We left Talbot the fox-rabbit rapt in the Elk of the Wood’s spell, and his companions wondering how to rescue him. Elsewhere, Carver the Ranger has had discussions with the Mage Cat over how the latter used a will-o-the-wisp to lead his enemy to his doom.
Now read on…
Magpie swiped Alice over the back of her head with a stick. She whirled, aiming a high kick and preparing her attack cry—
She dropped to the ground, arms on hips, scowling at him. “What on earth did you do that for?” she hissed, well aware of the need to keep her voice down in case the Elk diverted his attention to her. There was no way she was going to fall into its thrall, like Talbot had.
Magpie tapped her with the stick again.
“Will you give over! Oh!” She took the stick. “This is the Raven’s staff, isn’t it. Maybe I can… what do you think, poke Talbot or thrash the elk?”
Magpie looked at the staff, then at both parties, still stationary on the ground, eyeing each other, minds elsewhere.
He beaked the stick first towards the elk, then Talbot.
Alice regarded the young fox-rabbit. He was clearly in no condition to make any decision for himself. If she managed to wake the elk, he would… what would the elk do? Become aware of her, and cast her into his spell? Charge? She could cope with that. He wouldn’t charge, not with all those mushrooms and ferns growing in his coat. If he managed to move it would take him a while to free himself from the moss and briars around his feet.
Talbot, then. But if he was under the elk’s spell it would take more than a poke with a staff. And, what would she do next? Make him run for it? Where?
Magpie ruffled his feathers and stamped his feet.
“Okay, I’m hurrying. We still need a plan. You may need to pick the young scamp up and run with him. Steal him, in fact. I’ll run after you, so stop and wait for me when we’re out of range. Got it? Okay, it’s a plan. Let’s… what’s that?
A movement behind her made her leap into the air to give her devastating kick. Again she dropped. She patted horse’s neck. “Silly. You startled me. Did you hear the plan?”
“Well, let’s do it. I poke Talbot, Magpie picks him up and runs off, you get me on board and join him, and we race through the forest back to the Erebor road. All ready? … Go!”
She leaped into the centre of the clearing, twirling her staff. Neither of the occupants moved so much as an eyelid.
She poked Talbot, who winced, but kept his eyes on the elk.
She hit him hard on the shoulders. He frowned, rubbed his shoulder, but kept his eyes on the elk.
“Haiieee-ya!” She shouted, and leapt over the fox-rabbit to attack the elk, placing well-aimed kicks where it would hurt a normal elk most. She soon learned there was no muscle left to stun, no nerves to freeze, that the elk was almost one with the earth. She battered his horns with the staff. Still the two kept their eyes locked on each other.
“Magpie!” She yelled, renewing her attack on the elk.
Magpie flounced in, picked up the fox-rabbit’s coat in its beak, and dashed out again, continuing through the forest at its half-flying half-lumbering gait.
Horse stretched its neck out to Alice and she jumped aboard, holding tight to the mane, stirrup or saddlebags as she clambered around trying to find a less shiny part of the saddle, never letting go of the staff for a moment.
Sometime after they reached the road, Talbot started asking questions.
“You’re upside down dangling from Magpie’s beak because you were fool enough to fall for that old trick,” Alice explained.
“What old trick?”
“The one where a mysterious being tells you amazing stories until you forget who you are and lose the will to live.”
“Oh.” Talbot burst into tears, largely because he was no longer the hero of his dream, but a small fox-rabbit bouncing around in between a magpie’s beak and the ground.
“Oh, stop!” Magpie and horse stopped, but Talbot continued crying.
“Look… Oh, put him down, Mags. Look, Talbot. You’re not the first person to have been caught that way. You’ve had a lucky escape though. You would have grown old and turned to stone listening to the elk’s rubbish, or worse, you’d have become a trapper too.”
“A trapper?” he got out on gulps of air between tears.
“Yes, someone who traps people to tell them stories so he can hand over the curse to them. But you got away, and now we’re back on the road to Erebor.”
“Sure we are.” Alice looked around some more. “Aren’t we?”
Horse snorted and Magpie ruffled his feathers. Without the stamping, he didn’t sound certain.
“Where’s the road gone?” Talbot asked the question they were all asking themselves.
They had definitely reached the road. They had continued down it until Magpie had put Talbot down. In the few seconds while Alice had explained the situation to Talbot, the road had disappeared, and so had their forest. This forest was no longer light and airy and welcoming. It was now brooding, sombre and dark, with dark squelchy patches between the roots, and there was no sign of a road, or even a track, either the way they were going or, more ominously, the way they had come.
“I think we might be in trouble,” Alice commented.
Horse snorted, and Magpie threw his head up and down, nodding, then trembling all over.
Alice moved to his side and murmured: “Don’t worry, scaredy, I’m with you. We’re going to need you for transport, though.”
Magpie rolled his eyes at her.
Horse coughed, and threw its head in the direction forward and left of their position.
“Look, what’s that?” Talbot seemed doomed to voice questions they all framed in their minds.
It started as a glow, but moved here and there as if wafted by a breeze, yet the air was still and clammy where they stood.
“I’m scared,” Talbot whispered.
“Where’s that stone the Raven gave you?”
Talbot sunk his hands in his pockets and closed them on the smooth round stone with the knot raised on its surface. Just holding it helped him feel more in control of things.
Alice held her staff in front of herself, to ward off evil.
The light kept coming, obliquely, but definitely approaching them.
Horse shivered, and pawed the marshy ground.
“Stop splashing,” Alice urged it, but she didn’t take her eyes off the light.
She couldn’t take her eyes off the light.
Now it danced around in front of them, forward and back, side to side.
“Do you think it’s talking to us?” Talbot asked.
“Well, you’re the one who talks to strangers, what does it say?”
“I don’t know.”
They watched the light angle back the way it had come, then return.
“I think we should follow it,” Talbot suggested.
“I bet no good comes of following a light we don’t know the origin of, in the middle of a magic swamp that appeared from nowhere.”
“Well, how else are we going to get out of here?”
“It’s what else we’re going to get into that I’m worried about,” Alice muttered.
The four of them stepped forward to follow the dancing light.
© J M Pett 2018
Illustration © Danielle English 2016