If you missed the previous months, here is January, February, March, April, May, June, July, Aug and Sept
Story so far: our adventurers have been led astray by the Red Mage Cat, who has also abducted Carver the Ranger, with whom he has unfinished business… In which two fox-rabbits attempt to release a Ranger from his fate.
The gibbet had two empty nooses dangling from it. The stocks had three mangy, ragged, hairy ne’er-do-wells locked in them, hands dangling, heads lolling. One looked up and made a noise.
“Maybe he needs some water,” whispered Talbot.
“I bet he does,” Alice muttered back.
They shuffled around the empty market square, giving the stocks a wide berth.
“I didn’t imagine Erebor would be like this,” Alice said when they got under the shelter of the archway at the exit from the square. Horse shook his head. Magpie ruffled his feathers. “Not Erebor? Where are we then?”
A voice in the shadows cackled quietly. Everything was done quietly here, including cackling, apparently.
Talbot turned towards the cackler. “Excuse me. Please could you tell us where we are?”
“Ye be in Erewhen, a’course. Ye’ll regret it, dare say.”
“I dare say we will, unless there’s somewhere clean and friendly to stay,” Alice told the bundle of rags that had answered. “Is there?” she added hopefully.
“Clean? Try th’ Bull. Friendly? Try leavin’.”
Alice exchanged glances with the others, and sighed. “Well, please could you direct us to the Bull?”
“Aye. T’over there.”
The Bull Inn was a towering, ramshackle building squeezed in between warehouses and other wooden buildings. Lights showed through diamond-paned windows half-hidden by the overhang from the floors above. All seemed quiet within.
Alice paused with her hand on the doorhandle. “Shall we?” she asked the others.
Magpie shook his feathers.
“I have no idea. And there’s no sign of a stable either, before you ask, Horse. We’ll have to find out inside. Unless…”
“Just go in,” Talbot suggested.
The door opened with the creakiest of creaks, revealing a pleasant parlour with upholstered settees along one side, leading through to a large room with tables and chairs on the right hand side, and a warming log fire in a neat fireplace, surrounded by more settees on the right. Ahead was a bar, clean and sparkling, bottles hanging up and sparkling in the light, glasses in neat arrays on shelves.
Alice cleared her throat. Then coughed.
“Are you okay?” asked Talbot.
“I’m just trying to attract attention.”
“Hello? Is there anybody there? We’re travellers wishing to stay the night.” Talbot called out.
More creaks came from the back, along with some scraping noises and a yawn.
A large woman with red curly hair piled up on her head shuffled through the door to face them. She inspected the customers on the other side of the bar. Two fox-rabbits, one clearly in need of a bath, the other in need of a thorough soak and scrub to get marsh-mud off him. Then there was a magpie, sleek and shiny, eyeing her respectfully, and a horse with a saddle and panniers that appeared promisingly full.
“Travellers, eh? Those two’ll need a downstairs stall,” she indicated Magpie and Horse, “and I suppose you two will need an en suite.”
“Excuse me, what’s an on sweet?” Alice asked.
“A room with a bathroom attached.”
“Ooh, yes please, that would be lovely.”
“Would be if we had one. You’ll have to make do with the room next to the bathroom on the second floor.”
Alice looked at Talbot before replying. “Does it have two beds?”
“If you’re fussy, one can sleep on the sofa.”
“That sounds wonderful. How much will it be, and do you serve food too?”
“D,B&B for four, 400 credits. In advance.”
“Um, D, B&B?”
“Dinner, bed and breakfast.” The more she talked, the more terse she became.
Alice wondered whether horse’s panniers ran to four hundred credits these days. “Just a moment,” she said to the innkeeper.
She walked back to the parlour area, followed by the others.
“Can we afford it?” Talbot asked.
“Horse, how much have we got?”
Horse crouched down to let Alice look in the panniers, making sure she was on the side hidden from the bar. Alice extracted four one hundred credit notes. There wasn’t a great deal more there. “We are staying, then?” she asked them. Three people nodded at her.
She returned to the woman. “Thank you very much. Here’s the money.”
The woman pocketed the money and led them to their rooms, which were as clean and respectable as everything else about the place.
“Hee-hee!” The Red Mage Cat cantered around the attic room where Carver the Ranger still twirled gently, hung up in his net near the middle of the room.
“Who’s the woman?” Carver asked, both of them having followed proceedings by use of the Cat’s crystal globe.
“Polly. She only takes good class clientele. Rarely gets it, of course, at her prices. Your friends are either idiots or insanely rich.”
Idiots, Carver thought, with no knowledge of the value of things. Forty credits would have been the going rate anywhere else. But this was Erewhen. He sighed. That left even less money to give to the Red Mage Cat, if that was the only way he could buy his freedom. Somehow he thought the Cat was more interested in entertainment, or revenge, than the money. Although he wanted that too, of course.
The Cat stopped suddenly, and looked at Carver. “Hm. Yes, that would be fun.”
Carver shrugged. The Cat was talking to himself again.
With a swish of his staff, the Cat twisted the net in which Carver hung, and flipped it upside down.
“Yes, my dear thieving, deceitful friend. YES! You stay just there while I string them in too.”
Carver watched an upside-down Cat leave the room, flicking out the illumination as he went. Carver’s head swam with the pressure, as his vision tried to make some sense of the world now visible beyond the attic. Across the square he could see two fox-rabbit ears silhouetted against a light in a second-storey window. So close…
“What’s funny?” Alice looked up from the large bed. She had sorted the money from Horse’s panniers into five neat piles.
“There’s a funny room in that roof over there. I could see someone in a net, swinging around, then it sort of bundled itself up and the room went dark. I can’t see anything in there now.”
“So. What’s so funny about a light going out?”
“The person in the net looked like Carver.”
Alice went towards the window, then veered away to turn out their light.
“Show me,” she said as she arrived next to Talbot.
He picked out the attic room he meant. They could see nothing now but the reflections of lighter clouds in the dark sky.
Alice gazed on the market square. They’d be exposed if they went in the front, and they could hardly knock on the door, anyway. If they were going to see if it was Carver, they’d have to take the high route. She looked sideways at Talbot.
“What?” he asked.
“You don’t believe me! I know it was him—“
“Oh, I believe you. I’ve had a funny feeling someone was watching us since we arrived. I bet it’s whoever stole him from us. Talking of stealing, we’d better get this back to Horse. We shouldn’t trust people here you know.”
“Polly seemed nice.”
“Polly did seem nice. But if it’s such a good establishment, why are we the only ones here?”
“Perhaps nobody visits Erewhen.”
“They have a market. There must be visitors.”
Talbot’s ears drooped. He felt in his pocket for his stone again. He was just a stupid kid who’d run away seeking adventure and then he didn’t like what he’d found. He flicked up his ears again. “Let’s climb over the roof!”
“Of course that’s what we’re going to do, ninny. Just let me tell Horse and Magpie. They won’t be able to follow. They’ll have to keep watch though.”
“Whoever’s got Carver in a net.”
Down in the stalls at the back Magpie and Horse approved their plan, but both seemed strangely nervous.
“Stop stomping. What’s got into you?”
Magpie tossed his beak toward a stall at the end of the room. Alice investigated.
A huge, hairy head with long horns peered out at her.
“Oh, hallo, er, Mr Bull. Do you, er, talk?”
“Well, please don’t tell anything about what we were saying to anyone will you?”
“Er, well, if that’s the best you can do…” Alice shuffled away, feeling something very bad had just happened.
“I don’t like this,” she whispered to the others. “But I can’t think of anything else to do.”
“Let’s just go, before whoever turned the lights out in that room goes back.” Talbot sensed his courage was running out, and he’d better run out on those roofs before it deserted him entirely.
Alice nodded to him and set off back up the stairs, Talbot close behind.
Past the level of their room the stairs got narrower, with spaces underneath the steps, and after a couple more turns, passing a long narrow corridor, they came up to a square hole in the ceiling. Alice crawled through, Talbot close on her heels, and they continued to crawl, moonlight glinting through pinpoint holes in the roof.
At the end of the roofspace a small window gave them access to the outside.
“Where are we now?” whispered Talbot.
“Just across from where the other row meets this—look, you can jump across to that beam thing and then to the other roof.”
“Yes. Shall I go first?”
“One, two, three, jump!”
Talbot jumped. Halfway through the jump he realised what he was doing. With eyes bulging from their sockets, heart pounding and echoing in his ears, he strained for the beam and slipped. Instinctively wrapping his tail around the beam as he fell, he executed a perfect three sixty degree circle, releasing his tail as he flew onwards to the opposite roof. He landed on his feet on the edge of the roof, quickly flattening his body against the rough tiles.
Spreadeagled, he looked back at Alice, whose mouth formed a huge O as she watched his progress.
“Come on,” he hissed at her. “That’s how it’s done!”
He moved up the roof to give her room to land, his legs wobbling under him. How had he dared to do that? What was he thinking?
He felt Alice land behind him, and paused to let her come up beside him.
“Wow,” she panted. “That was really cool, Talbot.”
“Come on, it’s only a few feet more to the top.”
Heads down, they continued to climb. Then Talbot put his hand on something soft and furry. He looked into a face with a wide mouth, large teeth, green eyes and a large floppy hat.
“Welcome, my young friends,” it said in a most unwelcoming tone. “May I escort you to your friend Carver? He’s a great friend of mine, you know.”
Somewhere below them, a ruckus started in a stable as a bull locked up a magpie and a horse in an underground den, having relieved the horse of its panniers.
to be continued…
© J M Pett 2018
Illustration © Danielle English 2016