Grotto books 2 116732767…in a land where the trees hummed tunes and the green grass was raspberry rippled, there lived a Baron of huge riches and his wife of immense beauty.

Every creature thereabouts wanted to live in the castle grounds, knowing food was plentiful and joy abundant. But only a select few earned the privilege.

History dictated that only those with extraordinary gifts could be welcomed into the Baron’s court – only those with talents the revered but mysterious ruler could employ to enhance his position of power.

One special day, every year as Christmas approached, the Baron would issue his challenge. Anyone successfully completing five daunting tasks would be welcomed into his grounds for good. The promise was not only for a life of splendour, but also to set eyes upon the Baroness. It was said she was so beautiful that she made the flowers swoon and the sun weep.

But she had never been seen outside the castle grounds – not even when she arrived from her distant kingdom to marry the Baron. The windows of her horse-drawn carriage were draped in elaborate lace, keeping her out of sight of those deemed too ordinary to witness someone of such wonder.

Earonymous had been told from birth of her fabled beauty and that it was his destiny to see the Baroness, serve the Baron and live a life of plenty. His mother, a mouse so very large in wisdom for one so tiny, told him: “You are special my boy. You must travel to a far away land, take up the Baron’s challenge and take your place in his court. That’s where special creatures belong.”

Earonymous did not consider himself to be special. Yes, he was the biggest mouse his realm had ever seen. Yes, he had the biggest ears a mouse had ever possessed. Yes, he had the best hearing any creature had ever boasted. And yes, he was as fearless as he was oversized. But special: that he could not see at all. However, if his mother told him it was so, it had to be. If she told him he belonged in the Baron’s court, then he surely must.

Earonymous, towering over his twenty-one brothers and sisters, swept his mother off her feet and hugged her with all his heart. It was an embrace of a moving farewell as he set off on his trek to the Baron’s land. He promised the family would be reunited by Christmas Day.

He could hear the tears of his siblings drop on to the ground even when he was two miles from home, even three if he tilted his ears and used them as a kind of satellite dish. The tears stopped as he heard his mother say: “Children don’t be sad. Your brother is destined for greatness. He will delight in the beauty of the Baroness, he will serve the Baron and he will eat all the cheese a massive mouse can manage. And we shall share in his joy as Christmas dawns.”

Earonymous smiled at the prospect and continued on his way, his cheese-laden backpack over his shoulder. His mother had placed wheels of her homemade, fruit-laced speciality in there as a surprise treat.

A considerable time later, his gigantic ears twitched anew. They swivelled this way and that until he picked up a swooshing and lapping and lashing sound.

XmasTree-green

Earonymous had been warned of the ogre from the Shallow Forest and he gathered this must certainly be the sound of an ugly giant cracking his gargantuan whip. The noise grew louder and louder. Swoosh and crack! Swoosh and crack! Then swoosh and slurp! Swoosh and slurp!

Earonymous could not be diverted from his track, but did not want to face the lash of the ogre’s whip. He imagined a monster of such vile ferocity, with a face full of warts and a head full of slugs. Fearless as he was, Earonymous was not foolish. He did not pick fights with ogres. Nor, for that matter, did he want to use up all his reserves of bravery and energy with a punishing journey and the Baron’s Christmas challenge to come. Therefore, he decided he would curl up beneath a drooping pine tree, hide under his huge ears, and wait for the ogre to pass.

Just as Earonymous settled on a spot, just as the swooshing sound appeared to have stopped, and just as he started to nod into sleep, he felt the full force of a wickedly wet lash across his left ear – accompanied by a loud thwack and a slurp.

He leapt to his feet – rather large feet for a mouse – and looked beyond the drooping pine to see something flying back into the forest. As it disappeared, it left a spray of watery globules hanging in the air. Next came a snort: a loud, but somewhat pleasing snort.

No sooner had his ears twitched and swivelled in the direction of the snort, than out popped a curiously rotund being with a prominent snout and a curly-whirly tail.

XmasTree-green

 

“Forgive me,” said the creature. “My tongue sometimes has a mind of its own.”

“Your tongue?” said a baffled Earonymous.

“Yes. I wouldn’t have licked your ear like that of my own accord. What do you take me for?”

With that, his tongue came careering out from underneath his snout and shot fully ten feet in front of him.

“It’s my blessing and sometimes my curse,” he explained. “My name’s Piglick – what’s yours?”

“I’m Earonymous.”

“And you are quite the biggest mouse with quite the biggest ears a creature has ever seen.”

“And you have quite the longest tongue with the loudest lash that the world has ever known. It’s quite a gift.”

Piglick smiled: “Only my father has ever said anything quite like that before. To everyone else back at home I was a nuisance. As you just discovered, I can’t resist tasting and testing the world around me with a lick of my tongue. I wasn’t always…erm…quite welcome, shall we say.”

“So have they forced you out of your village?” asked Earonymous.

“Oh no. My father told me that I’m special and that special creatures deserve to live in the Baron’s court with other extraordinary beings. I have the most sophisticated taste of any hog around, so I’m heading off to take up the Baron’s Christmas challenge in the hope I can serve him, see the beautiful Baroness and live a life of licking luxury.”

“This is all such a great relief,” admitted Earonymous. “For a while there, I thought you were a whiplashing ogre in search of prey in the Shallow Forest. My ears picked you up a while back. I have the best hearing any creature ever boasted. I, too, am off to face the Baron’s Christmas challenge. Perhaps we can travel together? You are welcome to share my cheese.” Piglick’s tongue lashed out at the tasty prospect.

He was a purplish hog, but the ends of his snout, ears and tail were pink. He usually stood tall on his back legs, but was equally at home wallowing on all fours. That astonishing tongue was strawberry red and rasping.

The pair moved stealthily through the Shallow Forest, not an ogre in sight. They were feeling rather pleased with themselves for negotiating the first leg of their journey when they were suddenly faced with a sign that read: “Deep Mile Woods”.

XmasTree-green

Piglick’s heart raced. His father had told him of the mile-high trees and the mile-deep ravines deep in the Deep Mile Woods. He had warned his son that their enormity had been known to overwhelm many a traveller and send them into mile-deep depths of despair.

Enormity did not trouble fearless Earonymous. He was, after all, enormous for a mouse, with enormous ears and a name derived from that very combination. Still, he knew this could be the most perilous part of their journey to the Baron’s land.

They continued on, looking skywards in awe at giant trees that pierced the clouds and occasionally peering downwards at seemingly endless, dizzying gorges. They weaved in and out of the former – and skirted the latter.

They were stopped in their tracks by a screech and a squawk from on high.

“Is there anyone down there?” came the cry. “ I am so very close to the clouds and lost in a world of white. I am as high as I’ve ever been – and yet the lowest too.”

Piglick observed: “He’s mile-high and yet mile-deep in depths of despair. My father said it could be so.”

“My mother, too,” said Earonymous. “We must bring him down and lift him up – at the same time.”

“Hello!” came the squawking cry once more. “Can anyone hear me? I know you are down there! I can smell you.”

“How rude,” said Piglick. “Typical stereotyping of we hogs.”

“You don’t need to shout and squawk and screech so!” bellowed Earonymous. “I have the best hearing any creature ever boasted! Talk at a normal level and I will hear you!”

That is precisely what he did, saying: “I flew into the Deep Mile Woods on my way to the Baron’s land – only to become quite overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Now I fear I can’t flutter a feather in the name of flight.”

“What did he say?” asked Piglick, whose tongue was long but had ears somewhat less magnificent.

“Basically – he’s stuck,” said Earonymous. “He’s in so deep he can’t move.”

XmasTree-green

Earonymous thought for a moment then shouted up: “If you can’t fly, then just fall. Use your tail feathers to slow you down. I promise I will catch you.”

“What are you doing?” asked Piglick. “Have you gone mad? Falling from a mile high, he will surely die.”

“My ears will catch him and cushion him, like a giant trampoline.”

Piglick looked impressed. Earonymous shouted up the same words of reassurance: “My ears will catch you and cushion you, like a giant trampoline! Trust me!”

The mile-high creature was left with little option. It was fall and hope to be cushioned to the ground – or be lost to the Deep Mile Woods. So he leaned forward and tumbled through the branches, clipping some and hitting some and smacking his ample beak on some. He used his tail feathers to slow his fall – his wings too. Yes, he was too scared to fly, but he had not lost all his feathery skills. So fall he did and caught he was: the ears of Earonymous to the rescue.

“I cannot thank you enough,” said the bird that settled before them.

“An apology might be in keeping with the situation,” said Piglick. “Smell us indeed – from a mile high indeed.”

The bird squawked with laughter. Piglick was indignant. “I do not see what is so funny. I am the cleanest of hogs as it happens.”

“My dear new friends,” began the bird, “I could smell you from a mile high only because I have the keenest beak a creature has ever owned.”

“But I thought birds had the poorest sense of smell,” said Earonymous. “No offence.”

“None taken. You are indeed correct. But I am special. I was born with the greatest sense of smell – as if all the birds in all the world in all of time had saved up their ability to detect a scent and bottled it all up for me. There isn’t a whiff I cannot sniff, thus my name.”

Earonymous and Piglick nodded with a certain understanding, but were also a tad puzzled by the name reference.

“Your name?” said Earonymous quizzically.

“My apologies. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Sniffwiff!”

He was a creature somewhere on a ‘bird scale’ – if such a thing existed – that started with ‘owl’ and ended with ‘parrott’. The large beak with super smell was coloured yellow and green. His swivelling round head was red. His body was various hues of blue – his round eyes too.

“And what brings you to Deep Mile Woods?” asked Piglick.

XmasTree-green

“I’m off to take up the Baron’s Christmas challenge in the hope I can serve him, see the beautiful Baroness and live a life of sniffing splendour.”

Earonymous and Piglick looked at each other and smiled.

“My sage old grandfather told me,” continued Sniffwiff, “that I’m special and that special creatures deserve to live in the Baron’s court with other extraordinary beings. I have scented for some years that this is my destiny.”

“We are bound for the Baron’s land, too,” said Earonymous. “Might we travel together?” Sniffwiff readily agreed and they continued on their way.

Together, the three travelling companions forgot all about the overwhelming nature of the woods. Even when they discovered a mile-deep ravine they could not skirt around, Piglick rolled out his tongue like a ceremonial red carpet and allowed his friends to cross to the other side. It was only as wide as a country lane, but the trick of the tongue was still a mightily impressive feat – as was the way they then grabbed the end of his tongue and pulled him across the gorge. Piglick, like most hogs, was hefty. But it was nothing that special creatures like Earonymous and Sniffwiff couldn’t handle.

Sniffwiff was wondering just how much tongue was curled up in that big body of his new companion when Piglick asked: “Couldn’t you have just flown over the ravine?”

“Indeed I could, ” said Sniffwiff. “But where’s the fun in that when I can use your tongue as a bridge?” There was no arguing with that, really.

They slept well under the cover of a vast tree, having feasted on cheese and the most delicious fruits of the forest that Sniffwiff had cleverly sniffed out.

Piglick carefully carried a bowl with his tongue and dropped it into a deep ditch to collect sparkling, clear water. His taste being so sophisticated, he pointed out that this was quite possibly the purest and finest of all the waters he had ever had the pleasure of lapping. His friends did not disagree.

The next day, they made good time and could see the grand mountain range before them. This would be the next testing leg of their journey.

As they talked about their dreams of a magical Christmas and of their potential new lives in the Baron’s court, Sniffwiff was hovering in flight at the shoulder of Earonymous. Suddenly, Sniffwiff darted upwards and then shot back down in front of his friends. He was holding his wings out in mid-air, keeping them at bay.

“What’s wrong?” said Earonymous.

Piglick’s tongue swept from his mouth, tasting the air for danger.

“I smell a stranger, some two miles down this track,” said Sniffwiff.

“I hear it – just barely,” said Earonymous, tuning his ears into the target.

“We should be on our guard,” said Sniffwiff. “This is a creature I have never before scented.”

Two miles of trepidation followed, until – around the bend near Deep Mile Woods’ end – they saw a small, pointy snout sticking out of the ground. Within a trice, it was gone again.

“That’s the scent I detected,” said Sniffwiff.

“I’ll lap it up,” said Piglick.

“It could be poisonous or prickly,” warned Earonymous. “It could blow up or bite.”

“I have the most sophisticated taste of any hog around,” Piglick reminded them. “I’ll know all about that before my tongue even touches it.”

“I scent fear, but no danger,” said Sniffwiff. “We can leave it be. It won’t be blocking our way today.”

XmasTree-green

Piglick looked disappointed. His curiosity was piqued and he wanted to see to whom the tiny snout belonged.

“Perhaps we can talk it out like you talked him down,” said Piglick, nodding his head in Sniffwiff’s direction. “It may have local knowledge that could serve us well.”

“That’s a good plan,” said Earonymous, who bent over his rather large stomach to utter gently into the hole in the ground: “Don’t be scared. We mean you no harm.”

Earonymous put his ear to the ground and heard a shivering and a shaking – a quivering and a quaking. Then he heard a whisper, something being muttered under someone’s breath. The little voice said: “Likely story. They’ll eat me soon as see me.”

The whisper would have gone unheard had Earonymous not had his special powers at play.

“I swear on my mother’s life and my father’s grave that we will most definitely not eat you,” declared Earonymous. “We are off to join the Baron’s court. We are three friends of honour.”

There was shock from down below. “How could he hear my whisper?”

“Because I am Earonymous,” came the reply. “I am quite the biggest mouse with quite the biggest ears a creature has ever seen – and I mostly eat cheese!”

Earonymous put his ear to the ground once again, awaiting the next response. But all he got was a good old ear tickling as the furry snout poked up from the hole and sought a way clear.

He lifted his ear and raised his head to reveal a petite, black, silky creature. It resembled a mole but for one significant difference – it had huge eyes. A marigold flower sat jauntily on the colourful, wide-brimmed hat on the tiny head of the wide-eyed one.

“I’m Farsey,” she said, still quivering a little. “If you eat me now that I’ve trusted you, I will consider it very bad form indeed.”

“It’s cheese and berries all the way for us,” squawked Sniffwiff.

“Speak for yourself,” said Piglick. “I’ll eat most anything – although I draw the line at young women in pretty hats.”

“See – you are safe with us,” announced Earonymous. “Now perhaps we can call on your local knowledge to help us navigate our path from the edge of the woods to the Moaning Mountains.”

XmasTree-green

“Oh, I am not a local,” said Farsey. “I’m on a journey of my own. Like you, I’m heading to the Baron’s land to take up his Christmas challenge and join his court.”

“That’s only for special creatures like us,” said Piglick, insensitively.

“Well, what makes you three more special than me?” she countered.

“I am the biggest mouse with the…”

“Yes, I got that first time – thank you,” said Farsey to Earonymous. She then looked towards Piglick.

“I have the longest and strongest of tongues and the most sophisticated taste of any hog around,” he proudly declared. “I am Piglick.”

Farsey looked towards Sniffwiff.

“And I,” said Sniffwiff, “was born with the greatest sense of smell, as if all the birds in all the world in all of time had saved up their ability to detect a scent and bottled it all up for me. There isn’t a whiff I cannot sniff, thus my name. I am Sniffwiff.”

“So you do indeed sound bound for the Baron’s court,” said Farsey. “My Mama always told me that it was a special place for special creatures. You are all special, indeed.”

“May I be so presumptuous as to ask about your talent…your gift?” inquired Earonymous.

“You may,” replied Farsey. “I have the best sight a creature has ever possessed – as if all the moles in all the world in all of time had saved up their ability to see and passed it on to me. I can see in straight lines and around corners and far off into the distance. That’s me – that’s Farsey.”

“Then join us, do,” said Earonymous, “as we make our way through the Moaning Mountains and into the Baron’s land.”

Farsey readily agreed, saying: “The Deep Mile Woods were starting to overwhelm me when I looked back and saw you heading my way yesterday. It gave me hope you could help me, especially when I saw your heroic tongue crossing of the ravine.”

“You saw that? You saw the tongue crossing?” said an impressed Piglick. “You really can see far into the distance.”

Piglick liked being referred to as heroic. He added: “But then you surely knew what my talent was without having to ask?”

“Oh – a girl likes to have these things confirmed.” Farsey smiled.

XmasTree-green

“Your rotating red head is quite something,” she said to Sniffwiff, “and your beak is so colourful – so beautiful – just like my hat.”

Sniffwiff liked being referred to as beautiful.

“And you are quite the most enormous mouse a creature has ever seen – with a belly so big and ears so extraordinary.”

Earonymous liked being referred to as extraordinary.

“But I have to be honest,” admitted Farsey, “that when I saw the size of your tongue and your beak and your belly, I did consider the only help here could be you three helping yourself to me for your supper.” The three egos were suddenly punctured.

Before long, as they chatted endlessly about their visions of the Baron’s court, they were through the Deep Mile Woods and not overwhelmed at all – not even at the sight of the imposing snow-capped Moaning Mountains before them. They always looked most imperious at Christmastime.

The companions had barely negotiated the first mountain pass when they stopped in their tracks. The ears of Earonymous twitched; the tongue of Piglick slurped; the beak of Sniffwiff sniffed and the eyes of Farsey focused. Together they murmured: “There’s something fearsome racing this way.”

It was getting closer. Earonymous could hear it; Piglick could taste it; Sniffwiff could smell it and, most alarmingly, Farsey could see it.

“It’s a bear,” she cried,” and it’s roaring towards us. I can see its gnashing teeth.”

“I can hear its growls,” said Earonymous.

“I can taste its hunger,” said Piglick.

“I can smell its desperation,” said Sniffwiff.

They looked around them for a place to hide, but there was mountain rock to one side of the pass and a frightening drop to the other side. A small green mountain bush to their right could keep Farsey hidden, but not the other three. Retreat might have been an option had it not been for Earonymous, who was, after all, fearless.

XmasTree-green

“We face it and we fight it,” he said. “It is our destiny to be in the Baron’s court. With our special gifts, we shall not be denied by such a beast.”

So they stood their ground, albeit that Earonymous shielded his three companions with his gigantic ears.

The bear sped closer and closer, growling louder and louder until he was abruptly halted by quite the most enormous mouse, with quite the biggest ears, he had ever seen.

“Get out of my way!” growled the bear.

Earonymous was shocked and so were his companions, who peaked above – or in Farsey’s case below – his ears to see the panic on the bear’s face.

“You don’t want to fight us or beat us or eat us?” asked Earonymous.

“I want to escape the crying and the wailing,” said the panting bear. “I want to be home at my father’s hearth, burning logs and supping broth.”

“It’s the Moaning Mountains,” said Sniffwiff. “They have tortured many a creature with their sorrowful sighs. My grandfather told me so.”

“Could I interest you in some cheese?” asked Earonymous, removing his backpack.

“Bears and cheese just don’t agree with each other,” said the panicked one in a gentler tone, suddenly sidetracked from his escape mission.

“That’s better,” said Farsey. “Less growly. That voice suits you so much better. And if you can only keep those teeth of yours hidden, then you’ll find it so much easier to make friends.”

The bear stretched out an arm and looked set to claw Farsey, who screamed and was swept up by Piglick’s tongue. She dabbed away the globules of spit and said: “Thank you – I think!”

Earonymous declared: “How dare you try to hurt our friend. Mess with her and you mess with us all. We have special gifts, you know.”

“And so do I,” said the bear. “I wasn’t about to hurt her – I just couldn’t resist touching her silky, black coat. It’s irresistible to a creature like me.”

“What exactly is a creature like you?” asked Sniffwiff.

“I am a bear without claws – look.” He held out his paws for inspection. “But I have the most sensitive touch of any bear that ever lived. I can feel a whole world of emotion from just one touch of any being. That is my special gift.”

“Your name?” asked Earonymous.

XmasTree-green

“My family and friends call me Mustuch,” said the bear. “My real name is Bozwind, but I said ‘Must Touch’ a lot when I was a cub and I kept grabbing things. It kind of stuck.”

“I can understand why you wouldn’t want to go with Bozwind,” said Farsey, who added: “Notice how you’ve calmed down so. The crying and the wailing in your head – gone I take it?”

“Er…yes,” said a suddenly surprised Mustuch.

“That’s what having a distraction like us does for you,” said Piglick.

“All I wanted to do,” explained Mustuch, “was make it to the Baron’s land and take up his Christmas challenge. Then I could live in his court and set eyes on his beautiful wife and touch the finest satins, velvets and silks the world has ever produced for all my livelong days. What joy I would feel. ”

“That’s where we are going,” said Earonymous. “One more companion won’t hurt.”

But Mustuch had his doubts. “My father said I had a special gift and belonged in the Baron’s court – that it was my destiny. He told me I could conquer the perilous journey and make him proud. Now I’m not so sure.”

“You can still do it,” exclaimed Earonymous.

“But you clearly have such a bond of togetherness. I might unbalance your team.”

“We all started off on our journeys quite alone. We met along the way,” said Piglick.

“Maybe destiny played a hand there, too,” offered Sniffwiff.

“But I still have to travel high and low and then high and low some more through the Moaning Mountains. Oh, the wailing. How it bothered me so.”

“It looks like we arrived right on cue in that case,” said Earonymous. “Let me introduce you to my new friends.”

As Earonymous carried out the introductions and explained each of their special talents, Mustuch had the irresistible urge to stroke the enormous ears of the enormous mouse. He reached out a paw and said: “May I?”

Earonymous smiled and flicked an ear in the direction of Mustuch. With one stroke, Mustuch could feel a whole well of emotion. Mustuch closed his eyes and saw the feelings form a kaleidoscope of colours in his mind, saying: “You are fearless, you are strong, you are kind and you are fair. You are the biggest mouse any creature has ever seen and I can declare, with great certainty, that you have a huge heart to match.” He opened his eyes again and announced: “It will be my honour to travel onwards with you.”

The gang of five continued along the path up the first of the Moaning Mountains. The higher they climbed, the more the snow fell and the more the wind howled. It always snowed heavily at Christmas. The sides of the mountain were frosty blue. The path they travelled was narrow and pot-holed. The companions trudged on, with tiny Farsey taking several strides for every one for Earonymous. But she was nimble and determined and that was enough for her to keep pace. She refused to be carried, being an independent woman. The climb became steeper, the struggle became harder, the wind became fiercer and the noise became stranger.

XmasTree-green

Mustuch, a brown bear of medium height, with patches of white on a barrel chest, had mini fried egg-type eyes, which grew wider as he realised it was happening again: the mountain was starting to moan.

“Uh oh!” he exclaimed.

“Don’t be afraid,” said the fearless Earonymous. “You are with friends now.”

But alarm was spreading among the group as the mountain wailed and whined, grumped and griped.

It was especially difficult for Earonymous. So acute was his hearing that the mournful cries echoed around his ample lugholes and cut to the very core of his being. Every step was hurting his soul. But still he led the way. Still he trudged ever onwards and upwards until they were on the other side of the first mountain and looking along a straighter section of the pass to the next part of the mountain range. The menacing moans were decreasing.

Mustuch spoke up. “This is farther than I managed to travel on my own. Thank you my new friends. I feel we are in touching distance of the Baron’s land. Two more mountains to climb.”

“I can see nothing in our way along the path throughout the mountain range,” said Farsey, casting her considerable eyes way off into the distance.

“I can hear nothing that we haven’t heard already,” said Earonymous. “We have coped with the cries once. We can do it again…and again.”

“I can scent nothing to blow us off track in that wicked wind,” said Sniffwiff.

“And I can taste…” said Piglick, “licking the snow-filled air with his lashing tongue, “…nothing but snow – and our ultimate triumph!”

By nightfall, their mountainous assault was complete. They had made a base camp just beyond the last of the Moaning Mountains, where the sounds still swirled but could less disturb. They knew that when they awoke they would soon be crossing the border in to the Baron’s land ready to take his Christmas challenge.

There was great anticipation in the village the next morning. It was market day. It was challenge day. The cobbled streets were a hive of feverish activity as villagers made preparations for Christmas. The five companions beamed with delight as they wandered through the village to the huge, black iron gates that formed a grand and imposing opening to the Baron’s grounds. The gates were bolted and locked and draped in Christmas bunting.

A crowd was building in front of the gates. The front line was made up of the eleven creatures awaiting entrance for the Baron’s Christmas challenge.

XmasTree-green

Chattering in the gathering made for a special buzz in the air. Then Farsey declared: “It’s on its way – I can see a delivery mule.”

“I can hear it, clip clopping along,” said Earonymous.

“This is quite positively the most exciting day of my long licking days,” said Piglick.

“I can feel the excitement coursing through you like lightning,” said Mustuch, putting his arm around his friend.

The mule arrived at the gates. From its saddlebag fell a miniscule blob of a creature, as yellow as the sun. It rolled to the gates, suddenly sprouted legs and then bounded over the gates.

A mouth emerged, as the legs had done, and delivered a high-pitched message: “I hereby invite special creatures one and all to accept the Baron’s Christmas challenge. All who succeed will take their place in the Baron’s court. Gifted ones, please enter.”

The mouth on the blob disappeared. It bounded back over the gates and into the saddlebag and the mule trotted off into the distance. The gate mysteriously unlocked and unbolted itself and swung wide open.

“Good luck to you, one and all,” said an old woman in the crowd. “You’re going to need it.”

There was a chuckle from the aloof-looking hound in a suit at the side of her, who muttered: “I can howl until the moon feels compelled to drink from the sea and yet was no match for the tasks laid before me last year.”

Another former challenger, a willowy slip of a man who had frying pan hands and was all burnt around the edges, said with a sigh: “I can catch lightning and silence thunder and yet was no match for the tasks laid before me three years ago.”

“How many creatures have finished the challenge in victory in recent times?” asked a suddenly pensive Earonymous.

“I can’t remember one, my dear,” the old woman answered. “And many a full moon has passed. But then, I’m an old woman and my memory is not what it was.” She chuckled.

Earonymous gulped a very large gulp. His mother had not mentioned this alarming news. He thought: Was she even aware of such news? Then he thought some more. Maybe the old woman is wrong. Maybe her memory is poor. Maybe the ones who failed simply did not possess the right skills. Why would the moon ever need to drink from the sea? And catching lightning is quite a feat – but what purpose would it serve? He tried to remain positive, but his smile was a nervous one.

The eleven contenders entered the gates and walked up the shadowy tree-lined avenue. Crystal baubles dangled from every branch. Gentle festive music drifted from the boughs: a soothing, welcoming hum. It especially vibrated around the large ears belonging to Earonymous and it touched his soul every bit as much as the cries of the Moaning Mountains had disturbed it.

They came to a clearing, where the raspberry rippled grass danced freely. Sniffwiff was thrilled with this new aroma, which made his red head swivel.

Long before the others, Farsey had seen the Baron’s castle in the distance. It was glistening white with turrets topped in silver and was set against a moody sky. There was one snow-dusted tower that rose higher than all the others. It was trimmed with jewels and strewn with red and white Christmas flowers.

XmasTree-green

On first spying the castle turrets, Farsey had sighed a joyful sigh and whispered: “This is just as I imagined it to be.” She now swirled her hat on her head in even greater and giddier anticipation.

As they neared the steps leading to the castle drawbridge, hundreds of yellow blobs emerged from the moat and cascaded down towards the eleven contenders like a sunshine waterfall. Piglick felt an urge to lick them, imagining them to taste like the sweetest honeycomb. Mustuch felt an urge to touch them, imagining them to radiate inspirational warmth.

When they came to rest, on the steps and on the ground at foot of the steps, each blob sprouted arms, legs and eyes. One pop followed another. Hundreds of pop, pop, pops! It was an orchestra of pops, like an ogre’s gigantic bowlful of popcorn fresh in the making. Earonymous had to fold down his ears, so violent was the popping.

Then there was silence. The eleven contenders stared in bewilderment. A fanfare blew from the turrets on high and through the magnificent silver doors to the castle appeared the most regal of figures. He was clad in a dark green velvet suit embroidered with golden thread and a deep blue satin cloak held together by a clasp of gold and emeralds. On his head he wore a simple gold coronet. It was unmistakeably and indisputably the Baron.

He crossed the drawbridge with a stride most lordly, then leapt off the top of the steps to the gasps of the eleven contenders below. They need not have worried. The baron was carried on a flow of tiny, yellow blob arms to the line of gifted creatures awaiting news of their challenge – and he chuckled every wave of the way.

Such was the mystery surrounding the Baron, it came as a relief to the contenders to see him laugh so freely – believing a man of such high spirits could not be cruel enough to set a brutal challenge. And true, the Baron was a jocular soul. Alas, he did like a giggle at other people’s expense.

“My Sunbursts!” he declared. “Delightfully helpful little creatures, one finds. Developed by my Master Creator – does weird things with genes, he does…and I don’t mean the denim kind.” The Baron once again laughed a hearty laugh. I’m going to like him, thought Farsey.

“Welcome one and all to my Christmas Challenge Day. I look forward to seeing you perform.”

There were various bows and nods and curtseys from the eleven contenders. The five travelling companions were in the company of a seven-foot tall middle-aged man; a pretty young woman with a flowing blonde mane and a swishing blonde tail; a cat with fish gills; a goat with a beard of bumblebees; a handsome young man with a triangular torso and a milkmaid covered in daisies and four-leaf clovers.

XmasTree-green

The Baron continued. “The challenge is made up of five tasks – all of which shall be completed today. By nightfall, I hope I can open my castle doors to at least one of you and introduce you to my coveted court. Then your family members will be collected and transported by my special guards so we can all share a wonderful festive feast when Christmas Day dawns.”

“At least one of you…” the Baron had said. There was a sudden realisation for the five new friends that not all of them might make it – that their dreams could soon be shattered just as much as realised.

“Good luck to you my friends,” said Earonymous.

“And you too,” said Piglick, Sniffwiff, Farsey and Mustuch.

“My beautiful wife very much looks forward to making the acquaintance of the victors,” said the Baron. “Look skywards and you will see her sending you her warmth and encouragement with a wave of golden silk.” From the highest castle tower, a solitary arm was waving a scarf from the highest window.

“Right! To business!” declared the Baron. “Task one!”

Within the hour the eleven contenders – each in their own private wooden enclosures so they could not see what their fellow challengers were up to – were faced with eleven small mounds of white granules. The Baron was joined by his chief aide. Mallory was a bespectacled bearded man, with a lemon-sucking face and an air of arrogance.

“The mounds before you are a combination of salt and sugar,” Mallory revealed. “You must split the one large mound into two smaller mounds: one of salt, one of sugar. If even one granule ends up in the wrong pile, you will fail the first task. You have two hours.”

The contenders were in a state of shock, believing this to be an impossible task. That is except for Sniffwiff. He had the greatest sense of smell of any creature that ever lived. Detecting a grain of salt from a grain of sugar would be no problem for him. Pecking the grains and flicking them from side-to-side in the speed required was also a very birdlike endeavour.

Within no time, Sniffwiff was confident it was mission accomplished. Only then did he take flight and see that the other ten challengers were struggling. Some, like the milkmaid and the cat with gills, were crying. Others, like Piglick and Farsey, were sitting on their stools, staring at the problem before them, unable to move. A couple of them, like Earonymous and the handsome young man with the trianguar torso, were attempting the task as best they could but not getting very far.

Before much longer, the milkmaid and the cat with gills were helped away sobbing; the man with the triangular torso conceded defeat and the goat with a beard of bumblebees bleated his surrender. The seven-foot tall man had long since departed and the pretty young woman with the blonde mane and tail had not even started the task when she made a haughtily prompt exit.

XmasTree-green

Sniffwiff could see from his vantage point that only his friends remained. But they did not stay to complete the task either because they knew they were about to fail and decided it best to leave their enclosures so as not to prolong the agony. Their dreams of living in the Baron’s court were over – or so they thought. Sniffwiff acted decisively. He swooped into each of their pens and completed their tasks for them.

When the eleven contenders were gathered together once more, Mallory announced – with a noticeable tinge of disappointment – that five of them had been successful in task one.

Sniffwiff’s four travelling companions awaited their dismissals, while also marvelling at the notion that as many as five could solve the salt and sugar problem.

Imagine their astonishment then when Mallory – in his pompous, righteous way – approached six others and issued an official dismissal to the tall man, the woman of blonde mane and tail, the cat with gills, the goat with a bumblebee beard, the man with the triangular torso and the milkmaid in daisies and clover. They trudged from the challenge grounds and headed for the gates to the village.

“Congratulations,” said Mallory to the other five. “You have successfully completed task one. Please take your places in your enclosures for task two.” The remaining five asked no questions. Sniffwiff kept especially quiet.

“Next,” announced Mallory, “you will be presented with two crystal glasses. Both contain the sweetest and most delicious of nectar drinks. But one contains a single drop of the venom from the Waxwold Beatle – enough to send your head into a painful vomiting-inducing spin, before you fall into a sleep of four full moons. You must finish all the contents from one glass – and one glass only.”

Mallory delivered this task with a little too much relish for Farsey’s liking. The Baron was watching on from a gatehouse near the challenge grounds and said to one of his sunbursts: “This one’s tricky…bit of a fifty-fifty. Oh, how I like a gamble!”

Piglick knew instantly he could accomplish this task. His huge tongue had such sophisticated taste buds that he could hover it over the surface of such a concoction and immediately detect where the poison lay. However, he was quite sure his four friends could not. He didn’t want to see them suffer pain or, for that matter, throw up. Nor, indeed, fall asleep for four full moons. However would they get home for Christmas? I certainly can’t carry them all, he thought.

Mallory strode off to join the Baron, leaving the five remaining contenders in their individual wooden enclosures with two glasses of golden liquid laid before each of them on ornately carved tables. Piglick quickly detected and drank the safe drink. Within no time, he had sent his tongue whiplashing over the partitions and into the other four enclosures, knocking over all the poisonous drinks.

It happened in such a blur that his friends were not quite sure what had transpired. They were left with just one glass of nectar juice. It was drink that or go home. They all drank – they all stayed awake.

“Rats!” cried the Baron to Mallory on hearing the news. “We never have five left at this stage. Not even one of them spun around or cried out in pain or hurled vomit across the enclosure. This is no fun at all!”

XmasTree-green

Earonymous, with his huge and clever ears all a’ twitch, heard the Baron. He muttered to his four friends as they gathered once more: “If I didn’t know better, I’d think they want us to fail.” Communication between the challengers was forbidden – but Earonymous could not resist whispering his warning. His friends looked perplexed.

Task three was to find a needle in a haystack. But this was no ordinary needle. “It’s invisible to the naked eye,” said Mallory. “Unless you can tap into your mind’s eye, you will never see it or find it. Should you discover it, dip it in the sticky white powder provided so we know you have completed the task. We don’t want you trying to trick us by holding up thin air!”

Mallory smirked, thinking he had made a joke. No one laughed. No one even smiled. At least the Baron was finding his own amusement in task number three.

“Oh this one is hilarious,” said the Baron in his gatehouse. “They start staring and squinting, inspecting and analysing and then get ever so cross and increasingly frantic. What a hoot!”

Farsey could not believe her good fortune. Two tasks passed – although quite how she was not sure – and now a third challenge that fed right into her expertise. But she worried for her companions. Faced with a massive haystack in her enclosure, Farsey soon focused her marvellous eyes and saw the shiny needle pinging back at her.

“Mind’s eye,” she muttered, “what nonsense.” She dipped the needle in the sticky powder and laid it on the table. So small was she, that she was able to burrow under the wooden partitions between each enclosure and crawl up into the haystacks, unseen by her friends. Farsey found each of their needles, dipped them in powder while they were feverishly scouring their haystacks, and laid them on each of their tables.

The Baron guffawed with laughter as he saw from afar how the contenders were throwing hay this way and that in search of the invisible needle – only to be sobered by news they had all been successful.

“Confound it!” he exclaimed to Mallory.

“My Lord, this is quite extraordinary and unprecedented. But I believe task four will floor them – every last one of them. Do not fear, my Lord.”

Again Earonymous tapped in to the conversation and again could not resist whispering to his friends: “There is no question – they want us to fail. I can hear their disappointment.” His friends looked stunned. Farsey thought: I’m not sure I’m going to like the Baron after all.

XmasTree-green

Mallory soon announced task number four. “We have in our grounds the rarest of birds named the Flan-fling Wing,” he said. The tiny grey-green bird, no bigger than a walnut, swooped down to a perch in front of the enclosures. “When it opens its beak and sings its song, there’s silence now where once there was a unique sound that’s been lost on the wings of time. Recite that lost bird call and you will progress to the final task.” And with that, Mallory was off.

The bird was, indeed, opening its beak and no sound was coming out. Even Earonymous and his enormous ears were picking up…well, nothing very much at all.

He became a picture of concentration, angling his ears in one direction, then another and another. He twitched and tweaked them, cocked and curled them, flicked and flapped them until…until……until…he was tuned in.

Earonymous heard: “Flan-fling-split-splat…flan-fling-split-splat…flan-fling-split-splat.” It was his Eureka moment.

But if he had trouble tuning in, with the best hearing any creature had ever possessed, then he knew his friends would find the task impossible. He believed the Baron and his chief aide Mallory wanted them to fail. He had to do something to make sure that did not happen.

Earonymous dug in his backpack and pulled out four pieces of cheese on which he carved, with the corner of the buckle of the backpack, the words “Flan Fling Split Splat”. He threw the cheese into the enclosures of his four friends who, until this point, had been staring hopelessly at the tiny bird on his perch. Sniffwiff felt particularly at a loss, feeling one bird should be able to tune in to the call of another – but he couldn’t. Then the answer arrived via flying cheese, after which they could eat the evidence. Mustuch had spoken of his dislike for cheese, but even he did what he had to do. Then he burped a cheesy burp.

It helped that they had heard Earonymous whisper his concerns about the Baron and Mallory. They all knew the flying cheese was their friend – the very leader of their group – helping them through and fighting back against the challenge so harsh.

All five companions were taken into the gatehouse to give their answer to the question of the silent birdcall. One-by-one they were taken to the Baron, whose jaw dropped over and over again when each of the quintet said: “Flan fling split splat.”

“Congratulations,” spluttered Mallory begrudgingly.

They had made it to the final task.

“This is a disgrace,” said the Baron to Mallory, angrily kicking a sunburst off the wall so that its arms, legs and eyes popped out of it’s blob of a body with a bing, pop, ping.

“But we have saved the best until last, my Lord,” said the creeping, cringing Mallory.

XmasTree-green

Again, Earonymous heard them. Why would we ever want to be part of this man’s court, he thought. What foolish dreams.

Nonetheless, he was more determined than ever to win the Christmas challenge – and carry his friends with him. It was not for personal gain any longer, but more to thwart the Baron’s wish for failure.

So it was to task five – the final test of the Baron’s annual Yuletide challenge. Mallory clapped his hands and a large wooden door in a rock-face beyond the challenge grounds fell open. From it appeared a mammoth monster of alarming ferocity.

Around its neck was a huge iron collar connected to which was a long, strong chain tying it to a stake in the room from whence it came. It laboured its way towards the row of five friends, who looked on aghast from their pens. It let out an earth-shuddering roar.

It had three large eyes on springy stems, a row of pointy horns down the back of its head and neck and a massive fang-filled mouth which covered the bit of his face where a nose should have been. It had three fat fingers on each hand, three chunky toes on each foot. It was scaly. It was scabby. It was scary.

Mallory announced: “Tame the beast and you will complete the task and win the challenge.” He walked away, fully expecting the five contenders to do the same.

From the edge of the challenge grounds, the Baron uttered to a gathering of sunbursts at his feet: “Norbert always scares strangers off, doesn’t he? If only they knew there’s not a bad bone in his body.”

“Teamwork,” declared Earonymous to his friends. “I hear his name is Norbert and there isn’t a bad bone in his body.”

“Says who?” asked Piglick.

“The Baron himself.”

“Good work,” said Mustuch. “Now I need all of you to help me get as close as I can. One touch and I’ll know what makes Norbert tick.”

XmasTree-green

Sniffwiff took flight and circled Norbert’s head. The monster’s three eyes didn’t know which way to turn and he quickly felt dizzy. Farsey sped in and out of Norbert’s legs, further disorientating him. Piglick stuck out his tongue and lashed the ground with it, first on one side of Norbert and then on the other. The monster was teetering on the brink of collapse.

Norbert emitted another roar, but this was more sorrowful than the one he had delivered on his arrival. He slumped on his fat backside and sighed a smelly sigh that almost knocked Sniffwiff from flight.

Mustuch moved in fast and, careful to avoid Norbert’s horny head, touched his back. He could instantly feel the monster’s pain. He could instantly feel Norbert’s good heart and good bones. The pain came from the fact Norbert had been kept in seclusion ever since the Baron’s Master Creator made him. The pain came from the fact that unlike the sunburst creations, he was very much alone. The pain came from the fact Mallory had repeatedly told him that he was an experiment gone wrong.

“There’s a sadness here,” said Mustuch. “The first roar we heard was purely one of frustration. Stop your flying and running and lashing, dear friends. He won’t harm us.”

Farsey leapt onto Norbert’s right hand. His head was simmering down from a violent spin and he just about managed to focus on the little creature with the colourful hat and unusually large eyes. She smiled at him. His mouth did something back. Farsey hoped to goodness it was an attempt at a smile.

Sniffwiff settled in front of Norbert and sniffed his chunky feet. “You have almost bearable foot odour – for a monster at least.”

A noise came out of Norbert’s mouth. It sounded for all the world like a “Thank you”, especially to the super ears of Earonymous – which also picked up a rumbling in Norbert’s belly.

“I sense he’s hungry,” said Mustuch.

“I hear it,” said Earonymous, who produced his last wheel of cheese and fed it to Norbert.

“And this chain,” said Mustuch. “He hates this chain.”

“You feel that, too?” asked Piglick.

“No, I just worked that out for myself. Wouldn’t we all hate being tethered like some wild thing?”

“Thank you,” blurted Norbert through his mouthful of fangs, which were somehow less menacing now. Piglick lapped at Norbert’s cheek, making the monster chuckle a curious chuckle. The five friends giggled along with him. Gone was any thought that they were winning the challenge by taming the so-called beast. It had gone way beyond that.

XmasTree-green

The Baron looked on in amazement. Sour-faced Mallory fidgeted nervously at his master’s side.

“I don’t know how this could have happened, my Lord,” said Mallory. “But all is not lost. We never lose.”

“You know not of what you speak, Mallory,” said the Baron. “We asked for special creatures – the most special in the land no less – and by heavens we have been delivered just that. We have lost.”

“But they did not carry out the tasks by fair means. I hid secret sunbursts in the corners of each enclosure who have just reported back to me. These so-called winners are cheats.”

Mallory told the Baron how Sniffwiff had completed the salt-sugar test for four others; how Piglick’s tongue had knocked over the poisonous drinks in each enclosure in task two; how Farsey had been seen laying powder-coated needles on each table for the third task and how Earonymous had thrown cheesy answers into each enclosure for task four.

The Baron marched off towards the five companions, who were still in awkward conversation with Norbert. The monster wanted so desperately to chat, but had had so little practice.

Mallory scuttled along behind the Baron, insisting: “My Lord, we can disqualify them all. They have cheated.”

The Baron addressed the five friends. “You have tamed the beast, quite clearly. Norbert’s appearance and roar usually sends everyone running for the hills.”

“So we have all won a place in your court?” asked Farsey.

“Well, not so quick my little one. It has been brought to my attention that you all cheated in my challenge. That’s hardly the Christmas spirit.” That was rich coming from one so deceitful and lacking in festive fairness.

The friends looked at each other sheepishly. They instinctively knew they had not reached this point – overcome tasks so taxing that they verged on the impossible – without each other’s help.

Sniffwiff said: “The salt and sugar test – that was me.”

Piglick admitted: “The spilled drinks – that was me.”

Farsey revealed: “The needles – that was me.”

Earonymous confessed: “The birdcall – that was me.”

Mustuch acknowledged: “The Norbert test – that was me…with a lot of help from my friends.”

“What honesty!’ exclaimed the Baron. “How rare!”

Earonymous continued: “Never did you say we couldn’t help each other. We are not cheats. We are friends. We are friends who want to see each other succeed.”

“It’s right here in the rules,” said miserly Mallory, pulling a scroll from inside his velvet tabard.

Farsey jumped on to his arm, quickly scanned the document with her marvellous eyes and said: “He’s lying. It’s not.”

XmasTree-green

Mallory fumbled with the scroll and mumbled: “Erm..erm..that’s beside the point.” He gathered himself and bellowed: “You just cannot join the Baron’s court and that’s all there is to it! You never signed anything – so we’re not tied to any kind of contract and…”

Earonymous interrupted the rant. “And why do you want to keep us out? I could hear you both. That’s my special gift, you see – my incredible hearing from these enormous ears. You wanted us to fail.”

Earonymous had whispered this to his companions and only now was it sinking in they were not part of some magical lordly quest. They had instead been set up to come crashing to earth, with all their dreams in ruins all around them. Christmas would be ruined. A single tear rolled down Farsey’s tiny cheek.

“At the very least, can we see your beautiful wife before we leave?” asked Piglick. “If she can make the flowers swoon she can surely give us enough joy to fuel our journey home.”

“There is no wife,” admitted the Baron.

“I insist that my Lord take back that confession and reconsider his position,” said Mallory, his eyes twitching uncontrollably. “I insist he reconsider most vigorously and violently and verily…erm…”

“You’ve run out of pertinent V words again, haven’t you Mallory?” said the Baron.

“I have my Lord.”

“And I’ve run out of patience with you and your foolish notions – and with me and mine. Would you all care to join me in the castle for some liquid refreshment – non-toxic of course.”

Two sunbursts squeezed under the Baron’s right foot. Two more squeezed under his left. They helped the Baron glide along, in effect forming an impromptu pair of roller-skates. Mallory and the super-stunned five friends followed him.

The Baron turned to see Norbert sitting alone, still chained to his post. “You too, Norbert!” said the Baron. “You too!” He ordered Mallory to unlock the now less-than-monstrous creature’s collar.

Once inside the castle, the pink-suited Master Creator and his twirly black moustache joined them and the Baron began to explain.

“When I inherited this castle, it was falling to rack and ruin,” he said. “I had no family to speak of. The reputation of our land in other realms was embarrassingly poor. We were in fear of invasion. I was not a king. I was not a Prince or even an Archduke. I was a Baron – noble but not possessed of majesty.”

The Baron revealed that it was at this time his boyhood friend Mallory and his cousin – the man who now stood before them as the Master Creator, otherwise known as Ludwig – came up with the idea to make the land extraordinary.

“Propaganda – that’s what it was,” said the Baron. “That’s a kind of make-believe.”

They spread word that the Baron’s court was a magical place to be, using Master Creator Ludwig’s inventions and creations to prove to the villagers that there were incredible events unfolding behind the giant iron gates.

“The sunbursts were the start of it,” said the Baron. “We let the public get sneak peeks of them. The gossip grew. Ludwig also developed raspberry rippled grass and humming trees…all by accident you understand.”

“By accident? But you call him the Master Creator?” said Earonymous.

“Well, yes – he is…kind of. He’s verging on genius without ever quite getting there.” Ludwig looked to the ground, embarrassed. “The sunbursts were meant to be a gnome army. Fierce fighters and protectors are the gnomes. The grass was meant to be a variety that never needs mowing – but alas it does and there’s lots of it. Just that it smells of raspberry and has flecks of red in it. The humming trees – an experiment gone wrong with oak branches and some bees. Trying to give the trees at the edge of our land some sting or something. No sting, though, and no protection. But at least the trees sound pleasant enough.”

“And anyway, it all worked out in the end,” said Master Creator Ludwig, suddenly defending himself. “People thought they were genius inventions not…erm…mistakes.”

Mallory chipped in. “Then, Norbert was created and news of him spread a certain fear to other lands. He was a kind of war deterrent – not that he was meant to look or sound that way either.”

“I tried to cross a bridge troll with a giant ogre and, well…” explained Master Creator Ludwig. “One of my more stupid ideas…and I’ve had many.” The Master Creator was suddenly taking ownership of his errors and looked full of regret for what he had done to Norbert.

The Baron paused for a moment. “Norbert deserved better. I see that now. I’m deeply ashamed and sorry.”

Mallory picked up the story. “With its reputation enhanced, the Baron’s land became a place of wealth and prosperity once more. We spruced the place up – all gleaming white and solid silver,” he said proudly.

XmasTree-green

Then came the explanation about the Baron’s wife – the woman so beautiful she was said to make the flowers swoon and the sun weep.

“She does not exist,” announced the Baron.

“But that veiled woman waving from the highest tower in the castle,” said Farsey.

“That was me,” said Mallory. “I think they call it ‘faking it’. It was me in the carriage on the wedding day as well, shrouded by curtains of lace.”

“It added another layer of mystique,” said the Baron. “Thereafter, we felt we had to keep on layering. That’s when the idea of the challenge came about. If this was a special court for special creatures, everyone would hear of it and be in awe of it.”

“But we would forever be in control of it,” said Master Creator Ludwig.

“This was our way to not only survive but flourish,” said Mallory, head bowed.

Earonymous looked at his astonished friends and saw disappointment written across their faces. All those childhood tales that had inspired them were pure myth.

“But sir, for all the silver turrets and the jewels and even the sunbursts,” said Earonymous, “surely all you succeeded in doing was cutting yourself off from the world.”

Sniffwiff joined in. “All the special creatures that came to attempt your challenge wanted to be a part of your court – to serve you and adore you. Yet you wanted them to fail in something that was all built on a lie.”

“But then you five came along,” said the Baron. “You have taught me about brutal honesty and reminded me of true friendship – the kind the three of us once shared before we were overtaken by fantasy, stupidity, selfishness and greed.”

The Baron opened a draw on his bureau and took out a jewelled box. From it he pulled one glistening gold medal after another and hung them around the necks of the five conquering companions. Farsey’s medal was as big as her.

“You are my champions,” said the Baron. “I would consider it my very great honour if you would accept your rewards and take up residence in my court. Perhaps together, we can make the myth a wonderful reality. It can be a happy Christmas after all.”

Earonymous looked at Piglick. Piglick looked at Sniffwiff. Sniffwiff looked at Farsey. Farsey looked at Mustuch. They all looked back at the Baron and in unison said a resounding: “We accept!” The sunbursts popped out all over and cried high-pitched hoorahs. Ludwig’s pink Master Creator suit suddenly turned lime green, then orange – he clearly had no control over this invention either. Even Mallory managed a smile. He pulled the scroll of challenge rules from his tabard and tore it into pieces. Norbert grunted something. It sounded joyous enough. The grunt carried a certain uniquely-Norbert stench.

The Flan-fling Wing flew in through a window and landed on the Baron’s shoulder as he led his new courtiers towards the Christmas banquet room. Bells rang out across the land.

“Time to feast!” he announced. “This darling bird never misses a meal. Have to watch him near the fruit pies, though. He just loves tipping them upside down and flipping them off the table. That’s where he gets his name, you know.”

This would be the first of many meals shared by this diverse but largely splendid group. The five companions sent word home to their loved ones that they had succeeded in their quest. Those same loved ones would later be invited to spend their Christmas holidays in the Baron’s land. Some would stay for good. They would forever be swollen with pride.

The annual Christmas challenges would continue – with new rules of course – and every year more special creatures would be introduced to the Baron’s court. He married one of them: a true beauty who did magical things with fire. But none would ever be quite so special as the five friends who turned a Baron’s land of suspect vintage into a sparkling and very real success. It was their dream. It was their destiny.

And they all lived…

Happily ever after 173517350 copy

The End

 

Copyright Philip Jones 2014