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Games, Literature

Foundering Valley – Chapter 33, Friday Morning, June 13 – Rainy Morning

Chapter 33 – Friday Morning, June 13 – Rainy Morning

 The adventurers assembled around a table in the front room of the inn.  It was raining heavily outside – quite a dreary morning.  They stared at each other for a few moments, with tired expressions on their faces.  D-Stract broke the silence.  “It’s Friday the 13th – anybody superstitious?”

 Sapphire laughed.  “Just when I thought we were getting a handle on things.  Look out everybody!  Any guesses as to what’s coming next?”

 Maude’s voice echoed through all their heads.  Come on, children!  The day is young, the sun is shining back behind those clouds, don’t take life for granted.  Seize the day!

 Animus growled.  “Why are we hearing her?  Did you put some of her hair in the Monk’s bag or something?”

 Grace shook her head.  “Nope.  I think she’s just linked in through me.  You probably won’t be able to hear her if I’m asleep, or distracted.”

            Animus smirked.  “Take a nap, then?  It’s an ugly morning and I don’t want Miss Sweetness-and-Light trying to tell us different.”  Maude made a raspberry sound.

 Goldilocks came around with drinks.  “It is an ugly morning.  I hope the rain breaks before tomorrow, or they’ll have to postpone the luau.”

 Flummox looked up.  “Luau?  What’s a luau?”

            Goldilocks smiled.  “It’s an islander beach party, complete with roast pig, and bonfires in the evening.  But the big deal is the weddings at noon.  Hadn’t you heard?”

 Cleo shook her head.  “We’ve been kind of busy.  ‘Weddings’, plural? As in more than one?  Who’s getting hitched?”

            Sapphire chuckled.  “Do you think Dorothy has made up her mind, between Woody or Eastwood?”

 Rufus leaned forward.  “It’ll be Eastwood, but not yet.  Woody has fallen for Miss Joan Autumn.  Wants to settle down and farm.  Come on, Goldilocks, spill the beans.”

            “Well, all four of the islander girls are getting married at once.  I think Chief Conch is kinda pushing them, as if he wants them out of his hair so he can go back to the islands.”

            Rufus frowned.  “Out with it girl, who’s getting hitched?”

            Goldilocks took her time setting out the last of the drinks.  “Well, Crystal is linking up with Rip Marsh.  No surprise there; she respects a fisherman.  Dawn and Hound you’ve seen together, so that’s no shocker.  The one that surprised me was Billy Sky and Eve.  She thinks he’s a real hero now – can’t stop singing his praises.  What really did happen at the Withers estate, anyway?”

            Sapphire choked on her cider.  “And I imagine Shelly, the Islander Chief’s princess daughter, is going for that lowly farmer, built like an ox and about as bright, Sienna Autumn?  I’ll bet that’s the talk of the town.”

            Goldilocks pouted.  “Ahh, you spoiled my surprise.  I was saving the best for last.  And yes, that’s the one making the rounds fastest.”

            Rufus looked at her carefully.  “What news from… upstairs?”

            Goldilocks glanced around the table before continuing in a low voice.  “Flicker is still down in the dumps – or deep in his cups, I should say — and Sticker is infatuated with one of the Asian mouslings, even though none of us have a common language.  The two Vikings are all worried about the Buccaneer leaving, and wondering if they’ll be able to slip aboard the Narwhal.”

            Rufus frowned.  “Aren’t they working for those two from the High Council?”

            Goldilocks shook her head.  “They kinda feel like they were played.  Those two were hired to get ‘em here, and then the councilors just abandoned them, they say.  Now their way back has sailed — swear they’re not going to be taken for chumps again.”

            Sapphire stirred.  “Maybe… I think I have a plan to get inside Flicker’s head.  Grace still has a firm image in her mind from when the angels visited her.”

            Rufus nodded excitedly.  “Yes, and they’re the same ones that came to Flicker with that vision or prophecy of his.  And you, being good with that illusion spell,…”

            Sapphire smiled.  “We’re tracking here.  Just need to work out the details — what exactly we’re going to have this divine vision say to him…”

            “What else is there to do on a rainy day like this?”

            “My thoughts exactly.”

            Cleo snorted.  “Humans.  What’s the matter with a little rain?  Besides, I thought you were going to need my help as escort, getting that musical ogre, Tootsie on board with the road crew…”

            Rufus shrugged.  “Grace and Animus are musicians too.  I think I freaked Tootsie out, last encounter.  Two elves and a woman might be a little less scary.  If Grace doesn’t mind getting wet, that is?”

            Maude’s voice broke in.  Of course she doesn’t!  This sounds like fun!

            Grace blanched.  “Oh well, things are slow in the lab now.  What she said.”  She turned to Sapphire.  “You better have a good fire going in the room when I get back.”

            Sapphire smiled and winked.  “You got it.  I’ll even help you out of those wet clothes you’ll be wearing.”

            Flummox cleared his throat.  “I think D-Stract and I need to get the road repairs started – at least the beginning phases.  The right materials, labor, and so forth on hand.  We’ll see how much expertise we can pull together.”

            Grace cocked her head.  “What about Caboose?  Anybody going after him, and the others?  He’ll need treatment.”

            Cleo looked around.  “I don’t think anybody wants to try to track them through unknown and dangerous territory – in the rain.”

            Goldilocks came around again.  “You might want to rethink breakfast.  Spamwich got hold of a bunch of fish eggs or something.  The kitchen smells vile.”

            Most of the adventurers got hastily to their feet.

            Cleo picked up her silverware and looked around at the others.  “Come on, guys, it sounds good!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Flummox and D-Stract sprinted to the town hall, through the rain.  Ducking inside the door, D-Stract giggled.  “You run funny.”

            Flummox rolled his eyes.  “It’s these boots — too heavy.”

            “Yeah, right.”

 Mr. Larsen greeted them, sitting at his new desk.  “How’s it sittin’?  What can I do ya for?”  He had rearranged his little cubicle so that he could watch the door.

            D-Stract slinked over and locked gazes with him.  “You can’t afford to ‘do’ me, Ducky.  We’re looking for Roddy.  Is he here?”

            Larsen picked up an unlit cigar and rolled it between his lips, staring up into D-Stract’s eyes, trying not to look any lower.  He blinked first.  “Hey Roddy, you got visitors!”

 D-Stract smiled, and she and Flummox headed to the central area, with the big table, where they were greeted by Roddy, the man who ran the lumberyard.  He whispered to them.  “That blighter is sticking his nose into everything.  Set himself up as the doorman now.  Let’s head over to my desk for a little privacy.”  They settled around his desk.  “What can I do for you?  Not much happening around here, with the mill down.”

            Flummox took the lead.  “We want to go over your plans for getting the road fixed.  The north road along the marsh, of course.  That looks like the place to start, much easier than the mountain route.”

            Roddy stared at them for a moment.  “You’re serious.”  He raised his voice.  “Hey Plunkett!  Get over here.”

They were joined by Plunkett, the diver in charge of the aquaduct, and who had been scouting out the damage to the marsh road as well.  “D-Stract!  Good to see you!  Flummox.”  He nodded his head, shook both their hands, and leaned against a wall with a quizzical look.

            “These two gentlefolk are here to talk with us about our plans to fix the north road.  You and I have been over the problems, but I think you’d better be the one to fill them in.”

            Plunkett took a deep breath.  “Okay, the road is broken in four places, call it five since one other spot is about to give at the next big rain.  The waters from the marsh swelled in the big storm, and burst through the causeway that the road lies on.  Each breach is ten or fifteen feet wide and the road is just – gone there.”

            Flummox scowled.  “So we need to build four or five bridges.  What’s the trouble?”

            “Well, this causeway was built up in layers.  Once the yellow baked-clay surfacing has broken down, flowing water eats away at the exposed, broken face of the causeway innards, and causes further collapse.  The gaps are just going to keep getting bigger unless we rebuild the foundations.”

            “Okay, so you need a bunch of big rocks to cap the ends.  Let’s say we can get you that.  How much gap do we still need to bridge?”

            Plunkett stared at the ceiling.  “Well, I think we could get by leaving four or five foot culverts at each point, to release the pressure.  I’m not happy with wood bridges, though.  The marsh is full of rotting wood, other vegetation, and it’s going to jump over and eat anything wooden we build.”

            D-Stract smiled.  “So you make stone arches.”

            Roddy snorted.  “Sorry, but that’s not a simple job.  We can’t dress and fit enough stones to do that.  Even if we had the tools, and the stones, it would take months, or even a year or two.  I’ve been telling Plunkett we need to use wood planks and just replace ‘em as they rot.  We have plenty of wood in the lumberyard.”

            Plunkett raised an eyebrow.  “And you find out they’ve rotted only when they dump a wagon into the drink?  That’s no way to operate.”

            Flummox cut in.  “So, you really need stone slabs.  What, six or seven feet long?”

            Roddy laughed.  “Right.  So where are you going to get five slabs of rock, seven foot by ten feet, and how are you going to move them?”

            “Oh, they don’t have to be ten feet wide, you could have a series, like your wood planks.  That would support the weight of a wagon, wouldn’t it?”

            “So you need about fifty stone planks, one by seven.  My question stands.  Where are you going to get them?”

            D-Stract spoke up.  “Wouldn’t seven by two work as well?”

            Roddy shrugged and raised his hands beside his shoulders.  “Sure.  About twenty five of them.  Sorry, I don’t think Oliva stocks them in the general store.  I certainly couldn’t whip them out on the saw mill, even if it was working.”

            D-Stract sat back.  “Okay, I’ve got that one solved.  What else do you need?”

            Roddy choked.  “Just like that?  Solved?”

            Flummox leaned forward.  “If she says it’s solved, it’s solved.  So we provide rough foundation rocks and twenty five stone slabs, two by seven.  What else do you need?”

            Roddy stared at them in disbelief.

            Plunkett cleared his throat.  “You can get clay from the marsh easy enough, but you need to have a fire source to bake it.  That can be done with bonfires, spreading the ashes.  The tricky bit is sand.  You’ll need a lot of sand to pack everything firm and keep it from moving.  You can’t trust rough rocks to stay in place otherwise.  I suppose we can haul it from the beach.”

            “Uh-oh.  I think that the beach sand is spoken for.”  Everyone looked at D-Stract.  “The dwarves got permission to use that sand in their glassworks.  Can we get them to let half of it go?”

            Roddy shook his head.  “Not from that pair of skinflints.  They count every penny, twice.”

            Plunkett looked bleak.  “The only other sand around is the sandbar the Buccaneer was stuck on.  The sediment comes out the river mouth, is blocked by the peninsula, and the load drops as it turns out to the middle of the lake.  Builds up over the span of years.  I’ve read about them having to dredge a channel a few times, historically.  But we’d have the same problem as the pirates had.  The crab-men are thick out there.  I’ve tried to make contact with them, but they’re just savage animals.  So you have two problems to solve there.”

            “The other one?”

            “Well, it’s under water, of course.”

            “Right.”  Flummox looked at D-Stract.  “I guess we’ll have to work on that one.  But you need the rocks first, right?”

            Roddy looked over at his colleague.  “Well, you’re going to have to finish the first bridge before you can haul materials to the next gap, and so forth.  Maybe not finish the clay cap, but the stone and sand… and the planks…”

            “Oh.  So we need those wood planks for temps, then cap ‘em with stone later.”  Flummox looked at D-Stract.  “Okay, I guess we’ve got enough to go on for now.  Anything else we’re missing?”

            Roddy raised his eyebrows.  “Who’s going to do all this work?  Me and Plunkett here?  We’re good, but not that good.”

            Flummox deflated.  “So a couple dozen laborers as well.  We’d better get out of here before you tell us we need to find gold bricks for paving.  Is that all?”

            Roddy shrugged.  “I guess so.  You can see why the Earl is pretty frustrated by our lack of progress.  Not a heck of a lot we can do, though.”

            D-Stract stood and put a hand on his shoulder and smiled.  “Don’t you worry.  We’ll get you what you need.”

            “Good luck.”

            As they left the town hall, Flummox threw up his hands, and spoke in an artificially high voice.  “ ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get what you need.’  You sure know how to bluff a mark.  I tried to back your play, but now what?”

            D-Stract shielded her eyes with one hand and yelled to be heard over the falling rain.  “What eight families around here have basements full of two by seven foot stone slabs?  Hint – they use them to keep their ancestors from wandering off.  Second hint – you got very up close and personal with them last week.”

            Flummox doubled over with laughter.  “Let’s get out of this rain.  It seems you’re not just ornamental, after all.”

            D-Stract punched him in the shoulder.  “Race you back to the inn!”

            D-Stract stood smiling at the inn door as Flummox arrived.  “I still think you run funny.”  Flummox just scowled at her, breathing heavily.

            “What are you scowling about?  You never could beat me.”

            Flummox straightened up.  “I just remembered we didn’t talk to Whittler about making us a sled for Trixie, to pull the rocks down from the mine.”

            “Oh bog!  Race you back to town hall!”      

~~~~~~~ 

 Grace ducked out the back door of the inn with a towel held over her head, and hurried around the corner to the market stalls.  Cleo in contrast strolled along, enjoying the feel of the raindrops on her face.  Animus scowled, then tried to put on a brave front.

            There were three pairs of stalls, separated by partitions, each pair split down the middle with an aisle, and protected from the rain by an overhang.  The first pair of stalls was in front of the door back to the market offices, but no one was there, and the door was closed.

 Bonnie sat in the second pair of stalls, with her barrel of fish, which was guarded by her pet octopus, ‘Squid’.  Her wheel barrel was propped against the back wall.  “Got plenty of fish this morning.  Nobody messed with Rip’s boat yesterday.”

            Maude’s voice rang in Grace’s head.  Get us some trout for tonight, or some catfish.  Those are both yummy. 

            Grace arranged for a shipment of fish to the inn for their dinner, then broached another question.  “Bonnie, does Squid ever swim in the lake?”

            Bonnie looked surprised.  “Of course he does.  He spends all night in the lake, then comes and climbs in the barrow for a ride here every morning.”

            “So how does he get along with the Crab-men?  Is he friends with them?”

            Bonnie looked horrified.  “Heavens no, they’d eat him if they could.  No, he hears them coming and sprays his ink.  They can’t see him then, and don’t like the smell of it, so they usually leave him alone.”

            “That’s interesting.  Do you think he could clear an area like that sand bar out there?  We need a way to get at it safely.  We need the sand for roadwork.”

            Bonnie frowned.  “Nah, I don’t think he could put out that much ink.  And anyway, it dissipates in a few minutes; the current is strong right there.”

            Animus produced a small vial from inside his jacket.  “Could we get a little sample of his ink?  Maybe Olivia could produce something in bulk that would do just as well.”

            Bonnie laughed and gestured at the barrel.  “I suppose so.  I wouldn’t know how to go about teasing it out of him, though.  Just don’t hurt him.”

            Grace pouted.  “You can’t simply ask him?  How much does he understand?”

            Bonnie shrugged.  “More than you might think, but he’s willful, like a cat.  I’ve never asked him for ink before.  I suppose you’ll have to scare it out of him.  He won’t like you after that, though.”

            Animus looked thoughtful, then approached the barrel with his arm outstretched, vial in hand.  “Master Squid, would you please give us some of your ink?”

            A tentacle emerged from the barrel and wrapped itself around Animus’s arm.  Another reached out and took the vial from his hand.  Then Squid plunged to the bottom of the barrel, dragging Animus’s head under the water.  Fortunately his arm was released quickly, and he came up again, sputtering.  “You slimy little monster, give me back my vial!”

            Squid just played with the glass vial, oblivious to anything the adventurers said.  They tried clapping on the top of the water, and Cleo got dunked for her trouble.

            Grace giggled.  “I think we better get one of the animal talkers to come fetch that back.  Maybe they’ll have better luck getting an ink sample.”

            Bonnie looked concerned.  “Sorry about that – Squid is awful playful sometimes.  You still want the fish though, don’t you?”

            Cleo started to bluster, but Grace trod on her toes.  “Of course we do.  That was all in fun.  Elves don’t mind the water anyway, do they guys?  Have a good day.”

            Grace dragged the muttering elves on to the third stall and told them to sit, and calm down. 

 To their surprise, Tinker roused himself from a pallet behind the counter.  “Good morning to you three sweet ladies.  To what do I owe this great pleasure?”

            Animus glared.  “I am NOT a…” but Grace trod on his toes, too.

            “Good morning, Tinker.  All your wagons and cargo secure?”

            Tinker nodded.  “Most certainly.  I’ve been able to sell many of my supplies – the troop out there particularly wanted my tents and camping gear – I had every luxury money could buy, planning for an expedition to a ruined city, and they wanted it all.  I gather their little show did well the other day.  No interest in picks and shovels, though.”  He frowned.

            “Hold on to those, we’re going to need them.”  Grace filled Tinker in on their discussion with Roddy.

            “You bring me hope, little lady.  I’m sure you’ll figure out how to get the sand out of the lake, and stone slabs out of the uptown folks.  We’ll get that road open yet!  Labor might be limited, but those panty-waist actors out there are eager to move on, so I’ll bet you can count on their help.  At least some.”

            Grace nodded.  “We should talk to them, get them psychologically prepeared.  We were going to talk with them on another errand anyway, having to do with recruiting somebody for lifting the heavy stones.  By the way, that trick you do with lifting crates – could you lift stones for the road foundation?”

            Tinker stroked his chin, looking thoughtful.  Then he looked each of the adventurers in the eye.  “I obviously am not strong enough to do those things naturally.  I have some magical… er, equipment, that lets me lift heavy objects, but not actually carry them.  I can lift, twist, and set things down, but that would take forever to transport big stones one step at a time from a quarry.”

            Grace frowned.  “But you could reposition stones to best advantage, if we got them in the right general area?”

            Tinker brightened.  “Why, yes I could.  I’m very good at stacking things – part of my job.  I’d be happy to help lay those foundation stones.  And yes, the picks and shovels will be just the thing for moving sand and clay, and leveling the surface.  You bring me great hope, indeed.”

            Animus gave him a meaningful look.  “I’m sure you’re eager enough to move on that you won’t mind covering all these incidental expenses for us, will you?”

            Tinker blanched.  “Of course.  Whatever it takes to get my wagons back on the road.”

            Grace saluted.  “One step at a time.  Next we need to arrange for that heavy lifting.  We’ll be back.”  Her gaze rested on the tents now housing the troop of entertainers.  She glanced at her companions.  “Ready to enter the lion’s den?”

            Maude’s voice rang out.  Oh sweetie, carnival folk are the most wonderful and delightful people.  They bring such light and joy into the world.

            Animus snorted.  “Just keep your hand on your purse at all times.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Sapphire looked at Rufus, who was gently scratching the head of his new hawk.  “Time to go talk to the mouslings.  Don’t you think you’d better leave Parrot behind?  I still can’t get over that name – Parrot, for bog’s sake.”

            “I don’t think he’d attack them — not with me there, anyway.”

            “And I don’t think they’ll realize that on their own.  It’s no way to get on their good side.  Let’s start on the right foot – no hawk.”

            “You’re right of course.  Parrot, you can fly around outside, but not leave town, you understand?  Don’t leave the town, and come when I call, okay?”  The hawk rubbed his beak against Rufus’s hand, then took wing and flew out the door of the inn.

 Goldilocks came up behind.  “She’s right, you know.  Even at human size, that bird gives me the willies.”

            Sapphire put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.  “Thanks for helping us.  We’ve got to figure out how to get Flicker out of the doldrums, and faking another visit from the angels is the best way.”

            “Oh, sure.  But what am I supposed to do, exactly?”

            “Besides going along with it, we need your help convincing the others to go along too.  Sticker especially, but also the two Asians and the two Vikings – what are their names?”

            Goldilocks wrinkled her nose.  “You don’t have to worry about Penny and Purcy, we’ve not been able to get them to do much of anything but giggle and wave their fans.  I doubt they’re magical, or they wouldn’t have stayed captive of the Asians for so long.  Beowulf and Brunhilda are another story.  Those two are pretty mad that they’re stuck here.  I can’t predict what they’ll do.”

            “Maybe a diversion to take care of them?”

            Goldilocks nodded.  “Yeah, maybe we can get them separated from the others, before you do your mumbo-jumbo.  Let’s see.”

            Rufus opened the hall door and beckoned for them to follow.  “You got me up for this, let’s go.”

            The three of them headed up the hall stairs, then to the ladder that went from the second story up to the attic.  Goldilocks went up the ladder first, pushed the trap door ajar, and quickly morphed into a mousling before scampering the rest of the way into the attic.

 The others followed, and were greeted by two mouslings in Viking armor, waving weapons in their faces as they emerged into the attic.  The female with the spear hissed.  “What are they doing here?”  The male with the axe advanced on them menacingly.

            Goldilocks leapt in front of him, but addressed the female.  “It’s okay, Brunhilda.  They’re here at my request.”  They were both speaking in the mousling tongue, but Rufus and Sapphire had no trouble understanding.

            Beowulf shook his axe.  “The man has been here before, but not the woman.  The High Council forbids telling anyone new about us!”

            “She’s known about us for a long time, same as him.  The Council knows — it’s all right.  In fact, there are five others, humans and elves, that all learned at the same time.  It’s contained, though.  There will be no more leaks.  Besides, she’s a sorceress too, and so doesn’t count.”

            Beowulf thrust his axe through his belt.  “Fine.  I’m Beowulf.  That’s Brunhilda.  You’re Rufus, but who are you?”

            Sapphire gave a little bow.  “I’m Sapphire.  Look, we want to help Flicker clean up this mess, just like the High Council told him to.  But, at the same time, he’s got to do it for himself, mostly.  Anyway, we have a plan – all in the name of doing what the Council wants.  Can you help?”

            Brunhilda came up and put her hand on Beowulf’s shoulder.  They exchanged glances, then she spoke.  “We’ll help you, if you help us.”

            “What do you need?”

            “We want to join the crew of the Narwhal.”

            Rufus wrinkled his brow.  “But you just said…”

            Beowulf spit.  “Not as mouslings, in human form.  Like she does.”  He pointed at Goldilocks.

            Brunhilda nodded.  “So teach us.”

            Beowulf held up a paw.  “That’s half of it.  You also need to get us on the crew, after that.”

            Sapphire spoke in the human common tongue.  “Can you speak the language?”

            Beowulf cleared his throat, and replied in the same tongue.  “Of course, when needed.”

            Sapphire looked at Goldilocks.  “Can you teach them to take human form?”

            “Probably, if they have enough magic in them.  It’ll be up to them.”

            Brunhilda nodded.  “We know a few tricks.  We’ll learn.”

            Sapphire looked at her companion, who nodded.  She turned back.  “Done.  Okay, here’s the plan.  I’m going to create a vision for Flicker, like the one that got him to come to this valley in the first place.  We need you to play along.”

            Brunhilda wiggled her nose.  “So what’s your goal in that?”

            “We want Flicker to snap out of his funk and dismiss the elementals.  He ought to be wanting to impress his cute lady friends, but he needs an ego boost, we think.”

            Brunhilda shook her head.  “I don’t think you understand.”

            Sapphire bit her lip.  “Tell me.”

            “Flicker’s not afraid of the elementals, he’s afraid of what happens afterwards.”  Brunhilda looked at their puzzled faces.  “He’s afraid the High Council is going to make everyone leave here, after his work is done, and so of course the Asian mouslings would be going back home, and Flicker will lose her.  He’s stalling for time.”

            “Doesn’t Penny – it’s Penny, isn’t it, he likes?  Doesn’t Penny want to stay with him?”

            “Who knows?  They can’t get past ‘Good Morning’ — no common language.”

            “Hmm, let me think about this.  Rufus, come here a moment.” 

 They stepped to the side to confer, and I, the narrator, felt compelled to break my habit of non-interference and interrupt.  This is the Wise One, here.  Perhaps I can help you translate?  I have studied in the Asian lands.

            Sapphire beamed back.  That would be a blessing.  Hold that thought.  She turned to Goldilocks.  “Get one of the Asians over here.  Maybe Purcy, and Sticker too.  Don’t alarm Flicker.”

  Shortly, Sapphire was able to converse with Purcy, with the aid of my humble translations, while the others looked on.  Rufus was of course the only one able to follow the conversation, because he was linked in through my spell.

            “Greetings.  Welcome to Founder’s Valley, though of course you came here in captivity.  We must talk about what you will do with your freedom.  May I call you Purcy?”

            “Oh Great Sorceress, I humble myself before you.  I…”  She trembled, and fell silent, prostrate on the attic floor.

            “Please get up.  Call me Sapphire.  I am just a friend.  In fact, I need your help.”

            Purcy got up off the floor and looked at her.  “My family’s honor is at stake.  How may I serve you?”

            “Are you with Penny as servant, or friend?”

 Purcy glanced over to where Penny and Flicker were trying to converse.  “I am both her servant and her closest confidant.”

            “Then tell me what her feelings are towards the sorcerer mousling, Flicker.”

            “Oh it is tragic, oh Great One.”

            “How so?”

            “She is smitten with his charm, but is under family obligation to return to her homeland and resume her duties.  She wishes he would return with her, but there is no way tell him this, nor any reason to expect that he would do so, in any event.  Her heart breaks just thinking about it.”

            “All will be well, child.  Flicker feels the same, and I’m sure will follow you to the ends of the Earth, along with his friend Sticker.”

            Purcy blushed, where the fur did not cover her, and she looked away shyly.  “That is good news, then.”

            “Please tell Penny this.  Flicker has a job to do before he can leave, but he will then escort you both home.  I will be sure Flicker understands how Penny feels as well.”

            Suggest language lessons.  I have a teacher in mind: Maggi.

            “I suggest you begin language lessons, so you can understand each other.  I will send a teacher to you.  Her name is Maggi.  She is human, like me, but the secrets of the mouslings will be safe with her.”

            “This is a true blessing.  Thank you Sapphire.”

            Sapphire turned to the others.  “All is well.  I’m afraid that I must inform you there are two other humans in our circle, that know about mouslings.  They are also users of magic, so know many secrets, and will keep yours.  One of them, Maggi, will be able to come up here and begin giving language lessons.”

            Beowulf stared at her, then nodded.

            Goldilocks cocked her head.  “And the other is… the Monk?”

            Sapphire nodded.  “You do keep your eyes open.  Now comes the tricky part.  Sticker, if you’re with us, could you get Flicker alone on some pretext?  The rest of you move to a far part of the attic, and let me concentrate on my spell-work?”

            “Will do.”

 Soon the stage was set, and Sapphire summoned the image of the angel that she had seen in Grace’s mind.

            The angel appeared in a blaze of white light.  “Flicker, I have come to speak with you again.  You have done well, so far.”

            Flicker bounced to face the angel’s image.  “You’re back.  I found her.  Them.  They were the ones in cages.  But the animals were too.  You weren’t very clear…”

            “Flicker, you were not meant to worry about domesticated animals.  Your destiny lies with Penny.  You and she are meant to be together, and when you are finished here, you will travel with her to her homeland.”

            “But, I mean, does she…?  I mean, I can’t tell if she…”

            “Penny feels for you just as you feel for her.  Soon you will find a teacher and learn her language.  She will teach you humility and control.  Together you will achieve greatness.  But first, you must comply with the mandate of the High Council, or else you will become an outcast among your own people, and no place will give the two of you shelter.”

            “Okay, I’ll do it!  I’m ready!  I’ll summon up a magical force so strong that it will…”

            “No, Flicker, you must find balance.  Control.  You must listen to the human sorcerer and sorceress nearby and do as they say, for they are wise, and know what needs to be done.  Only when they are satisfied that balance has been restored will you be able to voyage to the faraway lands with your soulmate.”

            “But I’m a powerful sorcerer – better than anybody at school.  Why should I listen…”

            “Balance, Flicker.  Accept the help of others, to find balance and control….”  With that, Sapphire let the image of the angel fade away.

            Sapphire shook herself noisily.  “What was that?”

            Rufus rushed forward.  “Didn’t you see the angel?  I did.”

            “Is that what I saw?  I didn’t understand what she said!  How can you be a sorcerer without control or balance?  It makes no sense – that would only lead from one disaster to another.”

            The two of them turned and stared pointedly at Flicker, who looked at his toes and kicked around some dust.  “Well I…  They said…  You need to tell me what to do so Penny and I can leave, together.”

            Rufus & Sapphire looked at each other and smiled.  “We’ll do our best, if you’ll just listen to us.  No more freelance spell-work.”

            “Okay.”  Flicker looked around.  “Say, do you know any language teachers in this place?”

            Sapphire drew a serious face.  “I do just happen to know a lady, named Maggi.  She knows all about you, and the Asian language.  Perhaps if you asked her, she’d be willing to teach you.”

            Flicker smiled.  “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!  Things are going to work out after all.  Hey, Penny!”  He rushed to join the other mouslings.

            Rufus looked at Sapphire and placed a finger alongside his nose.  “Let’s see if we can come up with a plan for Flicker to clear out the elementals.  That seems to be what the angels want, after all.”  Sapphire made an ‘O.K.’ sign in return.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Animus turned to Grace and Cleo.  “Are you sure we need more musicians?  Can’t we just try to befriend Tootsie on our own?”

            Grace shook her head.  “Nope.  The idea is to gentle her to large groups.  Otherwise, she’s not going to be able to work with a road crew.  Come on, there seems to be a break in the rain.”

            “I suppose.”  They headed towards the tents that now covered half of the market square. 

            The grass was wet and their boots were getting soaked.  Maude’s voice giggled in their heads.  Well, there is one advantage to being dead!  I don’t have cold feet!

 As they approached the first tent, two figures jumped out and started prancing around them.  The dwarf danced and shoved puppets in their faces, while the painted clown pantomimed building an invisible wall around them.

            Cleo poked the dwarf with one end of her bow.  “Hey, cut it out!  We’re just here to talk to somebody serious.”  The dwarf grabbed his stomach and staggered about dramatically before collapsing into a quivering heap.  The clown went into an elaborate grieving ritual, tearing at it’s red hair, reaching for the sky, and pressing its small black hat against its heart while silently sobbing invisible tears.

            Maude giggled again.  Now look what you’ve done.

            Animus grabbed Cleo’s arm and hustled her into the tent.  “Come on, we don’t have time for these games.”

 Inside they heard the oratorical tones of Socrates in argument behind a hanging curtain.  “We need to get out of this valley.  We should have gone on the ship.”

            A woman’s voice was scathing in return.  “What?  And leave all our equipment behind?  Do you have any idea what it’s worth, let alone how hard it would be to find replacements?  We need to keep giving shows to feed the troop.”

            “I tell you, Sunny, there is no more money here to be had, and little food.  I’ve seen how the prices are starting to climb because of shortages, and so have you.”

            “We’ll just have to find another way to move on, then.”

            Cleo stuck her head through the curtain.  “Excuse us, maybe we can help.”

 The woman, Sunny, whirled around.  It was the buxom posing lady from the show, who had been silent through the performance.  Gone was the empty-headed powder puff, and in her place was a shrewd businesswoman, who looked the three of them up and down.  “Perhaps you should explain yourselves.  What are you doing in here?”

            Cleo was the first to find her voice.  “M’am, we’re also trying to get the roads open, same as you.  We have a pretty solid plan, but we need your help.”

            “You’re trying to hire us?”

            “No m’am, I’m talking about working together, in both of our best interests.  We’ve got a line on most of the materials we need, but we need labor.  I’m sure a few of your troop would be willing to help smooth the roadbed if it meant getting out of here.”

            Sunny snorted.  “That bunch of milquetoasts wouldn’t pick up a shovel that wasn’t just a prop unless their livelihoods depended on it – but since it does, maybe you’re in luck.”

            Grace stepped forward.  “That will actually be later.  We have a more pressing problem.  We need to recruit certain beings of very large stature, that are able to do the heavy lifting of stones and so forth.”

            Sunny frowned.  “I don’t follow.”

            Animus raised a hand.  “There is a large ogre that lives in the woods and has musical interests.  We hope to lure her out and win her over using music.  We were hoping some of your musical members would join us in trying to ‘tame the beast’, if you will.  It will certainly help the common good.”

            Sunny laughed, shook her head, and turned away.  “Now you want these pantywaists to go hiking in the woods.  I thought you had a realistic plan.  Go ahead, see if you can get any of them to cooperated.  Tell them you have my support.”  She waved them away.  “Go on.  Leave us be.  We have business matters to discuss.”

            They left that tent, and proceeded to visit the others, to plead their case.

 In the second tent, the flaminco guitarist, Garcia, was seated just inside the door, studying his guitar.  He looked up as they entered, then went back to softly strumming his guitar while carefully ignoring the two ladies that were standing across the room, arms folded, glaring in opposite directions.

            Cleo barged ahead.  “Hi, I’m Cleo.  These are Grace and Animus, and we were just talking with Sunny about getting some help reopening the roads, so you can move on.  What do you say?”

            All three entertainers looked at her with some puzzlement.  Garcia carefully laid his guitar on the floor.  “What are you talking about, loco lady?”

            Grace stepped in front of Cleo.  “We are trying to win the cooperation of a certain being that can help us with some of the real heavy lifting chores, so that we can get by with the minimum of work.  This being is musical, and we need your help winning her over.”

            Garcia rolled his eyes.  “ ‘Her’?  You need heavy lifting done, so you go looking for a girl?  You are loco.”

            Animus coughed.  “She’s an ogre.  Lives in the woods.  We need your music to lure her out.”

            “Carumaba!  That ees no good, it ees raining outside, and I can’t let my guitar get wet.  It would be ruined.”

            The redhead, Blaze, sputtered.  “I can’t go out in the rain either, it would ruin my hair.”

            Silky rounded on her.  “You’re right, poor dear, you’re nothing without that hair.  Can’t let the rain put out that flaming mop top – they’d drop you from the show like a rock.”

            “You’re one to talk.  How long did you take, primping up before the last show?”

            Garcia stood up and stomped a foot.  “Enough, women!  We do not fight in front of strangers.”  He turned to the adventurers.  “Tomorrow, if it ees not raining, then maybe we join you.  Okay?  Come back tomorrow.”  He then ushered them out of the tent, where indeed it had begun to rain again, a faint drizzle.

 Outside, under an awning, was Moonbeam, clutching her oddly shaped guitar and staring up at the falling rain.  They had to try several times to get her attention.

            She focused her eyes on Animus.  “Wow.  Pointy ears.  I like your hat.”  She then began to try to catch something invisible in the air, using one hand.

            “Would you be willing to play some music for us, off in the woods?”

            “Oh, still here?  Are you for real?  Or one of them?”

            Cleo glanced at the others.  “One of who?”

            “They’re in the clouds, you know.  They circle the world, waiting, waiting…”

            “Waiting for what?”

            Moonbeam sat up straighter.  “Waiting for the party to start, of course.  Did you bring the good stuff?”

            Animus frowned.  “We didn’t bring you anything.”

            Moonbeam’s gaze drifted back to the sky.  “I didn’t think you were real.  Too bad.”

            Grace gathered the others.  “I think she’s on some kind of trip, of the druggy kind.  Maybe we should come back…”

            “… tomorrow?”

            “Right.”

 The next tent they ducked into held two troubadours, practicing a duet.  They recognized them both from the caravan — Beowolf was in purple, Casanova in yellow.

            Casanova stopped playing and turned to the adventurers.  “What do you think of this?  Two lovers, wooing the same woman, okay?  Instead of fighting a duel, they both sing to win the woman’s affections.  Pure romance, no?”

            Beowolf shook his head.  “I’m telling him, it’s crackers.  A real man would fight for his woman, not sing some pansy duet with another guy.  Am I right, or am I right?”  He drew his sword and made some practice cuts in the air.

            Grace held up a hand.  “Perhaps you should do it both ways for your compatriots and see what they think.  I’m sure we can’t compete with the artistic judgments of such an august group as you have here.”

            Beowolf turned to Casanova.  “She’s good.  Give me a week and I could have her up on stage.”

            Casanova leered.  “Beautiful too.  Give me a week with such a one, and we would not be found in public for seven days — or nights.”

            Grace blushed.  “We’re actually here for some help.  We need musicians to help us to… ah, seduce, a… a recluse we need to help us rebuild the roads.  She’s hiding in the woods.  What do you say?”

            Casanova cocked his head.  “This reclusive damsel, is she pretty?”

            “Well, she’s an ogre.  Very strong – good at lifting large rocks, for the road.”

            Beowolf puffed out his chest.  “Alas, if the mission was to slay the ogre, I would be the first to grab my trusty sword and join you on this quest.  But you are calling for us to take our mandolins out in the rain.  They are made of wood, very delicate instruments you know, and they would not survive the abuse.  I fear we must decline.”

            Grace shook her head.  “So no, but tomorrow perhaps?”

            Casanova nodded.  “Yes, come back tomorrow.”

 Dejected, they entered the last tent, where the two elves were conversing softly in low, musical tones.  They looked up, and the one with the mandolin stood.  “We greet you as kinfolk.  I am Willow, this is Laurel.”

            Animus gave a little bow.  “I am called Animus, this is Cleo, and our friend Grace.  We came to ask for your help with a musical quest we are on, but expect you’ll not wish to expose your instruments to the rain.”

            Laurel stood.  “Greetings.  No, our instruments are of elvish make; they are not affected by the rain.  However our garments…”

            Willow cut in.   “We are far from our homeland, and the only garments we have suitable to be seen in, in public, are these we’re wearing now…”

            “… which we need for the stage, you understand.  And they’re silk…”

            “… but not elvish silk.  So you see, it’s the mud that’s the problem.”

            “Have you ever tried to get mud out of silk?  It’s miserable.”

            “And since we need these costumes to make a living…”

            Cleo nodded.  “We understand.  Can we borrow your instruments then, for our quest?”

            Grace gagged and looked away.

            Willow and Laurel exchanged glances, then held out their instruments.  “Okay.”

            Grace looked back with astonishment.  “Just like that?  You’re not worried that we’ll steal them, or damage them, or….?”

            Laurel smiled at Grace.  “Ah yes, the human perspective.  If you had the lifespan of an elf, you would know that reputation is everything.  We would never fail to support one of our kin, nor would they fail to do so if the situation were reversed.  Only by participating in the great web of community can we achieve our vast potential and rise as one to glory.  These two we trust, knowing that they will care for these instruments, and return them in good condition, or find another way to make amends.  We are content.”

            Maude’s voice spoke in her head.  If more humans were like elves, we nuns would be out of a job.

            Animus bowed again.  “We are content.  Thank you.  We will take great care.”

            “Good luck on your quest.”

            They headed away from the market square tents, towards the South Bridge Gate.  Grace shook her head.  “I guess I’ll just sing, then; I haven’t got an instrument.  Cleo, can you really play that harp?”

            “No, but I’ll hand it over to you when we get there.  I’m better off standing guard with my bow.  I’ll hum along with whatever you two are doing.”

            Grace stopped them on the grass near the corner of the church.  “Is all that stuff about brotherly love between elves true?”

            Animus shook his head.  “No.  If I had been alone, they would not have been so gracious.  I am a wood elf, those two are high elves.  They like to put on airs for humans, though, act all superior.  All that was a show for you, the human.”

            “What was it like, growing up as a wood elf?”

            “We were poor, but self-sufficient.  Let’s just say that’s how I developed a distaste for rats.”

            Grace swallowed, and bit her lip.  “And you, Cleo, where did you grow up?”

            Cleo peered at the sky.  “Oh, for the first hundred years, I was an army brat, followed my parents wherever they went on campaign.  I learned a few tricks, but decided the army life wasn’t for me.  I mean, I kinda wanted to see more of the people in this world, not just landscapes, and not just high elves like those two back there.  I didn’t really get all the snooty rituals, and their prejudice towards humans.  They have a pretty narrow view, you know?  So when I heard about this ruined city supposedly opening up west of here, I decided it was time to strike out on my own.”  She laughed.  “So the first thing I do is hook up with a human sorcerer.  I think I might be in love, but don’t tell Rufus.  He’s such a child sometimes.”

            Grace looked at her, eyes wide.  “ ‘The first hundred years’, eh?  You must have learned quite a few ‘tricks.’ ”

            Cleo shrugged.  “They tell me I’m a bit slow.  Not exactly the top of my class in school.”

            Animus growled.  “Come on you two; we have an ogre to befriend.”

            They rounded the corner of the church and headed on towards the gate.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

{LINK TO THE NEXT CHAPTER}

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