Aloysius sat on a bench with a bag of chips in one hand and the scroll in the other.
It was drizzling lightly, and he was having difficulty balancing the two items – or indeed deciding which was the more important.
He sucked down a fat, greasy chip covered in sauce, burning his tongue in the process. It was delicious. He realized that he hadn’t eaten all day, and stuffed a handful into his mouth as if it had been more like a week.
Once the initial ravenous-ness had evaporated slightly, he unfurled Tim’s ancient parchment.
“You don’t want to get yourself involved with that,” said a bag lady, sitting next to him with a wallop and opening a bottle of gin. She took a big swig from it and smacked her lips cheerily.
“What makes you say that,” Al wondered boredly. He didn’t usually talk to the homeless, they freaked him out because he had so nearly been one of them thanks to his reprobate father.
“Well if you’re going to be like that,” she huffed, “I shan’t tell you.”
Al ate another chip.
She gave him a sideways look, waiting for him to ask for more information. He remained impervious, like a bank that has been taken in for questioning.
“Thought young Timothy was doing it, anyway,” she tried slyly.
“Oh, you know him then?” Al asked reluctantly. It seemed that she was part of the set up then. Perhaps she had some wisdom to impart to him at the beginning of this quest.
“Oh yeah, we’ve crossed parves in our time,” she replied airily.
“Paths, but said in a cockney accent.”
“Why are you cockney? This is Edinburgh.”
“Oh that’ll be right,” she hooted, “Edinburgh for the Edinbuggers. Racist.”
“Whatever,” Al said, scooching away from her up the bench to try and get the best of the lamp light on the scroll.
“There’s no point in you trying to read it,” she told him scornfully, “it’s an old gaelic riddle.”
He looked at it.
She was right.
‘Damn,’ he thought, ‘I don’t speak gaelic and I’m terrible at solving riddles. Worst scroll ever.’ Then he thought, ‘I wish Bracken was here.’ Then he brooded for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “what do you suggest I do then?”
She awoke with a start, having dozed off whilst he went through the process of thinking and brooding and thinking. Raising the bottle to her rubbery lips again, she said with a gappy grin,
“You could always type it into babel fish.”
The bag lady then proceeded to laugh for about twenty minutes at her own joke. In the meantime Al studied the scroll. There was a crudely drawn map in the bottom right hand corner.
“Shall I just follow the map?” he interrupted her.
“Oh,” she said, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes, “could do, actually. It’d be a good start.”
“But there’s a bit more to it than that, am I right?”
“Well, there’s a lot of danger.”
“Tim kind of hinted at that. What sort of thing?”
“I thought dragons were never found further north than Wales,” he said, hearkening back to Adric’s chat of a previous chapter.
“Not actual dragons,” the bag lady said, coughing horribly, “metaphorical dragons.”
“Oh right, like, a mother in law or something?”
She rolled her eyes.
“What are you, Bernard Manning?” she asked, thinking of her own son in law, who was himself the very double of Bernard Manning (although he professed not to be any relation to the man himself). “That type of thing, yes,” she added. “Loosely speaking.”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
“Great, that’s been a lot of help,” Al said, standing up to leave. “Was that everything, or did you have some more sage like wisdom to impart?”
“Timothy has much better manners than you,” the bag lady said.
“Yes, well, he’s used to this sort of thing,” Al retorted.
“Have you never quested before?”
“Just the one time. But it was a pretty intense one.”
“Hm. Seems a bit irresponsible to let you take this one on alone then.”
“I might have exaggerated a little bit to put him at ease,” Al admitted. “But to be fair, there wasn’t actually anything in the prophecy that pinned this one to him.”
She looked at him curiously.
“You volunteered, then?”
“To save him from doing it?”
“He needed to spend some time with a sick friend,” Al said, “and I wasn’t doing anything.”
“Maybe you aren’t as bad as your terrible manners imply,” she softened. “Walk with me a while, and I will tell you a little of the amulet’s tale and what you are dealing with.”
“Really though,” he said, “I’d quite like to get on.”
“You’ll appreciate this stuff later on,” she promised, although she wasn’t sure of the veracity of such a statement.
“OK,” he sighed, “can we at least go in the direction the map is pointing?”
“I don’t see why not,” she replied, transforming before his eyes into a beautiful young woman with long golden curls that reached down past her bottom and a white shining dress of gossamer and lace and nature.
“How did you do that?”
“Reveal my true self unto you?”
She laughed with a tinkle that sounded like crystal being gently tapped with an antique ivory letter opener in the shape of a swan’s neck.
“I can do whatever I like,” she smiled. “I am not of your world. I merely choose to blend into it when I find such activity convenient.”
“Well,” Al said, “you blend very effectively. Like a really good cup of tea.”
“Thank you, Aloysius,” she said graciously, taking his arm. “Now let me tell you of the amulet.”
As they set off, two nearby goblins observed them with greedy eyes and beaks.
“Should we tell her that the white witch is helping him,” one asked, already to dial their mutual boss on his iPhone.
“Not yet,” the other said, “let them talk a little further. “She’s probably watching in one of those magic pool things anyway.”
“Hardly,” the first replied archly, “this isn’t The Wizard of Oz, mate. She’s got access to all the CCTV in the country, that’s what she’ll be using, if anything.”
“Doesn’t seem very magical, somehow,” his companion said sadly.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll introduce a magic pool into the movie version.”
“There’s going to be a film?”
“Well, now that magic has been incorporated on the request of the Prime Minister its certainly a lot more commercially viable. Although Chris Columbus has stated that he won’t be getting involved.”
“Pfft, he’s not that great. They’ll get David Yates in, surely.”
“Probably. Oh crap, those two have gone out of earshot.”
“Better follow them then, hadn’t we?”
And the two goblins scampered off into the darkness, leaving a trail of mossy footprints as they went.