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One day, Gabriel - greatest of all the Archangels - was summoned to the palace. Of that place, set on the lofty heights of Mount Zion, I must not speak. Nor is it fit for me to report whom he met or what words passed. Suffice to say, the warrior angel was commanded to travel to Earth and there do battle with a fearsome enemy of the Lord. On slaying the evil foe, Gabriel was enjoined to sever the head and bring it back to Heaven.

All this, after many trials, Gabriel did and taking the head beneath his arm, he flew from Earth toward the Celestial City.

As he mounted high into the sky however, storm clouds gathered: thunder burst like a giant's shout, while lightning forked like the Devil's trident through the black air. Despite the immense strength of his wings, Gabriel was cruelly buffeted by fierce wind and drenched by stinging rain. Hampered by the need to hold tightly to his prize, the angel struggled on, making scant progress against the storm.

It was then that a single feather was torn from Gabriel's right wing. It was tossed over many miles until it eventually drifted to Earth, coming to rest in a pine forest.
And there, as Gabriel finally passed through the storm and returned to Heaven amid great rejoicing at his return and the defeat of one of the Lord's most terrible enemies, the feather lay until the next morning when it was discovered by Tobias Pricklewood.

The young man was up early, inspecting the damage caused by a violent storm the night before. Although many roofs were torn away in the village and a great oak had been split asunder and now lay with its heavy limbs sprawling across the common, the cottage where Tobias lived with his mother had been spared.

Tobias was in a joyful mood. Strolling along the wet, needle-strewn track, a melody had entered his head. The piece was of such beauty it was as though it had been composed in Heaven. If only he had the skill to write down these notes, Tobias felt sure his fortune would be made and his reputation as a superlative composer would spread to many lands. Unfortunately, this was but a fantasy for the poor young man who had the most rudimentary education and worked as a grocery store assistant for a meagre wage.

Yet so pervasive and uplifting was the oratorio, with its massed choir and superb orchestration, that Tobias was transported into a sublime world.

Which was when he saw something glittering on the track. As suddenly as it had started, the music ceased but so intrigued was Tobias by his find that he scarcely noted its loss.

He picked up the object to examine it. Resting across his palm was a large, silver feather, though a feather from what exotic bird, he couldn't imagine.

So pure was the silver that it dazzled, but as he turned the feather slowly in his hand, Tobias saw other colors that reminded him of strange, distant lands he read of in his late father's ancient encyclopedia. Flat, the feather shimmered like the beach sand of a desert island. Turning it, Tobias saw the teal blue of a Pacific sea, then the red of a desert dawn, merging into the vivid green of a jungle. He even caught for an instant, the impression of his own face, not as a reflection, but as an older man, fleshed out and smiling with the sleek confidence of worldly success.

After several minutes, the youth took off his hat and pushed the feather into the band. He replaced the hat on his head and became aware of several sensations. The first was that he felt so comfortable wearing his hat, he decided to keep it on even when he slept. He was also seized by restlessness, coupled with the unswerving conviction that from then on, he could overcome any obstacle.

'Aren't you going to take off your hat?' his mother asked as he sat down to breakfast.

'No mother,' he replied. 'I shan't be here long.'

'You don't have to open the store for another hour,' she objected.

'I'm not going to the store today. In fact, I'm never going to go there again. I've decided it's time for me to leave the village and seek my fortune.'

Tobias' mother cried gently to lose her son, but knew he was right. Tobias would remain poor if he stayed with her.

'I've long expected this day,' she said resignedly. 'So I saved a little money I'd like you to take. Unfortunately, it's only enough to pay for lodging for several nights, after which you'll need to pay your way by working.'

'I'll sleep outside and save the money,' Tobias declared stoutly.

'You can only do that while the weather is mild. Soon, it'll snow and you're wearing thin rags. Now go, with my blessing.'

'I'll return as soon as I'm rich,' the youth promised.

'I pray that's so,' the old woman said, kissing her son, though she doubted he would return while she lived.

Taking some food and the money, Tobias set off. He passed through the village, wondering at the destruction caused by the storm. Neighbors called out for him to help, but he waved and passed on for he was eager to make his fortune.

Soon Tobias left the village and saw far away the distant haze of a mountain range, beyond which beckoned new lands. Imagining it would take days to reach the mountains and days more to cross the pass, he was astonished at his rapid progress. His feet seemed to fly across the ground and after walking many miles at a swift pace, Tobias still felt as fresh as when he set off. Within two days, he had passed over the mountains and moved swiftly across the vast, rolling plain that lay beyond.

Toward the evening of the third day, he came to an inn. Tobias had finished the food his mother had given him and as it was snowing heavily, he sought lodging for the night. As luck would have it, he chose an evil place in which to stay.

The inn crouched beside a bog, two miles from the nearest village. Over the years, rumors had swirled like marsh gas around this place. While villagers noticed travelers arrive at the inn, no one saw them leave. Some spoke of a fine cloak worn by one traveler appearing a week later on the back of the innkeeper's repellent wife and there were mutterings of poisoned wine and weighted bodies being slid into the bog. Certainly, few travelers now lodged at the inn and those who regularly drank there were as villainous a set of cutthroats as ever dangled from a yardarm.

Even to Tobias' uncritical eye, the shabby inn had a sinister look, but as it was nearly dark and the snow was turning to a blizzard, he boldly approached the front door, behind which he heard coarse laughter and the frantic sawing of a fiddle.

As Tobias stepped into the low timber-rafted room, all eyes turned to him. The fiddle fell silent and men looked up suspiciously from conversations or card games. A tall, gaunt man with marble-white skin and black, matted hair addressed him roughly from behind the bar.

'What do you want?'

'Food and lodging for the night,' Tobias answered uncomfortably.

'Have you any money?' the man demanded, looking critically at Tobias' thin, travel-stained clothes.

'Why yes, a little.' Tobias' hand fell unconsciously to the pocket in which he carried his purse. All eyes greedily followed the gesture.

'Come now, Slygrass,' a stout, balding man with sharp eyes rose smiling from a table close to the fire. 'Is this the way to treat a stranger?' He addressed Tobias 'I'm the owner of this tavern. The name is Drawgore and this,' he indicated a middle-aged woman seated beside him 'is my good wife, Traduca.' Tobias bowed to the only woman in the room who favored him with a sour smile.

'Forgive my servant,' the man continued. 'I fear he's long forgotten any manners cudgelled into his skull as a child. You're most welcome to stay here tonight. Wife, have the wench bring our honored guest a plate of roast beef.' He added confidentially to his guest, 'We dine plainly, sir but you'll find we eat well.'

A heaped plate of meat, potatoes, carrots and beans was placed before Tobias. As Tobias began eating, Slygrass drew a stein of beer. Traduca moved behind the bar. Her back to Tobias, she took from a small bottle from her skirt pocket and swiftly poured a white powder into the foaming beer. Slygrass placed the beer beside Tobias who paused and looked up.

'Thank you,' he said to Drawgore. 'I'd love to drink but I must keep all my coins for food. Might I trouble you for a glass of water?'

'Water?' the landlord boomed merrily. 'Not even a priest would drink plain water with roast beef. No sir, this drink and any others you'll receive this evening are on the house.'

'You're most generous,' Tobias exclaimed gratefully.

'Most generous!' an old man cackled from a corner. 'Aye, many a traveler has enjoyed such hospitality here, they've found it devilish hard to leave!'

The landlord scowled at the old man who blanched and fell silent.

'Finish your beer, sir,' Drawgore suggested heartily. 'I always enjoy watching a young man with a hearty thirst. Here Slygrass, draw another stein and be quick about it!'

Again, the beer was drawn and Traduca surreptitiously tipped the contents of a second bottle into the liquid.

'Thank you,' Tobias said, taking a deep draught 'In truth, I must stop drinking. I'm unused to so much beer.' Hardly had he finished the sentence than Tobias keeled over, his head crashing onto his plate.

Drawgore moved swiftly to the youth's side and began searching his pocket.

'Here it is,' he extracted Tobias's purse and tipped the contents onto the table. 'Is that all,' he asked disappointedly. 'It's hardly worth the trouble of killing a man and disposing of his corpse for such a paltry sum.'

'Something's wrong,' Traduca warned. 'he's not dead. See, he even smiles in his sleep.'

'You didn't give him enough poison,' Drawgore replied accusingly.

'I gave him enough to kill five mules.'

'Then the poison was faulty.'

'It wasn't last week for the merchant and his daughter. Perhaps this one is protected.'

'Protected!' Drawgore echoed scornfully. 'Noone's protected. Look at this miserable amount! It hardly covers the cost of his meal.'

'Perhaps you can sell the silver feather,' Slygrass sniggered.

'Good idea. Let's take a look at it.' Drawgore grasped the feather to draw it from the hatband.

'It's hot!' he screamed. 'It's burning my hand!'

'Then, let go of it,' Traduca said irritably.

'I can't,' Drawgore shrieked, the smell of scorching flesh filling the room. He screamed and cursed, while all the time Tobias slept peacefully. After several minutes of agony, Drawgore was allowed to wrench his hand free. He stared with horror at his blackened, peeling hand, then fainted.

When Tobias woke next morning, he found himself lying among the greasy wreckage of his meal. Feeling ashamed, he stumbled into the yard and washed his gravy-stained face and hair under a pump.

When he returned, he found Traduca waiting.

'I'm sorry. I don't have a strong head for beer,' he began.

'How do you feel?' she asked, with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

Tobias smiled. 'Why, I feel wonderful!' he exclaimed. 'Perhaps I should stay here to seek my fortune.'

'No, no,' Traduca said hurriedly. 'There's no work in these parts for young men. You should travel on.'

'Oh well, I dare say you're right. How much do I owe you for my meal and board?'

'Nothing,' Traduca said, eager to be rid of her strange guest.

'But that's not fair,' Tobias protested. 'I can't expect charity.' He took out his purse. 'Why,' he exclaimed, 'It's heavier than it was last night.'

'We added some coins, wanting you to have a good start in life,' Traduca said. 'I've also packed some breakfast for you, so you can be swiftly on your way.'

'This is kind! I must thank your husband before leaving.'

'Please don't bother. He burned his hands badly on an oven pot last night and is recovering in bed.'

So Tobias set off again. How strange life is! he reflected. Mother warned me against trusting strangers, but so far I've met nothing but goodness. As soon as I've made my fortune, I must return to repay Mr.Drawgore and his wife.

By mid-morning, he reached a dense forest of larch, fir and pine. As Tobias crunched through the thick snow, he sensed movement from the corner of his eye. Looking back, he glimpsed a swiftly hiding shadow. This happened several times until he heard the howl of a wolf. When he looked back fearfully, he saw eight wolves coming out of the woods. They started running toward him. Tobias broke into a sprint , his feet speeding so fast they became a blur. Soon, they scarcely touched the ground and he found himself flying. Tobias flew higher and higher until he passed over the tops of the trees. Within minutes he left the wolves, the forest and the snow far behind. Soaring over a large lake, he saw far below a fisherman who dropped his rod and nearly capsized his boat in surprise. Then came another forest, a river a further forest, grasslands, and yet another forest, on the outskirts of which he glimpsed a church steeple and the houses of a village.

He swooped down, coming to rest in a forest clearing. It seemed a pleasant spot to eat his lunch, so Tobias spread out the food Traduca had packed and ate hungrily in the shade of a spreading oak.

After lunch, he stretched out on the soft grass and fell asleep. He awoke an hour later to the sound of gentle weeping. Across the meadow, a girl of about 18 - two years younger than Tobias was kneeling beside two crosses. She had brought posies of wildflowers that she propped against each of the roughly hewn wooden crosses.

Tobias thought the blonde haired girl was the gentlest and loveliest creature he had ever seen. He was saddened to see her distress and standing up, walked across and watched. For several minutes, the girl was so absorbed in her grief, she didn't notice him. Then she looked back and seeing Tobias, started angrily.

'What do you want?' she demanded. 'Why are you spying on me?'

'I'm sorry. I heard crying and wondered if I could help.'

'Can you raise the dead to life?' she asked bitterly.

'No.'

'Then you're no help to me. Go away!'

'Are your parents buried here?'

'These crosses mark the deaths of my father and my brother: I can never recover their bodies. Now, will you go away?'

'What happened?' Tobias persisted.

The girl shuddered. 'They were killed by Bludstorm.'

'Who's that?'

'Bludstorm,' the girl faltered. 'is a monster. Imagine your most hideous nightmare. Bludstorm is that and worse.'

Seeing Tobias' blank look, the girl who introduced herself as Trudawn, told her story.

'Until eight years ago, I lived happily with my father and my young brother, Rashleigh in the village, a mile from here.

'Rashleigh was a generous, impulsive youth, full of high spirits and good humour. One day however, his friends dared him to climb the wall that surrounds the garden of Grimgold and steal a pomegranate from an old tree that grows near the miser's house.

'So toward evening, Rashleigh watched by his friends climbed the wall and entered the garden. When he stood in the garden, he hesitated. Perhaps he felt guilty stealing fruit or perhaps some sixth sense warned him of danger. When he turned to the wall however, his friends urged him on and he accepted the dare. He reached the tree and was just stretching out his hand to grasp the scarlet fruit, when the face of a furious old man, appeared at a second storey window.

' ''Bludstorm!'' the old man wrenched open the window and screetched in rage into the garden. ''Come quickly! We have an intruder.''

'A dark shape loomed out of the shadows. When the boys saw Bludstorm, they shrieked in fear while Rashleigh froze in terror.

'It had the shape of a tall, heavily built man dressed in shining black armor. From the stump of its neck however, instead of a human head, sprouted seven writhing snakes, their flickering tongues darting in and out, testing the air. In place of a man's arms were two pythons eager to grip and crush their prey.

'Before Rashleigh could move, the terrible arms seized him, coiling tightly around his body while the snakeheads bit his face and neck repeatedly. Rashleigh gave a frightful scream and died instantly from the venom.

'Even as the boys tumbled off the wall and fled, they saw Bludstorm squeezing my poor brother's body to pulp.'

'How horrible!' Tobias murmured.

Trudawn hurried on, grateful to share her tale with the sympathetic stranger.

'My father was driven mad with grief and rage. For a week, he distractedly went to the magistrate, the army and even the Duke, begging the authorities to arrest Grimgold and Bludstorm. Nothing happened, so the following week Father strapped on the sword 'Justcause' that he had kept since his days as a soldier and sought his own justice.

'This time I watched from the wall as my father climbed into the garden. He had advanced only several steps when he encountered the monster.'

Trudawn began to cry and it was only after several minutes that she was to continue.

'My father fought valiantly, severing two of the ghastly snake heads with a single blow, but a python arm gripped him around the waist, drawing him inexorably toward the eager fangs. He slashed at the arms but it was like trying to cut a steel hawser and the blade of 'Justcause' shattered in his hand.'

'My father looked back and cried piteously to me, 'Avenge us!' Then the snake heads fell to frenzied biting and he died.'

Tobias put his arms around the shoulders of the weeping girl and the two sat there silently, lost in their thoughts.

Tobias decided to spend the rest of his life with Trudawn. He was delighted when she shyly invited him to dine with her aunt and herself that night. Trudawn told him where her aunt's home was, then went back to prepare dinner, leaving Tobias sitting beside the crosses. Trudawn cannot avenge these cruel deaths, he thought, but I shall.

He clambered to his feet and went in search of Grimgold's garden. Finding the tall wall, he hoisted himself up. The house appeared deserted in the midst of a large, Winter bare garden.

He hoped simply to see Bludstorm from the safety of the wall. Perhaps then he could decide a plan to kill the monster. Almost against his will however, he slithered down the wall and began to stealthily creep across the garden.

If I encounter the monster, I can easily run away, he told himself remembering his rapid flight from the wolves. Just as Tobias was close to the house, Grimgold appeared at a window, his face purple with rage. 'Bludstorm!' the miser spat, 'Another intruder to kill!'

The monster appeared, its snakeheads eagerly twisting in the air.

Tobias gasped in horror at the apparition. Nothing Trudawn had said prepared him for the hideous reality. He tried to flee, but his feet froze.

Yet even as death approached, something curious happened. The hat Tobias worn day and night since discovering the feather suddenly grew so unbearably hot he tore it off. There was a sharp pain and looking down, he saw to his surprise he had cut himself on the feather. Its edges, he noticed were now as sharp and hard as a blade. Tobias carefully drew the feather from his hand band and taking it by the quill, held the feather like a knife. The python arms waved within inches of his face. Jumping back, Tobias threw the feather at Bludstone. Leaving his hand, the silver feather accelerated like a blurring rocket and buried itself into Bludstorm's chest, tearing through the black armour, entering and disappearing into the flesh.

The monster's arms coiled in agony around its body, trying to squeeze the feather from its body while the snakeheads bit each other in rage. Bludstorm crashed onto the snow and swiftly died.

Tobias reached Grimgold's house and pushing open the front door, entered.

He found the miser dead on the first floor landing, his chest torn open as though a sharp blade had burst out of his body. Lying beside the old man was the bloodied and bedraggled feather. Tobias took the feather to a kitchen where he gently washed and dried it. Even cleaned however, the silver remained dull.

Imagine the joy of Trudawn and her aunt when Tobias told them at dinner that night of the deaths of Bludstorm and Grimgold! Adding to the excitement was the discovery of a large chest of the miser's gold which Tobias took for his fortune.

In time, Trudawn and Tobias married. When the authorities began asking how the young man became rich, Tobias decided it was time to take his bride home.

With all the other adventures they lived through (and which one day I hope to relate) it took a year to complete the journey that once took days. The only incident to note here was that when Tobias went to the inn to repay his debt to Drawgore, he found the evil innkeeper and his wife had been arrested some months before and hung for murder.

The journey by foot was so slow that the couple feared Tobias' mother would be dead before they finally arrived. Indeed their first sight of the quiet, seemingly deserted cottage seemed to confirm their fears. They found the old woman inside threshing in a fever, close to death and unable to recognise her son.

After weeks of careful nursing, warm fires and nourishing food however, she recovered and was thrilled at the return of Tobias while welcoming his bride as a daughter.

Tobias placed Gabriel's feather, that had now lost all its magic but was treasured for its valiant service, into a glass case and when children were born to the couple, the story was often told. In time, the story was retold to their children's children and from them unto the tenth generation.

And this is how I heard the tale that now I have passed to you.






------
Stephen Collicoat


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by Stephen Collicoat





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