This is episode 36 of my ongoing web serial, updated weekly as a part of #fridayflash. If you are new to The UCF Stories and would like to read from the beginning, or if you've missed an episode, you can find a full index of the episodes here.
Twinkle buzzed low over the river, the weight of The Book forcing her dangerously close to the fast-flowing water. Up ahead she could see the fairy fortress swathed in scaffolding, a myriad of workers scrambling about on it like so many tiny ants. The ache in her wings forced Twinkle to land on the riverbank, and from there she followed the circuitous land route up the cliffs to the fortress' main gate.
Once past the sentries, Twinkle found herself in the familiar surroundings of the courtyard, familiar but yet different since the collapse of the fortress wall. Piles of dressed stones lay everywhere, jockeying for position alongside heaps of rubble, tools and building supplies, through which were sorting several creatures, apparently gnomes. Twinkle hailed the nearest one.
'Well met, Master Gnome. How goes the re-building?'
The gnome ignored her, so Twinkle strode closer. The nearer she got, the more uneasy she felt. There was something odd about the way the gnome kept scratching his beard, as though he was uncomfortable wearing it. And his tunic did not seem to fit properly either, bunching up around his middle so that he had to re-adjust it every few minutes. It was almost as though, Twinkle thought, he was straightening a lumpy stomach rather than his tunic. She was on the point of calling out to the gnome again when a soft cough sounded behind her.
'M'lady,' said Oberon, 'How nice to see you.'
Oberon rolled his eyes.
'Oh, sorry,' said Twinkle, 'I forgot. My Lord Oberon.' She bowed.
Oberon waved away her apology.
'Think nothing of it, M'lady. There are times when I am addressed with my new title that I think my previous Lord is standing right behind me. I just can't shake that feeling.'
'Is there any news of my father?'
'No, M'lady. I have my agents abroad in both this realm and the other, but there's not been a word of your father since his banishment.'
Twinkle sighed. 'No matter. I presume my mother is in her chamber?'
'Yes, M'lady. I have managed to,' he coughed, 'Escape for a few hours to supervise the building work.'
Nodding to Oberon, Twinkle set off across the coutryard in the direction of the royal chambers. Half way there she paused, half turning back.
'My Lord, is there something strange about the gnomish builders?'
'I have decided that is something best left well alone, as long as the work is progressing.'
Twinkle nodded, turned and disappeared through the doorway to her mother's chamber.
* * *
Titania lay wrapped her blankets and snoring like a hog when Twinkle arrived. Polite enquiries as to the state of her mother's wakefullness were met with snorts and grunts, so Twinkle was forced to give Titania a sharp poke to the shoulder in order to elicit a response.
'Ugh? What? Who is it?' Titania slitted open an eye.
'It is I, Mother...'
'Twinkle,' Twinkle sighed. 'Your daughter.'
'Whaddya want, daughter?'
'I have The Book.'
Titania sat bolt upright in her bed, eyes wide, a grin spreading from ear to ear. Her tousled bed-hair gave her the appearance of a maniacal hedgehog. Twinkle stifled a giggle.
'You have it?!'
Twinkle nodded, still fighting to keep a straight face.
'You have it!' Titania crowed. 'We're saved! Let me see it, let me see it.'
She snatched The Book from Twinkle's outstretched hands and held it up to a shaft of sunlight which fell across the bed from an open window. Sunlight draped the battered leather cover and Titania laughed. It was a high-pitched, squeaking laugh that made Twinkle wince.
'Perhaps now you will give me leave to go and find my father?'
'Your what? Who?' muttered Titania. 'Oh, him. Yes, yes, I suppose so. Off you go.' She waved Twinkle away.
* * *
Twinkle was halfway across the courtyard when a piercing shriek rent the air. Since it emanated from Titania's window, Twinkle could only presume her Mother had discovered she lacked the key required to open The Book.
Oberon winced as Twinkle approached.
'Is that scream anything I'm going to need to deal with, M'lady?' he asked.
'Hopefully not,' said Twinkle, 'And will you stop calling me M'lady?! My mother has just discovered that when she bid me bring her The Book I took her precisely at her word. She never mentioned the key.'
'She has however, finally given me permission to go in search of my father. If she wants the key, she's just going to have to wait until I have found him, isn't she?' Twinkle winked.
'Meanwhile, I shall be the one stuck here on the receiving end of your mother's temper. I can understand why your father took to the bottle.'
'For that I apologise. You were always kind to me while I was growing up. You don't really deserve this. I will try to return quickly, but for now I must fly lest my mother has the chance to change her mind. That will be difficult though, I had her scribe make an official note of her permission.'
'It's alright.' Oberon hugged her. 'Now, away with you while you still can.'
As Twinkle swooped low over the fortress wall, Oberon once again turned his attention to the gnomish builders.
'We don't employ Goblins, my arse,' he muttered as a nearby builder's false beard fell off at his feet.