Hi, I’m Jemima Pett. This year, every second Sunday of the month, the Ape has invited me to write connected flash fiction for you. My inspiration is drawn from characters created by my wonderful cover illustrator Dani English.
Having met one fox-rabbit last month, this time we meet another, rather more savvy one. I’m having fun developing this story, and readers of my blog may start to see some connections with the world of my colour blind ranger and indebted bard, who featured in my flash fiction there last year.
Well-met at Lodestar
The silver-striped fox-rabbit swung around, leaping into the air as she turned, and brought her stick down on the rock.
The crested magpie behind her watched, wings drooping. It did not appear to be impressed, even when her ears twisted up together with the force of her motion.
She kicked the hard surface, rebounded off into a backwards somersault, and landed facing the grey stone, poised to attack again.
“It’s surrendered.” She moved to slot the stick into her waistband, then realised it was little more than a stub. Disgusted, she threw it away, and paced the clearing looking for a suitable replacement.
Magpie turned its head to watch. It fluffed its feathers, shook them out and lay them flat again, then dipped its head, lifting one foot to preen its crest.
“I suppose you think it’s easy, practising with rocks? Well, I can tell you it’s not. It’s hard. You never know what a rock is thinking; he could be planning a counter attack. You have to be prepared for anything.”
Magpie caught its foot in the reins as it finished preening, hopped a few strides, and fell over.
“That wing still giving trouble? It should be perfectly fine by now. You have been exercising it as I said, haven’t you?”
Magpie scrambled to its feet and cocked its head on one side, steely blue eyes giving her no doubt as to its message.
“Okay, okay. I’m not as good as I think, and you’re better than you think. We’re kind of quits, aren’t we?” She puffed her cheeks and moved towards its side, preparing to mount.
It stepped away.
“What do you mean by that? We’ve got to get going sometime. Now seems as good as any. After all I did for you, and now you don’t want to go along with The Plan.”
Magpie raised its head towards the forest canopy. Sunlight glinted on its beak.
“Yes, it is a good day. We should be moving, now I’ve done my practice. You should have done yours too. You’ve only yourself to blame.”
Magpie hung its head, only to be distracted by something on the ground. It picked up a silvery pebble.
Taking its stance as an affirmative, the silver fox-rabbit swung her tail up to wrap around the ornate red cantle of the saddle, and used a combination of bounce and pull to arrive in the seat in one graceful movement.
“Right. Lodestar market, here we come!”
Magpie broke into a strange running canter down the track, occasionally spreading its wings to glide a few lengths, before resuming its lolloping gait.
The village of Lodestar may have drawn people from miles around to its weekly market, but it was hardly a metropolis.
Carts pulled by a variety of four-legged and two-legged beasts wound their way along rutted tracks on the edge of the central square in which market stalls stood, their wares sheltered from the lowering sun by awnings shabbily flapping in the increasingly damp breeze. Laughter and shouting erupted from time to time from the bar at one side, which doubled as a refectory and bunkhouse for anyone who needed accommodation. The barn stood on the adjacent side, the stable-keeper leaning against the doors, assessing the potential clientele for disease or sale value. The third side was formed by a series of pens, into which creatures of various types were segregated according to what they had to offer. Household servants, farm workers, tradesmen down on their luck, apprentices without a master, and beasts of burden all rubbed shoulders as they lined up to pass the auctioneer. All hoped to avoid the pen at the end, which was for those destined for the abattoir.
The fourth side was where the track came up the valley. Various dishevelled houses lined it for a few lengths, then the habitation petered out and the wilderness took over. The wilderness had a habit of taking over, as shown by the various heaps of old stakes and rubble that had once been buildings.
The silver fox-rabbit eased her seat on the magpie and leaned forward to whisper in its ear, which was covered in feathers, but still somewhere behind its eye.
“Don’t go too near that guy in front, I don’t trust him.”
The guy in front had been in that position for at least an hour. He had come down onto their road from the mountain track just as they left the forest. He had pulled his hood back to nod at them, revealing a craggy lined face and straggly hair, from his head and on his chin. His horse had looked down its nose at the unconventional pair. The man had accepted priority as the fox-rabbit waved him on, and drawn the hood back to hide his face.
“Just as well we’ve been keeping an eye on him, if you ask me.”
They followed the man on his horse as he headed to the inn, paused, then continued on to the stable. She heard him tell the stable-keeper to feed and water his horse, give him best oats and hay, and not to try anything on. She saw the glint of coin as he sweetened the craggy old man. He took his saddle bag from the horse’s back and swung it over his shoulder. It looked heavy, but not particularly full.
He nodded at the fox-rabbit as he passed on his way back to the inn. She relaxed a little, and swung off Magpie.
“What do you think? I could leave you here to rest, but maybe we should find somewhere for both of us.”
Magpie stretched its neck. That was as good as agreement. It turned, ready for her to remount, but she walked beside it to the inn. “We’re going to have to choose between rest and supplies, I reckon.”
It fluffed its feathers.
“I suppose so. I just thought some shelter would be good for a change. And we need to listen to people, find out what’s going on. After all, a plan’s a plan!”
Outside the inn was a line of travellers’ knickknacks: saddles, sheathed swords, bags. She took Magpie’s saddle off and stowed it alongside the bags she’d seen the man handling. A boy ran out and stopped, staring at the pair.
“Is this right?” she asked. “Put our goods here for safe keeping?”
He nodded. “Yes, er, ma’am, er, sir?”
“Thank you. Please take care of it.”
“I’ll do just that, er…”
They left him pondering how to address a fox-rabbit and a magpie, and found some room inside.
The only table with some space was the one with the man they’d been following.
“Do you mind?” she said, after Magpie confirmed there was nowhere else.
“Nope. You fed up with watching my back?” He looked across the table at her. She barely managed to get her chin above the surface level. Magpie towered down on them both. The man leant back and stretched. “Lodestar. About the most dead-end part of the kingdom, and we have reached the end. Where next, eh?”
“Er, I hope to get an assignment to take a message somewhere, or carry goods,” she said.
“We all do that, furry. Otherwise why else come here?”
“To buy things, perhaps?”
“Aye, if you live nearby. And to sell things too. What are you selling?”
She shifted, uncomfortable with this direct questioning. The advantage of her lack of height was he couldn’t see her body language. “I have the most wondrous talents, and the companionship of my friend here. We provide a unique delivery service.”
The man laughed, a loud raucous sound that blended with all the shouts and scratching shrieks about them. “Unique. Yeah, right.”
“Okay. What are you selling, or looking for, or buying?”
He shut his mouth and crinkled up his eyes, assessing her. It felt uncomfortably like the look the magpie had given her after her practice session. “My business is my own. How well do you know these hills?”
“Well enough to make the journey from where I came from to here.”
“Do you know the road to Erebor?”
She hesitated. “Several.”
“And which one would you choose?”
“Well, if I was to choose to go to Erebor, I wouldn’t have come this way in the first place.”
“Ah, but you did. Why was that?”
“It was the next place in the direction we are going.”
“So you’re not going back down the track?”
“It depends what errand we manage to secure while were here.”
The man nodded. “And what if you met the Merchant Raven here?”
“Don’t be silly, the Merchant Raven wouldn’t come here.”
“Ah, so you know about her.”
“Everyone knows about the Merchant Raven who roams the forests with everything that everybody needs, but nothing they want.”
“And most people know about the fox-rabbit and the magpie. Except, you, I think.”
“What? What nonsense is this? We are just travellers, honest and pure.”
“You are Adventurers. And fortunately, you have now met me.” He tossed a gold coin in the air. Magpie snapped it up, and tucked it somewhere in its feathers. He chuckled. “And now you have taken my coin. You owe me, fox-rabbit.”
“The name’s Alice,” she said, wondering what on earth the magpie had got her into now.
© J M Pett 2018
Illustration © Danielle English 2016