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12 November 2012

Hi everyone!

I bet you thought you were finally rid of me! Yes, I know, I’m awfully late, I do apologise, and my excuse is just the same, I have been quite ridiculously busy. Today at last I have a free day, so it is time to put aside all distractions and get down to some serious fingers to keyboard work. I certainly do have a lot of news, I dread to think how long this is going to be, you might want to grab a chocolate bar or a cup of something to get you through! Now, are you all sitting comfortably? Fine, let’s do this!

Well, let’s see, it was October 26 when I last wrote wasn’t it? The rest of that day went exactly the way I said it would and I was in bed fairly early. I was awoken by my phone ringing at some cold, dark hour in the middle of the night. Squinting at my clock I was horrified to see it was only three AM. The caller proved to be Tovey. Aprilina had just given birth to a healthy boy, he told me, and he sounded over the moon about it. I tried to congratulate him as best I could, although my brain was thick with sleep. When he had gone I soon sank back into the land of nodd and did not wake up until L’s alarm went off at seven.

This put me into something of a tizzy, as I had to hurry to get ready and have the breakfast prepared for Brian and L for when they came into the den. I did not have time to do any of my usual early morning things like checking my Email or reading my Facebook. I had breakfast on the table in the end, and we ate companionably together. When I had everything cleared away, Brian and L started work and I finally had time to check my computer.

I had a big surprise! Of course the family was buzzing about the new youngling, but there was more news. Kori had her hands full because old Jockie has the green blight. Apparently he neglected the symptoms, though he knows them as well as anyone, and now he is very ill indeed.

Oh, I should explain. The green blight is a fungal infection which attacks our ears, noses and throats and, if we’re extra and specially unlucky, moves into our lungs. We can pick it up from eating unsafe plants. I have never had it, my Dad knew what he was doing, and the colony foragers would never let anything with spores on into the colony store, but if you forage for yourself and you’re a zairy idiot like Jockie, then you are always at risk. Of course, the thing about green blight is that it is not always just the person who picks it up that suffers. Sometimes it is contagious, you just do not know. If green blight gets into our lungs it can kill you. My Auntie Jengli, Mum’s youngest sister, she died of it and she was a strong, healthy lep, only in her thirties. She caught it from someone in the water queue and poof! That was it. Oh gosh, I am rambling today, I must get on!

Well anyway, as I was saying, Jockie had the green blight and only Kori was allowed near him because sprites cannot contract green blight, but she now had to do all the work of healing in the whole colony, and just when winter is beginning to set in. There is a lot of work, lots of people with ordinary things close to the human colds and flu, more than usual amounts of accidents, cuts, breaks, bumps and bruises. Well, I read that Kori wanted Gwenice to help her to do the healing work of the colony. Gwen was more than qualified, in fact she would do a much better job than old Jockie ever did. I did not have time to read all the feeds, my help was wanted, but I sincerely hoped Gwen would accept Kori’s offer. It would be exactly what she needed.

The rest of Saturday was its usual completely mad self. We got ready for two shows, then they went on the air, both were great fun and everyone seemed to enjoy them. After that we all relaxed with wine and music. I had my usual phone call, then fell into bed. I was tired!

I was up at my usual time on Sunday morning and went through my morning routine. I had a nice Email from Tovey, telling me Lina and the youngling were doing well. They had decided to call the youngling Alfard after Dad. I bet Dad was pleased at that, though you would never get him to say so! When I logged in to Facebook there was such an uproar going on!

Apparently Jockie’s old neighbour, who sometimes helped him with a bit of cleaning and the odd pot of soup, had gone down with green blight. So we had a contagious strain in the colony. Gwen had taken up her post as healer and was helping Kori. Kori was nursing the victims of the blight, Gwen had to see to everyone else, and the colony was in quaranteen, no one was allowed in, no one was allowed out except for Kori who had to forage for the plants she needed to heal.

I sent Emails off to Mum and Dad and everyone else I cared about, telling them to stay safe, then closed Nia down, feeling deeply worried. Of course, my Sunday visit was cancelled but that was nothing. A contagious strain of green blight could be a really serious thing. In the overcrowded colony it could spread like wildfire and decimate the population. I suddenly dived for the phone. Tealy had been going to meet me at the colony today. Woodland sprites were safe from blight, Kori had told us so, but elves ? I did not know for sure, but I doubted it. They might have more magic but their metabolisms were very similar to ours. They could eat wild food to survive, I knew. I thought it was not safe to assume elves could not catch green blight. My heart sank when Tealy answered the phone and I could hear that she was outside.

“Hello, Darling,” her cheerful voice did not cause the usual lifting of my heart.

“Tealy, where are you?” I asked, feeling absolutely panicked.

“I’m waiting for you in the zapping bushes. I know I’m early, but I got fed up of waiting in Elfhold so I just came. It’s all right, no one has seen me. Well, no one except Kori.”

I do not know how I am still alive. I swear my heart nearly stopped beating.

“Kori?” it came out in a kind of frightened croak.

“Yes. She shot out of the outer doors and ran into the bushes to zap out. She was muttering plant names to herself. I called hello to her but she didn’t seem to notice I was there even though she zapped out only a little way off. Very strange. Come on, darling, are you coming soon, I can’t wait to see you!”

“Tealy,” I tried to keep my voice level. “You need to get yourself here, now. This minute. No questions now, I’ll tell you everything when you get here.”

You may think this was a silly thing for me to have done. Tealy had been in contact with the infection. Yes, I know I told you that Kori could not contract it, but she could carry the fungal spores. They are airborne and they hang around wherever victims of green blight are. If she had been nursing victims, she was carrying blight, It was odds on that Tealy was also carrying blight, which she could then pass on to me. Of course, I can see this all now, but at the time I did not care. I just needed to get Tealy here to the Lair, where I could see her and we could try to make plans to keep her safe.

Within seconds, Tealy had zapped in, and was shrugging out of her soft blue coat. She came up for a hug and looked surprised at how fiercely I hugged her back. My beautiful Tealy, I was thinking, I absolutely could not bear her to catch this awful thing because of me.

“Bert, you look worried to death!” she said finally. “Tell me what’s going on?”

We sat on my sofa and I explained. I suppose I thought she would brush it off, or maybe get scared, but as the tale unfolded she began to look more and more furious.

“So, what you’re saying is, I am carrying spores now?” she asked. She stood up suddenly, her head fur all fluffed up so that it stood on end.

“Yes, I’m afraid so. We need to…” I got no further.

“You idiot! You utter, utter idiot! How could you do sucha thing?” Tealy has a high voice, but when she lets rip at full volume she can shatter glasses. I reeled back in shock.

“Zaea,” I was stuttering. “I am so, so sorry, I tried to warn you not to go near there, but you had already left and…”

“I don’t care about that!” she almost spat. “How could you make me come here and put you at risk! Bert, that was unforgivable! Suppose you catch it and something happens? I am going to leave, right this second. Maybe…”

“No you don’t!” I was shouting myself now.

“You don’t know the symptoms! We need to make a plan to keep you safe. You try going anywhere and I’ll just come after you, so you may as well calm down, sit down and shut up!”

“Exactly what is going on in here?”

We had been so absorbed that we had not realized quite how much noise we had been making. We looked up in alarm and saw Brian standing in the doorway. L stood behind him.

“We’re sorry to interrupt,” she said quietly, “but this did sound very serious, and something we should know about. Bert, why are you at risk, and in what way?”

“I had better explain,” I said in rather a small voice. “Can we go into the den, this might take a while.”

We all went into the den. Tealy was still looking mutinous and all fluffed up. Brian and L sat on the sofa, I took my place on the Futon but Tealy stood in the middle of the room like a pelican in the wilderness.

Sighing, I told my story, and saw the two faces of my humans growing graver and graver as I talked.

“Well, I can quite see why Tealy is angry with you, Bert,” said Brian, “But it doesn’t get us anywhere, what’s done is done. Tealy, Bert was and is trying to protect you. Please, sit down, we all need to think and decide what is best to do now.”

Tealy came and sat beside me and gave my hand a squeeze, which made me feel much better.

“The first thing we really need is information.” Said Brian. “We need to find out if elves can contract green blight first of all. Then we, as in L and I, need detailed instructions on how best to deal with it if you, Bert, contract it, as we will get no outside help as the colony is in quarantine. Bert, can you fetch your netbook in here, please?”

I went to my closet and was soon back, Nia Netbook was already going through her start up routine as I brought her in.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“First, we need information about green blight.” Said Brian. “Can you log on to your website and get it for me.”

Soon I was on the site, and I had found out more about green blight than I ever wanted to know. I had soon downloaded information about its symptoms, how to nurse it, just screeds and screeds of stuff. What I could not find, however hard I tried, was if elves could contract it.

“Tealy, don’t you have some kind of similar information website?” asked L finally.

“Well, no, not really,” said Tealy, “Because we don’t have so much to do with humans. I think I told you once that Elfholds were very burocratic places. They work on a need to know basis. If you don’t actually need to know something, you are not told. There is no place like in the human world where you can just go and find out anything you feel like finding out.”

“But, Tealy,” said L, “Surely there must be a way of finding out what you need to know. After all, you do need to know this. And Elfhold needs to know you are carrying green blight. If elves can contract it then your Elfhold may be put at risk if you return there.”

“Oh help!” Tealy looked pale. “There is a way I can contact my immediate superior. But I am not supposed to show anyone. Well, I will be in enough trouble already, so a little more will be neither here nor there.”

She looked down at the gold bangles on her wrists. They had blue heart-shaped stones on them today. She seemed to be searching for the two largest ones on each wrist and lining them up. Then she touched them together twice. There was a slight pause, then we all jumped in shock. An elf had appeared in the room.

He was fairly elderly if the white fur on his head was anything to go by. He was wearing a pair of loud checked trousers and a golfing sweater. In one hand he clutched a coffee mug with the name Bilby written on it, and in the other he held a half-eaten bagel. He was looking furious.

“For gold’s sake, Tealy! That is Tealy, isn’t it? Yes, thought so. What time do you call this? You had better have a good reason. And where the iron are we? What are these humans doing here? I hope you know you are in very very very very and I do mean very deep water if this is not good!”

“I am sorry to disturb you, sir,” Tealy sounded meaker than I have ever heard her. “Believe me I did not take this step lightly, but there is something that Elfhold needs to know, and I need advice. It is a bit of a story, won’t you sit down?”

The old elf gave a kind of grunt, perched on a dining chair and indicated that Tealy should begin. She talked for a time, and did not get distracted even when the elf went on with his interrupted breakfast.

“So what you’re saying is,” he finally said through a mouthful of bagel, “Is that you might have caught some contagious disease off this root cruncher here which may infect the whole Elfhold. Terribly clever of you, what what? Lucky I’m not really here myself or I’d have it too! Well, I don’t know the answer to your question, but I will find out and inform you soonest. We can do without you being away from work longer than you need to be, as you know. In the meantime you will remain here until we tell you it is safe for you to return, is that clear?”

He had gone before Tealy had finished saying “yes, sir, thank you, sir.”

“What did he mean about not being here, Zaea,” I asked. “He looked pretty here to me, half-eaten breakfast and all!”

“It’s hard to explain,” said Tealy. “The nearest I can come is what humans call a hologram, only it is not really that. It is more like his inner self was here but his body did not have to zap. Anyway, he’s gone now. I am so sorry, Brian and L, but it appears you are stuck with me for the duration. I truly will try to help where I can and get in the way as little as possible.”

“That’s ok.” L came over to Tealy. “This is inconvenient enough for you. You can’t go back and get anything from your flat. We’ll try to make your stay as comfortable as we can. Could anyone send you some clothes or any of your things?”

Tealy smiled at L.

“Don’t worry about that, L. I can run up clothes or make anything I need. She held up her hand. “If I could just use the futon to sleep on, I’ll make a nice cosy sleeping bag, it’ll be easier to make something my size rather than all the bother with human sheets. We’ll see to folding it out and putting it away. I really will try not to be too much of a bother.”

Once all the practicalities were settled, Tealy and I went to my closet to give Brian and L some peace. We forgot our worries for the moment and had a lovely day. I Emailed Mum and Dad to find out if they were ok and told them what had happened. They were worried, of course, but hoping for the best, as we all were.

I awoke Monday morning to my usual scroll tied in pink. Oh goody, I thought, I really need cheering up. Let’s hear what Babsy has been up to.

“Dear Uncle Bert.”

“I hope you are in good health and that the helping hand is serving you well. I am in the sickbay and have not received a report this week on account of being ill.”

“Uncle, sorry this ain’t much but I wanted to write a bit. I must have ate a bad mushroom when we did them in botny cos I been bad for days. Sister filipy says I’ll be ok an lucky it wasn’t worse.”

“May the sun shine on you an all that gosh I do feel awful bad.”

“Love B.”

Well Zlendt, I thought. Poor little Babsy. I wondered at her botany teacher not checking her mushroom haul over before letting her cook them. I wrote back to the poor little mite then got on with the day.

Monday was a quiet one. Brian and L worked, I helped them and looked after the house. Tealy spent her time in my closet, glued to my computer. She was having a blast on Google and Wikipaedia. The news from the colony was not good. There had been two more confirmed cases of blight, but thankfully they were both near neighbours of Jockie, so the outbreak was so far being contained in one area. But Kori did not live in that area, and she had to go home at night. However hard she tried, and even though she was using full quarantine procedure before leaving the infected area, she may still be spreading spores, we just did not know.

On Tuesday morning I got some good news along with the grim. I had an Email from the family who ran the Gardens of Everlasting Peace. This is one of the strongholds of old lep magic and tealy and I, in what felt like another life, had planned to take L there for her birthday. I had submitted an application for all three of us, and on Tuesday I got the Email to tell me that my request had been accepted. I was really pleased about this and hoped desperately that we would be able to go.

The news from the colony was no better but no worse. No more cases of blight, but Jockie was very much worse, the blight having got on to his lungs. The other three sufferers were also gravely ill. It was being said on Facebook that it was an aggressive and virulent spore. Yikes, I thought. All I needed to hear!

On Tuesday morning we all four got on with our usual occupations. On Tuesday afternoon L startled me to bits. She got ready and went out, saying she was going to the gym. Now everyone knows that L is one of my favourite people but the gym? She does not do hard exercise, she just does not. I wondered at this new development, and if she would come back in one piece! She did, and also very full of beans. She has been to the gym several more times since, and I am wondering who put what in her coffee. Never mind, I do not think it will last!

Well, the rest of Tuesday was nice and normal, and on Wednesday morning I had an Email from Kori. She told me that Jockie had set out for the high country late the night before, and that the council had asked her to take his place. She had said no, as she was a sprite, and every colony should have a lep healer. She had suggested that Gwen be made full colony healer, and she would assist as before. The council had accepted her suggestion, Gwen agreed and the old country had confirmed her appointment. Just wow, I thought!

She also told me that if there were no more cases of blight, the colony would be out of quarantine by Saturday night. A week’s quarantine was all that was necessary as the spores mostly died then, although some of them could lie dormant for up to a month, but she thought this very unlikely.

This was such good news! I told Tealy and we were both really pleased. Tealy Emailed her Elfhold and soon had word back that she could return to her flat on Sunday if no symptoms had manifested themselves in the meantime.

The next few days were quiet, peaceful and uneventful. We all three of us worked, Tealy helped me where she could, tried to stay out of everyone’s way, had a great time on my computer, exploring human websites, and our evenings were very cosy times. Tealy came and joined in when we had finished for the day and the relaxing with wine and music took place. If we had not all been so worried it would have been a lovely time, but it felt as if a big dark cloud was hanging over us all.

The blight in the colony spread no further, for which we all gave the hand fervent thanks. It claimed the lives of everyone who had contracted it though. This made me even more terrified lest Tealy should go down with it. I should have been even more frightened for myself, but I just wasn’t. I was too wrapped up in watching for Tealy’s beautiful eyes to become inflamed, or for her to start getting headaches, or, hand forbid, for green mucus to come from her ears or nose. I watched her so closely that Tealy became rather irritable.

“Darling you really have to stop jumping if I so much as clear my throat!” she said on Friday evening. “It’s beginning to get on my nerves. I know you’re concerned for me and I love you for it, but what happens is going to happen, and you working yourself up into a fantod and fever is not going to help either of us. I am watching you just as closely, you had better believe it! But I am trying not to be a bother about it.”

I felt about an inch high, but took her words to heart and did try to stop acting like a cat on hot bricks.

Saturday was its usual completely mad self, only more so really. WE had lots of work to do for the shows, and having one more person in the lair seemed to make everything not run in its usual smoothe way. We got both shows on the air in the end, and I think everyone enjoyed them. Just before I went to bed I had a text from Mum to say that the quarantine on the colony had been lifted, so she would like to see Kori and I the next day. I went to bed with a lifting of my spirits. WE had all been cooped up in the lair all week, and it would do us all good to have a break from each other. Besides, I had an errand to do in the colony, it was well time it got done.

I must have been more tired than I thought, because I was woken by a little hand touching my head. I jumped awake, and there was Tealy, all up and dressed in a neat blue dress with a soft patterned cashmere cardigan over her shoulders. She wore the gold bangles with the blue hearts and the matching hair scrunchies which she had worn all week. She also had on long, soft blue boots.

“Sleepy-ears!” she said affectionately. “Come and have breakfast. WE must get going soon. Brian and L have had theirs. Yours is on the table, just put on your robe and come and eat before it gets cold.”

Well, I have already said there is no arguing with a determined elf. I had soon eaten, showered and dressed and we set out for the colony. I do not know what I was expecting, but I got a surprise. The colony was quieter than I have ever seen it. The thoroughfare was much less crowded than usual. There was much less activity everywhere.

When we walked into Mum and Dad’s cube, Mum was in there alone. She looked thin, white and frail.

“Hi, Mum, I said, “What’s happening, why is it so quiet everywhere?”

“It’s been a bad thing, son,” she said. “Everyone who can forage is out foragin’. This thing come on us completely out o’ the blue, an’ the council was took off guard. The stores was low an’ leps couldn’t get food.” I felt myself go cold all over.

“Didn’t they have preserved stuff stockpiled?” I asked in disbelief.

“Nope. That Orlan, what was made chief storekeeper last year, well ‘e’s a regular idiot. They ‘ad some, but ‘e always used to tell ‘em to save the space for fresh stuff, ‘e said there weren’t no need to pile up preserves cos they’d only get stole. When the fresh run out nobody ‘ad nothin’. The stronger ones tried to get through it. The rest ‘ad to go into WillSleep.”

“What?” I stared in disbelief. Willsleep is the equivalent of an animal going into hibernation in winter. It is a lep’s last, desperate gamble to stay alive and it does not always pay off. “But you lose so much bodyweight in WillSleep! For a starving lep to do that is desperately risky!”

“You don’t ‘ave to tell me that, son.” Mum looked suddenly very old.

“I don’t know ‘ow many we’ll lose cos of Orlan. I’m guessin’ it’ll be a lot.”

I suddenly sat down.

“Mum, you’re not telling me any of ours went into WillSleep? Oh moon, please no!”

“Ours is no different to no one else, son.” She said wearily. “We got some good foragers in this family, an’ we got some as got the sense to preserve all they can. Then we got some who think food is less important than makin’ grains an’ getting’ on. Then we got some that’s just plain not good at findin’ what’s there. I know some of ‘em’s gone into WillSleep. WE can only pray that they made it. Pray is all we can do. Gwenny’s away round ‘em all now to give the wake potion an’ see…” she petered out and bowed her head, trembling.

I wanted to ask Mum exactly who had gone into WillSleep but I could see she was too weak herself to endure much talk. Tealy fluttered her fingers and we were soon feeding Mum soup and soft bread. After that we insisted she go to bed and rest.

Tealy was terribly anxious about Mella and Derry, she had grown terribly fond of them and the five lings. I was also terrified for them, so we tiptoed out as soon as Mum was sleeping peacefully and were soon at their cube. I almost dreaded to put my head around the curtain door, but as soon as I did I saw Derry sitting at the bare table, Mella moving about, tidying up, and the lings sitting quietly in swing chairs. I counted. They were all there, even Milly. Thank the hand, I thought.

We went in and received a great welcome. Everyone was weak and quiet, but alive and awake. WE soon had food on the table and were helping the little ones.

When we got back to Mum and Dad’s, Dad was there. He was putting away his haul. I saw he had got as much as he could carry, and was looking tired out. I helped him, while Tealy went to work again and soon had food on the table.

We were all sitting around, eating bread, cheese and salad, when Gwen came in looking grave.

“Well we been lucky, Mum,” she said, sitting down and helping herself to food. “It could have been a lot worse.”

“We did lose some though, girl?” that was Dad. “Don’t spare us nor beat round the zlenkin bush for stars’ sake. That ain’t goin’ to make nuffin better. Let’s ‘ave it.”

“Bento’s gone, Dad, an Abby an’ their four. Ben wasn’t never no good at foragin’ an’ when the rations run out…”

I reeled. I never had much to do with my brother ben, but all the same. He was my brother.

“That all?” Dad was looking determinedly at Gwen.

“No, Dad, sorry, there’s more. Barty…”

“Not Barty!”

I just couldn’t believe it. My pompous brother, so in control of everything. I just did not believe he would ever go into WillSleep.

“Shut up our Bert!” Dad snapped at me. “What about Barty, our Gwen?”

“Barty’s in deep water, Dad. He wouldn’t respond to the potion, but he ain’t gone. Kori’s taking care of him an’ maybe we won’t lose him.”

“Pray to the hand!” sobbed Mum.

“I’m sorry, but there’s more. Mart didn’t make it. Nor did Lita’s youngling. Lita’s awake, but I don’t know if she’ll make it, I’m afraid she might face the wall after this.”

To say we were shell shocked was an understatement. Lita has been through so so much this year, and now this!

“I got to go to ‘er.” Mum got out of her chair.

“I wouldn’t, Mum. I asked her to come back here with me. She said she was staying where she was and just wanted to be left alone.”

“Pish! Times like this you need your Mum. I won’t be long, Alfie, I’ll try an’ get her to come back here for a bit till she decides what she wants to do.”

AS Mum went off, Tealy and I looked at each other meaningfully. I would have been willing to bet every piece of Gap clothing in my wardrobe that poor Lita wasn’t alone in her cube.

Gwen soon left again, she had much to do in the colony. Dad, Tealy and I got busy around the cube. It must only have been half an hour before Mum came back, but it seemed a lot longer to me.

Mum came in looking tired but completely calm and sat down in her chair.

“Lita didn’t wanna come back wiv you Lil?” asked Dad.

“No need.” Mum poured herself a cup of tea. “Tovey and Lina was there. They’re takin’ Lita wiv them. They’ll look after ‘er.”

Tovey was taking Lita to live in their cube? Um ok. So now he got to see his wife and my sister not be able to take their eyes off each other every day? What was going on?

I just shook my head and shrugged. Not my business.

We stayed for a while longer, but it was getting late, and I had something to do before I had to go back to get ready for the evening show. Tealy and I said goodbye to Mum and Dad and walked down the thoroughfare towards the back wall of the colony.

“Where are we going?” asked Tealy.

“You’ll see, Zaea,” I told her.

Just before we reached the Handhold I turned off down a quiet alleyway. Handers had their quarters here, also there were andministrative offices, but it led to one of the genuinely quiet places you could find in the colony. You were only allowed into it for a few minutes, and not allowed to stay once your business was done. I had never been there and never thought to go, but I knew where it was, so did everyone. I had often followed couples to the end of the alleyway, as we had been followed ourselves by swarms of lings, but you always stopped at the alley’s mouth, you never went further.

Tealy and I walked down that quiet, empty, narrow place and finally came to the door at the end. A hander stood outside it and asked our names. When we told him, he opened the door and let us through.

I have heard many stories about what the home of the wish stone is like, but I had not believed any of them. The inside of the cube surprised me. None of the stories had been true, but the reality was better.

I do not know what the cube had been originally made of, but it was now lined with the same crystalline material that the box which holds the Helping Hand was made from. A soft light came from no source that I could see, making the crystal reflect and refract in a thousand different colours. In fact it felt rather like standing inside a rainbow.

There was nothing in the room except, in its very centre, a large cube of polished green stone. I had never seen a stone that colour, it was like the green of all fresh, green, growing things, soft and tender like the spring. The stone came up to my waist and as it stood there, softly shimmering in that ethereal light, it looked rather like an altar.

“Is this the Wishstone?” Tealy’s whisper could hardly be heard.

“Yes, Zaeahana,” I whispered back. “If you’re sure it’s what you want…”

“Enough of that!” she said. “If you don’t know that by now then I haven’t done a good enough job of showing you. You are the most special person I have ever met. I couldn’t bear to lose you, now or ever! What do we do?”

“”We take hands, think of, well, of what you just said, of always being together. Then we bend together and kiss the stone.”

Tealy put her hand in mine. I thought about her, of how much she had changed in these last months from the glamorous but basically empty-headed creature she used to be, to the amazing person she was and is now. I thought of how much I absolutely did not ever want to lose her. We bent and kissed the stone together. Then we turned and, still hand in hand, headed out of the door, past the Hander and back the way we had come. We were both too full to speak a word.

A door to our right flew open and Tovey hurried out. We were so absorbed in each other we nearly ran right into him.

“Aha!” Tovey looked triumphant. “Look at the lovebirds. Been to kiss the Wishstone then? Wonderful stuff. Congrats to the both of you!”

WE both blushed and thanked him.

“Come in ‘ere a sec, I ain’t seen you for ages. I got to get these papers to old Orly, but we can catch up for a few.”

We followed Tovey into the small office cube he had just left. A small table, a mountain of paperwork and one chair were all it contained. He perched on the edge of the table and for a few minutes we talked about the family, about his new son and the depridations of the blight. It was when he began to talk about the family’s own losses that I, against my own and everyone else’s advice, decided to try to find out if he knew about Lina and Lita. He looked just as if he had no care in the world, except the normal cares of anyone who had a taxing job, death in the family and a young lepling would have. I just could not work it out. I began tentatively.

“Awful thing about what happened to Lita. I can’t believe what she’s been through this year.”

“Me either.” Said Tovey. “She’d never have made it ‘cept for Lina. Good thing they got each other. Lita’ll be ok wiv us, we’ll take care of her.”

My jaw hit the floor. I could not help it. Tovey was still smiling, perfectly cheerfully telling me he knew all about his wife and my sister and did not care. I looked back at Tovey and found he was not smiling anymore.

“Bert, will you put your eyes back in, your mouth back on an’ stop being such a judgmental zlorfwite! You got a green star cos of who you fell in love wiv! An’ it ain’t like you’re exactly doing fings conventional now, is it! You ain’t got no right to go judgin’ Lina an’ Lita!”

“I’m not, Tovey!” I was horrified, also defensive. “I should zlendt know better than anyone that you can’t control how you feel! But I didn’t want you hurt, you’ve always worked yourself to death for your family and Lina seemed so crazy about you, it just got to me that’s all. And mart! He had a lot to go through this year as well. Ok, he was lousy at handling emotional situations, but he worked his head off to get Danic to the old country and he was still trying to pay the debts. I didn’t think he deserved this either.”

“Mart knew, you zlarthead!” Tovey pushed my shoulder, looking a mixture of amused and exasperated. We been all four of us talkin’ about it since it ‘appened. Once Lara an’ little Alf was a couple of months old we was goin’ to move out of this colony an’ get a place for all of us. Course, that wouldn’t work ‘ere, too many zlenky waggin’ tongues, but Nile was goin’ to get us a place in the country. Anyway,” he said, giving me a big smile. “Not necessary now. I’m sorry about Mart, we’ll all miss ‘im. But we’ll take care o’ Lita. It’ll take ‘er a while before she’s back on ‘er feet an’ she’ll need all our ‘elp.”

A grizzled head and an arm clutching a sheaf of papers came around the door. A testy voice asked if it had to wait all day for those statistics, and Tovey had to hurry away. I was left with a lot to think about, mostly that Tealy had been right all along, as she usually was. You never knew what was going on inside a relationship and had no right to meddle in things which did not concern you. Having said that, though, I was glad I knew the score, it gave me one less thing to worry over, I really had been very concerned for Tovey.

When I got back to get ready for Down for Double I was absolutely dropping with tiredness. Tealy had gone thankfully back to her flat in Elfhold. I got through the show somehow and fell into my yawning bed straight after. What a day!

Monday saw my usual little pink scroll on my pillow. I sincerely hoped, as I opened it, that Babsy was feeling better.

“Dear Uncle Bert.”

“I hope you are in good health and that the helping hand is serving you well. I am in better health though still in sickbay.”

“Uncle, I been sick all week long. Sister Fillipy says I’m a lucky ling. Madam Lynnara had to write to Mum an’ Dad cos I got so bad. I ain’t never going to eat another mushroom as long as I live. I heard old nibble got in a heap of trouble cos he didn’t check me mushrooms afore he let me cook them. He had bunked off to find berries or nuts or some such an it was nearly end of lesson so he just checked some of us not all. Anyway he had to go to Professor Delian an they say he’ll get the sack. Good job if you asks me.”

“May the sun shine on you an me too it’s zlenkin freezing here so we wants some sun!”

“Love Babsy.”

When I had written back to Babsy I got on with my day. The family were doing ok from what I read on Facebook. The number of departures from WillSleep were far more than those caused by blight. The council was holding a hearing to find out why the stores were not better prepared against this kind of quarantine, and it was widely thought Orlan would lose his job. There was to be a mass farewell ceremony at the Handhold later that day, as it was winter and greenery was scarce, and it was thought better that everyone should set out together rather than already weakened families be put to all the trouble of decorating the hold with green so many times over.

I asked for, and was given, permission to attend the ceremony, which I did. It was a very sad sight. The hold was always packed to capacity with leps awaiting their turn to say goodbye to loved ones. As soon as your family had been sent on their way you had to leave to make way for others. Leps were sent to the high country twenty at a time. the ceremony went on all day. Over five hundred leps lost their lives through going into Willsleep. Our family was lucky not to lose more than we did. We said goodbye to Bento and Abbinata and their four leplings, to Mart and little Laralina.

As soon as it was over I wanted to come home. Usually a farewell is a beautiful thing, but not this time. Too many were going, and it could all so easily have been prevented. I was glad to get back to the living, to my warm, comfortable closet.

On Tuesday Brian left for a two day business trip. I stayed to take care of the house and, as L was still in a good health cycle, we had two lovely days. Brian returned late Wednesday evening and on Thursday we were all here together, having a nice, normal and busy day, all doing our normal work.

Very early on Friday morning Brian and I were up. I was rather surprised not to see L, but did not comment on it. I got Brian some breakfast and packed up his lunch. I had wanted to do this for such a long time. I did say this in the end, and believe me I wished I had not, because I got a nasty shock! Brian told me that L would have been doing it, but she had one of her worst Migraines and could not move from bed.

Now this threw me into a complete state because it was L’s birthday, and the day on which Tealy and I had planned to take her to the gardens of Everlasting Peace. When Brian had left I cautiously crept to the bedroom door to see if L was really as bad as Brian had said. There she lay, all scrunched up in bed, looking as green as the Wishstone. When I quietly asked if she needed anything she told me to, er, go away because my, um, expletive voice was far too loud.

Glumly I went back to the kitchen and began tackling a pile of dirty dishes. I was midway through these when in zapped Tealy, resplendent in a strawberry pink tee-shirt, jeans and high-heeled pink boots. Her hair was tied in bobbles with strawberries on them, she even had little pink strawberries on her silver bangles. She kissed my ear and asked me why I was not ready to go. When I explained she was not in the least phased. She just marched straight into L’s room.

I heard her voice, L’s grumpy answers and the sound of a spell, then she was out again. She was followed, after a decent interval, by L, dressed for outdoors. Yay, I thought, this might be going to happen after all.

Tealy took L to the middle of the room and her fingers fluttered. Suddenly there was no L. There was, however, a rather fetching lep standing there. She had a cute face with more than a look of L, L’s hazel eyes and long, dark hair, but it was curly not straight, and the clips she always tied it up in had gone. Emerging from the dark curls were a very nice pair of upswept lep ears. L’s voice had also gone up to match her tiny size. She seemed very pleased with her new self. Tealy and I took a hand each and we zapped out.

Oh those gardens! How lovely they were! The soft grass, the incredible and myriad varieties of flowers in every colour you could think of, the tall, graceful trees which shaded us, the warm sun, the flocks of brilliaintly coloured birds which sang there. We were greeted by a dignified garden keeper in a green robe and told we could wander at will until sunset. A path led through the whole place. I asked him about the legend of the singing flowers which I had heard as a child, and was told, to my joy, that they did grow in the garden. We set off to look for them.

After a while, L’s feet got tired, so we stopped to rest. I was just wondering how L was going to manage all the walking when we were sent help in the shape of a tiny, iridescent blue bird. My gosh, that bird was a feisty one, I thought she and Tealy were going to come to words at one point, but the bird said she would find help for us. The help cantered up to us a few minutes later in the shape of a pearl white unicorn with streaks of pale blue in its main which, Tealy said, showed it was a young male, and a silver horn just beginning to grow.

We got on much faster after that, and soon came out of deep forest into a garden containing a wide, deep pool in the centre of which a fountain played, sending sprays of water high into the air. This garden had all manner of fruit as well as flowers growing in it. We were all hungry by this time, and it was as well we had been told not to touch the plants or we would have taken fruit from the trees. As it turned out there was no need. A table at one side of the garden was spread with a white cloth and laid with a feast of bread, salads, soft creamy cheeses and mounds of fresh fruit. Silver jugs and goblets were set there too.

It was as L leant over the pool, about to fill a jug with clear water that a wonderful thing happened. I saw the water rippling and we all heard splashing. Soon we could see something, or someone, swimming towards us. When I had been trying to find a place to take L, and Tealy had helped me find this place, she had said that a mermaid lived in this pool, but I had clean forgotten it until now.

When the mermaid reached us she broke the surface and we could all see her. She was very small, not much larger than us, and the most incredibly beautiful thing you can imagine. Her face was humanoid, but it was not like all those pictures you see in fairy stories. Sailors would not fall in love with it. It was wild, beautiful, the skin was blue, the eyes were a silvery grey. Her hair floated about her in a thick curtain, it glittered in all the colours of the rainbow. Her body was blue to the waste, then her tail was silver. She wore nothing, except that around her neck and on her arms she had strings of polished stones, maybe gems, maybe shells, maybe just pebbles, who knows? They were wound around and around her, they trailed and floated and hung from her.

For a moment or two, she just floated there, lazily flicking her tail to keep herself stationery, then she suddenly hel her hand out to L. L put out her own hand. There was a splash or too, a gleam, and then the mermaid was swimming away. She had left L with a round, cream pearl, softly gleaming in her palm. The pearl had a small hole through its centre and had obviously been pulled from one of the mermaid’s trailing strands of stones. It was an amazing thing to happen. It was still more amazing to sit at that wonderfully laden table and eat until we were all full!

After that we kept wandering through the beautiful gardens, they seemed to go on forever, until the shadows began to lengthen. WE began to notice a smell on the air. Heavy, rich, sweet, like the most beautiful lilies only better. At last, just as the sun was beginning to redden in the sky, we came to a thick hedge. L dismounted from the unicorn and we entered the final garden through a gap in the hedge.

Hundreds of flowers were growing there, all in rows. They were tall as I was, standing on long, straight stems. They were big as sunflowers, maybe bigger. Their bright white petals glowed, their silver centres seemed to absorb the light so that it almost hurt to look at them. The scent of those flowers filled the air until you felt drunk with it.

Tealy took L’s hand and led her up to the nearest flower. L touched a petal, as we had been instructed to do, but nothing happened. I felt so disappointed, I felt sure the flowers would sing for L. Tealy tried but with no success. I turned to leave, it was time to go.

But then L and Tealy reminded me that I had not tried touching a petal. I demurred at first, saying it was not my birthday. L said that I might as well try since they had.

“Besides,” said Tealy, “You’re very special you kno. I bet they’ll like you.”

I touched a petal. They were soft as velvet. Nothing whatsoever happened. I once more headed for the gap in the hedge, but L stopped me.

“Bert, Tealy! Listen. Can’t you hear something?” she said.

“Don’t play games with me, L,” I said, “That’s really mean! It’s only the wind.” But then I heard it too, a slight note on the air, so soft I was not really sure if it was the wind, or something more.

In a second or two more we were all sure. The note hummed on the air, then it was joined by others, then the flowers began a song. It filled the air, it hummed in the ground, it made the sky tremble, yet it was not loud. It was so heart stoppingly beautiful that I wanted to cry. It was so full of love and happiness that I could hardly bear it. And it was for me! It seemed to go on and on, and then it softly faded away, leaving us all awestruck.

When we came out of the garden the unicorn had gone and the garden keeper was standing there, waiting for us. He told us we could zap out from here, and he hoped we had enjoyed our day. WE hardly had the wits to bid him goodbye before we left. I will never forget that place. Never!

Well, Friday was busy enough, but the weekend was completely mad. We had the usual two shows to get ready on Saturday, but as well as that, L decided she wanted to get some new software on her machine. Brian and I both had to help her. That project took up most of the day, and I had my own things to do. The following day was going to be a special birthday edition of Down for Double and I was practicing a song to sing as a surprise.

I was so busy all Saturday. The shows were both great fun, I got my rehearsing done when I could, and my word! was I glad to get to bed!

On Sunday morning I was about to get breakfast when Brian told me not to bother because he and L were going out! Well of all the cheek! I went off to the colony in a right sulk I can tell you. The sight of my Tealy girl made up for it. She was all in red that day, red coat over black trousers, red sweater, even red boots and red hearts on her bangles and in her hair. WE had a nice day at the colony. Nothing of note happened much. WE just did a lot of visiting, saw Mum and Dad, Mella and Derry, Kas and Kori, Ikey and Vee and a good few others.

I popped down to the Handhold to see Marni before we left to find out what was happening about the dissolution. Obviously, with Barti still in deep water, the dissolution hearing had been cancelled so she was still stuck in limbo. She was thinking seriously of going back to her cube and taking charge of her lings, as it was all Andi and Gordy could do to care for them with winter coming on, though none of them, thank the hand, had gone into WillSleep during the crisis.

I got back to the Lair well in time for Double and it was a great show. L loved all the songs Brian and I chose for her and the end of the show was just a complete success. Brian played her a special song and then I did my piece. She was very nice to us afterwards. We all had pizza and wine, and that was a mentally busy week over.

And so here we are at today. I have done absolutely nothing today except work, work and work at this entry. I am worried because I have not had my usual scroll from Babsy. I have had a scroll every single Monday since she started. I think that tomorrow I will write to Madam Mauraine and see what goes on. I will now go and get some food, I am voraciously hungry.

There! You are up to date at last! Thanks, as ever, for reading my ramblement. I hope you have had a nice couple of weeks. I will write again as soon as I can, until then, take care. Big smiles.

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