Seven Twines and the Dragon Heartwoods

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    It felt as if all hell had broken loose this morning. Everyone seemed to look for their heads, and all in the wrong places.

    What he was really looking for, was his heart. Taking about other people, they used to say things like “his heart’s in the right place, you know”, as a form of apology, as if they knew what was the right place. Maybe they all were wrong, and nobody knew for sure.

    In the morning, the ginkgo trees in the lane leading to the fortified city had all started to turn to gold, glittering the path with golden flecks. Magic comes from the heart they all whispered in the cold wind telling tales of first snows. Autumn had arrived late this year, and the weather was playing all kinds of strange choreographies.

    He could do well with a bit of magic, but magic was tricky to harness these days. All the good practitioners of old seemed to have been replaced by snake oil merchants. But the trees still knew about magic.

    He had a theory, that some pockets of old magic remained, shrouded in nature, oblivious to the city-life encroachments, ever-alive and ripe for the picking. He had heard the term “area of enchantment”, and that was to him the perfect description. He knew some sweet spots, near derelict places, gently overgrown with foliage, sitting side by side with the humbums of the busy city life.
    He would ask the trees and vines there if they could help with the unusual wreckage of this morning.

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      He took the road again not much later after a light breakfast.

      The potion hadn’t seemed to bring about immediate noticeable changes. It told Rukshan something about its maker, who was versed enough in potions to create gradual (and likely durable) effects. Every experienced potion maker knew that the most potent potions were the ones that took time, and worked with the drinker’s inner magic instead of against its own nature. The flashy potions that made drastic changes in nature were either destructive, or fleeting as a bograt’s fart in the spring breeze.
      If anything, it did give him a welcome warmth in the chest, and a lightness on his back and shoulders.

      The Faes had been generous with him, and he had food enough for a few days. Generous may not have been the right word… eager to see him scamper away was more likely.

      Enhanced by the potion’s warmth, the Queen’s words were starting to shake some remembrance back to him, melting away a deep crust of memories he had forgotten somehow, pushing against the snow like promises of crocuses in spring. The core of the Dragon Heartswood was very close now, a most sacrosanct place.
      Faes were only living at the fringe, where life and magic flew, running like the sap of an old tree, close to the bark.
      Inside was darker, harder to get to. Some said it was where life and death met, the birthplace of the Old Gods and of their Dragons guardians before the Sundering.

      His initial plan was to go around it, safe in Fae territory, but after the past days, and the relentless menace of the hungry ghosts on his trail, he had to take risks, and draw them away from his kin.
      The warmth in his heart was getting warmer, and he felt encouraged to move forth in his plan. He gave a last look at the mountain range in the distance before stepping into the black and white thickets of austere trees.


        Glynnis, late with her mornings work after her lengthy dream journal entry, was initially irritated with the interruption of the postman.

        “Leave it in the letter box!” she called. “I am up to my elbows in bread dough!”

        “I can’t, it’s too heavy,” the postman replied, “And you have to sign for it, anyway. And I’m not taking it back to the post office, it’s put my back out carrying it here already,” he added.

        Sighing and wiping her floury hands on her apron, Glynnis opened the door a few inches and extended her hand through the gap.

        “You’ll need two hands, Ducky,” he said, thinking to himself, what an ungrateful wretch!

        Exasperated, she flung the door open. The postman handed her a large stone parrot. A hand written note was attached to its neck with a blue ribbon.

        “A Gift of Appreciation” was all it said, in a rather untidy almost indecipherable script.

        “Oh, a gift,” said Glynnis softly, mollified. “But from who?”

        “Says it’s from the Laughing Crone on the return address. Now just sign here Ducky, and I’ll be on my way.”


          Margoritt Loursenoir?” repeated Eleri, a frown furrowing her brow as she considered the unexpected proposal. A detour sounded appealing, particularly as she had been considering just buggering off anyway. She was in no hurry to encounter that rampaging statue that had come to life and was hunting her down. Perhaps she would be inspired by the author to continue her own writing.

          Decision made, she announced to Yorath, “Lead on, my good man! I will accompany you. But only if I can borrow your red silk jacket,” she added, thinking it was worth a shot to get her hands on that divine fabric.


            Looking at what was left in his bag, it made Rukshan realise he was walking in the Dragon Heartswood for longer than he thought.
            It was a maze with layers of concentric circles of tree, and seemed far bigger and vast once you were inside that it should have been.
            He had been presumptuous to venture in it, without any guidance or map, knowing very well that most of those who had entered it, never came out. There was a magical distress beacon that was in the bag, but he guessed it would only help him retrace his steps back to where he entered. He didn’t want to use it. He could still feel the glowing confidence infused in his heart by the potion, and now, it was as though it was telling him to do nothing, and just not worry. So he chose one of the trees, to just sit under, and meditate for a while.

            There was a bird, high in the small patch of sky that the treetops didn’t cover. Or at least, it looked like a bird. I had been there for a moment, as if watching him.

            “Don’t you like birds?” the voice said “They are my favourite creatures, so smart and graceful. Ah, and the joy of the flight!”
            He wouldn’t open his eyes, not sure the feminine voice was in his head or not. She was one and the same with the large bird hovering —it was one of her projections, but she was human.
            “You know who I am, Rukshan, you have been searching for me.”
            “You are the Hermit, aren’t you?”
            “Yes, and here I am, saving you a long trip to the mountains.” There was a smile in her voice.

            He didn’t know what to say, but feared to open his eyes, and risk the spell to vanish.

            “You can open them, your eyes. They are deceivers anyway, they are not the senses that matter.”

            She was there, in front of him, looking ageless. There was no telling if she was a projection or real.

            She had put something in front of him. A sort of flat braid, not very long, and made with different threads of diverse nature and impractical use, yet artfully arranged, revealing clever and shifting patterns.

            “It is for you Rukshan, to help you remember. I have worked on it for the past days, and it is now ready for you.”

            He looked at the patterns, they were clear and simple, yet they changed and seemed to elude understanding. The braid was only loosely attached at the end, and threatened to unravel as soon as moved.

            “These are your lives, intertwined. You and six others. You don’t know them, in this life —however long yours has been. But you are connected, and you have know each other before, and you have intertwined before. Some of these past stories can be read in the patterns, and some are tragic, and they all bear fruits in this life and the next. It is no mystery why you have been attracted to the Heartswood, because it is where the Sundering started, and where you and the others have left things unresolved. If you don’t look deep now, and take steps to correct course, you will go from this life to the next and repeat your torments and endless search.”

            While Kumihimo spoke, Rukshan had fleeting images and impressions, some linked to the visions the gingkos and the trees had sent him before, of the others, linked to his quest.

            “Yes, you are starting to remember… That day, when you and the others tried to rob the Gods of the flame of creation. They cursed you, even their pet Dragon who was supposed to guard their treasure and sided with you against them.”

            She showed him the ring of charred trees that marked that particular period in the middle of all the rings for each ages of growth of the Heartswood.

            “The Sundering” he spoke softly, reminded of fables in the legends of the Fae. That was the ancient age, when most of the Gods had disappeared, some said, gone through the doorway that was at the very heart of the Heartswood, the very source of life and death, and creation. There had been new Gods after that. They also possessed great powers, but none with the aura of the Old Ones —no Old God would have been trapped in stone by a mere witch’s enchantment.

            Rukshan turned to the Hermit with deep pondering. “What can we do?”

            She was starting to fade away, turning again into a bird. “Each of you has a special power, that you stole in that past life, and with each new life, you carry it with you, and with it, its curse. Find who you were, find what you stole, and give it back. Then the threads will unravel and the knot of all the curses will be undone.”


              The drizzle wasn’t meant to last. At least that’s what the smell in the air was telling Fox. With the night it was getting colder and the drizzle would soon turn into small ice crystals, and maybe worse.
              “We should get going,” Fox said, enjoying the last pieces of rabbit stew. The dwarf had been busy looking around in the leafless bushes and behind the tree trunks. He had been silent the whole time and Fox was beginning to worry.
              “What have you been doing anyway?” he asked. “Are you hunting? You can still have a piece of that stew before I swallow it.” He handed his bowl toward the dwarf, who grumpfed without looking at Fox.
              “I don’t eat. I’m a stone dwarf. I think I get recharged by daylight.”
              Gorash kept on looking around very intently.
              “We should get going,” repeated Fox. The weather is going to be worse.
              “Grmpf. I don’t care. I’m made to stay outside. I’m a stone statue.”
              “Well even stone gets cracked with the help of ice when temperature drops below zero. How am I supposed to carry you if you fall into pieces,” said Fox. He thought his idea rather cunning, but he had no idea if Gorash would be affected by the bad weather or not, since he was not really like stone during the night.

              “And what are you looking for? It’s winter, there’s not much of anything behind those naked bushes.”
              “It’s Easter. You had your rabbit. I want my eggs,” said the dwarf.
              “Oh.” Fox was speechless for a few moments. He too had been thinking of the colourful eggs of the dwarf’s friend they had left in the witch’s garden. He wondered what had happened to it? Gorash had been gloomier and gloomier since they had left the garden and Fox didn’t understand why. He had thought his friend happy to go on a quest and see the outside world. But something was missing, and now Fox realised what it was.

              He didn’t really know what to say to comfort the dwarf, so he said nothing. Instead he thought about the strange seasonal pattern shifts. If it was Easter then it should be spring time, but the temperatures were still a havoc. And the trees had no leaves in that part of the forest. Fox remembered the clock tower of the city had had some problems functioning recently, maybe it was all connected. The problems with the bad smell around the city, the nonsensical seasonal changes and that gloomy quest… maybe it was all connected.

              Fox gulped the last pieces of rabbit stew without enjoying it. He licked the inside of the bowl and put it in his backpack without further cleaning. He had suddenly realised that it was not much use to ask Gorash’s permission to leave as Fox was doing all the walk during the day anyway. So he could as well do it at night. He didn’t have as much difficulties to put out the fire as he had lighting it up. He cleaned the place as much as he could and then looked around him. The night was dark, the drizzle had turned into small snow flakes. Fox smelled the air. It would soon turn into bigger flakes. The dwarf could stay outside if he wanted, but Fox needed to move. Let him follow if he wants to.


                The snow had turned into blizzard and it was hard to see even a few meters ahead. It was hard to move because of the wind and of the thick white layer covering the forest ground. Fox looked behind him, his footsteps were already gone. He felt worried for the dwarf. Fox thought he shouldn’t have left his friend like that. There was no point now looking for him, and anyway Fox wasn’t really sure in which direction he came from. He shivered, his clothes were soaked and covered with snow and ice. He felt cold inside his bones. He was too tired to even wish for shelter. He was about to sit in the snow when he felt something bumping into his left leg.

                “Oh! you’re there,” said Gorrash. “What strange weather. I have never seen something like it.”

                Fox was too cold to answer but he felt relieved that his friend was well. The dwarf seemed so lively. Fox noticed his friend was carrying three colourful eggs in his little arms. They reminded him of the glowing eggs of that strange creature, except they weren’t glowing. He wanted to ask where Gorrash had found them, but his mouth wouldn’t respond.

                “Anyway,” said the dwarf, “You’d better come this way, there is a wooden house with a fire burning inside.”

                Fox looked at the dwarf jumping over the thick snow as if it was a game. He hesitated but decided to follow. He had nothing to lose.

                They soon arrived in front of a wooden house. The door opened and an old lady got out, opening an umbrella. She was waving her other arm and saying something that Fox couldn’t hear with the raging wind. He continued to advance and the old lady looked horrified. She hurried toward him still talking. Fox eventually heard what she was saying.

                “Don’t come closer! My house will not resist that blizzard.”

                It was so strange that Fox stopped where he was. The old woman had no difficulty approaching despite the wind and the snow. When she was close enough, she covered Fox with the umbrella and the world became still around them.

                “Is that a magic umbrella?” he asked.

                “Sort of,” said the woman. “It’s more of an anti-curse thingy that my friend Mr Minn gave me some time ago. I didn’t think it would be useful, until today.”


                  The remembrance had made the magic book reappear in Rukshan’s bag, and with it, its leaves ripe with vibrant parts of the long ago story. Rukshan started to read, immediately engrossed by the story it told.

                  When the Heartswood was young, many thousands of years ago, during the Blissful Summer Age

                  — The Dark FAE
                  — The Mapster DWARF
                  — The Glade TROLL
                  — The Trickster DRYAD
                  — The Tricked GIRL
                  — The Laughing CRONE
                  — The Toothless DRAGON

                  ACT 1, SCENE 1 – THE PREPARATION

                  NARRATOR: It all started as an idea, small and unnoticeable, at first. Almost too frail to endure. But it soon found a fertile soil in the mind of seven improbable acolytes. It took roots and got nourishment from greed, envy, despair, sorrow, despondence, rebellion and other traits. And it grew. That growing idea bound them together, and in search of the way to obtain what it wanted, got them to work together to do an unthinkable thing. Rob the Heartswood of its treasure, the Crest Jewel of the Gods, the radiant Gem that was at its centre. It would be the end of their sorrow, the end of the Gods unfair power of all creation… The idea obscured all others, driving them to act.

                  FAE: Did you get the map?
                  DWARF: Of course, what do you think, I am no amateur. What do you bring to the table?
                  FAE: I bring the way out. But first things first, the map will get us there, but we still need a way in. What says your TROLL friend?
                  DWARF: He heard rumours, there is a DRYAD. Her tree is dying, she tried to petition the Gods, but to no avail. She will help.
                  FAE: Can your friend guarantee it?
                  DWARF: You have damn little trust. You will see, when she brings in the GIRL. She is the key to open the woods. Only an innocent heart can do it, so the DRYAD will trick her.
                  FAE: How? I want to know everything, I don’t like surprises. An unknowing acolyte is a threat to our little heist. What’s her story?
                  DWARF: I don’t know much. Something about a broken heart, a dead one, her lover maybe. The DRYAD told the GIRL she could bring her loved one back from the dead, in the holy woods.
                  FAE: I can work with that. So we are good then?
                  DWARF: You haven’t told me about your exit plan. What is it?
                  FAE: I can’t tell you, not now. We need the effect of surprise. Now go get the others, we will reconvene at the woods’ entrance, tomorrow night, at the darkest moon of the darkest day.

                  SCENE 2 – THE CURIOUS GODMOTHER

                  GIRL: Godmother, I need to go, you are not to worry.
                  CRONE (cackling): Let me come with you, the woods are not safe at this time of the year. The Stranger is surely out there to get you.
                  GIRL: No, no, Godmother, please stay, you cannot help me, you need to rest.

                  Rukshan looked at some of the blank pages, there were still missing patches

                  ACT 2 – SCENE 3 – THE HEIST

                  In the heart of the Heartswoods

                  TROLL: Let me break that crystal, so we can share it!
                  GIRL (reaching for it to protect it): No! I need it whole!
                  DRYAD (in suave tone): Let it go! I will protect it and give you what you want…
                  GIRL: Your promises are worthless! You lied to me!
                  CRONE: (cackles) Told you!
                  DWARF: Give it to me!
                  FAE (quieting everyone): Let’s be calm, friends. Everyone can get what they want.

                  GIRL (startled): Eek! A Guardian DRAGON! We are doomed!
                  FAE (reaching too late for the crystal): Oh no, it had broken in seven pieces. I will put them in this bag, each of us will get one piece after we leave. (to the DRAGON) Lead the way out of this burning circle!
                  DWARF (understanding): Oh, that was your exit strategy…
                  FAE (rolling eyes): Obvious-ly.

                  That was all that the book had to show at the time. Rukshan thought the writer got a little lazier with the writing as the story went, but it was good enough to understand more or less what had happened.

                  There was one last thing that was shown in the book.

                  WHAT THEY STOLE
                  — Shard of Infinite Knowledge
                  — Shard of Transmutation and Shapeshifting
                  — Shard of Ubiquity and Teleportation
                  — Shard of Infinite Influence and Telepathy
                  — Shard of Infinite Life and Death
                  — Shard of Grace and Miracles
                  — Shard of Infinite Strength


                    Glynis had been staying with the Bakers for a few weeks now, since the night of the storm.

                    She had taken refuge on their porch, as the gale tore through the pitch black streets, blowing anything not nailed down along in its wake. Intending to leave early before anyone in the house was up, she found a dry corner and wrapping her burka tightly around herself for warmth, she fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.

                    “Well, what have we here! Good Lord, girl, you must be freezing!” said a booming male voice. Glynis started awake, trying to work out where she was.

                    “This is no place to be in a storm. Come inside to the warm,” the man continued. And before she could gather her senses and protest, he took hold of her arm and gently but firmly pulled her into a cosy warm kitchen already filled with the delicious aroma of baking bread.

                    “Anne!” he called to his wife, “look what I found on the front porch!”

                    “Oh you poor dear! You are shivering! Come with me and let’s get you into some dry clothes.”

                    Anne Baker was a portly woman with a purple scar covering a large part of her face. Glynis never mentioned the scar and likewise the Bakers never said a word about the dragon scales, seeming completely unperturbed by Glynis’s unusual appearance. In fact, in their kindly presence, Glynis sometimes found herself forgetting.

                    To repay their kindness, Glynis helped with the baking. With her knowledge of herbs, she had created several new recipes which had proved to be most popular with the customers. This delighted the Bakers; they were people who were passionate about what they did and every little detail mattered. They rose early, often before the sun was up, to lovingly prepare the dough; in their minds they were not merely selling bread; they were selling happiness.

                    Glynis was most surprised the day the stone parrot arrived in the mail.

                    “This is very peculiar. Who is this “laughing crone” and what does she want with me,” said Glynis to the stone parrot. “I wonder, did Aunt Bethell send you to me? She is very good at stories — perhaps she sent me the dream as well.”

                    But surely Aunt Bethell would not call herself a laughing crone! No, that is definitely not her style!

                    Glynis stared at the concrete parrot and an uneasy feeling had come over her. “You are alive inside that concrete, aren’t you,” she whispered, patting the stone creature gently. “Have you too been caught in the spell of some malevolent magician?”


                      Glynis knew just the potion required to counteract the living stone spell.
                      She was not sure however if it was wise to apply it to the large stone parrot. If her dream was any indication, it was meant for her. And who wouldn’t want a large joke telling parrot for companionship? Really?

                      Anyway, she sighed, that was probably the only option to learn more about this particular thing and the mysterious sender.

                      Wiping the flour off her brow, she started to gather the herbs, bones, bezoar, and the nugget of precious elerium needed for the potion.


                        “You can go to bed,” said Gorrash. “I’ve been used to spend the whole night alone with only a couple of shrews, insects and crying bats when I lived in that garden.” He sounded more bitter than he had wanted, so he smiled. But even his smile was forced.

                        “Yes, you’re right! I won’t be of such good company at that late hour,” said Margoritt. “I’m afraid your friend also need some sleep for now. He’s exhausted.” They looked at Fox who was sleeping soundly in a side bed. Tak was looking after him with curiosity in his eyes. As if he had recognised the touch of Gibbon in him. Margoritt had helped remove the blizzard curse before she let Fox entered the house. It was a mild curse which he had certainly caught as they passed the melancholic spring the day before. Gorrash wasn’t affected because he was in his stone slumber at that time.

                        “I don’t know why, but lately visitors seem to always need some sleep,” added Margoritt. “Anyway, I know an owl of good company that often fly around the house at that hour. If you want to wander around, feel free to do so. I’ll let the door ajar so you can come and go as you please,” she said as she stood up. “Tak. Time to go to bed too.”

                        The young boy looked at her, then at Fox.

                        “He’ll be there in the morning, don’t worry.”

                        That seemed to be enough for Tak who went to his own bed. Margoritt went to her bedroom and the house soon became silent. Gorrash decided to have a conversation with the owl and left the house silently.


                          After days and days, there was no signs of the others.

                          Rukshan had hoped they would manifest as easily as the Hermit had, without much effort on his part.
                          But they had remained silent, and even the ghosts seemed to have subsided in another dimension. He couldn’t feel them any longer. It was as though his realisation had made them disappear, or change course for a while.

                          He hadn’t come any closer to the inner ring of trees though, and he’d come to the conclusion that there was surely some piece missing. He was reminded of the map that the cluster of seven had found at the beginning of the story, so they could reach the magic Gem inside the Gods’ Heartswood. There was no telling if such a map existed or if it did, what form it had —after all, the story seemed to be a little too simplified.

                          He was trying to figure out which was his character, and which of the curse he had inherited. The curse was rather easy he’d thought… Knowledge. It had always been his motivation, and the encounter with the Queen and the taking of the potion had keenly reminded him that for all his accumulated knowledge, he was missing the biggest part. The knowledge of himself, and who he really was. It was constantly eluding him, and he was starting to doubt even his own memories at times.

                          For the past few days, having finished the last morsel of fay bread in his bag, he was subsisting on roots, mushrooms and fresh rainwater cupped in leaves and last bits of snow in treeholes. It was time to get moving, as the weather had started to change. The snow was receding too.

                          Even if his quest wasn’t as sure as before, he knew he had to find a way to reach these six others, and try to figure out what they could do, or undo.

                          He had a strong suspicion that the potion maker was linked to this story. Her potion had activated something deep in him, and it seemed to share the same source of power.

                          With that resolution in mind, he took the path retracing his steps back to the cottage and the outside world.


                            Eleri opened her eyes but was still seeing the scrunched up piece of paper. She frowned, still looking at the crumpled ball in her dream hand, oblivious to her current state and whereabouts, and remembered an earlier dream. She had been reading a paragraph of text on a card sized piece of paper. It was so clear at the time that her dream self was reading it, and made so much sense, that she knew she was sure to remember it.

                            Sighing, she rubbed her eyes and tried to focus. What had been written, that she had later screwed up?


                              “Pssst Glynis, are you awake?”

                              There was no response so Sunshine, the parrot, leapt from his shelf onto the bed and nudged Glynis with his beak.

                              “Ouch! Sunshine!”

                              “I’ve got a joke for you. It’s a good one this time! You will be glad I woke you.”

                              Glynis groaned.

                              “What’s smarter than a talking parrot?”

                              “Don’t know. Don’t care.”

                              “Come on! you aren’t even trying!”

                              “Aargh. Most things are.”

                              “Oh how rude. You really aren’t at your best this hour of the night. It’s a spelling bee! Get it? A spelling bee. A bee that spells. Not that anything is really smarter than a parrot. Hmm maybe I should have let you sleep,” cackled the parrot.

                              “Extremely hilarious. Now be quiet, Sunny, and get some sleep. We have to get away extra early in the morning.”


                                In the past twenty days since he got out of the forest, backtracking on his steps, Rukshan didn’t have much luck finding or locating either of the six others strands.
                                At first, he thought his best hint was the connection with the potion-maker, but it seemed difficult to find her if she didn’t want to be found.

                                So, for lack of a better plan, he had come back to Margoritt’s shack and was quite pleased at the idea of meeting the old lady and Tak again.
                                Her cottage had been most busy with guests, and in the spring time, it was a stark contrast with the last time he was there, to see all the motley assemblage she had gathered around her.

                                First, there was Margoritt of course, Emma the goat, then Tak, who was a very convincing little boy these days, and looked happy at all the people visiting. Then, there was Lahmom, the mountain explorer, who had come down from her trek and enjoyed a glass of goat milk tea with roast barley nuggets.
                                Then there were a couple of strange guests, a redhair man with a nose for things, and his pet statue, a gnome with a temper, he said. Margoritt had offered them shelter during the last of the blizzard.

                                With so many unexpected guests, Margoritt quickly found her meager provisions dwindling, and told Rukshan she was about to decide for an early return to the city, since the next cargo of her benefactor Mr Minn would take too long to arrive.

                                That was the day before she arrived to the cottage with her companion: Eleri and Yorath, had arrived surprisingly just in time with a small carriage of provisions. “How great that mushrooms don’t weigh anything, we have so many to share!” Eleri was happy at the sight of the cottage and its guests, and started to look around at all the nooks and crannies for secret treasures to assemble and unknown shrooms.
                                While Yorath explained to Margoritt how Mr Minn had send him ahead with food, Margoritt was delighted and amazed at such prescience.

                                Rukshan, for his part, was amazed at something else. There seemed to be something at play, to join together people of such variety in this instant. Maybe the solution he was looking for was just in front of his nose.
                                He would have to look carefully at which of them could be an unknown holder of the shards of the Gem.

                                He was consigning his thoughts on a random blank page of his vanishing book, not to store the knowledge, but rather to engage on a inner dialogue, and seek illumination, when some commotion happened outside the cottage.

                                A towering figure followed by a boy had just arrived in the clearing. “Witch! You will pay for what you did!” pointing at Eleri, backed behind Yorath who had jumped protectively in front of her.

                                That can’t be another coincidence Rukshan thought, recognizing the two new guests: the reanimated god statue of the tower, and Olliver, the boy who, he deduced, had managed to wake up the old teleporting device.


                                  In the kitchen, Fox beheaded the chicken in a swift move. He tried not to be horrified when the creature’s body kept on running around, headless like a peaslander. He felt vaguely aware that’s what he’d been doing all that time. Running around without a very clear idea about what he was doing.

                                  “Don’t let it run around bloody n’all!” said Margoritt, “Who do you think is going to clean that mess?” The old woman, huff and puff, limped rhythmically after their dinner. Someone had heard her scream and came into the kitchen. It was that tall Fae guy, Rukshan, who looked so successful and handsome. Fox felt depressed. The Fae had caught the dead body, which had eventually stopped moving, and put it in the basket Margoritt had taken on the table.

                                  “Thanks my dear,” she said with a giggle. “Would you be so kind as to pluck it for me?” She then looked at Fox. “Sorry, lad, but with a name like yours I’m not sure I can trust you on this one.” The old lady winked.

                                  Fox couldn’t be annoyed at Margoritt, he wouldn’t trust himself with a chicken, dead or alive. And the old lady had saved him from the blizzard and from that strange curse. He attempted a smile but all he could do was a grimace. Margoritt looked at him as if noticing something.

                                  “Why don’t you go with Rukshan,” she said, “A bit of fresh air would do you good.”
                                  Fox shrugged, and followed the Fae outside.

                                  “And send me that Eleri girl, I’d like to have a word with her while she clean the blood on the tiling.”

                                  Outside it was noisier. Fox found the woman arguing with her male friends, one of whom looked like a statue with big wings. She seemed relieved to have a reason to get away from the crowd and her own problems and left with a smile. He wondered how she could stay happy while being surrounded by conflict. Maybe she liked it. Fox shrugged again.

                                  He walked to the small courtyard, sat on a log and watched the handsome Fae removing the feathers. Rukshan’s hands looked clean, the blood was not sticking on his fair skin and the chicken feathers were piling neatly on a small heap at his feet.
                                  “Aren’t Faes supposed to be vegetarian,” he said. He cringed inwardly at his own words. What a stupid way of engaging a conversation.

                                  Without stopping, Rukshan answered: “I think you think too much. It’s not doing you much good, and it deepens the shadow under your eyes. Not that it doesn’t suit you well.” The Fae winked. Fox wasn’t sure of how to take it. He stayed silent. He saw the bag the Fae was always carrying with him and wondered what was inside.

                                  “It’s a story,” said Rukshan.
                                  Fox was confused and looked puzzled.
                                  “In the bag. It’s a story. But it’s not finished.”

                                  Fox felt warmth rise to his face. If the Fae could read his thoughts… he preferred not to think about it. Rukshan smiled gently.

                                  “I need help to complete it and better understand the characters. Would you like to help me?”
                                  Fox wasn’t sure what made him answer yes. Did it matter if it was for the welcomed distraction from his dark thoughts, or if it was for the promise of more time spent with the Fae?


                                    “Send me that Eleri girl!” That old woman is a bit bossy, Eleri thought. As if I am just a story prop to make use of. I don’t know about her having a word with me, I think I need to spell a few things out to her!

                                    “Now listen, old woman,” Eleri said, approaching Margoritt with a determined step, “There are a few things you need to know about me. I am…”

                                    “But I just…”

                                    “No, you need to listen. I am…”

                                    “I just wanted to…”

                                    “I am…”

                                    “I just wanted to tell you there is a cake…”

                                    “I…did you say cake?”


                                      As the night was coming on the party, lanterns were lit around the place, and Gorrash started to wake up.
                                      He felt grumpy, and ready to take on the world, but suddenly realized there was quite a crowd assembled around the long table set up in front of the shack.
                                      He would have grumpfed and grumbled and sworn angrily that they had started without him, but someone had put a nice plate of pebbles in front of him.
                                      He couldn’t help but smile Nice touch, pointy ears!

                                      His friend the owl hooted as if in approval.
                                      “Oh there you are…” he said, seeing it was perched on… what exactly?
                                      There was another statue, a big old winged thing that wasn’t there yesterday.

                                      Fox has some explaining to do…” he thought, wondering about this… Then he was startled to realise that said statue was just a strange large being, stuck in a sort of hypnotic trance.

                                      “Has he woken yet?” the dwarf turned around to see the young lad who had addressed him, coming in his direction. “The witch’s magic mushrooms are very strong… it’s his fault; he wouldn’t calm down…” the lad said sheepishly.
                                      As the dwarf was looking at the owl for explanation, she just decided to fly away for some vole hunting.
                                      “Hello, I’m OlliOlliver is the name.”
                                      “Well, I’m Gorrash. You can call me Gorrash.”
                                      “Mr Go- go-gorrash, the Fae has called all of us to tell us something, could you come please…”

                                      Gorrash pointed at the tranced out god “and what about this big guy?”

                                      Olli shrugged, “Ruk- Ruk-, Rukji said we can leave him there, he will join us later on the trip…”


                                        Glad of the cover of the gloaming darkness, Eleri quickly cut a slice of cake and darted out of the kitchen door. She had heard the commotion that animated statue was still making, calling her a witch as if it were a bad thing, and thought it best to retreat for the time being while she gathered her thoughts. Either that vengeful lump of concrete needed therapy to deal with his past associations, or perhaps better ~ at least in the short term ~ an immobilizing potion until a workable programme of rehabilitation to the state of animation was concocted.

                                        The screech of a parrot in the distance seemed to herald a new arrival in the near future, although Eleri wasn’t sure who else was expected. The raucous sound attracted her and she walked in the direction of it, deftly darting behind trees and bushes so as not to be seen by the rest of the party as she slipped out of the clearing around the shack and into the woods.

                                        “Circles of Eight,” squawked the parrot, sounding closer. Eleri took another bite of cake, wondering why the cake in her hand wasn’t getting any smaller, despite that she had been munching on it steadily for some time. It actually looked as if it was growing in dimensions, but she dismissed the idea as improbable. “Circles of Eight!” screeched the parrot, louder this time. Preferring to err on the side of caution ~ not that she normally did, but in this instance ~ Eleri slipped inside a large hollow in a girthy old tree trunk. She would observe the approach of the new arrival from her hiding place.

                                        Squatting down in the dry leaves, she leaned back against the rough wood and took another bite of cake, awaiting the next parrot call.

                                        I wonder what’s in this cake? she thought, Because I am starting to feel a bit strange…


                                          Eleri’s eyes began to feel heavy and she blinked, trying to resist the increasingly strong urge to nod off to sleep, as a gust of wind rustled the branches overhead allowing the moonlight to illuminate something that looked very much like dragon scales. Eleri blinked again and shook her head slightly to shake the illusion back into some kind of realistic image. The sudden wind had dropped and the trees were motionless, the path below them dark. It was impossible now to even see what had looked like dragon scales in the brief flash of moonlight. All was still and silent.

                                          With nothing to see in the darkness and nothing to entertain her, Eleri’s mind started to wander, wondering if her grandmother being a dragon (as her father had often said) meant that she was one quarter dragon herself. It occurred to her that she very rarely thought of the dragon that was her grandmother, and wondered why she was thinking of her now. She had been a strong woman, who would fight tooth and nail to get what she wanted, always on the move wanting to get her teeth into a new project, leaving discarded suitors along the wayside as she swept along, grandly announcing to all and sundry, “Do you know who I am?”

                                          Formidable armed with a rigid crocodile (possibly baby dragon skin) handbag and matching shoes, stately and considerably girthy notwithstanding the stiff corset, her grandmother was not one to easily ignore. Dressed in dragon scale twinsets, in no nonsense crimplene navy blue and white, many were quite charmed by her forthright manner and the spirited ~ some would say arrogant ~ toss of her peroxide lacquered waves. Others were not so enchanted, and found her imperious manner unpleasant.

                                          It was a simple matter of teeth, when it came to disabling her. The difference was remarkable. There was no actual reason why her lack of teeth should change her so ~ she still had the matching shoes and handbags, but the regal stance and the arrogant tilt of her chin was gone. Not having any teeth made her seem shy and evasive, and she mumbled, saying as little as possible. She lost the power of manipulation along with her teeth, and although nobody really understood why, many wished they had thought of hiding her teeth years ago. It was such a simple solution, in the scale of things.

                                          And the moral of that story is, Eleri concluded with a wry but not too dentally challenged smile, Toothless Dragons Don’t Bite.


                                            Before he closed it to prepare for the dinner, the page of the book had said “She is coming, heralded by Sunshine, and thus will the Gathering start”. Rukshan could be quite literal and thought that she wouldn’t come today, since the sun was about to set.
                                            He wasn’t sure how the words had found their way into the book, and if the She was who he thought She was. In short, he was getting confused.

                                            Back there, the Hermit’s message had been so clear, so urgently present.
                                            Find who you were, find what you stole, and give it back. Then the threads will unravel and the knot of all the curses will be undone.

                                            And yet, he started to doubt his path.

                                            The high-pitched cry of “Circle of Eights” pierced through the fog of his mind, and Rukshan realised suddenly that… that was it. Why else, all these people would be around this place at this auspicious moment?

                                            The trees’ messages had been shown right. He was the Faying Fae. The Sage Sorceress was probably still on her path, but the Teafing Tinkeress hunted by a god, the Gifted Gnome, on his way to become his own maker under the protection of a Renard Renunciate looking for lost souls… They were there. Five in total; with himself (Rukshan) — the potion-maker, Eleri, Gorrash, Fox, these were the rest of the names, and they made the five first strands. Who were the last two? Olliver, Tak?

                                            Olliver would surely have rounded everyone around for the dinner by now.
                                            Rukshan placed the book back into the bag. He would explain to everyone then, read the old tale of the seven thieves and their curses, and maybe they could all formulate a plan for remembrance.
                                            Yes, remembrance was the first step. How to know what to do if you didn’t know who they were, what they stole…

                                            He wasn’t too sure what to do with the God in torpor yet. He seemed less of a danger in his current state. That a God had been left behind, stuck in stone for so long, and right under their nose was mind-boggling. Another mystery to be revealed.
                                            Surprisingly —and luckily— Olli had explained, Hasamelis seemed to believe that the young boy was a genius wizard, so he would maybe listen to Olli.

                                            The second ‘Circle of Eights!’ seemed closer this time.

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