The avocado troll's quick ears have caught a sound from outside...
In the evening gloom, the dull ringing of unshod hooves on the asphalt can be heard for some time before the approaching traveler is visible. As the noise gets closer, a careful listener could make out that it is the sound of six feet, not four -- both horse and man are travelstained and limping, and the passer-by has dismounted and is leading his weary mount cautiously over the hard surface. He looks edgy and somehow out of place as he comes into the radius of light spilling from the open doors.
From inside the sound of the party is becoming raucous, and there are still a few late-comers pushing their way sheepishly in. None of them seem to have noticed the new arrival; but then this is precisely how he likes it.
He doesn't quite know how he ended up here, but the wild goings-on inside, however daunting, offer a more welcoming face than this manicured dullness of endless square houses and paved roads in which he has been lost for so long. For a moment he hovers on the edge of the lawn, scowling. Then, as another gust of laughter sweeps out from behind the doors, he seems to come to a decision. He leads the horse over to a quiet corner of the lawn and lets go of the bridle, reaches round to pull down a worn Gladstone bag -- which appears to contain all his worldly possessions -- from behind the saddle, and makes his way in towards the source of the hilarity without a backwards glance.
The horse looks after its master's departing figure for a moment, then drops its nose and browses tentatively. But it is too weary to take any real interest in grass, let alone in wandering off, even though it has been left untethered, and it is soon standing splay-hipped in the darkness in an exhausted doze.
The glowering stranger, bag in hand, pushes through the door and is immediately stopped in his tracks, blinking, by the scope and strangeness of the festivities going on inside -- and the sheer scale of the place. For a moment it looks as if he is about to back out again hurriedly; then a sudden ripple in the crowd blocks him off from the exit and thrusts him into a corner by one of the tables.
He retreats rapidly against the wall and stares round wildly, tensed into a half-crouch, as if expecting the shoving of the other guests to prelude an attack of some kind, but nothing happens. Finally, as no-one seems to take any notice of his unexpected arrival, he apparently begins to relax. After a while, straightening up, he takes off his battered coat and hat, and drapes them over the bag at his feet.
The traveler is revealed as a stocky dark individual of medium height and a somewhat shifty expression, with a bristling black mustache. He is dressed in a loose hide vest, jeans, shirt and boots that were obviously never fashionable even when new, and which since that long-distant time have clearly seen many days' hard work. At the moment he carries with him a general aroma of horse, with a certain additional edge that suggests at least a week of unwashed journeying; on the other hand his nails are clean and he has obviously taken the trouble to shave at some point today.
The table at his elbow holds a selection of appetizing-looking meats that smell tantalizingly good. He helps himself, glancing round edgily as if expecting to be stopped, and starts to tear into the food with more enthusiasm than politeness, as if he has not had a square meal in several days. Once the edge is off his appetite, he ventures a foray to the neighbouring stall. Here a handful of party-goers who are obviously old acquaintances are holding a heated discussion on the merits of various types of beer. The stranger rapidly acquires a beer in each hand and retreats out of the conversation back to his corner, where he swallows down the first glass in one gasp, and takes a deep draft from the other while observing the ebb and flow of the rest of the company around him.
He's seen some strange folks in his time, but nothing quite like these 'trolls'. They seem harmless enough, though... and after all the notice did say 'ALL WELCOME'. A few of the more confident guests, spotting the newcomer lurking on the edge of the crowd, even try to strike up a conversation without much luck. Still, though the stranger continues to give the appearance of a man whose nerves are on edge, and his hand keeps sliding under the edge of his vest as if to reassure himself by the solid presence there, it gradually becomes plain that he is not so much jumpy as simply uncertain of his reception.
The avocado troll's large ears twitched. "Excuse me," she said to Ninni, "There's something I must attend to." She wandered over to the large water trough that stood against a back wall, and moved her fingers quietly in the air above it, as if flipping switches that weren't there. The smooth, reflective surface of the water rippled, and the trough's true purpose was revealed: her TARDIS' scanner. Sure enough, her hearing had not deceived her. There was a horse on the lawn, and he was looking rather worse for wear. She sighed. The "crisis" with the Flame Bringer had yet to come to a head, and she still had responsibilities as a hostess. Luckily, this year, she had a deputy. She called the turquoise troll. "There's a horse outside that looks like he needs some TLC."
The smaller troll started jumping up and down. "A horsey? I love horsies!"
"Yes, dear, I know... So do I. But this creature may be skittish, so be careful. Bring him round to the other stable in the back -- give him one of the big box stalls. And make sure he has plenty of water." She paused, thoughtful, looking at the creature in the scanner. "Give him some beet mash and oats, too. ... and it looks like he's lame in his right hind leg. You know where the jar of special liniment is?"
The little troll nodded excitedly. "Yes, yes, yes!" she said, "I'll make the horsey all better!"
The hostess smiled. "I know you will, dear," she said.
As her deputy trotted off to make a new friend, she turned her thoughts to the horse's rider. Chances are, he'd need some tlc, too. "Somehow," she thought to herself as she went in search of him, "I don't think he's from the same quadrant of the Fictiverse as the rest of us... I wonder how he ended up here... Still, he may be able to help out. Things sure have gotten strange since the 'newcomer' interrupted our reel."
(Since the only flames around were still the multicolored sort from the gremlin repellent, her doubts that he was really a flame-bringer were beginning to grow, she was beginning to think that there was something much bigger at stake, and she was getting uneasy waiting to discover what that was -- like the dreadful stillness and heat that hang in the air before a tornado hits).
Finishing the last swallow of his second beer, the stranger lets his watchful guard slip for a moment as he sets down the glass on a nearby table. When he turns back, there is a squat, grinning green creature at his elbow.
The corner of the table lifts sharply and crashes back against the floor as he backs off abruptly. There is a pallid cast to his swarthy skin, and dark eyes, wild-rimmed with panic, are riveted on the waddling thing. His right hand has darted under his vest. For a split second he seems not only insane but very, very dangerous...
But the large flapping ears and feet are irresistibly comic. Far from flinching, the avocado-green troll gives him an almost reproachful look. Finally, it dawns on him that the outstretched hand is holding nothing more threatening than a paper bag, half-open, which is being offered in his direction.
The troll, observing the confusion on his face, gives him a wide and friendly smile. "Have a jelly-baby?"
As if mesmerized, he watches his hand dip into the bag and emerge with a rubbery orange candy. He blinks down at it. He's seen this ritual played out before, on other guests... As the adrenalin rush of surprise fades, he recognizes this creature, and remembers the way the crowd always seemed to centre around the energetic little figure. He knows well enough how to read a room; it's a skill to pick up early if you care to keep your hide in one piece.
The traveler jerks his head in a nod of respectful acknowledgement. "This your party..." (he hesitates, taken aback by an unexpected problem, and finally making a resolute guess) "...Miss?"
The troll shrugs it off, her grin widening even further (quite some feat!) "This is our second Annual Pro-Fun Troll Hoe-down," she tells him. "You seemed a bit out of it - so as chief Pro-Fun Troll, I came to say an official 'welcome'!"
The stranger looks a mite uncomfortable. "'Fun's not really been in my line much so far, I guess," he confesses. "But I'm mighty grateful for your hospitality. I was about all in when I got here."
He glances down at his fingers, and pops the jelly-baby into his mouth. Judging by his expression, the flavour wasn't quite what he was expecting. For a moment he looks about set to spit it out onto the floor; then, catching his hostess' eye, he swallows hurriedly, and proffers her a somewhat cautious hand in his turn.
"I go by 'Kid Curry', mostly. There's some that say I'm half-crazy, but then I never cared much for any of them either." He brushes his free hand across his mustache in a nervous gesture, looking down at her. "You got a name?"
The avocado-green troll introduces herself, and proceeds to name sundry other regulars in the crowd. But after a dozen or so names have spun by her guest is starting to look distinctly overwhelmed and panicky again, and she stops, with a rueful grin. "You'll get the hang of us all in no time," she reassures him, reaching up to award him a pat on the arm and carefully schooling herself not to notice the flinch from her touch that follows. "But if you can manage here now, I really must dash - there were a couple of problems earlier on, and I'm afraid things may have gotten a touch out of hand..."
She turns and starts to trot off rapidly, but after a moment she catches the sound of hesitant footsteps following in her wake and halts, glancing over her shoulder in surprise. Almost equally taken aback, Kid Curry meets her gaze awkwardly, a dark stain mantling his cheeks under her searching expression.
"If there's anything I can do...?" He drops his eyes, plainly thrown off-balance at finding himself making the uncharacteristic offer. "Helping out's never been my style; but I reckon I owe you one."
At the thought of having this unpredictable individual anywhere near trouble, the avocado-green troll's heart sinks despite herself. But there is a queer yearning in the stranger's face - not so much puppy-dog appeal as dawning hope in the gaze of a whipped and vicious stray - and her Pro-Fun instincts get the better of her.
A welcoming smile hides the momentary dismay. "Sure, we can always do with extra help. Why don't you come along?"
She hurries across the floor back to the assembled Doctors, where the group's activity seems to have become suddenly hectic during her brief absence. One tiny stray corner of her mind, listening to the uneven steps at her heels, finds itself wondering absently meanwhile just how to persuade a paranoid, footsore stranger into permitting her to treat that limp.
Meanwhile, back amongst the assembled Doctors...
Imran, who's been very quiet during all of this, finally speaks up.
'I think... the reason no-one knows what it really is, is so we can't change it in any way. So we can't get the story moving. In other words... someone is trying to stop the story from moving forward.'
'So what we need to do is find out what it really is...'
'Hey! WHAT ARE YOU??' Allie yells.
The Flame Bringer turns around from where it's still trying to get the barkeep's attention. 'Tell me who I am. Tell me what I can be. Choose my future. Because I don't know what I'm becoming...'
'So that's it...' the Second murmurs. 'The Flame Bringer's already changing into something, and it wanted us to force that change!'
'But what's it becoming?!'
'Philip!' the Third commands. 'The APTFP, now!'
In a matter of seconds, the Doctors are at work on the APTFP.
Our hostess hurries over, Kid Curry in tow.Previous chapter Next chapter