Chapter 15, Friday Evening, June 6
Leading the errant mules, the three adventuresses and one friar passed the gate to the Withers Estate heading east again, just as it was starting to get dark. The moon was not yet up, but there was an odd phosphorescence about the place.
In the dim shadows at the end of the drive, around the fountain in the courtyard, two small figures could be seen moving about in the shadows. The friar pointed. “Look, it’s the Rouge girls!” He pushed open the rusty gate with a groan. “Girls! Rose! Gloss! Come here! It’s me, Friar Tuck!”
The two figures stood up and peered down the long drive at the friar, then they looked to the sides and ran into the bushes. Several other dark shapes ran across the drive and followed them into shadow.
The Friar started heavily down the road. “No! Come back!”
Sapphire lunged forward and grabbed his arm, swinging him around. “Stop! You know what happened to Sister Maude. You don’t want that to happen to us, do you? We can’t go in there in the dark; there is no way we can help those girls tonight.”
The Friar sobbed. “But tomorrow, when it’s light. We can go get them then, right? That would be okay, wouldn’t it?”
Sapphire wrapped her arms around him. “Sure, sure, we’ll go get those little girls just as soon as it’s safe. You just hold it together until then.”
The Friar gave a few more sobs, then broke free and straighted up. “Sorry about that. It’s just… those two were the sweetest little girls. I can’t stand the thought of them now… it’s just horrible.” He shook his head violently. “Okay, I’m okay. Let’s go.”
Some snarling sounds were coming from under the dark trees along the driveway, so they hurried on past, taking care to shut the gate.
The party traveled on past the edge of the Wither’s Estate, where they saw three figures approaching along the road. Cleo and Grace readied their bows, but then put up their arrows when they saw who it was.
Cleo stepped forward. “Howdy yourself. What are you three doing out this late after dark?”
Bones raised a hand. “My fault. We didn’t just look in on all the animals, a lot of the farm families are too afraid to come to town for doctoring, so I had a look at a couple of them too. They’re all fine, or will be, but that took longer than we expected. We’re headed back to town now.”
Cleo shook her head ruefully. “I don’t think you want to go by the Wither’s gate tonight. We were just there – peeked in, you might say – and they’re pretty riled up. You better stick by us. We’re going to go camp in the woods, light a big fire, toast bits of sausage and veggies over the coals, maybe sing some songs. Great fun. What do you say?”
The three men exchanged glances then shrugged. “Why not?”
They all continued down the road until they came to the first stream, and turned left upstream towards the woods. A footpath ran along the right side of it and they had no trouble penetrating deep into the woods, despite the failing light.
It was like magic when they came to a little glade filled with the light of the new-risen moon. In the center was a grassy green bald and on the top was a brilliant silver unicorn with golden mane, that seemed to glow with a light of its own.
Cleo reached for an arrow, but Woody put a hand on her bow. They all watched in silent awe at the unicorn’s beauty.
The unicorn tossed his horn several times back the way they came and snorted. Then he used his horn to draw a circle around the top of the hill. With a final toss of his horn and snort, the unicorn trotted off into the woods. Everyone let go the breath they had been holding.
Woody took off his hat and put it to his heart. “What a beautiful animal.”
Cleo looked around at the others. “And seemed very smart, but what was it trying to tell us?”
Grace went and patted her arm. “It’s all right, dear. It clearly doesn’t want us to go any further into the woods, that we should go home, but that its okay to stay the night right here. Okay?”
Cleo smiled and nodded her head. “All right! Let’s get to work on that bonfire.” They had a fire going at the top of the hill in short order and had the slightly scorched remains of the tent pitched at a level spot at the foot of the hill. The mules they tied out near the tent, with a bucket of water from the stream. Cleo gave them what hay they had salvaged from the dragon’s less-than-tender inspection, with a few tender words. “You traitors.” She stroked their manes thoughtfully. “Every thing you told us was true though.”
The night was fine and warm, and no one seemed to want to claim the few spots inside the tent. They sat around the fire on their blankets, ate and drank, and told stories.
Bones moaned about the state of the six farm families they had seen that day. Only two families were left unscathed, the Vert and Amethyst families. The Sky family, they had met two of, Billy and Gene, but they were cut down from 7 to 5, and Billy won’t stay on the farm to work any more. The Teal family lost the senior member leaving a young scared couple behind to run the farm. The Autumn family was cut to 2 plus a dog, down from 5 – just two kids trying to carry on, while the Rouge family was cut from 7 down to 2 and were in total shock. The farmers were being devastated, by wolves and undead.
Woody added that the livestock was being constantly struck by wolves, too. The situation is intolerable.
Scooter had many messages to carry, some written and some verbal, but he couldn’t talk about them, invoking privacy. Mostly he just stared into the fire and shook his head.
Slowly it came to them that they were hearing a musical sort of sound from the woods around them. They all stopped and listened. It was simple flute music, with a sort of whispery breezy tone. It seemed to circle and dance around them slowly.
And then on the breeze came to them an awful odor. Grace sniffed. “I smell garlic…”
Sapphire groaned. “… and wolfsbane! Dahlia, is that you out there?”
Cleo stood up. “I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t get your panties in a wad, missy. I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout you.” She clucked her tongue. “Look at you bunch of idiots, though. Camped out with vampires on one side of you and werewolves on the other and not one of you is wearing my protective salve. Not one.”
The party exchanged glances, looking embarrassed. “So can you sell us some now?”
“Ha! Do I look like a traveling salesman? Nothing to do but lug my inventory around with me like that fool Tinker? That’s why I’ve got a shop, and Olivia to tend it for me.” Dahlia looked around, shaking her head. “So where’s Pan?”
Cleo knit her brow. “What pan? We’re using roasting sticks…”
Dahlia cackled. “Dumb as a brick. Pan — I heard his music earlier. We were supposed to meet up to collect mistletoe while the moon is up.” She turned towards the woods and cupped her hands over her mouth. “All-ee all-ee in-free! Where are you?”
The music had stopped but with a soft rustle, a creature appeared shyly at the edge of the woods. Dahlia waved it forward towards the light. “Come on, these folks won’t bite.” But Pan just shook his head and stepped back into the shadows.”
Dahlia shrugged. “Well, my hot date is waiting. I bid you suckers adieu.” And with that she stumped off into the woods.
Sapphire was the first to recover. “Well, if it isn’t the Charles’s. What the heck are you two doing out in the woods at night?”
Dick and Dora exchanged glances. He spoke up first. “We were following that witch – you must have seen her. We were hoping she would lead us to the old mine supposed to be up in the hills above the Withers estate.”
Dora cut in. “It’s an abandoned mine, you know. First one that got this town started, way back when, but played out now, totally, nothing to interest anybody… but an archeologist.”
Dick nodded. “We think she’s been getting certain… minerals…”
“Worthless, but difficult to find.”
“And other things of an unsavory nature, spiders, and so forth… for her potions from up there.”
Dora cut in again. “But the place must be preserved for posterity. No telling what records of antiquity are being destroyed, or left for vermin to ravage. We have got to find it.”
Grace waved a hand toward the fire. “Dahlia appears to be just after herbs tonight, but you are welcome to come join us for awhile.”
Dick and Dora straightened up and exchanged glances again. “Sorry, we can’t ignore your purposes in coming here. We can’t abide looters and treasure hunters. We will find our own way, thank you very much.” And with that, they turned back into the bushes and crashed their way into the dark.
Shaking their heads, everyone else resumed their places around the fire. In the far distance, they heard the blessedly faint scree of Scotty’s bagpipes wafting in above the trees. It was going to be a long night.
Rufus made sure the remaining pigeon was safe in his room, then went to sit out in front of the inn. He drank in the night breeze, then with some effort at the end of this long day, summoned another air sprite. This one he sent winging out across the lake, his eyes and ears. He was pleased to see the palace guards stationed along the walls. The mob of adventurers were alert and active on the beach.
It was not difficult to find the pirate ship, as it was fast approaching, with running lights burning. He watched its rapid approach until it rounded the tip of the peninsula, where it gave a massive shudder and stuck fast on a sand bar – the very one that had lost Captain Flang his foot. There was a lot of shouting and confusion but as the sails dropped and things got organized, Rufus saw four small shapes drop off the side of the ship and swim ashore.
The newly arrived mouslings shook themselves dry amongst the reeds. Two, a male and a female, were outfitted as Viking warriors but they seemed to defer to the others. These two, a male and a female, wore robes with mystic symbols emblazoned on them, and carried themselves with dignity. They held ornately carved staves and the male mousling sorcerer drew a large book from its protective wrappings and made sure it was undamged.
Suddenly, screams came from the ship and Rufus redirected his attention there. It seems the crab-men had found the pirates that had gone down to the waterline to investigate.
Rufus summoned his air sprite to return, pocketed it, then stood and entered the inn, where a fair number of people had gathered. “Attention please! The pirate ship has run aground on the sand bar and is now under attack by Crab-men. I doubt that we’ll hear from them before morning.” He looked pointedly at Goldilocks. “A few smaller crew members made it safely to shore, but I don’t expect an open attack from them. Please, spread the word. Make sure the fighters get some rest before morning. Things are liable to heat up then.”
Rufus sat down at one of the tables and Goldilocks hurried over with a tankard of ale. “Here, that spell work must have been exhausting.” She went on in a hushed whisper. “More mouslings? Tell me, what did you see?”
“Four of them. Two warriors and two sorcerers.”
“Describe them. Please.”
Rufus looked at her appraisingly. “The warriors had Viking style garb. The sorcerers, a male and a female, wore blue robes and carried red staves with skulls on top. The bearded one carried a big book.”
Goldilocks bit her lip. “Damn. Excuse me.” She walked quickly to the back of the inn and entered the storeroom.
Rufus smiled, and opened his pocket to let the air sprite come out again. He sent it wafting after Goldilocks, where it slipped under the door to the storeroom. Surprisingly, the room was empty. He had the sprite investigate and found a hole in the wall behind the same shelf that Flicker and Sticker had stood upon. Up through the wall, he found his way through a gap to the attic. There, Flicker and Sticker were in heated conference with a third mousling.
Sticker grabbed Flicker’s arm. “Okay, it’s over. We’ve got to get out of this place.”
Flicker pulled free. “No. Not until we find those caged creatures in the prophecy. And quit grabbing me, like I was some sort of hand railing!”
The third mousling raised a paw. “I’ve got to get back before I’m missed. I just had to warn you.” She rushed back to the gap at the top of the wall, and Rufus had to drop control of the air sprite just before she rushed through it.
Down below, Goldilocks emerged from the storeroom. Rufus waved to her, and motioned for her to come over. A bit reluctantly, she came over and sat at his table.
“So, are you a were-mouse, or an animagus that likes to take the form of a mousling?”
Goldilocks shifted uncomfortably, then met his eyes. “Neither. I’m a sorcerer that likes to take the form of… a human.” She kept her eyes locked on Rufus, waiting for a reaction.
Rufus sat back and laughed. “Oh, how precious. I would never have guessed. How long has this been going on? Haven’t you been here a long, long time?”
Goldilocks looked relieved. “Years. I never really fit in, back home. Never liked mousling culture, always looked up… I mean, admired human culture. I left home at 18 and never looked back.”
Rufus smiled and shook his head. “Well, I never. And you’re forbidden by this… Council… to make yourself known to the humans?”
Goldilocks bit her lip and nodded. “Yep. And now Flick is in trouble, just like I told him he’d be.”
Rufus nodded. “You know all about the prophecy then?”
Goldilocks looked up. “Of course.”
“Well I have some news you can pass on to your friends. It seems that the Asian Delegation, from the wagon train, has, locked away in cages in their fancy carriage, two kind, gentle mouslings that they keep as pets…”
Bones was getting quite drunk, and continued to go on about the plight of the farm families. He waved a bottle of wine. “How could a kind and benevolent God let such things happen? Religion, what a pile of horse manure.”
Friar Tuck peered into the flames. “Perhaps He is working to fix things.”
The others pressed him to explain himself, so he went on. “I, too was a doubting Thomas, and questioned whether God was indeed benevolent. That was, until I witnessed the Divine manifestations of His servants, myself.”
The friar looked around defiantly, but no one challenged him. “It is true. Only a month ago I saw them. Three angels of surpassing beauty came to our sanctuary, shrouded in light. We all sank to our knees in worship, and they rose and merged into the stained glass windows.”
Bones laughed uproariously. “The boy sees a sunbeam through the stained glass and finds God. There you go.” He upended the bottle to his lips, but it was empty. He dropped it and slumped over.
The friar shook his head. “No really. We all saw it. And they’re now living in the stained glass windows. They move around and everything. Come to church on Sunday and you’ll see for yourself. I am certain they have come to answer our prayers.”
Everyone exchanged silent glances. Slowly the sound of flute music grew somewhere in the woods around them.
Grace was the first to take notice. “Pan’s back. Let me go and see if I can get him to join us. I think I’m the least scary of the bunch.” The others watched her rise and walk tentatively into the woods.
In a few steps, the darkness closed in and she had to pause and summon her witch sight. Suddenly the forest was visible in crisp lines of black, white and gray. There was a large, dark bush ahead, and the flute music seemed to be coming from behind it. The branches rustled slightly. Slowly, she stepped around the bush and came face to face with an astonishing sight.
A huge ogre was there, seated but still towering over Grace. It had muscles on its muscles, and a horn on the top of its head, through which it blew out its breath, whistling to make music. It held a pole axe bigger than Grace. Grace threw up her hands and screamed. The ogre threw up its hands and screamed. Both turned tail and ran as fast as they could.
Everyone looked concerned when Grace returned, but when she told her story, they all laughed. She looked chagrined. “I have to admit, I’m not sure which of us was more scared, me or the ogre. I must have really freaked it out, creeping up in the dark like that.”
They joked around awhile, but soon heard rustling in the woods again. Sapphire stood up and lit a torch from the fire. “Let’s go together this time.”
They saw a dark shape moving deep in the woods, but as they approached, it drew back. They tried again and again but it seemed only to be drawing them deeper into the woods. Sapphire held a finger to her lips. “Listen.” The only sounds were the birds and a low clanking and whuffling sound in the direction of the dark shape.
“I can understand it, I think. It’s afraid of the fire. It’s saying, ‘burn ears, burn belly, no, no, bad, bad.’ ”
Grace nodded. “Let me go ahead.” Softly she summoned her witch sight again, and worked her way through the woods. Expecting to see an ogre, she was surprised at what she did find.
An elephant, smallish for one of its kind, was there, shaking amongst the trees. It had an iron collar, from which chains hung. Grace approached slowly, hand extended. The elephant let her touch a tusk, then stroke its ears, which were scarred. She examined the collar, which had once cut into its now scarred skin. On the collar was inscribed one word: ‘Trixie’.
Grace gathered up one end of the chain. “Trixie, old girl, you come with me. I’ll take care of you.” Grace did not understand the whuffling speech of the elephant, but it seemed to understand her. Slowly she led it back the way she had come. It came along easily enough, but when it saw the people sitting around the campfire, it trumpeted wildly, reared up pulling the chain from Grace’s hand, twisted away and charged off through the woods.
Before they could catch their breath, the animal was gone.
Grace sat down by the fire and shivered. “I think I’ve had enough adventure for one night.”
Sapphire sat down beside her, and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Girl, you done good.”
Grace looked puzzled. “What?”
“In the course of the last hour you have found not one but two creatures that would make light of the stone work we need, for the road. It’s just a matter of getting on their good side. The dragon seems to have steered us in the right direction.”
Cleo raised her hand and cocked her head. “Hey, Rufus is trying to get our attention, back at the inn. He’s saying there are pirates on the lake and we should head back immediately. They may make for shore in the morning. Besides which, it’s supposed to be market day, and there are all sorts of festivities planned. What do you think?”
They all exchanged tired glances. Sapphire nodded. “We’ve accomplished what we came for.” They took down the tent and rolled up their blankets before waking the mules, then putting out the fire.