're going to have to stay overnight," Lester said. "The bridge is closed until tomorrow morning."
"What?" Phoebe asked in a tone of voice that indicated that her incredibly short temper had already run out. "Why?"
"Oh, it's nothing much," Lester said, he almost shrugged but stopped himself at the last moment. The subject of Lester not shrugging had been the topic of several conversations between Lester and James. James had learned to cling on. "They're just burning a witch or something. Oh, don't worry, I checked, she's a nasty witch."
Phoebe was not mollified by this explanation. In fact, the news appeared to incense her even further.
"Oh?" she said, raising an eyebrow that James knew Lester would fail to see as a danger sign. "A nasty witch?"
"Yes," Lester said. "So we'll stay at the inn and leave in the morning."
"Have you ever seen a witch burning?" Phoebe asked quietly, drawing in close to Lester.
Lester's eyes widened and his mouth hung open a little way. James knew there were a couple of reasons for this. Most important, Lester was a little bit terrified of Phoebe September. Backing this up was the fact that he was completely infatuated with her.
If James could have buried his entire head in his tiny paws he would have.
"Uh, no," Lester said.
"Then there are two things you need to know," Phoebe explained. "One is that it is not suitable viewing for a child. The other is that there is no such thing as a nasty witch. At least not one that could be rounded up by a bunch of yokels, tied to a stick and set on fire."
"Um, okay," Lester said.
"Bearing in mind this knowledge we find ourselves some new responibilities," Phoebe said. "Let's make sure the princess doesn't become upset at the sight of a person burning alive. We can best achieve this by preventing any person burning from happening in the first place."
James was of the opinion that Lester would be more likely to find the sight of a person burning alive upsetting than the princess would. James stopped short of believing Anabyl would actually enjoy it. However, she was certainly built of sterner stuff than either Lester or himself.
"So, where is Anabyl anyway?" Phoebe asked, surveying the square, brow creased.
As if in answer came the sound of splintering and cries of alarm. Mixed into the genral hue and cry was the ridiculous addition of a frenzy of clucking and squawking.
"You had to ask, didn't you?" said James.
This time he didn't mind that no one paid any attention to him. In the war for attention between the poultry-based chaos nearby and the wit of a sarcastic mouse the poultry was always going to win.
From the far side of the square, behind the big pile of wood that was the beginnings of the pyre for later on, came a tide of chickens. The chickens were hopping and running, a couple were rolling, all were distressed. They made enough noise to drown out the sounds of calamity from the townsfolk witnessing the chicken tsunami.
James felt the gentle rise and fall of Lester's shoulders as he sighed.
"I suppose we'd better go and see what's up then," Lester said, his tone funereal.
"Let the girl take care of herself for five minutes," Phoebe cut across him. "I think she's just provided us with an opportunity."
"What kind of an opportunity?" Lester asked, suspicion dripping from every word.
"Follow me," Phoebe said.
What Phoebe said, Lester did. This was the pattern that had not changed in the three days it had taken them to get down the mountain and along the road to Hamsamperburg. Where Lester went, James was pretty much bound to follow. Unless he fancied getting mistaken for the wrong kind of mouse and ended up killed by a cat or squished by a heavy boot.
Even so the thought of letting Princess Anabyl continue her reign of terror did awake in James a whisper of concern. While Princess Anabyl was capable of looking after herself for ten minutes there remained a question. That was the one of how everyone else was supposed to deal with a rogue princess on the loose. Also, as James understood matters, if you annoyed people in these parts you ended up tied to a stake and burned.
There was a whole other layer to James's worrying, something to do with Rachel. Thinking about Rachel just made his tiny little mouse heart ache for the absence of her. He decided to concentrate upon where Phoebe was leading them.
They walked around the edge of the square and ducked into a building. A wooden sign above the door announced that this was the police station. James was about to object but the building was empty inside. Towards the back of the single room that barely had space for the single desk it accommodated were one door, marked 'WC' and a jail cell. Sitting in the jail cell, manacled to a wall, was the witch.
Apparently concern regarding the powers of the witch were not as high as had been suggested. A single chicken incident could completely unman the facility holding this dangerous captive. James began to understand Phoebe's cynicism about the motives of the townsfolk.
"Hey, you," Phoebe called tapping on the cell bars.
The witch looked up. The big surprise in the room at that moment was that the witch was not a she but a he. A scrawny he with bushy wild hair and a light scrub of beard, but definitely male.
"What now?" the young man asked.
"We want to rescue you," Phoebe said. "What's your name?"
"Fred-" the man started, then he made a little clicking noise. The vocal remnants of someone who had once had a habit of clearing their throat halfway through saying their name. "Sir Cobb," the man finished. "I'm Sir Cobb," he said again, with a hair more confidence. "I'm a knight."
"See," Phoebe said, turning to Lester, her eyes flashing with anger. "These people will lock up anyone if they've got a pile of wood spare and a free evening."
"So why are you locked up here, accused of witchcraft?" Lester asked.
"There was a thing, with a troll," the man sighed. "I was just passing through and, well, someone I thought I'd left behind caught up with me. I trapped him in a mirror, but he got out."
"Oh," Lester said. "I see. Trolls are a pain, one sent me on a broomstick ride to the underground laboratory of a dead evil sorcerer."
"Don't even talk to me about evil sorcerers," Sir Cobb said. "I thought fun and adventure would be fun and, well, you know..."
"Adventurous?" James chipped in. Nobody listened.
"Well, it must be your lucky day," Phoebe said, taking charge again. She waved her hand and the lock on the jail door popped open. Phoebe pulled the door back and strode into the cell.
"Don't even bother trying that with the manacles," Sir Cobb said. "They're pure iron."
"Then we'll need a key," Phoebe said. "Or possibly..."
She reached up into her hair and pulled out a pin. She fiddled the pin the locks on the manacles and had them both open within a couple of minutes.
"Wow, you're good at that," Sir Cobb said.
"No," Phoebe said. "Witch burning villages always buy cheap manacles. Okay, so let's get out of here."
"I couldn't agree more," Sir Cobb said.
"Um, question," Lester said, raising his right hand and waving it around in the air. "Just a small question."
Phoebe and Sir Cobb turned to look in Lester's direction. Phoebe looked angry, but that was usual. Sir Cobb just looked a bit gormless, now that he had left behind the misery of imprisonment.
"Where are we going to?" Lester asked. "The bridge is closed remember."
"Lester," Phoebe said. "Three days ago you watched me destroy a gigantic mountain citadel carved out of marble. What is stopping us getting over the bridge?"
"Gate," Lester mumbled. James could feel the heat coming off Lester's cheek as he said it.
"Is it a _big_ gate?" Phoebe asked.
"Er, it's not small," Lester said.
"I think we'll be fine there, champ," Phoebe said.
"In case you were wondering," James said into Lester's ear. "'Champ' was sarcasm, not an actual compliment."
"Shut up," Lester said.
Sir Cobb, done stretching his legs, walked from the cell over to the police station's single window. He peered out at the screaming chaos in the square.
"Where did that massive mechanical dragon come from?" he asked.
"Anabyl," Lester said.
"_Princess_ Anabyl," Phoebe corrected him.
"Who's Princess Anabyl?" Sir Cobb asked.
"A good question," James said. "Not a wise one."
"Oh," Sir Cobb said looking over at Lester's left shoulder. "A talking mouse."
"It never gets old," James said. He believed he had a look of world weary resignation on his face. He found that squaring this idea against the state of 'being a mouse' made the exact expression difficult to picture in his mind.
"Look," Phoebe said, "we're receiving the benefits of multiple distractions right now. I think we need to take advantage of the fact. We'll introduce you to the princess when we reach Bridgetown. Until then let's just concentrate on getting out of here without doing too much damage."
There was a sound like a falling tree followed by more wailing and screaming. On top of this came the sound of something large crashing through a number of more fragile objects.
"Before anyone gets seriously injured," Phoebe corrected herself.
"Sounds good to me," Sir Cobb shrugged. "No one happens to have a sword, do they? I lost mine a while back and, after a short detour, I ended up here and, you know what, nowhere I went has a smithys or a weapons trader. If I'd have known that I wouldn't have left the sword behind, but I made someone a promise so..."
"We have one sword," Lester said. "But I don't think it'll be suitable."
"Suitable or not if that's what we have I'll work with it."
"Lester reached into the knapsack at his side and extracted the sword that had been used to kill Vikor Moorshade wrapped up in rags. He picked the rags off. Carefully he revealed the intricate shooting star design along the blade's length.
"I don't believe it!" Sir Cobb said, picking up the sword. "Where did you find this?"
"You know perfectly well where they found it Sir Frederick Cobb," said the sword. "After all you left it there."
"My sword talks!" Sir Cobb said. "It never did that before."
"Ooh look," James chipped in. "Talking mice, talking swords. Next thing you know the panicking townsfolk will be talking and then we can all have a nice chat. Shall we just skip the confusion and get on with escaping?"
"A fine idea, James," Phoebe said. James really rather liked Phoebe. Not in the way Lester did, particularly as that would be somewhat ridiculous as he was a mouse. She just seemed, if a little ill-tempered, the most down to earth of his current company.
Phoebe made a motion with her hand and a strange crossbow coalesced out of thin air to sit neatly in her outstretched palm.
"Try only to use your weapons defensively. If possible, don't hurt anyone. Violence is bad for your karma," she said before leading the way to the threshold of the police station. "I'll get the princess," she said. "The rest of you, head for the bridge."
"Ay ay, ma'am," Sir Cobb said, clearly impressed.
Phoebe wasn't listening, she'd already run into the seething crowd. The townsfolk were now trying to avoid jets of flame issuing from the nostrils of the mechanical dragon.
"Come on then," Sir Cobb said. "You heard the lady."
"Who are you calling a lady?" Lester asked Sir Cobb's back. The knight, his enthusiasm for life restored, plunged out of the door and into the chaos beyond the threshold.
"Really not the time, Lester," James said. "I'm hanging on."
"Well... okay then," Lester said. He swayed, bracing himself and then charged after Sir Cobb.
The trio managed to get about twelve paces from the police station before the town guard spotted them.
"Look! The witch! He's escaping!" came a cry from the crowd.
"Uh oh," Sir Cobb said. "I hope you're ready to parry." He addressed his sword.
"I believe my readiness is entirely down to you," the sword responded.
"Aieee, his sword, it talks!" a woman at the edge of the crowd screamed and then fainted.
"Oh come on," James said. "Overreaction much?"
"Aieee," another woman. "A talking mouse."
"Oh for crying out loud!" James said.
Sir Cobb was now engaged in a furious defensive sword battle with two town guardsmen. He was managing to deflect the blows, all the while circling around in an attempt to get on the other side of the soldiers. It helped this endeavour that the knight was a much better trained fighter than the guards.
"You two," he shouted over to James and Lester. "Keep going. I'll catch up."
"He's pretty impressive, isn't he?" James said.
"Shut up, James," Lester replied.
Lester ran past the duelling Sir Cobb and ran down the road towards the gatehouse. The gate onto the bridge was still locked shut.
"I hope this plan works out," Lester said as he jogged away from Hamsamperburg town square.
"This is a plan?" James asked. "I thought we were just making it up as we went along."
The distance to the gate got shorter, the sounds of melee from behind grew less and less. There was still no sign of any way to cross the bridge.
"Lester," James said as they closed the last few feet before the ramp onto the bridge. "What happens if we can't get the gate open?"
Lester never had to answer that particular tricky question.
"Duck!" came the urgent sound of Phoebe's voice from behind them.
Lester did better than duck. He threw himself to the ground, forcing James to really dig his claws in.
Lester was too scared to even complain. There was a whooshing noise from overhead. Phoebe's broomstick ploughed a flaming trail down the street towards the gate.
A guard stuck his head out of a hatch in the door of the gatehouse. Seeing the brightly glowing fiery broomstick coming towards him he ducked back in. Just in time, a ball of plasma turned the gate blocking the bridge into matchwood.
As Lester picked himself back up he could see Phoebe, riding the broomstick. Princess Anabyl, laughing maniacally, clung on behind her. They crossed the bridge, swallowed into the magic mist that surrounded the Patchwork Market on every side.
"What a woman," Lester breathed.
"Run!" Sir Cobb bellowed behind them. The knight charged past. With him he brought a mob of angry townsfolk brandishing pitchforks, baying for blood.
The noise of howling may have just been an addition of James's own imagination. He never looked back to study the furious Hamsamperburgians as they chased the party out of their home. Lester followed Sir Cobb and none of the five stopped moving until they reached Bridgetown.
What they did when they got there was a story we shall tell another day.