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Faris and Jack

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faris and Jack – An Elemental Short Story

 

Copyright © 2004 by Melanie Cusick-Jones

First published 2016

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover.

 

www.melcj.com

www.cusick-jones.com

 

 

 

For Rebecca Emmerson, who took Faris and Jack for their first outing in 2004 and for Ephraim, who in 2016 helped me to get this book over the finish line by reading it once again.

 

It is a truth – universally acknowledged – that every person believes that they are special. This becomes even more of a truth, when the people in question are the inhabitants of an orphanage.

Who doesn’t want to be the lucky boy that discovers he’s the long lost heir to a wealthy family? Or to find that being in the orphanage was all a big mistake, and that he has loving parents who will be overjoyed to find him safe and well?

Unfortunately, for the majority of the boys who inhabit the Grimbaldi Foundation for the Potentially Lacking, no such fortunate discoveries exist in their future. If they are lucky, they will survive their time at the Foundation, but that is all.

People say that life is hard. That may be true, but most children are fortunate enough that they do not find this out until they grow up. I am sorry to say that this is not the case for the boys that live within the grey walls of the Grimbaldi mansion. For them, every single day of their lives was hard and long…

 

Chapter 1 – The Beginning

 

CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!!

The morning alarm bell rang out. The loud, piercing noise jolted the sleeping boys from their beds half-scared, half-awake. They looked around the room with wide, staring eyes, whilst the fog of sleep quickly cleared from their heads.

Many of the boys had no memory of life outside the walls of the Grimbaldi Foundation and for that reason their dreams and waking lives were not particularly different from one another. Sleep might come easily for the boys at the end of each long day, but that was only because they were exhausted from working a twelve-hour shift in one of the Foundation’s ‘creative rooms’. It was exhaustion that kept them in their chilly beds through the night, not sweet dreams, unfortunately.

Faris tumbled out his bed just like the other boys. He followed his feet as they pulled him automatically into line with his roommates and they all slowly moved towards the dingy bathroom at the end of the dormitory.

As Faris walked, he tripped over his toes a couple of times. His eyes were bleary from having too little sleep – the wake up call had come at 5:00am, as always – and he had been up until well after midnight. Unlike the other boys, Faris found that he did not fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. In fact, it was quite the opposite: when bedtime came, he would find his mind waking up in a way that it never did during the long days of hard labour.

“Sorry,” Faris mumbled, as he staggered again and bumped into another boy. There was no response. Why waste your energy on talking when there was work to be done? Was a favourite saying of Mister Grimbaldi – the short, fat owner of the Foundation – and one which most of the boys seemed to live by.

Each group of boys had just three minutes in the bathroom each morning. It was enough time to splash their faces with icy cold water from the rattling taps and brush their teeth with their fingers. Why do you need a toothbrush when you have eight perfectly good fingers? Was another gem of wisdom from Mister Grimbaldi.

Slightly more awake, the boys made their way back to their beds to change into work clothes for the day ahead. The air in the dormitory always smelled a little stale in the morning and so – as was his habit – Faris opened the small window beside his bed. Fresh air rushed into the room, it was chilly, but the boys were used to the cold so it didn’t bother them. The air carried away with it the smell of boys who only got a bath once a week and helped wake everyone up that little bit more.

Dressed and ready for action, the straggle of boys formed a straight but ragged line beside the main door and waited. Faris was towards the back of the queue, not especially bothered about getting to breakfast first. No matter how hungry he got, he just could not get excited about breakfast gruel. FOOD IS FUEL was the inspiring motto emblazoned on the wall of the boys dining room/work room. It was a waste of space really, as only a handful of the boys could read.

Ahead of him, Faris heard the door click as it was unlocked and watched, as it swung wide on squeaky, old hinges.

“Mornin’ boys.”

Faris did not need to look at the face behind the rasping voice to recognise Gamage. He was a tall, wiry-looking man, with grey-brown hair and hollow, muddy eyes. Gamage was the caretaker at the Foundation and although Faris had never asked, there was a rumour that Gamage was the oldest boy lacking in potential ever to be housed at the Foundation.

Every now and then a lucky boy was collected from the Foundation by long-lost relatives. There were also tales of cold, dark nights when boys from the Foundation had disappeared, never to be seen again. Neither of these two things had happened to Gamage: he had been at the Foundation longer than anybody could remember. Always there, and probably always would be too.

Faris believed that the stories about Gamage were true, because when you looked at him closely – which wasn’t often, as he wasn’t the most handsome of men – Gamage’s eyes were filled with an empty sort of doom.

He glanced at Gamage now, shivered and then looked away. Faris always felt a twinge of fear when he looked at Gamage – as if something bad might happen to him, if he were caught staring.

“Ready for work lads?” Gamage asked, giving the collected boys a cruel, toothy grin.

No one replied. No one looked at him. Direct eye contact was only for the incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

“Let’s go then.” Gamage shoved the boy at the front of the line to encourage him along. “I’ve not got all day and neither ‘av you!”

With this last instruction barked loudly over their heads, the line of boys moved forwards, their eyes cast down at the floor and shoulders curving downwards like a row of unhappy mouths.

Breakfast was a quiet affair. Rusty spoons scraped every last morsel of food from the cracked bowls and shovelled it into hungry mouths. Aside from the odd gurgling stomach, protesting that it wanted more than the small portion of food that had been offered, there was no other sound in the dining room except for the gentle clinking of cutlery.

 

  • * *

 

“Oi! Oi, you!”

Sensing that the words were being directed at him, Faris looked up from the heavy leather wallet he had been working on. It was the first time he had moved in a while and his neck cricked sharply as he did so.

As his eyes adjusted from his work, Faris saw Mrs Ladle, the Foundation’s housekeeper and cook, trundling her expansive figure across the workroom towards him. He swallowed nervously.

“Yes, Mrs Ladle?”

She came to rest in front of him, her large belly wobbling for a few moments after her feet had stopped moving, giving her a squishy, jelly-like appearance. But, there was nothing remotely soft or sweet about Mrs Ladle: she was as mean as Mister Grimbaldi and crueller than Gamage, if that were possible.

“I’ve got a job for you,” she grunted, “pigs need feeding and mucking out. You’re a big lad, you need the exercise.”

Faris didn’t even think about arguing.

 

“At least you like scraps and slops,” Faris muttered to the large, blotchy pink-brown pig as he sloshed to contents of his bucket into the trough. Small flecks of the slightly stinky contents splattered onto his trousers as he did this.

The pig raised its snuffling nose in his direction and gave a disinterested snort.

“Yeah, I know. Why would you understand? You’re just a pig.” Faris shook his head.

I must be crazy talking to animals.

“You boy! Hurry up, these dishes won’t wash themselves!”

Mrs Ladle’s screech split the air of the silent courtyard. His head snapped up as a shiver of fear went sliding down his backbone. Faris dumped the rest of the food into the trough as quickly as he could and ran back towards the Foundation kitchen. No one wanted to be accused of being lazy at Grimbaldi’s – bad things seemed to happen soon after boys stopped being useful any more.

 

  • * *

 

Faris struggled up the steep stairs towards his dormitory. With each step, his aching muscles burned and his legs wobbled, as if they might not actually keep holding him up. It was very late and he was the last boy to reach the room, where the others were already asleep, exhausted from their day of hard labour.

Having the bathroom to himself for once, Faris took the opportunity to get a quick wash – splashing cold water under his armpits and over his chest, as well as brushing his teeth thoroughly with his finger. His weekly bath was still three days away and after spending the afternoon wading through pig muck and peeling potatoes inside the stinky kitchen, he certainly felt grubbier than usual.

Faris moved towards his bed, but surprisingly, didn’t climb straight in to go to sleep. His feet carried him past the hard-looking mattress, straight to his favourite spot: the window seat. Climbing onto the wide ledge beside the glass, he settled back against the wall and gazed down on the world outside.

The moon sat high in the sky, its cream face bathing the streets below in a milky light. Midnight was approaching, fast and the night was cold and cloudless. Unsurprisingly nothing moved on the silent streets of South Appledale.

Faris wondered, as he often had, what the Grimbaldi Foundation for the Potentially Lacking looked like to the people outside its walls. In Faris’s mind, the large house at the edge of the village sat alone, glaring down over the roofs of the other buildings. The window where he sat now would be one of the staring eyes.

At that moment, had someone been walking in the street below and looked up at the Foundation, they would have seen a pale face peering back at them out of the gloom. They would have seen Faris’s dark eyes and short brown hair, perhaps wondered at how old he might be and how strange it was that a child would be awake and out of bed at such a late hour.

Faris could tell it was colder than usual that night because each breath he took came out of his mouth in a silvery mist. It steamed up small patches on the windowpane two inches from his nose and slowly blocked his view of the outside world. The cold never bothered him: he had grown used to the wintry world of the Foundation over the past nine years. It was like this every night in his dormitory because Mister Grimbaldi would never consider wasting heat or any other kind of comfort on the tenants of his establishment. The boys of the Foundation were there only to make him money, not to cost him anything.

Mister Grimbaldi was a cruel man, without a kind bone in his body (most of the boys said he had a swinging brick instead of a heart). His “Foundation” was nothing more than a Victorian workhouse, into which he took orphaned boys to work as slave labour. Of course, no one knew this was what he did. By all outward appearances he was a man of generous spirit, giving a home and opportunity to poor little orphaned boys. It was a disguise he had used for a long time. The truth was that Mister Grimbaldi was as nasty and cold as the establishment he ran.

Faris turned away from the chilly window and rubbed his hands together briskly to get some warmth and feeling back into them He sighed quietly as he looked around the shabby dormitory he called home. Four metal-framed beds sat against worn walls where ancient wallpaper hung off in patches revealing the bare bricks beneath. The thin mattresses on the beds were ripped and dirty. Springs popped out of them in places and they sagged so low on the bed frames that the boys could have slept on the floor and they would have been just as comfortable.

Faris’s bed was closest to the window and sat empty tonight, as it did every night. The paper-thin sheets were filled with holes and spiders and lay crumpled in a small heap at one end of the bed – they were worse than useless at keeping out the cold. There were two other boys in the dormitory who were fast asleep in their own beds, huddled into small balls beneath covers as thin and holey as those on Faris’s bed. Their skin looks blue in the moonlight, Faris thought to himself as he glanced at the sleeping boys. But it wasn’t just the moonlight, the boys were blue – blue with cold.

It had been nine years since Faris had been left at Grimbaldi’s Foundation for the Potentially Lacking. He had been just a year old when some unknown person had left him on the doorstep, next to the morning paper and bottles of semi-skimmed milk. The residents of the Foundation were all boys who were considered “potentially lacking” because they had no family, no money and no prospects. But Faris was different to the other boys at the Foundation – he had prospects, some very, very important prospects. Although he didn’t know it yet he had a future outside the walls of this prison.

Over the years Faris had spent most of his nights sat next to an empty bed, looking out of the window and watching the empty South Appledale streets below him. Through the long dark hours he would watch and wait for something to happen…the unknown something that he felt from the very bottom of his heart would one day come. For nine years no one had come for him, no one had tried to find him and no family had ever arrived to take him away. But tonight was different. Tonight there would be something.

Through the creaky floorboards below him Faris heard the large grandfather clock in the hallway of the Foundation slowly start to chime. One, two, three, Faris counted silently to himself. Seven, eight, nine, the clock continued to clang and Faris yawned, his mouth stretching wide open. Ten, eleven, twelve, Faris finished counting. Up past midnight. Again! He scolded himself. No wonder he was always so tired during the day. Faris was constantly being punished for not working as fast as the other boys.

“There’s no room for dreams in your world boy.” Mister Grimbaldi would growl at Faris when he was punishing him for working too slowly. “You’ve got nowhere to go. This is the very best that you can expect from life!” He would say, his large shiny baldhead going red with anger as Faris silently ignored his words and gazed out of the window. Then Faris would normally find himself scrubbing toilets, cleaning out the pig-sty or some other equally horrible chore as punishment for being silly enough to think he could have dreams of his own.

Faris was just about to leave the window and go to bed, when something strange happened. In the hallway of the house, far below where he sat, the grandfather clock chimed once, very loudly.

Thirteen?! The clock doesn’t chime thirteen!

Faris looked up, his brown eyes open wide in surprise. His gaze swung immediately to the window and the church clock tower in the village below. Both hands on the clock face stood perfectly upright, one covering the other. It was exactly midnight – the peculiar place between one day and another where anything was possible.

Out of the corner of his eye, something in the moonlit street caught Faris’s attention. A large pigeon had fluttered onto the ground below his window. It stood for a moment or two, looking up and down the street and walking in tight circles on its small pink feet. Faris pressed his forehead against the cold window to get a better look. That’s strange, he thought to himself, pigeons are city birds…you never usually see them around here. As Faris watched, the bird stopped walking in circles and slowly, very slowly, it lifted its head up towards the sky…and it looked him right in the eye.

Faris jumped away from the window. Birds don’t do that! He pushed away the silly idea, but a moment later he was back at the glass with his head pressed against the icy pane. That pigeon can’t have been looking at me, he told himself. Faris squinted back down at the pavement. The pigeon was still standing there. Still looking up at his window.

It’s watching me, Faris thought. But then just as quickly he shook his head, dismissing the idea. Don’t be stupid – birds don’t watch people! It’s just a bird!! Just as he did this, the pigeon cocked its head to one side. It gave Faris a funny look, as if to say “I can hear what you’re thinking and I’m going to prove you wrong.”

“You’re actually going crazy,” Faris muttered to himself beneath his breath. He probably had some form of sleep-madness he decided, why else would he be imagining human behaviour in animals. I should just turn away and climb into bed. But he didn’t.

As Faris watched from the window the bird looked down at its leg, apparently interested in something there and then it looked up at him again. With a quick nod of its head it spread out its wings and flapped up towards the window where Faris was sitting.

The pigeon landed on the window ledge and stared at Faris. Faris sat in his dormitory and looked back at the bird, mainly out of curiosity because the bird was acting rather strangely. This is the most interesting thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here, Faris reasoned with himself. Usually, the most exciting thing he would see during his nightly vigil was the large, evil cat from down the street chasing after some poor creature or other. Needless to say, after all these years that was not overly interesting anymore.

A minute or two passed while Faris sat, pondering what the pigeon was doing. The pigeon itself was just perched on the window ledge staring at him with its small black eyes. But a moment later it shuffled closer to the windowpane and tapped three times on the glass with its beak.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that bird wanted me to open the window,” Faris muttered to himself. But it can’t do, that’s just, that’s just…Faris couldn’t think what it was, but it certainly wasn’t normal.

He did nothing, but kept watching the bird. After a few more seconds the pigeon tapped on the window again. This time it tapped five times and was a lot louder, as though it was getting impatient at not being let in. Behind him in the dormitory one of the other boys stirred in his sleep. Faris looked nervously over his shoulder at him.

The boys at the Foundation were not allowed to leave their beds after lights out until five o’clock the next morning, when they would be awoken by the loud clanging bell that signalled the start of another day of hard labour to make money for Mister Grimbaldi. As Faris watched, the boy shivered deeply in his sleep and rolled over, snuggling lower into his wafer thin sheet. He was still asleep.

Faris sighed with relief and turned his attention back to the window. The pigeon was still there and as he watched, it tilted its head towards its left leg, which it lifted in the air and jiggled around as though it was doing some strange bird “hokey-cokey”.

What is that crazy…? Before Faris could finish wondering what on earth the bird was doing, he noticed that there was a small cream roll of paper attached the bird’s leg with bright red ribbon. As strange as it may seem, it appeared that the bird had a message for him.

Slowly and very quietly Faris slid the window upwards and the pigeon hopped inside the dormitory. It shook its feathers silently as it allowed Faris to untie the scroll from around its leg. As soon as he had the scroll in his hand the bird tipped its head towards him in a polite sort of nod and then flapped away from the Foundation into the still night air. Faris watched the bird until it disappeared in the darkness. He sat for several moments, not moving, just thinking. Faris glanced towards the church clock and was very surprised to see that the two black hands were still pointing straight upright. It was still midnight.

This is beyond crazy. Faris shook his head. It’s been at least five minutes since I heard the clock chime downstairs, so it can’t still be midnight – can it? He sat in the window for another ten minutes watching as the clock hand slowly moved from twelve to two. Once he was happy that time hadn’t stopped completely he turned away from the open window and looked down at the tiny roll of paper he held in his hand.

Two years ago a new boy had come to the Foundation. John was eight when he arrived and he was the only boy there who had ever attended school – all the other boys had come as small children, not old enough to have had even one day in school. Faris remembered John telling them that many years ago pigeons had been used to carry messages long distances to people from their owners. But Faris didn’t know anyone at all, let alone someone who could send him messages by pigeon. Anyway, from what John had told him, Faris couldn’t think of anywhere in the outside world that would still use a pigeon as a messenger.

With many confused thoughts spinning around his head Faris nearly forgot about the message itself. Slowly he unrolled the tiny scroll to reveal a note written inside in very small black handwriting; he tilted the paper towards the moonlit window so he could read it. Faris was lucky that John had taught him to read and write a little, or else the message would have been completely useless. As it was, the message was going to change his life.

 

Dear Faris,

Please excuse the strange introduction, but it was the only way I could find to contact you. I am waiting for you now at the back door and I am here to take you to your real life – we hope you will come.

Kind Regards,

Jack

 

Faris stood up and walked over to his unmade bed, not bothering to close the window. He couldn’t understand all the words in the letter, but he had got the point. They had found him. At last, after nine long years alone the someone he had been waiting for had found him! A part of Faris had always felt as though he were different to the other boys at the Foundation and that one day he would leave. This note confirmed everything he had always thought! Although they didn’t say they were his family, Faris knew that this was the something he had been waiting for.

 

Chapter 2 – The Escape

 

It took Faris less than ten seconds to make up his mind that he was going to try and leave the Foundation. But that was the easy part. The hard part was working out how exactly he was going to get out. First he would have to leave his dormitory without waking up any of the other boys. You might have thought that they wouldn’t care what Faris was doing creeping around in the middle of the night, but you would be wrong. Mister Grimbaldi was just as clever a man, as he was mean. To prevent disobedience in the Foundation, Mister Grimbaldi promised extra scraps of food for boys who told tales on anyone breaking the rules. And although the boys hated Mister Grimbaldi they were often so hungry that they couldn’t help reporting someone else breaking the rules – sometimes, when they were really starving, they would make something up just to get some more food! It was a horrible place to live.

As he sat thinking of how to escape, Faris realised how difficult a task this would really be. If I can get out of here then there’s the stairs and the landing and then – oh no! Even if he could make it out of the dormitory without being caught, he would have to get down the creaky old attic stairs to the floor below where Mister Grimbaldi, Mrs Ladle (the cook) and Mister Grimbaldi’s four huge dogs slept. Rumour had it that these dogs were about as close to wolves as you could get and wilder than the average lion when you stamped on his foot!

From that landing there was another flight of stairs to get down to the ground floor where the workrooms were and where he would find the backdoor (and freedom beyond). But it wasn’t going to be easy once he got to the ground floor: Faris would still have to deal with Gamage.

Even though he was the Foundation Caretaker, Gamage didn’t get special treatment: his bed was a large mat in the corner of the kitchen, right next to the backdoor. Faris knew that this was carefully positioned to prevent exactly the kind of escape he was currently planning. He would need some kind of distraction to get past Gamage… He sat wondering about all sorts of possibilities, but after considering and discarding several options – all of them rubbish – he began to think he would never get past this last hurdle.

Just as Faris was trying to work out how he was ever going to make it out of the Foundation, a flutter of wings at the window made him turn. Three large owls had landed on the window ledge. They were so big that they were jostling with one another to make enough space for them all to fit. Faris stood up and walked quickly towards the window. As he did so, two of the owls dropped large objects on the ledge and flew away, the third owl stood and waited for him. When Faris reached the window he saw that the last owl had a small white roll of paper in its mouth – identical to the one the pigeon had given him. He held out his hand towards the owl and it dropped the small scroll from its beak. Tipping its head, just as the pigeon had done, it turned away from him and flew off after the other owls.

Faris picked up the new scroll and unravelled it. Inside it simply said: ‘Use these – Ω’. He looked down at the window ledge and saw that the objects the owls had dropped were five large dead rats.

What on earth do I need dead rats for? Faris looked at the dead animals and wrinkled his nose in disgust.

It was obvious that this Jack person thought he’d need them for something, but what could that be? “Think, think, think!” Faris muttered to himself as he dropped back down onto his unused bed and his brain began to tick over. Several minutes later he jumped up.

“How could I have been so stupid?” he chuckled. This was how he would get past the dogs! They would go for the rats as a starter, before turning to the main course. Faris gulped quietly – he hoped the rats would fill them up; he certainly didn’t want to be the main course! Picking up the pillowcase from his bed Faris took out the tiny pillow and pushed the rats into the empty case. He didn’t like touching them at all, but they were the key to his freedom. He just hoped they would work.

With the rats stashed safely inside his pillowcase Faris looked slowly around the room that he had called home for the past seven years. He was lucky that there were only two boys in the dormitory that night – the fourth boy who normally slept there had caught the flu and been moved to a slightly warmer dormitory next door to recover. The other two boys he shared with were still sound asleep.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve frozen, rather than just sleeping.

Faris frowned as he looked down at the two half-starved boys. In many ways he was sorry that he was trying to leave the Foundation because he was leaving the other boys to face the hardship he had lived with so long. He’d never been outside the high stonewalls of the Foundation, what was waiting for him if he actually managed to escape?

It’s not that likely, a small voice inside piped up, no one’s ever escaped from here before. Faris shook his head from side to side, shaking the voice into silence. “I will get out of here!” Faris said fiercely under his breath. “I don’t care what happens – anything is better than staying here wasting away.” With a final glance at the shabby room Faris gathered up the smelly pillowcase from the floor and turning away from the sleeping boys he crept silently towards the dormitory door with his package hanging securely over his shoulder. He didn’t look back again.

Faris put out his hand and grasped the doorknob tightly. Once he opened this door there would be no turning back. His small hands were hot and sweaty with nerves and as he tried to turn the handle his fingers only slipped across the wet metal. He pulled his hand back and wiped it dry on his ragged pyjama bottoms. Reaching out again he grabbed the doorknob firmly and turned it.

Wait! Just as he was about to pull open the dormitory door, Faris remembered that one of the hinges had a terrible loud squeak – almost as loud as their morning alarm call! How could he get out without waking everyone in the village?

Faris’s heart thumped loudly in his chest. The fear of not being able to escape now that his chance had finally arrived made him panic more than anything that was waiting on the other side of the door. Casting his eyes around the room, his gaze landed on the small stub of a candle left in the candlestick on a table next to the door. Plucking the candle from the holder, Faris rolled it in his hands to soften the wax. The wax melted easily and he rubbed the warm, slimy goo into the squeaky old door hinges. Dropping the candle back onto the table Faris slowly turned the doorknob again and eased the door open. The wax did the trick and the door opened silently.

This was it. From this point on, Faris would either succeed in escaping the dreaded Foundation or he would fail. And he didn’t know what would happen to him if he were caught trying to escape, but he knew that he definitely didn’t want to find out!

Determination filled his eyes, making them glow in his pale face. He was not going to fail. Squaring his shoulders, Faris stepped through the door into the darkness of the attic landing. He gently pulled the door closed behind him as he went, before creeping forwards along the landing with his rat-bag hanging over his shoulder.

The stairs to the Foundation attic were old, rotten and creaked loudly in protest whenever they were used. Faris kept to the edge of each step, as close to the wall as possible, to stop the floorboards making any unwanted sounds as he stepped on them. Slowly, but quietly, he made his way down, his eyes and nose scrunched up in his face as he concentrated on trying to make himself as light as a feather. Thirty seconds later, Faris’s nimble feet had found their way to the landing below and he began creeping along the hallway towards the next flight of stairs and the freedom that lay beyond.

In contrast to the shabby walls of the attic bedrooms above him, the hallway Faris now stood in had sumptuous yellow-gold paper everywhere and thick, soft carpet beneath his feet. This was where Mister Grimbaldi lived – wallowing in luxury paid for by the boys’ workroom activities. Faris could hear loud grunting snores coming from one of the rooms that lay off the hallway further along. He grinned to himself: it was Mister Grimbaldi snoring like a pig. Faris nearly choked as he tried not to laugh at the pig-like noises the piggy man was making.

Just then a door to his right creaked open. Faris dived to the side, his heart pumping in terrified, erratic beats, as he pressed himself into the wall. Mrs Ladle’s plump frame waddled out into the hallway, two feet from where he stood. Faris stuck to the wall, trying to make his body as thin as possible (this wasn’t too hard, most of the half starved boys from the Foundation were thin as rakes anyway!).

Please don’t see me…please don’t see me

Faris’s eyes squeezed shut, as he chanted his little prayer. And somehow, it worked! Even though Mrs Ladle was only inches away, she appeared not to notice him and walked directly across the hallway and opened another door, which turned out to be a bathroom. When she disappeared inside and closed the door, Faris let out the breath he had been holding in a quiet whoosh. It took a few moments for him to gather his courage again, before he scurried on down the landing.

When Mrs Ladle appeared again, Faris was hidden in an alcove opposite the next flight of stairs. From this angle he saw that she had a sleep mask pulled down over her eyes – no wonder she hadn’t seen him!

Mrs Ladle’s door closed behind her and Faris stood in the alcove for another five minutes as he waited for everything around him to go quiet again. Soon all he could hear were Mister Piggy’s snores and so he crept out of his hiding place and moved carefully towards the top of the stairs. Just as he was about to put his hand on the banister Faris saw eight eyes glinting up at him from the dark stairs below.

Oh no. It was the dogs!

Very slowly Faris let go of the handrail and reached towards the bag hanging over his shoulder. The gleaming eyes crept closer and now he could see sharp white teeth glistening below each set of eyes. His fingers fumbled to open the top of the pillowcase as a low growling noise began to rumble behind the teeth.

The first dog pounced towards Faris just as his hand opened the pillowcase. It looked like a flying demon as it sped through the air towards him with its teeth bared. Faris heard the other three dogs move immediately after the first and with a great effort Faris flung the horrible smelly contents of the pillowcase behind him along the hallway from where he’d come.

It’s too late!

Faris groaned with despair and fear, as two huge front paws – the size of footballs – dug into his chest and knocked him backwards onto the floor. But, in the next instant, as he waited for certain death and eating by the hounds he realised that it had worked. The dogs jumped right past him and bounded down the hallway after the rats. Glancing around in the darkness Faris realised that the first dog must have caught the scent of the rats and used his body to push himself towards where they had landed. Seizing his chance, Faris clambered back to his feet and ran down the stairs as fast as he could. He still managed to be reasonably quiet, given that he was running for his life…A nasty feeling in the bottom of his stomach told him that the rats wouldn’t distract the dogs for too long.

At the foot of the stairs was the main entrance to the Foundation. A large wooden door, with several bolts, locks and chains stood between Faris and freedom this way. That was no good! Faris looked around for an alternative escape route that was easier than the main door. Doors to the various workrooms were dotted around the walls. Deciding hastily that the back entrance to the Foundation, through the kitchen would be his best bet, Faris moved quickly, he didn’t know whether Mister Grimbaldi would sleep through the noise the dogs were making on the floor above him – it sounded like they were fighting over the last rat.

Sprinting towards a door on his left, Faris ran into the boys’ dining room. Not that it could really be called a dining room. Instead of a table there was a long thick piece of wood on the floor and around the edges, instead of chairs, there were small carpet tiles that the boys sat on. There was no expense spared – even the carpet tiles had been free samples! Faris ran down the middle of the table towards the kitchen door at the opposite end of the room.

Reaching out a small sweaty hand, he clasped his fingers around the large brass door handle. Just as his fingers closed around the cold metal it was pulled roughly out of his grasp. The door was flung wide open and Faris found himself face-to-chest with Gamage the Caretaker.

“Where’d’ oo think yer goin’?” Gamage growled at Faris, through crooked yellow teeth.

“I…er…I…” Faris couldn’t answer. In his hurry to get away from the dogs he had completely forgotten about Gamage.

“Escapin’ are we? Tryin’ to leave the Foundation, eh?” Gamage’s eyes glittered wickedly in the darkness. “We’ve not had a ‘scape attempt since lil wee John. ‘Oo remember little wee Johnny don’tcha boy?”

Faris could see Gamage smirking in the moonlit room, his smelly breath blew into Faris’s face as he spoke making Faris wrinkle up his nose in disgust. Faris remembered John all right. John had been his only friend and the only person he’d ever met from the real world, outside the Foundation. His only friend had disappeared on the night Faris knew John was going to try to escape and even though Faris had heard him get caught on the second landing John never came back.

“Yes I remember John.” Faris spat back at Gamage, his eyes narrowing. He knew exactly why Gamage was smiling his horrible yellow-toothed smile. Gamage had been the one who caught John a year ago and Mister Grimbaldi had rewarded him for it.

“Oo know what?” Gamage was still standing in front of Faris blocking the doorway and his escape.

“What?” said Faris through clenched teeth, his hatred of Gamage obvious.

Keep him talking…Faris’s mind told him as it carried on churning, trying to think of a way to escape from Gamage.

“I’m gonna get me plenty of extra food for catchin’ oo. Might even get a nice roast chicken like I did last time.” Gamage licked his grubby lips at the thought. Faris’s mind was still racing and he hadn’t thought of a way to escape.

“Now, I ‘fink its time for me to shout for them dogs, don’t you?” Gamage said. Faris’s eyes widened in terror at his words – he’d barely got away from them the first time. “Yes,” Gamage nodded grinning horribly “I ‘fink they’ll like you.” Then he pursed his lips together tightly and whistled, the shrill sound hanging in the silent air for a second.

Think, think, think! Faris commanded his brain to work, but it wasn’t cooperating with him and now he could hear the dogs coming. They were bounding down the stairs and sounded like a heard of stampeding elephants. Faris was so concerned with the dogs, he had almost forgotten about Gamage until he whistled the dogs again, drawing them towards the dining room.

Turning towards the door Faris saw it burst open and the dogs bounded into the room their teeth bared and eyes wide. It looked like the rats weren’t enough to stop them after all. Faris was rooted to the spot, fear turning his feet to stone and then it struck him.

“The rats!” Faris exclaimed loudly as his idea burst from his mind and flew out of his mouth.

“The what?” Gamage said stupidly from behind him.

But it was too late. Faris still had the empty pillowcase in his hand and he quickly he threw it over the surprised head of Gamage.

“Wh- Wha- What?” Gamage stuttered as he tried to get the pillowcase from his head.

Darting around the side of Gamage and through the kitchen door Faris found himself with the caretaker stood between him and blood thirsty hounds. Faris didn’t stand to watch him struggling with the pillowcase because he knew that the dogs would still follow him even if Gamage couldn’t. He raced to the back door and grasped the door handle but when he pushed it the door remained tightly closed.

The door’s locked!

Faris searched quickly around the kitchen, looking for the key. In the house above him Faris heard the noise of people grumbling and moving around now. Faris wasn’t surprised that the uproar in the dining room had woken Mister Grimbaldi. They’d probably woken the whole village! Then Faris saw the door key out of the corner of his eye, hanging on a hook next to the oven. He yanked it down and slammed the key into the lock, but his hands were shaking so much that he couldn’t turn it. “Come on!” He shouted at himself and the key. And luckily, it turned.

Faris flung the door open wide and cold night air rushed into the kitchen. Freedom! At that moment Faris realised the dogs still hadn’t come for him. Turning to look back into the dining room he saw the dogs leaping all over Gamage, who still had the pillowcase on his head.

“Ow – geroff!” Gamage was shouting (along with a lot of unprintable words) as the four dogs jumped on him. Faris laughed loudly. The dogs could obviously still smell the rats from the pillowcase and must think that Gamage was the biggest rat they’d ever seen. Faris laughed even harder – the dogs weren’t wrong; Gamage was the biggest rat!

Turning his back on the scene of madness Faris raced into the darkness of the Foundation courtyard. At first he saw nothing. Then he heard a voice shouting his name.

“Faris! I’m over here – by the barn.”

Faris ran in the direction of the barn following the sound of the voice.

“Hurry up Faris! The lights are on in the house and there’ll be more of them coming. Hurry!”

Faris darted around the corner of the barn and nearly ran into a jet-black horse that was stood next to the wall. The only reason Faris saw him was because of the bright, white star-shaped mark on his head that shone in the moonlight. He must have gotten out of the stable, Faris thought absently, as he ran on looking for the person shouting him.

“I’m here!” said the voice from behind Faris.

Faris turned around again, but there was no one there, only the horse.

“Where are you?” Faris whispered as he crept forwards, “I can’t see you.”

The horse moved slightly next to Faris and before he knew what had happened it had thrust its large black face in front of his.

“I’m right here,” the horse said looking Faris in the eye. Faris nearly fainted.

Pulling himself back onto his feet, Faris ducked away from the horse that was leaning over him. “I’m going crazy!” he muttered, as he tried to step around the huge, black body. “Grimbaldi’s going to kill me and I’m hearing horses talking!” He looked around wildly for some way to escape, but a large brick wall surrounded the Foundation that was far too high for Faris to climb over. Faris’s heart dropped from his chest to his toes as he realised that he would never get away. In his despair Faris had almost forgotten about the horse until it nudged him with its long black nose.

“Faris?” The horse nudged him again and continued when Faris didn’t answer. “Faris…You are hearing horses but you’re not crazy, it’s just what you do.”

Faris still didn’t respond. He stared bleakly around at the high wall.

“Look, I’m Jack.” The horse continued. Turning away from Faris, he peered around the side of the barn towards the Foundation. “We’ve got to get out of here, before that horrible pig-man comes for you. I may be quick, but I’m not sure I can outrun those dogs if they come too!”

Faris didn’t know what to do, but he knew he couldn’t hang around the Foundation any longer. And the horse, I mean Jack, well…it wasn’t any stranger than pigeon messengers, was it? Or friendly owls that bring you dead rats…?

“I must be crazy!” Faris murmured.

“But are you crazy enough to hang around here waiting for those dogs?” Jack asked.

“No…I suppose not.” Faris said slowly as he made his decision. Talking horses were definitely a step up from bloodthirsty hounds and working for Mister Grimbaldi. “What are we going to do then?” he asked the horse.

“That’s more like it!” Jack grinned a wide horsy-toothed smile. “Quick, jump on my back and we’ll get out of here. I can explain everything else once we’re safe.”

“I can’t ride a horse!” Faris stepped back in surprise.

“Of course you can. I’ll take care of you, don’t worry.”

Jack lowered his neck and let Faris take hold of his sleek, black mane to pull himself up onto his back. Faris had never sat on a horse before and he was a little nervous about how high up he was.

“Hold onto your horses!” Jack shouted. “Well, hold onto your horse, I should say!” He whinnied a little laugh at his own joke and reared up onto his hind legs, nearly throwing Faris back onto the floor.

Faris clung onto his mane for dear life as Jack leapt forward through the air from their hiding place behind the barn. He bounced around on Jack’s back and saw buildings flash past in blur as they charged across the courtyard towards the far wall. Jack’s hooves banged loudly on the cobbled stones as he skidded to a halt and quickly changed direction to avoid one of the wolf-dogs that jumped into his path. Two flicks of a tail later and Jack had jumped over the high wall surrounding the courtyard and they were charging away from the Foundation across open fields.

Faris glanced back towards the Foundation as they galloped away. He saw that most of the lights in the house were on and he could still hear the shouts of Gamage struggling with either a dog or the pillowcase. But the shouts were growing quieter and the lights more distant with every second that Jack ran. Dark trees and hedges rushed past the unlikely pair as they charged through the night and the bright moon that Faris had watched from the dormitory window now shone along their path guiding them onwards. Faris tipped his head up towards the moon and grinned. It’s happened…I’ve finally escaped from the Foundation. And right now he didn’t even care if he was crazy and talking to horses. He was free.

Chapter 3 – Freedom

 

After ten minutes of hard running Faris could no longer see the Grimbaldi Foundation in the distance. The dogs had chased them for the first mile or so, snapping at Jack’s heels as he galloped away, but then they had given up one after another. They had lost the last one when they reached a wide stream – Jack leapt over it in a single bound but the dog misjudged the distance and jumped headlong into the muddy bank on the opposite side. Jack had whinnied a loud laugh as the dog slid backwards into the water with a dazed look on its face.

“Watch your head.” Jack murmured, his quiet voice bringing Faris back to reality. He ducked quickly to avoid the low tree branch Jack was walking under.

They had left the open fields behind them now and were going deep into a wood. Faris was nervous. In nine years he had not stepped out of Foundation grounds and had never once been out at night. Looking around him at the dark trees and strange shadows Faris wondered for the first time how sensible it had been to leave the Foundation. Talking horses aside, Faris thought the woods felt strange.

“You’d better get down now mate,” Jack’s voice said from below, interrupting Faris’s thoughts again. “The trees are getting lower and you’ll probably fall off if you don’t jump off.”

Jack stopped walking and Faris lifted his left leg over to one side and slid awkwardly onto the ground. His feet crunched dry leaves beneath him as he landed on the floor. Jack turned his head round and looked at Faris through the shadows.

“I know things must seem pretty weird to you right now,” Jack said slowly.

“Huh? Yeah, just a little!” Faris replied raising his eyebrows. “Most days I just talk to dogs and cats – horses are a real surprise.”

“Well at least your sarcasm seems working so you can’t be that worried!” Jack smiled his funny toothy horse smile again. “C’mon. We’ve got a little bit further to walk, I’ve got to show you something and then you might begin to understand what’s been happening.”

“OK.” Faris nodded. He inspected the surrounding trees with nervous eyes. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice in the matter; Jack had obviously been a big help in him escaping from the Foundation and he had nowhere else to go. Besides, he certainly didn’t want to be left in the dark woods alone.

Jack nodded his head, happy that Faris was going to come with him. He turned back towards the darker depths of the wood and with a swish of his tail he was walking through the dense trees trampling down the foliage to make it easier for Faris to follow him.

A short time later Jack paused suddenly on the path. Faris was walking along looking at his feet not paying attention and walked straight into Jack’s large behind.

“Oof,” said Faris in surprise as he bounced backwards.

“Watch it,” Jack whispered to him.

“What have we stopped for?” Faris whispered back.

“We’re here,” Jack was peering cautiously ahead of him. “But we’ve got to be careful that nothing sees us.”

Faris pushed silently forward through the trees, so that he was stood next to Jack’s head. It seemed strange that Jack nothing rather than no one. Faris squinted through the shadowy darkness; he could just make out an open clearing in the woods ahead. Facing them was a dark, stonewall that stretched high up into the hillside above. Faris looked at Jack, who looked right back at him.

“What are we looking for?” Faris whispered.

“Just one last check…” Jack murmured, not answering him. He pushed his large black nose forward through the trees and sniffed the air again. “Looks like the coast is clear,” he announced and nodded his head towards the clearing. “Lets go.”

Jack ventured out into the open space and Faris followed him, sticking close to his side. He glanced quickly around the clearing but saw nothing to indicate what Jack had been looking for. They walked swiftly towards the grey rock wall ahead of them.

With a hasty glance to each side Jack stepped forwards as though he was walking into the wall itself. Just as he did this Faris noticed Jack put his large right hoof into a circular hole that was carved into a rock hidden in the grassy floor of the clearing. The stone rolled away, revealing the opening to a deep cave behind.

“Get inside, quick,” Jack said nodding his head towards the cave. Faris hesitated for a second before stepping into the darkness. It swallowed him whole.

In the dark of the cave Faris couldn’t see anything: he waved his fingers in front of his face but only felt the air moving, he saw nothing.

“Jack?” Faris whispered. “Jack? Where are you?”

There was no answer. A dull thud sounded behind him and Faris realised that it was the stone wall closing. Now there was no way out of the darkness.

“JACK?” Faris hissed, more nervous now. “Where are you? Where are we?” He flapped his hands around again but still felt nothing.

“We’re in a cave stupid!” Jack’s voice in his ear made Faris jump into the air with surprise. “And stop waving your hands round like a mad man, you’ll have your eye out!”

“Fine!” Faris let his arms flop to his side, while he tried to slow his racing heart. “I realise we’re in a cave, but what are we doing here?”

“I’ve got something to show you to try and help you understand what’s happening.” Jack said. “And this is a safer route to get to where we’re going, than staying out in the open.”

“But how can you show me anything? We can’t see!”

“Not a bad point my two-legged chum. Let’s see what we can do about that…”

Faris felt Jack move away from him in the darkness and could hear the sound of his hooves clumping around on the floor of the cave as though he was stamping his feet.

“Dum-de-dum,” Jack sang to himself under his breath. “De-dum-dum-de-dum. Come on – where are you?” He muttered.

“What are you doing?” Faris asked impatiently.

“Ah ha! Here we go…” Jack said, ignoring Faris. There was the sound of a loud decisive stamp and the cave was suddenly filled with light. Faris saw that Jack had stamped on another stone with a hoof shape carved into it. Faris thought it must be some kind of strange horse light switch or something.

“The best of Core magic,” Jack said with a knowing wink, “finest power source on the planet…or under it for that matter.”

“The best of what…? Magic?” Faris stammered.

But Jack wasn’t listening. He was disappearing off towards the back of the cave, which Faris could now see was a long passage that led deeper and downwards. He hurried along behind Jack as he clip-clopped away.

“Of course it’s magic my little chum. How else do you think you can talk to me?” Jack said when Faris caught up to him.

“I suppose but…I didn’t really mean that…I meant it’s more…everything that’s odd.” Faris said.

“Odd? How so?” Jack replied.

“You know – one minute I’m sitting in the Foundation looking out of the window and the next birds are giving me plans to escape with a talking horse. Not exactly your usual day in South Appledale is it?”

“Ah, yes. It is odd when you put it like that, except technically I’m not a talking horse, I can’t talk to everyone. No, no indeed…” Jack shook his head as he walked. “It’s quite the opposite in fact Faris: I’m not a talking horse, you’re a person who talks to horses. You’re a Hoofer!” Jack said.

“I’m a what?” Faris’s voice was doubtful.

“A Hoofer.” Jack replied simply. “It’s what people in our world call people like you – people who can talk to horses.”

“A Hoofer…” Faris echoed dreamily and then he realised that he had stopped walking and trotted to catch up with Jack again.

“Anyway, the Hoofer thing aside, this shouldn’t feel that strange to you. Deep down, deep down in your heart you knew that something was going to happen. You knew that you were different didn’t you?”

“Maybe a little,” Faris agreed. “But when I was waiting for something I didn’t expect this.”

“That’s the point though, don’t you see?” Jack said.

Faris shook his head. No, he didn’t see.

Jack explained. “The point is that you weren’t sitting there, you were waiting there. Even if you didn’t know what you were waiting for, you knew you were waiting for something and that’s part of what makes you special. Part of what makes you who you are.”

“I suppose, maybe you’re right,” Faris shrugged. He was still confused about it but decided to stop asking questions…for the moment at least.

“Right? Of course I’m right!” Jack grinned. “I’ve got two right legs so I’ll always be twice as right as you!”

Jack whinnied his horsy laugh and carried on clip clopping along the passage. Faris smiled and followed him. Right now it didn’t matter to him what the explanation was: if he had magical powers or was just plain crazy. For the first time in his life Faris felt happy and for only the second time in his life he felt he’d found a friend, and that was worth being crazy for.

 

Chapter 4 – The Cave of History

 

A long time later Jack stopped and let Faris catch up with him. Faris wasn’t sure how far they’d walked, but he thought they must be close to the end of the earth. For a long time they had been following the passage upwards and Faris’s legs felt they might drop off with tiredness.

“Don’t worry, two-legs, we’re nearly there now. Just around this next corner.” Jack grinned. Faris tried to smile back but it came out as a tired grimace.

As they rounded the final bend Faris found himself standing next to Jack in a large round cave. Several other holes in the walls led off to passages that looked exactly like the one they had just entered by. The most interesting thing about the cave was that on every wall wherever he looked were pictures of horses and men, which looked to Faris like they had been painted with mud. Faris walked in a wide circle looking at the paintings on the walls while Jack settled himself down on the floor for a rest, curling his four large legs beneath him. Faris glanced at Jack. He looks like a giant cat, Faris thought before turning his attention back to the pictures on the walls.

As Faris wandered around the cave he noticed that there were other creatures in the paintings. Many of them were strange animals that Faris didn’t recognise. Stranger still was that in most of the paintings the creatures, whatever they were, were fighting. Sometimes the horses looked as though they were fighting alongside the men and in other pictures they were fighting against them. Finally, after walking around the cave several times, Faris went to where Jack was lying on the floor and dropped onto the stone beside him.

Jack opened his eyes as Faris plopped onto the floor. Lifting his head he stretched out his neck as though fighting back a yawn and shook his mane quietly.

“What are all these pictures?” Faris asked gesturing to the walls.

“They tell the story of our history, of a battle that took place many years ago.” Jack replied, stifling another yawn.

“You mean horse history?” Faris was sceptical and raised one of eyebrows as he spoke.

“Yes horse history. But it’s not just that – it’s much more than just about horses – and it’s not really about horses as you know them.” Jack said firmly. “It is your history.” He yawned loudly showing his large teeth. “But it’s also a long story, much too long for tonight. Make yourself comfortable and we’ll sleep here. We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

Faris was grateful for the offer of sleep, he had suddenly realised just how tired he was. Shuffling himself around on the floor he leaned sideways against Jack. Jack’s big, black tummy made a warm pillow for Faris’s head and his eyelids drooped as he fought against sleep.

“Jack?” Faris spoke dreamily but kept his eyes shut. “Why do you need me?”

“Aaaahhhhhh,” Jack yawned loudly and shook his head from side to side before laying it down on his front hooves. “We need you because there is evil rising to threaten our world and you were born with the power to protect and help us,” Jack said sleepily.

“But what am I to protect you from? What power do I have? What…?” Faris had so many more questions and lots more things he needed to know, but it was no use. His voice trailed away to a soft snore.

Jack sighed sleepily and opened one eye to look at Faris. Times were changing more than Faris could ever realise at that moment. There were dark times were coming, more dangerous than people in their world could ever remember. But for now, there was still time for questions and for sleeping… Jack nudged Faris into a more comfortable position and then curled his head back down onto his front hooves. It was going to be a long journey and they would both need the rest.

Chapter 5 – Holly-Hob

 

Faris awoke slowly. His mind was empty after sleep and beyond his closed eyelids he could tell it was light but he was still so tired. Just another minute… He rolled over onto his side and snuggled into his warm, furry pillow.

TAP! TAP! Faris opened his eyes with a start and blinked in the bright light and shut them again.

“What’s wrong with the work bell?” He muttered as his sleep-confused brain worked slowly to catch up with events of the previous night.

Faris opened his eyes more slowly so that they got used to the light. As the white spots in his eyes cleared he saw two large black hooves moving around next to his face. Each time a hoof moved it banged loudly on the floor. So that’s what the noise is… Faris groaned and closed his eyes again.

Wait a second! Hooves? Furry pillow?! This time Faris sat bolt upright, his eyes wide and awake as the events of the previous day flooded into his empty head.

“There we are! Good morning Mister Sleepyhead. Its time to rise and shine… Meet the new day and all that!” Jack whinnied cheerfully as he stood over Faris, grinning with his big white teeth and stomping his hooves loudly on the floor of the cave.

“Mornin’ Jack,” Faris mumbled as he sat up. He rubbed his tired eyes with bunched up fists, which sent bright spots across the insides of his eyelids. He yawned loudly and stretched out his arms. Faris thought he’d slept surprisingly well on the hard floor, but when he looked down at the ground he saw that soft, lush grass had grown up beneath him while he slept with an especially comfortable mound for a pillow. Faris was very confused. “Jack…what’s happened to the floor? Where did the grass come from?”

“Ah, that’d Holly-Hob’s work. Good girl that one. She must have come in while we were asleep. She’ll be back soon so you can meet her.” Jack answered without looking at Faris. He seemed distracted by something in the corner of the cave. Faris rolled onto his feet and wandered over to Jack.

Jack was using his long nose to push large pieces of carrot into two piles on a small simple table made from the trunk of a tree. There were some other fruit and vegetables in piles and a single cup, made from a large hollow stone, filled with water. “There we go,’ Jack said. “Breakfast is served.”

Faris sat eagerly on the (now) grassy floor of the cave. He hadn’t realised how hungry he was until he had seen the food. He couldn’t work out how long it had been since he’d last eaten. Not that they ever got to eat much at the Foundation anyway.

“Jack? Do you know,” Faris paused and threw a large chunk of carrot into his mouth, “whoot ‘ime ot essss?” He swallowed the carrot and drank half of the water in his cup, coughing slightly he repeated himself. “Sorry,” he grinned, “I meant to say do you know what time it is?”

“Fat’s OK – rie rounder-rood,” Jack replied, nodding his horsy head up and down with his own mouth full of carrots, which sprayed out little pieces as he spoke. Finishing his mouthful, Jack went on. “It’s probably past lunchtime. Maybe getting towards two o’clock, I’d say. We didn’t get here ‘til after three o’clock in the morning and judging by what Holly’s done, she’s been here at least four or five hours.”

“You mentioned Holly before. Is she another horse?” Faris popped some more carrot chunks between his lips before reaching out for a bright green apple. He opened his mouth to take a huge bite and crunched thoughtfully while Jack spoke.

“Nah – well – kind of…” Jack pulled some strange faces as he thought very hard about how to describe Holly. “Holly’s sometimes a horse but then sometimes other things. Mainly she’s a faerie.”

“A faerie? What’s a faerie?” Faris was confused again and he’d only been awake a few minutes.

“You know – pixies, elves, dwarves, gnomes, elves, leprechauns – they’re all faeries…” Jack replied, his voice trailing off as he saw the puzzled look on Faris’s face. “Right, you don’t know…”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Faris said as he munched away on the sweet apple. “I never went to school or anything, Jack. You’re lucky I was able to read the note you sent me…Hey! That’s a thought – how the heck does a horse write a note? Especially one so small?”

“Ahhh – perfect example my dear friend. You know the pigeon that brought you the message?” Jack asked.

“Yep.” Faris nodded.

“That was Holly!” Jack said.

“So Holly’s a bird then? Is a bird a faerie?” Faris asked.

“Sometimes I am, but I am not just a bird.” A small, voice spoke from a doorway behind Faris and he twisted around to see who was speaking.

At first Faris could see nothing and then he looked closer at the floor. A tiny creature, no taller than a pencil, stood in the large opening to the cave. It was the tiniest thing Faris had ever seen: she had small golden wings growing from her back and hair that was snow-white and fell in waves around her shoulders. Her skin was the same golden brown colour as her wings.

“Ah! Right on time Hol!” Jack smiled. “Faris – this is Holly-Hob – Holly – this is Faris.” He nodded to each of them in turn as he introduced them.

The tiny creature flitted into the cave and landed on the small table, her golden wings shimmering as they moved. Holly stood on her tiptoes and held up a tiny hand to Faris for him to shake.

“Nice to meet you Faris,” she said.

A little scared of hurting something so small Faris held out his smallest finger and shook her hand with it. “Nice to meet you too, Holly-Hob,” he smiled.

“You can just call me Holly, everyone else does.” She sat down on the edge of the table picking up a piece of carrot (that was like a giant dinner plate to her) and took the tiniest bite out of the edge of it.

“I was just about to tell Faris how you helped me to get him out of that horrible place last night.” Jack said as he picked up another chunk of carrot with his large teeth and started crunching it. “I’ll bet you didn’t recognise her, eh Faris?”

“You’re right. I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you. Jack told me that you’re a faerie?” Faris was uncertain as he spoke – he still didn’t know what exactly a faerie was.

“Faerie by name, faerie by nature – that’s me!” Holly said smiling at Faris. He returned the grin with a bemused half smile and she knew that he had no idea what that meant. She realised it was up to her to explain it.

“A faerie is a magical creature – usually small but not always – and they live in secret in the everyday world of men. You see Faris there’s lots of different types of faeries in the world – some good and some not so good – and we all have different skills or powers to do magical things. I’m a Figlia faerie.”

“A fi-fig-li-a faerie?” Faris stammered.

“Yes – Fig-li-a,” Holly repeated slowly, nodding that he had said it right.

“What do Figlia faeries do? I mean – how were you a bird before?” Faris asked.

“Well, that’s one of the powers that I have, or rather that my type of faerie has. The Figlia faerie clan are some of the most powerful faeries in the world and we mainly work to protect other important magical people and creatures.” Holly smiled at Jack, who grinned toothily back at her. “Figlia faeries have many powers to help them protect their charges, including the ability to shape-shift into animal form. This gift has been very useful in the past few hundred years since magical creatures have been forced into hiding in the world. We can turn into everyday animals in the blink of an eye and escape to safety with no one realising they have just seen a faerie.”

“So that’s why you can turn into a bird then?” Faris thought out loud.

“Amongst other things!” Jack said interrupting loudly. “One of the things that makes Holly-Hob so very special is that she can shape-shift into many different animals – including a horse! Very few Figlia faeries could ever do this because it means increasing to over three hundred times their normal faerie size! The largest animal most could manage was a rabbit or small cat. But I think now – well because there’s less faeries – I’ll bet you’re the only one who can do that aren’t you Hol?”

Holly nodded her head slowly a deep sadness appearing in her eyes. “A lot of good faeries…a lot of good people have been lost…” Holly’s voice trailed away into silence and she rubbed her eyes quickly. Jack looked down at his hooves and didn’t speak. Glancing at Faris, Holly saw that he looked rather worried by the whole conversation. Holly forced her voice into a happier tone and went on. “Anyway, I think there is only me who can do the horse thing now. Do you want to see?”

Faris nodded his head eagerly up and down, happy that Holly had cheered up. He certainly did want to see this tiny creature become a horse, although he somehow still couldn’t believe it was possible even after everything he’d seen in the past few hours – she was tiny!

“Not a problem.” Holly didn’t have to make herself sound happier now, as she grinned at Faris’s excitement. “OK then…here we go…”

Holly screwed up her eyes and wrinkled her small nose in concentration. There was a bright flash of light and a small popping sound and Holly disappeared. In fact, from what Faris could see, everyone had disappeared. The force of the transformation happening so close to him knocked him over onto his back and he was looking up at the ceiling! He pulled himself back up into a sitting position and was shocked to see a large golden brown horse stood next to Jack. Holly’s long white hair had become the wavy white hair of a mane and tail, which she swished into Faris’s face as she tried to make some room for herself in the now, very small cave.

“Sorry about that,” the brown horse grinned toothily at Faris. “Always forget how much room I’m going to take up when I do that!” Holly’s voice sounded exactly the same to Faris as it had when she was in faerie form and the size of a pencil.

“Ffllllllphhh!” Faris said, pulling Holly’s tail out of his mouth. “No problem… Fflllllmmph…very impressive. I didn’t even see it happen.”

“That’s because it happens in the blink of an eye – you must have blinked!” Holly laughed. “Wanna see something else?”

Before Faris had time to say anything there was a smaller flash of light and a soft swishing sound and the horse had disappeared and a pigeon sat in its place on the edge of the tree trunk table.

“Coo, cooo, tweet-coooo, cluck-tweet?” The pigeon said.

Faris looked at Jack and shrugged his shoulders. Jack rolled his eyes to the ceiling as though this happened a lot.

“Hol – you know neither of us can speak Squawker – you’ll have to translate or change again.” Jack said.

The pigeon nodded its head and there was another swishing sound and the faerie Holly reappeared, perched on the edge of the table. She picked up one of the pieces of carrot that she hadn’t squashed when turning into a horse and popped it into her mouth, crunching it slowly. “So what do you think? Not bad, eh?”

“Not bad!” Faris exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!”

“Told you our Holly was pretty impressive didn’t I?” Jack said, grinning at Faris’s obvious excitement.

“What did you say when you were a bird? I couldn’t understand anything.” Faris rushed on.

“Yeah – me neither mate,” Jack agreed.

“Sorry about that, I just forget sometimes when I change from one to another. You can understand me as a horse, because you’re a Hoofer. But, you can’t understand me when I’m a bird because you’re not a Squawker.” Holly said.

“A Squawker?” Faris asked.

“Same as you, but they can talk to anything that flies – mainly birds.” Holly answered, still munching on her carrot.

“Right…” Faris said, nodding his head slowly but with a completely lost look on his face.

Holly watched him closely. “Faris, has Jack explained what being a Hoofer means?”

Jack suddenly appeared uncomfortable and he looked away at the opposite cave wall as though he hadn’t heard Holly’s question.

“Er, sort of,” said Faris, casting a cautious glance at Jack, who was now pretending to whistle, but having problems with his large horsy teeth.

Faris didn’t want to get Jack into trouble, although the look on Holly’s face suggested that it might already be too late for that. He just really wanted to know more about what was happening. Perhaps there was a way he could ask without making it obvious that Jack hadn’t really told him very much after the whole you-can-talk-to-horses bit.

“It was very busy last night,” Faris told Holly. “There was the escape and everything, so we didn’t really get chance to talk about anything and…”

“That’s true – that’s exactly how it happened.” Jack interrupted nodding his head heartily in agreement. Holly stared at him and he quickly looked back at the interesting spot on the wall, avoiding further eye contact.

“Hmmm,” was all Holly said, as she looked from Faris to Jack and back again. She did not seem convinced. “So, Jack didn’t mention that it wasn’t only horses you can talk to? He didn’t mention that as a Hoofer you can communicate with any animal with hoofed feet?”

Faris shook his head slowly from side to side, his eyes widening with interest, although he didn’t say anything out loud.

“Well, who wants to talk to the others anyway?” Jack grouched. “It’s all moo-moo-this and baa-baa-that. They never have anything interesting to say – the cows and sheep and … and…those others!” Jack’s voice was rising to a squeak as he spoke. “They’re just…they’re just…BORING!!” He finally managed to say. A second later as an after thought he nodded his head firmly as though that was enough to prove his point.

“That may be so – in your opinion.” Holly said pointedly.

Jack opened his mouth again as though he was going to say something more, but the angry look Holly shot in his direction obviously made him think better of it. His lips closed with a quiet clicking of teeth.

Holly wasn’t very angry. She understood why Jack was acting the way he was, but she also knew that leaving Jack to educate Faris wouldn’t be fair either. After all, Faris was new to their world, it would be best for everyone if he knew exactly how his powers worked – not just that parts that Jack liked!

It didn’t take much to convince Holly she was right and so she carried on, and ignored Jack’s sulky face. “Like I said Jack, it is just your opinion that the other animals don’t have interesting things to say. It is important that Faris knows what he can do with his powers – who he can communicate with and where he can learn more. You can’t have him only relying on horses. And anyway, you never know when you may need their help – ” Holly’s voice was cut-off by a loud snort from Jack.

“The day I say moo and ask for help from a sheep you can cart me off to the funny farm!” Jack was definitely sulking. “It’s been a long time since there’s been a Hoofer around and it was nice just getting to know Faris.” Holly opened her mouth to speak but Jack went on quickly “Before all the others turned up and took over.”

Faris grinned at the large sulking horse. “Thanks mate.”

“You’re welcome…” Jack said smiling – a little reluctantly – back at him.

“So…” Faris said slowly. He was thinking carefully about how to ask more about his powers without offending Jack.

“…What exactly can you do?” Holly finished his question for him.

“Yes.” Faris smiled sheepishly.

“You see that?” Jack shouted. “See what you’ve started Holly-Hob? He’s already starting to smile like those silly, woolly jumper growers!”

“Oh Jack – ” Holly said wearily.

“Don’t you ‘oh Jack’ me! Hmmmmpppphhhh!!” With a swish of his tail Jack stomped out of the cave into one of the passages and disappeared into darkness, not even bothering to stop and put on the magic lights with the hoof switches.

Faris and Holly sat in the cave in stunned silence, while the sound of Jack’s hooves clip-clopping away grew fainter. Faris looked at the floor, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Should I go after him?” he asked, finally looking at Holly when Jack didn’t come back after a couple of minutes.

“No,” she sighed. “He’ll be OK. This is probably just a little hard for him. The last Hoofer, Marshall, was Jack’s best friend and he died nine years ago. Jack thinks that Marshall would still be alive if he hadn’t been trying to protect the sheepherders living outside The Core. But, that’s not true. Bad things had started to happen and Marshall was just very unlucky – no one was to blame except the person who killed him.”

Faris swallowed. There had been someone like him before, and he had been killed… Before he had the chance to ask anything about this, Holly jumped in and started talking again quickly.

“Don’t worry about it, you’re not in danger,” Holly tried to sound reassuring. “That was a long time ago and Marshall was a full-grown man, who’d known about his powers all his life. He was just unlucky.”

Unlucky. She had said it again. Was luck really all there was to it? Faris wondered. Perhaps, she was right. Luck was why he was sat where he was right at that moment – hadn’t he been lucky that Jack and Holly had rescued him from Grimbaldi’s Foundation?

“I think that losing Marshall is one of the main reasons Jack has worked so hard to find you. We’ve spent most of the past nine years searching for the next Hoofer – when none appeared in the realms at The Core, we had to come to The Surface and explore further afield.”

The Core…The Surface It sounded to Faris like Holly was talking about another planet!

“That’s why Jack’s tried to keep you to himself a bit, I expect. After nine years of searching he wasn’t going to be happy sharing your friendship with the other animals. He’ll be fine though, you’ll see. Just give him a little time.” Holly hoped that she sounded more convinced than she felt. She wasn’t too sure how well anything would turn out in the dark times they were facing.

Faris was a little surprised at what Holly had just told him. He had thought that being a Hoofer made him part of something, that there would be lots of other Hoofers, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Not if Jack had spent so long looking specifically for him, as Holly said.

“Holly?” She looked up when he spoke. “What am I meant to do as a Hoofer? And what are these powers that I’m supposed to have?” Faris still barely knew anything about the new life he had jumped into the night before.

“The basic thing you’re here to do is protect the animals you can communicate with – you know horses, cows, sheep, goats, deer…basically if they’ve got hooves then they’ll talk to you!” Holly said, happy to be moving onto a nicer subject. “But then you’ve got to remember that there are two types of animal in this world – just like there are two types of people. You’ve got the magical animals, who know of the old world and have some connection to it, some of them even have powers of their own. Jack is this type of animal.”

Faris nodded. That kind of made sense to him – Jack certainly didn’t seem like any animal he’d ever met before, not that he met much of anything at the Foundation. “What other type of animals are there?” he asked Holly.

“Well, the others are pretty much, normal regular animals. No magic in them and no knowledge of that world: creatures who have never had contact with the old world where Jack and I came from. They’re not so different to the humans that live on The Surface – we have humans back at The Core, who would be identical to the people that live in the world you’ve grown up in. The only difference is that they’ve been raised in a world with magic, whilst the people on The Surface haven’t.”

“How is it possible for two worlds to sit alongside each other, without people knowing?” Faris may not have seen a lot of the world outside the Foundation walls, but he knew enough to know that humans had explored pretty much every corner of the globe.

“It’s easy to hide when you have magic on your side,” Holly said, with a shrug of her shoulders like it wasn’t a big deal. “The humans and the animals of The Surface have been out of the knowledge for so long, that they don’t even know that the old world exists. You can talk to them all – but the intelligence you get from any of the Surface dwelling animals will vary greatly.”

“OK, let me check I’ve got this straight,” Faris said, holding up his hand. “You’ve got the new world, which I was part of before, with the Foundation and South Appledale village and everything…right?”

Holly nodded. He nodded back at her and counted off one finger on his hand.

“Then you’ve got this other world – the old world, that you call The Core. And that place existed before all of the world that I know, but still exists today just hidden from everything else?”

Holly nodded again. So did Faris and counted off finger number two.

“And there are creatures from both worlds – but only those from the old world are magical or special?” As Holly nodded for a third time Faris held up his third finger and felt that he was finally beginning to understand what was happening a little more. He just had a couple more questions…

“So the old world is the one in the pictures on the walls?” Faris asked, gesturing to the cave around them

“Yes, they are of the old, world. The magical world.” Holly replied.

“OK. So, talking to hoofed animals is what I can do,” Faris checked and Holly nodded. “And the new world is where I’ve come from, but I fit into the old world because of the power I have.”

“That’s right.”

“Finally then – do you know what I’m here for?” Faris had kept this question to last, even though it was probably the most important.

“I do know…well, kind of.”

That didn’t sound like a very clear answer to Faris. “Why can’t you tell me?” he asked.

“It’s not that I can’t tell you, Faris. I just think it might be better for you to see for yourself.” Holly shifted very suddenly from her seat on the table, flapping her wings as she jumped to land on the floor.

There was no easy way to explain everything Faris would need to know. And they didn’t have time to spend going through everything. Seeing is believing, she reminded herself and showing him would be the fastest way to help Faris.

“I think I can hear Jack coming back,” Holly said. “When he gets here we should get moving, we’ve lots to do.”

“But…?” Faris began.

He had a lot more questions to ask: where are we going, what are we doing, were both high up on that list. But it was no use, Holly had already fluttered away leaving him alone in the cave.

“Well, that’s just great…” he muttered as he dropped his chin into his hands.

There was a loud snort behind him, which made Faris jump out of his skin (and his sulk).

“You do know that talking to yourself is the second sign of madness, don’t you?” Jack said, as he clopped into the light of the cave.

“Really?” Faris said turning to look at him, wondering if Jack was still angry. “What’s the first sign of madness?”

“Talking to horses you crazy Hoofer!” Jack said with a laugh. “He-haw-haw, he-haw-haw.”

Faris grinned back. Jack was obviously happier than he had been before and he was glad.

“Has Holly finished telling you about the joys of talking to cows and sheep then?” Jack asked, pulling a face as he spoke that suggested it would be the most boring thing in the world to do. Before Faris had chance to answer Jack suddenly looked uncomfortable, as if he realised how childish he sounded. Jack looked away from Faris and started glancing around the cave, and then down at his front hooves as though they were the most interesting things in the world.

“Yes, she has,” Faris said quietly, not wanting Jack to get mad again. Jack looked up at him and opened his mouth as though he was going to say something else, but then he dropped his gaze away from Faris and back to his feet. Perhaps he was going to apologise, Faris wondered. Before Jack had chance to say anything Faris spoke again. “I’m sorry about your friend, Marshall.”

Jack looked up at Faris sharply, then a second later the expression on his dark face softened. “Thanks. It’s OK – it was a long time ago now. It’s funny though…”

There was a long silence.

“What’s funny?” Faris prompted when Jack didn’t finish his sentence.

“…You look just like Marshall did when he was a boy.” Jack said. Then he smiled. “You all look the same you Hoofers!”

“We do? How many Hoofers are there in the world Jack?”

“Far as I know, just one Hoofer at any one time and at the moment that’s you! There used to be a lot of Hoofers in the old world, but not any more. I’ve known quite a few over the years…been around quite a while has old Jackie boy.” Jack gave Faris a big wink – as though being around a long time meant that he knew some fantastic secret or something.

Just at that moment Holly-Hob walked into the cave. At least Faris hoped it was Holly, in the form of the brown horse again. Faris found it hard to keep up with her changing shape so often, but he supposed it was something he would have to get used to it.

“We’ve got quite a walk ahead of us Faris,” the brown horse said, in a soft, warm-sounding voice.

It was definitely Holly, Faris decided. She sounded the same as a horse as she did in her faerie form.

As though reading his mind, Holly said, “that’s why I’m a horse again – these hooves were made for walking!”

“We’ve got a long way to go?” Faris guessed.

The brown horse nodded and flicked its mane away from its face. “It gets quite tiring flying all the time,” she said, as she turned to look at Jack. “Are you both ready?”

“Yep. All breakfasted up and full,” Jack said. Faris nodded his head in agreement.

“Good! Let’s get going then.” Holly turned and led them out of the cave, into one of the other passages that led off the small space.

As Faris began to follow Holly, Jack nudged him in the arm with his long black nose.

“Always wants to be the boss, she does,” he whispered to Faris out of the corner of his mouth.

Faris smiled and let Jack walk ahead of him and then followed them both out of the cave. He turned back to look at the pictures on the walls of the cave one last time before it disappeared from sight. He might not have learned much about horse history, but it looked as though he was going to be part of horse future. This was going to be his first ever adventure. And Faris couldn’t wait.

Chapter 6 – The Pathways

 

As Faris walked along the new pathways with the two horses he noticed that they were steeper and darker than the ones he had been in the night before with Jack. For quite some time they had been walking upwards, but they had just taken a turn that was leading them back down and deeper into the ground.

Faris also noticed that there seemed to be a large number of the strange horse light switches that either Holly or Jack would activate with their hooves to light the way along the next passage. When each new pathway lit up the one they were leaving would go dark. Jack had muttered something about magic energy saving an hour or so earlier, but that was all that had been said as they trundled along, up and down the passages, deep beneath the ground.

They had been walking for hours, although Faris had no real idea of how long. He wasn’t even sure what day it was – or whether it was day at all. The only thing he did know was that his stomach was rumbling with hunger and he found that his eyelids were drooping as the clip clopping of hooves was slowly sending him to sleep.

Chapter 7 – More Pathways

 

They were still on the cave pathways. And they were walking – still walking – always walking…

Faris’s eyes opened quickly as he stumbled over a small hole in the path. He realised he must have been dropping off to sleep again – he’d already stumbled several times before that. He picked up his tired feet and trotted faster to keep up with Jack and Holly, who were a few metres ahead of him now.

It’s not much further now Faris, he told himself firmly.

At least, he hoped it wasn’t…

 

Chapter 8 – Even More Pathways

 

They were still walking. They were still in the caves.

All Faris could think about was how much his feet hurt. And how he hoped they were nearly there now – wherever there might be.

It couldn’t be much further, could it…?

 

Chapter 9 – Are We Still On The Pathways?

 

They were still on the cave pathways and they were still walking.

Clip-clop, clip-clop, tick-tock, sleep clock. Faris was singing a little rhyme to himself over and over again as he walked and listened to the sound of the horses’ hooves.

“Whoops!” he exclaimed as he stumbled over his feet again on the dimly lit path. “You can’t walk with your eyes shut!” Faris muttered to himself. He didn’t like to complain or anything, but this wasn’t exactly what he had imagined a grand adventure to be.

I’m so tired and my feet huuuuuurt…

Chapter 10 – The Caves

 

Owwwwwwwwwww –

 

“Nearly there now mate,” Jack nudged Faris’s shoulder with his long, black nose, interrupting Faris’s thoughts of sore feet, sleep and grumpiness.

“Nearly where?” Faris whispered suddenly wide-awake, all grumpy thoughts gone from his head. He couldn’t wait to get out of the passageways.

“You’ll see, you’ll see…” Jack said in a singsong voice grinning. “It’s just around this corner and…Ta-daaa!”

They rounded the final bend, Faris trotting to keep alongside him. When they stepped into a large open space, his feet faltered and stopped.

Jack gestured to the surprising scene in front of them with a swing of his head. “Now what do you think to this?”

Faris couldn’t speak. To be perfectly honest, he couldn’t really believe what he was seeing. The passage they had been walking through had completely disappeared, as had the rock path they had been walking along and the low stone ceiling (that had been so low that Faris couldn’t have sat on Jack or Holly’s back for a break as they walked).

In front of them was a huge cave, except it wasn’t a cave. It can’t be a cave! Faris thought as he looked up to where the roof should have been. Instead of a stone ceiling – or any ceiling – Faris found himself looking up at what appeared to be the night sky, complete with a crescent moon and bright twinkling stars.

Faris glanced quickly at Jack, who just grinned back at him.

What is this place? Faris wondered as he gazed around, trying to take in everything. He might have thought that they were back outside again, except in certain places Faris could see that around the edge, where they now stood, there were holes leading off into other passages and at the closest edges could see the shape of the rock wall behind trees and bushes that spread down the hillside that had appeared in front of them. Finally, Faris managed to speak.

“What is this place?” he breathed, shaking his head in bewilderment. “I mean…are we inside, or outside, or…I…I…I just don’t get it…” His voice trailed off as he gawped at the unbelievable picture in front of him.

“You’re kind of right, mate.” Jack replied. “C’mon, let’s get down into the valley, I’ll tell you on the way.”

“I’ll go ahead and let them know we’re here,” Holly told them. She turned and galloped away, her light tail streaming out behind her as she ran.

Faris could think of nothing to say and just nodded his head as they began to walk down the gentle, sloping hillside towards the bottom of the valley (still inside the cave!) The path beneath their feet changed from stone to grass and Faris sniffed a little snort of amusement as he noticed this.

“Time for an explanation I suppose,” Jack said. Faris nodded his head up and down; he was still lost for words. “Now, where should I start? Hmmm…” Jack began mumbling to himself.

Faris happily ignored Jack’s muttering. He had become quite convinced in the last few minutes, that he must still be at The Foundation, having a very strange, real-seeming dream. If that wasn’t the case, then he was pretty sure that he had gone mad and was hallucinating from too many years of Mrs Ladle’s bad cooking and questionable gruel. Admittedly, this was a pretty big hallucination, but then it was very bad gruel.

When Jack spoke again, he was using full sentences and so Faris tuned back in. It was only polite to listen to your overactive imagination, after all.

“Do you remember that I told you an ancient evil was rising in the world and threatening our safety…?” Jack asked.

Faris nodded, yes, he remembered.

“And that we might need your help to protect people from it?”

Faris nodded again.

“Well, over the past few months, things have started to happen…”

“What kind of things?” Faris asked.

Jack’s furry black lips pressed into a line, making him look sad – or maybe even scared, Faris thought. It made him wonder again, if he could really be dreaming something like this – it seemed too complicated to not be real. Could he really have imagined Jack all on his own? Faris didn’t think so. Not really.

“What kind of things, Jack?” Faris prompted, when the horse didn’t answer straightaway.

“Things that tell us a great evil we’ve not seen in many years is gaining strength. Magic creatures – cruel, monstrous things – are returning to areas they haven’t been seen in centuries. That wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t have support.” Jack shook his head as he stopped speaking, as if trying to shake away the words.

“What is it that you think has returned?” Faris asked, trying to make sense of anything he was being told.

“We don’t know, exactly.” Jack’s front hooves stamped harder into the ground as they walked, showing his frustration. “But, the signs are there – everything points towards evil awakening in our world, we just don’t know what exactly is behind it. These other creatures, they’re usually around and we have to be careful, especially when we’re on The Surface. It’s just that recently it’s changed…they are getting stronger and they seem organised.”

Jack paused as he collected his thoughts. Faris didn’t interrupt this; he just waited and kept walking. Golden light trickled over them as they followed the mossy path through the trees and Faris marvelled that anything dark or dangerous could threaten such a beautiful, safe place.

Jack cleared his throat. “When you were talking to Holly, back at the Cave of History did she tell you that there are two types of horses that live in the world now?”

“She said there are ones that know of the old, magical world – like you – and that there are some that don’t.”

“That’s right. The horses – or any other animals for that matter – that don’t know about the old world are no use to the monsters that have been preying on us. They don’t have the same type of spirit as we do – they don’t have magical energy in them. It is only our spirit that is of use to these evil creatures and although they have always hunted us, over the past few months it has gotten much worse. They find the magical horses in their hiding places on The Surface and they kill them or sometimes worse…”

Jack’s voice trailed off and he and Faris walked in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Faris broke the quiet.

“What are you doing to stop these things? There has to be a way to protect the horses.” Faris gently prompted Jack into continuing his story.

“There’s not always much that we can do against these creatures. Often, they are big and wild and we have no way to defend ourselves once they’ve found us. Sometimes they are smaller, so we can run away or fight against them. But, even then, many horses have died. It’s getting too dangerous to be on The Surface now – there have been so many attacks. We can’t hide from the truth that the creatures that hunt us are growing stronger. So, now we’ve had to make the decision to leave The Surface – the world you’ve grown up in – and we’re heading to The Core.”

“The Core?” Faris echoed, he thought Holly might have mentioned something about a core, but he couldn’t be sure.

“The Core is the protected, magical heart of our world.” Jack replied. “We will all be safe there, with the Seers and other magical creatures. The boundaries are strong and cannot be breached.

“For us, The Surface is the world where you have lived, Faris. Thousands of years ago, all our people lived on The Surface, but since The Dark War we have often had to return to safety beneath the ground at The Core or in places like this.” Jack nodded his head at the cave walls around them. “We are careful and have been able to live on The Surface along with the people, other horses and animals. We try and teach them about the old world and also help people of power, like you Faris, who have grown up in the other world. But, it’s become too dangerous now for us to stay there.”

“And that’s why you had to come for me?” Faris wondered out loud.

“No, that wasn’t why we came.” Jack’s head shook and he turned dark eyes onto the small boy’s face. “I would never have left you in that awful place, if we had known you were there before now. We found you by accident – Holly realised what you were – I didn’t think there would ever be another Hoofer.”

Faris reached up and patted Jack’s neck. “I’m just glad you found me at all.”

Jack bobbed his head, accepting the thanks.

“Do you have any idea what – or who – is behind all this?” Faris asked. Jack’s story was making him nervous, although he tried to hide any fear in his voice when he spoke. “It must be something bad, to be as dangerous as you say.”

“It’s hard to say.” Jack looked down at his hooves. “All we know for certain, is that the evil we fought in the past has been growing stronger. These last few months it has moved out from the shadows where it has hidden for centuries and begun to attack us in the open.”

Faris listened to Jack carefully, although he didn’t particularly understand what The Core was, or the evil that was forcing the horses to go there.

Jack keeps talking about this evil – but what is it?

At this moment in time Faris couldn’t imagine anyone more horrible than Mister Grimbaldi. But there was a funny feeling at the bottom of his tummy told him that the evil Jack was telling him about was many times worse than the cruel Mister Grimbaldi.

Just as Faris was about to ask Jack some of the questions bouncing around his head, Holly reappeared at the bottom of path they were walking down, still in her horse form. When she caught sight of them, she charged up the hill to meet them.

“You’ve got to come quickly Jack, there’s a problem. Not everyone has made it to the Caves.” Holly’s brown horse-eyes were filled with worry and her words tumbled quickly from her lips. She turned away as soon as she finished speaking and galloped back the way she had come.

When Faris looked at Jack he saw the same look of fear on his long, black face. This was obviously not good news.

“Come on Faris, get on my back, we’ll get there faster.” Jack’s voice was tense.

Faris didn’t need telling twice. He grasped Jack’s mane with both hands and pulled himself onto his back, just as Jack started to charge down the hillside after Holly.

“It so-ounds ser-io-us.” Faris said, his voice breaking up as he bounced around on Jack’s back.

“It does, doesn’t it?” Jack agreed. He put his head down and ran even faster.

Faris and Jack reached the bottom of the valley quickly and disappeared into the thick wall of trees that stood at the edge of the wood. A minute later they stood in an empty glade and Faris dismounted, looking around for Holly. After a few seconds she appeared between the trees on the other side of the clearing and without speaking the pair of them followed her deeper into the wood. They had been walking only a minute when Faris heard voices ahead of them. It sounded like a lot of different voices talking at once. And they all sounded worried.

The voices grew louder as he followed Jack and Holly through the trees. Faris wondered what could have happened to have everyone so worried. Listening to the voices he suddenly wondered if these might be people of power – just like him. He picked up his pace and pushing through some thick bushes he found himself standing at the edge of the trees. The woods had opened up onto a large, rolling field. A river flowed through the field from a waterfall next to where Faris, Jack and Holly had just walked into the space. Silence surrounded them, where there had been raised voices only seconds before.

Faris’s face registered his obvious surprise at the sight that met his eyes.

Well, they certainly were not people of power…

On every side of him – everywhere Faris could see – were horses. Big ones, small ones, dark ones, light ones. And all the horses were looking at him and Jack. A whisper ran around the large crowd of horses and one by one they dropped down onto their front hooves, as though they were bowing.

Faris had no idea what was happening, but Jack obviously did. He stepped forwards into the large group his head held high. Faris wondered what he was doing.

Jack’s voice was calm and commanding as he spoke. “Thank you my friends. But, there is no need for ceremony.” There was a rustle of noise as the crowd of horses rose to their feet again. Jack continued looking around the gathering of horses. “Holly-Hob has told me that there has been a problem with our plans. Can the Council step forward to the Heart-Stone to confer. Thank you.” Jack turned away from the crowd, signalling that he had finished speaking for the moment.

Faris stood awkwardly next to Holly as there was more movement among the horses and several of them nudged one another with their long noses and looked towards him. Faris was suddenly very conscious that he was the only none-horse in the gathering. He felt uncomfortable with them and turned away, ignoring the staring horses.

He looked at the large black horse stood next to him, wondering what was happening and who Jack was to command the attention of the other horses. This was a completely different Jack to the one Faris had spent the past day with.

A moment later six horses stepped forward from the gathered crowd and walked towards the waterfall. The rest of the horses moved away, still muttering amongst themselves and looking at the new group that was forming around Jack. This was obviously ‘the Council’ Jack had asked for, but Faris had no idea what that actually meant.

“What’s the Council?” Faris whispered to Holly out of the side of his mouth.

Holly turned her golden brown face towards him. “There are seven different families of the old horses and the Council is made up of the lead horse from each family.” Holly whispered back. “You see that each horse is very different?” She asked, tilting her head towards the group gathering around Jack. “That’s because the families spread far and wide across the world after the Dark War and have only come together here for the first time in thousands of years.”

“Does that mean that all the horses of the old world are here right now?” Faris wondered aloud. Holly didn’t get chance to answer because just at that moment Jack nudged Faris to get his attention.

“Stay close to me. I’m not sure what’s happened, but it looks as though we may need your help sooner than we expected. Keep quiet and I’ll answer any questions you have later OK?” Faris nodded. “Good.” Jack said and flashed Faris a quick, toothy smile. “Let’s find out what’s happened.”

They walked towards the waterfall. Faris wondered whether it was ‘Hoofer’ help the horses would need or something else as he, Jack and Holly joined the group of six horses. Faris noticed a large heart-shaped stone sat in the soft grass at the edge of the waterfall pool and Jack stood next to this.

“I was about to ask what has happened, but I think I may have an idea.” Jack said slowly, looking around the group of horses. A large dark brown horse, with bright eyes nodded at Jack.

“Cheval,” Jack spoke to the dark brown horse. “Where are Mooncoin and the eastern horses? Have they arrived here yet?”

“Non.” Cheval said, shaking his head from side to side. He spoke with a strong accent. “We ‘ad not ‘eard from their group during the movement to The Caves, but that eez not so unusual, you know?”

Jack nodded at the horse’s words, while Faris wondered why the horse had a different voice to Jack and Holly.

“You are right. All of you have travelled long distances across The Surface to get here; it isn’t unusual that you’ve not met up before you arrived at The Caves. Have any of the eastern horses arrived at all?” Jack asked.

“Yes.” Cheval said. “But it does not look good. Zey were attacked before zey reached The Caves, several of zem taken.”

“Taken?” Jack echoed. “By who?”

“By Spriggans they think. They were attacked by dozens of them – very unusual for them to work in such a big group – and the Spriggans managed to take three of zem.”

“So we’re missing three horses…” Jack mused looking down at his hooves in thought. Unfortunately Cheval had more to report.

“Non. Unfortunately not mon roi,” Cheval shook his dark brown head again. “Zee others, including Mooncoin, were taken – but not by the Spriggans – they have been taken by people. So per-aps they are safer there, non?”

Jack nodded thoughtfully. “You may be right Cheval. You may be right…so how many of the eastern family made it to The Caves?”

A very small, white Shetland pony stepped forward to speak. “Ten of the seventeen coming have made it here. But one of them is sick. The Spriggans got her good. We’re taking care of her so hopefully she will be OK. They are all tired and resting at the moment, they arrived only minutes before you did.”

“Right.” Jack said. “Do we know what kind of people have Mooncoin? And do we know where the Spriggans are now?”

“Mooncoin and her family were travelling with a horse racing team, hiding among the stock as they were brought over from Europe. When the Spriggans came they freed all the horses on the boat and Mooncoin and the others were found among the main group. They’ve all been taken to the Great Irish Racing College and will go on sale from there in two days time.” The small horse said.

“And the Spriggans?” Jack prompted.

“Disappeared back into the hills after the attack, probably to re-group,” a different horse said. “From what we can tell they lost some of their ugly little pals in the fight.”

Jack grinned, flashing his large, white teeth. “I knew she wouldn’t go down without a scrap Mooncoin – feisty girl!” The other horses nodded in agreement at his words, their large heads swinging up and down. “Do we know who’s controlling the Spriggans yet?” Jack asked next. “It’s very unusual for them to be this organised.”

The group of horses fell quiet. Faris thought it was an odd silence after the rapid conversation of the last few minutes. It was as if no one wanted to answer Jack’s question – or perhaps they didn’t want to guess at who might be masterminding the Spriggan attacks against the horses.

Jack allowed the silence to stretch between them. He looked around at the other horses and decided to keep his thoughts to himself for now. Their bowed heads and drawn faces told him that they had already gone through enough today, without him scaring them with his own ideas about who could be organising the Spriggans. That could wait for now, at least until he had some evidence. Jack straightened up, raising his head above the others and addressed the group.

“We can leave it at here for the moment, I need some time to think. Go back to your families and we will talk about what action we’re going to take shortly. I will summon you once I am ready.”

“Very well.”

“Of course.”

A murmured of agreement rippled around the gathered horses, before they began to move away from the waterfall where they had gathered back into the open field. The other horses were waiting for them. Faris guessed that each group must be a family, because the gathered horses all looked so similar to one another: Cheval joined a group of large-framed, dark coloured horses; the small pony joined a group that were a range of colours, but all equally as miniature as each other, with shaggy coats and long manes that curled in waves around their small heads.

Faris watched them go. He thought that most of the horses looked relieved now that Jack had arrived and taken charge of the situation, he certainly seemed to know what he was doing. But, there was something else lurking in the horses’ eyes, behind the sense of relief – something that Faris couldn’t quite put his finger on. He gazed at the small white pony that had stepped forward to speak at the Heart Stone. As he watched her move away with the others, she turned to look back at Faris, her dark eyes thoughtful but scared. As their eyes met, Faris realised in that instant what he could see in the eyes of all the other horses. Fear.

A bright flash and a loud popping sound close to his ear interrupted Faris’s thoughts. He turned quickly to find that Holly transformed from a horse back into a faerie and sat on the Heart Stone next to Faris’s foot. Taking his cue from Holly, Faris plopped down onto the soft grass next to the stone. Jack wandered over to them and looked down at them both.

“It’s begun,” Jack said sadly. “I had hoped we’d have been able to get through the move to The Core before the problems started, but it looks like I left it too late.”

“This isn’t your fault Jack – you gave the command to return to The Core as soon as you felt it was right. We knew that we were the last creatures of the old world still living in large groups on The Surface and that there were risks with that. We all agreed – many years ago when we moved back to the Surface – that it was what we wanted. We knew that it was the best and only way to help those who needed it.” Holly’s eyes flashed with determination as she spoke. For a tiny creature she certainly had a lot of power in her voice. When Jack said nothing, Holly pressed on. “From everything the Council have said it’s obvious that the Spriggans have got someone powerful organising them, otherwise they would never have stood a chance of getting to a horse like Mooncoin and you know it.”

“I suppose you’re right, Hol.” Jack conceded as he lowered himself down onto his knees next to Faris and Holly.

“And look at it this way – they didn’t get Mooncoin, the humans did. And they’re bigger, less sneaky and much easier to get around. No offence.” Holly said, glancing at Faris.

“None taken,” Faris smiled back at her. He poked his thumb firmly at his chest as he spoke. “Class myself as a Hoofer through and through now anyway!”

“That’s the spirit!” Jack grinned at him. Although this wasn’t the introduction to the horse world Jack had hoped for the young Hoofer, he was pleased at how well his new friend was taking things. He’s a credit to all Hoofers, Jack thought proudly.

“So…can I ask my questions yet?” Faris asked. “Or are you going to give me a bit of an explanation anyway. Like, why did the other horses bend down to you? And how did you get to be so bossy?” His words tumbled out of his mouth, without him even bothering to wait for an answer in between the questions.

“Thanks mate!” Jack said with a huff. He was secretly pleased that Faris was taking in so much – for ten years old he was a pretty smart boy. “Bossy! Really!” He muttered, keeping up his act of being offended.

“Jack doesn’t like to brag about it.” Holly said, looking fondly at giant black horse that sat next to her. “But he is a very special horse, well, he’s a very special creature.”

“Is that why you’re friends with him Hol? Because you said Figlia faeries protect special creatures when we were talking at the Cave of History?”

“Ah – ” Jack said, opening his mouth to explain, but was cut off by Holly’s tinkling voice.

“I’m friends with Jack now because I like him!” Holly grinned. “But, when we first met it was because his father, the King of Horses, commissioned me to be his protector.”

“The King of Horses?” Faris couldn’t disguise the surprise in his voice and he turned to stare at Jack with wide eyes.

“Ah – ” Jack said, but was cut off again.

“Yes, the King,” Holly replied as Faris’s head flicked back to her.

“But then…doesn’t that make you a …Prince?” Faris said, his voice rising with excitement as he looked at Jack again.

“Ah – ” Jack said, but was cut off. AGAIN!

“It did many years ago,” Holly said. “When Jack’s father died, he became the King.”

Faris’s eyes opened so wide they looked as though they might pop out of his head.

“You’re the King?” He said loudly.

“YES!!!” Jack neighed loudly.

Holly and Faris both stared at him, surprised at his sudden outburst. “There’s no need to shout you know,” Holly said touchily.

“No need to shout? NO NEED TO SHOUT!” Jack exclaimed, his voice only getting louder. “When you two have quite finished talking about me, can I get a word in edgeways?”

“Go ahead – it’s not like I’m stopping you,” Holly grinned and winked at Jack. She knew full well she had cut him off several times, she hoped a little joke might help him relax.

“Not stopping me?” Jack said suspiciously, looking down at the tiny faerie. Catching her cheeky grin he realised she’d been trying to make him laugh. How could he be mad at her for that? “Ooooh it’s a good job I’m fond of you little faerie-pants or I’d squish you with my giant hoof for your cheekiness!!” Jack said in a mock-angry voice. He grinned back at the tiny faerie. “Well, now that I’m allowed to talk…” He waited a second for Holly to interrupt again, but when she didn’t he carried on speaking. “Yes, I am the King – but it’s really not a big deal for us – ”

“Not a big deal – how can it not be a big deal?” Faris exclaimed, his voice going squeaky. “You are their King!”

Jack looked at Faris, his face solemn. “You’re right it is important. I have responsibilities for the other horse families and to the people of The Core.” Faris nodded back at Jack, his expression equally serious. “But I’m still just a horse as well, you know? Just plain old Jack, to you,” he added.

Jack didn’t resent the role he had, leading and protecting the other horse families. But, it had been nice to just be normal with Faris, since they helped him escape. Normal was what he was most of the time: with Holly or when he was on his own. Perhaps, that was why he had resisted returning the horses to The Core for such a long time…it wasn’t just for the others, but for him as well. At The Core he had to be different: he had a position of responsibility and a role he had to fill.

Jack didn’t want Faris to think that he was different now, just because he was the King. He willed Faris to understand this, as he looked into his eyes. Jack wanted him to know that he was still the same horse he had met yesterday. He was just Jack.

Faris stared back at his new friend and tried to understand everything he had just heard. Jack had sounded so different, so responsible when he was speaking to the other horses. But, when he spoke to Faris he was his normal self again. Faris decided that he liked both sides of Jack: one fun and caring, the other strong and brave. Combined, Faris was confident that the whole package made for pretty awesome qualities in your friends.

“You know Jack, you’ve got two right legs and so you’ll always be twice as right as me. I’ll agree with you on this one.” Faris smiled up at the big black horse. Although he’d only known him for one day Faris already felt that he knew the real Jack. What difference did it make anyway? Faris reasoned to himself. He didn’t care what his new friend was, even though it was kind of cool to know he was important. Part of him felt that it made their link of Hoofer and horse even stronger – they were both different from the others around them, perhaps even a little bit special.

“Great! Well, now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the real problem, shall we?” Jack sounded very business-like again, just as he had been when he was talking to the other horses.

“Mooncoin’s family?” Faris asked.

“Yes.”

“We’ll have to rescue them won’t we?” Faris said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You and Holly rescued me no problem. How hard can it be?”

“Good plan!” Jack smiled at Faris’s enthusiasm, pleased that he was jumping naturally into his Hoofer role. It was already obvious Faris was going to be a great protector. “Just a few problems, we need to iron out.”

“Problems?”

Jack nodded his head towards the other horses. “They said Spriggans are involved. Spriggans are small but dangerous folk, a bit like our friend Holly here.”

Holly raised her eyebrows. She did not appear to be impressed at being likened to a Spriggan.

Jack saw the expression on her face and tried to explain. “You know what I mean Hol. Spriggans are small, ugly little critters – ” His voice trailed off as Holly’s face darkened further.

Jack wasn’t making things better.

“I’m still not seeing the resemblance here,” Holly said through thin, pressed lips.

“Well…you know what I mean…they can inflate themselves into images of things much bigger than they actually are.” Jack went on quickly; hoping that this made it clear that he didn’t think Holly was a small, ugly little critter. It didn’t really work.

“Technically, I transform not inflate. And, I am a horse, or bird or whatever I change into – not just the image of it.” Holly was definitely unimpressed.

“Fine! Spriggans are nothing like Holly. But they are small, evil faerie-folk that can make themselves look much bigger than they actually are. Is that OK?” Jack sounded mildly annoyed.

“Yes,” Holly grudgingly agreed. “That’s a better description.”

“Thank you!”

“But what use is making themselves bigger?” Faris asked, distracting both of them from their argument. They looked at him as though they had forgotten he was even there.

Holly cleared her throat. “In the past Spriggans were used to guard treasure that was hidden on The Surface. People would bury it in hills or caves and then they would call on the Spriggans, using very basic magic charms that would draw them to the area. Spriggans love gold and so they would stay in the area once they had been summoned.”

“And they can transform themselves?” Faris asked, being very careful to make sure that it did not sound like he thought Holly – or faeries in general – were anything like the nasty Spriggans.

“Sort of, yes,” Jack answered his question this time. “People used Spriggans to guard treasure because even though they are naturally very small, they can inflate themselves to a huge size. They don’t actually change – like Holly does when she transforms – they just blow up in size, so they wouldn’t be much use in an actual battle.”

“That’s right,” Holly agreed. “They don’t get stronger when they grow, but most humans were scared of them when they saw an inflated Spriggan – they thought they were the ghosts of giants, guarding old treasure troves.”

“Why would they be attacking horses though?” Faris wondered aloud. It didn’t sound like normal behaviour for the creatures Holly and Jack were describing.

“Good question.” Jack nodded his agreement, whilst he chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip.

“Spriggans are nasty little creatures and although they are not always the smartest monsters in the world, they are know for their skills as thieves and kidnappers.” Holly said. “Maybe it has more to do with those particular skills than treasure?”

“Possibly,” Jack replied, still looking thoughtful. “But Spriggans are just not smart enough to get organised and take on a horse family like Mooncoin’s. I can’t see what they would get from targeting us like this.”

Faris turned over everything they had said about the horse families and the Spriggans. Something about the situation was nagging at him, twisting his tummy inside him as if it were trying to warn him. He couldn’t understand what it might be. His mind drifted back to the Cave of History and the pictures painted on the walls…his tummy twisted even more when he thought about the dark figures that had been drawn, fighting against the horses and other magical creatures.

“Maybe it’s not Spriggans…” Faris murmured, mainly to himself.

“It’s definitely Spriggans, one of the others saw them.” Holly corrected him.

Faris shook himself. “Sorry, that’s not what I meant. I was just wondering about someone else organising the Spriggans, if they’re not smart enough. Is there any reason why someone more powerful might want to capture magical animals like Mooncoin’s family?”

Jack’s head swung up, he was staring at his new human friend with interest. “Now that is a good question,” he said. “It would be unusual, but not impossible for someone to be using the Spriggans.”

“You know, I think you could be right there, Faris.” Holly added, “I’d forgotten about the kidnapping part. Do we know where the Spriggans have taken the rest of Mooncoin’s family?”

“If the others in the Council knew they would have said earlier.”

Holly shook head. “Of course they would have. Where do we begin then?”

“Let’s think about it…” Jack mused out loud. “Spriggans definitely aren’t strong enough to transport the other horses very far magically, they don’t have any real powers… And it sounds like their kidnapping plan went wrong somewhere along the way, because it wouldn’t be worth the risk for them to only kidnap three horses…

“You think they were expecting to get more horses in the attack than the three they got?” Holly interrupted, she had been nodding along to everything Jack said whilst Faris just listened.

“I do,” said Jack. “This feels like a big plan, Spriggans wouldn’t normally be interested in us, so why now?”

“They need more horses,” Faris realised. “They must need them for whoever it is that they are working for.”

Holly jumped up from the rock she had been sitting on whilst they talked. “That’s it!” She exclaimed, flapping across to hover in front of Jack’s face. “They must be working for someone, but it doesn’t matter that we don’t know who it is.”

“Why not?” Jack and Faris asked at the same time.

“Because,” Holly grinned, her eyes sparking with ideas, “there is no way the Spriggans will contact whoever’s giving the instructions until they’ve made a second attempt on the horses. Whoever they are working for must be powerful enough to at least scare the Spriggans…”

“They won’t go back empty handed!” Faris cried out, jumping up himself. “The Spriggans will try and take the horses from wherever the humans have taken them.”

“You think they’ll attack the racing college first then?” Holly prompted.

“That’s exactly what it sounds like,” Faris said. “I also think – if you’re right about them not being able to move the horses very far without magic – that they must be hiding close to the college itself now. It’s the only way they could make a second attempt and hope to get the horses to someone more powerful. Everything has to be close together.”

Jack considered the idea for a minute and then nodded. “Yep. I think you’re right Faris. Their first move will be to re-group up in the hills near to the racing college, where I’ll bet they’ve hidden the other three horses. Then they’ll make an attack on the college to get the rest of them.”

Faris and Holly stood (and hovered) nearby, eagerness keeping them on their feet.

“So, what do we do?” Faris asked.

Jack sat lost in thought for a few moments before he spoke again. When he did he had the gleam of a good idea, sparkling in his eye. “Holly, can you fly down to the valley and bring the Council leaders back up here. I have a plan.”

 

Chapter 11 –The Dark Side

 

In the corner of a dark, damp cave three large brown horses stood inside a thick-barred cage. They were restless in the cramped enclosure and stamped their hooves against the stone floor as they tried to move around in the small space. The noise echoed sharply, in the small space. Green moss grew through cracks in the rock walls where the cage stood and cold water dripped down onto the horses from the ceiling above. The cave sat beneath a large range of hills and the opening to it provided a view along the length of a green valley, across empty fields and down to a large, sand-coloured racecourse in the distance.

The three horses were tired after being dragged across the hilly countryside by the Spriggans but they were too scared to sleep. They had been poked and prodded along by hundreds of the ugly little creatures after they had been taken from the boat. They watched their tiny kidnappers now as they grouped close to a small fire on the other side of the cave, muttering amongst themselves. From the snatches of conversation the horses had been able to hear, the Spriggans’ scheme had not gone to plan and their boss was not happy – not happy at all.

A small, fat Spriggan clan leader marched into the group, waddling from side to side on his short, podgy legs. His skin was an odd green colour and he had horrible brown warts all over his ugly little face. He shoved the smaller Spriggans away from the warmth of the fire as he strode in the centre of the group.

“Wot do’y mean y’only got ‘free of them nags? Wot ‘appened to the plan – where ar’ the rest of ‘em?” The fat Spriggan spat his words at the group, who shrank away from him and his horrible warty face.

A small squeaking voice drew his attention: “But dem ‘orses sir. They fought us an’ stuff – see this?” The small Spriggan said, stepping forward and pointing towards a large red lump on his head. “One of ‘em kick me ‘ere in me noggin’!”

“Dem ‘orses sir, dem ‘orses…” The fat Spriggan repeated in a squeaky voice, mocking the smaller one. “Wot are you scared of ‘orses for? I’ll give you somefink to be scared of you great useless lump of cow droppins!’” He finished his sentence by whacking the smaller Spriggan on the noggin with the large rod he held in his hand. “We need these stupid nags for the boss – if he don’t get ‘em we’ve more to worry about happenin’ to our noggin’s than a whack from some stupid ‘orse! ‘Ee needs seven of ‘em for ‘is plan and if we wanna get on well in this new world ‘e’s plannin’ then we’ll deliver ‘em. Right?” When no one spoke his lip curled into an angry snarl. “I said – RIGHT?!”

“Right.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Right.”

A chorus of voices agreed grudgingly with his command.

“Good!” The lead Spriggan straightened himself to his full (but still very small) height. “Well, what are you’s waitin’ for? Get yourselfs sorted and get dem other ‘orses, you worfless bunch of pong-pigeons!”

 

Chapter 12 – Where Horses Dare

It had been a busy night in The Caves since Jack had revealed his plan to the Council of Horses. The horses had stayed up planning all through the night, swapping ideas and tactics. Faris, Jack and Holly had finally slept for a few short hours from lunchtime, when the sun was high in the sky on the ceiling of the cave. So much had been happening Faris hadn’t even had chance to ask Jack about the sky-ceiling or how it worked.

He’d probably just say it’s ‘magic’ anyway… Faris had told himself as he dropped off to sleep.

Faris woke up as the sun set. The cave ceiling shone beautifully in pinks and reds, before fading to darkness and filling with stars. By the time moon rose on the magical sky-ceiling Faris, Jack, Holly and a number of the other horses had left the valley cave behind them are were moving quickly through the passageways of the cave system towards The Surface.

During the day Holly had flown out of the cave system disguised as an eagle and had travelled far and wide before she had been able to locate the Great Irish Racing College. High in hills about three miles from the racing college she had also found a suspicious looking cave – it was the ideal spot for the Spriggans to be holding the kidnapped horses.

Back in the caves the large group of horses (and Faris) was now heading towards the south exit of the cave system, which was the one that came closest to the racing college. A short time later Faris found himself stood behind Jack as the south entrance to The Caves slid open in front of them. The cool night air rushed into the cave as the horses and Faris moved quickly out into the trees surrounding the entrance. The thick, rock door shut silently behind them.

“We’ll meet you back here in four hours,” Jack told the other horses in a whisper. “Good luck,” he told them as they set off. The horses nodded silently and moved off into the trees, disappearing into the thick darkness in seconds.

“See you later Holly,” Faris murmured to the faerie as she flew after the other horses. She turned and waved to him before disappearing into the darkness. Just before she disappeared, he heard a crackling-pop sound and saw that she had transformed into a familiar-looking owl.

“And then there were two.” Jack said quietly, glancing at Faris. “Come on. It’s about three miles to the racing college, it’ll take us a while to get there two-legs.”

Faris nodded and followed Jack into the dark wood. As he walked behind Jack through the dim landscape he thought about everything that had happened to him over the past few days. In just a short time Faris’s life had changed completely – he had been alone with no future, no family and no friends. And now he was a key player in a top-secret rescue mission with his new best friend. All in all, things seemed pretty good to Faris.

Just as long as the plan works he thought to himself, increasing his pace to a brisk trot in order to keep up with Jack.

Jack’s plan was for Holly to lead a group of horses to the cave she had found, where they thought the Spriggans were hiding the kidnapped horses. At the exact same time Jack and Faris would be carrying out a surprise ‘jail-break’ of Mooncoin and the other horses being held at the racing college. When the Spriggans left the cave to kidnap Mooncoin and the others (as Jack presumed they would have to) Holly’s team would rescue the other horses from the cave. By the time the Spriggans reached the college Jack and Faris would have done their part and Mooncoin and the other horses would be safe. Maybe then the Spriggans would realise, just a little too late, that they had been double-crossed by the horses – but Spriggans aren’t too bright so they might not even figure that out at all!

It was safest for the horses to carry out the plan under the cover of darkness, to avoid the humans, and so they had had to wait for nightfall. This might have been safer, but it meant that everything had to go to plan because Mooncoin and the others were being sold at auction the very next morning!

An hour later Jack and Faris were making their way swiftly through open field towards the high spectator stands of the racing college that were just about visible in the distance. They kept close to the hedgerows at the edges of the fields. The high, prickly bushes provided them with some cover, just in case there were any unwanted eyes looking out for them. In the next field they came to a group of sheep that were huddled close to the hedge, which forced Jack and Faris to walk through the centre of them.

“Baaa-bbaaaaaa,” one of the sheep said.

“What’s he bleating about?” Jack asked, pretending not to be interested.

“He wants to know where we’re going,” Faris told Jack. “It’s a secret,” he said to the sheep.

“OK. I was just asking,” the sheep bleated back at Faris. “Be careful. There have been ugly little fellows around these fields the past couple of nights.”

“Really? Thanks!” Faris said. The sheep must have been talking about the Spriggans.

Faris and Jack pressed on towards the college.

“You sound really silly when you’re speaking sheep you know?” Jack said huffily. “Baa-baaa, nonsense.”

“In that case you probably wouldn’t be interested in knowing that the Spriggans have been in this area the past couple of nights scouting out the racing college then would you?” Faris said casually, knowing full well that Jack would be very interested. “You know, because I sound so silly speaking sheep.”

Jack’s eyebrows rose in interest. “Really?”

Faris shrugged his shoulders. “It’s what the sheep said.”

“Yeah well, I didn’t say they never had anything useful to say did I?” Jack mumbled.

“No you didn’t. In fact, I think you called them jumper growers, but that’s by the by…”

Jack pretended not to have heard him. “We’d better get moving, we don’t want the Spriggans catching up with us.”

Chapter 13 – The Hills

 

Holly and the other horses had made their way quickly from The Caves, them galloping most of the way, with her flying high above them using her superior owl-vision to ensure they were not heading into a trap. Nothing had disturbed them on their journey.

Now they stood behind a large pile of rocks and small bushes. Similar rock piles and bushes littered the hillside above the opening to the Spriggans cave. They were definitely in the right place. An owl friend of Holly’s had been watching the cave since nightfall for her and had heard the Spriggans inside but told her that they had not left yet.

Judging by the noise coming from inside the cave Holly thought there must have been hundreds of Spriggans moving around. She listened carefully, with all the banging and shouting coming from inside it sounded like they were getting ready to leave. Now in her faerie-form, she used one hand to pull aside a leaf and she peered through the bush she was standing behind, straining her eyes to see something in the night.

Here they came: the Spriggans marched into view through the darkness. Holly watched as the tiny, frog-like creatures left the shelter of the cave, waddling on their bandy legs. Those foul creatures are nothing like me, she thought to herself getting cross with Jack all over again. Well, they were small she supposed, but that was the only similarity.

Wait a second – what’s going on down there?

It looked like there was some trouble starting.

“Hey! Wotch wot yer doin’ tombstone teeff, I’m walking here!” A small, squeaky voiced Spriggan said as he shoved a taller one who had just trodden on him.

“ ‘Ooo you callin’ tombstone teeth fish face? I’ll deck yer in a minute.” The taller Spriggan shouted back as he pushed the other one in the chest.

A large, very fat Spriggan suddenly appeared next to the quarrelling duo and whacked both of them with his big stick. Holly guessed that he was their leader, throwing his weight around and hitting people with sticks.

“Get in line now dung faces or I’ll deck the pair of yer!” He growled at them. Neither of the pair argued back, they just fell back into step with the other Spriggans and moved quietly down the hillside from the cave.

Holly couldn’t believe it as she watched the Spriggans leaving the cave; she’d never seen such a large group of them before. No wonder the horses hadn’t been able to fight them off in those numbers. The only way this was possible was if someone was getting them organised and giving them instructions. Spriggans normally worked in small groups decided by their clan leaders. They didn’t get on well with one another and so could never organise themselves into such a large group.

Holly was worried. What if Jack and Faris didn’t get to Mooncoin before the Spriggans got there? Even with the added strength and power Jack had, she wasn’t sure that the pair of them would be able to protect themselves against such a large group. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. She could not fret about that now, she had her own job to do and Jack had been in worse battles than this before, he knew how to handle himself.

Part of her knew that she wasn’t really worrying about Jack right now. The thing that was scary for Holly wasn’t what she was about to do, or even what Jack was doing…it was the feeling in the pit of her stomach that told her that this was only the beginning of something bigger. Something worse.

With a soft hiss Holly transformed from her faerie-self back into a large, brown owl. Stretching out her long wings she stepped forward and dropped over the edge of the cave opening, uttering a small hoot as she went. She swooped into the mouth of the cave – one, two, three she counted quickly – before turning on her wings and soaring back up into the sky.

Holly had counted just three Spriggans left behind to guard the horses, which she had seen clearly in a large cage at the back of the cave. Someone is definitely organising them, she thought as she flew back to join Cheval and the other horses on the hill above the cave opening. The cage holding the missing horses was certainly beyond Spriggan craftsmanship and there had been some form of magical locking device on the cage – Spriggans had very little magical knowledge, nowhere near enough to form something of the power Holly had seen. With another soft hiss Holly landed on the branch of a bush and changed back into her faerie-form, so that she could talk to the horses.

“What could you see?” Cheval whispered.

“There’s just three Spriggans left inside. They were all stood around the fire trying to keep warm. Looks like they’re injured too. They must have been hurt in the first attack and that’s why they’ve been left behind.” Holly whispered back.

“And Mooncoin’s family?”

“All three of them are locked in a cage at the back of the cave. It’s definitely not Spriggan work, something much stronger. Looks like there’s some form of magical charm worked on it to keep it locked shut.”

“Can you unlock the cage?” Cheval asked, worry plain in his dark eyes.

“Yes, I think I should be able to manage it. Bit of Figlia magic should work.” Holly sounded confident, but inside she wasn’t completely sure she’d be able to defeat the magical charm imprisoning the horses. “If you take care of those three Spriggans, I’ll do the rest. I think a good squishing is in order.” Holly said with a cold smile.

Cheval returned the smile, “I couldn’t agree with you more, mon chéri.”

 

Chapter 14 – The Great Irish Racing College

 

Faris and Jack stood with their backs pressed against the cold brick wall of one of the stable blocks, deep inside the grounds of the Great Irish Racing College. Getting into the racing college had been the easy part so far; finding Mooncoin and the others was not proving to be so easy. They had already looked in three stable blocks and found nothing. Only another twenty-two blocks to go then…

“I am not going into another one of these blocks!” A very annoyed Jack muttered through clenched teeth to Faris who stood close to his side. “These race horses are crazy!”

“They certainly seem that way,” Faris agreed, looking around for any signs of movement in the darkness around them that might be human or Spriggan. “But you’ve got to, Jack. I don’t know what Mooncoin or any of the others look like,” he told his friend. “Anyway, they’re barely listening to me…”

“Well, I can tell you something. Mooncoin certainly doesn’t look like any of the race junkies we’ve found so far.” Jack hissed back.

Jack stuck his black head around the side of the block and looked quickly from left to right. Then indicated, with a jerk of his head, for Faris to follow him inside the nearest stable. As soon as the horses inside the stable block saw Jack they started again, just as they had in the previous three buildings they had been into.

“Hey you! You with the star head! You wanna race?” A brown horse shouted towards Jack and Faris as they stood in the doorway.

“Hang on a minute! You don’t wanna race him mate – you wanna race me! I’m faster!!” Another horse yelled to Jack.

“No I’m the fastest!” The brown horse shouted back.

Jack and Faris shook their heads and made their way swiftly to the end of the block and back out into the night. Just race horses in that block as well.

“Hey, wait a minute! Where did they go?”

“Probably chicken,” the brown horse replied.

“Yeah.” The first horse agreed and clicked his teeth in disappointment.

Faris and Jack stood in the cool night at the end of the stable block. “Not there then?” Faris asked Jack, although he already knew the answer.

“Nope. Come on then, we’d better try the next block,” Jack said grimly.

Jack and Faris moved quickly through the next five stable blocks.

“This is ridiculous!” Jack said exasperated after another seventeen challenges for him to race with various horses.

“Well, we must be getting closer now. Look at it that way.” Faris said, trying to raise his spirits. “For every block that we don’t find them in, we’re one closer to finding the right one.”

“I suppose so. Next one?” Jack suggested.

Faris nodded and led the way into the next stable.

“Hey horsie! Care for a race? Just a quick one?” A large white horse was challenging Jack now.

“No thanks.” Jack replied.

“Just to the field and back?” The horse insisted.

“No. I’m looking for someone.”

“Come on. What about to the gate and back? It’s not as far…”

“No. I need to find a horse. Called Mooncoin.” Jack pressed on.

“OK, just from here to there then?” The horse stepped forward. “Hey you see that? I won! I got here first! Woo Hoo!! I totally won!”

“But we weren’t racing!” Jack said very frustrated. “Have you seen this horse or not?”

“You’re just being grumpy ‘cos I beat you. Loser! Looooser!!” The white horse wasn’t listening to anything Jack said.

“He’s not a loser!” Faris said hotly. “Jack is the King of Horses.”

Jack closed his eyes and shook his head. “Not here mate. They don’t understand.”

“King of Horses? King of Horses?” The horses in the stable block echoed Faris’s words.

“Wait a second. I’m the King of Horses!” One of the horses shouted.

“No you’re not – you’re Kicking King!” Another one said.

“No, I’m the King!” A different one piped up.

“No I am! I’ll race you for it!”

“Come on Faris. There’s no one with any sense to be found here.” Jack led the way and they left the horses behind them arguing about who was the king.

“Jack, those horses are completely bonkers!” Faris said as they moved into the next block.

“Almost as bad as sheep.” Jack muttered back.

“No. They’re much worse than sheep.”

Faris spun on the spot to find a beautiful chestnut mare smiling at him – well, as much as a horse can smile, it’s really just showing a lot of teeth, he still found it hard to tell.

“Mooncoin!” Jack shouted out. He woke up several horses in the neighbouring stalls as he trotted over to the large chestnut horse.

“In the flesh.” Mooncoin said, smiling again. “Should I presume that you are our knights in shining armour?”

“Yes,” Faris grinned. “Minus the knight and the armour obviously!”

“Obviously.” Mooncoin nodded. “New Hoofer?” she asked.

“Yep.” Faris replied.

“Pleased to meet you Hoofer. I assume you are here to help us escape?”

“Absolutely!” Faris beamed.

“I think that’s a good idea Mooncoin. Do you know where the rest of the family are?” Jack said looking around the other horses in the stalls.

“We’re here…”

“And here…”

“And over here…” Three other horses bobbed their heads over the gates to the stalls. “Well, that was easy.” Jack said happily.

Faris darted around the stable block, unlocking the bolts on the doors and letting the large brown horses out into the stable aisle. It took him less than a minute.

“Where are we going?” Mooncoin asked Jack as they made their way out of the stable and towards the fields.

“There’s an entrance to The Caves that isn’t too far from here. We were lucky the humans brought you so close.” Jack told her.

“And what about the rest of my family?” Mooncoin asked “Those little Spriggan menaces took three of them from the boat.”

“Don’t worry about them.” Faris said. “Holly, Cheval and some of the others are rescuing them as we speak.”

“I see you have been busy, little Hoofer.” Mooncoin nudged his shoulder gently as she spoke, giving him the horse version of a pat-on-the-back. Faris beamed with pride and hurried to keep up with his large four-legged friends.

 

Chapter 15 – Down From The Hills

 

“That went pretty well I think.” Cheval said to Holly as he trotted along with the group of horses, including the three eastern horses they had rescued.

“Yeah,” Holly replied distracted.

It had taken much more magic than she’d thought it would to break the charm on the cage. In fact, she’d barely managed it. It had taken so much of her power she was now short on energy for transforming and had to stay in her faerie-form, which wasn’t ideal for travelling long distances.

“Good bit of squishing!” Cheval grinned.

Holly forced herself to smile back. It seemed to her that they may have had the easier part of the plan and she was worrying about Jack and Faris. There had been a lot of Spriggans leave the cave before she and the horses had attacked. Maybe we should have moved faster, Holly thought, even though she knew deep down that they couldn’t have done that and succeeded.

Their group moved quickly and soon they reached one of the entrances to The Caves. Holly was tired, but she couldn’t just go back the Valley Cave and wait for Jack to return, she had to go and find him.

“Cheval, can you get everyone to safety in the Valley? I’m going to find Jack, just to let him know we got back OK.” Holly made her voice sound light. She didn’t want to worry any of the others.

“Of course, au revoir.” Cheval and the other horses opened the entrance and disappeared quickly behind the thick stone door.

Holly waited for the stone door to roll back into place, and then she turned and flew in the direction of the racing college as fast as her tired faerie wings could carry her.

Chapter 16 – A Slight Spriggan Problem

 

“Blast those stupid nags!”

 

The Spriggan clan leader was stood in centre of stable block nineteen and he was in a furious rage. His face was bulging, purple and ready to explode. He had just found four empty stalls where he was expecting to find four special horses. He was not happy.

“Spread out and find ‘em you scabby wart monsters! They can’t ‘av gone far or we’d ‘av seen ‘em…”

The large group of Spriggans spread out slowly from the stable block. Small, ugly figures scuttled from shadow to shadow, being careful to keep away from the large hooves of nervous racehorses that might squish them. It was not looking good for them, when suddenly –

“Look! Over there!! There’s five ‘orses out in that field. Looks like they’re runnin’ away.” A chubby Spriggan pointed a sausage-like, warty finger towards the group in the distance.

Hundreds of ugly Spriggan heads turned to look in the direction he was pointing and saw what they had been searching for.

“AFTER ‘EM!!!” The Spriggan leader screeched.

 

  • * *

 

“Come on Faris, we’ve got to keep moving,” Jack turned back to wait for him, trotting in a circle around him as he tried to hurry him along.

“I’m – whew – sorry. You just move so quickly!” Faris panted as he ran up to Jack.

“KEEP GOING! We’ll catch up!” Jack shouted ahead to Mooncoin and the others who nodded and galloped away towards the woods surrounding the south entrance to The Caves.

“It’s OK, we should be fine from here anyway,” Jack said, looking around them. “We’ve not seen anything of the Spriggans, perhaps they’re still wherever they were keeping the others and we’ll be back before Holly.”

“Good.” Faris said, finally catching his breath. “Will the others be OK?”

“Yeah. They’ll be able to sense the entrance to The Caves from here. They should be fine and it’s not too far from here anyw – ” Jack broke off, jerking his head back in the direction of the racing college.

“What is it?” Faris asked when Jack didn’t say anything else.

“Oh no! Spriggans!!” Jack exclaimed. “Quick, get on my back we’re going to have to run for it!”

Faris didn’t need telling twice and pulled himself onto Jack’s back as he started to gallop away. He turned to look behind them as Jack ran. In the moonlight he could see hundreds of tiny green creatures, with odd shaped arms and legs pulling themselves through the fence in the field where they had just been stood. He was surprised at how fast they moved once they were through the hedge. They appeared to crawl in a strange form of movement that worked with their odd, short limbs.

“How many are there?” Jack yelled back to Faris as he ran.

“Erm, maybe fifty or so…” Faris replied, it was hard trying to count them as he bounced around on Jack’s back.

“FIFTY!” Jack cried. “We can’t outrun fifty of them!”

“What will they do if they catch us?” Faris asked.

“Do? Probably kill us both! They may be small, but they’re vicious and fifty of them could make mincemeat of us!”

Up ahead of them, Faris saw a sea of white, fluffy bodies. And it gave him an idea.

“Head for the sheep!” Faris pointed to the field of sheep.

“What can they do? They’re just sheep.” Jack shouted back at him.

“Just do it!”

Jack dropped his head down and veered to the right, running hard and fast towards the field of sheep. He leaped over the tall fence dividing the two fields, barely disturbing the leaves on the bushes.

“WE NEED YOUR HELP!” Faris called out to the herd of sheep ahead as they charged towards them. “We’re being attacked!”

“What can we do?” One of the sheep said.

“Yes…what ca-aaa-aan we do?” Seven sheep echoed.

“Stop the things that are chasing us! Try not to let them through.”

“OK…we’ll try,” a large black sheep bleated. “Head towards the trees at the e-eee-edge of this field and hide there.”

“Thanks,” Faris shouted back. “Jack, make for those trees!”

“Don’t go too far in though…” The black sheep warned, but Faris didn’t hear him, they were already heading towards the trees.

“What did they say?” Jack panted as he galloped.

“They said they would try to stop them and that we should hide in the trees.” Faris replied.

As Jack raced on towards the trees Faris looked over his shoulder. The large herd of sheep was massing around the hedge where the Spriggans were fighting to get through the thick bushes. Faris could see the black sheep at the front of the group directing the others. From what he could tell they were doing a good job of stopping the Spriggans.

 

  • * *

 

“’Elp me, ‘elp me! I can’t breev!” A small Spriggan yelled as he was squashed beneath the woolly belly of a large sheep.

“Baa-baa-ha-ha.” The sheep laughed and squished the Spriggan even more.

 

  • * *

Chapter 17 – Another Spriggan Problem

 

“What can you see?” Jack hissed into Faris’s ear as he peered out between the small branches of the trees they were hiding behind.

“Not much…” Faris admitted. It was too dark to see exactly what was going on at the other side of the field.

“Well, I see two people hiding in bushes, who could be home right now if they had worked out where they were.” A small voice said from behind Jack.

“HOLLY!” Jack and Faris exclaimed in unison as they turned to see the small faerie hovering in the air behind Jack’s head.

“What’re you doing here? Everything’s OK isn’t it?” Jack demanded.

“Yes, yes. Everything went fine with our side of things. The others are back at The Caves now.” Holly said as she flew towards Faris to look out at the field. “Nice work with the sheep,” she whispered so Jack wouldn’t hear her. Faris grinned back at her. He was definitely enjoying his new skills.

“So how did you get into this mess?” Holly said turning away from the field. “I saw Mooncoin as I was flying over and she said you were right behind them – the next thing I see is five hundred Spriggans chasing you two across the fields!”

“FIVE HUNDRED?!” Jack cried, looking at Faris. “You told me there was about fifty!!”

Faris shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t count, I never went to school did I? At least I knew there was more than ten of them.”

More than ten of them…” Jack imitated him shaking his head. “I can’t believe there’s that many.”

“Well, we should get out of here anyway,” Holly said. “Those sheep won’t be able to hold them back forever. And there’s a cave entrance just over the other side of those trees.” She pointed behind them.

“Of course!” Jack said looking around as though he hadn’t recognised where he was until then. “We’re just at the edge of the east service tunnel!”

Holly nodded her head and started to fly off through the trees and Faris followed her.

“Are you coming or what Jack?” Faris said turning his head when he didn’t hear Jack following them. Then he saw why Jack wasn’t following. “Oh no…”

Oh no indeed my little chum,” said a giant-sized Spriggan, that was holding a knife to Jack’s throat.

The Spriggan was huge – bigger than Jack even! It had huge bulging eyes and its green skin was stretched tight over its enormous body. Faris was petrified, but he knew he must help Jack. How had that Spriggan got so big? He wondered as he stared at them. Then he remembered what Jack had said about Spriggans back in The Caves. “Spriggans can inflate themselves into images of things much bigger than they actually are.”

The Spriggan isn’t really that big! It’s just a trick.

“Move away from him little Spriggan or I’ll squash you!” Faris shouted, raising his fist in the air and stepping towards them. He couldn’t see any other Spriggans nearby; this must have been one of the only ones that got through the sheep blockade.

“Squash me? Squash me?!” The Spriggan yelled back, trying to make his voice sound deeper. “I’m a giant – you can’t squash me!”

“Yes I can! You’re not really a giant – you’re just a blown up midget!”

The giant Spriggan glared at Faris for a second and then shrank back to his normal size and re-appeared swinging from Jack’s glossy black mane. He still held the long silver dagger in his hand and pointed it at Jack’s neck.

“Seems you know a bit about us then, don’t it boy.” The Spriggan hissed. Faris didn’t know it, but this was the Spriggan clan leader himself. “Well, it look’s like I’ve lost me four little ‘orses, but found one better than ‘em all. Feel lots of power comin’ off this one I can.” The Spriggan clan leader grinned as he swung back and forth on Jack’s mane, the knife drifting closer to his throat with each swing.

“You’d better not – ” Faris threatened.

“Better not wot? Wot you goin’ to do on yer own, little boy?” The Spriggan replied, his lip curling up in a sneer. “This nag’s gonna do well enough for what He wants ‘em for anyways. Think’s he might be something very special I do.”

“You little…!” Faris snarled as he took another step towards them.

“Faris don’t!” Jack murmured, his voice stopping Faris in his tracks.

“ ‘Ere! Wot’s he saying to you?” The Spriggan growled at Faris, his eyes narrowing. “Can you understand ‘orses or somethink?”

Faris realised that if the Spriggan couldn’t understand Jack but could understand him, then Faris’s own powers must work automatically when he spoke to different creatures. That would explain why Jack couldn’t understand what he’d said to the sheep, even though Faris thought he’d been speaking normally.

“Jack. Don’t worry, stay where you are I’m going to try something.” Faris said quietly.

“Hey! Wot you saying? You sounds like you’re speaking horse-ish or somethink!” The Spriggan yelled, looking wildly from Faris to Jack and back again.

“Holly. I can’t see you, are you still here?” Faris muttered under his breath. He was answered by a quiet yes from behind a tree, that only he heard.

“ ‘Oo you talkin’ to now?” The Spriggan was glancing nervously all around him now.

“Holly, if you can knock him off Jack’s mane then I can do the rest.” Faris whispered. This time a quiet popping sound answered him and Faris knew Holly must have just transformed, although he had no idea what she had changed into.

“What do I get to do?” Jack muttered to Faris through clenched teeth.

“Stand. Very. Still.” Faris told him.

“Stoppit you!” The Spriggan growled at Faris again. “Tell me oo you’s talking to or I’ll kill ‘im!” He shook the knife threateningly close to Jack’s throat.

“NOW!” Faris shouted as he leaped forwards.

“What you yellin’ ‘bout – ?” The Spriggan was cut off mid-sentence as he was picked up from Jack’s mane and thrown into the air by a huge brown owl as it swooped into the clearing.

The Spriggan clan leader bounced across the grassy ground and stopped when he his small body hit a tree. He dropped the knife as he tried to pull himself to his feet, shaking his head dizzily.

“What were that – ?” He managed to mumble before the owl flew into him again and bowled him across the ground into another tree.

“Wha – I – ow – ?!” The Spriggan stumbled around, trying to pick up the dagger again.

“Oh no you don’t!” Faris put his foot over the blade and picked up the dizzy Spriggan by the scruff of his neck.

“Eh! Put me down!!” The Spriggan yelled as he struggled. “I’ll bite yer nose off!” He shouted, gnashing his teeth in Faris’s face.

“Yeah right, whatever you say small fry.” Faris replied.

“I’ll bite yer ankles!!” The Spriggan kicked his little legs pointlessly in the air. “I’ll nibble yer knee caps, horse boy!!”

“Fine, sure whatever you think,” Faris was pretty much ignoring the ugly creature. “I know just what you deserve…” He said to himself as he walked across the clearing to a small branch on a tree that looked like a coat hook.

“Wait a second – what ‘oo doin’ wiv me? Where’r you takin’ me? Put me down!!” The Spriggan screeched, pulling his whole body from side to side, trying to wrench himself from the vice-like grip Faris held him with.

“There you go…” Faris said as he lifted the back of the Spriggan’s scruffy trousers onto the hook-shaped branch. “In our world we call this a wedgie. I think you might enjoy its finer points.” Faris grinned, then let the full weight of the creature fall onto the seams in his trousers.

“OWWWWWWEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” The Spriggan screamed as he was well and truly wedgied by his own trousers. The more he kicked his legs, the more painful the wedgie became.

“Ouch!” Said Jack screwing up his face. “That’s got to hurt.”

The brown owl flying overhead hooted in agreement.

“Come on – let’s get out of here.” Faris replied, picking up the dagger the Spriggan had dropped in the dirt. “Don’t know how many of the others will break through and I don’t want to wait around to find out. Especially since I can’t count to more than ten!”

“Come on then, horse boy,” Jack grinned. “It’s this way.”

Faris and Jack ran from the clearing, heading towards the safety of The Caves. Holly, as the brown owl, flew high above them and they left the screams of the wedgied Spriggan to fill the night air.

 

Chapter 18 – The Price Of Failure

 

It was twenty minutes before the Spriggan clan leader was rescued from the wedgie hook on the tree. By that time Faris, Jack and Holly were safely back in The Caves and on their way to a celebration, four-knees-up horse-style.

Only five Spriggans had managed to make it through the wall of sheep. The others had run away or were lying dazed in the field moaning about fluff in their lungs.

Before dawn the Spriggans struggled back into their cave in the hills, carrying the clan leader who had not spoken once since being brought down from the tree. He was so severely wedgied that he didn’t speak for another three days apart from making small whimpers every now and then.

When the Spriggans got back to their cave they found the large cage empty and three seriously squished Spriggans. All in all it had been a pretty bad night. Fearing the anger of their Boss at their failure to kidnap the horses many of the Spriggans fled back to their own clans and caves across the countryside. Five days later only the clan leader and two Spriggans remained at the cave, and that was through necessity rather than choice…none of them could walk away.

One night, not long after the failed horse-nappings a dark figure appeared in the cave. He wore a black cloak that covered most of his face and he hovered in the dim corners of the cave. The two remaining Spriggans were so scared of him they ran off into the night and never came back. The clan leader was scared, but did not leave. He knew who the stranger was. He was Nagwort, the witch lord. He was also their ‘Boss’.

“So…what happened with the horses?” Nagwort’s voice rasped from inside the hood of his dark cloak. He walked in slow circles around the small Spriggan leader as he sat helplessly on the floor of the cave.

“They ‘ad ‘elp…sheep and birds and stuff. And a boy – there was a dark-haired boy with ‘im and ‘ee was talkin’ to the ‘orses. They was all ‘elping them ‘orses to get away.” The clan leader mumbled. He shifted uncomfortably in the large padded trousers he was wearing to protect his delicate, recently wedgied, bottom.

“A horse-talking boy you say?” Nagwort spoke quietly as though to himself. If that were true it meant that the horses had found another Hoofer. Nagwort glanced at the Spriggan. The Spriggan has no reason to, and was probably not smart enough to lie to him. This was not good news, but a Hoofer could still be dealt with. “Was there anything else about this boy?”

“Nope, not really.” The Spriggan shook his ugly head from side to side. “Oh! ‘Cept he took me knife! Cheeky blimin’…” He muttered under his breath.

Nagwort drew in a deep rasping breath; he almost didn’t want to ask his next question because he knew what the answer would be.

“The boy took your knife did he?” Nagwort’s coaxing voice was sickly sweet.

“Well, yeah.” The Spriggan thought for a moment. “It was one of them things you had us pinch the other week, you know…er…the erm…pretty curvy one…” His voice trailed off as Nagwort started to hiss loudly like a very angry snake.

“FOOL!” Nagwort screamed as he lurched across the cave and grabbed the Spriggan by his head. “I needed that you stupid cretin!” He shook the small creature back and forth, his stumpy legs jerking around in the air. Nagwort dropped him back onto the floor with a final yell and the Spriggan bounced painfully along on his well-padded behind.

A few minutes of tense silence passed, while Nagwort fought every urge to crush the creature into the ground. Finally he spoke. “What about the other horses you already had? The ones that I gave you the binding spell and cage for?”

“They ‘scaped while we was tryin’ to get them other ‘orses.” The Spriggan replied. “They squished me brother flat them ‘orses did. He were just a green puddle of slime and guts when we got back ‘ere.” He pointed towards a small green smudge in the doorway of the cave.

Nagwort did not even glance at the smudge – why would he care about Spriggans, alive or dead – they were only tools to be used to gain greater things. “The horses could not have escaped without magic, Spriggan.” Nagwort’s voice was hard and cold. “There must have been other help, not just the boy. Did you find any more horses other than the eastern ones I sent you for?”

The clan leader thought about it for a few seconds and scratched his bruised head slowly.

Nagwort shook his head inside his cloak hood. He hated working with these stupid creatures. But he told himself they the best way of getting what he needed without revealing himself. It was too soon for that.

“There was one other ‘orse…he wasn’t brown like all them others though. He was all black.”

“All black?” Nagwort repeated.

“Yeah. Well, ‘cept for a white star-shaped thingy on ‘is ‘ead.”

Nagwort muttered darkly in the old northern language. The Spriggan knew that this was not a good sign, so he stayed quiet, he wasn’t sure he’d survive another shaking.

There was no doubt in Nagwort’s mind who the black horse with star markings was. King Jequine. Jack. So, he had found himself a Hoofer again. Nagwort fumed silently inside his hood. If it was Jack, then there was no doubt that the magic to open the cage had come from his hateful faerie friend. She must be stronger than he thought: powerful for a Figlia faerie. Nagwort would remember that. Jack and his family had caused him enough problems in the past. It was typical that he would be involved in this little mishap too. Well, this would not completely ruin his plans, there were other ways to get what he needed and there was time yet. He had killed Hoofers and horses before and had no problem with doing it again if he had to. In fact, Nagwort would enjoy it.

Nagwort held out his hand towards the clan leader and was about to blast him into a thousand pieces, when he stopped. A new plan was forming at the edges of his dark mind…a plan in which the worthless creature may still have his uses. He lowered his arm.

“I will not punish you for this Spriggan. But, I will call on your services soon. Make sure you do not fail me again. I am rarely merciful and no one fails me twice.” Nagwort swept his cloak around him and disappeared in a swirl of grey smoke.

“Ow. Me bum.” The Spriggan said, thankful he was not going to have any more pain inflicted on his bottom.

Chapter 19 – Leaving The Caves

It was past midday and the sun sat high in the clear blue sky as Jack, Faris and Holly left The Caves. Over five days the horses from the seven families had walked the full length of the cave system to the exit closest to The Core. The final part of the journey had to made overland because The Core was not connected to any other magical haven for its own protection. Throughout the night and morning horses had left The Caves in small groups to make their way to The Core. Jack, Faris and Holly were the last to leave.

A part of Faris was sad to be leaving The Caves behind. They had been his first real home and he felt as though he had met his true family there, just as Jack had promised in the note delivered to his bedroom window.

At the same time he was excited to be moving to The Core. Jack had told him that this would be their new home where Faris would have the chance to meet other people and children with powers. Better still Faris would have the chance to go to a school, for the first time in his life. Jack had promised to teach Faris to count beyond ten as long as Faris taught him the wedgie trick. Both had agreed to this arrangement, for their own safety.

“Is it far to The Core?” Faris asked Jack as he rode along on his back.

“Not too far really. We should be there by night-fall.” Jack replied.

“Just an easy ride from here…” Holly sighed as she stretched out her legs. She was perched on top of Jack’s head.

“Easy for you to say!” Jack laughed.

“So Faris. Are you ready for The Core?” Holly asked, turning her head to look down at him.

“I think so,” he was thoughtful. There were still so many things to think about. So many questions about what the future might hold for him.

“You’ll love it, Faris.” Jack said. “It’s like the Valley Cave – but bigger and better!”

“In that case, I can’t wait!”

Faris smiled and tilted his face up towards the warm sun and closed his eyes. As he rode along with Jack and Holly, Faris knew that this was the start of an even bigger adventure. He found it hard to believe that just three weeks ago he had been a lonely orphan, abandoned in the Mister Grimbaldi’s Foundation for the Potentially Lacking and now he had friends – as close as a family – and a place where he was needed. Faris had finally found out who he was. And he was happy with that.

 

(Not) The End

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Faris and Jack

Life has not been kind to ten-year-old Faris. He has lived at the Grimbaldi Foundation for the Potentially Lacking for as long as he can remember, so long that he doesn’t even have a last name – he’s Faris, just Faris. One magical night an opportunity to escape lands on his window ledge and Faris grabs hold with both hands. He doesn’t know where or who he will end up with, just that life anywhere but The Foundation has to be better. Join Faris on his first adventure, when he finds out that he is a lot more than a ‘normal’ boy and what friendship really means. Perhaps you will be as surprised as him when you meet his new friends…. (Children's book, aimed at readers aged 7+)

  • ISBN: 9781311710055
  • Author: Melanie Cusick-Jones
  • Published: 2016-06-03 20:20:10
  • Words: 29939
Faris and Jack Faris and Jack