Sunday, 28 April 2013

A Bad Night In Bridgetown

"Told you Patchwork Jack would show you the way," said the ghost urchin. "Course the business has changed but this is definitely the place the Rainbow Grease stall used to be."

Lester was almost relieved to see his former pitch occupied by another trader. He did not believe himself to be cut out for the life of a goblin merchant. He would never have  taken on the job if it hadn't been for the sales patter of that mysterious man in the top hat.

"Things seem interesting," said a voice behind him as he looked at the newly erected stall. A pest control service that stood upon the pitch where 'Neptune & Sons Rainbow Grease Emporium' had once plied its trade. "Even if they haven't worked out quite the way you planned."

Lester turned to see the grinning man in the top hat, his eyes just as vulpine as they were upon their last meeting. His teeth shone a dazzling white that made Lester giddy whenever he focused upon them.

"You," Lester said. "you told me that if I took on that stall then I would start on the journey to find my brother."

"Who says you haven't?" the man asked.

"Do you know this man?" James piped up from Lester's shoulder.

"Know me?" the man said. "Who really knows me, James Rummage?"

"My name," James said. "You know my name."

"You never told me you had a surname," Lester said. He was annoyed that James had not shared this with him but he couldn't exactly say why that should be.

"I had forgotten, until he said it," James explained. His amazement at the recovered memory appeared to render him incapable of being irritable for a moment.

"Destiny has big things in store, Lester and James," the man said. "Right now, in order to set you on the right path, I think you might need this."

The man reached into the folds of his greatcoat and pulled out a tiny metal dragon. The man flipped the beast over and moved a switch on its belly. The toy pulled itself back upright. It looked about as if surprised to be on a man's palm in the heart of the Patchwork Market and flexed its wings experimentally.

Appearing happy with its initial movements the dragon flicked its wings faster and took off into the air. It buzzed around the man's head before swooping over to land on Lester's right shoulder.

"There we go Master Topping," the man said. "I have brought a sense of balance. If not to your life, at least to your shoulders."

Lester turned his head to look at the tiny metal dragon. The dragon looked up at him with tiny, inquisitive eyes made out of turquoise beads. On his left shoulder James made a tiny, wet popping noise.

"What is it with all the dragons?" Lester asked. "And who are you anyw-"

As Lester raised his head to look in the direction of the man once more he could not help but notice that the man was no longer there.

"Where did he go?" Lester asked.

"I don't know," James said. "I sneezed, that made me blink, when I opened my eyes he'd gone."

"I'm beginning to think there's more to that man than first meets the eye," Lester said.

"Really, what was your first clue?" James asked.

"We've talked about this sarcasm issue before," Lester said.

"Yes, and the conclusion was that it was your problem, not mine," James replied. Lester was sure the insufferable rodent was smiling. A mouse's face, being what it was, James remained relatively inscrutable.

Lester could hear the mechanical dragon ticking gently on his shoulder. He turned his head and studied it again. The blank, turquoise eyes stared back.

"What do you supposed he gave me this for?" Lester asked.

"If the last couple of days have told me anything," James replied, "it is that all things become plain in their own time. Shall we see how everyone else is getting along?"

"Oh, yes, no problem," Lester said, focusing back upon the wider space around him. They headed through the crowds, towards the sign for "Riseandshine & Titsadaisy". As they approached the stall the sound of voices came floating out from the interior.

"They will have gone along the trade routes, and if they haven't then they'll probably be lost. Tabarnas only knows the trade routes," said an old, female voice, scratchy but strident. Lester didn't recognise it.

"Do you have a map of the trade routes?" Sir Cobb, Lester couldn't help a slight sneering twitch at the corner of his mouth.

"I think I do have one, but only one, in stock. Very detailed, no more than four decades old," the old woman said. "I could part with it for something in the region of a half crown."

"Would three florins be region enough," a female voice that made Lester's heart flutter in his chest, Phoebe.

Lester reached the flap at the entrance to the merchant's stall to see the vignette of trade laid out. Sir Cobb and Phoebe were stood on one side of a counter top looking up at a wizened old goblin woman. The goblin clutched a rolled up document in her hand. The princess was poking around in a pile of junk in the far corner, looking extremely bored.

"They forgot the first rule again," James said in Lester's ear. "Always keep two eyes on the princess."

Lester slid into the stall and crossed the space between Sir Cobb and Phoebe to stand behind Princess Anabyl. He cleared his throat. Princess Anabyl's head whipped round, her brow knitted, there was a dark expression on her face.

"Maybe we could try to find James's friend without causing any kind of an incident," Lester said quietly.

"Where's the fun in that?" the Princess asked darkly.

"Come on you three," said Phoebe's voice behind them, all business. "We've got to get the princess to the Master's Tower."

"Where's Rachel?" James asked, Lester identified a note of worry in his voice.

"Ah, well, about that," Sir Cobb said, looking sheepish.

"She's not here, is she?" James wailed. "Where's she gone?"

"As it happens," Phoebe explained, "to look for you."

"Don't worry," Sir Cobb said. "She's with Tabarnas, they'll stick to the trade routes."

"Lester," Phoebe asked, "What's that on your other shoulder?" It was a game attempt to divert the conversation away from James's separation anxiety

"It's a dragon, um, a mechanical one," Lester replied.

"Why have you got a tiny, mechanical dragon on your shoulder," Phoebe asked.

"Can I have a look?" the princess asked before anyone else could speak up. Although the words were organised like a question they sounded like a demand.

"Er, well, the man in the top hat gave me this," Lester said. "I think I might need it to find my brother."

"Really?" Phoebe asked. "A man in a top hat gave you a mechanical dragon and told you it would help you find your brother?"

"Well, not in so many words but..."

The dragon, possibly sensitive to being discussed started to whirr and click. Lester craned his neck round to see the little creature buzz up into the air of the tent, spiralling and wheeling.

"Oh, no!" Lester said. "Quick, catch it!"

"Any damage must be paid for!" the old woman behind the counter cried out. The dragon swooped past the decrepit goblin, nearly catching her nose and then shot out of the flap into the market place.

"After it!" Lester cried out and chased the dragon out into the crowds of the Patchwork Market.

Before they knew it all five of them were following the tiny sparkling sliver shape of the dragon as it buzzed over Master's Quarter. The dragon whizzed forward, above the heads of the jostling crowd. It appeared bent upon some unknown purpose, not caring at all about the small party attempting to follow on behind.

The dragon lead them across several bridges, through numerous plazas. It was always too fast for them to catch it but never fast enough to give them a slip. Before long they found themselves running over a broad crossing place. They were all heading towards a portcullis leading onto a strange, dark plaza.

The dragon flitted through a hole in the portcullis and was gone.

"Oh! Oh no!" Lester shouted. "What's going on? I don't understand any of this."

"Come on, old chap," Sir Cobb said coming to stand beside him. "We'll just knock on the door and ask if we can come in to look for our mechancal..."

The end of Sir Cobb's sentence was rendered incomprehensible. A mighty explosion shook the plaza and those surrounding it. Everyone looked in the direction of the portcullis.

"What the hell was that?" Phoebe asked, her voice sounded as if it was coming through a cotton wool blanket.

The princess was already heading for the portcullis a look of unholy glee on her face.

"Oh, no, seriously, not again," James said from Lester's shoulder.

"My life has become so much more complicated ever since I..." Lester was trying to remember when his life had not been so complicated but he drew a blank. He looked about for something that could be used to safely restrain a psychotic young noble. All he could really register in his survey was the cylinder of a top hat.

"Hey, you!" Lester called racing towards the owner of the top hat. "Your dragon! Is that what caused this explosion?"

"What dragon?" came back the response, not male, not smooth and also not the person who had given Lester the mechanical toy.

"Who are you?" Lester asked the pretty young woman in black pyjamas, wearing an incongruous top hat.

"I am Princess Lilith Butterstone," replied the young woman. "Who are you?"

"Another princess," James said. "Just what we needed."

The excitement on the plaza beyond the portcullis had not abated. There was the sound of a mighty roar of anger and then a cracking, splintering noise.

"That doesn't sound like fun," Sir Cobb said.

"My brother!" Princess Butterstone cried out. She raced past Lester in the direction of the portcullis. She didn't get all the way as Phoebe caught the young woman by the arm as she came past. "What are you doing," screamed the Princess. "Get off me!"

"If you want to stand a chance of rescuing your brother," Phoebe said. "You'll do exactly as I say. Right now I say stand back." Phoebe turned her attention to the other rogue princess in the area. "Anabyl," she said. "Come over here, right now."

"Are you going to do what I think you're going to do?" Anabyl asked, delighted.

"I don't know..." Phoebe said, raising her right arm as Anabyl drew in close. A huge ball of pink-red plasma blasted a hole in the portcullis. "Were you expecting that?"

"I think, to be honest," James said. "We were all expecting that."

The party ran up towards the hole. Sir Cobb ran through first, drawing his sword (which babbled away to its owner excitedly). He was followed by Princess Butterstone, Phoebe and Princess Anabyl. Lester and James brought up the rear, being of limited value in the midst of a battle.

"Lester, what do you think you're doing?" James asked as they stepped through the still smouldering hole in the gate.

Lester paused and peered through the smoke beyond the gate. he was in time to see a gigantic knight bring a gigantic piece of wood down on top of someone lying on the floor. Various other knights stood around the plaza, weapons drawn. Smoke billowed from a hatch on the far side of the square.

Some more plasma, light blue this time, incinerated the end of the wooden pole before it could crush the skull of the man on the ground.

"That's it!" Phoebe called. "I'm out until I've had a good meal, a nap and, if possible a hot bath."

"Raaaargh!" the giant knight roared at the intruders, furious beyond sense. "Grarrgh! Arrrgh!"

Sir Cobb was closest. He swung his silver sword at the knight's armoured arm. It did not look as if he was trying to kill the giant, just to pull his attention away from the man on the floor. The giant stepped out of the way of the swing and hit Sir Cobb full in the face with the heel of the opposite palm.

The blow picked Sir Cobb up off his feet. It sent him flying backwards across the plaza, arms flopping like a rag doll.

"Vaskorn!" Princess Butterworth called out to the knight. "Leave these people alone and face me!"

The giant knight, Vaskorn, turned to look at Princess Butterstone. The princess was holding two fighting daggers and looked as if she meant business. She had planted her feet wide and set her shoulders ready for combat. Lester felt his heart twitch the way it had the first time he'd seen Phoebe September.

Lester knew he was a nice boy, a hopeless romantic, and also prone to fickleness in his affections. It was probably a good job that none of the women who caught his eye even gave him a second glance.

Vaskorn's brow knit, the giant turned his huge body to face the little girl threatening him with two tiny little daggers. He threw back his head and bellowed with laughter.

"Oh... oh no," he shouted, his voice filled with mockery. "The little girl has come to defend her half-starved, deafened and confused brother. Not only that, she's brought with her a witch who's run out of magic and an idiot with a silver toothpick. Not to mention the girl even smaller than her, the carnival barker and the mouse. What am I supposed to do armed only with legendary strength and a personal guard of twenty highly armed mercenaries? Well? Any suggestions?"

A silence descended over the plaza.

"I'm a _talking_ mouse." shouted James. For once, everyone was listening.

The comment dropped into an even deeper, longer silence. Then Vaskorn threw back his head a second time and laughed some more. When the fit of hilarity had passed Vaskorn's face turned grim.

"Guards," he commanded. "Round up these prisoners."

"Prisoners no more!" cried a tiny voice from the gloom above the plaza. "Onwards! To freedom!"

Vaskorn looked up, unsure how to feel about strange voices issuing from the darkness. A gnome fell out of the sky, trailing rainbow colours behind it. It hit Vaskorn in the face, bouncing off the gigantic knight to land on the plaza floor a few feet distant. Before Vaskorn could react a second gnome fell out of the sky and a third, a fourth. There followed a tumultuous shower of tiny earth sprites. Many of these hit Vaskorn full in his dark expression of consternation and confusion.

Before too long a few hundred gnomes had completely buried the knight. They scrambled and scampered away from him to leave the red-faced and fuming knight beside himself with fury.

"Kill them!" he screamed. "Kill them all!"

"Nobody will be killing anybody in the Patchwork Market today!" called out a clear voice imbued with an undeniable natural authority. The voice came from right behind Lester's now dragonless right shoulder.

Lester turned to see a tall, richly dressed, bald man with coffee-coloured skin stride past him. Behind the man followed rank upon rank of guards dressed in black and grey uniforms. Lester recognised these as the Market Watch.

"Master Kalico," thundered Vaskorn, "you do not understand. These are trespassers upon my plaza! They have damaged my property, injured my men... they have brought with them... gnomes, look at all the gnomes."

"You think this gives you the right to bring murder to the plazas of the Patchwork Market, Vaskorn?" Master Kalico asked the knight. His gaze did not waver at Vaskorn's fury.

"I demand justice!" Vaskorn cried.

"Then you shall have market justice!" Kalico matched the knight's fury with quiet intensity. "If that does not suffice you are free to move on."

"What do you propose?" Vaskorn asked. It was clear the knight was barely holding on to his temper.

"These people must make reparation for the damage to your facilities. Until then they will be wards of the market," Kalico said. "That is all."

"That is nothing!" Vaskorn bellowed. "An insult."

"As I said," Kalico replied, swift as a snake. "If you do not like merchant's law then you are free to move on. I'm sure there are many benefits to taking a pitch in a lesser market place. Somewhere your business dealings will attract a higher degree of visibility than they do here."

"Do what you will," Sir Vaskorn said. "I will remember this."

"As will I, Sir Vaskorn," Master Kalico said. He turned his attention away from the knight at last. "Anyone who does not wish to remain a guest of Sir Vaskorn, report to a member of the Market Watch directly."

Lester did not need to be told twice, it was the keenest he'd ever been to be arrested for something. Before long all of the party assembled in a cell beneath the Master's Tower.

"Another day, another hellish mess of chaotic incident and accident," James remarked.

"And I'm no closer to finding my brother than I was before any of this began," Lester said.

"Well, I am no closer to being reunited with Rachel," James said.

"At least the princess rescued her brother," Lester noted. Prince and Princess Butterstone were conversing intensely in the opposite corner. "I like Princess Butterstone's hair," he added.

"Grow up," James sighed. "She's just another one who would rip out your heart and use it for tennis practice."

"What's tennis?" Lester asked the odd little mouse.

The question was never answered. The door to the cell opened and in came Princess Anabyl. Following her was a man bearing the world weary expression of one who had dealt with the little tearaway many times before.

"Good news, everyone!" the princess announced. "The kingdom of Spireshine will pay for all the repairs to the mean knight's plaza. We're all free to go!"

The gnomes, in particular, found this news to be most exciting. A cheer went up. As the vast bulk of the gnomes fell to dancing and singing one detached from the rest and sidled over to where Lester was sat.

"So where's the girl?" the gnome asked James.

"You should know, it was your stupid wish magic that landed us in this mess in the first place," James said.

"Yes," the gnome said. "It was. While I was in that mine where my gnomish brothers were enslaved I found this. I thought I should probably bring it back with me."

The gnome opened his shirt and pulled out a face mask that was far too big for the tiny man's face. He held it out and Lester took it. The mask depicted a delicate female clown face. The mask was white. The eyes were picked out in delicate black triangles, red lips and small winding curls of hair around the brow and cheeks.

"What's this?" Lester asked.

"Turn it over, so James can see," the gnome said.

Lester turned the mask over. Inside the mask was written: "COLUMBINA: Property of Rebecca Rummage"

"Nice try," Lester said. "But the little girl's name is Rachel, not Rebecca."

"Rebecca is my wife," James said, his voice distant.

"Really?" Lester said. "This mask belongs to your wife?"

"So it would seem," James said.

"Let me guess," Lester said. "You don't remember anything."

"No," James said, his voice small but steady. "But I intend to find out."

And indeed he did, but not until he was reunited with Rachel. She, in her turn, had many adventures with her new friends Tabarnas, Eos and Micras upon the merchant roads. Indeed James, Lester, Sir Cobb, and Phoebe all had adventures of their own upon the way to reunite James and Rachel. Saeed went upon his own way within the market continuing to search for the soul of his mother. These are all stories that I will share with you, but for now the hour is late, so I must tell them to you another time.


Sunday, 21 April 2013

In Which Saeed Rescues A Prince

In his short time among the plazas of the Patchwork Market Saeed had found himself remarkably comfortable. Despite its eccentricities it reminded Saeed of the place where he had grown up. A short time ago he would have thought about the souk as 'home', now he could not apply that concept to its dusty alleys and faded awnings. Saeed realised that his home had been with Yesha, his mother, when death had come for her his attachment to the souk had ended.

So now Saeed was a little thief without a proper home, seeking one last act of humility. An act that stood a chance of setting him upon the course to redemption. In the mean time...

In the mean time it seemed that he had to wander through a world of strange and wonderful things, and that was not such a bad fate. Sometimes, however, he had to endure the company of tedious people. Sometimes he had to perform tasks that caused him moments of fearful concern. Still, he reasoned, everything worth having has a price attached; a thief should know this better than anyone.

"So, you are really a princess?" Saeed asked the tedious person to whom he was currently attached. It was the morning after their first acquaintance.

"Technically," the rude young woman in dark juggler's garb replied. Her brow appeared to be continuously knit, her lips pinched, her manner terse.

"I have never met a technical princess," Saeed grinned. "There again, my experience of princesses, as a whole, is not extensive."

"You amaze me," the girl replied.

"Princess... Butterstone," Saeed said, testing the water. "As your brother is Prince Butterstone."

"I see why Kalico likes you," Princess Butterstone said drily. "You're a bright boy."

"So, where is your brother?" Saeed asked. "And how may we return him to you unharmed."

"My brother," Princess Butterstone said, fixing her gaze across the gap between the plaza on which they stood and the next. "Is in there. How you and I are going to get in, rescue him and get away unharmed by the time of the closing bell this evening... Well, that's, apparently your part of the plan."

Saeed turned his own attention to the adjacent platform. Unlike all the other plazas that he had seen this one did not bristle with a profusion of coloured pennants and awnings. There were a few market stalls but the awnings above these stalls were all a uniform muddy green-grey. It was impossible, from this distance, to make out what these stalls sold.

The platform was also unusual in that a number of permanent structures obscured the view of its centre. Although each platform tended to be crowded with shop fronts the stalls were often restricted in height. This allowed clear visibility of the high hanging pennants of stalls right the way across the plaza.

Saeed knew that the design of a souk was not as accidental and chaotic as it might appear. Traders came to a complicated number of agreements concerning acceptable behaviour and fair-play. He did not doubt that the reason for the high visibility across platforms was out of one of these arrangements. The inhabitants of this plaza did not adhere to the general rule. Saeed guessed that the only reason for this could be that one person controlled the entire plaza.

"What is that place?" Saeed asked the princess.

"That is Sir Vaskorn's plaza," Princess Butterstone told him. "He has innovated in market trading. He offers the wealthy patrons of the Patchwork Market the sale of military services."

"Military services?" Saeed asked, not sure that he understood.

"If an ambitious noble has more wealth than available manpower he can hire an army from Vaskorn. The soldiers will work until a campaign is complete, or until the money runs out."

"Hire an army?" Saeed was not an expert in military strategy but he did not like the sound of an army available  in exchange for money one little bit.

"I told you Vaskorn was an innovator," the princess said. "I never said anything about scrupulous."

"So he controls that entire plaza?" Saeed asked.

"The place is a fortress," the princess said. "He has reception rooms for his clientele, facilities for his scouts. He commands a personal guard of highly trained and dedicated knights. He also has his cellar."

The princess coloured the word 'cellar' darkly, Saeed believed that he understood the inflection.

"The cellar," he said. "Is that where he is keeping your brother?"

"It is," Princess Butterstone said.

"So, if he is keeping your brother in the cellar beneath the plaza why not just report him to Kalico?" Saeed asked.

"I reported my brother's abduction to the Master-Sergeant of the watch," Princess Butterstone replied. "There's nothing they can do. Vaskorn has no interest in threatening trade in Bridgetown. For the Watch to attack the plaza of a fee-paying merchant would be, as they put it, 'bad for business'."

"So Vaskorn wished you to assassinate that mermaid in exchange for your brother's life?" Saeed asked.

"That was the deal," the princess said. Her tone of voice was tight again, the matter of Saeed foiling her attempt was clearly still an open wound.

"Princess, I am aware that I am nothing but a dirty thief. I am not even worthy to breathe air within your presence, but I flatter myself that I know something of men like this Vaskorn," Saeed said. "I believe with all my heart that once a man like this has you within his power he will not honour the terms of a fair agreement."

The princess sighed, her head hung down. For the first time she wore a look upon her face that was not any variety of anger. She looked, rather, sad, even defeated.

"Saeed," she said. "I fear that you may be correct."

"Princess," Saeed said, trying his hardest to sound like a man of purpose, even though he did not believe himself to be more than a boy. "Please have faith in me when I say that it is more than merely my desire to see you reunited with your brother. Indeed, it is required if I should find peace within my own soul, for my own reasons. So, with the skills and resources that I was taught in the place of my birth, I vow, I will return your brother to your side."

"You speak elegantly, for a street thief," Princess Butterstone said. "However, I do not see any way for you to complete this task."

"Pardon me if I speak out of turn," Saeed said. "But as far as I can tell the most difficult part of this task will be to gain entry to Vaskorn's cellar. If we can gain entry I believe we may well stand a chance of escaping together with your brother. Men like Vaskorn are proud and pride breeds arrogance. He is so confident that nothing can get into his domain that all his defences will be turned to that end."

"You may be right," the princess said. "It doesn't really matter. I have surveyed every way in and out of the plaza, it is impenetrable."

A recent memory shifted in Saeed's head, something Patchwork Jack had said when the ghostly guide had given Saeed the tour.

"That may be true here in Bridgetown," Saeed said. "Is it also true on the other side of the crossway?"

"The other side of the-" Princess Butterstone faltered to a stop, a look of puzzlement on her face. "You mean, the world of mortal man? Don't be ridiculous, we can't go there."

"Why not?" Saeed asked.

"The mortals are dangerous, we cannot risk allowing them to gain access to Bridgetown. Any doorway we could open goes both ways, that is basic magic."

"I know little of magic, Princess," Saeed replied. "I do know of one person who might be able to help us, as long as we find him before he returns home."

Saeed went looking for a guide. Before long he met up once more with Patchwork Jack who was happy to lead Saeed and the Princess to Joshua. They found him in front of a stall belonging to alchemical sundries supplier. The alchemist examined various jars of powder, picking them from a rack to lift them into the light.

"Saeed," Joshua said as the pair approached him. "I had not expected to see you again so soon. To what do I owe this pleasure?"

"Mister Joshua," Saeed said. "I am sorry to disturb you again this day but we are in urgent need of magical assistance, a man's life is at stake."

"This sounds serious," Joshua said. "You had best tell me all about it."

Saeed related Princess Butterstone's problem. He showed Joshua the vantage point where Saeed had studied Vaskorn's Plaza earlier. Joshua listened carefully to Saeed's thoughts.

"The princess is not wrong about the mortal world," Joshua told Saeed. "Even a short visit would be risky. I do, however, see the merit in your plan. I'm going to guess that this Sir Vaskorn has some basic magical detection devices. It is even possible he has his own sorcerer, alchemist or warlock on the payroll. You will need to carry out your plan with utmost caution."

"I am used to treading carefully," Saeed said. "The rooftops of Afsana are not built to the highest standards."

Joshua put his bag down on the floor and undid the clasp. After a moment's rummaging he pulled out a small hourglass held in a carved frame of wood held together with stout brass screws.

"This," Joshua said, holding out the hourglass to Saeed. "Is a Static Transdimensional Chronotranslator, or, in a less alchemical tongue, a Shadow Timer. Use it when you step through a crossway, the timer lasts for five minutes. No matter where you are when the final grain of sand falls you will be transported back to the opposite side of the crossway."

"What is a crossway?" Saeed asked.

"A crossway is a portal between Faerie and another world," Joshua replied. "In Bridgetown the crossways link up to a mortal world. I've been there myself. It will be a challenging environment so you must be cautious during your time there."

"I have never seen such a thing Mister Joshua," Saeed said. Now that he had the means to travel between worlds he felt a small whisper of worry and doubt tugging in his gut.

"I can show you one nearby," Joshua said. "I have, in my time, made extensive study of crossways, thankfully the Patchwork Market is full of them."

"Can I go with Saeed?" asked the princess, who had remained silent until now.

"I'm afraid not, my lady," Joshua replied. "The magic of the Shadow Timer will only work for one person."

"Then I should be the one to go," the princess said.

"Indeed, princess," Saeed said. "Are you intending to interfere with my promise to Kalico? I must rescue your brother. Without wishing to appear rude I would also like to point out that when it comes to stealth I have proven myself your superior."

"So what am I supposed to do?" Princess Butterstone asked, fire in her voice. "Stand around outside and wait?"

"If I might be permitted, my lady," Joshua said. "It appears unlikely to me that Saeed will get all the way in and all the way out without being discovered. At some point, and I trust this will be upon the point of the daring escape, he will probably require use of a lucky distraction."

Saeed thought of objecting at Joshua's certainty that he would be discovered. Then he realised that it was not the doing of the deed that would slow him down. Rather, it was the escape with a confused and frightened prince in tow. The tug in his guts grew stronger as he understood that Joshua was probably right.

Joshua reached inside his bag and pulled out something that looked like a black circle. With a flick of the wrist the circle popped, turning into a tall hat.

"This," Joshua said. "Is not one of mine, it is a sorcerous acquisition. Saeed, if you are unfortunate enough to be discovered about your business please try to make things as noisy as you can. My lady, when you hear the hue and cry, put the top hat on your head, cross your fingers and wish as hard as you can for some luck."

He held the hat out to Princess Butterstone. The princess took the hat gingerly, as if she thought it may bite her hand off.

"And that," said Joshua with an air of finality, "is all I have to offer."

"Mister Joshua," Saeed replied. "I cannot begin to tell you how much your assistance will mean to myself and the princess."

"Nonsense, Saeed," Joshua smiled. "You returned this bag to me, without which I would  not have been able to offer my help at all. Also, I think it is always a good thing to find yourself in the favour of a royal line." Joshua turned to the princess and tipped a flowing, elegant bow. "My lady," he said, "it was my greatest pleasure to make your acquaintance." He turned to Saeed. "Come now, Saeed, we have business to attend to. Let's rescue this prince before night comes to the Patchwork Market."

Joshua lead Saeed across three bridges. They crossed two plazas round to the main bridge crossing to Vaskorn's platform and then one plaza away from that. The plaza on which they found themselves was a huddled flea market that reminded Saeed of the darker corners of the Afsana Bazaar.

Joshua entered the back of a low stall selling various items of houseware. Most were in need of repair or, it appeared, abandonment.

"Gimlet?" Joshua called. "Are you there?"

"Joshua?" came back a voice. "Is that you? Have you come for tea?"

A tiny, ancient goblin appeared from the mounds of broken pots, kettles, lamps and other sundries.

"I can stay for a cup," Joshua said, but I have a young man here who requires the use of the staircase, if that would be agreeable."

"What's anyone want to go down there for in daylight hours," Gimlet complained. "I only use 'em myself but once a month now. The people on the mortal side don't throw away nothing useful hardly ever any more."

"He has a chore to take care of," Joshua replied. "A tedious business, I will not bore you with details."

"No. Details are always most tiresome," Gimlet agreed. "Very well, this way."

Gimlet moved into the back of his low stall. In the far corner, hidden away behind stacks of junk, was the end of a spiral staircase. It lead downwards, after one turn the stairs were obscured with shadows. The head of the stairs was hung across with a grimy faded red velvet rope.

Gimlet unhooked the rope and motioned for Saeed to descend the stairs. Before he could take a step, however, Joshua put his hand on Saeed's shoulder.

"Turn the Shadow Timer over as you step from the lowest step. Vaskorn's platform will be in roughly the same location on the mortal side of the crossway as it is here. Do you know which way to run?"

"I do, Mister Joshua," Saeed answered. "I have a good sense of direction."

"I don't doubt it. Good luck Saeed, you will have to let me know how this endeavour worked out."

"Mister Joshua," Saeed said, "I am forever in your debt."

"Then you can repay me," Joshua said, "By rescuing that prince from Vaskorn's prison."

With those words Saeed descended down the cold metal staircase, into the gloom below the Patchwork Market. The further down Saeed went the colder the air became. At the foot of the stairs the light from above was very dim. Only a single shaft of light filtered down from Gimlet's stall far above. The shaft of light showed that the ground at the bottom of the stairs was bare earth. There were no clues as to whether the surroundings were a room or a cave. There was no sign that Saeed was standing at a crossway.

Bracing himself Saeed stepped from the stairway, at the same time he flipped the Shadow Timer.

Everything changed.

The floor Saeed stepped onto was not earth, but paved. Light flooded the scene, bright enough to make Saeed blink but not so bright that it blinded him. Saeed looked behind him to note that he appeared to have stepped down from a pair of stone steps barred by a metal gate. To Saeed's left the alley into which he had stepped terminated in a cluster of tight doorways. To his right the path opened out onto a brightly lit street.

Cautiously Saeed walked down the alley to reach the street. He could see strangely dressed people walking back and forth. There was nothing in their physical appearance to indicate that they were not regular folk. Before stepping out Saeed peeked around the corner of the alley way.

He was greeted by a low rumbling noise. A gigantic metal carriage rounded a corner up ahead. It growled and rolled quickly towards Saeed's location. Some form of magic powered the carriage because it had no animals drawing it forward. It was a weird looking thing, low to the ground, shining like a beetle. Saeed could see a mortal inside the carriage looking out of a single long window.

Saeed guessed that the magic powering the carriage had to be very potent, the carriage moved with incredible speed. It passed Saeed on his right side, the driver ignored him.

Once the metal carriage had disappeared from view Saeed took a second to get his bearings. If he headed in the direction the carriage had come from he should be nearer the location of Vaskorn's platform in Bridgetown.

Before moving Saeed checked the shadow timer, the sands were nearly halfway through. He hurried up the street. Up ahead of him a tall, grey building came into view. The design of the front entrance was not dissimlar to that of the Master's Tower back in the Patchwork Market. This building was much wider and more imposing.

On the far edge of the building was an open gate, steps lead down into a cellar area. Saeed slipped through the gate and started descending the steps.

"Hey! You! Excuse me!" a voice called out from down the street behind him.

Saeed turned to see who had addressed him. A man dressed in the manner of many of the more well-to-do patrons of Bridgetown hurried up behind him. He was red in the face from anger and puzzlement.

"You can't go down there," the man said. "That's not for members of the public."

"Many apologies, esteemed sir," Saeed said, grinning his most charming grin. "I do not think I am a member of the public. I am just a humble thief who has foresworn dishonesty. I am on a quest to rescue a prince and I must gain access to this area with much swiftness."

"Look, son," the man said. "If you want to see the exhibition then you have to come in the front way like everyone else. What's going on with your outfit? It's a bit cold not to be wearing a jacket."

"Alas, sir," Saeed replied. "Fate has not seen fit to furnish me with more appropriate garments. I would dearly love to enter this place by your desired entry point. Unfortunately the circumstances of my mission dictate that it is not to be." Saeed cast an eye down to the shadow timer, the last few grains of sand were running through. "I promise, I will not be in anyone's way, at least, not for very long."

With that Saeed turned, skipped down the last few steps and hurried through a door marked "staff only". He slipped inside the cellar of the building.

"Hoy!" the red-faced man called after him. "Stop! I said you can't go in there."

There was the sound of the door behind Saeed banging open as the man gave chase. Then, dark and eerie silence as the light in the area extinguished in a single moment. Saeed looked once more at the shadow timer. All the sands now lay still in the bottom bulb. The first part of the plan was over.

Saeed looked about himself trying to get his bearings. He was halfway along a dark corridor, lit with oil lamps spaced so far apart that they struggled to cut through the gloom. The way that Saeed had come was now a dead end, in the left hand wall by the end of the passage was a stout wooden door. A hatch was fixed over a small window cut into the door a head above Saeed's eye level.

"I know the look of a jail cell," Saeed muttered under his breath. He walked down the corridor and approached the door. He reached up and opened the hatch in the door. The meagre light spilling through the hatch roused a low moan from inside the cell.

"Prince Butterstone?" Saeed asked.

"Who's there?" said a voice from inside. The prince did not sound to be in the best of sorts.

"My name is Saeed," Saeed said. "I have been sent by your sister to aid in your escape."

"Are you invisible?" Prince Butterstone asked. "I cannot see you."

"I'm afraid not," Saeed replied. "Wait just a moment, I'll open the door."

The bolt for the cell was a stout iron bar shoved through a loop, locking down a metal shaft that extended three feet from the door's edge. Only the most supple of fakirs would have stood a chance of reaching out through the bars to pluck the bolt from its position.

Saeed, being outside the cell, walked over to the fitting and pulled the bolt out of the hole. The door swung open easily.

There was the sound of slow and painful movement from inside the cell. Prince Butterstone appeared at the doorway.

"Is this a joke?" he asked, his voice was weak but his irritation was clear.

Prince Butterstone did not look to be in the best of health. He had an ill-kempt tangled and matted beard that looked to be about a month's growth. He was painfully thin and his skin was sallow and shiny. He had to support his own weight by leaning on the jamb of the door.

"No joke, noble prince," Saeed said. "My size and stature belie my abilities. I flatter myself to think that I have skills in stealth. I am also known for my athletic dexterity."

"All of which would be great news if we needed someone to juggle knives," the prince complained. "I have to worry how we're going to deal with Sir Vaskorn."

"There are reinforcements waiting, sir," Saeed replied. "We must only ensure that any encounter with Sir Vaskorn or his agents produces a great deal of noise."

"Well," the prince said. "That certainly shouldn't be a problem. I hope your reinforcements are prepared for the fight of their lives."

"I am confident that this will be the case," Saeed said. He thought it wise not to mention that all he knew about these reinforcements was that they would be 'lucky'. The prince appeared to have had a hard few weeks. Saeed reasoned that the royal youth didn't need further concerns to add to his already extensive catalogue.

With the prince, if not happy, at least past caring about what would happen next Saeed lead him away from the cell through the cellar. Saeed, scouting ahead, got the impression that they were deep beneath the floor level of the platform. The first level was a 'C' shaped corridor with cell doors at all the corners. at the far end, opposite the cell door, was a stairwell.

The first two cellar levels were not guarded heavily. Saeed and the prince managed to get through them without too many difficulties. Saeed wasn't certain but he believed that the third cellar level was the one below ground level.

Unfortunately during the space of time it took for Saeed to scout ahead two men in armour had come down the stairs. They engaged in a lengthy bout of complaint at the stern demeanour of their employer.

Workplace gossip, fascinating as it was, did not indicate that these men would turn on the man who paid their livelihood. The way was blocked, the longer Saeed and the prince stayed still the greater their chance of discovery.

"We will have to find another way," Saeed whispered. "This is unfortunate, but I will get us through."

"You said you needed lots of noise?" the prince asked.

"Indeed, we must signal to your sister, who is in charge of the reinforcements," Saeed explained.

"I think I might be able to help," the prince said. "Follow me."

With the chance to taste freedom Prince Butterstone was coming back to his senses. He even looked a little like he was enjoying his new adventure, despite the evidence of his exhaustion. The prince led Saeed back the way they had come. They took a couple of corners that Saeed had identified as dead ends and went down a short flight of stairs. A passage at the foot of the stairs led round into a storage area piled high with crates, boxes and barrels.

"This will definitely be noisy," the prince said. "I hope your reinforcments are prepared to deal with an enraged Vaskorn."

The prince examined the outside of a few crates, picked one and opened it. He rolled a barrel to the foot of a ramp ending in a large pair of thick wooden doors. The doors were set at a slant to the roof indicating that they probably opened onto a service yard.

Then, using a crowbar that he found on a table to one side of the room, he opened the top of the barrel. Inside the barrel was full of black powder. The prince laid a trail of the black powder coming back to the doorway, round the corner and back to the bottom of the stairs.

"This could get messy," the prince said. "So we're going to have to be prepared. Maybe the whole place will come down on our heads. Are you ready?"

"What do you mean?" Saeed asked. He had never seen this black powder before and could not guess what it might be used for.

"Just..." the prince said, exasperated, "just... brace yourself."

The prince pulled a small, flat metal box from his breeches. Heopened the box and pulled out a tiny stick of wood, the end of the wood was coated in something black. Prince Butterstone drew the black stick roughly against the outside surface of the box. Saeed was amazed to see it burst into flame.

The prince touched the flame to the black powder. After a couple of seconds a stream of sparks lit up winding its way along the powder trail back to the storage area. The prince jammed his fingers hard into his ears and waggled his elbows, pointedly glaring at Saeed.

Saeed copied the prince. No amount of fingers rammed into ears could possibly have muted the explosion that erupted a second later. For a moment after the sound that rattled his organs Saeed could not move. His head was ringing, his brain had lost all ability to process information.

Prince Butterstone slapped Saeed's shoulder hard enough that the bottleneck of the senses cleared.

"Come on," the prince said. "Let's see how far we can get." The prince's voice appeared to be calling to Saeed from a great distance away, even though the man was stood right next to him. Saeed had no time for confusion, as the prince turned back to the storage cellar Saeed forced himself to follow.

The cellar room was a mess, splintered wood littered the floor. A cloud of shifting dust and smoke made it hard to see much. A brightly glowing patch of light spilled in through the door at the top of the ramp. The surface was tantalising feet away.

The escapees hurried across the space and scrambled up the smooth surface of the ramp. They emerged in the main courtyard of Vaskorn's plaza. Once Saeed could see past the cloud of dust and smoke rising from the storage room the sight that greeted him made his stomach drop.

Surrounding the exit were six heavily armed knights, lead by the imposing figure of Sir Vaskorn himself. The plaza's owner was six and a half feet tall, clad in a combination of plate and chain mail. His head appeared to be too small for his enormous neck. He did not appear, to Saeed's eyes, to be a man of cool temperament. Having a hole blown in his plaza had done nothing to soothe his spiky demeanour.

"Butterstoooooone!" Vaskorn cried. The knight was so beside himself with rage that he plucked one of his own men off the ground from beside him. Vaskorn threw the unfortunate mercenary towards the prince and Saeed.

Saeed ducked out of the way and the soldier flew past, screaming as he fell into the smoky cellar room below. Vaskorn's other men moved out of the reach of their furious master. Saeed looked up to see the prince, skirting the outside of the plaza, trying to dodge past a couple of Vaskorn's men.

Saeed wanted to help, he scrabbled on the floor and picked up a rock. Taking aim he threw it at the head of one of the guards attempting to block Prince Butterstone's escape route. Saeed didn't have many offensive tricks in his arsenal. His skill at pitching stones was no more than a desperate distraction measure. In this case the tactic paid off. The stone hit the mercenary on the right temple forcing him to cry out and close his eyes.

There was a loud cracking, splintering noise from nearby. Saeed turned to look in the direction of the sound. Vaskorn had torn a stake out of the ground. The pole was part of a set of stocks installed on one side of the plaza square. The enormous knight kicked some debris off the end and scooped up the five foot long wooden post to swing it like a bat.

The post caught the fleeing Prince Butterstone in the stomach. The blow sent the unfortunate youth flying into the air. The prince landed on his back a few feet away, winded and unable to move. Vaskorn took a great stride forward to swing his club down and kill the prince.

Princess, Saeed thought, where is the luck that we so sorely need?

The wooden post did not kill Prince Butterstone. Luck, being what it is, chose that precise moment to come into operation. For the how and the what, however, we will have to wait until next time.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Sir Cobb, The Prince, The Witch and The Moon Guardian

Frederick awoke to find that he was not dreaming. This concept had never presented him with an issue before. You dreamed while you were asleep, you woke up, you stopped dreaming.

It wasn't even as if he'd woken up anywhere different to the place that he'd fallen asleep. This was still a coaching inn, still solid wood beam roof, still a little cold because the heating was a little bit primitive. There, at last, was the core of Frederick's doubt and fear. Everything around him was a little bit primitive. He was taking a trip through a little bit primitive. A little bit primitive wasn't just a description of a state of being it was also a location that Frederick was visiting.

No sooner had he opened his eyes and heaved a sigh of resignation to this elongated twist in his journey than there came a knock at the door.

"Frederick, first light in an hour, time for food," Avan Weatherstrong's voice was barely muted by the wood of the door.

Avan Weatherstrong. It was a name, it was a sentence. It was a twelve volume epic that Frederick could neither have afforded to buy nor hoped to conceal from his parents. He had read tales of Avan Weatherstrong, of course. No boy nourishing dreams of heroism passed through life ignorant of the first Mage-Warrior-Prince. He was a man who spat in death's eye and cheated the devil himself (adventures related in volumes V and VII respectively).

Now, confronted with the man himself, the experience of Avan Weatherstrong was no less awesome. If anything, it was better. Avan Weatherstrong was no heroic caricature, he was not aloof, he was not proud, he was just an awesome guy.

Frederick did not come from a part of either world, man or folk, that knew what a bromance was. For this reason he was unaware that he was wrapped up in the middle of one. Not that he would have denied the fact even if he had known. Frederick was not such a fool as to deny an obvious truth.

"Frederick?" Avan's voice again. Frederick shook his head to clear it of the hero worship.

"There in a moment, go down without me," he shouted back.

The sound of a hero's assured tread padded away from the door towards the inn's staircase. It was followed by the creak of the steps as Avan went to enjoy his breakfast; a hero's breakfast.

This was the one problem Frederick was finding. Whenever Avan did anything it was always a hero's action. Whenever he said anything they were the words of a hero. Whenever he owned something it was always a hero's whatever-it-was. Frederick had always been wary at the prospect of meeting his heroes. He hated disappointment. In this case it had led to unimaginative adjectivisation.

Was adjectivisation even a word? Frederick suspected that it was not.

Frederick shoved his hero-worship issues to one side, rolled out of bed and put on his clothes. One thing he definitely missed on the road was laundry. You just couldn't get laundry done, even if you visited a city. The major problem was that, as a knight-errant, you owned the clothes you stood up in. He had yet to find a place which offered as much as a spare bathrobe on a rental basis. Such a garment was a must while the, usually smelly and disgusting, knightly garb was being freshened.

It was even worse in this age of legends place (although technically it was time travel time in Faerie is an elastic concept). There were no laundries and everything came with a frosting of dirt, or so it appeared to Frederick. His original knightly garb, which had just been his cooper's apprentice clothes, were gone. A leather jerkin and a couple of small bits of tatty armour, hadn't stood a chance after ten minutes at Avan Weatherstrong's side.

The worst part was that he had lost the comfortable breeches that his parents had gifted him when he turned fifteen. They had received a small tear on the left thigh whilst Avan had been training Frederick in rapier swordplay. Shortly afterwards the tear had snagged in the thorns of an evil living tree. As the tree tried to do to Frederick what Frederick usually did to cherry tomatoes the breeches had given up. By the time of their escape there wasn't enough of them left to make a handkerchief.

Frederick had been forced to cover his embarrasment with a spare blanket Avan carried on his horse. At the next city they had bought him some durable leather trousers to go with his jerkin. Avan had, in fact, acted the part of the stand up guy. He was a mentor and teacher to Frederick. He had covered Frederick's equipment budget without complaint. He brushed aside all objection with some rubbish about being dead if it weren't for Frederick's assistance.

Frederick was under no illusions. In the stories he remembered Avan Weatherstrong lived a long and happy life. None of those stories had featured a yuoung apprentice knight. The wise Sir Weatherstrong found his own domain. A land over which he had ruled wisely. Whatever was happening right now was some odd wrinkle in time and fate. The kind of thing that was best not dwelled upon if one wanted to avoid unnecessary tension headaches.

Dressed and ready Frederick went over to the basin in the corner of the room that he had filled last night and splashed some water on his face. It didn't do much more than to make the grime slide a little but it was a token effort in the direction of cleanliness.

Drying his hands Frederick had to work his way around the ring of fate, gifted to him all those months ago in the vampire swamp. The damn thing had only ever worked the once, after the vampire incident it had stuck fast to Frederick's finger. No matter how Frederick pulled at it the ring would not slide off.

Frederick wondered why this was. The sprite that had given it to him had told him it would accelerate Frederick's destiny. Since splitting him into over one hundred identical copies it had done nothing.

Something fell over in Frederick's brain. A thought so loud he was surprised it didn't make a noise. Maybe the ring was working. After all, how did one come to be training with the greatest knight legend had ever known? A gnome Frederick had fought in a cage match would have everyone believe it was a rogue nose tweak. Maybe it took a little more mischief to work something this big.

Or maybe not. Whatever the case the ring was stuck.

Focusing on the day a head a giddy mixture of excitement and apprehension washed over him. Feelings like this had become his constant companion these days. They followed Frederick as he went down to breakfast.

For a moment Frederick believed, upon entering the main lounge area of the inn, that his mentor was talking to himself. Then he spotted the tiny winged sprite, sat on top of a pepperpot, near to Avan's right elbow.

"...that does offer an explanation as to why the night is so dark," Avan was saying. "A cloud castle you say?"

A second wave of ambivalence washed over Frederick as he came to sit down opposite Avan and the sprite at the trestle. There was no doubt in his mind that Avan was finding something else for them to do. No doubt he was planning yet another daring deed that would see them wreathed in glory.

On the one hand Avan had a great eye for people in need. Frederick had made the discovery that the glory was nothing next to the sense that you had done something that would help people out. About four months ago, back in what he now considered to be 'the early days', Frederick had been happy to be busy. He had spent his first months as a knight stabbing bog fiends and burning cow-vampires.

People always appeared pleased with the standard of his work in these cases. Even so, Frederick had always felt that he was acting more in the capacity of pest exterminator than hero in those times. Then he'd slipped on that pesky ring of destiny. Straight after that he had gone through about three weeks where he had come as close as he had ever come to dying from countless injuries. The school of destiny taught hard lessons.

Then he had fallen through a gnome-portal into the crazy world of Avan Weatherstrong. Now he had received twelve weeks of top-flight tuition from history's most cherished hero. He was not at all ungrateful for this fact. He had to admit that the constant assault of evil sorcerers, ogres, witches, giants and so on was tiring.

These were none of your trench-ghouls or minor trolls. Every bad guy Avan found was your top-of-the-line  detestable evil-doer. Frederick now knew a little something about handling a case of any major malignance. He could diagnose the ills that blighted lands to be found in a variety of terrains. They were averaging something in the region of one every one and a half days. The count of wickedness vanquished was something like forty villains trounced in the last sixty days.

Weatherstrong and Cobb, cleansing the world of wrong-doers two days in three.

Frederick supped at his bowl of warm oatmeal. It didn't matter about the numbers, it was exhausting.

"Chastity Angelwing here was just telling me about a cloud kingdom above this very domain," Avan said to Frederick. This was code for 'today we are going to go and kill something that lives in a cloud kingdom'. "Hope you're full of energy today, Sir Cobb."

Chastity Angelwing looked into Frederick's droopy, water-blue eyes as he masticated some salty oats. Frederick did not get the sense that she was reassured about his competence from her survey.

"'Salright," he said to her after he'd swallowed. "I'm just the sidekick. I'm even more underwhelming before I've had my morning tea."

"Sir Cobb," Avan chipped in, his voice ringing with sincerity, "is so much more than a sidekick. He has saved my life on nine separate occasions, no less."

Chastity was clearly still far from convinced but the look of disdain on her face softened a little.

"Many hands can make for light work," Frederick said. He didn't know whether he even necessarily believed in that platitude. He felt he had to make at least some token gesture of reassurance. Of course, it was Frederick and Avan that would be putting their lives on the line over this cloud kingdom business. So what Chasitity Angelwing needed reassuring for was anybody's guess.

Three hours later, not even nine in the morning, Frederick and Avan tumbled from the basket that had lifted them upwards. The rather cramped transportation hauled into the sky by a gross of grateful sprites. This favour had delivered them over the lip of the cloud kingdom. They picked themselves up to survey the scale of the task that lay before them. For their part the sprites fled the limits of this dangerous land.

Frederick had heard of cloud kingdoms, of course. No student of heroic literature could avoid such an education. He could never have imagined the reality so distinctly. He found himself standing on the lip of verdant greensward that, upon its border dissolved into puffs of soft, white cloud. Rainbows danced through the mists here and there. Off in the far distance Frederick could see a place where a waterfall tipped over the edge of this bright and beautiful land. The flow dissolved into cloud vapour before it could have fallen twenty feet.

"It's beautiful," Frederick breathed, filled with awe at the breathtaking view.

"They always are," Avan said, a note of caution clear in his voice. "It's just a shame that the inhabitants are rarely friendly." He took a moment to look about. "The castle will be that way," he said, pointing in what seemed, at least to Frederick's eyes, to be an arbitary direction. "We'd best be about our business."

"What _is_ our business?" Frederick asked, following Avan along the meadow where they had landed towards the edge of a pleasant wooded area. "I would have asked earlier but we were always knee deep in sprites. They tend to get a little... emotional... when discussing evil things."

"You've learned a lot," Avan smiled. "It's good to see, Frederick."

"Um, thank you," Frederick said, feeling the heat of embarrasment set his cheeks aglow.

"The witch Dumita Fellcraven has seized this cloud kingdom as her domain," Avan explained. "She has imprisoned the moon. She has done this in order to enact an plan. She means to plague the land below with a bestiary of creatures that thrive only in dark places."

"Why would she do that?" Frederick asked before the more pressing question came to his mind. "And... imprison the moon? How would you imprison the moon? I mean, it's the moon."

"The moon isn't one thing, Frederick," Avan said. "I thought everybody knew that."

"When I was in Bellespire," Frederick said. "I visited a cheese emporium, La Lune De Fromage Vert. They said they dispatched miners to the moon in little wooden tubes fired from a gigantic cannon. They said that the moon is made of green cheese. I bought a cube, it was quite pricey, and a little tangy for my liking."

"Well, it is entirely possible that the moon over Bellespire is made of green cheese. I'm sure you can send miners to it firing them in a wooden tube from a giant cannon," Avan said. "I know that I once had to deliver a silver short sword to a Moon Maiden. She received me in the court of a gigantic spherical palace cast in filigree of shining silver. I believe you have made acquaintance of the same lady."

"Oh, you mean my..." Frederick's brain was racing, that always made him feel giddy. He took a moment for a deep breath. "You gave the moon maiden my sword."

"Ay," Avan said, grinning. "Destiny is a strange thing. I once had a brief moment to converse with the Norns. I would tell you what they said to me, save that I didn't understand a word of it."

"I have a ring of destiny," Frederick said. "It's been nothing but trouble. I imagine you noticed that as well."

Avan held up his left hand, encircling his little finger was a ring of destiny. It was cut  differently to Frederick's own but unmistakeable in its hue and design.

"Two knights, both with a ring of destiny, adventuring together. Both having handled the same magic sword," Frederick mused. "What do you think are the chances of that happening?"

"In the pattern of the weave? Given the power of destiny?" Avan replied. "Best not to think about it, could distract you at the vital moment."

So Frederick didn't think about it. He followed his heroic mentor on their journey. A journey towards a castle that Frederick did not doubt lay ahead of them in the cloud kingdom.

Frederick was right to have faith in his companion. By noon they were approaching the forbidding walls of an enormous castle-fortress. Avan studied the high granite walls with a look of apprehension.

"It's built to a large scale," Frederick noted. "Do you think there are giants."

"Giants don't work for evil witches," Avan said. "But giants definitely built this castle. It's their style of architecture."

"So, what?" Frederick asked, puzzled.

"This witch drove the giants away," Avan said. "Or killed them. Either way that's bad news for us... good news also."

"How is facing a witch who can kill or exile giants from their own castle any sort of a good thing?" Frederick asked.

"Oh, that's not," Avan said, his tone light. "Giants like their accomodations dry. They have a tendency to suffer from many damp-related conditions. They're masters of efficient drainage. Witches, by and large, don't care about drainage. They tend to leave the extensive sewer systems unguarded."

An hour and a half later Frederick was swiping his sword clean of green-black ichor. The sticky mess had spouted, in great profusion, from the corpse of a sewer gremlin. The last of seven sewer gremlins that they had encountered in the tunnels beneath the castle. He was not angry at the encounter but he was a little confused by it.

"I thought you said the witch would leave this place unguarded," he said to Avan, irritation leaking through in his tone.

"They weren't guarding this place," Avan said. "They'd just taken advantage of the quiet times since the witch took over and, oh-"

"Oh what?" Frederick asked, he finished off cleaning the blade and stowed his short sword back in its scabbard. He looked over to see his partner stood at the wrong end of a long, curving blade, the design unfamiliar to Frederick's eyes. Holding the blade firm on the legendary prince was a small, athletic figure clad almost entirely in black. Two large, black, possibly female eyes stared out from the tight wrapping that enclosed the woman's head.

"Uh," Frederick said. "Can we help you?"

"You work for the evil one," the woman said. There was a strange accented inflection to her voice. She came from a place that Frederick had never been, the weapon, her garb and now her voice all told Frederick this.

Frederick had learned a thing or two about people from faraway lands during his travels. The first was that you couldn't presume anything when it came to their culture. For example, it might encourage them to behave like crazy people if you didn't treat them with respect. The second was that you would have no idea what action would lead them to believe they had been disrespected. Standing very still and talking slowly and clearly was often a safe bet, nothing was universal. Frederick had to take his chances.

"We were attacked by gremlins," Frederick said. "We're all on the same side here."

Of course, the woman in black hadn't stated which side she was on. It would be unusual to refer to your boss as 'the evil one', but it wasn't entirely unheard of.

"Unless," Avan supplied unhelpfully. "You work for the evil one. In which case we are here to kill your mistress."

Frederick let go of a sigh. Avan was a great guy but sometimes he was too straightforward.

"Why would you tell me this?" the woman asked. "If I do work for the evil one now I will kill you."

"You will try," Avan said.

"Maybe I will," the woman said and thrust her sword forward. Avan ducked and rolled away from the blade. Somehow he managed to pluck his own sword from the body of the last gremlin he had dispatched as he did so. He sprung to his feet swinging the sword down in a heavy parry even as the woman swung round on a second strike.

"Uh," Frederick said as the two traded sword blows in the confines of the tunnel. "Ah."

The fight didn't last long, after a few swings by both parties they split apart, looking set to regroup and come at it again. Frederick wasn't standing for any more nonsense he stood between them.

"What are you doing?" the woman asked. "Stand aside."

"Stop!" Frederick said firmly, splitting his attention between the two impromptu opponents. Once he was sure that Avan was not going to stab him in an accidental opening thrust he turned his attention towards the woman in black. "Are you intending to kill the evil one?" he asked.

"I fully intend to skewer her black heart with the blade of my father's daito," the woman said. Frederick would have to award her full marks for intensity.

"Well, okay," Frederick said. "Then perhaps we could spend a little less time squabbling in a sewer and a little more getting on with our mission then, together. I'm guessing that the witch in the giant castle will find killing us all together a little harder than as individuals. Particularly if we manage to keep from killing each other right now, don't you agree?"

"I travel alone, my target is for my blade only," the woman snarled.

"Well, Avan and I are only here to, uh, rescue the moon," Frederick said. "So if you want to get all stabby and emotional with the witch I, um, guess that's entirely your thing, right?" Frederick turned for support to Avan.

Avan had a strange look on his face, grimly troubled and, at the same time, angry and frustrated. He sheathed his sword, shifted his gaze to Frederick and inclined his head.

"You're a wise man, indeed, Sir Cobb," he said. "I will resolve my own differences with our new 'friend' after the moon is safe."

Differences? Frederick thought. Avan was usually very level-headed and gentlemanly. He didn't start fights with girls, even girls dressed all in black with scary huge weird swords. Frederick made a mental note to ask his companion about this later. For now, it seemed, peace had been restored.

The peace lasted for another forty-five minutes. At which point they had gained access to the central hall of the giant's castle and a truly epic battle ensued.

It transpired that Dumita Fellcraven had siphoned off large amounts of blue plasma from the moon. In this place, Frederick noted, the moon resembled a large blue-white sphere of energy the witch had bound in a cage. Fellcraven laid about herself freely with scorching balls of blue fire. So it took the combined acroboatic and martial skills of both Avan and the woman in black to keep Dumita occupied.

Meanwhile Frederick hacked at the lock of the cage. Frederick frantically swung over and over in his attempts to hack apart the stout lock on the cage door.

"Is that a moon blade?" asked a voice from the moon's direction.

"Uh, possibly," Frederick panted. "I got it from a moon maiden."

"Oh, how wonderful," the voice replied. "So you're here to help?"

"I'm trying to break the lock on the cage," Frederick said.

"Well, I don't know," the voice emerging from the dazzling blue white light at the limit of the moon's energy sphere, said. "Nobody's been a friend to me since the witch forced the giants to haul us from our mounting."

"Us?" Frederick grunted, seeing the lock was on the point of splitting apart. "Who's us?"

"The moon and me," the voice said. "I guard the moon, although the giants were too much for me. This cage is enchanted. Once I am free I will be able to take my revenge on the evil one."

"That's great," Frederick said. "Really, I'm very happy. Let me just get this last... bother..."

Frederick made an extra special effort, ignoring the pain in his aching muscles. The swing went off centre and glanced off the cage bars.

"We will, of course, be immensely grateful for this service," the moon's guardian continued. "How will we be able to repay your kindness?"

"Unless you can return me to the place that I came from," Frederick said. "I think I'm really just doing this for experience."

"What place did you come from?" asked the moon's guardian.

"Not so much a place," Frederick said, lining up his moon blade for one final swing. "More a time. After this. The adventures of my companion, Prince Weatherstrong, are a legend in the time I come from."

"Oh, is that so?" the moon guardian asked.

Frederick did not answer, instead swinging down with all the strength h could muster. He let go a mighty cry as he broke the lock on the cage. The door swung open and the moon began to drift forward.

From the floor Dumita Fellraven paused in her continued plasma assault. She turned to see her prize floating free from its bonds.

"No!" she screamed. "No! No!"

"Yes," said the woman in black and thrust her sword into the witch's chest.

"And everybody gets what they want," Avan breathed, exhausted by his battle with the witch.

"Not quite," said the voice of the moon guardian. "I know that the young man who broke me free is lost far from home. The moon and I would like to offer him a chance to return to the place from whence he came."

"You would?" Frederick asked. "How?"

"We, of course, have to return to our place in the great sky-machine," the moon guardian said. "In a short while, if my time-keeping is correct, and it always is, we will come within close proximity to the cloud of wishing stars. You can ride a wishing star home, if you make your wish when you climb on board. The way may not be straight, but it will surely put you on the path to where you need to be."

"That," Frederick said. "Would be incredible."

"Well, Sir Cobb," Avan said. "It would appear as if our time to travel together has come to its close. I would not stand in the way of your journey home, my friend."

"I wasn't expecting it to come so soon," Frederick said. "But I have to take this chance."

"Of course, Sir Cobb, of course," Avan said. "Destiny's tides are fast and strong, we must accept her gifts even as we weather her storms."

"You talk like a fortune cookie," said the woman in black, her narrowed eyes turning from the body of the witch to Avan once more.

"I don't know what that means," Avan admitted.

"You have never seen the Pheban Empire," the woman said. "It would humble you, overblown knight."

"Then maybe you should take me to your land and teach me to be humble," Avan said moving over to stand facing the woman.

Frederick suddenly understood the strange energy between his mentor and the woman in black. Avan Weatherstrong had fallen in love with a pair of dark eyes wrapped entirely in black cloth. Maybe it was best that Frederick was starting on his path home.

"You could not keep up with the pace set by Kal'hath of Phebe," the woman taunted him.

"That is a challenge I shall be happy to meet," Avan replied. The atmosphere in the room was becoming close, Frederick bristled with awkwardness.

"Your friends appear to be... passionate," the guardian of the moon said.

"You wouldn't believe they only met an hour ago, would you?" Frederick asked.

"Maybe we had best leave them to work out their differences," the guardian suggested. "We do need to return to the great sky-machine."

"Yes, absolutely," Frederick said. "Hey!" he called out to Avan. "I need to go!"

Avan turned his attention away from Kal'hath. He turned a broad smile in his companion's direction.

"One day I hope we meet again," Prince Weatherstrong said. "Or, if fate is not so kind, I hope to read tales of the great deeds of Sir Cobb in a stout story book."

"I hope you do," Frederick said. "Because it would mean I lived."

"Oh, you will live, Frederick Cobb, you will most certainly live," Avan Weatherstrong said.

The prince was right. Frederick travelled from the great sky-machine through the fringe lands. He made his way back to Bridgetown to continue his adventures. But those are all tales for another time.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

How Cressidia Ended Up Watching The Shop

...even as small as he was Sir Cobb used the potion of strength to lift the book of spells above his head and cast it into the fire. Perdita Baleclaw howled with pain and anguish to see the source of her power consumed in flames but it was too late.

Along with her power the wicked sorceress lost her pleasant appearance. The weight of the years she had cheated withered her in an instant. Within a few moments all that was left of Perdita Baleclaw was the impervious ice of her blackened crystal heart.

Already feeling the strength begin to ebb from his tired, aching muscles, Sir Cobb raced to the frozen heart. He scooped it up from the nest of ashes, the witch's remains. The heart was so cold that it burned his hands, turning his fingertips blue. Sir Cobb ignored the discomfort. The young knight carried the prize to his mentor and companion.

Avan Weatherstrong's skin burned red, the sweat that would have cooled his body was turning to steam. Sir Cobb was afraid that it was already too late. Using the magical resizing mirror he inverted the lens and attained his full size once more.

Without time for decorum Sir Cobb pressed the frozen heart hard against the prince's cheek. The cold of the heart was all that could fight the infernal poison in Avan's veins. His strength failing fast Frederick pressed the heart to his friend's skin. He kept it there until Avan could reach up and grasp the crystal for himself...

"You look annoyed," Rachel said, "and puzzled. Yes, definitely, puzzled... and annoyed. Is everything alright?"

Tabarnas broke his attention away from his reading book.  Rachel had entered the little study nook he had made for himself. He had built it in the model throne room, deep inside the replica of Caer Frogfellow. If just about anyone else had interrupted him he would have found himself seriously irritated. As it stood he was, in fact, just annoyed, but not with her, and it was true he was puzzled.

In Tabarnas's life there had never been anyone with whom he could share the magic of stories on a regular basis. Not until Rachel had come along. He told as many tales as he could for a coin in the market but he was a goblin merchant, not a showman. These encounters were singular and often more of a free gift than a matter of trade.

On the rare occasion that Tabarnas could sneak away he would visit the Circus Quarter. There he would pay to hear more stories, or old stories told with flair, by the professionals. The story tellers plied their trade amongst the coloured tents of the market's most frivolous area. He had a special place in his heart for such theatrics. Even so, Tabarnas much preferred to read a story from a leather-bound volume. This made him feel as if he somehow 'owned' the story.

Books were rare in Faerie. Most of the folk could read a notice, a proclamation or a road sign, but they lacked the  powers of concentration to read a whole story. This is one of the reasons why Tabarnas was particularly keen on the tales of Avan Weatherstrong. The Prince who had become the first Lord Sommerslip had defeated the evil ogre Urbegor. He founded the Faerie Archive over the remains of the ogre's tower.

The Faerie Archive was the one place in Faerie dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the written word. Avan Weatherstrong was more than a brave and handsome prince to Tabarnas, he was a role model and a hero.

Goblin merchants, by and large, did not really subscribe to notions of heroism. Nor did the have role models, except insofar as having them helped to get product into the hands of paying customers. Tabarnas was not a usual goblin merchant. Sometimes he suspected that he could be some kind of a reverse changeling. Maybe his true goblin merchant parents brought him up as a true goblin merchant but always to nurse a secret shame.

Tabarnas had made peace with his story habit long ago, he loved his stories without shame. He still kept out of Cressidia's way when he was reading. She found the whole business distasteful and upsetting.

Today Tabarnas may have had an inkling what that felt like. While thumbing through one of his favourite story books he had seen something new and different. He didn't know what it meant and he didn't like it.

"The stories," Tabarnas said. "They've changed."

"What do you mean, silly?" Rachel asked sitting down on a model chair set off to the side of the throne room.

"I've read all twelve volumes of the Tales of Avan Weatherstronge," Tabarnas explained. "I have read them more than once. I am currently reading about his exploits in volume four. That's the one with the tale of Seditas Wolfjaw, the evil sorcerer who enslaved the land of Frogfellow, you remember? This is a scale replica of the castle."

"I remember that you said there _was_ a story," Rachel replied. "You didn't tell the story because I didn't want to hear it, and I still don't."

"Well, fine," Tabarnas said. "Because I remember exactly what happened last time I read it and it's not what happened this time."

"I don't understand," Rachel said.

"Neither do I!" Tabarnas wailed. "There's a whole section of the chronicle that's completely different. In the tale of 'How Avan Weatherstrong Defeated Seditas Wolfjaw' a young knight falls out of nowhere. He just appears above the fountain in the courtyard, accompanied by a gnome, no less.

"They team up to defeat the sorcerer. This is an incident that never took place in the original. Then they go on to have several adventures together. This is all in the service of returning the young knight to his home destination.

"These adventures are sometimes completely original. At other times they're ones I recognise but they resolve very differently. like this one: 'How Avan Weatherstrong Vanguished Perdita Baleclaw'. Avan Weatherstrong always uses the sorceress's frozen crystal heart to cure the infernal poison. He didn't have help before, he never needed help. The last time I read it he used a potion of invisibility. With his last few breaths he managed to cast the Book of Spells into the fire, only able to stand with the help of his sword."

"Maybe you just remembered wrong," Rachel said.

"I have read all the Tales of Avan Weatherstronge! At least twenty times apiece, I'll have you know," Tabarnas snapped. "These stories are different, it's upsetting."

"It's upsetting," said Rachel, "that you don't know why. Maybe you should ask the person who wrote them about it. Maybe they're supposed to refresh themselves from time to time. It could be magic."

"I should..." Tabarnas couldn't speak, it was as if Rachel had set off a firework inside his mind. The thought of meeting the author of his favourite twelve volume chivalric epic had never before occurred to him. The thought that his books could be magic had not occurred to him. There were about a dozen other things about Rachel's suggestion that had not occurred to him. If he were going to sit and think about them now then he would have no room left in his head to make his mouth work.

The bloom of hope and excitement at the unexpected prospect of a quest burst into colourful life within his mind. So Tabarnas dutifully took a mental hobnail boot and crushed it back down again.

"Impossible," he said. "I have to stay here and help mind the stall."

"So," Rachel said. "You've never left Bridgetown? You've never left the Master's Island?"

"Well, when we were younger, of course," Tabarnas said. "Cressie and I would go for a trip along the trade roads. We would move some stock we didn't find so useful, receive some stock that we knew would find a profit back home. We used to take a year out of every ten. Of course that was before we got this pitch on the Master's Island. We're only seventy paces from Kalico's door here. We can't give that up. Besides, Cressie never liked travelling, she said it gave her the vapours."

"How did you feel?" Rachel asked. "And what are vapours?"

"I don't know what vapours are," Tabarnas said. He didn't want to answer the other question. He knew that if he told Rachel that he loved travelling, meeting people and having adventures he would never hear the end of it.

"So you liked the travelling then," Rachel said. This was the girl's problem, she was far too sharp for her own good.

"Well, it doesn't matter if I did or if I didn't. We're not giving up a pitch under a hundred paces from Kalico's door at our age," Tabarnas snapped. "Besides Cressie wouldn't want to go travelling at her age. The vapours would plague worse than ever."

"Well, she could always stay here and mind the pitch," Rachel shrugged. "That way everyone gets something they want."

"Don't be ridiculous," Tabarnas said. "Cressie and I are business partners, that's the closest and strongest bond two goblin traders can share."

"Yet, in the couple of days I've been here I've never seen you spend more than five minutes in one another's company," Rachel said. "You both take advantage of the vast amount of space available in your stacks."

"I don't know what you mean," Tabarnas said. There was a small spark of exuberant joyful hope kindling in his chest. Tabarnas had become used to the idea that anything nice that happened to him was an accident, not deliberate. He had become used to a world in which no one cared what Tabarnas Riseandshine wanted, they all only cared about themselves.

At that thought a filthy, slimy morsel of bad faith dropped out of the upper shadows of Tabarnas's mind.  Despite the misanthropic nature of the thought he couldn't help but believe in its truth.

"What do you care anyway?" he asked Rachel, warming to his bad mood. "Why should it make any difference to you whether I take the trader's wagon along the routes one more time? Why do you want me to be happy?" He peered over the top of his reading spectacles into Rachel's innocent, brown eyes. "What do you get out of it?" he asked grimly.

"Well," Rachel said, looking down at the floor and chewing on her bottom lip. Tabarnas was right, she did want something. In that moment Tabarnas learnedthat being right did not necessarily equate to being happy about the fact. "I did come to see you about Eos. I was talking to her. She's been trapped in that tank now for about six months, she's rather claustrophobic. So I was wondering when it was you were going to release her, and how you were going to manage it. So, if we were to go on a trip..."

"...Then you could set the fish girl free in the ocean along the way," Tabarnas said. He tried to project a tone of  moral superiority. One appropriate catching someone who was up to something. As it turned out she was 'up to' trying to help out a claustrophobic mermaid he felt his moral indignation lacked a certain punch.

"Also," Rachel said. "I would like to see if I could find James. I'm worried about him."

"Oho!" Tabarnas crowed, playing the triumph for all it was worth. "So you don't want to come with me on a trade journey that would also cast light onto my misbehaving story books? You just want to put cod lips back in the ocean and find your little mouse. You thought that you could sucker me into taking you along on that ride, did you?"

"Well, you said you liked to travel," Rachel said, there was a quaver in her voice and it had become breathy. Tabarnas was wrestling with an odd dizzy feeling. He also had a sensation like someone had punched him in the gut with a fist full of feathers. "I just thought... if everybody had a job to do... and I can't help it... James is... James is my dearest friend... I lay awake last night because I couldn't sleep... because... what if... I mean... he's just a mouse and..."

The jumble of thought and emotion overwhelmed Rachel, she sat on the chair and dissolved into great heaving sobs.

Tabarnas rifled through his extensive memories for instructions on what to do when you had been a blustering idiot. An idiot who had moved an innocent little girl to tears. He found that someone must have borrowed these instructions and not returned them. All he could do was stand still, helpless, allowing his shoulders to sink and his chest to deflate. He had not been defeated but he had lost.

"Good going, foolish flim flammer," said Micras flying in at the window. "What's your follow up trick? Liberating sweetmeats from a baby's crib."

"I didn't know she was going to cry," Tabarnas snapped waspishly.

"What did he say?" Micras asked Rachel as he flapped down to perch on the top of the throne. "What's all this hoo-hah about?"

"I'm sorry," Rachel said. "I didn't mean to cry. I miss James. I'm sorry."

"So," Micras said, "you're bullying sad little girls who have lost their closest friends. How is that good for business?"

"It's not," Tabarnas admitted, sitting down on the edge of the dais under the throne. "I was trying to work out why she would be suggesting that I take the trader's wagon out of storage and go on a merchant's trail. She said we could stop off at the Faerie Archive on the way to ask why my favourite stories are misbehaving."

"Do you not want to do that?" Micras asked.

"Well, I... well, of course I do," Tabarnas said shocked into honesty by the direct question. "It sounds like a very pleasant idea. I have always wanted to visit the archive."

"So why did you think it would be a good idea to make Rachel cry over suggesting it?" Micras asked.

"Uh, I didn't. I mean I didn't mean to, I mean... look, we'll go and find the wagon, we'll hitch up the mermaid's tank, we'll look for James, we'll do it. Cressie can stay behind and mind the pitch. I'm sure she'd be pleased of the peace, anyhow."

"You will? We will?" Rachel said, still a bit sniffly but now, at least, smiling.

"As the owl pointed out," Tabarnas said. "It would be foolish not to."

"You have something else to say," Micras said to Tabarnas. "Before we leave this place."

"I do?" Tabarnas said. He thought he'd covered everything, "What's that?"

"Don't you think that for acting like such a foolish buffoon you should apologise?" Micras asked.

All eyes were on Tabarnas, and although that was only four eyes in total it still felt like rather a lot. Tabarnas felt some sort of colour, likely a sickly beetroot, making his cheeks glow.

"Uh, but, goblin traders, they, um, don't..." he said.

"As I understand matters," Micras said sternly, "goblin traders don't read storybooks. You've had no problem doing that."

"Oh," Tabarnas said. "Well, in that case, I'm very sorrugh."

"Not to me," Micras said, "to the little girl you made cry, and don't mumble the important word."

"Um, right," Tabarnas said. Feeling about as awkward as he'd ever felt in his entire life he turned to Rachel. "I'm very sorreh," he said, not quite being able to get the final 'y' to come out straight, "that I made you cry."

"Apology accepted," Rachel said happily. "Now, are we going to find the trader's wagon?"

On the long walk from Mini Caer Frogfellow to the garage, deep in the stacks, Tabarnas had a chance to reflect upon what had just happened. In his long life Tabarnas had never made anyone cry before, at least not about any matter that wasn't purely financial. Tabarnas had never felt guilt before. He had never found himself with a need to apologise before. Since he had signed the partnership contract he had never considered leaving his partner's side.

Now he got the novelty of not knowing how he felt about that. Cressidia and he had never been what someone might describe as close. Despite this they had bailed each other out of trouble on more than one occasion, as business partners should. If Tabarnas was to be honest he had probably had more requirement for bailing out than Cressie. Even so, she had never tried to have the contract broken. In goblin merchant terms this was a clear indication that she must be fond of him. He knew in his heart that he was not the world's most efficient and value-driven partner.

All this had started when he met Rachel. Had he known what telling her that story would lead to he might have kept his mouth shut. Then again, maybe he was having fun. It was either fun or a peculiar sort of indigestion.

In one short day at the market he had rescued a mermaid, lost a mouse, given shelter to a lost little girl and rehomed an owl. That was to say nothing of the incident yesterday evening with the acrobatic street thief. He hadn't actually seen any of that. They did say that one day in the Patchwork Market was enough to turn your world on its head. Usually that applied to the customers, not to the merchants.

Hadn't Rachel mentioned a gnome? And a wish? Gnomes, generally speaking, did not grant wishes. If a gnome was granting a wish that meant that it was a new gnome. If it was a new gnome then it was likely to be out of control, spewing mischief into the world. It was clear to Tabarnas that he was a victim of such mischief right now.

As he found the entrance to the garage, covered over with a large sheet of tarpaulin. He gripped the edge firmly and  lifted the canvas to one side. He would have liked to whip the cover away with a dramatic flourish but feared that he may dislocate his shoulder doing so.

Underneath the canvas a pair of battered wooden doors leaned against a pile of crates at an angle. Rachel poked her head between the edge of the door and the next stack to look at the gap of the angle. Tabarnas could see her puzzled expression by peering down the other side. His face was hurting, he realised that's because he was smiling.

"I don't understand," Rachel said. "What are these doors for?"

"An alchemist of Almanreik once had an idea for a magical barn," Tabarnas explained. "You put the space into a special pocket in the ether anchored to a doorframe. Then attach some lockable doors and, hey presto, instant storage space. The only problem was that they were quite pricey. The process for attaching a barn sized space to a set of doors was very complex and took a lot of time. This is one of only maybe five hundred ever made. Look."

Tabarnas moved around to the front of the garage. He fished the key from the appropriate pocket in his waistcoat to unlock the doors. The doors swung back to reveal the space beyond.

Rachel's mouth described the expected little 'o' as she beheld the gigantic space.  She marvelled at this tiny pocket dimension stowed away behind the door jamb. A smell of dust and aging (although well-preserved) metals wafted out from the gigantic space. The doors were tilted at an angle but the floor of the barn was perfectly straight. From inside the doors appeared to be upright, even though they weren't. Alchemists were tricky fellows for certain.

"Go on," Tabarnas said, "take a look around."

Rachel took a few steps into the barn, looking up and around, her eyes like saucers. She approached the large shape in the centre of the space, also covered by a sheet of canvas.

"Is this-?" she didn't finish the question. Tabarnas guessed that she was still trying to fit the space beyond the doors into her mind. That could easily occupy parts of the brain usually reserved for asking questions.

"The Trader's Wagon," Tabarnas nodded. "I'll have to find a couple of golems to help me move the doors but I think it should all be in fine fettle."

"So we're really going?" Rachel asked. "We're going to find James? And we're going to take Eos home?"

"And we're definitely stopping off in Sommerslip, yes. I shall ask questions about my story book," Tabarnas said. "Although obviously, we have to clear it with Cressie first."

As it turned out clearing things with Cressida was not as hard a job as Tabarnas had believed that it might be. Tabarnas had never broached the idea of going off somewhere by himself. He'd always believed that Cressie would not stand for it.

As it happened Cressida's business sense totally overrode any sentimentality in her character. As soon as she understood what it was Tabarnas was flapping about she  immediately produced a list she had made. A list of stock that she believed needed to be taken away for any chance of a sale.

She set eight clay golems about retrieving the stock to place on the wagon. Then she located two more iron golems to move the doors into the yard between the pitches. By late afternoon the wagon was loaded with stock for the road, so there was only one problem remaining.

"Where are we going to sleep?" asked Rachel, looking into the stuffed interior of the covered caravan.

It was true that Cressida may have underestimated the amount of stock that she had earmarked for the travelling stall. There was barely room for Rachel to stand in the wagon, let alone for her and Tabarnas to find somewhere to sleep.

"Oh, yes," Tabarnas said. "That is a problem. We may have to leave some things behind."

"Ridiculous," Cressida snapped. "I thought you wanted to take your silly books with you."

"Of course," Tabarnas replied. "That's one of the reasons we're going."

"Well, you keep them all in that magic doll's house thing, the castle. Why don't you sleep in there?"

"Oh yes!" Rachel said. "That would work. Besides, I'd love to sleep in a castle, even a toy one."

"But... thieves," Tabarnas said. "How will we guard the stock if we're miniaturised inside a toy castle?"

"You don't think I'm looking to a little girl and a foolish old goblin to protect our stock on the road are you?" Cressida asked, desbelief ringing in her voice.

"Well, I..." Tabarnas said.

"No, don't even bother talking!" Cressida said sharply. "You know listening to idiocy gives me earache. Of course you'll take Ferris and Gerda, they can stay in the castle by day and watch the wagon at night."

"But what if you need help here in the market?" Tabarnas asked.

"We have eight stone golems," Cressie shrugged. "And we're in the Master's Quarter. That means that we're surrounded by the Master's Watch. If we're honest Ferris and Gerda have been more ornamentation than security since we got this pitch."

Tabarnas had to agree. He closed the door on the back of the wagon and climbed up onto the front of the wagon.

"Um, Tabarnas, what about horses?" Rachel asked. "How are we going to go anywhere without horses."

"Horses are expensive to keep, girl," Tabarnas replied. "The trader's wagon cost Cressie and I a great deal but we don't have to pay for feed, watch."

Tabarnas picked up the reins and flicked his wrist. From the front of the cart sprang two wooden shafts. From each of these sprang a startling profusion of metal plates, all attached to hinges, levers and axles. As the wagon's steed assembled itself in front of Cressida and Rachel there was a loud noise. It sounded like someone rattling a dozen cutlery drawers whilst someone else was banging a hammer against a sheet of metal.

After just a few seconds a gigantic, colourful metal horse stood in front of the trader's wagon. Tabarnas flicked the reins a second time and the mechanical horse pulled the wagon out of the storage barn to stand in the yard. The wagon complained a little as it began to move, probably because the golems had loaded it up from roof to rafters. The time the wagon had spent in the barn can't have done it too much harm. As tje cart started off it creaked and complained. By the time the steed had brought it into the yard it appeared to have settled on its axles.

"Come on then," Tabarnas said to Rachel as Ferris and Gerda started moving Eos's tank around to hook it onto the back of the wagon. "Hop up and we'll be off to find adventure."

"And to make us a good deal of profit," Cressidia said her tone still sharp.

"Of course, dear, of course," Tabarnas said a smile painted from ear to ear. And they did both, but those are all stories for another time.