"Delighted for you," said the gnome. "Couldn't be more so. Absolutely. Delighted. However, I do feel that the full spectrum of experience associated with the word 'adventure' has now been thoroughly fulfilled. I don't want to appear rude but I have a whole existence to be getting on with. There's a meadow in a quaint little shadow not too far away by bridge and I would very much like to live my life there starting, oh, well, as soon as possible."
"I don't think now is the time, honestly," Eos said. "Can't you see that James is unwell?"
"Unwell?" the gnome said as if he honestly hadn't noticed. The little sprite turned his attention to the former mouse, now a tall man hunched over and sitting on a tea chest being fussed over by Rachel and Rebecca. Lester watched on, not really certain what to think.
"Then there was a morning in winter, my mother had a cold," James said. His words floated up from his chest through the arms he had folded on his knees. His head was buried in this little cocoon, his words having the lilt of delirium. "Porridge on the hob, good boy, helpful boy, porridge is easy. Burned so badly to the bottom of the pan mum had to throw it out. Scrap metal for the scrap metal man. Lots you can do with scrap. Got to be able to melt it, to shape it. Not my department. Call an engineer!"
"He'll be fine," the gnome said. "I have a good ear for mischief. Whatever's happening I think it's temporary."
"You know what's wrong with him?" Rachel asked, turning her full attention in his direction.
Although the gnome had wanted Rachel's whole attention, and everyone else's, not moments ago, now it looked extremely uncomfortable. No doubt it would have been fine to have everyone looking in the gnome's direction to discuss the gnome's requirements and demands. The probem here was that now the gnome had cast himself in the role of advisor, such a role stood in the way of attention to requirements and demands.
Lester had to admit that he could understand that feeling completely. He was awash with unsuitable emotions at the moment. Fear of abandonment, sadness at the meandering aimlessness of his journey, irritation that he had spent so long on a road that provided no more than a diversion from Lester's own concerns, guilt that he felt anything other than concern about James's well-being.
Maybe if he could work his way up to a good session of delirious ranting he would be okay afterwards, Lester reflected. There didn't appear to be any other appropriate way of communicating his own feelings of loss that didn't seem self-indulgent and whiny.
Not that he would have had a problem with being self-indulgent and whiny if that had been a layer in a complex personality, but it wasn't. Lester was beginning to realise that when it came to personality self-indulgent and whiny pretty much summed him up. Oh, and meek, and directionless, and not much use.
Look at the gnome. On the one hand it was here demanding stuff when another person was in dire straits not five feet away. The sprite somehow managed to act as if it was oblivious to this while stamping its foot and carrying on like it was the only being that mattered in the whole of Faerie. On the other hand at least the gnome had some sort of motivational through-line. At least it was a force to be reckoned with.
Lester stood in the corner and didn't know what to think and tried not to be any bother. At least he wasn't any bother. At the same time he was becoming extremely tired of not being any use, either. His head was actually starting to throb at the concept of his own complete irrelevance to everything. On his travels he had met knights and magicians, merchants and royalty, what had he ever been through any of it? He had been Lester who could lend a hand with anything not too difficult.
Lester promised himself that as soon as equilbrium was restored he would rock the boat a bit, he would upset the apple cart. He would make his presence felt. Not so felt that people lost their tempers or anything, just felt enough to make Lester feel less on the edges of everything.
"Uh, well," the gnome said. Lester marvelled that he'd managed to fit all that thinking into the space between the gnome becoming awkward and deciding what to say next. "I can see that a lot of what's happened to James... ah, your father, is as a result of mischief casually melting away some deeper enchantments."
"What do you mean 'deeper enchantments'?" Rachel asked.
"Anything mischievous, I can detect," the gnome said. Although it was plain that there would be a time to talk further on the gnome's wish list, for now he was relishing the role of 'expert'. "But I couldn't tell that your dad was enchanted, not when we first met, he just looked like a mouse. A normal mouse. Oh, yes, he could talk, but that isn't such a big deal, you know."
"So what does that mean?" Rachel asked.
"It means that the magic that transformed James into the mouse was very complex and meant to bind. I'm not entirely sure that he was supposed to forget that he was a man, or your dad, or whatever, but I think that's a separate enchantment, after all, you don't remember much about before being in the Skull Garden either, do you?"
"No," Rachel said. "Honestly, I still don't."
"When we took you there," Rebecca said. "You were very young, I wouldn't be at all surprised if you didn't remember what happened before. I forgot everything while I was in the garden too. I only began to remember when I left, and then, well, I got dispersed."
"So you see," the gnome said, inserting himself back into the conversation, determined to monopolise everyone's attention. "The effects of the garden are slow and deep, but not permanent. I wouldn't advise anyone to remain there for too long, could get tricky."
"So how long before Ja- my dad, is back to normal?" Rachel asked.
The gnome got half way into a shrug before James himself broke into the conversation:
"They were all in the castle when the storm came!" he said. "There was the dragon and the frog. They weren't alone. They thought they were. But the mouse was careful. It stayed out of sight. Mice can hide, best hide, best way to stay out of the way. Not like the man who went to see the master of mischief, no. Desperate man, clever man, but desperate, confused. Needed to find his brother, needed to find a way to his brother, not just a disguise you see... really. Because you can't have two mice. Don't you see? Two mice are always bad. Two bad mice."
James looked around at the assembled group, who were all still trying to unravel this stilted dialogue. All except for Lester.
In the couple of seconds it usually took him to lose the initiative Lester realised that no-one had said anything, further, he realised that he had something to say.
"Are you telling me that I went to the master of mischief?" he asked James.
James's glowing, beatific expression dropped into one of deep disappointment.
"That's what you took from that?" he asked.
"It's me, isn't it? You're not the only one who's had their memory messed with," Lester said. "I am looking for my brother and... the man in the tall hat, he is the master of mischief."
"Oh, yes," the gnome chipped in. "That's the boss, Loki, everyone knows that."
Everyone looked at the gnome.
"Well," the gnome corrected himself, gruffly. "I thought everyone knew that."
"It has to be said," Eos said. "I'm sure there are lots of people who have looked for a missing brother through history. I heard a story myself about a man who went to Loki asking for help with a missing brother. I heard it when I was a girl. That story obviously isn't about you, Lester."
"And in the story," Lester asked Eos, feeling more purpose than he could ever remember having felt before. "What did the master of mischief tell the man to do?"
"Loki sent the man to death's garden with a spade. When he dug the ground he found all of his brother's secrets. I always thought it was a metaphor."
"Are you saying you think my brother is dead?" Lester asked.
"I'm saying that I think the brother of the man in the story was dead," Eos said. "We've already established that it wasn't you."
Lester's scalp had started to tingle as all the elements came together: frequent encounters with the master of Mischief, adventuring with escapees from the garden of death, stories about secrets buried in that garden. It didn't really matter what Eos said, Lester knew what he felt about his recent experiences. Everything was just beginning to make sense and Lester wasn't going to let that stop.
"We need to go to the Skull Garden, right now," Lester said.
"Oh, at last, thank you!" the gnome cried in agreement.
"Lester..." Eos said, the first chiming note of dissent.
"No, Eos," Lester said. "I know what I feel, for once, and what I feel is that my brother is in the Skull Garden."
"If he is then, surely, he's dead," Eos said. "Do you believe that Lester?"
"If he's dead then that's what he is," Lester said. "But if I've learned one thing about Chester these last few months it's that he is a man who is rarely where you thought he was and seldom what he seems."
"I know a way," Rebecca said. "But... should we all go?"
"You have to all go," the gnome said. "I need you there, so I can be free."
"Well, technically that's just me and dad," Rachel said, the little pause where she changed 'James' to 'dad' still noticeable but less so than it had been.
"You don't understand," Rebecca said. "We might forget who we are, that's what the Skull Garden does."
"It's a powerful magic," the gnome said. "But it is built to endure. It would take weeks, maybe months to forget everything completely. You can go long enough to set me free, then you can leave."
"But we never could," Rachel said. "You could not reach the edge before the bat would leave the Skull Cave, it would get us all."
"We can fend off a single bat," Lester said.
"It's a giant bat," Rachel pointed out.
"We've done it before," Lester insisted.
"I think you'll find that was Frederick," Eos said.
"So. What?" Lester asked. "We're going to all just give up? The gnome is enslaved to this wish forever? I never find out what happened to my brother?"
"Now hang on just a minute!" the gnome cried out, anxious at the possibility of never being the master of his own destiny.
"I can get us out," Rebecca said. "I got out before, but I'm worried about James. He hasn't recovered from leaving the garden yet. I think it's the mouse enchantment, he's so confused."
"I think," Eos said. "That we shall have to wait until James is maybe a little better, but at that point we shall ask Rebecca to take us to the garden and then we shall see what is what."
And that is exactly what they did, but what they found when they returned to the Skull Garden for the very last time is a story for another day.