Swish of the Willows

Everyone knows the Gnome doesn't do Birthdays, so this can't possibly be his birthday present from Cobweb. Everyone also knows he's curmudgeonly, and doesn't share, so he can't possibly be sharing this with you, can he?

Carabosse tipped the last of the wine into his glass and peered into it morosely. He was bored. Bored, bored, bored. Cobweb was doing. . . whatever it was that made her curse so much, something to do with the end of the tax year, and her little fiend. . . friend was away, not that Carabosse cared much about him, and Huw was busy and what was a Wicked Fairy supposed to do with no Wickedness to hand?

He opened a tiny gap in Reality to see what Cobweb was doing, and hastily closed it again. Tax codes. She was doing something with tax codes: BR for Bloody Ridiculous, L for Ludicrous, P for Pathetic, Y for You Cannot be Serious, K for Kidding, NT for Nastily Terrifying. And she wasn’t even a Tax Fairy any more so why she was doing this. . . Not that he was going to ask. Last time he had asked, she had Told him: she had explained Income Tax until his head hurt. He made a mental note that in future, anybody who asked Cobweb about Income Tax would feel the full wrath of the Carabossieri, and if he couldn’t think of some way to bring them to the attention of the spare Nemessaries as well, he wasn’t the Wicked Fairy he thought he was.

But he was Bored, and – he took a grip on his emotions – that was a sure sign that he needed to do some Wickedness. He needed somebody to annoy. He let his thoughts reach randomly into the places where Reality and Story meet and. . . yes, there was something. Who was that?

It was an Author. Oh yes, he could something with an Author. To an Author. He felt gently along the lines of the Author’s Story, a delicate gentle tale of mystical anthropomorphism. Yup. One good tug and he could bugger that up completely. He considered, for a moment, taking the main characters and replacing them with rugby players, but. . . no. No. Still, perhaps a tiny hint of Woodgnome here and there. . .

Here you go, Author, he thought, twisting a neat loop into the fabric of Unreality. Now get out of that.

The international spy working undercover Mole had been spring-cleaning his little home. There were splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, his back ached and his arms were tired.

“Mind what you’re doing with that damn paintpot!” he snarled, throwing a protective hand over his wineglass for the sixth time and pulling the deckchair away from the encroaching decorators. The deckchair was both uncomfortable and uncooperative; it had bitten him twice and it was too heavy for him to move it easily, hence the weariness and backache. He glanced wistfully at his favourite armchair, swathed in dustsheets and tantalisingly inaccessible. Still, if he didn’t watch those damn subcontract rabbits, they knocked off early and set about knocking each other off. While the Mole was altogether in favour of hot bunny sex, he generally preferred for there to be no actual rabbits involved.

It was spring in the world outside, and the Mole could feel the fresh air and sunshine calling to him in the dark underground burrow. Suddenly he threw the cleaning contract at the head of the nearest bunny.

“Bother!” he said. “Oh blow!” he said. “Oh shitfuckbugger!” he said. “Hang spring-cleaning!” He bolted out of the house and scrambled up the narrow tunnel that was his front entrance.

(The Author, slightly bewildered, abandoned the page which contained the ‘shitfuckbugger’ and a subsequent paragraph carrying a slightly too detailed description of the Mole’s back entrance.)

His tiny paws scratched and scrabbled and he muttered to himself as he went: “Up we go! A change from going down! Up we go!” until – pop! – he broke out into the sunlight and found himself rolling on the grass in a green meadow.

“Hey!” said a small Green Dragon reproachfully. “Don’t damage the merchandise, man.”

“This is better than whitewash!”

“I dunno know your local names, but this is good skunk.”

The Mole looked at him uncomprehendingly. “No skunks here,” he said. “”No Mephitidae at all. Mustelidae, yes lots, they turn up in subsequent chapters but no skunks. Not in this country.”

(The Author tore the page from his typewriter and started again.)

Suddenly the Mole came to the bank of a River. He had never seen a River before. It was full of life and movement, glints and gleams and sparkles (although that might have been just the effect of rolling on the grass. With the skunk which we don’t have in this country). The Mole trotted beside it, fascinated, until he was tired out. Then he sat down on the grassy bank, and listened to the sound of the water. After a while, the sound made him feel. . . well, he thought he needed. . . anyway, he retired behind a tree and re-emerged shaking his. . . re-emerged feeling much better. He sat back down and gazed at the River. As he looked at the opposite bank, he saw a dark hole. It winked.

(The Author pulled another page from his typewriter, tore it into tiny shreds and buried them at the bottom of his waste paper basket, before pouring himself a strongly restorative drink.)

It winked and he saw that it was an eye. An eye. Then a small face appeared.

“Hello, Mole!” said the Water Rat.

“Who the fuck are you?” “Hello, Brat.”

“Not a Brat,” said the Water Rat sulkily. The Mole, who knew that the surest sign of being a Brat was to deny being one, ignored him. The Water Rat recovered swiftly.

“Would you like to come over?”

“No thanks,” said the Mole, who lacked interest in almost all things to do with water unless they involved a wet naked rugby player or four.

(The Author opened a new bottle of correction fluid, which seemed appropriate somehow. Mind you, he thought, the desire for wet naked rugby players either with or without correction wasn’t him, it was her.)

“I mean, how?” asked the Mole, feeling Plot kick him smartly on the ankle.

The Rat stooped and unfastened a rope. Almost certainly he had been forbidden to touch it, but he hauled up a little blue and white boat, in which he rowed across and into which a suspicious Mole stepped.

The animals made friends at once; Ratty was very surprised to learn that Mole had never been in a boat before. “There is nothing half so much worth doing,” he told Mole, “as simply messing about with sailors in boats. Rum, sodomy and the lash.”

The Mole, who didn’t care for rum, ignored him again and Ratty went on rather nervously. “Boats, I mean.” He glanced about him to see how close the Author was. “Messing about in boats. If you’ve nothing else to do, why don’t we go down the River and make a day of it? I’ll bring a picnic.” He produced a wicker basket.

“What’s inside?”

“Cold chicken,” said Rat. “Cold-tongue-cold-ham-cold-beef-pickled-onions-salad-french-bread-cress-sandwiches-potted-meat –”

“No thanks.”

“Champagne-Chablis-Viognier-Shiraz-Rioja-sloe-gin-cherry-brandy – ”

“Now you’re talking. Move over. Mind you, it’s far too much.”

“Do you think so?” asked the Rat seriously. “It’s only what I always take on these little outings. I find that what with the Green Dragon and the grass and the skunk, I’m always hungry.” But he wisely let the subject drop, and rowed quietly down the River, while the Mole clutched the sides of the boat and tried to tell himself that the Author wouldn’t allow him to be sick. 

Presently he relaxed a little and began to take in the new sights and sounds while Rat rowed down the River, explaining why he loved it so much. “It’s my world and I don’t want any other.”

“Parochial,” thought the Mole, but he was too lazy to pick a fight. Presently he pointed at a dark background beyond the fields. “What lies over there?”

“Oh, that’s the Wild Wood. We don’t go there much, we Riverbankers.”

“Aren’t they – very nice people over there?”

“Well – the squirrels are all right. The rabbits are a mixed lot, always haring around. And Badger’s all right. Nobody interferes with him. They’d better not! But there are others – weasels and stoats and foxes and so on. All right in a way, but you can’t trust them. And some of them are” – and he lowered his voice meaningfully – “female.”

“And beyond the Wild Wood?”

“Beyond the Wild Wood is the Wide World,” said the Rat, “ and that’s something which doesn’t matter to you or me.”

“Very parochial,” thought the Mole disapprovingly.

So Rat and Mole began their picnic. While they were eating, they met two of Rat’s friends: Otter, swimming underwater to catch fish and therefore less than two hours after his lunch, and Mr Badger, whose stripy head suddenly pushed through the thorny hedge. He grunted, “Hm! Company! Is there group sex? No?” and disappeared again.

Mr Toad was on the River too, in a brand new stern-coxed racing shell, in the company of seven brawny oarsmen and a tiny individual who had Stern Cox written all over him. Some advertising contract, perhaps, thought the Mole.  Toad was short and fat, splashing badly and rolling from side to side.

“He’ll never do well in a boat,” said Rat critically.

“Not steady enough,” said Otter, vanishing after a fish.

“He only does it for the Bumps,” explained the Rat. “I’m not sure he quite understands how Head of the River works – he seems to think that his crew will. . . never mind. Last year he had a houseboat – thought he had ordered a houseboy. But he soon gets tired of things.”

Later, as the Rat sculled gently homewards, he cast an amused eye on the Mole and said, “Hi, old fellow, aren’t you going to ask to row?”

“No,” said the Mole placidly.

“Aren’t you going to take me by surprise, snatch the oars, catch a huge crab and overturn the boat, so that I have to rescue you and take you home, all cold and wet and miserable and ashamed and. . .”

“What do you take me for? Some Bratty twink with more hair than sense? I don’t know how to row and you do, and besides, it looks like exercise and work and I’m a Mole, I don’t do those.”

“But,” said the Rat, his little nose beginning to quiver and his lip trembling, “how am I to persuade you to come and stop with me for a while, if I don’t have some hold over you which starts with you doing something stupid and me rescuing you? My house is very plain and rough, you know – not like Toad's house at all - but you haven't seen that yet; still, I can make you comfortable. And I'll teach you to row, and to swim, and you'll soon be as handy on the water as any of us.”

“I’ve got a house,” pointed out the Mole, reasonably. “And pleasant though this has been for a day, I don’t really care that much about picnics – it’s Cobweb who likes those –” (“Who’s Cobweb?” interjected the Rat, but he got no answer) “so thank you, but if you drop me off at the weir I’ll get along home.”

“I’ve got a cellar. It has wine in it. Also cheese and several types of ham.”

“Thank you, I would love to come and stay. It’s so kind of you to ask.”

And the Author abandoned his glass in favour of drinking straight from the bottle, and also wondered if it were true that a satisfactory high could be achieved by the use of correction fluid thinners as a nasal spray.

Next day the Rat took Mole to visit Mr Toad in his handsome house made of mellow red brick. Toad was rather rich but not a very sensible animal. Ratty and Badger had to keep an eye on him – well, Ratty kept an eye on him and told tales to Badger. Toad was good-natured enough, but inclined to show off, and he was always getting into trouble. Remind you of anything yet?

The friends found him sitting in the garden looking at a road map. He had bought a gypsy caravan (what do you mean, we aren’t allowed to call them that any more? asked the Author, cracking another bottle of thinners), painted bright yellow with green trim and red wheels. There was an old a grey horse with something of the donkey about it to pull it. Toad was planning to take his first trip that afternoon and he persuaded Mole and Rat to go along with him.

Toad was bouncing about, full of the joys of the Open Road, its freedom and fresh air. The Mole had his suspicions about caffeine and chocolate, but he said (for once) nothing. The three of the set out, but before they had got very far, disaster struck like we couldn’t have seen that one coming.

They were walking along the country lane quite happily, leading the horse. Suddenly a loud Poop! Poop was heard and the Author flinched.

A magnificent motor car, all plate glass and chromium, flashed past them flinging out a cloud of blinding dust. Then it was gone. The horse bolted, the caravan turned over and fell into the ditch, its windows smashed and one wheel off.

“Road hog!” shouted Ratty, who had been sharing the Toad’s chocolate and who was a little over-excited himself. But Toad just sat there in the dust, a dazed look in his eyes, muttering “Poop! Poop!”. He didn’t care about the wrecked caravan – he was already thinking about how marvellous it would be to drive a car.

Next day on the River Bank everybody was talking about the latest news: “Have you heard? Toad has ordered – what do you think? – a large and very expensive motor car!”

It will end in tears, thought the Mole. He’ll never be allowed to spend that sort of money without written permission. . .

Eventually, of course, Badger took a hand. “It’s time we did something about Toad,” he grunted. “He’s a disgrace to the neighbourhood. What my old friend, his father, would have said about his doings, I don’t like to think. This craze for motor cars is getting him into trouble with the police!”

“Yes, he’s had several crashes, “agreed the Rat, who was a snivelling little tell-tale. “I hear he has ordered another new car this week.”

They set off for Toad Hall. Sure enough, there at the front door stood a shiny, brand new, bright red (are there other colours?) motor car. Mr Toad, in goggles, cap, gaiters and a huge overcoat, came swaggering down the steps, pulling on his big leather driving gloves.

“Why does fetish gear always make one look such a complete arse?” asked the Mole, theatrically; the Badger gave him a hard stare.

“You’re just in time for a jolly spin, you fellows!” called out Toad cheerfully.

“Oh no you don’t!” said Badger grimly, seizing Toad by the scruff of the neck and marching him back into the house in a show of animal domination which made the Mole come over all unnecessary. He recovered quickly enough to take a share, with Ratty, of removing Toad’s ridiculous motoring togs while Badger gave him a strict talking-to, although Toad didn’t seem to appreciate it nearly as much as the Mole thought he should. But the Toad refused to give up driving, and the other animals locked him in his bedroom to think it over.

That’s not a good idea, thought the Author muzzily, trying to find his typewriter among the empty bottles and overturned glasses. He’ll climb out through the window and down the sloping roof, they always do, and then something worse will happen.

And indeed, Toad did escape through the window, and hopped off to the village congratulating himself on his cleverness in the approved Bratty fashion. At the inn he saw a beautiful motor car, whose owners were inside having lunch; Toad couldn’t resist trying it out. This is called theft, Best Beloved, or Taking and Driving Away, and is a Bad Thing. Oh no, wrong Author, sorry. It just seemed to fit, hey? Anyway, he turned the starting handle, hopped in and drove away in a cloud of dust.

Bloody speed merchant, thought the Author, who was perhaps a little shaky as a result of the appearance in his lovely story of the interesting herbal cigarettes earlier, and who was not altogether clear on how amphetamines worked.

Still, he might have been right: in any event it was a limp and sorry Toad who appeared in the dock at the Magistrate’s Court, charged with dangerous driving, stealing a motor car and, worst of all, cheeking the police. He was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, whereas we all know, Best Beloved, that what Toad really needed was a good hard bare-bottomed spanking, don’t we? Being cheeked by the police. We asked that policeman, the nice one with the dark eyes and the smart uniform, if he didn’t think that a sharp spanking was in order, and he said it most certainly was, he’d never heard such a good idea. Then he went off somewhere with that woman, the one with the camera.

Ahem. Beg pardon. Where were we? And how many Authors are there in this thing?

The wretched Toad was handcuffed and marched across the square to the ancient castle, guarded by men-at-arms and warders. He was dragged through courtyards where bloodhounds strained at their leashes. Down spiralling staircases he went, down to the deepest dungeons of all, the ones where Alan Rickman is hovering about, dressed in black and armed with a spoon.

That’s not an Author, that’s a Director. Do we like Directors?

What about Directors of Rugby?


The girl who came to visit the Toad in prison was a kind-hearted sociology student, who was very fond of animals. She took pity on Toad, and coaxed him to eat some hot buttered toast, asking him to tell her all about Toad Hall in order to provide data for her dissertation on Motor Crime Among the Monied Classes. Soon the Toad revived a little and began to puff himself up and boast about his home and his possessions, and the title of the dissertation morphed in the student’s mind to Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow: The Classic Brat and the Internal Combustion Engine.

In spite of his conceit, she was sorry for him. She hated to see animals shut up, so she began to think of a plan to help him escape. (She was a very Naughty sociology student, and no doubt her own Story involved some large and powerful college tutor with no regard for the regulations on Undue Influence and Being In a Position of Responsibility, who would spank such nonsense out of her and then have a complaint lodged against him when she got her head straight. Where were we?)

Anyway, her idea was that the Toad could dress in her Aunt’s clothes. Her Aunt was a washerwoman, who came to the castle once a week. She was short and stout (like Toad!) She wore a long cotton dress, a shawl and an old blue bonnet, and she carried a basket full of washing.

The Author jumped convulsively as a hand fell on his shoulder. He twisted to look up at his unexpected visitor, and gave a squeak of terrified dismay.

“I’m a what?”

Um. . . washerwoman.

“No. I occasionally do laundry, that’s all. Well, fairly frequently, actually, laundry’s like that, it breeds when you aren’t watching. But I am not a washerwoman.”

Oh. O.K.

“And see these? These are trousers. I’m wearing them. And the shawl isn’t a shawl, it’s a pashmina. No bonnet. If you insist on a hat I’ve got several but none of them will match the pashmina and it’ll look odd. And I think we could do without personal remarks about my height and figure. And whether or not I look like a Toad.”

But I need a washerwoman. And. . .excuse me but I don’t know why you’re here.

“I don’t either, I didn’t intend to be in this Story, I haven’t time, but I suspect that Bossy had a finger in it and when I get home he’s going to be sorry.”

Well. . . under the circumstances. . . would you mind being the washerwoman just to keep the Plot moving?

“I’ll take him in a change of clothes. That’s as far as I’m going.”

Thank you.

The sociologist giggled as she tied the strings of the bon. . . as she draped the pashmina over Toad’s head to best effect. “You look just like her,” she giggled, not giving due thought as to whether this was a kind or intelligent thing to say. The College Tutor in potentiam became a little less nebulous and a little more Toppish. That’s what happens with you’re rude about a Nemessary.

“Goodbye and good luck! Be careful what you say to the sentries!”

There were some anxious moments as Toad set off, especially as the sentries made rude remarks, because he did tend to answer back and as a result, by the time he made it outside, he was sporting some rude marks and muttering to himself rather. But soon he came through the prison gates into the sunlight. He was free at last.

Suddenly he heard a familiar noise. Along the highway came a motor car and it was the very one which Toad had stolen!

Toad pretended to faint. The Author jumped again; his visitor had apparently not gone. Indeed, she was gazing over his shoulder, in some disapproval, at the text.

“Sick Brat is an abomination, but pretending to be sick to get out of trouble isn’t much better. Can you please see to it that somebody spanks that Toad Real Soon Now?”

He thought it wise to nod, although a swift glance through his notes failed to show any place where this could be forced into the Plot.

The car stopped. The passengers took him to be a poor washerwo- a poor laundry specialist with good taste in sensible clothing, and put him in the front seat, where the fresh air would soon revive him.

Toad soon perked up enough to ask a favour. “I’ve always wanted to see if I could drive a motor car,” he said longingly. “Please let me try!”

The passengers were very amused to think of a humble washerwo- laund- a something in badly fitting clothes wanting to drive. “Let her have a go!” they said to the chauffeur. Somewhere out of sight a badly overworked Nemessary whimpered about licences and insurances and driving without due care and attention and allowing other people to drive your car when you know they aren’t legally entitled, and the fact that this meant that today’s Lists of the Deserving now covered five pages.

Toad drove off, slowly at first, then faster.

“Be careful, washerwoman!” they cried.

“I’m not a washerwoman!” said he. “I’m the great, the famous Toad!” And he drove faster than ever, terrifying the passengers oh, now they think of it, until he took a corner too fast and drove straight into a pond.

He jumped out and hopped off across the fields, leaving the passengers standing up to their waists in muddy water. But when he looked back, he saw the chauffeur and two policemen running after him.

“Excuse me.”

The Author backed his chair away until he could feel the wall behind him. He was tired of people just turning up in his study.

“Why am I in this Story? I know why the Inspector is, he likes this sort of thing. But why am I? I’ve only passed through a couple of chapters and they haven’t let me talk more than once. And actually, if you’re looking at arresting somebody for car theft, you really don’t need an Inspector and a senior Sergeant. You need a couple of Plods.”

I needed two policemen, whimpered the Author, and you were the only ones I knew.

“Well, we aren’t going to work for you, are we? Because the whole point of this is that we don’t catch the Toad, and although I’m no sprinter, the Inspector has a fine turn of speed for his age. It’s not a good idea.”

What shall I do?

“If I were you, sir, I would just leave the policemen out of it. They only complicate things and they aren’t really necessary. I mean, think about it – where did they come from? One minute you’re bowling along the main road, the next you’re in a pond and two policemen just appear. Now I ask you, sir, is that likely? Even if we happened to be there, we wouldn’t just take off after the individual in the badly fitting clothes: we would want some explanation of what was going on. No, sir, take my word for it – leave the policemen out.”

Suddenly Toad tripped. He had come to the River Bank and – splash! – he fell into the water.

He swam along, gasping, until he came to a hole not this again, sighed the Author, preparing to lose most of a chapter in the bank oh, O.K. then. He clutched the edge and looked in.

A small bright thing shone and moved towards him. A face grew up around it. Brown and small, with whiskers. Grave and round, with neat ears.

It was the Water Rat!

 When Toad had been dried off and given a suit of Ratty’s to wear, Rat told him what had happened while he had been away.

The Wild Wooders had taken over Toad Hall. Weasels, ferrets and stoats were living there, eating Toad’s food and drinking his drink and telling everybody that he was never coming back.

Toad was all for going up there at once and turning them out not a moment’s thought, just piling straight in but Ratty explained that they had armed sentries posted and all the entrances were guarded. He and Badger and Mole patrolled the Hall every day (Mole? Mole? Working?) and there was no way in.

Just then two tired, shabby animals entered. The Badger’s clothes were covered with mud.

He said solemnly, “Welcome home, Toad. Alas, what am I saying? This is a poor homecoming. Unhappy Toad.” And he sat down to eat a piece of pie. Not just any pie, either, but a Danescroft Special.

But Mole, whose fur was full of bits of hay and straw (because whatever the Author said, he didn’t do work, and had instead been hiding in a hayloft with a rugby player) danced round Toad joyously and said, “You must have escaped! Oh clever Toad!”

At this, Toad, completely failing to spot the sarcasm, began to tell all his adventures and show off to the admiring Mole.

“Don’t egg him on, Mole,” said Ratty, who was rather jealous. “We have to think what to do next.”

They all began to talk at once, until they were silenced by the Alpha Badger. “Be quiet, all of you,” he growled, and the Mole shivered admiringly. “Toad, you bad, troublesome little animal! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What do you think your father, my old friend, would have said if he’d known of your goings on?”

Toad rolled over on the sofa and began to sob; Mole rolled his eyes.

“Never mind that!” said Badger. “We’ll let bygones be bygones.” Mistake, thought both the Author and the Mole. “I’ll tell you my plan to get Toad Hall back again. There is an underground passage. . .” and the Badger outlined his plan.

The secret passage came up inside Toad. . . what?  oops, sorry inside Toad Hall. That night there was to be a birthday party for the Chief Weasel. Everyone would be in the banqueting hall except for a few sentries outside in the grounds.

Badger and his band would creep along the tunnel, armed to the teeth not and then come up inside the Hall and take the Wild Wooders is that supposed to tell us something about them? by surprise. Rat was running round the room busily, with his arms full of weapons of every kind, and saying excitedly under his breath, as he ran, “Here’s-a-sword-for-the-Rat, here’s-a-sword-for-the-Mole, here’s-a-sword-for-the-Toad, here’s-a-sword-for-the-Badger! Here’s-a-pistol-for-the-Rat, here’s-a-pistol-for-the-Mole, here’s-a-pistol-for-the-Toad, here’s-a-pistol-for-the-Badger!” And so on, in a regular, rhythmical way, while the four little heaps gradually grew and grew.

“That's all very well, Rat,” said the Badger presently, looking at the busy little animal over the edge of his newspaper; “I'm not blaming you. But just let us once get past the stoats, with those detestable guns of theirs, and I assure you we shan't want any swords or pistols. We four, with our sticks, once we're inside the dining-hall, why, we shall clear the floor of all the lot of them in five minutes.”

“Sticks?” said the Mole, perking up with interest. “What sort of sticks?”

“I was thinking cudgels,” said the Badger, with an expression of barely concealed amusement.

“Oh, no, not cudgels,” objected the Mole, shocked. “No, you want something a bit more. . . a bit less. . . I’ll sort it.” And he went off on his own, among the willows along the River Bank, and came home with his arms full of long, slender osiers, flexible and limber and wicked and supple and various other words which made him come over all breathless and overheated. And some of them he left alone, and some of them he bound into little bundles of rods, with a handle wrapped in cord and the ends loose to move freely. And presently, he had to go and have a little lie down in a darkened room, and if some rather odd noises came from it, well, the Toad didn’t notice, and the Rat didn’t notice, and the Badger simply smiled to himself. He knew what the Mole was.

Then they had a simple but sustaining meal, of bacon and broad beans, and afterwards a macaroni pudding (although the Mole, who was something of a gourmand, rather pushed his about his plate and wished for something less like nursery food), and when it was dark, they put on their belts and picked up their birches and set off.

They kept stopping in the darkness and they bumped into one another several times, but soon they heard the noise of a feast overhead – the stamping of little feet, the clinking of glasses, and cheers.

“Now, boeties, all together!” said Badger, and they heaved at the trap door. They came up into the butler’s pantry and could hear the Chief Weasel giving a speech.

Now!” cried the Badger, and they burst into the banqueting hall, brandishing their weapons.

No, not like. . . honestly, your mind!

My! What a squeaking and a squealing and a screeching filled the air!

Terrified weasels dived under tables, from where they were dragged out, bent over them and soundly whacked. Ferrets rushed madly for the fireplace and got hopelessly stuck in the chimney, heads inside the flue and hind ends in the hearth; the Mole spent several joyful minutes dealing with such of them as he could see. The mighty Badger laid about him with his stick (and the Mole let the ferrets go as he watched open-mouthed, and made a note that he wanted to. . . talk. . . to Badger later). Rat was more sound and fury than actual effect, and the Toad, swollen with injured pride, took the opportunity to lay on a little of what, in fact, he should have had himself. There were only the four of them, but to the Wild Wooders they seemed like an army.

At last the room was clear and all the weasels fled yelping and squeaking back to the Wild Wood, except for a few to whom Mole had given brooms and aprons and set to tidying up the loose ends of willow and birch all over the floor.

And afterwards? Badger took some time to explain – you know, explain – to Rat that he was an over-excitable creature who needed a strong hand – paw – regularly applied. The Toad, of course, was an arrogant little git and everybody had a go at him, Rat and Mole as well as Badger, until like summer tempests came his tears and he promised to be a reformed Toad, a different Toad, a modest Toad.

Yeah, right. But you know, it works for a while.

The Mole was a good Mole, and Badger told him so, saying affectionately, “At least you don’t need me to whack you and whack you and whack you to make you behave!” and then he laughed at the Mole’s woebegone expression, and hugged him, and said ‘”but if you want me to, once in a while, you only have to ask.”

The four friends sometimes took a stroll together in the Wild Wood of a summer evening. Respectful mother weasels pointed them out to their young ones, and told them to behave or the terrible great grey Badger would get them. This was a base libel on Badger, who, though he cared little about Society, was rather fond of children; but it never failed to have its full effect.

Carabosse sighed happily. That had been chaos enough to go on with. The Author was under his bed, whimpering and drinking gin straight from the bottle; his manuscript was heavy with crossings-out and corrections. Now, what could a Wicked Fairy do next?

“He can take himself off to the study and wait,” said a cross voice behind him. “That’s triggered the Nemesis Alarm, that has, and I simply do not have time for it this close to the end of the tax year. But fortunately for you,” and the tone turned a little smug, “I am Mistress of Space and Time, and I can make time. Oh, and I can Fold into what you did to that bit of Story and borrow a birch from the Badger.”

Carabosse grinned. Sometimes, it was possible to be Top without, so to speak, being Top – Cobweb needed a break from work, and he had told her so, but had she listened? Not a bit of it. So. . . what was she doing now?

Taking a break from work. Oh, he was fairly sure she knew she was being manipulated, but who cared? And of course, sometimes, it was fun not to be Top.

He wondered if he should whine.

Idris the Dragon

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