The covered wagon rattled and shook as it continued down the road. Beside the horse strode a red-cloaked raven. On the seat, holding the reins, sat Talbot, the fox-rabbit.
“That’s right dearie, hold them just lightly enough to keep the horse’s head knowing you’re still there.”
“But Mavis, I don’t want to hurt him.”
“You won’t if you’re gentle. He’s deaf, otherwise you could tell him what to do. Ah, there’s a fork in the road. Pull on the reins to make him stop. That’s the ticket. Well, now…”
Mavis, the raven, frowned.
“It’s been a while since I travelled this road, dearie, but I don’t remember this junction. And something about the signpost doesn’t seem right, too.”
Talbot sat dumb, his nervousness returning with a rush. He’d been so confident of the merchant, but now she seemed undecided. He jumped as a snorting noise erupted from the bushes on his right.
“Who’s there?” called the raven. “What have you been doing with this signpost? Come out now!” As always, her voice was soothing, yet compelling. “I know you’re there, you in the bushes. And don’t think you up that tree can escape me either.” She cocked one eye up to the fir tree above her. A lumpy misshapen thing flowed over the sides of the lowest branch. “You’d better climb down before it breaks, ranger.”
A couple of heartbeats later the bough cracked and screeched to the ground. A hooded man skidded to a halt beside the raven.
“At your service, madam,” he said, bowing.
“Carver. I might have known. What were you doing, up that tree? You might as well call your friends.”
“Well, madam, we were hiding from whoever was coming down the track. But since it’s you… Alice, Magpie, horse, come on out and meet the legendary Wandering Merchant Raven.”
“Legendary,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Overblown as always. Ah, what have we here? Another fox-rabbit, I see.”
Alice’s eyes opened wide at the sight of Talbot.
“Yes, ma-am,” she mumbled.
“Well, that’s good. Always good to have people support each other. Jump down now, Talbot. It’s time for you to join these people on the way to Erebor.”
Carver interrupted Alice. “But how do you know we’re on the way to Erebor, madam?”
“But of course you are. Where else? I think I ought to sell you some seeds.” She stretched into the wagon behind the seat and drew out a packet in a drawstring bag. “Now, what are you bargaining with?”
“I am as you see me, madam, bereft of all worldly goods.”
“I’ll have one of those green pieces of paper in your saddlebag then.”
Carver grimaced, but knew better than to argue with the Wandering Merchant Raven. Or, indeed, to ask what the use of the seeds would be. He’d need them, he hoped he’d know when. He handed over a red note.
“Carver—” Alice was doomed to be interrupted.
“And you, my dear. I have something for you, and in payment you will take young Talbot here under your wing. How does that sound?”
“You have something else as payment?”
Alice shook her head.
“I made this staff from the bough of a willow tree, many years back. It will serve you, as it served me, until it is ready to move to a new owner. Use it wisely, my dear, along with your many other talents.”
Alice frowned, looking at the staff, but accepted it anyway.
“And now, Talbot, it is time to continue your adventures with your new companions. You have done me good service with your company, and in steering the wagon, and in payment I give you this token.” She handed him a small round pebble with a strange knot-like design raised on it. “This is a stone of courage. Keep it in your pocket, and whenever you are afraid, handle this pebble, and you will overcome your fears. The more courage you develop, the more energy it can give you. Use it wisely.”
“Th-thank you, Mavis. I don’t know how to—”
“Thank me? You just did, dearie. Off you go now.”
She fluttered herself up on the seat and took the reins. The horse started off down the trail.
“But madam,” Carver called. “Which way is it to Erebor?”
“Either way, of course. But the other way may suit you better.”
Carver shook his head, glaring at the retreating wagon.
Alice gazed along the righthand track, which cut into the side of the fir-lined hill as it sloped towards the stream. “The other one looked prettier.”
Magpie cocked his head at her and began walking along the stony track. Carver’s horse followed.
“Wait for me!” Carver started off after it.
“Well, Talbot. I’m Alice. I suppose we’d better go that way too.”
Talbot nodded, and hopped alongside Alice as she hurried to catch up with Magpie.
“I hope you’re a good walker,” Alice said as she leapt into the saddle. “There’s no room for two up here.”
“I can walk—and run.”
Carver leant down from his saddle, having finished chastising his horse for leaving without him. “You can always nip up behind me if you get tired. You don’t look like you weigh more than ninepence.”
After several hours walking, during which the sun came out and went in again several times, and Talbot stopped worrying what ninepence was, Carver called a halt.
“It can’t be long till nightfall, and there won’t be enough light to continue until much later. Let’s make camp for a while, and go on when the moon comes out.”
They traced a tiny stream that crossed the track up to its source, where it bubbled over a rock, and drank their fill. Talbot, Alice and the horse found some good grass to eat nearby, and Carver filled the waterbottles and returned to their camp just off the track where Magpie stood guard.
“What’s up?” Carver asked, as Magpie glared at him.
Magpie shook his feathers and stamped his feet.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Have some water. Eat some worms or something.” He settled down on his saddlebags and prepared to sleep.
Magpie jumped up and down on the spot, sending dirt clouds over him.
“Hey, get out of here, pesky bird. Go on, get!”
Magpie bounced up and down again, jumping away when Carver reached for some gravel to throw at him. He headed up the hill to Alice.
“What’s up, Mags?”
A shake of the feathers and some stamping ensued.
“But… there’s nobody about. It’s really quiet here.” Alice looked around to confirm her general sense of security.
Magpie continued with his ruffling feathers, and started bouncing.
“Well, if you feel like that, I suppose…”
Carver’s horse looked up and whinnied.
Talbot came hopping over to them. “What’s up? I felt a prickling on my ear hairs.”
“Strange. Magpie is warning of danger, or a stranger, he always mixes up the two. He thinks they’re the same thing, really. Horse doesn’t seem too happy either.”
“Maybe we should get back to Carver,” Talbot suggested.
In the camp, nobody lazed on the saddlebags. They saw a discarded cloak, and a couple waterbottles lay across the clearing as if someone had thrown them. After a careful search, they decided there was no Carver. There were no footprints of Carver, other than those that led from the track when they’d arrived.
Carver wasn’t even up a tree.
As if by magic, Carver had disappeared.