"So, this is a list of ingredients?" Nelda asked. "So, what's first. Hair of horse. Hair of horse? How can a sp… ritual for use on Mirth have an ingredient found only on Earth. That makes no sense whatsoever."
"This is a land of many seers," Asbolus remarked as he gathered sprigs from his medicinal garden. "Some of them are even real. Too many, I think sometimes."
"It can't hurt to know more," Jen said, standing contentedly in the sun. "We need all the help we can get."
"When you know one thing you have clarity," Asbolus said. "And when you know all things you have clarity. But when you know a handful of things, many of them will seem to contradict each other, and you sow confusion."
[So what does that mean? It's better to know less, be confident, and find yourself probably in the wrong. There was a price to be paid for avoiding the untidiness of learning from multiple, potentially unreliable sources.]
But all Nelda said was, "Confusion. Like this poem. But if we focus on this last part it does seem fairly clear and like it might be the most important bit. 'The champion on unicorn is mounted. Where rideth she, all trials shall be surmounted.'"
"So, who's this champion, then?" Jen asked.
"Whoever rides the unicorn, it seems to me. If you were still in human form, you would be our top equestrian candidate. But failing that, I suppose I volunteer."
Jen grinned. "Experience suggests you'll need a little practice before attempting it."
She had a point, but… "Hey. It's not like riding a flying centaur with a crashing hangover is a doddle. A unicorn will be easier, probably."
Jen laughed. "Give it another go then, why don't you?" She slapped her withers.
"Ugh." Nelda handed the unicorn ritual scroll to SmithGuild. "No kicking, bucking, or biting, mind."
"No promises!" Jen laughed again. But she trotted over by a low stone wall that surrounded the compost heap. "Here, this will help you get up."
"Are you sure I'm not too heavy for you?"
"Not at all. Especially as there's still a little leaf in me, look." Jen gave a couple of moon-hopper-like bounces where she lofted an impressive distance off the ground with very little effort. "And I took a little bit more before Typho took off with the shrub." She patted her vest pocket. "We should see if we can find more of this stuff."
Nelda climbed up carefully onto the wall. "I don't know how you got such good control of this flying business, so quickly. I was floating around like a balloon for days."
"It probably has something to do with being a rider. You have to urge the horse to act in the way you want, and in perfect synchrony with your own body and mind. They call it 'co-being.' And now I actually am a human-horse co-being. literally. I just… think my way through the air. Like I'm… riding myself, I suppose."
Nelda put her hand cautiously on Jen's white, hairy back. "Well, it's very impressive, whatever it is. You should give lessons. I need them, and Echidna may well need them too. I can just imagine the chaos that would result from her blowing into someone's back garden."
"Oh, I'm sure she'll figure it out." Jen wiggled her equine butt. "Hop on then."
Nelda put both hands on Jen's back and gingerly reached one leg over.
"Find your balance," Jen coached. You want your spine right over my spine. Shuffle forward a bit more. We should probably rig up some kind of stirrups. When can't have the champion falling off and breaking her neck."
[What a reassuring thought.]
Jen began walking very slowly around the garden. "Relax," she said. "Grip with your thighs and let the rest of your legs hang down. Keep your toes up; no pointed toes. Straighten your back."
Nelda struggled to put all those instructions into coordinated action. She started to slip to one side. Making a grabbed for Jen's shoulder, Nelda missed and slid further. Jen tried to side-step back under but the sudden movement ended up just bouncing Nelda into the air. She rebounded and careened off into a pile of firewood, scattering orange spiders in all directions.
Spitting out a mouthful of bark and webbing, Nelda said: "I guess I'm not a natural."
"You know what you have to do. Get right back onto the centaur."
"I think I'll pass…."
"Perhaps," SmithGuild suggested diffidently. "We should be focusing on more immediate matters."
Jen shrugged and flipped her tail. "I probably have some horse hair on my clothing somewhere. I wore this vest out to the stables a hundred times. The trick will be figuring out which ones are a horse's and which ones are mine. Or does that matter?"
"It matters," Asbolus chimed in with mild affront. "The rest of the ingredients I have here, bar one. That needs to be gathered from a grove that is very sacred to the centaurs, no other race is permitted there. It would take me a day or two, to fetch."
"We'd be so obliged if you would," Nelda said.
"Oh, could I go?" Jen actually clapped her hands. Somehow her perky cheerleader ways were becoming less irritating and more endearing with time.
"Of course," Asbolus applied. "Whatever you might have been before, you are a centaur now. But you might consider that you would be better served by ingratiating yourself to a herd, rather than with me."
"There's a greater purpose at stake," Jen said—not entirely convincingly. "That is the most important thing. Like, saving the world."
"And with the ingredients assembled," SmithGuild said. "The ritual must be performed in this place — Perrit's peak. Not so hard to get to when I had wings, but on foot…" he shook his head.
"Not more than a week's journey by land, with haste," Asbolus said.
SmithGuild rubbed his blistered foot, his shoulders slumped.
Nelda felt a frown crease her forehead. The gryphon's health seemed to slide downward with each day he spent in human form. Perhaps she should be focusing instead on some why to make him whole. Or… wait. HerbGuild. She might have some ideas about that. And why had SmithGuild not notified his sister of his return?
"But don't you see," Jen said brightly. "We could fly. I mean, we'd probably need a prevailing wind – at least until I can further improve my technique."
"The prevailing wind is generally away from the mountain," Asbolus said ominously.
Jen was undaunted. "Then I shall just have to practice," she said with her habitual cheer.
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