By Ian Hobson
Â© 2006 Ian G. Hobson
Author's Note: Most of the characters and places in Astrantia are named after plants and flowers (or maybe it's the other way round). I pronounce Callistephus: Cal-ist-e-fus (similar to Christopher).
Callistephus and the Emerald
The boy, Callistephus, lay at the entrance to the cave, on the hillside, where he lived. He was waiting for the sun to rise. He lay with his head on his front paws and his tail swishing the dusty floor of the cave. Now you may think that an odd thing for a boy to do. But Callistephus was no ordinary boy.
Callistephus lived in Astrantia, an enchanted land. A land where mythical beasts, and witches and warlocks, and magic spells were commonplace. And Callistephus himself, was enchanted. That is to say, a magic spell had been cast upon him; in fact, several magic spells.
When Callistephus was but nine years old, he had fallen foul of a witch called Asperula. She was neither a good nor a bad witch but she was¦ well, not the most clever of witches. Asperula had caught Callistephus helping himself to plums from her best Victoria plum tree, and had called him 'thief!' She had pulled him down from the tree and shouted at him, and threatened him with all sorts of evil magic spells. But when Callistephus had started to cry she had taken pity on him and decided to cast a spell that she thought more suitable for his crime. So she stoked the fire under her cauldron and danced around it, throwing wild flowers and herbs into the boiling liquid, and chanting:
Columbine and Comfrey
Into the pot, with
Snake-Weed and Willowherb
And whatever I've got
Hog Weed and Borage
May give him a fright
But Purslane and Lovage
Will set the boy right
Pearlwort and Scabious
May cause him some grief
But Woodrush and Honesty
Will transform this thief
He will be not the same
By night or by day
Throw in, for good measure
Pennisetum and Bay
Asperula continued to chant like this for a long time, but unfortunately she became confused and got some of her chanting wrong and cast more spells than she meant to. To be fair, she did get something right. She did, as intended, make Callistephus the most honest person in the land, unable to steal, or even to tell a lie. But she had also stopped him from growing any older, and, worse than that, she made him turn into a wolf each night, between sunset and sunrise.
For Callistephus, this seemed terrible at first, for he could no longer live with his father in the village. And even his friends were afraid to play with him. But soon he made other friends; birds and squirrels and badgers and even a porcupine. And being a wolf by night did have certain advantages. His wolf's coat kept him snug and warm, and few other creatures bothered him. In the darkness, he had no one and nothing to fear. And he could roam far and wide and yet always find the way back to his cave, no matter how dark the night was. But always he longed for the sun to rise again, so that he could once more be a boy.
Callistephus looked to the east, where he knew the sun would soon rise. And as it did so, he was instantly transformed from wolf to boy; a handsome boy, tall and straight, with long golden hair, and dressed in simple clothes made from soft leather. He set off down the hill on a well-worn path, stopping only to drink water from a stream. He was hungry, and at a fork in the path he went east, towards a hollow tree, where villagers left him food. Of course, the villagers were afraid of him. Afraid that he would turn into a wolf and attack them. But they were sympathetic to his plight and so, for many years, they had left him food at daybreak.
As Callistephus approached the hollow tree he saw a little girl place a basket inside it and then turn and run along the path to the village, as though her life depended upon it. He ran to the basket and looked inside. There was bread and cheese, a hardboiled egg, and even two apples, though they were rather bruised and wrinkled. He took the food but left the basket, and walked on towards a grassy knoll where he often sat and ate or just daydreamed.
It was springtime. The birds were singing in the trees and the insects were buzzing back and forth. The grass was lush and green, and the bluebells in the woods were in full bloom, as where the purple rhododendrons on the hillsides. And as with most days in Astrantia, there was not a cloud in the sky. And as Callistephus lay back against a weatherworn rock, eating his breakfast, he looked out over the marshes in the valley bottom, over the wooded hills beyond, and westward towards the sea.
But as he finished eating and was about to set off to the river, where he liked to swim, he heard an animal roar. And as he looked in the direction of the sound he saw that there was a great beast thrashing around at the edge of the marshes. Callistephus hesitated, sensing danger, but his curiosity got the better of him and he went to investigate.
The beast was Catananche, though friend and foe alike called him Catan. Not that he had many friends. He was half leopard and half bear, and a creature best avoided. He had spent the winter in the south and was on his way north. But after resting for the night in a tree at the edge of the marshes, he had been attacked by an angry magpie who thought he was after her chicks, and then fallen from the tree into the marsh. But this part of the marsh was known to be very dangerous. The mud was very deep and very sticky, and though not at all sandy, it was often referred to as The Quick Sands. And Catan had fallen right into it.
The more Catan struggled and roared, the more he sank deeper into the mud. And the magpie and several other birds had gathered to watch the demise of this dangerous animal. For they knew that he was a cruel and unsavoury character and that their world would be a safer place without him. But as Callistephus came running towards the tree in which the birds were perched, they were startled and flew off.
'Help me,' cried Catan, as he saw Callistephus approach. His voice was deep and resonant. 'Help me before I drown in this stinking mud.'
'Who are you?' asked Callistephus, warily.
'I am Prince Catananche, though most call me Catan. You must help me.'
'But how can I?' asked Callistephus. 'I am only a boy. And if I do get you out, you will probably eat me.' He knew of Catan, and of his villainous reputation, though he had never before, even as a wolf, been this close to him.
'Climb onto that branch,' ordered Catan, pointing to a branch of the tree that was just out of his reach. 'When the branch bends under your weight, I will grab hold and pull myself out. And I promise, on my royal blood, not to eat you.'
'Don't believe him,' said the Magpie, who had just returned to the tree. 'He is a cheat and a trickster. And he's no more royal than the worm I ate for breakfast.'
Catan glared at the magpie but then turned his head towards Callistephus and said 'It is true that in the past, Catananche has been a cheat, but if you save me I will never be dishonest again. You have my word.'
'Don't believe him,' warned the Magpie again.
Callistephus was not sure what to do, but as Catan began to sink lower into the mud, his honesty and good nature decided for him, and he leaped into the tree and began to climb along the branch. And sure enough, as his weight bent the branch lower, Catan was able to grab hold of it and pull himself free of the mud.
But Catan's weight was much greater than that of Callistephus and the branch bent further and began to crack, and Callistephus fell from it and landed on his back in the mud, close to the very spot where Catan had been.
'Fool,' said the Magpie. 'You should have left him there.'
Catan, who had by now swung himself onto dry land, roared at the magpie, sending her fleeing into the treetop.
'Help,' said Callistephus. He had rolled over and was trying to crawl out of the mud, but with each movement he sank a little deeper into it.
'Who me?' asked Catan, as he rubbed himself against the trunk of the tree, trying to rid himself of the worst of the mud. 'Why should I?'
'But you promised,' replied Callistephus.
'I promised not to eat you. I didn't promise to risk my life trying to save yours.' Catan began to scrape some of the mud from his belly with his paws.
'But you can't leave me here,' said Callistephus desperately. 'You could pull the branch from the tree and stretch it out towards me and pull me out. You would be in no danger.'
'That's true I suppose,' replied Catan, 'but, where's the advantage to me?' He sat down and looked closely at his right forepaw, examining each of his five sharp claws. 'What can you offer me in return?'
'My friendship,' said Callistephus, hesitantly.
'Your friendship!' exclaimed Catan. 'What use is that to me? Do you not have anything of value?'
'What sort of thing?' asked Callistephus.
'I don't know!' replied Catan. 'Gold, or jewels perhaps?'
'Jewels?' said Callistephus, keeping as still as he could to avoid sinking deeper into the mud.
'You know! Diamonds, rubies, that sort of thing,' said Catan. 'There is royal blood in my veins, you see, and I have a liking for such things¦ Well, do you have any?'
Callistephus looked thoughtful but said nothing.
'No,' said Catan, standing and turning and starting to stroll away. 'I thought not¦ Well, it's been nice meeting you.'
'Wait!' cried Callistephus, desperately. 'If you save me, I could¦ I could show you where to find an emerald.'
Catan turned back towards Callistephus. 'An emerald, you say. That would be a fair price, but how could you know where to find such a thing?'
'I just do, that's all,' said Callistephus.
'No. You can't trick a trickster,' said Catan. 'You are pretending to know where to find an emerald so that I will save you.'
'But I do know, and it's not a trick,' replied Callistephus. 'For I am Callistephus, the boy who cannot steal or tell a lie.'
Catan thought for a moment. He had heard of such a boy, though he was unsure of the details. 'Very well,' he said. 'I suppose I have nothing to loose. But if you are not telling the truth, I will eat you.' And with that, he tore the cracked branch down from the tree and, holding one end, he stretched out and offered the other end to Callistephus who grabbed hold if it and allowed himself to be pulled from the mud.
'Thank you,' said Callistephus. For the witch's spells had made him very polite as well as completely honest. He began to wipe the mud from his clothes with handfuls of grass.
'I don't want your thanks,' said Catan. 'I want to see this emerald. Where is it?'
'To the west,' replied Callistephus, still wiping away the mud. 'About two days walk away.'
'Two days!' roared Catan. 'You expect me to walk for two days? I have been walking for twenty days already!' He came closer to Callistephus, and looked as though he was about to tear him to pieces.
'Two days for a boy,' explained Callistephus, quickly. 'But not for you. If I could ride on your back, then we could easily be there in less than one day. And the emerald is there, I promise. The most beautiful emerald you will ever see.'
'Very well,' said Catan, suspiciously. 'Climb on my back and tell me which way to go. But if this is a trick, I will tear you limb from limb and eat you.'
So Callistephus climbed onto Catan's back and pointed westwards, and the two unlikely travelling companions set off. Their journey lasted many hours, even though Catan moved swiftly through the constantly varying terrain. But as shadows began to lengthen, Catan began to tire and complain. 'How much further?' he asked. 'I am hungry and I think perhaps a bellyful of boy-meat would be a better reward for my efforts than any jewel.'
'Just a little further,' replied Callistephus. 'To the top of the next hill and then down the other side, that's all. My father took me there once. It was he who showed me the emerald.'
'Well it better be still there,' growled Catan. But he continued on, sniffing the air as he went. And as he came nearer the to the top of the hill, his ears pricked up as he heard a distant roar. 'What beast is that, that roars so?' he asked Callistephus. 'Is this some trick of yours? Are you leading me into a trap?'
'No,' replied Callistephus, 'there is no beast. It's just the ocean.' And as the two of them crested the hilltop, and shaded their eyes against the low sun, they saw ahead of them the sea and below them a great sandy beach.
'I can walk from here,' said Callistephus, as he slid down from Catan's back. And with that he ran down the hill towards the beach with Catan bounding along behind him. And when at last he came to the beach he kept on going almost to the water's edge, where waves rolled in and crashed and foamed onto the golden sands. Catan was close behind him and as he came to a halt beside the boy he said 'What trickery is this? There can be no emerald here.'
'Be patient,' said Callistephus, looking across the sea, towards the sun but not directly at it, for he knew that to do so was dangerous. 'If you want me to show you the emerald you must do exactly as I say. Look! See how the sun is kissing the sea.' And as he said this, the sun, which was loosing its brightness, began to dip into the horizon, where the ocean met the sky.
It was a beautiful sight and even Catan was impressed by it. 'Look,' he said, 'the sun is falling into the sea. Almost half of it has disappeared.'
'Keep watching,' said Callistephus, as the sun sank lower and began to turn orange in colour. 'Look how its light reflects on the water. See how weak the sun is becoming as its fires are quenched by the ocean. Don't blink or you will miss the best part. You will miss the emerald.' And then, for a brief moment, what was left of the sun turned from orange to emerald green, before disappearing beneath the horizon.
'That was truly beautiful,' said Catan, still enthralled and still looking towards the spot where the sun had vanished. 'But, wait! You have tricked me!' He turned towards Callistephus, looking ready to tear out his heart and eat it. But with the setting of the sun, Callistephus was no longer a boy. He was a great wolf. And though he was not as big as Catan, he was quicker, and he sprang forward, knocking Catan onto his back and rolling him into a wave that had just crashed onto the beach. And before Catan could recover his wits, Callistephus raced off, back towards the hillside and into the gloom, and the safety, of the coming night.
So, the next time you stand on a western shore to watch the sunset, look out for the emerald. It's not just in the enchanted land of Astrantia that such a phenomenon can be seen.
Callistephus and the Shooting Star
It was early in the morning when the boy, Callistephus, wandered down the path to the hollow tree. Many days had passed since his encounter with Catan, and since that day he'd noticed that, more often than not, it was the young girl who came up from the village each morning to leave him food. But for once, he arrived before the girl, and wondering what was amiss, he decided to wait and watch for her; though he hid across the path, behind the roots of a fallen tree, for he knew that the girl, like other villagers, might be afraid of him.
Many years ago the villagers had witnessed Callistephus changing from boy to wolf at sunset, and had banished him from the village. At first only his father had dared to approach him, and it was he who had at first brought him food. But as the years passed and his father became old and frail and unable to walk farther than the edge of the village, others took on the task. The others being mostly womenfolk, whose kindness overcame their fear. But now it was a young girl, of no more than seven or eight years, who came each day.
Callistephus waited and watched, and finally the girl came toiling up the steep path from the village. She was a pretty girl with long dark hair, and she wore a clean, but faded, yellow dress and leather sandals. She went to the hollow tree and placed a basket of food inside, before taking out the empty one from the day before. But instead of turning and running back down the path, she stopped and sat on a large tree root and began to cry.
'Why are you crying?' asked Callistephus, forgetting that he was supposed to be hiding.
Startled, the girl looked up. 'Mind your own business!' she said, looking towards the tree roots above the boy's hiding place. 'And, anyway, who taught you to speak?'
Callistephus was surprised that she had answered him and not run off down the path. But then he saw that, sitting on a root above his head, there was a sparrow.
'My father taught me, and my mother too, I think,' Callistephus answered, from behind the mass of roots. Callistephus remembered little of his mother who had died before he was a year old. 'But please,' he said, 'tell me your name and why you are crying. Perhaps there is something I can do to help.'
'My name is Luzula,' replied the girl, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her dress. 'But what could a sparrow do?' And she put her head in her hands and began to cry again; which was just as well, because at that moment the sparrow flew away.
'Perhaps I could do something,' suggested Callistephus.
'My mother is dying,' said Luzula through her tears and with her head still in her hands. 'She has a terrible sickness that even the wise-woman cannot cure.'
'Perhaps the witch, Asperula, could cure her,' suggested Callistephus. 'She's good with potions.' If not with spells, he reminded himself. It was she who had carelessly made him turn into a wolf each night, between sunset and sunrise.
'Asperula tried,' said Luzula, looking up at where the sparrow had been. 'But¦ Oh, you've gone. I knew a sparrow would be of no help.' And with that, she picked up the empty basket and ran down the path before Callistephus could say anything else.
Callistephus came out from behind the fallen tree to collect the food that Luzula had left him. And to eat it he sat on the root where Luzula had sat, noticing that, between his feet, a small patch of the dusty path was still damp from Luzula's teardrops.
'Asperula tried.' Callistephus repeated Luzula's words. 'But¦ But what?' he wondered. Then, as he finished his breakfast, he reached a decision, and he stood and set off down the path towards the village.
The village was in a wide valley, close to the river, a little way downstream from where Callistephus liked to swim. And beyond the village was the cottage where the witch, Asperula, lived. Soon Callistephus left the main path to take a lesser-used one that skirted the village. It was many years since he had been this way and he found it almost blocked by nettles and brambles. But undeterred, he continued on until finally he arrived at the witch's cottage.
He stopped at the gate, remembering the times he had been there before to ask Asperula to undo the spells that had made him never grow older and made him a wolf by night. To be fair, she had tried hard to undo the spells but the spells would not be undone. She had even asked Holcus, the warlock, for help. But he was an old and cantankerous individual and all he did was throw an old spell book at her and tell her to go away. And even the spell book was of no help because it was written in an ancient and mostly forgotten language that Asperula could not read.
Callistephus opened the gate and made his way past the plum tree that years ago he had raided. It was laden with plums but they were still green and not ready to eat yet. Not that he would have taken any, for the witch's spells had made him completely honest. He approached the cottage door and reached for the doorknocker, which was in the shape of a monkey's head. But the doorknocker was magic, and before Callistephus could touch it, it knocked by itself and shouted 'Visitor!'
At first there was no reply, so the doorknocker knocked and shouted again, and this time there was a shuffling sound and then the door opened and there stood Asperula; grey haired and dressed all in black, except for her dirty grey apron. 'Go away!' she said, menacingly. 'Whatever you're selling, I don't want any.'
'But I'm not selling anything,' said Callistephus.
'Oh, it's you,' said Asperula, glaring at the boy on her doorstep. 'I thought I had seen the last of you. If you want me to undo the wolf spell, I've told you before, it can't be undone. So go away and leave an old witch in peace.'
'No, it's not that,' replied Callistephus. 'I've come to ask about Luzula's mother. I know you tried to cure her, but¦'
'But what?' asked Asperula, suspiciously.
'That's what I came to ask,' said Callistephus.
'You talk in riddles, boy,' said Asperula. 'Say what it is that you want or be off.'
'I just wanted to ask why she can't be cured?' asked Callistephus.
Asperula's expression changed and her hand went to the gold pendant that she wore around he neck. 'Caltha is very sick,' she said. 'Only strong magic can cure her. And you won't find that here anymore.'
'Why not?' asked Callistephus.
'What business is it of yours?' asked Asperula, still toying with the pendant at her throat.
'Because I want to help Luzula,' Callistephus replied. 'When I saw her today, she was crying¦ Why is your magic not strong anymore?'
'You ask too many questions, boy. But if it will make you go away, I will tell you,' said Asperula, taking the pendant from around her neck and showing it to Callistephus. 'My talisman is broken, see? Broken beyond repair. And without it my powers are weak.'
Callistephus looked closely at the gold chain and what was attached to it. It looked like part of an ordinary pebble, except that it was jet-black in colour and sharp-edged on the underside. Asperula fumbled in her apron pocket, pulled out a similar stone and held it to the one on the chain. It was a perfect fit, and together they formed an almost perfect sphere.
'This stone was the heart of a shooting star,' said Asperula, 'found by my great-grandmother. It gave us our powers¦ My great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, and then me, down through the years. But now it is broken and it lives no more.'
'But can't you get a new one,' asked Callistephus.
'A new one!' exclaimed Asperula. 'Chase down a shooting star at my age?' And with that she began to laugh and cackle like¦ well, like an old witch. Then she slammed the door before Callistephus could say another word.
'Now what shall I do?' said Callistephus to himself.
'I would have thought that was obvious,' said the doorknocker. 'You are not too old to chase down a shooting star and find its heart.'
'Me?' said Callistephus. 'But how would I do that?'
'Don't ask me. I'm just a doorknocker,' replied the Doorknocker. 'And I wouldn't go bothering Asperula again, if I were you. She's been in a foul mood all morning.'
'Oh,' said Callistephus. 'Well, thank you anyway.'
'You're welcome,' replied the doorknocker, as Callistephus turned and retraced his steps along the garden path and walked thoughtfully out through the gate. It was at times like this that Callistephus wished he had a friend to confide in. But then suddenly he remembered he did have some friends and he hurried off to find them.
The first he was able to find was Echinops, the porcupine. He was a prickly character at the best of times, and it was always best to approach him from the front, because he was a little deaf and inclined to let loose a few of his spines if he thought a predator might be creeping up on him.
'Hello, Echinops,' said Callistephus, in a loud voice, so as to save repeating himself. 'I need some help with something, if you're not too busy.'
'What?' said Echinops. 'Some help? Busy? I see. Well¦ fire away, then.'
'I need to find the heart of a shooting star,' said Callistephus.
'Part of a hooting what?' asked Echinops.
'No, not a part of,' replied Callistephus, more loudly this time. 'The heart of¦ The heart of a shooting star!'
'Oh,' said Echinops. 'Well why didn't you say that in the first place? A shooting star indeed. I can't say that I've ever seen one. Or did I? When I was younger, perhaps. No, perhaps not.'
Callistephus looked very disappointed.
'You might try Athyrium,' said Echinops. 'She may know where to find one.'
'Yes, Athyrium!' said Callistephus, looking much happier. 'She's sure to know. Thanks, Echinops!' And he ran off at great speed towards the woods.
Athyrium was an ancient owl who lived at the edge of the woods. She had seen and heard a lot in her time, and she was very much the wise old owl that many locals thought she was. Her house was high in a very tall fir tree, but the tree was beside a large rock that jutted out from a steep hillside, which made it easy for any visitors to call on her. In fact her younger visitors would often sit on the rock, while Athyrium sat on a branch just above them, telling them stories.
As Callistephus climbed the steep slope and made his way onto the flat-topped rock, a voice said 'Well bless me, if it isn't Callistephus. What brings you here on a warm summers day, I wonder?' Callistephus looked above his head, and there, in a shady spot, sat Athyrium, looking down on him with her huge intelligent eyes.
'Hello,' answered Callistephus, a little out of breath from his climb. 'I was hoping to find you in. I need some help with something, if it's not too much trouble.'
'I see,' said Athyrium, hopping down onto a lower branch so that she could see eye to eye with her visitor. 'Well, first you must tell me what you need help with, then I can tell you if it is too much trouble. But please be sure to start at the beginning. I like to know all the facts, before helping with something.'
So Callistephus sat on the rock and told Athyrium all that had happened that day, starting with Luzula coming up the path from the village. And Athyrium listened carefully, interrupting only when Callistephus came to the part where Asperula showed him the broken stone. 'Ah,' she said, 'so that is why she no longer rides about at night on her broomstick. I thought there must be something amiss. Carry on.'
Callistephus continued, missing out nothing, including what the doorknocker said, and how Echinops had suggested he seek help from Athyrium. And finally he asked 'So, Athyrium, can you tell me where to find the heart of a shooting star?'
'Well,' replied Athyrium, thoughtfully,' first you must look for a shooting star. That part should be easy enough, especially at this time of year. I saw two myself, last night.'
'You did?' exclaimed Callistephus, jumping to his feet excitedly.
'Calm down,' said Athyrium. 'Anyone who stays up late enough, at this time of year, can see a shooting star, or a falling star, as some folks call them. But you have to see where it falls. The heart of the star is just a small piece of rock. Or at least that's what I'd thought. But I see now that there's magic in a rock of that sort; for a witch or a warlock, anyway. My advice to you is to go back to that cave that you live in and get some sleep. Then tonight, climb to the top of the hill and watch the skies.'
'But at night I am a wolf,' said Callistephus.
'All the better,' answered Athyrium. 'For you may have to run long and hard to get to the place where a shooting star falls.'
So Callistephus returned to his cave and slept as best as he could. Though his dreams were filled with images of Luzula and Asperula and talking doorknockers. And finally at sunset, when he changed from boy to wolf, he climbed to the top of the hill and began his vigil.
He waited and he waited, all the time looking into the night sky. But all he saw were bats, and millions of stars, and Hesperis, Astrantia's pale pink moon. And by sunrise he had fallen asleep and when he awoke he was Callistephus the boy again.
Crest-fallen, he returned to his cave, but that night he tried again, and this time he was rewarded by a wondrous sight. Not one, not two, but three shooting stars fell from the sky, and he raced down the hill and through the countryside and on and on through the night, in search of where they had fallen. But as Athyrium had predicted, seeing a shooting star was one thing, but finding where it had fallen was another. By sunrise, when he changed once more from wolf to boy, he felt sure that he had run far enough, but there was nothing to see except grass and trees and the river and the shadow of a circling bird.
'You have done well,' said a voice from above, unexpectedly. And as Callistephus looked up he saw that the circling bird was an eagle. 'My name is Phalaris,' said the eagle. He was a huge bird with a wingspan of at least twice the height of a man. 'I'm a friend of Athyrium's. She asked me to look out for you and for any falling stars that may be within your reach. Can you swim and dive under water?'
'Yes,' replied Callistephus, as Phalaris swooped down, with his talons extended, and lifted him off the ground. 'But why do you ask that, and where are you taking me?'
'To the river,' replied Phalaris. 'One of the falling stars dropped into the river. If it were not for the splash, I would have lost sight of it¦ Here we are. Now be ready to take a deep breath, and remember the stone you seek is black, not white. I'll be as accurate as I can.' And with that he dropped Callistephus into a deep part of the river, not far downstream from a waterfall.
Luckily Callistephus remembered to take a deep breath, for he soon hit the water and went under. And as his feet hit the riverbed he opened his eyes and saw that it was covered in white pebbles. 'Black not white,' thought Callistephus, as he held his breath and searched. And there below him, he saw it; the jet-black heart of a shooting star. And with just enough breath to spare, he grasped it in his right hand and turned and swam upwards.
'Well done, again!' said the now familiar voice of Phalaris, as the boy surfaced. And as Callistephus drew in a deep breath and pushed his wet hair back from his eyes, he was once more lifted into the air by huge, but gentle, talons.
Well, I'm sure you can guess the rest of this story. Callistephus, of course, returned to Asperula's cottage and presented her with the heart of the shooting star, and soon her magical powers were restored. And, of course, Asperula's first task was to cure Caltha, Luzula's mother, which she did with Luzula's help, for her mother was very weak. Then one day when Callistephus went, as usual, to the hollow tree he found Luzula waiting for him.
'I came to thank you, little sparrow,' she said with a smile, as Callistephus hesitantly approached. And from that day on they became good friends.
Have you ever watched the sky at night and seen a shooting star? Not all of them fall to earth, but some do. And who knows, they might be magic too.
Callistephus and the Total Eclipse
In the autumn, when the days were shorter, and beautiful red and gold leaves were beginning to fall from the trees, the boy, Callistephus, sat beside the river with his friend Luzula. Caltha, Luzula's mother, had made a full recovery from her illness; and knowing of how Callistephus had helped the witch, Asperula, to cure her, she allowed her daughter to meet with the boy; provided she was always home well before sunset.
The two friends watched the river; this part was normally safe for swimming, but not today. Thunderstorms in the north of Astrantia had swollen the river, and huge branches and even whole trees were being swept along in the turbulent waters. This did not surprise Callistephus, greatly. He had lived for many years; in fact, if not for the magic spells cast upon him, he would by now have been a man, so he knew that occasionally the river could become deep and treacherous. But he did feel a strange unease. He had not seen Hesperis, Astrantia's pale pink moon, in the night sky for some time, yet with the bright flashes of lightning to the north and other strange lights near Warlock Hill, to the south, sometimes the night had been almost turned into day.
Callistephus got to his feet, picked up a stick and threw it into the water, watching as it was quickly carried downstream. 'We can't swim today, Luzula,' he said.
'No, Little Sparrow, we can't,' Luzula replied. Little Sparrow was Luzula's special name for Callistephus; because of the time he had spoken to her from a hiding place and allowed her to think that she was talking with a sparrow. 'Shall we go for a walk instead? Perhaps we could find some blackberries to pick.'
'I know where to find some,' said Callistephus, taking Luzula's hand and pulling her to her feet. 'Follow me.'
The two friends set off, taking the track that followed the course of the river, but before long they stopped as they heard a terrible scream.
The scream had come from the witch, Asperula, who had been out searching for herbs and wild flowers for her spells and potions. She had happened upon Echinops, the porcupine, but she had startled him by coming towards him from behind. This was always a mistake because, like all porcupines, Echinops had an armoury of very sharp spines, which he could fire if he felt he was in danger. And of course he had fired some of them at Asperula.
'You fool!' screamed Asperula, as she pulled a spine from the back of her hand and three more from her middle. 'I'll turn you into a toad for this!' And just as Callistephus and Luzula arrived on the scene, she began to chant:
Hog Weed and Borage
Pennisetum and Bay
Turn this prickly fool
Into a toad for the day
Pearlwort and Scabious
Snake-Weed and Doc
If he pricks me again
Turn him into a rock!
But, as you may know, Asperula is better with potions than with spells, and before Echinops could even begin to apologise, his spines turned into feathers and he became a peacock.
'Oh,' said Luzula, 'what a beautiful peacock.' And as if in agreement, Echinops fanned his long and colourful tail-feathers and turned full circle.
'Dear me,' he said. 'I'm a peacock. Whatever am I to do?' And with that, he ran past Luzula and Callistephus and off along the track and disappeared around a bend.
'Oh, poor Echinops,' said Callistephus, as he stooped to pick up wild flowers that Asperula had dropped. 'Will he stay a peacock for a day, or will he be enchanted forever, like me?'
'Thank you,' said Asperula, as she took the wild flowers from Callistephus and put them into her apron pocket. She looked upon Callistephus with kindness now; after his help with replacing her talisman. 'I'm afraid I lost my temper. I meant to turn him into a toad but¦ Oh, fiddlesticks! We'll just have to wait and see¦ Anyway, what are you two doing so close to the river? Can't you see how dangerous it is?'
'We were looking for blackberries,' replied Luzula.
'I see,' said Asperula. 'Well then, I'll wish you luck and bid you good day. But stay well away from the river. Especially when it gets dark.'
Luzula frowned, as it was still morning and would not be dark for hours. But as Asperula turned to leave, Callistephus spoke. 'That reminds me,' he said. 'Last night I saw bright lights near Warlock Hill. Do you know what they were, Asperula?'
Asperula turned back towards Callistephus. 'Be warned,' she said, sternly. 'Stay away from Warlock Hill. That old fool, Holcus, is up to no good.'
'Who is Holcus?' whispered Luzula, as the witch turned away once more and set off towards the village.
'He's a warlock,' replied Callistephus. 'A warlock's a sort of witch, but a man, not a woman¦ He lives at the old tower, the one near Warlock Hill.'
'Is he the one who eats children for breakfast?' asked Luzula.
'Yes, that's him,' Callistephus answered. 'But I don't think he really eats children. It's just something that grownups tell their children to stop them from going near him¦ Come on, let's go and look for blackberries.'
So the two friends set off again, but before they had gone very far, they heard a shout from behind them, followed by a squawking sound, and then more shouts, and hurrying feet.
'Hide,' said Callistephus, sensing danger, and taking Luzula's hand and pulling her quickly behind a large rhododendron bush. And just in time too, for the biggest monkey that Callistephus had ever seen, followed by a smaller monkey carrying a sack, came running along the path. And as they passed the rhododendron bush, Callistephus was sure that he saw long blue feathers sticking out of the sack.
'I think they've caught the peacock,' said Luzula.
'I think you're right,' said Callistephus, 'but he's really a porcupine, and his name is Echinops¦ Come on, we'll follow and see if we can rescue him.'
'Do you think we should,' asked Luzula. 'Those big hairy men looked very frightening.'
'They're monkeys, not men,' said Callistephus. 'But strange ones. Did you see how long their tails were? And I've never heard of a monkey carrying a sack before¦ Come on, but stay close behind me and be as quiet as you can.'
So the two would-be rescuers followed after the monkeys, soon passing Luzula's village and entering woodland. The monkeys moved quickly, so Callistephus and Luzula had to run fast to keep up. And though the path still followed the course of the river, the ground became steep and rocky as the river entered a gorge.
'Wait,' said Luzula, breathlessly, as she stopped and leaned against a twisted old oak tree. 'I can't run as fast as you, Little Sparrow.' But as Callistephus stopped and turned back towards Luzula, three more of the long-tailed monkeys swung down from the trees and dropped sacks over the heads of the two children and picked them up roughly and carried them off along the path.
'Help!' cried Luzula, as she bounced along on a monkey's shoulder with her legs sticking out of the sack.
'Put me down!' shouted Callistephus from inside his sack. His legs were sticking out too, and the monkey who was carrying him pinched him hard and shouted 'Stop wriggling, or I'll throw you into the river!'
'This one's a wriggler too,' said the monkey carrying Luzula. 'We'll have to be careful as we cross the bridge or they'll have us all in the water.'
'Stop your grumbling,' said the third monkey. 'They're only skinny little youngsters. Hardly any meat on 'em at all.'
'Should be tender though,' said Luzula's monkey. 'Shall we roast 'em or put 'em in the pot?'
'We'll be roasted if we're late,' said the monkey carrying Callistephus. 'The warlock's been planning this ceremony of his for days. He seems to think his magic powers will be even greater after his namesake's eaten the sun.'
Now Callistephus and Luzula could hear this conversation, despite being bumped along inside their sacks, and, of course, they were becoming very frightened, especially with the talk of roasting and being put into a pot. And Callistephus was beginning to think that the stories of Holcus, the warlock, eating children might really be true. Though what was meant by 'his namesake' and 'eating the sun' he could make no sense of at all.
'Watch it, now,' said Luzula's monkey. 'This bridge is awful wobbly.' The two children felt themselves being rocked from side to side as the monkeys crossed a rope-bridge that spanned the river. This at least gave Callistephus some knowledge of were they were being taken, as he knew the rope-bridge and he knew where it led; straight to the old tower where Holcus the warlock lived.
Soon the swaying stopped, as the monkeys stepped off the bridge, and Callistephus and Luzula could hear more voices. 'Hurry up with those. Get 'em into the cage.' And almost immediately the children were roughly set down on the ground, and with the sacks pulled quickly off their heads, they were pushed forward into a wooden stockade.
Callistephus and Luzula blinked, as the daylight seemed very bright after being inside a sack, though luckily some of the rain clouds had drifted down from the north and the sun, though visible, was not its usual bright self.
'Callistephus,' said a familiar voice. 'I see they have caught you too. I think this is surly the worst day of my entire life¦ First a peacock and now this. Whatever is to become of us?'
'Echinops!' exclaimed Callistephus, recognising his friend, even though he was still a peacock. 'We were coming to rescue you.'
'Strange way to rescue someone,' said another voice. 'By getting captured yourself.'
Callistephus turned to see who was speaking, and there at his feet was a large black cat. 'Who are you?' he asked the cat, as he looked around and saw that there were other animals held prisoner in the stockade.
'My name is Thymus,' answered the cat. 'I live in the tower with Holcus, my master. That's him, over there, in the corner.' And for the first time, Callistephus noticed an old man sitting in the corner of the stockade, though he looked not much more than a bundle of rags.
'Is he the one who is going to eat us?' asked Luzula. Her long dark hair was all tangled and matted from being inside the sack.
'No!' replied Thymus. 'My master would never do such a thing. It's his nephew, Hesperis, you need to watch out for. He's taken over the tower and stolen the spell books and the magic crook, and set himself up as the new warlock in these parts. But he's evil. Just look what he's done to the rats that came up from the river.'
'What rats?' asked Callistephus, looking through the bars of the stockade. 'I can't see any rats.' All he could see were the monkeys. They were collecting wood and lighting fires and filling a large pot with water. But then he noticed their tails again. They were long and thin just like a rat's. 'You mean he's turned the rats into monkeys?'
'That's right,' said Holcus, the old warlock, as he got to his feet. His hair was grey and straggly and his face was thin and drawn, and his fingernails were long and as dirty as the tattered old clothes that he wore. 'And if I was half the warlock I used to be, I'd turn Hesperis into a rat and feed him to my faithful Thymus, here.' He reached down and stroked Thymus who lifted his tail and arched his back and purred.
'I thought Hesperis was up in the sky,' said Luzula. But then suddenly she pointed at Echinops. 'Look! He's turning back into a porcupine.' And as they all watched, one by one, the peacock's feathers turned into sharp spines and Echinops became his old self again.
'Just watch were you're pointing those things,' exclaimed a goat who was standing in a corner behind Echinops.
'What?' replied Echinops, checking his armoury of sharp spines. 'Oh, don't worry. I'm saving them for a friend. I'll teach him to put me into a sack. Oh, yes.' This seemed to cheer everyone up a little, but soon a commotion outside the stockade took their attention.
'Make way for His Eminence, The Grand Warlock, Hesperis!' shouted one of the monkeys. And suddenly, in their midst, was a tall but very pale looking young man, with odd looking pink eyes. He was dressed in a shiny black robe and a pointed hat, both bearing pink stars and crescent shapes to represent Hesperis, Astrantia's pale pink moon; and he carried, what looked like, a shepherd's crook in his right hand. And as he held it aloft and pointed it towards the sun, which was still visible behind the clouds, he said, in a commanding, though somewhat squeaky, voice 'Be silent, and watch as my namesake eats the sun and turns day into night!'
The monkeys all raised their heads to the sky, as did Luzula and Callistephus and the other prisoners in the stockade.
'Look,' whispered Luzula. 'The sun is being eaten.' And sure enough, the sun looked as though someone had taken a small bite out of its left side; and the bite was getting bigger and bigger.
'It's just an eclipse,' said Holcus, quietly. 'Our moon, Hesperis, has got between us and the sun, that's all.'
'Bring the first sacrifice!' ordered Hesperis, still pointing towards the disappearing sun. And a monkey standing guard at the gate of the stockade, untied the rope that secured it, and held it open whilst another monkey reached inside and grabbed Luzula by the arm.
'You'll do,' said the monkey, as he pulled Luzula out through the door and led her off towards the young warlock. Callistephus tried to follow but he was pushed back inside and the gate was tied once more.
'Ah, welcome, my dear,' said Hesperis, as Luzula was brought to him and made to lie, trembling, on a low stone table. 'My namesake will be glad to receive you.'
'Yes,' said Luzula, drowsily, as she fell instantly under the influence of the pink-eyed warlock.
Back in the stockade Callistephus turned to Holcus and said 'What is going to happen? What is a sacrifice?' But the old warlock turned away, unable to speak or look Callistephus in the eye.
'It's someone who¦' began Thymus, the cat. But he too was unable to speak of the fate that awaited Luzula.
Realising that something terrible was going to happen, Callistephus looked out through the bars and said 'We must do something.'
'There's nothing we can do!' exclaimed a rabbit, with a look of terror in his eyes. 'We're all going to be sacrificed or eaten!'
'Nothing we can do,' repeated Echinops. 'Nothing? I can do something!' And he approached the gate and began to shoot spines through it. Some of the spines hit the monkey guard and he howled and leapt into the air. By now the day was turning to night as Hesperis covered more of the sun. And the darkness and the howling panicked some of the other monkeys who began to screech loudly.
'Silence!' ordered Hesperis, the warlock. 'See how the sun is eaten!' And there was silence. Not a sound could be heard, not even the singing of a bird, as the sun was covered by Hesperis, the moon, and day became night.
In the stockade some of the animals were crying with fear. But not Callistephus. As I'm sure you have guessed, the sudden darkness had turned Callistephus into a wolf. And he snarled as he ran at the gate and bit through the rope that held it closed, thrusting it open so hard that it flew off its hinges and knocked over three monkeys who were standing looking skywards. Then he charged through the monkeys that surrounded the table where Luzula lay, knocking them this way and that, and by the light of the fires that the monkeys had lit, he leapt at the young warlock and knocked him flying.
The crook that the warlock held was knocked from his hand and quickly snatched up by Thymus, who had bravely followed the snarling wolf, having realised that he was friend, not foe. And before long others from the stockade came to help too; and though the monkeys tried to make them return, soon some of them were howling in pain as Echinops fired more sharp spines at them. Even the goat found his courage as he lowered his horns and charged at several monkeys, butting them hard and knocking them over.
But then the strangest thing happened. Holcus, the old warlock, came striding out of the stockade. He stood tall and proud and in his right hand was the crook that had been returned to him by his faithful cat, Thymus; and as Hesperis began to move away from the sun and daylight began to return, he shouted:
'Incarvillea Kniphofia Liatris
Sempervivium Thalictrum Vinca'
And suddenly all the monkeys were turned back into rats and they ran about screeching as Thymus chased after them, biting their tails.
Hesperis, the young warlock was running as well, because, as the daylight returned, he had witnessed Callistephus change from wolf to boy and believed him to be a demon of some kind, sent to punish him for his evil deeds. He ran onto the rope bridge, accompanied by many of the rats, and when he reached the middle of the bridge he stepped on one of the rats, who squealed and turned and bit his ankle. Now it was Hesperis who squealed, and as he hopped on one foot, clutching his bitten ankle, he lost his balance and fell over the side of the swaying bridge and into the river. And as the prisoners from the stockade watched and cheered, he was quickly washed downstream, with his pointed hat still on his head and his black cloak floating along after him.
Meanwhile, Callistephus was kneeling beside Luzula, who still lay on the stone table. 'Please wake up,' he pleaded. For Luzula seemed to be asleep, yet her skin was so pale that Callistephus feared she was dead. He took hold of her limp hand and held it to his forehead and began to weep. But as the clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight fell on the two friends, Callistephus heard a familiar voice.
'Why are you crying, Little Sparrow?'
Callistephus looked up and saw his friend, Luzula, smiling down at him.
'She'll be alright now,' said Thymus, the cat, as he leapt up onto the table beside Luzula. 'We all will, thanks to that wolf. I wonder where he came from and where he disappeared to.'
We know¦ don't we?
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