Just a reminder, every second Sunday of the month I’m doing a serial with an original illustration from the wonderful Dani English, who also does my book covers.
It’s April already, and we reach Part 4 in my serial starring two fox-rabbits, a magpie, a man, his horse and various other travellers they find on their adventure.
So far ….
Talbot – a young fox-rabbit has taken shelter from rain and scary things in the forest, only to be approached by a monster…
Meanwhile, a fox-rabbit called Alice, and her Magpie friend and steed, have taken up with a mysterious hooded traveller they met in Lodestar.
Part 4 – The Wandering Merchant Raven
Awareness returned. Talbot was warm. He hadn’t been warm for days. Strange smells, at the same time sweet and sharp, wafted around him. Some reminded him of rosepetals, others of honeysuckle. That smelled of oak trees, this one of thyme. His tummy rumbled.
“Ah, awake now, are we?”
Oh no, trapped by the monster! He tightened up his eyelids. No, he was not awake.
“Well, you’re certainly a wee scared thing out in the forest on your own. Good thing I found you, really. Tea?”
Tea would be poisoned. Maybe it wasn’t a monster but a witch.
“Come now, I know you’re awake.”
Talbot felt a warm movement in front of his nose, and a stronger smell of thyme. Damp thyme. Thyme and mint.
“Pennyroyal tea? Very good for cold, hungry, tired and scared travellers.”
Talbot gave up his internal fight. “Um, thank you.”
He sat up, took the tea and sipped it. The perfect temperature, not too hot, but much warmer than he was. The perfect flavour. He drank more.
He eyed the person who’d handed it to him. Large eyes, huge black beak, a midnight red cloak with a gold and green tasselled and gilded shawl over her shoulders.
“That’s better, dearie. Took a real fright did you? All alone in the dark wood. Dangerous, these woods are, for a wee thing like you. Did you get lost? Eh?”
She waited. Talbot took another sip. What should he tell her?
“I can travel through them, of course, I’m safe with my horse and my wagon. You? Well, you’re probably on an adventure, aren’t you?”
Talbot nodded. So he was inside her wagon!
“All on your own. Maybe nobody at home understood you.”
Oh no. She’d been sent to fetch him.
“Well, you’re safe with me. Maybe you’ve even heard of me. Do they still tell tales of the raven who wanders through the world, selling people what they need, but never what they want?”
Talbot’s ears shot up. The Wandering Merchant Raven? Oh, yes. But… surely she was just a story?
“I see they do. Well, you may call me Mavis, although that’s not my real name. That would be very hard for you to say. And in the morning you can travel with me a way, till we’re out of the mist and onto the road to Erebor once more. How does that sound?”
“Not entirely persuaded, but willing to go along. That’s what adventures are all about, my young friend. And what shall I call you?”
“Talbot,” he whispered.
“That’s a nice name. Have some more tea.”
Out of the mist, with sunlight striking the snow-dusted peaks beside the valley, there was a fork on the road to Erebor.
“It’s the left hand one!” The diminutive fox-rabbit sounded exasperated.
“Don’t be daft, it’s the right one.”
“How do you know the way all of a sudden? Have you been there?”
“Many times, fox-rabbit. Which is more than you can say.”
“And yet I know that you always take the green route to Erebor.”
“Exactly. And right is green.”
The traveller’s assertion stunned Alice. Even Magpie stopped rootling in the ground and eyed the traveller, who had finally named himself Carver, to stop Alice’s persistent questioning.
“Er-hm.” Alice stepped towards the signpost and tapped the right-hand finger. “This colour is…”
“Green, of course.”
“And this one is…?”
“Well, er, reddish green.”
Magpie looked at Alice. Alice tossed her ears, flashed her eyes and shrugged her shoulders. “We’re travelling with an idiot,” she muttered at Magpie.
“Do you mind?” Carver brushed magpie snot off his shoulder.
“Have you got anything else green about your person? Maybe a five guilder note?”
“As a matter of fact…” Carver reached into his saddlebag. “Hang on, you’re just trying to find out how much stash I’ve got.”
“I don’t care about your stash. Come up with a greenback. Now.”
Carver pulled out an assortment of notes, and proffered a brown one.
“That’s a twenty. This,” she pulled a fiver out, “ is a five, and it’s green. Are you colour-blind or summat?”
Carver stuffed the money back in his bag, keeping his head firmly towards his horse. His horse held his head in the air, looking at the high mountains.
“You have no idea,” Carver mumbled. “It’s hell. It cost me my job, I nearly got fooled by a witch, I could have died in a mountain cavern.”
Alice held back her next scathing remark—with difficulty. But then, it can’t be fun not to be able to distinguish colours in a land that colour-codes everything. “Doesn’t your horse help out?”
“He thinks it’s funny.”
Alice snorted at the same time as the horse and Magpie.
“Well, it is, isn’t it? Why argue? I can see the colours. We’ll take the right-hand one, and be in Erebor before sunset.”
“Oh, it’s a lot further than that. But yes, let’s take the right-hand one. And if it’s wrong, it’s your fault.”
Carver got back on his horse, but the horse refused to move, just stared at the magpie. Magpie put his beak to the base of the signpost. Alice investigated. There were clear signs of digging.
“Carver! This signpost has been changed recently.”
“So, has it been turned, or just dug up a bit?” Carver asked.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
Carver looked at the fingers of the post. They stood straight either side of the fork. “Neither of them really point to either track. Even if you turned them round they wouldn’t. They are just straight out at the sides.”
“What do we do then?”
“Perhaps it’s a bluff.”
“Who would take the trouble to change the signposts, or make all those scratches and not actually alter the fingers?” Alice looked up the green track and down the red one. Green through the tall trees that hugged the mountain, or red down the rockier, sloped track that wound along beside the little stream.
“Well, I can think of a few people. I’m naming no names, though.”
“I don’t want to meet any of them, and naming names tends to attract them.”
Alice had no answer for that.
The sun left the mountains as they dithered. “We need to choose,” Alice said.
“Well, maybe we don’t, not just yet.”
“There’s something coming down the track behind us.”
He was right. Alice could hear noises further up the road they’d travelled from Lodestar. Maybe a wagon of some kind. Maybe something else.
“What should we do?”
© J M Pett 2018
Illustration © Danielle English 2016