The old man led Malial back to his shack. Once there he handed the boy a basket.
“What is this for?” Malial asked. The basket was the kind that he had used many times when gathering wild food.
“Foolish boy,” said the old man, “have you never gathered food in a forest before?”
“Yes,” said Malial, “many times. I do not understand how this will help me save my family.”
The old man grinned a wicked grin. “To overcome the guards and kill the lord,” he said, “you will need a rowan gem which repels magic. There are some ogres who might trade you one but for that you will need a bag of pearls. Ogres fear the sea but value pearls. You will need to the aid of a sea creature to get pearls or, if you want to save time, the ability to breath under water. For that, you will need a hope stone, some fresh seaweed and a mermaid’s purse. On the far side of the woods, there live four sisters who may trade you a hope stone for a fine basket of mushrooms.”
Malial nodded. He understood. Pick mushrooms, trade them, save his family, have a happy ending.
“Take the basket, and a knife if you have one,” said the old man. “Follow the path that leads past the briar patch until you reach an area of the wood where many birch trees grow. Search for the red capped mushrooms that grow there and take as many as you can carry with you the rest of the way through the woods until you reach the sisters.”
“I will trade the mushrooms for this hope stone and come back,” said Malial.
“We will see,” said the old man. He said this because he knew far more than he was saying.
Ignorant of what he was missing, Malial followed the path to the briar patch. When he drew close Malial discovered that the briars had grown over the path and there was no way through. His knife was too small to cut the briars and his stick too blunt to beat them back.
Undeterred, Malial walked along the edge of the briar patch. Being at least a little wise in the ways of walking through woodland, Malial cut a mark the trees as passed by. This was a good idea as he at least might have a hope of returning to the old man. Even so, he soon had no idea where he was or where he was heading. He, unsurprisingly, took a long time to go a short distance.
It was late afternoon when he found a thick patch of birch trees. Under the trees were many red capped mushrooms. Malial had never seen such mushrooms before. He, therefore, did not know that they were called amanita, that they were toxic, or that sometimes tiny urisks (or, as you might know them, brownies) lived in them. It might have helped to have known some of that at least.
Malial set about picking mushrooms. He cut them close to the ground with his knife and laid each one gently in his basket. In very little time, Malial had filled the basket to overflowing.
Malial was just about to pick up has basket and be on his way when a voice shouted at him.
“You monster!” shouted the voice. “You awful, evil, vile demon. Why would you do such a spiteful thing?”
“Who said that?” Malial looked about but saw no one.
“I did,” said a voice.
Malial looked down and saw a small creature shaking a tiny fist at him.
“You cut down my house,” shouted the creature.
“No I didn’t,” said Malial. “I’ve only been collecting mushrooms.”
“Where did you think an urisk lives?” The tiny creature ran at Malial with a tiny dagger the size of a pin and every intention of carrying out tiny vengeful violence.
Malial pushed the urisk away with the end of his staff. “There are plenty more mushrooms,” he said, “could you not move into one of those?”
“That’s not the point,” said the urisk. “That one was my home. Anyway, what sort of idiot collects poisons mushrooms for his dinner. I hope you get sick from them.”
“They are not for me,” said Malial. “I want to trade them to some sisters.”
“You stole my house for witches?” The urisk turned red with rage. “I will kill you where you stand.”
Malial pushed the tiny angry creature further away with the end of his staff. “I’d rather you did not,” he said. “I must save my family.”
“I don’t care who you have to pay,” yelled the urisk. “Give me back my home.”
“It is too late now,” said Malial. “I’ve cut the mushrooms and they are mine.”
“So that is how you want to play it,” screeched the urisk. “Then I place a curse upon your fate. Your fear will be your undoing.” With that, it vanished in a tiny puff of angry smoke.
“What a strange little man,” said Malial, demonstrating a complete lack of understanding as to what he had just seen.
Malial picked up his basket and continued on his way. By nightfall, he found, quite by chance, his way to a clearing with a cottage in it.
The cottage was covered with thick ivy and surrounded by plants with vicious thorns. Malial was unaware that the these were rare and deadly toxic thorn bushes. This is unimportant as Malial was not scratched by the thorns and able to knock on the door unharmed.
An old lady answered the door and seeing the boy tired and alone, let him in. Malial did not know this but she had hoped to eat him for her dinner. However, this is quite clearly not what happened.
As Malial sat with a bowl of broth warming himself by the fire, the old lady’s three sisters returned from doing something in the woods. It might be best not to asked what they were doing.
“Who have we here?” asked the first sister.
“He smells like trouble,” said the second. “Though not as much trouble as that Lord Betha,” she added.
“I’m Malial,” said Malial. “I am looking for four sisters with whom I might trade these fine mushrooms for a hope stone.”
“You’ve found us, I’d say,” said the third. “If this is good fortune for you, remains to be seen.”