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The next morning I awoke with the sunlight blazing through my ‘window-at- the-top-of-the-world’. I grabbed a towel and clean clothes from my pack and carefully climbed backwards down the steep stairs to the kitchen.
‘ ‘Morning Val. ‘Morning girls.’
‘ ‘Morning!’ they all sang back at me.
‘Would someone show me whereabouts at the stream I can bathe, please?’
‘We will! We will!’ chorused the twins, and they took off down the spiral staircase. They were waiting at the bottom when I got there. Polly took my towel, and Molly my clothes, and holding my hands led me into the woods.  We stopped by a natural rock pool.  Not wanting to embarrass  the girls, I waded into the water in my nightie and removed it when I was submerged.  This caused a great deal of hilarity.
We all just take our clothes of before we go in,’ said Polly, and they both proceeded to strip off and jumped in with gusto. We ended up splashing and giggling. The water was cool, but it was great fun and very refreshing. I told the girls to get out and use my towel to dry themselves. Then I climbed out and sort of dried myself on the soggy towel, and we got dressed and headed back to the house for some breakfast.
‘Forty gone to work already?’ I asked Val.
‘Yes. Long gone. His shift starts at 5.00am……..  After we’ve had breakfast and the girls have gone to school, would you like me to read your tea-leaves?’
‘That would be interesting. I’ve not had that done before. Thank you.’
‘I get lots of people come for a reading,’ she said.

We had breakfast and packed up the twins’ lunch boxes.
‘I will be leaving this morning, girls. Thank you so much for looking after me and Maria. I hope I will see you again one day.’ They gave me a group hug and went skipping off to school.

Val took a tin down from the shelf. It was marked ‘Reading Tea’.
‘Is that a special tea that you use, then?’ I asked Val.
‘Oh, lordy, yes!’ she said. ‘You don’t want ordinary tea for a reading. Well…….. it is ordinary tea, but with added flavours. This is how it works: you have a cup of tea but leave a little in the bottom of the cup; I refill it and when you’ve drunk the second cup you have to swill the dregs around three times and then upend the cup on the saucer. Then I read it.’

I did as I was told. I tasted a hint of aniseed and rose, and something else that I couldn’t quite name. It was very refreshing.
‘There you are, Val.’ I handed her the cup.
‘Ooooh. Very interesting. I see the number eight and caves. I also see figures with outstretched arms. And water.’
‘Hmmm. Well, I am headed for Rainbow Beach, so that could be the water. The figures could be the friends I am meeting there, and I might pass some caves on the way. Thank you for the reading. That was a first for me.’ We sat talking for a while and then I went up to pack my things. Val offered to round-up Maria for me.

I descended the spiral staircase one last time, taking in the wonder of the structure and all the flowers decorating it.
‘Thank you so much for the pleasure and the unique experience of sleeping in a tree-house, Val. Your home is a delight. Please thank Forty for his kindness, too. I will never forget you all.’ Val kissed me on the cheek and wished me a good journey. Maria and I took the track through the woods and turned one last time to wave to Val before we disappeared from view around the bend. She waved back and we continued on our journey.

I wondered what our next adventure would be.

Swiss Family Beryl

We strolled along at a steady pace until we came to a village, and then we strolled straight through it, which took me by surprise.
‘Do you not live in the village then?’ I asked.
‘Lordy, no! Too many straight lines and sharp angles if you live in a village. No, we like the shape of nature and live in the Deep Wood. You’ll be able to see it at the top of the rise.’
We reached the top of the rise and below us was a thickly wooded valley. It looked like mostly deciduous trees and was very lush and green.
That’s where we live,’ he said.
‘Do you think we should be on first name terms if I’m coming to dinner? My name’s Beryl.’
‘Oh, yes, I suppose so,’ he laughed. ‘I’m Fortesque – Forty. Pleased to meet you Beryl.’ He shook my hand. Well, that took me completely by surprise. I don’t know what I was expecting a troll to be called, but it certainly wasn’t Fortesque.

We descended into the wood along a well-worn trail. ‘Not far now,’ he said. ‘The kids will be jumping out from behind a tree anytime now, so act scared. It’s part of the daily ritual. They like to scare me.’
‘OK. I’m glad you told me, otherwise I might have fallen off my donkey.’
A few steps farther on and two small girls with red pigtails leapt from behind a tree, with their hands held up like claws. ‘Grrrrrrrrrrr!!!’
We both shrieked and the two little girls disolved in a heap giggling.
‘It’s only us, Daddy. Don’t be scared.’ Then they ran off along the trail pursued by their father, who was now doing the growling. We followed and soon came to their home. It was the most amazing tree-house. I tethered Maria at the base and followed my new-found friends.

A spiral staircase wound its way around the trunk. There was a handrail which was decorated at intervals with pots of brightly coloured flowers – petunias, busy-lizzies, begonias, daisies and lobelia. The staircase came out onto a large deck with more pot plants on it. These were useful plants like tomatoes, beans and a variety of herbs. I looked up and the structure appeared to be several storeys tall.

Forty and the girls, Molly and Polly (twins) took off their shoes and I did the same. The door was open and we went in.
‘Hello Forty, my love. Have you had a busy day?’ said a plump figure with her back to us.
‘Not very. Not many travellers today, and I brought the last one home with me to share dinner.’
She turned. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’m doing the beans.’ She wiped her hands on her apron and shook mine. ‘I’m Valentina – Val. Pleased to meet you.’
‘Hello Val. I’m Beryl. I hope you don’t mind me coming back with Forty.’
‘Lord, no. He’s always bringing folks home. Did the girls scare you?’ she asked, winking.
‘They certainly did! I nearly wet myself.’ This set the girls off giggling again.
‘Do have a seat. You don’t mind if I carry on doing the beans?’
‘Not at all. Would you like me to help?’
‘You can shell the peas, if you like.’

I sat shelling peas and gazing around the room. There was a sink and, to one side, a large earthenware urn with a tap in it. This was obviously for water. There was also an iron cooking range in the corner.
‘However did you get the stove up here?’ I asked
‘We have a block-and-tackle for heavy things, and a pulley for the water and lighter things. It’s the girls’ job to fetch the water. They both fill buckets from the stream, then one of them stands at the bottom of the tree and hauls the buckets up on the pulley. The other one takes them off at the top and brings them into the kitchen.’

There were copper oil lamps hanging from hooks in the beams and all the cupboards and furniture were made of wood. The furniture was all very ‘freeform’, using the natural shapes of the wood. It made a very pleasant change from machine-made furniture. There were lots of pots and pans and crockery on shelves and hooks. This was the hub of the house.

Val made cups of tea for us all and sat down for a while.
‘Dinner won’t be long now.’
‘It smells delicious!’
‘It’s rabbit and mushroom pie. Courtesy of my two lovelies. They set their traps in the evening and check them first thing in the morning. They gathered the mushrooms, too.’
‘They’re a big help to you, aren’t they?’
‘They are indeed!’ The girls beamed and leapt up to set the table for the meal. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled, and we all ate heartily.

After dinner the girls asked if they could take Maria to the stream for a drink and to eat the sweet grass, and were delighted when I told them they could ride her there. I asked them to take off her saddle and the saddlebags first, then they could both fit on together. They tumbled out of the door in a race to be the first one there.
‘Will you stay the night?’ asked Val. ‘We have a guest room. It’s right at the top.’
‘That would be lovely. Thank you! How exciting to sleep in a tree-house. I’ve never done that before.’ This made Val and Forty laugh.
I shouted down to Molly and Polly to put my saddlebags on the pulley and I hauled them up.
‘I’ll take you and show you your room before it gets dark.’ said Val. ‘It’s a bit of a climb, but the view is worth it.’

I huffed and puffed with my saddlebags up three rather steep staircases, to the guest room. It was not large – room for a single bed, a dresser and a chair. There were two large windows, back and front, and I could see right over the tops of the trees. It was breathtaking.
‘If it’s alright with you, Val, I think I’ll stay now that I’m up here. I don’t think I can do that climb again tonight.’
‘That’s OK,’ she smiled. ‘We’ll see you in the morning.’

I watched the sun set over the distant hills and night descended like an indigo velvet blanket. We were far from any lights and the sky was crammed with millions more stars than are normally visible. What a lovely place to sleep.

Fellow Travellers

I was woken by the sound of voices and creaking leather. The first of the groups I had spied on the road had reached us.
‘Hello there!’ I called, waving. They wandered over to my tree.
‘I was just having a little siesta. Which way are you headed?’
The group seemed to consist of older ladies like myself. They all wore red hats and clothing in various shades of purple. A tall, rather gaunt looking woman seemed to be in charge.
‘We’re heading for the town of Prosperity. It’s over the hills in that direction.’ she said, pointing along the road to the right. ‘Where are you headed?’
‘Eventually Maria, my donkey, and I are heading to Rainbow Beach to meet up with the SS Vulcania, but we want to see as many things as we can along the way.’
‘We’re all going to a Red Hat Society convention.’
‘What does the Red Hat Society do?’
‘Basically, have a good time and be outrageous,’ she said, grinning.
‘Sounds like something I might enjoy!’
‘There are groups everywhere. You should look into it. We’re having a break for lunch and drinks. Would you like to join us?’
‘Thank you. I’d love to.’

I gave Maria feed and water and the promised biscuit, and went to join the ladies. They passed out sandwiches and cups of tea and we had a very jolly lunch.
‘Has anyone taken the left fork – The Road Less Travelled – before?’ I asked. One lady, Maureen, raised her hand.
‘Where does it go?’
‘It’s different for each person. Hard to explain really. It does eventually curl back and join the other road farther along, though.’
‘Would any of you care to join me?’
‘I’d come with you,’ said Maureen, ‘but I’ve only got a few days off work. Not enough time to do the convention and that. Sorry. There might be someone in the next group who’ll go with you.’
‘I don’t think I’ll hang about waiting for them to get here. Maria and I will be on our way when you leave. We’re quite used to travelling alone.’
We cleared up all the picnic mess and then climbed back into our saddles.
‘Have a good time at your convention.’ I cried.
‘We will!’ they chorused. ‘You enjoy your journey, too.’

They all ambled off along the right hand fork and Maria and I took the narrower track. It led us through a meadow full of wild flowers and along the bank of a wide stream.
‘I hope there’s a bridge or a ford somewhere, Maria. I don’t fancy getting wet, and I know for certain that you don’t.’  We continued along the track and the sun was warm on our backs. We rounded a bend and I could see a wooden bridge in the distance.
‘Aha! Saved from wet feet, the pair of us, Maria. Head for that bridge!’

It was farther away than I thought, and quite a substantial structure when we got there. I urged Maria onto the bridge. She took three steps and stopped dead, with her front legs splayed and rigid and her ears back.  She would not move.  I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye which made me jump.  I turned in time to see a rather grotesque, and very hirsute, figure peering over the side of the bridge.
‘Good lord! I said, ‘You nearly gave me a heart attack.’
‘In actual fact, missus, you’re very lucky. I was going to scare you, but it’s five o’clock and my shift’s finished. Kevin’s late for his shift, again, so you can cross the bridge without fear.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m a big, bad troll,’ he said, with a most disarming smile.
‘Are you going to do something awful to us?’
‘Nah! That’s just me job and, like I told you, my shift’s finished. I’m just normal when I’m not at work. Where are you going?’
‘I don’t have an itinerary. I’m having an adventure.’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘I am a bit peckish.’
‘Come home with me then, and meet the wife and kids. She’s a wonderful cook.’
‘That would be nice. Thank you very much.’
‘Right then. That’s settled. Follow me.’
Maria relaxed and we followed the troll to his home.

Which Way?

We continued along the Serpentine Road.  It was much quieter than when we’d arrived.  The snake festival was to last another day and with fewer people travelling the road it made our journey easier.  We wandered along, following the bends and twists in the road until I asked myself  ‘Why?’  The surrounding countryside was perfectly flat; mostly meadows with the odd tree here and there.
‘I think we’ll take the short-cut, Maria’. I guided her onto the grass. We could see that the road was heading for the low hills and going ‘as the crow flies’ would cut some considerable distance and time off our journey.

We’d been on the grass for about ten minutes when there was an ‘Oi!’ I gave a big sigh, rolled my eyes and muttered, ‘Now what?’ I turned towards the voice and saw a stout little man waddling towards me. He was clad all in olive green and had on a deerstalker and wellies. His face was quite round and sported a bulbous nose and red whiskers. His skin had a green tinge to it.
‘Hello’, I said. ‘Are you a leprechaun?’
‘NO!!, I’m not!’ he shouted, and glared at me. ‘I’ve just not been well, that’s all.’  I had the feeling I was not the first person to ask this question.
‘Oh, sorry to hear that. Did you want me for something?’
‘Aye. You’re not allowed on the grass.’
‘Why’s that? We aren’t doing any damage.’
‘That’s got nowt to do with it. You’re just not allowed. Everyone has to use the road.’
‘Then why wasn’t the road built in a straight line? It meanders about all over the place, but it’s not going around anything or visiting anywhere.’
The non-leprechaun seemed a bit nonplussed. ‘I don’t know. It’s allus bin like that. Them as came before built it, and the rules are – you must stay on the road.’
‘I’m heading for those hills,’ I said, pointing, ‘and I am not travelling three times further than I need to, to get there, and there’s not much you can do about it. So I’ll bid you good-day.’
‘There’ll be trouble, missus.’
‘Not for me there won’t. Now you go back to whatever it was you were doing and pretend you never saw me. I’ll be over those hills in no time.’ I left him scratching his beard and wrestling with his conscience.

An hour later we were back on the road where it started to rise gradually into the hills. As we ambled up the incline I turned in the saddle to look at the view. The Serpentine Road looked more like a lazy, meandering river than a road. If we’d stuck to it, it would have taken three hours longer to get to where we were, and I couldn’t see that the cavalry had been called out to deal with us, either. The only other people travelling on the road, in the same direction as us, were two small groups in the distance, dutifully sticking to the road. What rebels we were!

We reached the top of the crest and started down the other side, between the two hills. Half way down, the road, which was now more of a wide track, divided into two. There was a weather-beaten signpost at the junction. The wider track to the right said ‘The Road More Travelled’ and the other, narrower track said ‘The Road Less Travelled’.
‘Well, that’s extremely helpful, Maria. I think it’s time for a drink and a biscuit.’ I climbed down and got us both some refreshments. It was almost noon so I decided a little siesta might be useful. I settled myself against a tree trunk and pulled my hat over my eyes.
‘Don’t you wander off, Maria, and I’ll give you another biscuit when I wake.’ There were decisions to be made after we’d rested.

Moving On

The next morning I was up bright and early. Spending two nights in a real bed had worked wonders. I washed and dressed and set off for a stroll around the village. As with all mass-gatherings there was a lot of cleaning up to do, and there were one or two people already out making a start.

I grabbed a bag from one of them and collected rubbish as I walked. The morning was fresh and crisp and the ducks had returned to the pond now that all was quiet again. Several of them were cleaning up food scraps that had been left behind by the revellers, which was good because I didn’t want to do it. Paper and bottles, yes. Food, no.

After about an hour I’d worked my way back to the inn. George, the landlord, was busy behind the bar cleaning and sorting his glasses.
George‘Morning, love. Beautiful day. Can I get you anything?’
‘I’d love a small pot of tea, please, and is there any chance of some breakfast?’
‘Depends what you want to eat. Tea I can do, but the cook doesn’t start ’til half past seven. My cooking’s rubbish.’
‘Would it be alright if I cooked myself some eggs and bacon? I’m leaving today and would like to make an early start.’
‘Fine by me, as long as you leave everything clean and tidy. Cook’s got a very short fuse where the kitchen’s concerned.’
‘Of course I will. I’ll just nip outside and let Cedric know to get Maria organised. Would you like some breakfast too?’
‘Oooh, yes please! I’ll just have a bacon sandwich though. Nice and crispy.’

We had a most enjoyable breakfast and a bit of a chat about the festivities. He’d had a good time but, like me, hadn’t stayed out late.
‘Can’t lie in bed of a morning in this place. There’s too much to do.’
I cleared away our dishes and made sure the kitchen was just as I’d found it, then went up to pack my saddlebags. I was looking forward to continuing my journey.

All packed, I went back downstairs to find George. ‘I’ve come to settle up with you, George. How much do I owe you?’
‘Bless ya. Nothing! It’s all been taken care of.’
‘By whom?’
‘Bella.’
‘Then I must thank her. Do you know where she is?’
‘If she’s running true to form, she’ll still be snoring. Doesn’t usually get up until ten o’clock.’
‘Oh dear. I really do want to get away early.’
‘Why don’t you write her a note and I’ll make sure she gets it?’

Dear Bella,
It was so nice to meet you and your sister, Hecate.
I’ve really enjoyed my stay at the inn, and all the
festivities. You are quite the showman!
George tells me that you’ve settled the bill for the
stay, for which I thank you very much.
You and your sister are amazing women and I can
see that your communities hold you both in high
regard – and rightly so.
I would’ve loved to thank you in person, but you need
your sleep and I need an early start, so please accept
this with my sincerest thanks and best wishes. Maybe
one day we will meet again. I hope so.
Beryl
P.S. Don’t forget Hecate wants you to go and stay with
her for a while.

I gave the note to George; thanked him for his hospitality and went to get Maria. She was tethered outside the inn. I gave Cedric a few dollars for taking good care of her and climbed into the saddle.  All this travelling and donkey riding was making me quite limber.
‘Which way for Rainbow Beach?’
‘Go back to the main road and turn right. Head for the hills.’
‘Thank you.’ I gave a little wave to George and Cedric, and Maria and I walked back through the village. People were starting to appear and a small gaggle of children escorted us back to the main road.
‘It feels good to be on the move again, eh Maria?’ She gave a little snicker, which I took for a ‘Yes’.

The Feast

At precisely one o’clock a horn sounded and all the talking was silenced. With the help of a loudspeaker Bella welcomed everyone to the feast. She told us that children would pass amongst us and collect the snakeskins. (Someone on our table didn’t have one, so I passed down my spare.) Once they were all collected, the ceremony for calling in the snakes would begin. Dozens of children ran about and the task was completed in about five minutes.

All the snakeskins were put into a bright copper cauldron and set alight. Bella sprinkled something over the pot and produced a miniature fireworks display, which was cheered and clapped. After this she and Trevor wove their way through all the tables singing a song in a strange language. I couldn’t understand the words, but it was pleasant to listen to. They ended up in front of the gong and Bella raised her arms and shouted an incantation. Then she brought her arms down swiftly. At this point hands shot over ears – except I was a bit slow – and Trevor struck the gong with the mallet. It was a very deep tone, and not only made my ears ring but made me feel a bit nauseous too. He struck the gong three times and then all eyes turned to the woods. As the ringing died away the snakes appeared. The ground appeared to be seething with them – every size and colour.

As soon as the snakes appeared, so did the food. There was meat, fish and fowl; hot seasonal vegetables; salads, soups, fruit; puddings, pies and cake. Jugs of mead and lemonade were placed on the tables too.

We were asked to lift the snakes onto the tables; offer them tiny morsels of all the foods and then set them back on the ground. This seemed less than hygienic to me, but we did as asked. Fortunately, the snakes were very docile and didn’t slither all over the food. When they had been fed and were placed back on the ground, they all headed back to the woods and the feast got underway for us humans.

There were acrobats, clowns and jugglers to entertain us while we ate. The food was delicious and after we’d finished eating, the tables were removed and replaced by a wooden dance floor. A lively band played jigs and reels, and we all had a whale of a time. The dancing continued through the night, but I caved around ten thirty and went to bed, thoroughly exhausted but very happy.

I passed Bella on the stairs and winked at her.
‘I know your secret,’ I said.
‘What secret?’
‘The snakes. It’s the gong, isn’t it? Nothing to do with charms and incantations.’
She put her finger to her lips, ‘Shhhh!’ she said. ‘Don’t let the cat out of the bag. The visitors like a bit of pomp and circumstance.’
‘Don’t worry, Bella. Your secret’s safe with me.’ I gave her a big hug and went to my room.

I woke the next morning to sounds of activity outside. Trestle tables and benches were being arranged in circles around the duck pond, and more were being placed on the part of the common that was not cluttered with tents. The children were all helping and there was a great deal of merriment.

I washed and dressed and wandered outside. The landlord seemed to be directing things.
‘Good morning. I’m glad the rain stopped.’ I said.
‘Yes. It’ll be a good day for it.’
‘How will you cater for so many people?’
‘Oh, we don’t do it all. The whole village is involved in providing the feast.’
‘How do the snakes get here?’
‘Bella sings to them, and they come out of the forest.’
‘But, snakes are deaf aren’t they?’
‘Are they? I never knew that. It must be the charm she uses.’

Just then Bella emerged from the inn and came to join us. Only three hats this morning, but all of them different from yesterday.
‘Would you like to take a stroll with me?’ she asked.
‘I would. You can tell me all about how you charm the snakes.’
‘Oh, if I did that, dear, I’d have to kill you,’ and she chuckled at her joke. At least I think it was a joke.
‘How can you sing a charm to snakes when they can’t hear?’ She tapped the side of her nose and winked at me.

We walked to the far side of the pond as we talked. She asked me how Hecate was and we talked of her little cottage. Apparently it had been in the Lemurian branch of the family for centuries. When we reached the other side of the duck pond we met a group of men hauling an enormous gong onto the grass. It must have been about six feet across and was mounted on a large timber frame on wheels. Another man was carrying a large, leather covered mallet. A dinner gong that could call people from miles away! Bella shouted ‘hello’ to the group and we made our way back to the inn.
‘Join me for breakfast, Bella?’ She agreed and we went inside.
‘Will you be attending the Gorgon ceremony tomorrow?’ she asked.
‘I’m not very fond of smelly cheese.’
‘Huh!?’ She looked puzzled. ‘It’s not a cheese. Its ‘The Gorgon’, like in mythology.’
‘Oh! What’s involved in that then?’
‘Well, you have to perform for her, and if you do a good job she removes one of her veils and imparts some wisdom.’
‘It’s not painful karaoke, is it? I don’t do karaoke.’
‘It can be anything of your choosing.’
‘Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that. I don’t sing; can’t juggle or do magic tricks and my dancing days are over…….I might just watch.’
‘Oh, and while I think about it, don’t forget to take your snakeskin to the feast.’
‘Aaand what snakeskin would that be? I don’t have a snakeskin. Do they skin the snakes?’
‘No, the skins that the snakes slough off each year are collected by the children and decorated.You have to have one to be seated at the feast.’
‘Where will I get one?’
‘One of the stalls will be selling them.’
‘OK, I’ll go and get one.’

Bella went off to prepare herself for the calling-in of the snakes, and I wandered through the stalls on the common, looking for the snakeskin merchant.

The stall was painted all over with brightly coloured snakes, and the proprietors were a couple of children about nine years old.
‘You have a beautiful tent,’ I said.
‘We painted it ourselves. Not just us………all of the kids.’
‘Well, you’ve done an excellent job of it.’
‘Do you want to buy one?’ asked the little girl.
‘I do indeed. Which one would you recommend?’
‘I painted the purple and orange one,’ she said, ‘An’ I did the spotty one,’ said the boy.
‘Those were the ones that I like the best, too. I’ll take them both. How much are they?’
‘Three dollars each.’ They beamed. I handed over a ten dollar note and told them to keep the change.
‘Carry them carefully,’ said the little boy, ‘ ’cause they tear easy.’
‘I will. Thank you very much.’
I carried my purchases back to my room and laid them carefully on the bed.

At twelve thirty I made my way through the tables looking for ‘E’ and the others taking the donkey trek. They saw me first and waved and shouted. I sat down, together with my snakeskins, and we all swapped tales of our adventure so far.