Sinead opened her eyes. Charred tree stumps and scorched earth were all that remained of the beautiful forest. The centaur had gone, the forest creatures, too. Safe, she hoped. Had the Crystal of Nor caused that? But why?
She knew that the Crystal was an agent of protection. A relic from before the time of the Oppressors. It had fallen to her to carry it with her; not to question its purpose.
Sinead reached into Moonsprite’s saddle bag from where it still glowed. She held it aloft. It brightened, pulsating like a heartbeat, pointing a finger of light on the path ahead.
The bridge arched upwards, climbing more steeply than before. The distance remaining, impossible to tell. The sun, now a great orange globe was beginning its descent. Moonsprite shook her silvery mane and stamped her hooves. It would be a race against time to reach the end before sunset.
#ArmedWithABingois a year-long reading challenge hosted by Kriti Khare & Ariel Joy and this is my end of June update.
The books I read for the challenge in this second quarter of the year are outlined in yellow, and straight away I’ll tell you that my stand out book was Trevor Noah’s ‘Born a Crime’. If you’re curious to know what I thought of this or any of the books I’ve read, pop over to Goodreads where you’ll find my reviews. I do think it’s important to support authors with reviews – I know how much it means to us.
You can also find out more about my reading habits and my response to the #ArmedWithABingo challenge in aninterviewI did with Kriti Khare at the beginning of this month.
And now, with only four more books to go to complete the challenge, maybe I’ll try do a second bingo board for the second half of the year. Meanwhile, if anyone has a suggestion for a book with a food in the title, please let me know.
How much the world has changed since I did my first ‘check in’for the challenge. Here in South Africa we were about to go into lockdown. We thought it would be for just 21 days, but it continued for 100 days. Like most of the rest of the world, the country is only just beginning to open up.
My reading has continued and so has my writing. Most of all though, I’m so grateful to all of you, my online friends, for being there and being you!
A thud on the doormat interrupted Alys and Sparky’s perusal of the Witches’ Weekly crossword. Intrigued by the unexpected arrival, they hurried over to find a large paper-wrapped parcel perched on the doormat. It opened obligingly and two beautiful books tumbled out.
Alys ran an admiring hand over the flower-embossed cover of the first book. She scrutinized the spine: Unbelievable Potions from Unusual Ingredients. An excited plume of purple steam rose from Sparky’s snout as he read the title of the other: Fabulous Beasts of the North: an Illustrated Guide.
A slip of crisp white paper rose from the wrapper. ‘Greetings to you from the Biggest Bookstore, we know you like books, so here are some more.’ The little slip of paper bowed. ‘Presented to you with our compliments. Enjoy!’ It tittered as it disappeared in a tiny puff of powdery smoke.
Alys and Sparky grinned at each other and dived into their books. The room fell silent for some time.
Alys was first to break the silence. ‘Sparky, come and look at this! A rose-scented potion with a drawing of a rose that’s so lifelike I can almost smell the perfume.’
The diminutive dragon started to crawl across the page he’d been studying. It was a beautifully drawn map of a magical destination far away in the north. He stepped off the stone-coloured land and… sploosh! His front paw sank into the inky blue sea. Sparky reared up and retreated in a shower of surprised sparks that hissed and fizzed as they landed in the water.
‘What are you doing, Sparky?’ Alys pushed the potion book aside and watched as the he placed an experimental paw on the patch of sea in the centre of the map.
A miniature whale-like creature emerged from the inky depths. Sea-spray spouted from its blowhole, splashing across Alys’s sleeve. Sparky leapt backwards as the head of an angry sea serpent appeared from centre of the page. It writhed and glared about, its pointed tongue twitching unnervingly.
Alys edged away from the table as a second fountain of sea water surged forth from the tiny whale. The sea serpent flapped its tail causing a small tidal wave to break over the page, drenching the table top. Sparky hovered high over the map as Alys rescued the potions book, dropping it almost immediately with a sharp cry of pain. A thin thorn-covered rose tendril was growing from the cover and a bunch of blooms had sprung from its spine.
The book landed on the floor with a thump. Alys and Sparky stared wide-eyed as more rose stems sprouted, twining around the table’s legs and creeping over the carpet. The soggy table sneezed as sea water ran down its legs and the retired cauldron cowered in her corner.
Alys dashed across the room and snatched her wand from the kitchen table. ‘Hurry!’ yelled Sparky, seeing a small horse-headed creature rising from the map’s inky water. The creature tossed its mane and planted its hooves on the shore, flapping its fish-tail furiously behind it.
‘Arresto!’ commanded Alys, pointing her wand at the sprouting briers. The branches hesitated. She turned to the map and pointed at the sea. ‘Sicco!’ The waves calmed. Alys breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a moment of calm, then the sea serpent stuck out its tongue and the roses resumed their march, crawling over the cowering cauldron. The cloying scent of roses overpowered the room.
The air started to shimmer. Something was about to materialize. Sparky hovered by Alys’s head, worried white steam rising from his nostrils.
A tweed-suited man with floppy brown hair appeared. Sparky recognised him straight away. It was the man from the bookstore in the Magical Mall of All. The tweedy man held up his hands.
‘Ester, Narwall, stop this at once!’ He clapped his hands. ‘STOP IT NOW!’
As he spoke, the rambling roses vanished and the sea creatures sank down into the map, sucking up the water behind them. The books slammed shut. Silence reigned.
‘Sorry about that.’ The book seller scooped up the books, clamping them in his hands. ‘Immersive-Experience Books, they must have escaped in the confusion during that business with Shylock the Spiv,’ he said, glancing at Sparky.
‘Immersive-Experience books?’ Alys looked askance, still stroking the retired cauldron who hadn’t quite recovered her composure. The table stifled a sneeze.
‘There’s an Interactive-Imagination spell inside them. Fortunately they left a paper trail, so I could track them down.’ He held out a remnant of wrapper. ‘They’re not really for home use, but you can come and study them at the shop. They must be useful to you or they wouldn’t have posted themselves here.
The book-seller prepared to leave. ‘Anyway, all’s well that ends well.’
Alys and Spark exchanged glances, nodding vigorously.
‘Come rest awhile, my lady.’ The handsome creature bowed his head, softly pawing the ground with a bronzed hoof. ‘Come for an hour, a day, a year. Taste our fruits, bathe in our streams.’ He ran his tongue over his lips. ‘Lie on a soft bed of leaves and listen to the music of the forest.’
The centaur advanced to the edge of the bridge and gazed down at Sinead with long-lashed amber eyes. ‘Walk with me,’ he whispered. His eyes fell on Moonsprite. ‘Come, pretty creature.’ His words dripped like honey.
Arching her neck, Moonsprite snorted loudly. A searing shaft of light rose like a spear from her saddlebag. Sinead wheeled around and flung it open.
The Crystal of Nor burned with diamond intensity. Sinead leapt away from it, burying her face in Moonsprite’s mane. The centaur let out a deafening roar as the forest was engulfed in darkness.
Alys was studying the store guide at the entrance to the Magical Mall of All, where she and her diminutive dragon had just arrived by doormat. It was incredibly busy and Alys, as a first time visitor, was finding it hard to get her bearings.
‘Wow! This is massive!’ exclaimed Sparky through a shower of excited purple sparks, as he flew to the top of the lofty atrium and stared about. He returned to Alys’s shoulder. ‘Second floor, World of Wands.’
The wand-maker, who was leaning on the old-fashioned shop counter reading a hefty tome, smiled as they entered. Behind him were row upon row of little wooden drawers, each labelled in a neat cursive script. All the ingredients for wand-making! It was all Sparky could do to restrain himself from flying over and taking a look.
Alys placed her damaged wand on the counter. Under the stress of performing FBB Agent Mickey’s transformation, the poor thing had unraveled at the tip, revealing its shiny unicorn hair core. Alys was well aware of the dire consequences of using a damaged wand so they’d hastened to the biggest mall in the magical world to find his famous shop.
The wand-maker blew out his cheeks as he examined Alys’s wand. ‘What’s happened here then?’ He sucked in a breath. ‘Looks like you over-loaded it with a particularly high-grade spell.’
Sparky puffed a plume of concerned crimson smoke across the counter. Alys hesitated. Mickey had sworn them to secrecy.
‘Top secret, was it?’ the wand-maker, touching the side of his nose.
‘Something like that,’ agreed Alys.
‘You sure you don’t want a new wand? More powerful, with a double core, perhaps?
Alys shook her head. ‘She’s like an old friend,’ replied Alys running a gentle finger down the wand. ‘I’d rather have her mended if that’s possible.’
The wand-maker squinted at the damaged end. ‘She’ll need restringing and the point needs a meld-weld but I can have her as good as new within the hour.’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘Two hundred witch-gilders to you, my dear.’
Alys let out a sigh of relief. ‘Thank you.’
At that moment, shop door opened. Alys turned around to see Agatha of Agador’s big beaming, green-tinged face. ‘I thought it was you, Alys.’ Agatha grinned as she entered. ‘Come and help me choose a new set of dress robes.’
Alys grinned back but Sparky face fell. The wand-maker caught his expression. ‘If you’d rather leave the ladies to it, there’s a very interesting book store just around the corner.’
Sparky looked at Alys, a trickle of hopeful steam dribbling from his snout.
‘Of course, Sparky!’ Alys said eagerly. In truth, Alys would rather visit the book store too, but Agatha was her best customer.
The wand-maker waved them off, grinning to himself as the older witch took Alys’s arm and propelled her along the walkway with the tiny dragon rapidly flapping his little purple wings behind them.
Sparky hovered in front of the brightly-painted sign. ‘A Wizard of a Welcome to the Biggest Book Store’, it sang as he entered.
The diminutive dragon’s jaw dropped. He had never seen so many books. Everywhere he flew there were rooms, all packed with books. Potions and poultices, charms and curses, transport and transformation, fight and flight, and finally, a massive, towering room containing works on mystical and mythical creatures, with a whole wall devoted to dragons.
Sparky was in his element. He decided to start with the dragon wall.
Sparky looked around. The other customers were all busy browsing
‘Psst! Sparky! Up here.’
Sparky looked up. A pair of brown whiskers twitched between two large, leather-bound tomes. It was a small brown mouse with unusual, bright yellow eyes.
‘Mickey?’ Sparky let out a shower of surprised sparks. ‘Mickey from the FBB?’ One of the other customers muttered and glared over at him.
‘Not so loud,’ hissed Mickey through the side of his mouth. ‘Remember, I’m deep undercover.’
Sparky raised his eyebrows. ‘In here?’
‘Listen, kid,’ whispered Mickey confidentially. ‘We’ve had a tip off.’
Sparky’s eyes widened.
Mickey’s whiskers twitched for a moment. ‘Maybe you can help.’
Sparky nodded eagerly, his golden eyes shining.
Meanwhile Alys and Agatha had traipsed around a plethora of fancy robe shops and engaged a myriad of anxious assistants as Agatha tried on her umpteenth combination of gown, jacket and pointy hat. Alys smiled at each selection, wondering if Agatha would ever make up her mind, but finally she did. A voluminous set of royal-blue robes and a tall sage-green hat. She’d also insisted on buying Alys a pretty purple cashmere shawl. Alys was delighted.
The two witches bustled back towards the book store. As they approached they heard angry shouts and running footsteps. Something was clearly amiss.
A man, dressed in a tightly buckled raincoat with a felt hat pulled down over his ears, came running around the corner. Agatha stepped in front of Alys and whipped out her wand. The man wheeled around and headed back the way he’d come.
‘Come on, Alys, that’s Shylock the Spiv. Nasty piece of work!’ Agatha marched onwards with a determined expression on her face, Alys hurrying worriedly in her wake.
There was a small explosion and the shouting ahead intensified. As they rounded the corner, a huge plume of purple smoke filled the air.
As the smoke cleared Alys saw that Shylock the Spiv was face down on the floor clutching his hat. A burly security elf stood over him with Sparky perched on his shoulder. Sparky grinned and waved a proud purple paw in Alys’s direction.
Once all the excitement had died down and Shylock the Spiv had been taken away in wand-cuffs, Alys and Sparky returned to the wand-maker’s shop. Alys took out her purse, but the wand-maker shook his head. ‘On the house,’ he said, handing her the mended wand and looking at Sparky. ‘Your little dragon catching Shylock the Spiv like that? It’s the least I can do.’
‘What actually did happen,’ asked Alys, as she headed for the exit with Sparky on her shoulder.
Sparky giggled in her ear. ‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you.’
The sweet scent of meadow flowers filled the air. From her vantage point, mounted on Moonsprite’s back, Sinead allowed her eyes to wander over the welcoming landscape. Her unicorn stepped softly now, filling her nostrils with the captivating fragrance and shaking her silver mane.
Floral notes from a lute and a pipe filled the warm, scented air and suddenly the woodland came alive. Birds swooped among the trees and small furry creatures scampered over the forest floor. Sinead longed to cast off her boots and run barefoot with them.
She leant over Moonsprite’s neck indicating that they should stop. The unicorn came to a halt, turning her head towards the far edge of the clearing where a magnificent centaur, with the upper body of a beautiful bronzed youth, appeared.
Following her gaze, Sinead slid from Moonsprite’s back. The bronzed youth raised his hand in greeting as he advanced towards them.
‘What is it, Sparky?’ Alys asked her diminutive dragon, whose yellow eyes were fixed on something outside the kitchen window. The end of his tail twitched, rattling the rack of Special Stirring Spoons that Alys stored by the sink.
Alys counted under her breath as she stirred crocodile tears and tincture of unicorn hair into her bubbling cauldron. She turned the cauldron down before joining Sparky at the window.
A huge bird was perching on top of the garden shed. The little building looked none too pleased as her roof creaked under the weight of the great big bird.
‘Oh,’ exclaimed Alys. ‘Whatever is that?’
‘I thought it might be an owl with a message for us, only I’m afraid to go out in case it gobbles me up!’ said Sparky.
‘Owl’s don’t deliver messages except in story books, Sparky. In any case, I don’t think it is an owl. It’s much too large. It could an eagle of some sort.’
‘Or an eagle owl, perhaps?’ suggested Sparky.
‘Well, whatever it is, we’d better find out what it’s doing here, if only for the sake of our poor shed!’
Alys poked her heard around the door. Much to the shed’s relief, the bird flapped its huge wings and flew to the ground. It was as tall as Alys, and twice as wide. The bird took a step towards her and opened its great curved beak. Alys clutched the edge of the door. The bird hesitated then uttered a high pitched peep. Alys was taken aback. Its voice didn’t match its owner at all.
‘Can I help you?’ She looked the bird up and down. Its feet were enormous, ending in evil-looking talons. ‘I’m Alys,’ she added politely.
The huge bird hunched its shoulders. Its eyes darted around the garden, before fixing Alys with a big beady stare. The edges of its beak curved upward into a kind of smile. ‘I’m Mickey,’ he chirped in a very un-eagle-like voice. He looked around again. ‘You wouldn’t be a witch by any chance?’
Alys nodded uncertainly.
Mickey reached beneath his left wing with his beak and flashed a blurry I.D. badge at her. ‘I’m with the FBB.’
‘The Fabulous Beasts’ Bureau!’ Sparky shouted excitedly, appearing from behind the door. ‘Wow! Let him in.’
‘Not so loud,’ hissed Mickey, as he squeezed through the door
‘You’re actually an agent with the FBB?’ said Sparky through a puff of admiring amber smoke. ‘What’s your mission?’
‘That’s confidential. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.’
Sparky’s eyes grew even rounder.
‘Okay, Alys. The FBB is going to have to trust you on this.’ Mickey glanced around. ‘I need to go deep undercover.’
Alys nodded uncertainly.
Mickey fished beneath his right wing and tossed a small roll of spell-parchment to Alys. ‘Don’t ask questions, just do it.’
Alys unrolled the parchment and read the scratchy silver writing. ‘But this…’
Mickey hushed her with a shake of his head. ‘Do it.’
Alys shrugged and picked up her wand. Silently she mouthed the words, casting the wand in a wide circle.
There was a blinding flash of silver light, then everything went black. Alys heard something small scurry across the kitchen floor.
When the room returned to normal there was no sign of Mickey.
‘What did you do, Alys?’
Alys pointed at the tiny tail which was disappearing under the kitchen door. They hurried to the window to see a small brown mouse shoot across the garden and slip under the gate.
A moment later there was a thud on the doormat. Sparky sped across the room. A pristine piece of parchment stood to attention then spoke. ‘The FBB thanks you for your assistance. Be prepared. You may be called on again in the future.’ The message sizzled into self-destruction.
Little puffs of pleased purple smoke sprang from Sparky’s nostrils. ‘Secret Agent Sparky!’ he whispered.