Gwain looked at the shining being as it floated a few feet away from him, apparently it also carried with it some kind of private, melodramatic magic choir as he couldn’t see anyone else but there was definitely music playing in his head.

“Before you can gain what you saw in the pool of future reflection, you must first complete one final quest.”

Of course. There was always a bloody catch. “Are you sure it has to be me? I mean, there are thousands of other warrior elves who could do the job. Probably with much less complaining too.”

“No Gwain. It has to be you. The Great Others have ordained that only you can complete this task.”

‘The great others.’ Gwain knew of plenty of other names that would suit this mysterious council of beings that liked poking their noses into his business, and ‘great’ didn’t feature in any of them.

“Let me guess,” said Gwain. “The fate of the realm is at stake?”

“This, and all realms, all worlds, all universes past, present and future. A great evil lurks in the darkness, ready to destroy all that we hold good and true.”

“Wow, no pressure then. It can never just carry on lurking, can it? Bloody darkness. Fine. I’m to complete this alone, am I?”

“No Gwain,” said the hovering spectre. “Two companions you shall have. One you have already encountered. The other, you will discover on the road ahead. Be brave, and share all your wisdom.”

“Well that shouldn’t take long,” said Gwain. “So who is this first companion then? One of the warrior woman of the South Sea? Krysta-Val and I had some good times.” He still had a problem with his back after their weekend together in the lava pools of the Eastern Isles . “Or perhaps one of those rock giant lads? A bit slow but they make very good shields.”

“All worthy. But the light of destiny has not shone on any of those warriors this time. A new hero has been chosen, one who has turned from his old ways to become a being pure of heart and soul.”

Gwain laughed. “Well unless it’s a puppy or something, I don’t think you’ll get many who fit that description around these parts.”

He then heard the unique sound of waddling and hopping, and it dawned on him who his first companion would be.

“Hello again, This is a turn up for the books, eh?”

Gwain turned slowly, hoping if he did so it might give the great others time to change their minds.

“Greetings again … Bill.”

“Imagine little old me recruited to save all the realms. Beats being on troll toilet patrol, I tell you!”

“Well, glad to see you are enthusiastic about the challenges ahead.”

The being and their invisible choir still hovered above them.

“Now you will need to go to your third companion. She is in grave danger. You will find her in the village of Tacoscrunchos, south of the river Guac.

“That’s not too far,” said Gwain. “Three hours ride, two if we can avoid the rain, and the food’s great. What’s this noble warrior doing there?”

“Waiting for you to arrive so that she can claim her destiny. I leave you now, but know that my light will shine on your quest, in it’s darkest moments.”

“Yea right,” said Gwain as the being faded into the ether. “And my uncle is a unicorn.”

Bill quacked and sneezed at the same time, which made a sound like the universe having a seizure. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m allergic to duck feathers.”

Gwain looked at him, partly hoping one of those imps who liked to hang about in woodlands and get you to chase it for potion spells would appear, because he was confident he was going to need some kind of giant fire ball very soon.

“Well,” he said. “That’s somewhat inconvenient.”

“Tell me about it,” said Bill. “Costs me an absolute fortune in antihistamines. Which, I might add are unavailable for me to take orally.”

“Of course,” said Gwain, adding the additional image to the list of things that he was going to have to get magicked from his brain.  “My horse is stabled at an Inn just north of the woods. We’ll get some refreshment, then be on our way.”

 

An hour or so later, Gwain discovered something that Bill was most definitely not allergic to : mead. He had to hand it to the fluffy little quacker, Bill sure could handle his drink. Gripping the tankard was an issue, but the innkeeper had provided a straw.

“So, what do you think this girl is like then?” Bill asked, swaying ever so slightly on his stool. “Do you think there’s any chance she’s a magic mallard, because I tell you something, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve shaken my fluffy tail, if you catch my drift.”

“I honestly can say I wish I didn’t.” Gwain looked down at his own empty tankard and beckoned to one of the serving wenches. “I’m going to need something stronger.  Dwarf whiskey should do the trick. Make it a double please.”

“And some cheese and onion crisps, if you could be so kind,” said Bill. “I’m bloody starving. There’s only so much stale bread and lettuce you can eat, know what I mean?”

Gwain downed his whiskey, and left Bill to his bar snacks while he went outside for some fresh air. He knew that complaining about the quest was a waste of time. It wasn’t as though there was anyone to even complain to. Sure, everything was heard, whether by a watching wind or a spying sparrow, everything in this realm got to someone rather quickly. That doesn’t mean there was anyone that could do anything about it.

He walked round the back of the inn to the tables, where his horse, Douglas had been resting. The faithful stallion bolted up as Gwain approached.

“They been looking after you, boy?” Gwain said, scratching Douglas behind the ear. “One last quest and  it’s the good life for you and me, buddy. I promise. No more trolls, or demons, or  - he shuddered at the thought – Donkey wasps. Maybe we can both settle down, I can work on my paintings, maybe find myself a pretty muse, and we’ll get you the sweetest filly in all the known kingdoms. Sound good?”

The horse whinnied in appreciation, shaking his grey mane.

“We’re going to one of your favourite places now. Just do me a favour and take it easy on the spicy stuff this time will you? That village where you ‘went’ all over the sundial still have not forgiven me. Apparently you can smell high noon before you can see it.”

The town of Tacoscrunchos was unique amongst all the realms. Centuries before, a group of Warlocks, wizards, witches and mages who practised food based magic had been exiled from various villages and kingdoms for an apparent lack of use during battle. At the time, there was just no use for a wizard who had mastered this art.  It was seen as poor manners, to transform your enemy into a big bowl of beef stew or a fudge sundae. So, they formed a new place, a place born of flavour and wonder, of texture and taste. Tacoscrunchos was born.

You could smell the place at least half a mile away, further if the winds were kind. Gwain was walking and leading his noble horse by the rains, whilst Bill waddle hopped not too far behind.

“You could have stayed on the horse, you know.” Said Gwain. “It’s not as if you’re much weight.”

“No, It’s okay,” said Bill. “I’d like to get my cardio levels up if I’m going to be fighting off evil hordes and whatnot.”

“Fair enough, “ said Gwain, as a familiar, warm wonderful sent wafted it’s way into his nostrils. Ah. One of the desert mages was making chocolate tacos. Gwain loosened his belt and patted himself on the stomach. “We’ve earnt this,” he said to his own gut.

“I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you actually smile,” said Bill.

“Tacoscrunchos is different,” said Gwain. “The people, the soul of the place. It’s all about expression and new experiences and following your heart.”

“Feels to me like you’re following a different organ, and I ain’t talking about your belly, ” said Bill.

“Like I said,” Gwain answered. “ Tacoscrunchos is all about following your heart, but that can lead to – never mind. Let us not forget we have a job to do.”

“What was her name?” asked Bill.

“I’d rather not talk about it, if it’s all the same,” said Gwain, his enthusiasm for Tacoscrunchos calming somewhat.

“That’s a funny name.”

Gwain sighed. “Very good Bill.”

“Hey, I’ll have you know that’s not bad for rabbit duck humour,” Bill said.

“But – you’re the only one,” said Gwain. “Aren’t you?”

Bill gave a fuzzy little shrug. “Far as I know. Who knows what happened to all the others, I never saw them again.”

Gwain stopped, pulling his horse to a halt.  “Others?”

“Yea, well there were four of us trying to nick treasure from the old git’s tower that day. He zapped us all,” said Bill.

Gwain suddenly had a whole new pang in his belly, and it wasn’t hunger.

“Shit. I knew there was something else going on here. Those bastards.” Gwain kicked at a rock in frustration, which actually turned out to be a sleeping stone fairy who was not amused and gave him the finger as she flew away.

Sitting down on the road side to inspect his toe, Gwain shook his head and muttered to himself angrily.

Bill tucked his little legs in and sat down next to him. “Sorry. I don’t follow.”

“Of course you don’t bloody follow, you’re just a-” Douglas nudged Gwain in the back before he could finish the sentence, also giving him a moment to gather his composure. “The ‘Great Others’ they claim to bring order to the realm, balance. They can’t directly intervene which is why idiots like me get lumbered with doing their dirty work for them.”

“So what’s that got to do with me then?”

Gwain pulled a water bag from the saddle bags strapped to Douglas and emptied some of the contents over his sore feet. “This feels like a side quest.”

“A what?”

“A side quest,” said Gwain. “A mission separate from our main objective, but one we need to do in order to get to our final destination.”

“Well, I’m game, ” said Bill. “I got a few hundred years to kill still anyway.”

Gwain looked at Bill. It was hard not to pity him, annoying as he was. After all, he was just a child trapped inside that thing. Gwain knew what he had to do. He knew what the Great Others wanted him to do. He began to have an inkling that all this was far more than just a coincidence.

“We have to find the others, Bill. The other three, we have to find them. The wizard. What was his name?”

Bill squinted in concentration. “It was so long ago, I can barely remember, I just remember him being angry. Really angry. Smelt funny too.”

“I know someone in Tacoscrunchos who can help us with that.”

“Side quest?” Asked Bill.

“Well, this one is more of a - ” Gwain saw the confused look on Bill’s face. “Yes. Side quest will do.”

 

The moon was high in the sky when Gwain, Bill and Douglas trooped into the outer town limits of Tacoscrunchos. A cloud of vibrant aromas draped itself over the entire area. Gwain took in a lungful.

“Oi! Who goes there?” A voice rang down from above, calling from the watchtower that sat in the middle of the only road into town.  From either side of the tower, a high fence ran round as far as the eye could see.

Gwain squinted up through the spicy fog with a smile. He remembered that voice. “Crotchety you old goat!” He yelled up. “Is that you?”

“Crotchety? Know -ones called me that since – Gwain you lucky troll stomper! Is that you?”

“The one and same old friend! Are you going to come and open this gate or am I to stand here insulting you some more?”

In reply came banging, clanging and much muttered complaining that was somehow said under the breath but also very loudly. Eventually, a heavy door creaked open and there stood ‘Crotchety’ the gate keeper and guardian of Tacoscrunchos. All twelve inches of him.

Bill nudged Gwain and whispered. “He’s not quite as tall as I imagined.”

“You more than anyone should know,” said Gwain as he glanced down. “That size and stature do not always mean the same thing.”

Bill ruffled his feathers and gave his tail a shake. “That’s a bloody good point.”

Crotchety strode forward, which took some time as his legs kept getting tangled up in his beard. “Infernal thing!” His voice boomed across the night sky. Pulling his beard up and knotting it around his neck like a wispy scarf, he arrived in front of the travelling trio.

“Gwain! Still as handsome as ever. And Douglas! Still banned from Bleachville?”  The horse whinnied and dropped his head in embarrassment. “And I see you have a new er … friend?”

“Bill. Pleasure.” Bill extended a wing, which Crochety gently shook.

“We’re are on a great quest, courtesy of the ancient council,” said Gwain with all the enthusiasm of a match seller during dragon season.

“Oh, those bastards,” said Crotchety. Every word seemed to shake the ground. “Next part of your quest is here, is it?”

“We’re looking for someone, a young girl. A mage,” said Gwain.

“I’m gonna need more than that,” said Crotchety. “You’ve just described about a thousand people. You’re as exactly as stupid and pretty as I remember.”

Gwain smiled. “And you are every bit as subtle. I need to see the soothsayer anyway, I’m sure she can help.”

“My shifts almost finished. Why don’t you come and rest at my house for the night? I’d love to have a catch up. I’ve got fresh straw for Douglas and a pond for the duck.”

“Duck-rabbit,” said Bill flatly.

“Sorry chap,” said Crotchety. “Before we go anywhere, let me tell you my real name. Very important in gnome custom, for a guest to know the name of his host. It’s Cracicous Randible Osforth Tyron Crumble Hogslab Egan Trumper Yoose.”

Gwain was moments away from biting his tongue clean off.

“Wow,” said Bill. “That’s a mouthful. I can see why you prefer Crotchety.”

Crotchety glowered up at Gwain. “I don’t.”

Gwain allowed himself a titter. “A story for another time. Let’s just say, my esteemed gnome friend here once got very upset when he couldn’t find his lucky codpiece before a battle.”