It had been, even by Winchett Dale’s clottabussed standards, a rather peculiar year.
One that, in some senses, Matlock the Hare would be rather glad to see the end of. And this perhaps, proves the point. For Matlock was the sort of majickal-hare to find a small slither of saztaculousness in almost any situation. At times when other creatures were overburdened, twizzled and frazzled, Matlock would somehow lift the spirits, re-ground the worried soul and bring his own brand of crumlush (some would say naïve) comfort and optimism when folk needed it most.
And yet, this year it had proved more difficult. Initially, he wondered if he was simply getting older. After all, he and Ayaani, his small but loyal dripple-familiar, had shared so many saztaculous adventures together that perhaps he was simply slowing down as he entered the inevitable Autumn of his years. Even Ayaani seemed rather lacklustre, spending more and more time on his lap in front of the fire in his small crumlush cottage, both drifting into contented sleep as the stars shone high in the twinkling-lid above.
“Perhaps,” he said on the night before the annual Yuletide celebrations, “we should make an effort to get out more often. After all, I can’t remember the last time we went to the village or had an even’up of guzzworts at the Winchett Dale Inn.”
Ayaani yawned, her small body shifting slightly. “Can’t say I’ve missed it for a blinksnap.”
The fire crackled, a small twig snapping in a shower of red sparks. “But sometimes I can’t help but wonder what’s going on there. You know, if everybody’s coping?”
Ayaani tutted. “Without us? Oh, Matlock please. Perhaps it’s time they learned to sort their own clottabussed problems out, for once.”
“Agreed,” he replied. “But I do feel rather guilty. After all, I am the majickal-hare of Winchett Dale, and they are my responsibility, in a way.”
“In what way? They’re creatures, just like you and me. And how many times this year has any one of them come to see how we’re doing?”
Matlock nodded, sighing slightly, knowing Ayaani had perfectly voiced own his growing thoughts of the last few months. For no one had ventured out of the village through Wand Wood to his cottage in many moon-turns. Not Slivert, not Ursula, not Serraptomus, not even Goole and his clottabussed ploffshroom band to sing another of his intensely irritating ‘showstoppers’. Indeed, he couldn’t remember the last time any of Winchett Dale’s creatures had stepped through his garden gate for a chat and a brottle-leaf brew.
“So we can only assume,” Ayaani continued, “that they’re all perfectly fine without us. Perhaps, at long last, they’ve finally taken responsibility for themselves and are even – and I know you’re not going to want to hear this – but they’re perfectly able to live quite happily without us.”
“You’re right,” Matlock half smiled, fighting sleep as his body relaxed further into the chair. “I didn’t want to hear that.”
The following morning Matlock woke determined to shake off his lethargy once and for all. Besides, it was Yule, his favourite celebration of the year, and the crisp winter breeze from the snow capped treeline of Wand Wood lifted his spirits immeasurably.
He and Ayaani set off for the village immediately after breakfast, his faithful dripple riding in the hood of his long green robe, watching the puff of her warm breathe on the cold air.
“Do you know,” he said cheerily, “I haven’t felt this saztaculous for quite a while. I’m really looking forward to going back to the village. All that merriment and excrimblyness as everyone prepares for the annual Winchett Dale Yuletide celebrations. I’m sure it’s going to be quite majickal.”
Ayaani, who had known Matlock long enough to know that whenever he felt quite this chipper there was almost certainly something peffa-glopped about to happen, merely kept her silence, waiting for the inevitable.
“And it’s going to be crumlush to see all those friends and old faces again, isn’t it?” he added, taking a breath. “You’re not listening, Ayaani, are you? Well, this is one majickal-hare that’s not going to let anything glopp his Yule celebrations.” (Words which Ayaani already knew would act as nothing more than a siren’s call to some unforeseeable gobflopp the blinksnap they left Matlock’s mouth).
Sure enough, as they left the trees and stepped onto the small path leading down into the village, two large lollop-bears stood on either side, paws raised. “Halt!” they cried in unison. “And identify yourself, Matlock!”
Matlock frowned, sightly confused. “Identify myself? But you just said my name. I’m Matlock. You’ve both known me for years.”
“Ah, yes,” the lollop-bear on the left agreed. “But now you need to identify yourself.”
Ayaani watched from Matlock’s hood. “I think,” she observed, “we may have been away from the village for too long.”
He nodded, turning to the waiting bears. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The lollop-bear on the right immediately took up the mantle. “Who do you identify as? A Winchett; or a Daler?”
“Which one are you? Come on, you can’t be both. I’m a Winchett, you see? One of the clever ones who gets everything right.” He pointed at the bear opposite. “Whereas he’s a Daler, the thickest clottabusses in the most ganticus thicket of clottabussedness!”
“That’s not true!” the offended bear barked. “Us Dalers are the clever ones. It’s you Winchetts who are the most ganticus gobfloppers!”
Matlock was momentarily lost for words. The whole situation seemed utterly absurd. Winchetts? Dalers? It had to be some sort of joke, a prank set up by the others to welcome him back to the village after all this time. And yet, as the pointless argument continued to rage in front of him, he began to get the slightly twizzly feeling that actually, it was for real.
Taking advantage of the row, he slipped past the bears and made his way down into the village hoping to find his old friend Slivert Jutt, landlord of the Winchett Dale inn. If anyone would know what was happening, it would be him.
However, as he stepped into the village square, Matlock’s growing unease grew further still. As far as he could tell, the entire village had been split into two halves. On the left, doors had been painted with large green ‘W’s, while doors on the right were daubed with a bright yellow ‘D’. And most startlingly, down the centre of the square was a crude barrier-wall made of abandoned carts, barrels, tree-trunks, broken tables and chairs. A large sign on the green side read ‘Winchetts Only!’, its yellow counterpart proclaiming, ‘Daler Territory! Winchetts keep out!’.
“Oh dear,” he said, taking it all in. “This is not good, Ayaani. Not good at all.”
“Perhaps now’s the time to turn back?” she suggested. “Head to the cottage for a brottle-leaf brew by the fire?”
“No, Ayaani. However tempting it may be, there’s something seriously glopped-up going on. And as Winchett Dale’s majickal-hare, it’s up to me to sort it out.” He made his way to the far side of the square where the barrier ended precisely down the middle of the doors of the Winchett Dale Inn. He took a breath, then entered, without realising he’d done so from the Winchett side.
“There you go!” A leaning jutter immediately cried. “Always told you lot Matlock’d be a Winchett! Come and join us, my long-eared friend! Us Winchetts truly know how to welcome their majickal-hare!”
On the other side of the inn, behind an equally clottabussed barrier of barrels, a cavern-owl looked sorrowfully at Matlock. “How could you?” she said. “After all this time, you simply walk back in here and tell us you’re a Winchett? What about us Dalers? Aren’t we good enough for you anymore?”
Matlock, almost overwhelmed by the surreal stupidity of the situation, ground his hare’s teeth. “The only thing I’m good for right now is a guzzwort.” He made his way to the bar where Slivert Jutt had already poured one. “Slivert, just what in Balfastulous’ name is going on?”
The affable landlord winked. “Are you asking as a Winchett, or a Daler?”
“I’m asking as Matlock. Your good friend, Matlock the Hare.”
Slivert took a moment, then said. “Fine. But you’ll have to hop over this side of the bar. It’s the only neutral place in the entire village.”
Matlock hopped over. “So, are you going to tell me?”
“And pin back those majickal ears of yours. It’s a long story.”
No one really knew how any of it had actually started. Whilst some creatures had bizarre (and mostly made up) theories, it seemed that no one could recall an actual, single event that had started all the clottabussedness. And yet somehow, in the many months Matlock had been away, the entire village had rather pointlessly divided itself into green Winchetts and yellow Dalers. And there seemed even less logic in the choice of colours, no one claiming responsibility for being the first to declare them appropriate for either side, or even their relevance. It was as if the whole clottabussed situation had somehow simply settled on them all, unnoticed, a thick fog of stupidity and utterly pointless prejudice blanketing the previously harmonious village.
Within just a single moon-turn, villagers were already dividing, allying themselves to a mythical cause simply because of where they lived. Cousins wouldn’t speak to cousins, parents to youngsters, neighbours to neighbours, friends to friends, should they be on the wrong side of the divide. To reinforce the misguided loyalty, the barrier wall began to appear, slowly at first, the odd table appearing down a cobbled side street, then become more obvious, substantial, tree-trunks being felled and dragged from Wand Wood to sure it up, barrels rolled from the inn for extra bulk. At some unspecified point, the signs had arrived, almost by themselves, appearing overnight as the divided village slept, some perhaps dreaming of distant days of trust, friendship and harmony.
And then, the great division spread, out from the village into every nook and cranny of the dale. Trees began to uproot themselves, taking sides against their deciduous or evergreen neighbours, clustering in new groups and forests, isolated armies now hostile to their previous woodland neighbours. Creatures that were tall and thin declared themselves superior to their small, stockier counterparts. Left-pawed or right-pawed? Plenty of scope for more division. Fur or feathers? The mistrust grew, and in just a few short months, the very fabric of what was previously known as the calmest, most harmlessly clottabussed of all the majickal-dales had become as torn and riven as the oldest blanket in all the land.
“And it’s not just here in Winchett Dale, either,” Slivert confided, pouring Matlock another guzzwort. “’Tis spreading, Matlock, like some sort of twizzly disease. I hear even Ursula’s having trouble with her witches.”
“The League of Lid-Curving Witchery? How?”
“There’s some of ‘em what calls themselves Lidders. And others, Curvers. Getting quite peffa-glopped it all is, apparently. And we both know how quickly a witches’ squabble descends into wands drawn. Doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“Is she alright? Ursula?”
Slivert shrugged. “Can’t says I’ve seen her for a while. Be a lot on her plate, what with her being High Priestess of all them feuding witches.”
“But the League was all about unity,” Matlock sighed, looking around the divided inn. “Winchett Dale was all about unity. And now it’s come to this?”
“Why didn’t you come and let me know, my friend?”
“You was isolating up there, weren’t you? You and Ayaani, both, after your many saztaculous and majickal adventures.”
“Isolating?” Matlock replied, a little shocked. “Slivert, I wasn’t isolating. I was just,” and here, he struggled to find the right words, “resting for a while. But it didn’t mean you couldn’t let me know about all this.”
“I guess folks didn’t want to disturb you, is all.”
Matlock turned to Ayaani in his hood. “What have we done? It’s all gone glopped. We should have stopped this. We could have stopped this.”
Ayaani took his guzzwort tankard in her tiny paws and helped herself to a long gulp. “Perhaps the real problem, Matlock, is that we began all this clottabussed division by hiding away in the first place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Perhaps you and I were the very first division. And it all spread from there.”
“There you go again,” Matlock mumbled. “Telling me things I’d rather not hear.”
“Question is,” Ayaani pressed, “what are you going to do about it?”
“Why not me and you?”
“Because,” Ayaani replied, relishing the last of the guzzwort, “it’s you that feels guilty, not me.”
“That’s a most peffa-glopped thing to say.”
“Maybe. But it’s true, isn’t it? Look how pink the insides of your ears are going. Always a sign of guilt, that.”
“At times like these,” Matlock frowned, “you really can be quite smug, can’t you?”
“Some say it’s a virtue,”Ayaani shrugged, jumping from his hood onto the bar and looking out over the inn. “Which one would you be? A Winchett, or a Daler?”
“Ayaani!” Matlock said, shocked.
“Just asking. Only for me, while I like the sound of the word ‘Daler’, I really couldn’t go for the yellow. And while I love green, to be a Winchett just sounds so gobflopped.”
“I can’t believe you’ve actually thought about it this much,” Matlock replied, open mouthed.
“Well, everyone else has, haven’t they? And isn’t that the point? They’ve all made a defining choice based on nothing more than clottabussedness. And in doing so, it’s changed them.” She flicked her tiny fingers, Slivert dutifully pouring her another guzzwort. “None of these choices can be changed. Look at them all. See how set in their ways they now are, wedded to them? Neither side will move. The Dalers and Winchetts, Lids and Curvers, trees, birds, talls and shorts. Those decisions have already been taken. You may be majickal, Matlock, but you can’t turn back time. However…”
Matlock and Slivert leant in, hanging on every word, knowing that when Ayaani was truly, really thinking about some sort of saztaculous plan, it was always wise to let her finish her guzzwort first.
Moments later, she wiped the last of the froth from her tiny lips.
“And?” Matlock eagerly asked.
“And what?” she asked over a supressed burp.
He frowned. “What’s the plan?”
Slivert nodded. “What is it? You’ve left us both hanging on a long ‘however’.”
“This is Yule,” Ayaani said. “A traditional time when all the creatures and witches of Winchett Dale come to celebrate with a saztaculous feast and merriment.”
“I’m thinking it’s as well to cancel this year,” Slivert said. “T’would end in right glopped-up chaos, most likely.”
“Not necessarily,” Ayaani replied, tapping the end of her small nose. “Fortunately for you two clottabusses, I do, in fact, have a quite saztaculous plan. All we’re going to need is a little luck, majick, and the ash tree in Wand Woods.”
By the time Ursula and her accompanying delegates from The League of Lid-Curving Witchery arrived in the village, preparations for the Yuletide Festivities had begun. They landed loudly beside the inn, leaning their still-glowing brooms against the wall, Ursula brushing snow from the brim of her witches’ hat and blowing into her paws. It wasn’t the most pleasant journey across the Icy Seas to Winchett Dale at the best of times, but in the very depths of winter, only the witches’ word ‘splurked’ would accurately describe it. In fact, the whole annual visit to Winchett Dale for Yule was something the very important Grand High Priestess rather dreaded all year, one of the most ‘splurked’ of the many engagements that came with her imperious office.
“Ladies, in line!” she commanded, preparing to enter the inn, hoping at least to see Matlock, Slivert and some other familiar faces to make the ordeal more bearable. “Oh, I see. We’re back to that stupidity, are we?”
Behind her, the witches had formed two distinct lines of Lids and Curvers.
“I’m never going to stand with a Lid!” a Curver said.
“You Curvers smell worse than my winter socks!” a Lid shot back.
Ursula drew her wand, its tip flashing an ominous bright blue. “Silence, splurks! I’ve had enough of all this Lid and Curver nonsense! You are here today to represent the whole of The League of Lid Curving Witchery, not just the bits you choose! Now, another word from any of you, and I swear I will gladly make it your last, Yule, or not!” She looked up into the snow-leaden sky and sighed, taking a deep breath and walking into an empty inn, save for Ayaani happily tucking into another guzzwort on the bar.
“Ayaani!” she cried. “So good to see an intelligent, friendly face after all this time! What are you doing on your own?”
Ayaani put a finger up to her small foamy lips and winked. “Directing operations. Top secret stuff.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Probably.” She offered Ursula the guzzwort. “Want some?”
Ursula drained it without hesitation. “Much better, thank you. Why are you standing on the bar?”
“It’s the only neutral place in the village,” Ayaani replied. “No Winchetts, no Dalers. Just me and the guzzwort.”
“Then that sounds good enough for me, too,” Ursula said, climbing over and giving Ayaani a proper hug. “Where’s Matlock and Slivert?”
“Carrying out my orders,” Ayaani slurred, tapping the side of her nose conspiratorially. “Methinks it’s time to end all this clottabussed division stuff, and I’ve had another of my most saztaculous plans.”
Ursula looked at her witches arranging themselves on either side of the barrier to scowl and hiss at each other. “Do you think it would work for these splurks, as well?”
“Bound to. It’s called ‘points’. They do something, and if they do it quicker than the others, they get ‘points’.”
Ursula mulled this over, nodding at the startling simplicity. “And, of course, these ‘points’ aren’t worth anything at all, are they?”
Ayaani began to giggle. “That’s the point, Ursula. The whole ‘point’.”
Moments later, Ursula had put her witches to work, setting each side against the other to clear the barrier, rolling the many barrels back down into the cellar and re-setting the tables, both groups working harder than ever to win the non-existent ‘points’.
“Surely,” Ursula observed, filling a tankard for herself, “you will have to declare a winner at some stage? Then the rivalry will get even more splurked between who wins and who loses?”
“Not necessarily,” Ayaani explained. “I never told them the side with the most points wins. They just assumed that. And I never told them how many points they’d get, either. From what I’ve seen, these clottabusses will follow more or less anything, regardless of its value, or merits. The finer points of what it actually is misses them completely, just as long as they’re on one side, not the other.”
Ursula smiled, clinking her tankard against Ayaani’s. “Here’s to a most saztaculous plan. It’s so good, it’s almost tzorkly.”
Ayaani blushed to receive the highest compliment a witch could ever give a creature.
“I suppose,” Ursula said, when her witches had completely restored the inn into its former glory, “I had better go and find Matlock and Slivert.”
“Matlock’s with the Winchetts out in Wand Wood. Slivert’s in the square with the Dalers.”
One of Ursula’s witches stepped forward, breathless from her efforts. “Which of us…,” she puffed, “Gets the points? Lids…or Curvers?”
“Well, hopefully,” Ursula replied, as both groups followed her out of the inn, “you’re all starting to ‘get the point’.”
“Ursula!” Slivert cried through a sea of Dalers noisily dismantling the large barrier in the square. “How saztaculously good it be to see you!”
They both hugged.
“How is it,” she asked, looking the elderly landlord in the eye, “that for some age takes such a toll, yet with others it seems to merely brush against them with the very lightest of strokes?”
“And would you count me as the former, or the latter?”
“Slivert, the only thing I would count you as, is my saztaculous friend.” She looked at all the activity. “They seem to be making a good job. Nice to see the village returning to some sort of normal.”
“All Ayaani’s idea,” Slivert replied. “Her clottabussed points scheme. These lot have fallen for it and are trying to clear the square before Matlock’s Winchetts return from Wand Wood.”
“Very impressive,” Ursula confirmed. “So what else needs doing?”
“Well, there’s the Yuletide feast to prepare. But I’m not sure these gobfloppers have the skills to get it all together in time, frankly.”
Ursula turned to her two lines of witches. “You know what, Slivert? I think I may have just the bunch of tzorkly-chefs you need.”
After setting the witches to work (Lids preparing vegetables, stews and breads; Curvers on drinks, cakes and fruit puddings) she took to her broom, flying out over Wand Wood and scouring the snow-tipped trees below for Matlock and his Winchetts. Suddenly, there was a great crack as a little way ahead, the tallest ash tree she had ever seen gradually tipped sideways, fell back through the canopy and crashed to the ground with an enormous thump. Next, with clouds of snow and cheers rising into the air, Ursula pointed her broom to the newly created clearing and landed amongst a large group of excitable Winchetts.
“Matlock!” she said, strolling over to her oldest friend. “I see you are in charge of glopping things up again.”
He smiled, briefly hugging her and hoping he wasn’t blushing. Although on their many adventures together they hadn’t necessarily seen hare’s eye to eye, time had weathered many of the initial storms between them to such an extent that both were secretly fonder of each other than either would care to admit. For Ursula, it was simply a matter of stubborn pride rooted in her solitary-witch origins. For Matlock, it was more a case of wise precaution; he’d felt the painful sting of her frizzing wand more than once in the past.
“Just felling and fetching the Yuletide log,” he explained, directing the Winchetts to remove branches with saws and axes.
“Log?” Ursula remarked. “Looks more like a long trunk to me.” She scanned its impressive length. “Quite the longest I’ve ever seen.”
“Ganticus, isn’t it? Soon have it roped up and begin dragging it down into the square.”
“Drag it?” Ursula seemed surprised. “Surely you, a majickal-hare, can majick it there?”
Matlock nodded. “Well perhaps, on a particularly good day, I could. However, that would defeat the object of Ayaani’s plan.”
They both watched as the puffing Winchetts formed two roped lines on either side of the long trunk and began trying to heave it through the woods. However, perhaps somewhat inevitably as this was Winchett Dale, the operation was predictably clottabussed. Neither side could co-ordinate to heave together, and squabbles were already beginning to break out as to who was responsible.
“This has to be one of the poorest spectacles I’ve ever witnessed,” Ursula observed. “Why are they so hopeless?”
“They’re creatures from Winchett Dale. Basically good and well-intentioned, but quite clottabussed. I don’t know what else you expected.”
“So how will you get this splurked log to the village?”
Matlock smiled his familiar curving smile. “Trust me. I have a secret weapon.” He nodded to the undergrowth and called out, “Goole, old friend. It’s your moment!”
Out from the bushes eagerly scrittled a small, fat, one-eyed crow, resplendent in tatty waistcoat, tricorn hat and worn leather eye-patch. Goole bowed with an awkward flourish. “One bird-bard of trunk-hauling showstoppers at your service, m’lud!”
“Just ‘Matlock’ will do for now,” Matlock replied. “Now please, do your stuff and get this clottabussed lot organised.”
Goole tipped his tricorn hat and jumped on the trunk, followed by three small ploffshrooms carrying a trinkulah, billet-horn and fup-drum respectively. “It’ll be my pleasure!”
“True,” Matlock agreed, passing Ursula some moss to stuff into her ears. “But I doubt very much it’ll be ours.”
Undeterred, the portly, singing kraark addressed his suspicious audience as the three ploffshrooms struck up a light jazz-combo rhythm behind. “Alright, you lazy Winchetts! You all know who I am; Goole the singing kraark, legendary in all four corners of all the majickal-dales!”
“Aye. For being a talentless clottabus in each and every one of them,” a slow-jarrock moaned. “Look, you’re not actually going to sing, are you? Don’t you think we’re already suffering enough?”
A sentiment shared by many on the ropes, it seemed.
Goole, never one to let an infinite lack of talent affect ambition, simply nodded to the ploffshrooms to up the tempo, then opened both wings wide.
“Oh, crivens!” a twizzled jutter cried. “He’s going to open that ‘orrible beak of his any moment! Everyone, to ropes, quick! And haul! Haul for your lives! The sooner we get there, the sooner this is over!”
Matlock and Ursula, ears thankfully muffled by moss, watched as the huge trunk disappeared at double speed, Goole singing his kraark’s heart out as it vanished into the trees. He turned to Ursula, surprised to see she was looking at him with the merest an expression of admiration. They both removed the moss.
“For you, that was almost a saztaculous plan,” she said.
“Using Goole? Or the moss?”
“Gosh,” Matlock said. “A saztaculous plan, eh? But tell me, was it also tzorkly?”
She frowned. “Tzorkly? Matlock, you have a long, long way to go before you’ll ever be tzorkly.”
“But,” she conceded. “I suppose it has impressed me enough to offer you a lift on my broom back to the village.”
“And I’d be a splurk to refuse that, wouldn’t I?”
“Matlock, you already are.”
Moments later, they took to the sky, watching the suffering Winchetts below drag the huge trunk towards the village, Goole still happily singing to his heart’s content.
“Fine work, Slivert!” Matlock cried as he and Ursula landed in the village square, now empty of its barrier and signs. The first few tables were being bought from houses and set up around the edge, as other creatures began hanging all manner of Yuletide decorations foraged and made from the nearby woodland. “I see your Dalers are going to give my Winchetts a good run.”
“Surprises me how hard they’ve all been working, frankly,” Slivert replied. “Never seen the like before, from any of ‘em. Desperate, they be, to get Ayaani’s points and call your lot gobfloppers.”
“And they’ve done such a good job,” Matlock marvelled, watching as a group of witches joined the creatures with trays of fresh bread, fruit puddings and steaming cauldrons of stews and soups. “Yuletide preparations, just like they always are. Better, I think.”
“For now,” Slivert cautiously agreed. “But sooner or later, they’ll be wanting those clottabussed points. Then, those that lose won’t be full of any Yuletide festive cheer. We’ll be lucky to make it out alive, I reckon.”
“You think so?”
“Matlock, we may have cleared the square and prepared a feast, but only at the expense of setting both sides even more against each other. I’m not so sure that dripple of yours really thought this through properly.”
“Where is Ayaani, anyway?”
Ursula peered through the windows of the Winchett Dale Inn. “In another dale completely. The one that belongs to those who are quite guzzwort-splurked.”
“Oh, Ayaani,” Matlock sighed, peering through and seeing Ayaani flat on her back surrounded by empty tankards. “Well, you’ll not be any more use, will you?”
But before anyone could say another word, an unmistakeably dreadful squawking began drifting over the square. Moments later, two lines of exhausted Winchetts appeared, dragging the huge, heavy trunk into the middle and collapsing in an exhausted heap.
Matlock raced over to the still-singing bird, shouting over the appalling racket. “Thank you, Goole. You can stop singing now!”
Goole’s beak froze, mid-note. “Stop? I haven’t even got to the chorus yet. Just been warming up with a few dozen verses to motivate my haulers. Looks like I’ve done a right good job, too, I reckon. Go on, please. Just one chorus, eh? For old times’ sakes?”
Matlock sighed, apologetically turning to the silently horrified square. “If you have ears, prepare to close them, now. It’ll be over soon, I promise.”
Creatures retreated to the edge of the square, huddling together, blocking and covering their ears with whatever they could find.
Goole puffed out his chest, making a great show of clearing his black, feathered throat. “Good creatures of Winchett Dale! It gives me great pleasure to once again be back in your village on Yuletide, this most saztaculous of celebrations. And with this in mind, I’ve prepared a little showstopper which I hope will meet with your approval. And furthermore…”
“Goole!” Matlock urgently hissed. “Just get on with it! One chorus and no more!”
“Fair do’s,” Goole shrugged, looking at creatures clutching each other in doorways. “Seem like a tough crowd this lot. Anyway, you know me, born entertainer, I’ve known worse. One chorus, coming up.” He nodded to the waiting ploffshrooms who struck up a brisk polka, then opened his beak and, horribly, began to sing:
You may think me a clottabussed fool,
But here I stand this crumlush Yule!
Who knows why? Who knows where?
Yet in this most saztaculous square,
Even before festivities have begun,
We have gathered here as two, not one.
Dalers and Winchetts, who’ll get the points,
That fate decrees Yule anoints?
It’s going to be tense, has Matlock really thought it through,
Or will he end in up in a cauldron stew?
Goole bowed, mistaking the crowd’s cheers for him, rather than the end of their ordeal. Raising his tricorn hat, he turned to Matlock. “What d’you think, then?”
“It was very…interesting,” Matlock diplomatically replied. “Though I can’t say I was keen on the last bit about me ending up in stew.”
“Oh, that, yeah,” Goole nodded, climbing down from the log, his ploffshroom band following. “Sort of made that up at the last minute. Bound to happen, though, isn’t it? Look at ‘em all.” He pointed a wing at the villagers. “Going to be at each other’s throats as soon as the points are announced, I reckon. Whichever side loses is going to blame you. Then it’s the stew for you, Matlock.”
A thought which, looking at the expectant villagers as they began once again separating into their two groups to gather on either side of the log, seemed all too immediately relevant.
“So,” a large leaning-jutter, leader of the Dalers, asked, “which of us has the most points, Matlock? Us, or those clottabussed Winchetts?”
“It has to be us!” a still-puffing Winchett insisted. “We did the most work, hauling that ganticus log! There’s no way we can lose, no way!”
Both sets of creatures noisily began to press more closely, Matlock climbing onto the log and silencing the jeers and insults by shooting a booming vroosher high into the darkening sky above.
“The hunt for points isn’t over!” he loudly declared, as some of the crowd began to jeer and boo. “There are two more tasks to undertake, and only then will the points be awarded!”
“What ‘tasks’?” a scowling Daler asked. “Look at us, we’re juzzpapped, all of us! Even the Winchetts are having trouble breathing!”
“This,” Matlock assured them, “is more about teamwork and coordination. Nothing too strenuous.”
During a short pause during which both Dalers and Winchetts sat on opposite sides of the square eating reviving bowls of the witches’ Yuletide broth, Matlock asked Ursula for a favour.
“You want me to do what?” she frowned. “Matlock, this is Yule, one of the only days I don’t have to practise majick. It’s splurked enough I have to come all the way here instead of being at home, but to have to perform spells is quite another thing, it really is!”
He tried his most appealing hare’s shrug. “It’s only a little spell. Really, very, very oidy. And we’d both be doing it, together. You know, like we used to on all our saztaculous adventures?”
“Matlock, if you want any sort of favour from me, I suggest you don’t remind me of those splurked times.”
“Please?” he asked.
And then she did that thing that always sent a crumlush shiver through him; clicked her hare’s teeth and lowered the wide brim of her hat over her deep brown eyes. “Just. This. Once.”
“Ursula! Thank you. A grillion thank you’s!”
“Enough. Let’s just get on with it.”
The rest of the village watched as Matlock and Ursula stood at opposite ends of the large log and took out their wands; Matlock’s frizzing bright green, Ursula’s all electric blue. Gradually the huge log began to levitate from the ground. The majick must have been extremely strong, for its weight was enormous, yet the two frizzing wands effortlessly held it floating two feet about the ground.
Matlock gathered both sets of awed and quietened creatures, ordering the Dalers to line up at Ursula’s end, the Winchetts in a single file behind him. Then, he addressed them both, voice echoing over the dusky square.
“Today,” he began, “is Yule, one of the most crumlush times of the year, during which we give thanks for the year past, and welcome the new one with feasting and good cheer to mark the return of the light. It has always been a special night here in Winchett Dale, as we all come together to remind ourselves that, despite everything, we are family. Underneath our differences, we are all creatures, bonded by this most saztaculous dale, and fortunate enough to share in its bounty.
“Yet now, all I see before me is clottabussed divisions, and as such I have decided that whichever group loses today’s points competition will be banned from the whole of Winchett Dale, forever. At least that way, whoever stays, Winchetts or Dalers, will be just one harmonious group.”
A twizzled Winchett behind Matlock squeaked. “So…half of us will be banished?”
“Which, I suppose, means you mustn’t lose.” Matlock calmly replied.
“But what do we have to do?” the creature squeaked again, as the others in the line began to get increasingly nervous.
“Win. Beat them. Drive the Dalers from your village.”
“Win at what?”
So Matlock explained the beautiful simplicity of the task. Each group was to walk in line from one end of the floating log to the other. The winners would be the side to get everyone safely to the other end and off the log first. But, should any creature fall, be they a Winchett or Daler, everyone would have to start again.
“And we’ll do this for as long as it takes. After all, half of you are to be banished forever.”
The creatures nervously readied themselves, Matlock sending another booming vroosher high into the darkening sky as the signal to begin, then joining Slivert, Goole, Ursula and a bleary-eyed Ayaani at the side of the square to watch.
“And just what happens,” Ursula dryly observed, “when they begin to meet in the middle?”
Slivert chuckled. “I’m thinking that be precisely the point of it.”
“The real point of it,” Matlock confirmed, watching as the first two leaders made their way tentatively to the middle of the floating log, arms out, struggling to balance, others following closely behind. “The only point that was ever to be gained, given or won today. That however wide our differences, they can be resolved if we dare only to meet in the middle and see ourselves for ourselves, rather than belonging to a cause.”
“You weren’t really going to banish them were you? Ursula asked. “That would be such a splurked thing to do.”
“It would,” Matlock agreed. “And I wasn’t. They just needed some twizzly motivation.”
She flicked her frizzing wand, the huge log rolling just enough to make both leaders instinctively yelp and grab onto each other.
“Oh, this is going to be good!” Goole said, watching the two struggle to pass one another without falling off. “How about a little music to help things along a bit?” He nodded to the ploffshrooms, who dutifully struck up a comic Oompah tune to accompany their efforts.
And so, on that Yuletide evening in a majickal-land far away, yet not so diverse from ours, creatures from both sides of a clottabussed dispute they neither started or ever really understood, did indeed ‘meet in the middle’.
It took them nearly two hours, but at the end, thanks to the fear of starting again, the last Daler and Winchett finally made it to the other side to ganticus cheers. During the course of the task, each creature had met, reached out for and relied on the others, passing in a fast-uniting chain, reaching for next paw, instructing, remembering old friendships they had shared, and some even beginning to question just how they had ever become so divided in the first place, the crowd now cheering together as one to celebrate their remarkable achievement, and vowing that never again would they allow themselves to be so clottabussedly divided.
After, they celebrated together as one, and such was the joy and forgiveness, even Goole was allowed to perform one of his ‘showstoppers’. A great fire was lit under the log, Matlock declaring that its ashes be taken by each villager to use in their small cottage gardens, a symbolic act to demonstrate that the ashes of any conflict can fertilize a saztaculous future if all creatures learn from their experience. And further, the same ritual of the Yuletide log would now be carried out every year as a way of settling any disputes in good cheer before the turn of the new year.
Eventually, just Matlock and Ursula stood alone in the quiet of the square, the rest of village already as fast asleep in their crumlush cottages as Ayaani was in the hood of his robe.
“I guess you’ll be going soon,” Matlock said, trying to be as cheerful as possible. “Where are your witches?”
“Asleep in the inn.”
“Perhaps,” he said awkwardly, “it would be a shame to wake them?”
She considered this, looking between the inn and the moon reflecting in in his hare’s eyes. “Yes. Perhaps it would be.”
There was a long pause as a shooting star shot overhead.
“I was wondering,” he said. “Seeing as this is Yule, and we celebrate the return of the light, then…”
“A very special Yule,” she replied. “Perhaps the most tzorkly Yule of our lifetimes, or those that went before and those still yet to come.” She pointed up at two brightly shining stars. “Those twinklers, Matlock, hold the key to a whole new majickal age. And tonight, they align, heralding a new beginning of hope and co-operation for everyone; witches, creatures and every living being in this crumlush land of ours.”
“A new age?” he said, looking to the stars. “Tonight?”
“An age of togetherness – a truly tzorkly age”
He said nothing, lost in the ganticus implications of it all.
“Do you know the real meaning of our word ‘tzorkly?” she asked. “It means ‘to rise above all things; time, distance, experience and memories’. Only by being tzorkly can we truly unite and look forward with hope in our hearts.” She fetched her broom, gunning the brush. “And perhaps, on such a tzorkly Yultide night, it would be the most majickal time to rise above and see the dawn of this new age close up.”
And so, the two old friends, former rivals, adventurers and lifelong companions, took to the sky on Ursula’s roaring broom, watching the conjugation of the two bright twinklers herald the return of the light, the rising mid-winter sun bathing Winchett Dale in its crumlush life-giving glow.
After, they flew to his cottage, Ayaani still sleeping off her many guzzworts in Matlock’s hood, unaware of the entire trip.
“I guess this is good-bye, then,” he said, dismounting from the broom.
“It is,” she confirmed. “I have much to do back in my own lands. Be sure to send my witches back when they have woken.”
“I will. And happy Yule, Ursula.”
“So,” he said, “I’m not sure when I’ll see you again, but…”
She shushed him with a frown and gunned her broom. “This time next year. Perhaps sooner. Or maybe,” and here she almost smiled, “somewhere in the middle.”
A short distance away in Wand Wood, while the rest of Winchett Dale slept, something truly majickal was happening. Trees slowly uprooted, gathering at the very spot where the large ash had fallen, the protective woodland ring circling a brand new sapling that had grown overnight, gold in the early morning Yuletide sun, its leaves a near-impossible mix of all the trees that now silently surrounded it.
A new age of companionship and unity stirred in the fertile ground beneath its roots, simply waiting for us all to wake and embrace it.
On December 21, 2020, during the Yule midwinter solstice, Saturn and Jupiter will conjunct in Aquarius at 0’28”, their closest alignment since 1623. Some have referred to this as the end of the 2000 year-old Piscean age, heralding the beginning of the age of Aquarius, an era of reconciliation, cooperation, science, peace and love. Others, of course, may disagree, but here it’s hoped that somehow, as we move towards whatever the future holds, we can all begin to learn to ‘meet in the middle’.