Consequences and Contradictions
Billy felt certain they were both about to be expelled.
They followed silently behind Kevin — who seemed to be in a very good mood for once — as he led them all back up to the castle, and then to Professor McDouglass’ office where they were told to stand in front of her desk and wait. There was a cold draft coming from the empty fireplace, but Billy thought it was more likely his nerves that were making him shiver as he did. He knew there wasn’t a single excuse in the world Professor McDouglass would accept, but that still didn’t stop him from desperately trying to come up with one. There was no good telling the truth, either, as that would only get Barry into trouble as well.
Billy was just thinking that things couldn’t possibly get any worse, when getting worse is exactly what they did.
Professor McDouglass entered the room with Josh following behind her. He looked petrified.
“Stand over there,” she told him, pointing next to Billy.
“I’m sorry, Billy,” Josh whispered. “I couldn’t find you in time — I was trying to warn you about Austin. He was trying to catch you, he said you were —”
“Enough talking,” snapped Professor McDouglass, and she glared down at them all looking angrier than Billy had ever seen her before. “Kevin tells me he caught you rowing a boat out on the loch. It is the middle of the night, for goodness’ sake. Explain yourselves — all of you!”
Billy and Elahoraella looked at each other, both hoping the other might know the right thing to say, but neither of them spoke. Then —
“It was all their idea,” said Crumbleceiling, pointing at them both.
“I think I already have a fairly accurate idea of what has been going on tonight,” said Professor McDouglass. “All the pieces are there. You have been trying to get Austin Hickinbottom into trouble by luring him out of bed during the night. I’ve caught him already and I assure you that he is in just as much trouble as you both are. As for Mr Hansen here, I can only assume you find it even funner that he has been caught up in this little game of yours, as well.”
Billy glanced at Josh and tried to give him a look to tell him this wasn’t the case at all, but he wasn’t sure he’d pulled it off. Josh looked close to tears again — all he’d tried to do was help them, and now not only was he in trouble for it, but he thought Billy and Elahoraella found it funny he’d been caught.
“And as for you, Headmaster, Professor McDouglass continued. “Have you been embezzling funds from the school accounts and trying to destroy the evidence again? You promised the authorities that you wouldn’t be doing it again after last time.”
“I needed the money to invest in this wonderful hair product I have discovered. I could tell you more about it, if you’d like? All I need is a few moments of your time and I may be able to completely transform your life —”
“Now is not the appropriate time for this, headmaster.”
Professor McDouglass shook her head and looked back at Billy, Elahoraella, and Josh.
“I am most disappointed in all of you,” she said sternly. “I honestly cannot believe it — four students out of bed in just one night! Sure, I may have lived through the rise of That-Evil-One — oh, do stop fussing so much, Hansen. It’s only a bit of rain — witnessed students being murdered by the evil monster which lives within the bowels of the school, and been a teacher during Michael Gove’s time at the Department for Education, but I can assure you, in all my time here I have never seen anything so shocking or disturbing, quite like four students out of bed while it is dark outside. The school is very dangerous at night, especially these days.”
For a moment, Billy thought about pointing out that if the school was too dangerous for students to walk around, this might be something the teachers should be fixing as a priority, but he didn’t think he dared just now.
“You will all be receiving detention for this,” said Professor McDouglass. “And to ensure the message gets across, fifty credits will be taken from Osphranter house.”
“Fifty?” Billy repeated in shock — she couldn’t be serious?
“Fifty credits each,” said Professor McDouglass.
“Professor — please — you can’t —”
“It is now one hundred credits each, Mr Smith — nothing gives any student the right to wander around the school at night.”
Billy was about to ask if she meant even for Astronomy lessons when Professor McDouglass said, “Yes, what is it, Headmaster?”
“Am I also in detention?” asked Crumbleceiling.
“No, of course, you are not in detention,” said Professor McDouglass. “You are a teacher, not a student. Unless you wish me to place you in detention?”
“I’m good,” said Crumbleceiling. “But I was hoping to get the chance to use this,” and from his pocket he pulled a get out of jail free card which he’d taken out of a Monopoly set.
Professor McDouglass shook her head again. “Now, all of you back to bed, and know that should I ever catch you wandering around the school at night again, you will be expelled.”
All things considered, it hadn’t been a good night; but the next morning, things got even worse. Losing three hundred credits has wiped out the lead Billy had won in the last Frogsports match, and Osphranter house had gone from the top of the house table to the bottom. At first, no one seemed to know what had happened, but when Professor McDouglass started fielding questions from curious students, she wasted no time in informing them all exactly who was responsible. Billy thought briefly about telling everyone the truth about how it had all been Barry’s fault. But when he mentioned this to Barry, he simply shrugged his shoulders, pointed out all the evidence had been destroyed, then started pretending he had no idea what Billy was talking about.
Overnight, Billy had gone from being one of the most popular students in the school to one of the most hated. The only people who didn’t seem to have any problem with him were the Crocodilians, who kept stopping to pat him on the back and thank him for helping them reach the top of the table. It wasn’t even as though they were annoyed with Austin, either. In Alchemy on Monday, Grape had started the lesson by awarding Austin one hundred credits simply for turning up on a day when he must still be feeling tired from his nighttime stroll.
It might have been too late to fix the situation now, but Billy vowed to himself that he would never get involved in anything that wasn’t to do with him again.
Ed was the only person standing by him.
“Don’t worry about it. Chad and Larry have lost Osphranter house loads of credits while they’ve been here, and they’re both still popular. And anyway, you’ll earn them back at the next Frogsports match.”
But Billy wasn’t even sure if he wanted to play in the next match. He had gone to find Plank at lunch to offer his resignation from the team, but Plank had refused it. Even so, training had lost its fun. None of the rest of the team would speak to him, and during their warmups where they passed the ball between themselves, they always made sure to miss Billy out.
Things weren’t much better for Elahoraella or Josh, but not being known by face to many students meant they were left alone most of the time. Fellow first-years had been ignoring and talking about them, though, and Elahoraella had started sitting at the back of every class and making no effort to answer any questions.
Billy was starting to feel glad the exams were getting closer. His workload kept his mind off everything else and meant they didn’t have as much leisure time, during which the rest of the house could glare over at them while muttering harsh things to their friends. He, Ed, and Elahoraella spent every evening working late into the night at a far table in the corner of the library.
Then, less than a week later, Billy’s new plan not to get involved in anything that didn’t concern him faced its first challenge. As he walked back to the common room on his own one afternoon, he heard three voices coming through the open door of a classroom as he passed it. He recognised two of the voices as those belonging to Grape and Quigley. Was Grape making another attempt to get the information he sought from Quigley? If so, it sounded as though he might have help this time.
Billy stopped short of the door and peered through a gap by its hinges. Inside the classroom, Grape and Quigley were sat on chairs opposite each other, while a woman Billy had never seen before was sat between them as though mediating or refereeing almost.
“I want to start by thanking you both for coming here and seeing me this afternoon,” said the woman, smiling at one of them, then the other. “My name is Sharon and I’m from human resources. It’s my great pleasure to empower you both to seek a mutually agreeable resolution to your workplace conflict today. I hope that you find this experience a rewarding one.”
Since neither Grape nor Quigley looked as though they were going to say anything, Sharon went on.
“Why don’t you begin by telling me about the problem you are currently experiencing? How about you first, Gallienus?”
“My name is Professor Grape,” said Grape flatly.
“Okay, and does using your title and surname when talking to other adults make you feel better? Does it make you feel like a bigger person perhaps?”
Grape was biting his tongue, so she turned to Quigley instead.
“And what about yourself? What do you feel is the cause of the breakdown in the relationship between yourself and your colleague?”
“He keeps asking me questions.”
“I only want to find out if he knows how to get past all the protections on the second floor.”
“And you obviously have some reservations about sharing this information,” Sharon said to Quigley. “Why don’t we discuss those?”
“I really don’t think it’s any of his business.”
“Okay, but do you understand why it might be better to share this information? Communication between colleagues is a vital ingredient in the great big pie that is an efficient and happy workplace.”
Billy had heard enough, and besides, Grape looked as though he might be about to storm out of the room at any moment, and then he’d discover Billy had been eavesdropping in on the conversion. He rushed up to the common room where Ed and Elahoraella were busy reading through their Transformation notes from that morning. They stopped as Billy sat down at the table and told them what he had just witnessed.
“Grape still doesn’t know yet then,” said Elahoraella. “That’s something.”
“Yeah, but it sounded as though Quigley might be close to breaking. I reckon another few days, and he’ll have given in.”
“There’s still Waddles, though, and Barry said he hasn’t told anybody how to get past him, except Crumbleceiling.”
“Maybe Grape already knows how to get past Waddles without Barry’s help,” said Ed. “I know it’s got two heads and everything, but it’s still only a duck. It can’t be that hard to get past. I bet there’s a book somewhere in the library telling you exactly how to do it — with the amount we’re being forced to read, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s on our list. What do you think we should do, Billy?” he finished, a sense of adventure in his voice.
It was Elahoraella who answered.
“Go to Crumbleceiling,” she said. “That’s what we should have done the first time. If we had done, we could have stopped all this by now. And besides, Professor McDouglass has already made it clear that she’ll expel me and Billy if we’re caught out at night again.”
“We don’t have any proof, though,” said Billy. “We haven’t got anybody to back us up, and who do you think Crumbleceiling will believe, us or a teacher? And don’t forget, students aren’t supposed to know about Waddles or the Brie. We’ll be in even more trouble if we have to explain how we found out about them, and so will Barry — not that I mind so much right now, but I don’t want him to lose his job over it.”
Elahoraella agreed, but Ed wasn’t convinced.
“What about if we just did a little —”
“No,” said Billy plainly. “We know too much already.”
The next morning, Yodel delivered notes addressed to Billy, Elahoraella, and Josh to Chad and Larry, who were sat a little further down the Osphranter table.
“What’s that?” said Ed as they came over to deliver the notes.
“It’s our breakfast,” said Chad.
“I didn’t know you could get fast food at Frogsports.”
“You can’t,” said Larry. “We ordered this through Ural Eats.”
Billy looked at the note:
“I understand why we’ve got detention,” said Elahoraella, looking up from her own note, “but if the school is so dangerous when it’s dark, isn’t it just irresponsible to give us a detention at midnight?”
“Best not to think too much about all the contradictions,” said Chad. “It makes your head hurt after a while.”
At a quarter to midnight that evening, they left Ed — who had said he would wait up until they got back — in the common room and went down with Josh to meet Kevin outside the castle. They had just reached the top of the staircase leading down to the entrance hall when a voice shouted after them.
“What are you all doing there?”
They turned around. It was Professor McDouglass, and she looked furious to see them.
“You three again? I thought I made myself very clear when I said you would all be expelled if I ever caught you walking around at night again. Did you not learn anything from your detention?”
“Er, Professor…” Billy began.
“I hope you have a very good explanation for this, Mr Smith.”
“Well, it’s just, we’re on our way to detention now,” Billy continued. “You told us to come at this time.”
Professor McDouglass seemed stumped for a moment, then she said, “Oh, yes, that’s right. I remember now. Do carry on.”
As Professor McDouglass walked off, they continued down the stairs, across the entrance hall, and through the main doors of the castle where they found Kevin waiting for them in the cool air outside — Austin was there too. Billy had forgotten Austin had also been caught by Professor McDouglass.
Kevin gave the three of them a cruel smile, then with a snide pleasure in his voice, said, “Come on then, time to get this over with.” He lit the lantern he was carrying in his hand and began leading them out across the grounds.
“You won’t be rushing to break another school rule after tonight, I can tell you that.” Kevin seemed to be enjoying this a lot. “Shame the Secretariat banned some of the traditional punishments, though… it wasn’t so long ago that you’d have found yourself being forced to watch reruns of The Apprentice or listen to the music of Kanye West on repeat for a few hours… and even before they loosened the rules for that, it wasn’t much better… could lock you up in the dungeons for a week or dangle you from the battlements by chains around your wrists.”
None of them was sure where they were being taken, but it seemed Kevin was leading them over to a light they could see in the distance. As they walked, Billy could hear Josh snivelling beside him.
“I’m going to tell my father about this,” said Austin arrogantly. “I’m not allowed to do anything unless he approved of it first.”
“Is that a threat?” said Kevin.
“And what sort of lonely old man gets pleasure out of watching children be tortured?”
“Barry,” Kevin called out, ignoring Austin.
Billy’s heart gave a sudden leap. Maybe things weren’t going to be so bad after all.
They heard a voice shout back to them.
“Kevin? ‘urry up, ah’ve bin waitin’ f’ theur all.”
Kevin looked down at them and seemed to notice the expression on relief on Billy’s face because he said, “You think detention won’t be so bad if you’re with that blunderer? He’s not going to make it any better for you, boy. You’re all off into the forest.”
At this, Josh whimpered, but Austin stopped dead.
“The forest?” he said. “But we can’t go in there — there are creatures in there — it’s too dangerous —”
“That’s not my problem, that’s yours,” said Kevin, his voice rising until he was almost cackling with joy. “This is what happens when you break the rules at Frogsports.”
“But students aren’t allowed in the forest — you’re forcing us to break the rules.”
“Well, that’s what you don’t understand about the rules, isn’t it? They’re more a set of ministerial codes than anything else — for teachers they’re entirely discretionary.”
As they got closer to the light, they found it was coming from a lantern Barry was holding in his hand. Charlie was stood next to him, and he clutched a shortbow in his other hand. A quiver of arrows was hanging off his belt.
“Sorry ‘bout this,” he said to Billy and Elahoraella. “Bur it’ll be over soon enough, n’ until then, jus’ think o’ it as an adventure.”
“There’s no point in being friendly to them, Barry,” said Kevin. “Don’t go forgetting they’re all here as a punishment.”
“Tha’ explains why theur all late then. Theur bin givin’ ‘em all a little talk, av’ theur? Not theur’s job t’ do tha’, is it?” He looked at Kevin and held up his shortbow. “Ah can mek it look like accident, y’ know!”
Kevin seemed to swallow something hard.
“I’ll be back at first light,” he said, then giving Billy an ornery smile, he added, “For whatever is left of them.”
As Kevin started back up to the castle muttering to himself, Barry put down his shortbow, then handed each of them a bright yellow life jacket. “Reight, put these on, all of theur. Come on. They’ve got whistle n’ light on f’ attracting attention if any o’ theur gerr’ in’t trouble.”
“Why do we need to wear a life jacket?” said Austin.
“There are ponds n’ streams, n’ stuff in tha’ forest, lad.”
Although somewhat bewildered, Billy, Ed, and Josh all put their life jackets on without a fuss. Austin, however, was still hesitant.
“I’m not going in that forest,” he said, a definite sense of fear in his voice.
“Theur ain’t got no choice ‘bout it,” said Barry fiercely. “Theur done summa’ wrong, n’ now y’ facin’ consequences of y’ own actions — it’s called accountability.”
In the back of his head, Billy suddenly remembered something Barry had once told him.
“Barry, have you ever considered a career in banking?” he said.
“Eh?... Oh, very funny. Anyway,” said Barry, “y’ all need t’ listen t’ me carefully. Ah won’t lie to theur, wha’ we’re doin’ could be dangerous, bur that dunt mean ah want any o’ theur takin’ more risks than necessary. Follow over ‘ere a mo’.”
He picked his shortbow back up off the floor, then led them over to the edge of the tree line, where a small gap gave way to a dirt track leading deep into the forest. They all felt uneasy as they followed it with their eyes to the point where it vanished into the darkness.
“Barry, what’s that?” said Elahoraella, pointing down at something on the floor. Billy, Josh, and Austin had all noticed it too.
“T’ luminous stuff?” said Barry, and Elahoraella nodded. “Tha’ wha’ we’re ‘ere for. It’s unicorn blood. It means there’s a unicorn in ‘ere tha’ bin hurt by summa’. Keeps ‘appenin a lot recently. Ah even found one dead t’other day. Now, it might be tha’ we av’ t’ put this one out o’ its misery when we find it.”
“How can there be a unicorn?” said Austin. “Unicorns don’t exist.”
Barry shushed him. “Dunt seh tha’ out loud, lad. Ery’ time somebody says that, a unicorn dies.”
“But you just said you might have to kill it anyway.”
“That ain’t the point.”
“Barry, what if whatever did this to the unicorn finds us first?” said Billy, trying, but failing, to sound braver than Austin did.
“Tha’ why their got y’ whistle n’ light,” said Barry, as though this was obvious.
They set off into the trees, Barry leading the way with his lantern lighting the track ahead, and soon, they couldn’t see the edge of the forest behind them when they looked back. They didn’t speak again until they came to a fork in the path, and Barry stopped them.
“Reight then, we need t’ split up ‘ere,” he said. “Got more chance o’ findin’ unicorn if we av’ two parties lookin’ f’ it. So, Billy n’ Elahoraella can come wi’ me one way, Austin n’ Josh, go t’other way.”
“Fine, but I want Charlie,” said Austin, sizing the dog up and thinking he might offer some protection.
“All right, bur ah’m telling theur, e’ll run away at first sign o’ trouble,” said Barry. “Now, if anybody gerr’ in’t difficultly, jus’ blow on y’ whistle n’ we’ll all come find theur — n’ remember t’ stick t’ path — off we go then.”
So they split up with Barry, Billy, and Elahoraella taking the track that forked left, and Austin, Josh, and Charlie following the track to the right.
The forest was dark and still. They walked in silence, keeping their eyes to the ground, so they could make sure they wouldn’t trip over a fallen branch or inadvertently stray off the track and into a ditch.
“It couldn’t be an erlking that’s attacking the unicorns, could it, Barry?” said Elahoraella. “I heard there are some in the forest.”
“Aye — there’s ‘undreds o’ ‘em in ‘ere, bur they dunt attack other creatures. They only go after children like y’ sen n’ Billy,” said Barry, as though they were supposed to find this reassuring somehow.
They continued following the trail of luminous unicorn blood further into the trees. Billy could hear running water close by; he rested his hand on the toggle of his life jacket just in case.
“Barry,” said Elahoraella after a few minutes silence. “You never told us. What did change your mind about the pyramid scheme?”
“Oh, tha,” said Barry, and he seemed to snivel a little. “Kinda ‘ard t’ share, y’ know.”
Billy looked up at him and noticed Barry looked as though he was about to cry, and then he did.
“What’s the matter?” said Billy. “No one will ever find out you were part of it. We’ve destroyed all the evidence.”
“It ain’t tha’,” said Barry through his tears. “It’s me… me… me CEO — he got his sen arrested f’ insider tradin’ n’ bribery… bur he wor like family t’ me.”
“Have you ever actually met him before?” said Elahoraella. “Or even spoken to him?”
“Well, no, bur that ain’t wha’ it’s ‘bout, is it — ‘e treated all us distributors like ‘is own family, n’ now e’s off t’ prison n’ ‘is ‘ole company is under investigation.”
Billy and Elahoraella wanted to laugh, but now didn’t seem the appropriate time. Then, they heard something which brought them all back to where they were.
They had just walked into a small moonlit clearing when they heard something shuffling among the trees ahead of them. Barry pushed Billy and Elahoraella back, then reached for an arrow and got it ready to fire.
“What do you think it is, Barry?” said Elahoraella.
“Ah dunt know,” said Barry. “Who’s there?” he shouted out. “Ah’m warnin’ theur, ah’m armed ‘ere!”
There were footsteps, two pairs of them, then into the clearing came — Billy didn’t know. It had the palomino body of a horse, with a long tail flowing behind it, but there was no mane to match. Instead, above the waist was the body of a man with orange hair and skin, giving him the appearance of someone who had spent too long on a sunbed.
“Oh, it’s only theur, Brie Brie Neigh Neigh,” said Barry, returning the arrow to its quiver. “Ah thought y’ might av’ bin summa’ else f’ a mo’ then. Grand performance wi’ fourteen forty at ‘amilton Park, by the way, won me sen ‘undred euro on tha’ race.”
He stepped forward and shook hands with the creature.
“I trust you are well, Barry,” said Brie Brie Neigh Neigh. “Were you just about to shoot me with an arrow?”
“Oh, well, not now ah know it’s theur,” said Barry. “Though, y’ ain’t got any injuries av’ theur?”
“No injuries, no. But I have been thinking recently that maybe we should begin shooting our owners and trainers whenever they break a bone themselves. I mean, it’s only fair, isn’t it? I’m sure nobody will care too much if we just pretend it’s humane and for their own good.”
Barry noticed Billy and Elahoraella staring up at Brie Brie Neigh Neigh, both with an expression of shock on their face.
“Oh,” said Barry, “yous two, this is Brie Brie Neigh Neigh — ‘e’s a centaur.”
“We’d noticed,” said Elahoraella.
“n’ this is Billy Smith n’ Elahoraella Parker,” Barry then told the centaur. “They’re students up at school.”
“Good evening to you both,” said Brie Brie Neigh Neigh. “Smith, did you say? Have you heard about the new study to discover why there’s so many Smiths in the phone book? Scientists concluded it’s because they all have phones.”
“Anyway,” said Barry. “Ah’m glad we’ve run in’t theur, Brie Brie Neigh Neigh, y’ might know summa’ — there’s an injured unicorn ‘bout, y’ ain’t seen owt strange aroun’ place av’ t’day?”
Brie Brie Neigh Neigh didn’t reply straight away. He gazed upwards as though addressing a crowd, then said, “I’m currently producing a play about sweet things. I’ve already caster sugar.”
“Yeh,” said Barry, “bur ah’m wonderin’ if theur might av’ seen owt earlier?”
“I saw a squirrel worshipping French fries earlier.”
“Eh?” said Barry.
“It was a chipmunk.”
A rustling in the trees nearby made Barry reach for an arrow again, but it turned out only to be a second centaur, this one white-bodied with pale skin and greying hair. It looked much more feral than Brie Brie Neigh Neigh.
“Ey up, Horsey McHorseface,” said Barry. “Ah wanted t’ av’ word with theur. Ah won me sen ‘undred euro bettin’ on Brie Brie Neigh Neigh’s las’ race, bur then ah lost it all bettin’ on theur’s own. Placin’ third? Wha’ tha’ all ‘bout?”
Horsey McHorseface stepped forward.
“Good evening, Barry,” he said. “Have you heard the one about the fisherman from Weymouth who couldn’t get a signal on his television? It was because he couldn’t find tuna in the channel.”
“Sure,” said Barry. “Look, ah jus’ asked Brie Brie Neigh Neigh ‘ere, y’ ain’t seen owt unusual t’night, av’ theur?”
Horsey McHorseface walked over to stand next to Brie Brie Neigh Neigh. “Do you know I got asked for proof of age when buying cheese the other day?” he said to his friend. “I never knew that was what they meant by extra mature.”
“Well, if either o’ theur find summa’, do let us know, won’t theur?” said Barry. “See theur ‘round, then.”
Billy and Elahoraella followed Barry back into the trees, unable to stop themselves glancing back at Brie Brie Neigh Neigh and Horse McHorseface until the trees blocked their view.
“Never,” said Barry frustratedly, “try t’ get y’ sen a straight answer out o’ a centaur. If they’re not racin’, then they’re always rehearsin’ their bloody stand-up comedy sets.”
“Are there many centaurs in the forest?” said Elahoraella.
“A good number… they dunt cause too much trouble, though. Jus’ a bit annoyin’ t’ av’ conversation wi’.”
The continued walking and eventually came to another clearing where they found a Charlie bear’s picnic. Billy started to think they should have come in disguise, but the bears were perfectly welcoming and offered them all a glass of lemonade and a Jammie Dodger. Once they’d finished, they apologised for distributing the party, then continued back into the trees.
They had just passed a bend in the dirt track when two bright lights appeared ahead of them through the trees.”
“Barry! Look!” said Elahoraella. “I think there’s other people over there. They’ve got lanterns… but Josh and Austin didn’t have lanterns, did they?”
They didn’t have much time to think about the lights, because just then, they heard a sharp whistle cutting through the air. Billy was surprised it was loud enough to reach them, but —
“AAARGH!” Austin screamed out.
They had turned around to find Austin, Josh, and Charlie stood next to them. It seemed they had all been walking close by, but hadn’t noticed each other.
“What theur blowin’ whistle f’?” said Barry. “Theur will frighten ery’thin’ away.”
“There are lights ahead,” said Austin, pointing over at them. “I think something is there.”
“Do you think that’s what hurt the unicorn, Barry?” said Billy.
Barry squinted over at the lights.
“Er — nah, ah think tha’ might be couple of doggers, actually,” said Barry, guiding them all in the other direction. “Best t’ give ‘em privacy.”
“Doggers?” Austin repeated. “Do you mean people out with their dog? Like you and Charlie?”
“Summa’ like tha’, yeh,” said Barry. “Reight, we still ain’t found anythin’ so we best split up again —”
“I want to come with you,” said Josh at once. He sounded terrified, so Barry agreed to change the groups.
“n’ Billy, y’ can go wi’ Austin this time,” he said, then he leant in and added in a whisper, “Sorry ‘bout this, bur we av’ t’ gerr’ it done.”
And so Billy set off further into the forest with Austin and Charlie. They were walking for nearly an hour until they had no choice but to leave the track they were following if they wanted to continue forward; it seemed to just come to an end in front of them. They kept pushing forward through the trees, taking care to walk even slower now. As Billy looked to the ground, he thought there seemed to be more blood here. There were drops of it on the barks of trees and leaves of bushes, as though something had come through here lashing around in pain. Ahead, Billy could see another clearing.
“Look at that —” Billy whispered, holding out his arm to stop Austin.
Ahead of them, something bright white lay slain on the ground. It was definitely the unicorn, and it was bleeding heavily from the neck.
Billy rushed over to it and knelt down beside, then he began chanting, “I do believe in unicorns, I do, I do! I do believe in unicorns, I do, I do! Come on, I need you to join in, I saw this in a film once,” he said, turning back to Austin. But Austin was preoccupied by something else.
A shadowy hooded figure was coming towards them as though stalking its prey. As he observed, Billy noticed more luminous unicorn blood dripping down the front of its cloak, giving it the appearance of a vampire at a disco.
Austin screamed even louder this time and made a break for it — Charlie followed close behind. The figure turned its attention to Billy now and began moving towards him as though it was gliding gently over the forest floor.
Then Billy felt something he had never experienced before; a burning sensation emanated from the trademark on his forehead and made his whole body fill with an agonising pain. Blinded by what he was feeling, he took a step backwards and tripped over. The figure moved closer still, but then it seemed to hesitate for a moment, as though expecting something else to have happened by now.
“RAHHH!” it said, though its voice faltered a little; it didn’t sound at all as though it was trying to be frightening.
It moved closer again, looking around wildly.
“HA HA HA!… ROAR!… CUCKOO CUCKOO!… Moo!… Woof!… Meow…”
Then, most surprising of all, the figure looked down at its wrist as though checking the time on a watch. Finally, it looked up at Billy and seemed to shrug its shoulders.
This time, the figure moved in for the kill.
The pain in Billy’s trademark worsened. He couldn’t keep his eyes open. Then he heard hooves galloping somewhere behind him. Something large jumped clean over his head and began attacking the figure.
It took a moment for the pain to pass, but when he could open his eyes again, the figure had gone. A third centaur was standing over and looking down at him; this one had a dark chestnut body and long black hair.
“Billy Smith,” said the centaur. “I am sorry I was so late, but I injured my leg on the way here.” Billy noticed he did seem to be limping slightly. “Did it cause you any harm?” he continued, helping Billy to his feet.
“No, I’m okay — thank you — but what was that thing?”
The centaur didn’t answer, but instead said, “You should get back to Barry as soon as you can. The forest is unsafe at this time — most of all for yourself. Are you able to ride? We can make it much quicker this way.”
“My name is Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop,” he added, lowering his body so Billy could climb up onto his back.
As he stood back up to his full height, more galloping suddenly came from nearby. Brie Brie Neigh Neigh and Horse McHorseface burst through the trees into the clearing.
“Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop!” Horsey McHorseface roared. “What are you doing? That human on your back is not wearing his morning suit or even a top hat! And look at his shoes, they’re casual! Do you have no shame?”
“Do you not realise who this boy is?” said Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop. “This is Billy Smith. He is not safe in this forest, and the quicker he leaves, the better.”
“Have you been telling him our secrets?” said Horsey McHorseface. “Remember, no human must ever find out why the chicken really crossed the road!”
Brie Brie Neigh Neigh did a little tap dance with his front legs, then said, “I bought myself a new thesaurus the other day, but it’s not very good. It’s also not very good.”
“Your joke is not very good, Brie Brie Neigh Neigh,” said Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop.
Horsey McHorseface raised his front legs in fury.
“Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop! What are you saying? You know we centaurs do not critique another of our kind’s punchlines like that.”
Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop raised his own front legs to counter Horsey McHorseface. Billy had to hold on tight around his neck to avoid slipping off.
“And do you not think that might be why we spend all our time rehearsing and none of it performing?” Clip Clip Doing a Mic Drop roared at Horse McHorseface. “When was the last time you or any of us actually had an audience? Yes, I dare say it might be a good thing if we begin challenging each other to be better, Horsey McHorseface, and maybe humans can offer us the help we need. As the saying goes, we cannot set-up a microphone without thumbs!”
And with that, Clip Clip Doing a Mic Drop reared around on his hind legs, and with Billy hanging on as best he could, galloped off into the trees, leaving Brie Brie Neigh Neigh and Horse McHorseface behind.
Billy had no idea what had just happened.
“Why is Horsey McHorseface so angry with you?” he asked. “And what was that thing you saved me from anyway?”
Once they were a little distance from the cleaning, Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop slowed to a walk. He told Billy to duck out the way of low hanging branches, but it was another few moments before he said anything else.
“Billy Smith, are you aware of what the meat of the unicorn can be used for?”
“No,” said Billy, wondering why he was being asked such a strange question.
“It is a most terrible crime against nature to slaughter a unicorn,” said Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop. “It is not something which most would ever consider doing, even those who may have committed other monstrous acts in the past. The meat of a unicorn will ensure you stay alive, even if you are, but moments from death, however, it comes at a high cost. Taking the life of a unicorn is an act so terrible that from the moment it takes its final breath of life, your own becomes a cursed one — an existence which will ensure you may never forget the despicable deed you committed in order to save yourself.”
Billy thought for a moment about the obvious plot hole created by Barry’s willingness to shoot a unicorn dead with one of his arrows.
“What sort of person could be that desperate to survive?” Billy then thought aloud. “A cursed life has to be worse than a peaceful death, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop agreed. “But what if the purpose of consuming the unicorn is not to continue to live, but simply to survive long enough until you are able to find something else — something which does not have any conditions attached — something which will ensure you are never able to die.
“Billy Smith, do you know what is being hidden in the school at this very moment?”
“The Bewitched —”
“It may be best if you refrain from saying its full name just now, you may cause yourself to fall from my back. But yes, the Brie.”
“But I don’t understand who —”
“Can you really not think of anybody who may be interested in obtaining the powers the Brie could provide for them? Somebody who has been waiting for many years to return to strength and regain their former control over this world?”
It suddenly came to Billy.
“Do you mean to say,” he said, fear rising in his voice, “that the thing you saved me from — that was Ste —”
“Billy! Billy, is that you?”
Elahoraella was running towards them, Barry following close behind her.
“Billy, are you okay?” she said.
“I’m fine,” said Billy. His mind was too focused on other things to say much else. “The unicorn, it’s dead, Barry,” he continued. “It’s in a clearing back there.”
“We say goodbye to one another here. You are safe now,” said Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop, and he lowered his body again so Billy could climb off. “I hope you will leave me a five-star review for your journey.”
Barry watched the centaur struggling to stand up again, then, reaching for his quiver, he said, “Everythin’ okay with theur, Clip Clop?”
“It’s just a sprain. It will heal itself in time,” said Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop. “Good luck to you, Billy Smith,” the centaur continued. “I feel sure we may meet again one day.”
“Theur sure ah can’t do owt f’ theur?” said Barry.
“I’m fine, Barry. I do not need you to shoot me dead at this time.”
“Well, if theur ‘as change o’ heart, let me know n’ ah’ll be reight over.”
When they returned to the common room, they found Ed asleep with his face in a book. They said goodnight to Josh, then when he’d gone up to bed, they went over and shook Ed awake.
“No, I don’t think you can cook carp in a toaster,” Ed said sleepily.
“Ed, are you okay?” said Billy.
Ed stretched and yawned.
“I think I was dreaming,” he said. Then he stared up at Elahoraella and began pointing at her. “You turned my shoe purple. Why did you turn my shoe purple?”
“I think you might have been dreaming that as well,” said Elahoraella.
“Oh… yeah… I think you’re right.”
Once Ed had remembered what was going on, Billy and Elahoraella filled him in on what had taken place inside the forest.
“So we were wrong,” said Billy finally. “Grape isn’t trying to steal the Bewitched Brie —”
“This is cheese as cheese should be. The Bewitched Brie is the cheese for me. HEY!”
“Don’t say its name,” said Ed.
“Sorry,” said Billy, then he continued, “Grape isn’t trying to steal it for himself. He’s trying to steal it for Steven — he’s out there right now waiting for Grape. I saw him.”
“But what can we do?” said Ed.
“Nothing,” said Billy. “There’s nothing we can do. We just have to wait for Grape to steal the Brie, and then Steven will be able to come after me… I imagine he’d have finished me off tonight if I hadn’t been saved by Clip Clop Doing a Mic Drop.”
Elahoraella looked scared, but she did at least have something reassuring to say.
“Billy, you’re forgetting about Crumbleceiling. I know he an —”
“Idiot?” said Billy.
“Yes, that,” said Elahoraella. “But he’s one of the strongest and most intelligent idiots around. And everybody has always said Crumbleceiling is the only person That-Evil-One —”
“Don’t say that either,” said Ed, moving his book out the way of the cloud. “The library charges a fine for water damage, you know?”
“Everybody has always said Crumbleceiling is the only person Steven has ever been scared to face. So long as Crumbleceiling is around, you’re safe. Steven can’t harm you while you’re at Frogsports.”
The sun had risen by the time they finally went up to bed. But the night still had one last surprise waiting for Billy.
When he pulled back his bedsheets, he found the translucency tree neatly folded up underneath them, waiting for him. There was a note scribbled in green crayon pinned to the top of it: I hear Canada is nice this time of year.
As he climbed into bed a minute later, Billy reckoned he finally knew where the tree had come from.