“Where do you think he went, Alice?”
“Dunno, but I don’t reckon he went of his own accord.”
Talbot and Alice had spent what seemed like several hours looking for Carver the ranger, while his horse grazed contentedly nearby. Eventually the two fox-rabbits came together and sat on the discarded cloak, staring into space, and occasionally at imagined noises in the forest.
“Is…” Talbot really didn’t know enough about the ways of men to ask whether this behaviour was normal. He tried again. “Does he often disappear?”
“How would I know, I only met him in Lodestar.”
“Oh.” Talbot’s ears drooped.
Alice continued to stare ahead of her, frowning. It was her favourite method of avoiding unwanted conversation.
“But you were travelling together?”
Alice shifted and sighed. This kid was not going to get the message. “Oh, leave it, will you? He’s left us in the lurch, although at least he’s left his money and horse. You can ride horse tomorrow. If he’ll let you.” She cocked an eye at horse, who return the gaze, but carried on munching.
“More questions? For foxes’ sake… have you not even heard of Erebor?”
Talbot shook his head. Stories of the wide world outside his warren did not include fabulous cities with untold opportunity. Well, they did, but they were generally fabulous warrens, and not called Erebor.
Alice curled up on the cloak. “Get some rest, will you?”
Talbot copied her, shutting his eyes and hoping nothing would creep up on them in the night.
The voice started slowly, whispering of vegetable stews and orange soda, of fresh lettuce salad with herbs and spices. It told of halls a mile long, with tables strewn with golden cups discarded by weary travellers once they’d drunk their fill. It told of magical beings who could make mysterious machines, which no fox-rabbit could ever comprehend—except the One fox-rabbit, the Fox-rabbit of Destiny.
Talbot listened intently, imagining the halls, savouring the scents of carrot and thyme, gazing on the richly dressed travellers taking their ease in alcoves in the castle walls. Erebor! It sounded fantastic.
The voice oozed wisdom and benevolence. It must belong to an ancient story-teller. What wonderful things he might learn if he sat with him. He rose to his feet to find him.
Alice woke to the tug of Magpie on her hood.
“Gerroff! It’s not daytime yet. Is it?” She peered out from the cloak in which she’d managed to wrap herself. It seemed gloomy, and whether it was just the forest, or the daylight, or lack of it, she wasn’t sure.
Magpie ruffled his feathers.
“Really? We’ll, I suppose we’d better get on and hope it doesn’t pour, then.” She stood up and stretched.
“Where’s that fool kid?”
Magpie eyed her.
“If I didn’t know you better I’d think you were worried about him.”
Magpie tossed his head towards the hill they’d explored when they first made camp.
“Up there, eh? Well, he’d just better come back. And where’s horse? HORSE!” she called, looking back down the road and then forward up it. No sign of horse. “TALBOT!” she tried.
Magpie ruffled his feathers again.
“What? He has to be in calling distance, he can’t have gone far. When did he get up anyway?”
Magpie put his head under his wing.
“What? Why didn’t you wake me? He shouldn’t have gone off in the dark, all on his own. No, he wouldn’t have, he got thoroughly over that when he got rescued by the Wanderer. Uh-oh.” A thought occurred to her.
Alice folded up the cloak and set it beside the other things Carver had unloaded from his horse before he’d disappeared. Then she started a painstaking examination of the ground from where Talbot had been sleeping.
“So he went this way… and horse came too, maybe following. Hmm.” The tracks had taken her a little way inside the forest. She took off her hood and dropped it beside the tracks to mark the place. Then she returned to Magpie and loaded up the rest of their belongings, and swung herself up into his saddle. “Come on then, we might as well follow them.”
Talbot sat at the feet of a magnificent elk, listening intently. Above him, the animal’s coat sheened like water on a summer stream. Horns branched majestically from his head. He was an elk in his full prime, yet wise and generous.
The elk spun his words of far-off places and heroes. Talbot’s head filled with the tale of the hero of Magna Dorata, his fight with the Rouble of Aswan, and the friends he had gathered together to defeat the loathed Corruptus.
If only he could be such a hero! He would stride forward, crossing the marshes and streams that tumbled down the hills of his homewood, blowing his horn and gathering all the clans behind them.
“Come, all my kinfolk! We are mighty and valiant and we will overcome all those who seek to hide us in our wood and take all the gifts of the earth from us!”
His parents would nod, and whisper to their friends what a fine fellow Talbot had become. Uncle Silas would put his shoulders up to all those who had followed him from the forge, and agree how wise Talbot had become. “A proper Ponsonby-Smith, that’s for sure,” he’d say, and all his friends, and Suzi’s Aunt Portia too, would all nod and congratulate Silas on his nephew. And Suzi…
But now the elk was talking to him, only to him, and the stories were waiting.
“… you will be rich, and famous, of course. For I am the Elk of the Woods, and I have the power to train you in magical arts, and leadership, and swordplay. Will you come?”
“Oh, yes!” breathed Talbot, gazing into the wise elk’s liquid amber eyes.
What Alice saw, as she slipped down from Magpie’s back, creeping towards the clearing, was an old elk whose crumbling antlers were adorned with creepers and lichens, cobwebs and dust. His moth-eaten coat hung ragged off gaunt haunches.
She bet he hadn’t moved in the past two years.
If he wasn’t careful, Talbot was going to suffer the same fate.