Chapter 21: Game of Baskets

The Name of The Hound – His walking gear & why it takes so long to get ready – The HoH Elk as Treat – The Lunchables – Which Witch – The Impractibility of Cloaks – Magic Feathers – HBO get first dibs

The hound stood at the door, sniffing the air, tasting the morning, awaiting his armour.

The hound had carried many names in his lifetime. Storm, Caterwauld, Morgan le Paw. In the Sleeping Lands he was known as Tragelsmire. In FlameWald he was simply The Nose. Now he stood four-paw-square under the simple name of Stanley, and the trick of it suited him well enough.

‘Come, Stanley! Receive The Helmet of Gundersnatch, the War Harness of Schnegg and the Abysmal Crystal Dagger of Pangransmere’ said The Man, trudging wearily into the room. He was an odd figure, more goat than human, with a stoop like someone who had walked the earth all his life and then come home unexpectedly because he’d forgotten something. 

After helping Stanley into his armour, The Man quickly put on his own, being a simple leather jerkin, a fur hat of disreputable age, an ornate belt of woven ornate belts, and a rough sheath of cloth. Within was a blade of marvelous and intricate design, fashioned by elves in the Golden Workshops of Glimglamenglom, and then packaged and priced by wizards in the warehouse next door. 

‘Let us see what the morning holds in store for us’ said The Man. ‘Come, Stanley! Away!’ And slamming the roughly-hewn, Farrow & Ball Lichen Green door behind him, the two old warriors set off on their day’s adventure.

It wasn’t long before they encountered the drear Hound of Hoggenhansmanhant, of the House of Hoggenhansmanhant, although it looked like a little chihuahua had maybe snuck in the pedigree at some point. The HoH was being led on a Chain of Despite, by Danys, the drear Witch of Whatever. 

‘Hold fast, my brave Stanley!’ urgently whispered The Man. ‘Remember the legend. This is the Eve of the Feast of Stuffins, a most sacred time. We must not cross paths with the HoH this day, or our fortunes may be marred. Plus, I’m suddenly thinking your insurance may hath laps’d.’

The Man feigned good cheer and waved to the witch, who returned the favour. And so it was the two mortal foes tracked past each other on opposite sides of the path, narrowing their eyes, tugging on their respective leads.

‘Hold, damn you! Hold…!’ snapped The Man. Then ‘Good boy Stanley’ and – passing him a scrap of elk – they passed on unbowed through the quiet mists of the Valley of the Glebe, and on into the drear land beyond.

They trudged on, Stanley stopping here and there to sniff and then mark the vegetation, The Man occupied with distracted thoughts of his own. Suddenly, materialising like bastards out of the mist, two Lunchable Horses appeared. They were many hands high, with the sensuous nozzles, inappropriate ears and bunchy haircuts typical of the breed. 

‘Whither goest thoust?’ said the first, peering down at The Man with an arch to its neck like a Bank Manager who knows he’s not going to give you the loan but wants to string out the meeting anyway. 

The Man was irritated. His way lay through the Lunchables’ domain. It would be a merry and deadly quadrille they would dance if hostilities were to be openly declared, conducted at the point of a sword. 

‘Good sirs, we aim to cross through to the Kingdom of Broken Tree Hill. We mean you nothing but honour and respect.’

‘Have you got any apples?’

‘Apples?’

‘Yes.’

‘No, I’m afraid not.’

‘What did he say?’ said the other, younger Lunchable, stepping forth. 

‘He said he didn’t have any.’

‘Any what?’

‘Apples.’

‘Apples?’

‘Yes. Apples. What’s the matter with everyone today?’

‘Oh! I thought you said ladders.’

‘Ladders? Why would I ask him if he had any ladders?’

‘That’s what I thought. Why’s he asking about ladders?’

‘Sometimes I worry about you, Geoff.’

‘Well. So long as it’s only sometimes…’

This carried on for some time. Stanley looked up to The Man, who returned his gaze with equal bemusement. Finally they decided to move on, leaving The Lunchables to argue amongst themselves. 

‘Well done for not barking,’ said The Man, passing the hound another scrap of elk, which he received most enthusiastically, although The Man cursed, because Stanley had yet to perfect the art of taking elk scraps without taking half his goddamn fingers in the process. 

They passed on across the drear field, and entered at last into the Kingdom of Broken Tree Hill. 

A dark figure emerged from the mists – much as the Lunchables had done, except without the attitude. It was a curious figure, more like an animated boulder than a human being, wrapped in a great black cloak with a hood that fell forward across the face, such that the figure did stumble and curse, and push the hood back multiple times. 

‘Hold!’ cried the figure, producing a twisted staff of some drear design, planting the staff firmly into the ground, and then pushing the hood of her cloak back – for it was a she – inspected the two brave adventurers. 

Stanley took a step back and whined. 

‘Hold!’ whispered The Man.

‘That’s my line,’ said the Witch, rapping the staff on the earth again, in a way that could become irritating.

The Man recognised her now. The drear Witch of Chlamydia, known and feared throughout the Kingdom. 

‘My apologies, oh witch,’ said The Man. ‘I witch not to offend. I mean wish. Sorry.’

‘That’s okay,’ said the witch. ‘Take your time.’

She pushed her hood back and bunched up her sleeves.

‘What is your business here? These are my lands. I say who comes and goes. Mostly goes. Depending.’

‘Oh Witch!’ said The Man, giving an awkward bow. ‘My hound Stanley and me wish simply to exercise. Long have we been confined to cave, and long do we yearn to seek our fortunes for half an hour or so, hereabouts. We make all due fealty to thee, and offer our strength of arm and our dauntless courage.’

‘Yes to the first, meh to the second,’ she said, with a shrug that tipped her hood forward again, and did cause her to push it back testily. The Man was tempted to offer his tailoring services. His drear mother had been a tailor, and had taught him from an early age to wield a needle with magical precision. It was he who had made his own hat – even though the material had been difficult and somewhat cheap, and it wasn’t his fault it turned out so lopsided. But something about the witch’s demeanour gave him pause. Besides, she was a witch. Couldn’t she magic up a cloak that fit better? 

‘Silence!’ cried the witch (even though he hadn’t actually been talking). ‘You may pass through my Kingdom. I’m having a bad day and I don’t want to add to it. Besides, I like the look of your hound.’

Stanley’s ears rose up – beneath The Helmet of Gundersnatch, so you wouldn’t know unless you really looked – and his tongue lolled out.

‘Let’s see if I’ve got anything here for you, darling,’ the witch said, rummaging around in her cloak pocket. ‘I think I might have… at least I thought I did…..yep! Here it is!’ 

She brought forth a scrap of elk and flourished it in the air. 

‘Is it okay if I …?’ she said to The Man.

‘Of course!’ he replied. ‘That’s very kind of you. Just watch out when you…’

But before The Man could warn her, the witch advanced the scrap of elk and waved it in front of the hound. Stanley lurched forward and snapped it up.

‘Fuck me!’ said the witch, jumping back and shaking her hand. ‘He takes no prisoners, does he?’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said The Man. ‘I’ve tried to cure him of that, but it’s difficult. I suppose he just really, really likes elk scraps.’

‘And fingers, too. Jesus Christ!’

She pushed her hood back, held her hand in the air and made a big deal about checking she still had all her rings. Then she turned her attention back to the travellers, and glared at them fiercely. For a moment The Man thought she was going to assail them with infernal magic. But the moment passed. 

‘Okay,’ she sighed. ‘This isn’t getting the cauldron cleaned. On your way, fella. And don’t pick any magic mushrooms. They’re mine. And don’t litter.’

She smiled, revealing wonderfully white teeth that The Man thought must have taken a lot of magical work, then – switching the staff into her other hand, and pushing back her hood – she rootled around in a black leather pouch. 

‘Here,’ she said, producing a golden feather. ‘Take this. On the house. Free. Go on. It won’t bite – unlike your mutt.’

‘Many thanks, kind witch,’ said The Man, taking the feather and holding it up, where it did catch the light and sparkle most impressively and inexpensively. 

‘It’s magic,’ she said. ‘Natch.’

‘And how shall I use this wonderful feather, oh witch?’

‘Within seven leagues thou wills’t come upon an ancient stone bridge across a river in riotous flood. In the middle of the bridge you wills’t see a gigantic eagle wrapped in mortal combat with a drear serpent. Take the feather and use as directed.’

‘As directed?’

‘There’s a website,’ said the witch. ‘I haven’t got all day. Farewell!’ she cried, and rapping the staff once more upon the earth, and her hood falling awkwardly across her face, she did vanish in a great tempest of vapour and cursing that made The Man cough and swipe the air in front of him. 

‘Come, Stanley!’ he said to the hound. ‘Let us continue with our walk, and see whatever else may befall us. Hopefully with a little more continuity. I’m keeping a diary and HBO have expressed an interest.’

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