Sunday, 31 March 2013

A Trip To Hamsamperburg

"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.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

In Which Saeed Impresses The Master Of The Market

The sound of horse's hooves rang against the stone of this desolate market hall and a gigantic black horse came riding out of the mist. Sat upon the back of the horse was a knight in black armour, an enormous dark sword sheathed at his waist.

It is a very good thing, thought Saeed as he followed Joshua across the bridge, that I am not afraid of high places.

High places are one of the natural habitats of the souk thief, so Saeed had spent many years climbing, clinging and hopping. Sometimes standing in wide open spaces made Saeed feel a little giddy. He was at home in places where toeholds were plenty and vertical surfaces begged to be scaled. Even given his history Saeed found the bridge that spanned the Bloodvane Gorge caused a touch of vertigo. The mighty structure was the nearest point to Joshua's home where one could find passage to Bridgetown.

Joshua had assured Saeed that any quest worth undertaking should pass through Bridgetown. Saeed had never heard of the Patchwork Market but he had not travelled far from the souk in Afsana during his brief life. The only stories that Saeed had ever heard were the old ones from the storytellers who eked out a meagre living in the corners of the bazaar.

Of course Saeed knew that there were lands beyond Araby. There were stories of invaders, after all, and invaders had to come from somewhere. The home of the invaders was rarely discussed in such tales. Invaders spoke strange tongues, wore strange clothes, wielded strange weapons. In every story invaders were represented, overall, as, well, strange.

Saeed knew full well that men would sometimes present themselves as heroes to the world. All the while they would steal, cheat and murder. He also knew that men of noble heart could find themselves exiled by insults and baseless accusations. Saeed was a street rat, people did not mind their tongue around a rodent.

Saeed had seen the hypocrisy of the men of Araby, he did not believe that men in any other land would be different. Some men were noble, like Joshua, some were evil, most were a mixture of both.

The Bloodvane gorge was a huge gap in the land about a day's foot journey from Joshua's home. They had come to the bridge on horseback, setting out early in the morning. Saeed sat behind Joshua as the horse cantered along the road out of Bloodvane.

By noon they had arrived at an inn built a short distance from the end of the bridge. Joshua had paid to leave his horse in the inn stable and they had set out on their journey to the market.

The bridge was thin, about wide enough for three men to stand shoulder to shoulder. It construction consisted of huge columns and ropes suspended over the bottomless span of the gorge.

Looking back as they passed into the mists, Saeed saw many waterfalls spewing water down the rocky walls of the gorge. Lush vegetation sprouted on shelves of rock here and there. Saeed even believed he could see animals leaping from shelf to shelf, living their lives on the hard surface. One day, Saeed thought, I would like to see what lies at the bottom of the gorge, if it has a bottom.

The mists which cloaked the centre of the bridge from view drifted upwards from the floor miles below. Rainbow lights wheeled and spun within the clouds of water mist. The air within the mist cloud was cool and smelled of fresh vegetation.

For a short distance Joshua and Saeed were surrounded by the white mist and coloured sparkles. As the rainbow mist receded the far end of the bridge became visible. The day on the other side of the bridge was neither as bright nor as warm as on the Bloodvane side. The mist appeared to congeal into flat, grey clouds. A covered area lay at the far end of the bridge. Underneath the canopy were sights Saeed felt were more familiar to his eyes.

There were the sounds of calling traders, the scent of spices and roasting food. Underneath it all rose the unmistakeable stink of many unwashed bodies crammed into too little space. The Bridgetown Market was a grand bazaar. Saeed's skin prickled with homesickness as they stepped down off the bridge onto the stone floor of the market hall.

No sooner had they set foot within the limits of Bridgetown than a small boy with a dirty face accosted the pair.

"Penny for a guide, squire?" the boy addressed Joshua, not appearing to notice Saeed at all.

"Not today," Joshua said to the boy.

"Are you sure sir?" the boy persisted. "I can show you parts of the market no one else even knows exist. I'm one of the oldest guides here. Don't be fooled by my appearance, there's, uh, more to me than meets the eye."

The boy stuck his hand out towards the enormous stone column that held up one side of the bridge. His hand passed into the rock and then out.

"See, sir," the boy said. "Few people have the opportunity to retain the services of a ghost guide."

Joshua turned his attention to the boy now, his brow furrowing. "Why do you beg for pennies?" Joshua asked him. "What does a ghost need with money?"

"I'll tell you for a Grand Age gold piece, squire," the boy said with a cheeky smirk. "Finding something in the market, that's just a penny."

"Suit yourself," Joshua said, clearly irritated at the ghost's reticence. "I have no need of a guide today, however, you can have this penny to take my young companion where he needs to go." Joshua produced a small, brown coin, plucking it with great precision from thin air. "Do we have a deal?"

"Indeed we do, squire," the ghost boy said holding out his right hand. "Just drop it here."

Joshua dropped the penny toward the ghost's hand. As it hit the boy's outstretched palm there was a spark of white light. Accompanying the flash was a sound like a small coin dropping into a jar of other small coins. The boy smiled.

"Patchwork Jack will be happy to guide your friend wherever he needs to go, have a good day, squire," the ghost said.

Joshua turned to Saeed.

"I don't need to warn you that some people in the market are not as honest as they would have you believe, do I?" he asked.

"Oh no, Mister Joshua," Saeed replied. "I have much experience of these things."

"Well, then," Joshua said. "It looks like it is time for us to part ways. I must thank you again for your earlier assistance and would wish you every success in locating your mother."

"Many thanks, Mister Joshua," Saeed replied. "Let us hope that I will have the opportunity to complete my journey an honest man. I will steal to make my way, for that is my nature, but I will not enjoy being forced to do so."

"I would be especially careful of stealing in Bridgetown," Joshua warned him. "This is the biggest market, well, anywhere. They have harsh penalties for those caught interfering with trade."

"I understand Mister Joshua," Saeed said. "I will do my best to honour my mother and remain clear of acts that would bring me to shame."

With that, the saturnine man who had offered Saeed such help and generosity disappeared into the market crowds. Saeed was left in the company of his phantom guide.

"So, where to, squire?" Patchwork Jack asked.

No one Saeed knew from the souk would entertain the idea of trafficking with the spirit of a dead person. The superstitions were clear, the spirits of the dead were ill omens, cursed. To even acknowledge them was said to place one in danger. If Saeed knew one thing it was that stories and superstitions were often ignorant lies. He would make up his own mind on the matter, and what better way than to allow this spirit to guide him onwards?

"I am not entirely certain," Saeed told the ghost. "I am on a journey to find the spirit of my mother so that I may beg her forgiveness for lying to her while she was alive. Joshua brought me to Bridgetown to begin my search. He told me that this is a place where many threads of the great weave cross in ways they would not elsewhere. Is there anywhere that you could take me that could help me with this quest."

"I can think of one place," Patchwork Jack said. "I don't think you'll want to go there, though."

"What I want is not important," Saeed replied. "You must take me to this place."

"Well, just remember," Patchwork Jack said. "You asked. Follow me."

The ghost turned and lead Saeed through the maze of stalls that made up the market. They passed among the nest of coloured canvas awnings that marked out stalls. Traders sold all manner of goods, from oil lamps to easels, from pumpkins to bonsai trees.

Before long they came to another bridge. This bridge was much shorter than the one from Bloodvane, only a street length across. It was also much wider, wide enough to allow a horse and cart to cross it with space to spare on either side.

Saeed and Jack crossed from the first part of the market to the second. In this second area there were even more stalls. Here were sold books, glass flasks, stout wooden staffs and items of gaudy jewellery. Further along were other places selling powders and coloured liquids out of jars. The various substances piled high on dangerously tall sets of wooden shelves.

As Saeed passed the stalls the traders watched him go with suspicious eyes. It appeared that even in this place, a merchant had a nose for a thief. These merchants were not dressed like those in souk, and many of them were paler of skin and were relatively clean shaven. They still had a pinch of the brow and a twitchiness of manner that marked them out as tradesmen.

"Don't mind the goblin traders," Patchwork Jack said. "They can smell a pauper by the absence of gold in their pockets. Poor people in the market offend them. The way they see it you're occupying space that could be better used by a paying customer."

"I am familiar with that attitude," Saeed said. "I have lived most of my life in a place such as this."

"Oh, I doubt that you have," Patchwork Jack responded with a cheeky grin. "I very much doubt that indeed."

With that the ghost took a sharp right between two more stalls and lead Saeed across yet another bridge. This one was clearly a footbridge with metal railings coming up to the top of Saeed's head. It was only wide enough for one person to cross comfortably at once. Saeed peered through the railings to see down to what was below the market. The floor was invisible, cloaked by the same thick, rainbow sparkling mist that had covered the end of the gorge bridge.

"There's no below in Bridgetown," Patchwork Jack grinned. There are cellars, that's where the merchants live and sleep. But there's no streets, not real ones, on this side of the crossway, anyhow."

"Crossway?" Saeed asked, he had not heard the phrase before.

"Crossway," Patchwork Jack repeated. "To the world of men. Bridgetown here is a candlestreet, a town that maps onto many gateways to the mortal realm. The Patchwork Market is tied to a human city. Sometimes people wander across, that's always good for a laugh. Most of the market is upstairs and mortals live all their life on the ground, they hardly ever look up. Probably for the best, most mortals are very stupid, they never like it here, it confuses them."

Across the next bridge were more stalls, these ones smelled strongly of exotic foodstuffs. The stalls were laden with smoked meats, produce, vegetables, sweets, savouries, pickles and spices.

"How many of these little bazaars are there?" Saeed asked. He had thought that Bridgetown would be like his home in Afsana but the further they walked the larger this place appeared to become.

"Nobody knows for certain," Patchwork Jack said. "Not even me. Probably the Master of the Market knows, after all he is, well, the Master. He wouldn't tell anyone though. I know, I tried asking him once, the answer I got was very rude and not even slightly informative."

"Oh, I see," Saeed said, bewildered.

The pair carried on across many islands, connected by bridges, each one crammed with market stalls. Somewhere in the teens Saeed lost count of how many bridges he'd crossed. The Patchwork Market was too full of sound and smell, life, heat, fascinating and colourful displays. Saeed was used to the souk at Afsana and even he found this place confusing.

By the time they reached their destination a storm had begun. Rain drummed upon the roof of every market place. Saeed had to hurry across the open bridges to save from becoming completely soaked. Eventually they reached a quiet market where there were not so many stalls. Most pitches were occupied by coloured tents promising a variety of esoteric services. They offered such oddments as fortune telling and maps of geographically non-specific areas.

At the back of this island a spiral staircase wound downwards into the basement area. Patchwork Jack and Saeed descended the staircase. They crossed another old metal bridge onto a small empty square market island surrounded by the rainbow mists. In the distance great, slow-drifting, clouds sank and spun in what looked like shafts of moonlight. Saeed thought he could make out the shape of a bridge wreathed in the thick mists.

The sound of horse's hooves rang against the stone of this desolate market hall and a gigantic black horse came riding out of the mist. Sat upon the back of the horse was a knight in black armour, an enormous dark sword sheathed at his waist.

"Halt strangers!" called out the knight. "Give account of yourselves now to the Keeper of the Way and I shall set the price for passage upon the Turnaround Bridge."

"Don't be scared," Patchwork Jack said. "It's just his manner. All I would say is that you should not try to cross the bridge without paying his price."

"What is the price?" Saeed asked.

"Ah, well, that's always the tricky part," Patchwork Jack said. "You'd better make your case, then you'll find out what's what."

"I don't understand," Saeed said.

"Price is different for everyone. Tell him where you want to go and he will set you the price for passage. It's old magic, very old."

Saeed nodded, understanding at last. He turned to face the Keeper of the Way and, before he spoke, he gave a little bow.

"Please, Great Keeper," he said. "I wish to go to a place where I may find the spirit of my mother. I brought great shame to our family while she was alive, greater still because I lied and kept it from her. I seek a way to redeem myself now. I understand that you may give me passage to such a place."

"Ay," the Keeper rumbled. "That I may, Saeed Ibn Abihi, wanderer from the souk at Afsana. You have already journied far and I can tell you that your road will not be straight or easy. To take this step you must bring me the Seal of Kalico, then you may set foot upon the Turnaround Bridge. That is the price, the Keeper has spoken."

"Ouch," Patchwork Jack said. "That's not going to be easy."

"I do not understand this price," Saeed said to Jack. "What is the Seal of Kalico?"

"You remember I mentioned the Master of the Market?" Jack said. "That's Kalico. His seal gives a man freedom of the Patchwork Market. He doesn't just hand them out to anyone. You have to provide him with a great service."

"Then I will have to go to see this Kalico," Saeed said. "I will have to get the seal no matter what the cost."

"Alright," Jack said. "It's stretching the value of a single penny but I'll take you to the Master's Quarter, after that, you're on your own."

Patchwork Jack lead Saeed back up the spiral staircase and across several more bridges. Eventually, they came to a place where the market stalls were bigger. Here the barkers selling goods were louder and wittier. The installation of these stalls looked to be more permanent than those at the edges. This was the Master's Quarter. Patchwork Jack explained that merchants here paid the highest fees. In return they occupied the most lucrative pitches anywhere in the whole of Faerie.

Patchwork Jack displayed evident pride in the place he called home. As he did so Saeed admired the grandeur of the Master's Quarter. A troupe of masked jugglers putting on a show in a small square captured his attention. They were the kind of jugglers who eschewed regular balls and clubs. Instead they proved their skill at more dangerous displays, with lit torches, swords and axes.

As Saeed looked at the showmen throwing their blades back and forth he saw that one of the troupe was sneaking into the crowd. The set of his shoulders and the way he turned his head, looking to see if anyone was following him, marked the man out as a thief. Saeed had seen hundreds of such rogues in Araby. Catching a thief would surely impress the Master of the Market.

"Friend Jack," Saeed said to the prattling ghost. "I think I have spotted an opportunity to gain Kalico's favour and I must go my way alone. Thank you for your assistance today, I hope that one day we should cross paths again."

Patchwork Jack stopped talking and turned his head to look at Saeed but the Afsana street rat had already gone. The young thief had pulled himself up onto the canvas of the nearest stall. He was even now hopping up to grab a ceiling beam crossing the high roof of the Master's Quarter.

Skipping from beam to beam Saeed watched the masked juggler slip through the crowd. The masked performer looked like some predatory fish wrapped in black silk. The thief had skills but Saeed took the advantage in height and speed, he was confident that he was not observed.

The juggler was not dipping his hands into the pockets of people he passed. This lit a spark of concern in Saeed's breast. If this rogue were not about the business of theft then he must be up to some other kind of mischief. The juggler slipped between two large stalls into a space marked out by the rear of a wide circle of pitches.

In the centre space was a small yard, strung with laundry lines and playing host, currently, to a large glass tank. Saeed was amazed to see a beautiful young woman with the tail of a fish swimming back and forth within the tank.

The masked juggler waited until the mermaid flipped in the water. Waiting until her field of vision was away from the thin alley between the market pitches. Then the juggler dashed forward and hid himself behind the mermaid's tank. The mermaid flipped again, swimming back to the end of her tank. She passed within inches of where the juggler hid, obscured by the metal wall at one end. Then she flipped again to swim up to the other end once more.

The juggler took a fish from a knapsack at his waist and dropped it onto a plate at the edge of the tank. Then he slipped through a gap behind the tank and back towards the market.

The mermaid flipped again and came swimming up to the end of the tank where the fish on the plate became visible. She saw the plate and swum up to the surface of the water, looking about her to see who had left this gift.

"Tabarnas?" the mermaid called. "Did you leave me this? I didn't think it was dinner for another hour. I didn't hear the Market Crier call for close down."

There was no answer for a moment, then a girl came out of a flap at the back of one of the stalls. The girl had long dark hair in plaits and was wearing blue trousers.

"Was that you, Eos?" the girl asked. "Look, Tabarnas found me some new clothes, better for the market. Do you like these trousers? Tabarnas called them dungarees."

"They are very nice, Rachel," the mermaid, Eos, replied. "Did you also leave me this fish? I thought it wasn't tea time yet."

"Oh, well, of course I was coming to eat with you but it shouldn't be time, I don't think. Maybe Cressidia bought it out."

"Really?" Eos asked. "Would she do that?"

"No," Rachel said. "I don't think she would."

Saeed could not stay still any longer. The masked juggler was getting away. At the same time he could not risk letting the mermaid eat the fish. He dropped down from his perch onto the top of the tallest stall and slid down the guy rope of that stall into the small yard.

"Please, esteemed young ladies," he said to the shocked little girl and the mermaid. "Do not eat that fish, I do not think it is a good gift. If we want to know more then I should get after the person who did leave it. Please excuse the rudeness of my entry and the speed with which I must leave."

He gave a tight little bow from the waist, ran up to the mermaid's tank and scaled a ladder up the side. At the top he pushed off with his left foot from the edge of the tank to land on the top of another pitch. He used the spring of the canvas as a trampoline to gain access to the roof beams again and set off after the juggler.

He could see the masked thief a few stalls away slipping around to rejoin his companions. He could also see two men with long pikes dressed in light armour towards the edge of the square. Saeed had learned the look of market guards and he made his way along the beams to stand above them.

"Gentlemen," he called down to the two shocked guards. "I believe that Kalico may have some questions for that masked individual over there. Questions about his intentions towards the mermaid Eos."

The guards looked up at Saeed, amazed, and then looked over to where he was pointing. The juggler had heard Saeed's call and looked back to see the two market guards looking in his direction. The juggler, panicked, tried to slip away into the crowd. The guards gave chase but they were slow and clumsy, the juggler would easily avoid capture if Saeed left it up to them.

He nimbly skipped over the beams to catch up with the fleeing juggler and, having no better plan, dropped from the roof onto his head.

The juggler and Saeed landed in a tangle of limbs on the market floor. In a matter of moments the market guards apprehended them both.

"I think Kalico will be keen to talk with both of you," one of the guards said.

The guards took Saeed and the juggler to the first building that Saeed had seen in the market. A small tower that reached from the market floor up into the vaulted ceiling. The building had no windows and a single entrance through a stout wooden door.

"Let's see what Kalico has to say about this," the Market Guard said and knocked upon the door.

The party entered a small room where various types of merchandise stacked up against the walls from floor to ceiling. Behind an enormous table piled high with gold coins was a man dressed in fine coloured silks. He had a jeweller's eyepiece stuck into his left eye, trained upon a sizeable ruby.

The man was bald. He wore a single pearl earring in his left ear. He had a neatly trimmed goatee beard. Saeed believed that the man may have come from somewhere in Araby.

"What is this that you bring before me? Thieves?" the man asked. Saeed recognised the ring of his voice. This man had come from Araby indeed.

"Not sure, Master," the Market guard said. "This one," he motioned at Saeed, "fell on the other from a great height. Seems to think the masked one is up to no good."

Kalico removed the eye piece and looked over Saeed and the juggler with gleaming eyes, sharp and cunning in the low light. He inspected the juggler first, then Saeed, then  the juggler once more.

"So, little thief, what do you think this one has done? Why should I believe a word that comes from your liar's mouth?" the Master of the Market asked.

"It is true that I have all the skills to be a thief," Saeed said. "But I have made an oath on the memory of my mother that I shall never lie. Not until I have had a chance to unburden myself of the shame of lying to her when she was alive. This juggler here tried to trick a mermaid into eating a fish. I am not sure, but I think he laced the fish with poison."

Kalico sucked in his cheeks, he looked as if he were savouring Saeed's words.

"I believe you, little thief," he said. "We come from a land where swearing an oath by our mother means something. You are fortunate that we share ancestors. As for you," he said approaching the masked juggler. "I have an instinct of suspicion that comes upon me whenever I see someone cover their face."

With that Kalico reached out and snatched the mask from the juggler's face. He revealed an angry expression on a pretty young woman.

"So what have you to say for yourself?" Kalico asked the young woman.

"You don't understand," she spat, her cheeks darkening red with anger. "None of you. If I did not do I as I was told they promised to murder my brother. Now I have failed. My brother is dead."

Kalico raised his eyebrows.

"Mystery in my market," he said. "Bad for business. And I dislike anything that is bad for business. How to deal with this matter?"

"Please, sir," Saeed said. "In exchange for your seal I will undertake to resolve this matter. I need the seal to continue with my quest. You have already seen my skill in such matters."

Kalico smiled broadly.

"Set a thief to save a rogue?" Kalico said. "I suppose, if nothing else I can rely upon you to keep things quiet. You have a deal young man. Either you will resolve matters with discretion or you will end up dead. In either case, I still go back to business as usual." Kalico turned to look at the juggler. "Looks like you have my assistance. Poison anyone in my market again and I will not let you go free a second time. Do we understand each other?"

"You can't be serious?" the young lady said, looking down at Saeed with contempt in her eyes. "This little insect will not be able to help me."

"Oh no?" Kalico asked. "He caught you out, so that shows how much you know. Would you prefer my way of dealing with things?"

"Do what you will," the young lady said.

Kalico did not respond to her petulance. He turned to his guards.

"Put these two outside. If you see them making trouble again, arrest them and we'll do things my way."

Kalico's face was hard. As the two guards manhandled the young lady and Saeed toward the door Saeed swore the Master of the Market dropped him a wink.

Out on the streets once more Saeed did indeed rescue the girl's brother. He helped restore peace to the squares of the Patchwork Market but that is a story for another time.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Avan Weatherstrong In The Land Of Frogfellow

...a cone of orange light issued from the gem. This must be the dragon magic
Frederick had warned him about.

The land of Frogfellow used to lie in one of the outlying regions of the shadow realms. As we all know these places are rich in magic and, for this reason, they have a short life expectancy as kingdoms go.

Frogfellow was a classic example of a far shadow kingdom. It sprung up almost overnight, as if it had simply been dreamed into existence. This is, in all probability, too close to the truth of the matter to be quite comfortable for most of us. The kind and wise Lord Frogfellow ruled over his land. He was a man so generous and good-hearted that no one ever mentioned how closely he resembled the amphibian for which he was named.

A wide mouth, flat nose, big eyes and green pigmentation afflicted all the older Frogfellows. It stopped short of being too great of a burden upon his children. In fact the two princes and the three princesses that Lord Frogfellow called his children were bonnie and blithe. So much so that a churlish commentator may have called into question their parentage.

The thing about dreams, and the far shadows is that they are quite closely associated. The far shadows, the fringes of the weave, are reality's sketchpad. A kingdom of frog-people was the least of the wonders that could be observed there.

The delightful shadow kingdoms present attractive targets for conquest. Usually they catch the eye of some mean-spirited warlord or unpleasant sorcerer. This is because they esxist along seams of pure magical energy. They shape the mischief, solidifying it.

The more and more unstable reality becomes, the purer and more powerful the magic available to be harnessed. The down side of this is that in these places it is possible to have an unfortunate and fatal accident. At the edges the unwary are consumed by the crucible of all creation with worrying ease.

Most practitioners of magic like to settle in the middle shadows where magic is so controllable as to be almost boring. The edge places are for the wild, the dangerous, the insane and the foolhardy. Such an individual was Seditas Wolfjaw.

One could add to Wolfjaw's list of undesirable personal qualities selfishness, gluttony and sloth. A sorcerer of no little notoriety Wolfjaw was on a perpetual quest for the next big score. Like many sorcerers he had turned his eye to the Far Shadows. He sought out a relative island of peace in the chaos and his eye settled on Frogfellow. Filled with dire confidence he rolled in on the attack.

If truth be told Frogfellow did not put up much of a fight. It was a small kingdom. As such it had concentrated on mercantile prosperity as its priority. It was a leader in the manufacture of waterproof textiles and vegetarian foodstuffs. The palace had staff, including a guard, but no real army. A single wicked sorcerer with enough power to do real damage could stride in to little opposition. It was a minor working to turn the entire royal family into proper frogs.

Seditas Wolfjaw took control of Frogfellow. Its happy citizens were quickly chained up and put to work as slaves. The major industry of Frogfellow became the production of high price magical ingredients. The type used in powerful dark magic potions, tinctures and philtres. To this day genuine Frogfellow  pickled amphibian eyes attract prices of 10,000 gold pieces a jar. This is nothing to be proud of but can still give a goblin merchant the vapours.

However, no amount of gold could justify the suffering of an entire kingdom. It was only a matter of time before the weave delivered a hero to liberate the good people of Frogfellow from the evil oppressor.

Such a hero came in the shape of Avan Weatherstrong. It is not clear whether he was travelling outward toward the edges or inward away from them. Whichever way he was going the brave and wise prince had travelled far and wide since leaving his family home. He had already dealt with a good deal of darkness along the way.

Hearing stories of Frogfellow's unfortunate fate Avan Weatherstrong determined to help if he could. He arrived in Frogfellow early one morning. The prince rode his horse through the empty streets of the capital city towards the royal palace.

He was disturbed to find that, although there were many frogs hopping about in the palace, there was no sign of Seditas Wolfjaw. Avan Weatherstrong had assumed the evil sorcerer would live in the royal chambers after his victory. Instead the palace was full of pond life but there was no sign of wicked magical practitioners.

Avan knew that if he did not locate Seditas Wolfjaw in daylight he would have to leave disappointed. At night an evil sorcerer's power grew to its zenith. Daylight weakens dark magic considerably.

The prince searched the palace for any sign or clue indicating where he could find Wolfjaw but none was in evidence. As the day grew towards noon Avan sat upon the edge of the fountain that formed the palace garden's centrepiece and sighed.

"I don't know Marvel," he said to his horse. "I thought that finding Seditas Wolfjaw would be the least difficult part of this quest. This is turning out to be trickier than I thought."

If Marvel had any thoughts on the matter then we shall never know them. As Avan Weatherstrong finished speaking, a young man and a gnome fell into the fountain behind him with a mighty splash. The pair were locked in hand to hand combat as they hit the surface of the pond.

The impact, wave of water and frenetic energy of the fighters was enough to cause Avan to leap up in surprise. A tide of startled frogs exited the fountain and hopped off in every direction.

The soaking brought the fight to a stop before Avan had to wade in and pull the pair apart. The young man and the gnome sat breathless, water dripping from their noses and looked about them in amazement.

"Where are we?" the young man asked.

"I told you not to tweak my nose!" the gnome complained. "I'm not aligned yet, serious chaos magic. Mischief, I tell you, mischief."

"If you didn't want your nose tweaked," the young man complained, "then why did you sign up for cage fighting?"

"Are you saying that I can't partake in whatever activity I would choose to because of my inherited traits?" the gnome asked. "Because I think you'll find that's discrimination."

Avan Weatherstrong felt that the argument had the potential to continue indefinitely if he didn't weigh in. He cleared his throat. The boy and the gnome looked up at him, surprised expressions on their faces, as if they had not noticed the prince before.

"Oh," the young man said. "Hello."

"Yes," the gnome said. "Greetings. Apologies for the rude maner of our entrance but _somebody_ finds it hard to follow simple instructions." The gnome glared in the young man's direction.

"How was I supposed to know?" the young man complained. "If you had said something like: 'Please don't tweak my nose. It could result in sudden, inconvenient teleportation'. I might have listened more closely."

"_I_ didn't know what would happen, that's what chaos magic means," the gnome responded grumpily. "You are a very stupid boy."

"Knight!" the young man cried. "I am a knight. I have the scars to prove it."

"Would either of you like a hand out of the fountain?" Avan asked, loud and firm enough to cut through the disagreeable atmosphere a second time.

The young man gratefully accepted a hand up. The gnome showed a stubborn independence, wriggling his way out of the fountain by himself. Once the two of them were back on dry land they sat in the noon sun and tried to dry off.

"So, if you don't mind me asking," the young man said to Avan. "Where are we? And what's with all the frogs?"

"This is the kingdom of Frogfellow," Avan explained. "Unfortunately it is in the grip of a wicked sorcerer who has turned the royal family into frogs."

The young man knitted his brows, as if puzzled by something. He looked on the point of making a statement and then shook his head, changing his mind.

"Oh, okay," he said. "Something familiar about that but I can't quite remember it. I'm Frederick, uh, Sir Cobb, this here is, um, a gnome."

"Yes," the gnome said. "A gnome. I'm quite a new gnome, that's why I don't have a name yet."

"I am Avan" Avan said. "Pleased to meet you Sir Cobb and gnome. Could I ask how you ended up in the Frogfellow's fountain?"

"Well," the gnome said. "As I explained, I am quite a new gnome, not even three days old. As such I am quite brimful of chaos magic. My creator still hasn't reached the end of her wish, because she was fool enough to wish for 'an adventure'. If she'd wished for, I don't know, a palace full of frogs, for instance, we'd be done by now. I could have resolved myself into an elemental or something. As it is I have to remain dangerous and unstable until the wish has run its course."

"So you transported Sir Cobb and yourself here?" Avan asked.

"Not deliberately!" the gnome objected. "This idiot tweaked my nose, it's quite sensitive, my nose. I could tell that something would happen if he tweaked it. I told him not to."

"We were fighting in a cage match!" Sir Cobb objected. "Didn't you see the sign? 'No Holds Barred' that's not 'No Holds Barred Except For Nose Tweaking'."

"You were cage fighting?" Avan said hauling the conversation back on topic. "That, excuse me for saying, doesn't sound very knightly."

"Well, it's the world we live in," Sir Cobb shrugged. "I've rescued three maidens, killed a vampire and taken on a couple of lizard men. I also retrieved property from a bandit king but none of these jobs pay terrifically well. Being a knight these days isn't what you'd call a secure living. I have to supplement my income somehow, most major towns and cities have a cage arena. It's not my choice of activity but I won't be much use to anyone if I starve to death, will I?"

"I suppose not," Avan said. "I'm sorry to hear that you're having such a tough time of things, noble knight. I'm afraid that you may have found yourself in a little trouble. This kingdom is in thrall to an evil sorcerer. I had come here to face the villain but he is in hiding until nightfall. Unless I can find him I will have to retreat. You don't want to still be here after the sun goes down if I cannot defeat him."

For the second time Sir Cobb looked puzzled at Avan's words. He scratched his head, stood up and had a good look around.

"There's just something so... so... familiar about this," he said. "It's beginning to annoy me now."

"I'm afraid I cannot help you with that," Avan replied. "As I said, it would probably be best for you if you were just to leave. I must hunt for the sorcerer a little longer but I will have to abandon the search myself if I cannot find him."

"Well, I could help, it's kind of my sworn duty," Sir Cobb said. "Besides, I have nothing better to do for the time being. Perhaps, if we rescue this royal family they will hire me as a guard for my faithful service. That would certainly help with my reputation."

"It's your choice, good knight," Avan said. "But I will not lie to you this is a far shadow kingdom and magic here is powerful. I only consider myself worthy of the task laid before me because I know a little of the mystical path myself. You will have to follow my lead if you choose to stay."

Sir Cobb nodded.

"I understand," he said. "Then I shall do as you require, Sir Avan, and I will be pleased to fight at your side."

"Oh, terrific," the gnome said. "And what am I supposed to do? I have absolutely no desire to face off against an evil sorcerer. Between adventurous young ladies and nose-tweaking idiots, I almost wish chaos had never spit me out."

The gnome was so outraged he disappeared in a puff of light blue smoke. The vapour filled the air with the scent of cinammon.

"I didn't mean to tweak his nose," Sir Cobb said to Avan.

Avan just nodded.

"Come on then, Sir Cobb," the prince said, not wanting to risk those choppy conversational waters. "Let us be about our business."

"Oh, yes, of course," Sir Cobb agreed. "Where should we start? In the palace?"

"I have already searched the palace," said Avan, "there is no sign of the sorcerer in there."

"Oh, that's curious, isn't it?" Sir Cobb said. "You'd think he'd have got straight into the master bedroom with his feet up after he'd done his wicked work, wouldn't you?"

"Indeed I did," he replied. "Now I do not know where to go. The capital city here in Frogfellow is large, the alleys are numerous and narrow. Even with an extra pair of hands I cannot hope to cover the whole city in time."

"It is a pickle," Sir Cobb said. "What's the name of this fellow we're after anyway?"

"Seditas Wolfjaw," Avan told the young man.

Sir Cobb's mouth dropped open. He stared at Avan.

"Are you making some kind of a joke?" he asked.

"Why would I joke?"Avan asked, a little irritation slipping through in his tone.

"Because... well... " the young knight appeared to be lost for words. "What did you say your name was again?" he asked eventually.

"Avan," Avan replied. "Avan Weatherstrong." He paused, sighed and then said. "Prince Avan Weatherstrong, youngest son of the sixth Lord Weatherstrong."

Sir Cobb's eyes were like saucers, his jaw was slack. The news had been too much for the young man. He slumped, sitting on the edge of the fountain, looking at the floor.

"Tell me you're joking," he said eventually, not looking up from the floor. "Please tell me you are trying to make a fool of me."

"Why," Avan asked, running short of patience, "would I want to make a fool of you? I am Prince Avan Weatherstrong. What has that to do with you and whether or not you are a fool?"

"Because Avan Weatherstrong is in the old stories," Sir Cobb said hopelessly. "You're a legend. You're the main reason I ever wanted to become a knight in the first place."

Avan felt his own brow knitting. Thankfully, for both himself and Frederick, Prince Weatherstrong knew much of the world's strangeness. He knew of chaos magic, and gnomes. He was also wiser than to question the strangest stitches of the great weave, so he took this news in his stride.

"I am afraid that things are what they are, Sir Cobb," he said gently. "Sometimes the great weave winds threads into strange patterns."

"But... but..." Sir Cobb said, Avan could now see, with the lad close to tears, that Frederick was really little more than a boy. "I've not just travelled to a far away kingdom." The boy's voice was filled with despair. "I've fallen into the past. I've fallen into a story!"

"So it would appear," Avan said. "We had best make sure that the story has a happy ending."

"Oh," Frederick said, for a moment too surprised to be unhappy. "But it does! Well it did! I mean... I've ruined the story. I'm not in it, I mean, I wasn't in it. Although I am now."

"Tell me what happened," Avan said calmly. "In the story you heard."

"Well, it turns out that near to the capital city is a cave, an old dragon's lair, by a twisted tree. You find Seditas Wolfjaw has set up home there. He has trapped the dragon's soul within a jewel and a mighty battle ensues. You both unleash sorcerous power at one another in a mighty wizard's battle. You transform each other from form to form until you manage to transform Wolfjaw into a snake. You see, he has turned you into a mongoose, you snap his neck... At least, that's what the story said."

Avan smiled and sat down for a moment beside Frederick.

"I don't think that is what will happen today," Avan said. "I do not have the sorcery of transformation."

"Oh, sorry," Frederick said. "Have I messed everything up?"

"I did not have that power when I came here," Avan said. "I guess that by your time some... embellishments may have crept into the story. I do remember seeing a twisted tree as I approached the city, I guess that will help us find the sorcerer. If he has transformation sorcery then we shall have to be very careful in our approach."

And careful they were. With Frederick's help the two of them found the old dragon's lair and crept inside. The enormous cave system was dark and cold, not at all a welcoming home. Avan Weatherstong could sense the powerful magic that had infused the rock. He knew that Wolfjaw had made this his home for reasons other than comfort.

Deep within the twisted tunnels there was evidence of the sorcerer's presence. They found a smaller chamber that contained chairs and a table, along with other oddments. The bric-a-brac attempted to turn the damp cave into some sort of a home.

The cave was silent, there was no visible sign of the sorcerer. Avan could feel the presence of dark magic near at hand.

"It doesn't look like anyone's home," Sir Cobb said.

"Don't be so certain," Avan replied. "I can feel him, nearby, maybe even watching. Seditas Wolfjaw," Avan called out, "show yourself!"

"Two foolish knights," came the haughty tones of the sorcerer's voice. "I am honoured indeed to have such esteemed company in my humble abode on this day."

"He's wearing a cloak of invisibility," Avan told Frederick. "Pay close attention to anything. You can't see someone in one of those things but they still have an effect on the things around them."

"Usually true," Seditas Wolfjaw replied. His voice echoed around the cavern, appearing to surround them. "Except when the wearer can also fly!"

There was a swishing noise and something hard struck Avan in the chest. The force picked him off the floor and carried him backwards into a wall. He struck the wall hard and felt the wind leave his chest. He fell dazed to the floor wreathed in the sound of Seditas Wolfjaw's wicked laughter.

"Ah, knights, a diversion for a sorcerer such as I," Wolfjaw crowed. "You shall die today, but it is no shame to fall before one as mighty as Seditas Wolfjaw."

"Frederick!" Avan called out pulling a small glass ball from his pack. "Breath in deep and hold it, until you can see me again."

He threw the ball at the floor and it shattered, filling the room with a thick white smoke. Avan took his own advice inhaling before the ball landed. He hoped that Frederick was good at following orders. He thought it was only the sorcerer he could hear hacking and coughing his way through the billowing clouds.

As visibility was restored there were three figures revealed, all covered in a thin coating of white dust. Avan's smoke bomb had the side effect of covering things this way when deployed in close quarters. Avan drew his sword and ran at Seditas Wolfjaw.

"Do not presume!" Wolfjaw shouted. The sorcerer lifted his arm. Clutched in his right hand was an enormous cut gem. He pointed the gem in Avan's direction. A cone of orange light burst forth, forcing Avan to dodge at the last moment. This must be the dragon magic Frederick had warned him about.

The battle was still one-sided. Even though Wolfjaw was now visible the gem's transformation magic beam appeared to have no limit to its power. Wolfjaw just fired repeatedly not allowing Avan to find his feet. Eventually Avan realised he would tire, and then he would fall to the sorcerer's magic.

As he dodged and rolled, trying to prevent himself from ending up as a mouse or a housefly Avan saw Frederick. The boy snuck up behind the sorcerer clutching something in his hands. Wolfjaw appeared to have forgotten him.

Avan wanted to warn the young man back but that would be too dangerous. He just had to trust that the boy knew what he was doing. Maybe he could try to give him a hand.

"You will not defeat me, Seditas Wolfjaw!" Avan called. "It is only a matter of time before your fate is sealed."

The sorcerer appeared to be the type of egotistical buffoon who would have to respond to such taunts. Never was this more true than when he appeared to have total victory within his grasp.

"Bold words, coming from a man so close to exhaustion," the sorcerer said. "Let's see how bold your words come out when I have turned you into a lap cat!"

No one got to find out what kind of lap cat Avan Weatherstrong would have made. At that moment Frederick flipped the object in his hands over Seditas Wolfjaw's head. It was a flat gold disc, a frame around some sort of picture or...

Seditas Wolfjaw sensed movement above his head, he looked up and gasped in horror.

"My mirror!" he screamed out, it was the last thing he screamed before his body was consumed within the frame of a holding mirror. It landed, face down, on the floor of the cave, Seditas Wolfjaw trapped inside.

"I, uh, have seen that kind of mirror before," Sir Cobb said. "I thought it might help out."

Avan Weatherstrong, out of breath from jumping and rolling, gave Sir Cobb a sweaty grin.

"You, sir knight," he said to the young boy, "are far more than you appear to be. Come on Sir Frederick Cobb. You are adrift from your own days, you have saved my life and I should see you safely home."

And that Avan Weatherstrong did, after a few more adventures but these are stories for another day.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Princess Digs Up A Witch

"This spade must be magical," Anabyl said. "The earth's just flying out of this grave."

The door was stout wood. Someone had built it to endure rather than to be ornate; a slab of wood on long metal hinges, a large lock housing and a metal ring handle. The air of foreboding that surrounded it was probably accidental. Probably.

"Well, I wasn't expecting that," Lester said.

"What? After the strange room, dark tunnel and the mirrored dragon? Let alone the frosty topping: a series of  rooms furnished by the 'Popular Dungeon Factory Warehouse'?" James asked, not even making an effort to conceal his incredulity. "What were you expecting to find at the top of an ominous wide spiral stair case hewn into the dark granite cave walls? An open plan pine kitchen flowing through to a chic modern living area in a trendy condominium dwelling?"

"I have no idea what half the words you just said mean," Lester replied. "I can still tell that they were, in the main, hurtful and grouchy."

"Are we going to open it?" the princess asked.

"I don't know if we should," Lester said. He was beginning to tire of the constant parade of ominous portals that his life had become. Life had taken a bleak downturn since falling off that broom through the skylight. His fatigue was, in one sense, impressive seeing as this was only the second actual door he had encountered. The cellar complex they'd left behind was filled with gates sporting heavy locks and spiky tops and bottoms.

"Well, what else should we do?" the princess demanded, she was a young lady, it appeared, perpetually on the edge of completely losing her temper. "We can't stay down here."

"She has a point," James pointed out.

"Maybe there's another way out," Lester said, although even he wasn't convinced by that argument.

"I don't care," the princess said. "I'm going to open the door."

She strode over to the massive wooden slab and pulled at the handle. The mechanism unlocked with a quiet click and the door swung silently outwards.

"I'm sensing a theme," James said. "No tigers again."

"What a shame," the princess said. "Tigers would have been fun."

Lester and James swapped a glance. The princess definitely had a strange definition of fun.

By the time they had looked back the princess had already wandered off into the corridor beyond.

"Uh, Arabella!" Lester called out.

"Anabyl," the princess called back. "No 'ah' at the end. Just Anabyl."

"Yes, but, be careful," Lester said. "There could be, um, monsters."

"Oh, yes," Princess Anabyl said, slowing her pace. "I definitely wouldn't want to miss that, thanks for telling me."

"No," Lester said, "I didn't mean..."

But it was too late. Anabyl had already turned a corner and was heading further up into the building beyond.

"Well, are we just going to stand here?" James asked. "Or are we going to let the little girl clear the way for us?"

"Oh, no, I mean, uh, of course not," Lester said and picked up the pace to a light jog. He could feel James's claws digging into his shirt sleeve as he ran to catch up with their small but fearless companion.

Around the corner at the end of the short corridor was a long walkway that opened up into a covered passage up the side of a mountain. Great stone arches divided up the spectacular vista displayed upon the left hand side. On the right the rock face of the mountain was mostly untouched. In a few places the surface appeared to have had large spikes and jagged edges removed to make the wall smoother.

"Where are we?" Lester asked, awestruck. He was not even sure who he was asking the question to. It seemed inconceivable to Lester that many people would be familiar with a strange place like this.

"Looks like a sorcerer's castle," Princess Anabyl said. "They have all sorts of weird rooms, strange dungeons and stuff."

"I hope he's a friendly sorcerer," Lester said.

"I doubt a sorcerer who lives in a place like this would be friendly," Princess Anabyl said, without a hint of worry infecting her tone. "Doctor Dweezlepuff says that most sorcerers are just nasty. The ones who get big castles on the top of mountains are the worst of all."

The princess continued blithely on her way up towards the gates now visible in the distance. The path curved around as it climbed upwards and they had already covered half the distance. Lester found himself slowing down, not keen on the idea of evil sorcerers. Yet, as the princess continued onwards without a care in the world, he couldn't quite bring himself to stop.

"Er, shouldn't we, um, be, you know, a bit more careful then?" he asked. "I mean, I've never met a sorcerer and... ah... well, if he's going to be mean..."

"He's probably dead," James said. "Many of the more notorious sorcerers are. They don't have a huge life spans due to the fact that everybody hates them. Kings will task entire armies with the job of killing them. When you have a party of a couple of thousand men wanting to do you in it tends to shorten your life expectancy."

"How do you know?" Lester asked.

"Hello there, my name is James, I'm currently a mouse but I'm starting to remember that I was once something else, how do you do," James said. Then after a microscopic pause. "Oh, yes, I forgot that we already did that... twice. Do try to keep up."

"Well, I'm not sure who the expert is now," Lester said. He had finally lost his temper and given free rein to the full and awesome power of his very mild tendency towards being a bit crabby. "I just think it is a bit unwise. You know, to go strolling into the castle of a powerful and evil sorcerer who is entirely likely to do something... horrible to us. Sorry for asking questions."

"What are we supposed to do?" Princess Anabyl shrugged. "There's only one way to go. We can't just stand around moaning and crying like pathetic little girls."

Lester was saved from the trouble that blurting out: 'But you _are_ a little girl' would have bought him when James said:

"Sorcerers in castles usually can't keep track of the whole place at once, anyway. They have to rely on a security system, magic mirrors, familiar imps, flying monkeys all that sort of thing."

"That still sounds somewhat dangerous," Lester said. He couldn't help but notice that they were only about twenty feet from the enormous black metal gates now. The steelwork was impressive. Blade like tubes of steel laced through the gate, forming an intricate pattern. The web of metal wove together at the summit to make a strange, magical sigil.

"The good thing is," James said. "That most of the creatures a sorcerer binds to guard his palace can't stand the sight of him, except for flying monkeys. Flying monkeys are loyal. Green, yes. Expensive taste in jackets, sure, but loyal as they come; it doesn't help that they're also damnably stupid."

"So we might be fine as long as there are no flying monkeys?" Lester asked, sounding bewildered and exhausted all at once.

Neither James nor the princess had a chance to answer Lester's question. As they came within a few paces of the gates, some of the metal bent out of its original shape. The air filled with a mighty scraping noise, like nails down a chalk board. The metal contorted into the shape of an ugly face that proclaimed:

"No flying monkeys in the Pleasure Dome of Vikor Moorshade! Halt strangers!"

The small party stopped.

"So, is Mr Moorshade at home?" Princess Anabyl asked. "Tell him that a real princess is at the gate and if he isn't suitably impressed he's in a jolly big pile of trouble."

"The master is, regrettably, deceased," the gate explained. "Which is a shame for him, really. He would have taken great interest in finding out how anyone had managed to break into his research dungeon when he was alive. When you take his death into account, that could only have increased his curiosity. Let alone the intriguing composition of the party: a princess, a talking mouse and a foppish lackadaisy."

"Um," Lester didn't know where to start with being described as a 'foppish lackadaisy' by a talking gate. He decided that he had nothing so he kept quiet.

"So can we come in?" the princess asked. "We really just want to get out and go home, if it's convenient. Of course if there's any big pieces of interesting treasure... Or, even better, fascinating weaponry, lying about in there I might have to call finders keepers."

"Weaponry?" James said but everyone was too interested in the gate's response to pay much attention.

"I suppose that would be fine," the gate said. "There were no standing orders when that young man left with his prize. It was all a bit of shambles to be honest, he left his sword behind and everything."

"Sword?" Anabyl said. "Is it a magic sword?"

"It is," the gate said. "And as such I have a boon to ask regards that particular enchanted item."

"Which is?" Lester asked, he wanted to convey the message that he was being careful in his questioning. The nasal tone he employed meant he ended up feeling like he just sounded a bit stupid.

"Well, as you can imagine, being a metal ifrit bound into a heavy gate for four centuries with no one to talk to is a terrible and tedious fate. If you could bring the sword down here and touch it against the frame I would be able to, sort of, decant, using the ambient magic field. I would boost the sword's enchantment and then, well, let's just say it would be a good career move. It would give me an opportunity to see the world. So, yes, if it would be alright by you..."

"I don't see a problem with that," James said.

"Hold on a minute," Lester said. "I mean, I don't want to be rude, but... I can't help but notice that  you're a large and forbidding metal gate. One that guards the walkway from an evil sorcerer's castle..."

"Pleasure Dome," the gate corrected him. "He read a poem about one once, he liked the ring of it. If anyone called the property a castle he had a habit of burying them alive."

"If I were a proper cross sorcerer," Princess Anabyl said. "I think I would be more inclined to bury my enemies dead."

"Hang on a minute here!" Lester said. "I am not sure we can all just place our faith in the good intentions of an evil gate."

"What choice do you have?" the gate said. "If I don't open you won't be able to make me. I'm also connected to the portcullis, if you don't let me go I can keep you trapped here forever."

"See!" Lester said. "Evil gate!"

"Gate that wants a few more career options. Be fair, he has had four centuries to gain an assertive attitude in business dealings," James said. "I have to say, I personally can't blame him. Stop being a bore, Lester."

"But, I..." Lester said.

"Stop being a bore, Lester," Princess Anabyl said. "Of course we'll put you in the sword," she said to the gate.

"Glad to see some of you have sense," the gate said. "The master died with the sword sticking through his chest up in the grand hall. Just follow the stairs around and take the big archway on your right at the top."

With that the face disappeared in another groaning screech of twisting metal and the gates swung open.

"Come on," Princess Anabyl. "First one to the top gets to be the best princess."

It was a race Lester didn't try too hard to win.

The inside of Moorshade's Pleasure Dome was both opulently grand and extremely chilly. It was clear the late sorcerer had a taste for marble in black and blood red. It left the impression you were taking a walk round the coiled intestinal tract of a gigantic, fossilised snake.

The sorcerer's grand hall was an overwrought affair. If the interior design was a reflection of the owner's ego then Vikor Moorshade had a disturbingly high opinion of himself. There were massive gold chandeliers hung high in the black marble ceilings. Red marble columns defined a long sparkling parade up to an enormous plinth. The sweeping curves of a smug throne squatted at the summit.

At the foot of the plinth's stairway was a sadly chaotic jumble of skeletal scree. All that remained of Vikor Moonshade. A silver short sword stuck into the air through the ribcage.

"Hey, look at this!" Princess Anabyl said, ignoring the skeleton for a moment and taking a look at an unusual feature on the right hand side of the throne dais. A small grave site, covered over with soft earth, formed an incongruous, grisly ornament.

"'Here lies, Phoebe September. In accordance with her wishes placed at her master's right hand over her dead body'," Anabyl read. "And look, there's a broom over the gravestone, and a spade, there's something else written on the handle of the spade... 'To be used in case of forgiveness'. What do you suppose that means?"

Lester had approached the skeleton. The thing that disturbed him most was that Vikor Moorshade appeared to have had a skull made out of gold. He found his conscience divided between a desire to steal the item and to never ever see it again as long as he lived.

Turning his attention away from the skull he picked up the silver short sword. He examined an engraving etched into the blade: a shooting star.

"Nice sword," he said quietly.

"Much expertise in the field of weaponry?" James asked. His voice so dry you could have toweled off with it.

"Not as such," Lester replied. "I can still tell that this is a nice sword. You can tell that just by looking at it."

"Maybe you want to be spending less time on amateur sword appraisal," James said. "And more time addressing the arising situation with the tiny grave robber."

"What?" said Lester and turned to see Princess Anabyl digging away at the grave site with what might be described as unholy vigour. "Oh, hey no!" he cried out running towards her.

"This spade must be magical," Anabyl said. "The earth's just flying out of this grave."

"What are you doing?" Lester demanded.

"I'm using the spade. It says 'in case of forgiveness' but I think that was a reminder for the evil sorcerer and he's dead," Anabyl said.

"Yes and someone else is dead down there!" Lester objected.

"The gate said he liked to bury people alive," Anabyl replied.

"She's right," James supplied unhelpfully, "it did."

"But... but..." Lester said. "Whoever's in there will have been down there for four centuries. They're going to be shrivelled and rotten and... oh... gosh..."

In a matter of minutes Anabyl had excavated the grave, unearthing a coffin made from a gold filigree. The gold formed a frame. The spaces in that frame were filled with panes of crystal clear glass. The occupant was not, in fact, shriveled or rotten.

"She's beautiful," Lester said. He felt a bit creepy having his heart in his mouth over a body in a coffin, however well preserved, but he couldn't help himself. The woman inside the coffin definitely was beautiful. She had long, sleek dark hair, high cheekbones and coffee coloured skin. Lester thought that she looked exotic and dangerous.

"You are soppy," Princess Anabyl said. "Soppy as a wet, soppy fish." She made hacking pukey noises as she tested the lid of the coffin for catches.

Her mock-vomiting did not stop her finding the latch for the lid and the coffin sprang open, its hinges augmented by springs. The body of the woman began to glow and coloured patches of light swam around her. A harmonic note thronged through out the Pleasure Dome's vaulted roof and the woman began to levitate out of the coffin.

"Brilliant!" Anabyl breathed as the body rose up. Lester's awe at the woman's good looks found itself squashed by a cautionary flutter in his stomach. It was evident that powerful magic was here present.

The woman's body tipped up till to orient her vertically. Her eyes fluttered open, they were big eyes and rainbow-fire irises shone around dark pupils. She was both gorgeous and completely terrifying at once.

"Vikor Moorshade!" she said, and her voice thrummed with magical power and boiling fury. "I will raze your precious palace to the ground! I will hammer you and your ego flat beneath these marble hallways."

As good as her word she flung out her arms and there was a crack like thunder. The noise was actually caused by the stone floor breaking apart, dust and rubble sifted down from high above their heads.

"Uh, young lady," James called out. "I think you'll find the sorcerer's already dead."

Sealed in a glass coffin by an evil sorcerer for four centuries, it would seem that Phoebe September was in no mood to listen. The palace foundations continued to shake.

"This is amazing!" Princess Anabyl shouted, a smile painted from ear to ear.

"Let's hope you're still so pleased with yourself when we're all dead," Lester complained.

They would never find out if the little princess would be, because they didn't die. But what happened next is a story for another day.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Why Tabarnas Had To Rehome An Owl

Tabarnas, Rachel and Micras were looking down on a toy castle. 

"So that's it, is it?" Rachel asked, her tone was harsh. "You're just going to make her produce rainbow grease for you, like a slave?"

Tabarnas jumped. He had been wondering how on earth he was going to find Rachel. It was job enough to locate stock that didn't move in the stacks. How one was supposed to find a lost and frightened little girl was a problem he had not even begun to consider the answer to.

"Oh, young lady," Tabarnas said. "You mustn't sneak up on old people like that, I might have had a heart attack or something."

"Would have served you right if you had you mean old slave driver," Rachel replied. "I thought you were nice."

"I don't know where you got that idea from," Tabarnas said. "I'm a goblin merchant, as a breed we're not noted for our bon homie."

"Your what?"

"Er, sorry, foreign words trip from my tongue. I speak business in every language, you see... Because I'm a merchant, not a slave driver, a merchant."

"So you're going to let the mermaid go?" Rachel asked.

"I'm not going to 'let' her do anything, she's her own fish person, she is mistress of her own destiny."

"Well, good," Rachel said. "I knew you wouldn't be a big old meanie about it. So how are we going to help her?"

"Help her?" Tabarnas asked, a puzzled look upon his face. "We? Young lady-"

"Rachel," Rachel interrupted him.

"Rachel," Tabarnas said. "You seem to be the victim of a misunderstanding. Firstly, 'we' are not, uh, 'we'. There is you and there is me. That is how things work in the market. Secondly, and for the very same reason, I am not helping anyone. I will render services in exchange for remuneration, of course. But if I went around doing things out of some fuzzy headed do-gooder notion that wouldn't make me a  good merchant now, would it?"

"You told me a story, that was nice," Rachel pointed out.

"You didn't enjoy it much, as I recall," Tabarnas replied.

"It was a nicer thing to do than standing around here being a nasty old grumpy guts like you're being now," Rachel said.

"Has anyone ever told you that you are impossible?" Tabarnas asked her.

"Only James and..." Rachel ran to a stop. "Oh! James! Did you rescue James?"

"Ah, now, there was a small problem..." Tabarnas began but it was too late, Rachel had begun to cry.

"Oh no," she said. "James, you lost James. This is all your fault!"

"Now I think that's a little unfair-"

"No, you're right..." Rachel said.

"Well, I'm glad-"

"It's all my fault, me and my stupid wish!" Rachel sat on Tabarnas's step stool and dissolved into floods of tears.

Tabarnas didn't know what to do or how to feel. He had been a goblin merchant his entire long life, over half a millennium at this moment. He bought, he sold, he bartered, he did stock taking, accounts ledgers and paid his dues to the Merchant's Guild. The only thing that Tabarnas did that was not the action of a goblin merchant was collect as many amusing stories as he could. He packed them into the corners of his brain that were not occupied with matters of trade.

Being confronted with a disconsolate little girl who had lost her talking mouse was not a situation that he had any idea how to remedy. He wondered if Cressie would be able to do any better. He swiftly came to the conclusion that, in fact, she would in all probability make things worse rather than better. Cressie had no spare corners in her mind, the whole mind was merchant from top to bottom.

Before Tabarnas could unpick the predicament any further matters were taken out of his hands. The soft and lilting sound of a beautiful melody washed over the small yard  between the tents on the pitch. The song had no words but appeared to be, at one and the same time, choral and coming from a single throat. The song was soothing as it was beautiful and came from the throat of Teleosti, the mermaid.

Rachel stopped sobbing and looked up at the mermaid in wonder. For just a moment the thrust and bustle of the market appeared to recede and a placid atmosphere of calm came over the scene.

The song ended and Teleosti smiled down at Rachel. Rachel stood and went over to the mermaid's tank.

"Your voice," Rachel said. "It's so beautiful."

"Thank you," the mermaid replied. "So are the feelings of love you have for James. I can only sing a song so beautiful when something pure and joyful inspires me."

"Oh, you mean I..." Rachel couldn't finish what she was trying to say.

"I was singing your love for James, Rachel," the mermaid said. "That should keep you strong while you find him again."

"Oh it will, it will!" Rachel said. "Thank  you so much... oh, I don't know your name."

"I am called Teleosti," the mermaid said. "But my friends call me Eos, you may call me that, if you would like to. I haven't made any new friends since I began the quest to find my people's lost treasure, so a new one would cheer me up right now."

"Oh, yes, of course Eos, we can be friends, of course! I've never been friends with anyone but James and now I have two new friends in one day, Eos and Tabarnas."

"Ah..." Tabarnas said. He felt that it was incumbent upon him to point out, once again, that he was a goblin merchant. For which reason he did not have friends, only customers.

Rachel and Eos looked over to him, both appeared much happier than they had been for the entire rest of the afternoon. Tabarnas saw no business value in ruining a good mood, indeed bad moods were well known to sour business.

"The market will be closing soon," Tabarnas said. "I suppose, Rachel, that we had better find somewhere for you to stay."

"I thought you didn't help people unless it was for money," Rachel said, a smirk at the corner of her mouth.

"We can... work something out... in the morning," Tabarnas said. "First of all we had better tell Cressie. I don't think you will find her to be as soft a negotiator but we can hardly hide you away from her now, can we?"

"I suppose not," Rachel said. She did not sound like she was looking forward to meeting Cressidia again, which marked her out as something of a wise child.

The two of them stepped towards the flap at the rear of the stall. Before they could go inside the fluttering shape of a glowing white owl flapped out of the stacks. It flew over to land on the edge of Eos's tank.

"Hooo! Thought you could get away from me did you, vandal!" the owl said to Rachel. "Well, no such luck, my head rotates all the way round and my eyes can spot a mouse three miles away."

"So," Rachel said. "If James is less than three miles away, you'll be able to spot him. Oh, but you're not to eat him."

"Whooo is James?" the owl said. "And why would I find anyone for you? You uncouth child!"

"Nobody in this place is very polite or particularly nice," Rachel complained. "Except for you Eos, and you're not  from around here originally."

"Why should I be nice to the person who destroyed my home?" the owl asked.

"I did no such thing!" Rachel objected. "I've never even seen your smelly home. I wouldn't destroy it anyway."

"Oh no?" the owl shot back. "Not even when your good friend the gnome pointed out that you could get outside instantly if you just damaged some stock?"

"Oh! No!" Rachel said, her hands flying up to cover her mouth. "You were inside that doll's house?"

"It was not just a doll's house, I will have you know," the owl said. "It was a genuine _haunted_ doll's house, you tipped it onto the floor as if it didn't even matter."

"You did what?" Tabarnas cried. Until now he had been too confused by the owl flapping about to put the whole thing together. The understanding that this troublesome little girl had cost him stock sparked outrage in his heart. Add to this the fact that the item was an authentic haunted doll's house and the outrage almost grew greater than he could bear.

"I got lost, in your stupid stacks," Rachel said, unrepentant petulance written across her face. "The gnome came back and reminded me about the anti-vandal charm that set the troll loose. I just thought it was a doll's house."

"But... it was... haunted..." Tabarnas said, his head was spinning, it was his turn to sit on the step stool.

"You've still got the ghost," Rachel said. "Although, if you sell him we're back to slavery again. I am surprised at you, Tabarnas, I thought you were just a merchant."

"I knew it was haunted," Tabarnas said. "I didn't know what by, the thing was only a foot and a half tall and it had three floors."

"I was for sale!?" the owl objected. "Micras Whitney is not for sale to anyone, at any price, dead or alive," it announced. Then, more quietly: "In this case, decidedly dead."

"Well, looks like I did you a favour," Rachel said. "If you'd sold that haunted doll's house you would have sold Micras along with it, and that would have been bad karma."

"Bad what?" Tabarnas asked.

"Karma," Rachel said. "James told me about it, it means if you do bad stuff then bad stuff happens to you."

"But I wouldn't have known," Tabarnas said. "Apparently neither would the owl."

"It is true that I had become very comfortable in my lodgings," Micras agreed. "But this is no excuse to sell them. And me along with them."

"I don't even remember where we got the silly thing," Tabarnas grumbled. "Probably in one of Cressie's job lot acquisitions. Sorry for the inconvenience everybody."

Tabarnas most certainly did not mean that last sentence, and he knew that everyone present knew that he didn't either. He didn't care.

"Well, it looks like now you've got to find three of us somewhere to stay," Rachel said. "Me, Eos and now Micras as well. You should be more careful about what you keep in your stock room. Magic mirrors full of trolls, haunted doll's houses. Who else do you have back there that you don't even know about?"

"Look!" Tabarnas said, tapping his cane upon the ground sharply. "This is Riseandshine and Titsadaisy Goblin Merchants. It is not Riseandshine and Titsadaisy Flop House and Mission For The Dispossessed. I think I've just about had quite enough for today."

"Well, the sooner we rehouse Micras and find me a bed the sooner we can get on with tomorrow," Rachel said brightly. "I'm sure tomorrow will be better. Besides it can't be that hard, you must have another doll's house somewhere in that stock room, it's massive."

"Not that I know of..." Tabarnas said, thinking hard. He had to admit that the child was talking sense. If they could re-haunt something else then the ghost owl would be happy. They could finally put this awful Tuesday behind them and move on.

A memory resurfaced from the story telling parts of Tabarnas's mind. The memory's subject happened to cross reference with a stock item so it was close to hand. Tabarnas could remember almost every item of stock attached to a story.

"I think I have the place, just the place," Tabarnas said. "A curiosity that I am not intending to sell and it will be just the thing."

"I'll be the judge of that," Micras said. "But very well."

"The best part is that I think we'll be able to give Rachel a bed in the same place. Maybe we can talk to Cressie about the whole thing when she's in a better mood."

Tabarnas could tell that no one who had met Cressidia would possibly have held out any hope of her being in a better mood ever. Right now there were more pressing matters to deal with so nobody said anything.

"Now, before we go in," Tabarnas said to Rachel, "you just remember to stick by my side in the stacks. I can't have you junking stock because you keep getting lost."

"I'm sorry Tabarnas," Rachel said. "It won't happen again."

"You see that it doesn't," Tabarnas said as they made their way into the stall. They ducked through the gap in the display shelves that formed the entrance to the stacks. "We're already in enough trouble as it stands."

"I thought there was no 'we'," Rachel said. Tabarnas was dismayed to see the return of the insufferable smirk to the girl's face. "I thought," she continued uneccessarily and with far too much smugness, "that there was just 'you' and 'me'."

"Yes, well," Tabarnas said. "We will definitely be having a conversation about the matter in the morning for now... where was the blasted thing? Let me think, second right, third left. Behind the storage bin for winged sandals and other lightly enchanted footwear, yes, here it is."

Tabarnas, Rachel and Micras were looking down on a toy castle. The model was remarkably detailed, not to say quite odd. The castle had a rounded wall, a gatehouse, a traditional wizarding tower, a grand hall and a few outbuildings. In the courtyard an intricate and beautiful model garden had been created. From the tallest point of the main building a metal pin carried a red flag bearing the device of a frog wearing a crown.

"There is a most fascinating story about the castle upon which this model is based," Tabarnas said proudly. "It's another story of the great prince Avan Weatherstrong. You see, he was travelling in a far away land. One where the entire ruling family found themselves transformed. Turned into frogs by the evil sorcerer..."

"Tabarnas," Rachel said. "Another time. Right now, this looks fine for Micras, if he likes it." She looked up at the owl.

"It will do," the ghost said not committing to anything.

"I don't see what it does for me, though," Rachel said.

"Ah, well, you see, that's where you fail to understand the precise nature of the artifact. Now, do as I do, carefully."

Tabarnas put his finger onto the top of the flag pole and intoned:

"In the name of the Grand Frogfellow Clan, bid me entry to this monument erected in your honour. Created so that none would forget the acts of Seditas Wolfjaw until this world should end."

Tabarnas loved the strange falling sensation, the tingle of well-applied sorcery accompanying the transition. Whenever a new volume of collected stories came into his possession he would make his way to the garden of the model Caer Frogfellow. This was where he would secret himself away to read.

He knew that Cressie would take a dim view of such activities. So, he had concealed the model carefully in a part of the stacks reserved for the storage of low value unsaleable tat.

Tabarnas did not have much of a chance to feel clever about what he had done because within moments Rachel was at his side in the garden. Micras, being a ghost, didn't need the model's magic to transfer scale.

"Impressive, don't you think?" Tabarnas beamed, positively glowing with pride. "You are now standing in my favourite item in the whole world."

The model garden was stunning in its detail. The ponds were made of polished glass and the hedges crafted from tiny pieces of wood. Each bore a mark indicating they had been hand carved by pixie workmen. The castle was a remarkable piece of work.

The large frog statue mounted on a pedestal in the central fountain was perfect in every detail. The giant frog's right leg draped across a recumbent wolf. The symbol of Frogfellow's eventual victory over the sorcerer Seditas Wolfjaw. It was one of Tabarnas's favourite stories and he burned to tell it right away.

"If you're thinking of launching into a story," Rachel said, gauging his mood perfectly, "don't. I've had a long day and I need some sleep. I assume you're going to tell me that the castle is an exact replica inside, so I will be able to find a bed."

Tabarnas deflated.

"Yes, just so," he said. "It really is a fine story, the tale of How Avan Weatherstrong Defeated Seditas Wolfjaw."

"The last story you told me about that prince he was fighting a wolf," Rachel said. "One wolf story in a day is quite enough."

"He wasn't a wolf," Tabarnas complained. "He was a sorcerer, he just happened to be called Wolfjaw, it's just a surname, like Riseandshine. I'm called Riseandshine, I'm not the sun."

"So, once I've slept and I want to leave," Rachel said, ignoring Tabarnas's hope that she would allow him to tell the story. "How do I manage that?"

"Just curtsy to the frog statue and thank him warmly for his hospitality," Tabarnas explained. "I bow because I'm a man, women curtsy."

"What if I want to bow?" Rachel said.

"Do what you like," Tabarnas said, irritable that his storytelling ambition had been thwarted. "It'll work or it won't."

"There's no need-" Rachel began but she got no further.

"Tabarnaaaaas!" the greatly amplified and terrifying voice of Cressidia rang out. From their low position it sounded like the mighty battle cry of an enraged giant. "There's a market keeper here to see you, something about a troll and property damage."

"Oh, fiddlesticks!" Tabarnas said feeling his heart sink in his chest.

"Looks like you'd better thank the frog for his hospitality," Rachel said. "And I'll see you in the morning."

Which she did, at which point there were more problems to solve, but those are the subject of another day's tale.