"You've done it now, Angel!"
Belle hurried back towards the house, her heart racing. “You’ve done it now, Angel,” she said to the small cream Pomeranian/Chihuahua crossbreed that was scampering along at her heels. Pausing for breath outside the door, Belle looked down at her dog. “Why did you have to nip her?”
Angel hung her head and looked genuinely apologetic. Belle sighed. She could never stay angry at Angel for long. “I know, I know,” she said, leaning on the wall. “You did it because she came at us with a broom and shouted at me.”
Pushing open the door, she slipped quickly inside the Benbow Inn, weaving through the crowded tables with Angel at her heels, and hurried up to where her Aunt was piling dirty plates onto a tray, ready to be washed.
“Aunt Sarah,” she began, breathlessly.
“Belle, there you are! You’re late!” Sarah Silver, who was Belle’s aunt on her mother’s side, thrust the tray into the girl’s arms. “Quick; I need you to wash these while I serve.”
“But Aunt Sarah-!”
“And put Angel outside,” Aunt Sarah added, sweeping them both in the direction of the kitchen door. “It’s not hygienic.”
Belle did as she was told, praying in vain that perhaps her Uncle would listen to her if her Aunt wouldn’t. “Uncle John-!”
“Ah, there y’are, Belle,” said John Silver, a man who had been through the wars quite literally and had had half his human parts replaced with cyborg parts in order to survive, and who was the cook at the Benbow. “Hurry up with those dishes now, girl; we’ve got a rush on and some big orders to fill.”
“Yes, but Uncle John-”
“John!” Aunt Sarah came hurrying through the door. “The barrels need refilling; and I’m up to my elbows!”
“This’ll have to keep,” John replied, setting aside the dish of stew he had been stirring over the stove and hurrying into the taproom as fast as his legs – one real and one artificial – could carry him.
“Aunt Sarah, there’s something I need to-!” Belle replied, once more.
“Belle, whatever it is, it can wait!” Aunt Sarah insisted. “Just wash up, and please try to keep out of trouble!”
Belle watched in dismay as the door swung shut again, leaving her and Angel alone in the kitchen. Angel gave a dull whine and lay down at her mistress’s feet; with her head on her front paws. Belle thrust the dishes into the sink and folded her arms, tiredly. “Stay out of trouble?” With a sigh, she brushed a strand of stray hair out of her eyes. “Do you think there’s a place in the world where there isn’t any trouble, Angel? Maybe behind the sun, beyond the rain...over the rainbow, somewhere?”
Angel looked up at her, cocking her head on one side. Belle smiled. Most people said that dogs could only understand a few words humans said to them – usually small words like “Dinner” and “Biscuit” and “Walk” and “Bath” and “Bed.” But Belle was certain that Angel was intelligent enough to understand every word Belle ever said to her. She could almost imagine Angel’s voice, were she to talk, cool and sassy and she imagined that in response to her question she would say something like “Mm, well, maybe, but we’re probably not likely to find it, are we?”
Belle turned back to the washing up and set about it as quickly as possible, thinking that perhaps if she made herself as useful as possible, there would be less work for her Aunt and Uncle and that perhaps then they could hear what she had to tell them before they heard it from someone else.
Alas for Belle, however, things didn’t quite go the way she had hoped. Before the last diner had left the inn, the door opened and their neighbour, Miss Mulch, walked into the room. She was a tall, thin woman with a sickly complexion, and Belle often likened her to a witch, particularly in light of her temperament and her habit of always wearing black. Uncle John was in the room when she came in and he looked up in surprise at her.
“Miss Mulch; what can we do for you?” he asked.
Miss Mulch held herself stiffly as she walked up to him. “Where’s your niece?”
“Belle? Why? Is she in trouble?”
“I should say so. I’m all but lame from the bite on my leg.”
Uncle John blinked at her in confusion. “She bit you?”
“No. Her dog.”
“She bit Angel?”
Miss Mulch rolled her eyes in irritation. “No!”
“What’s the trouble?” asked Aunt Sarah, coming into the room.
“The trouble, Mrs Silver, is that your niece and her dog got into my garden on their way home from school today. That mangy fleabag was chasing my old cat; and when I went to shoo her out, the animal bit me!”
Belle, who had been listening from the kitchen, quickly hurried out to defend her dog. “It was only a nip!” she exclaimed. “And she only did it because you tried to hit us with a broom!”
“Oh, Belle!” sighed Aunt Sarah.
Miss Mulch straightened up. “A dog that bites is a bad dog, and I’ve had the Sheriff’s permission to have it destroyed.”
“No!” Belle exclaimed.
“Now, Miss Mulch, that’s a bit harsh,” began Uncle John.
Angel had followed her mistress into the room and now she began to bark in defence. Belle turned to her. “Angel, shush!”
“Would you rather I sued?” Miss Mulch asked. “By rights, I ought to.”
“You can’t!” Belle cried, appealing to her Aunt and Uncle. “She’s my only friend!”
“Look, Miss Mulch,” began Aunt Sarah, “Angel’s honestly not a vicious dog. It’s perfectly natural for a dog to defend their owner-”
“So you’re not taking her away!” Belle snapped.
Miss Mulch straightened up. “If you go against the law, it won’t be good for you. I could get the police involved, you know.”
Aunt Sarah and Uncle John exchanged a glance. Then, they both turned to Belle. Her heart dropped. “No! No, you’re not taking her away!”
“Belle,” sighed Uncle John, “there’s nothing else we can do.”
Angel, however, seemed to sense that something was up, as she suddenly darted towards the door, which Miss Mulch had left open. “Run, Angel!” Belle cried, and then, ducking under her Uncle’s arm, she darted after her.
“Belle, come back!” cried Aunt Sarah, rushing to the door, but Belle was already out of sight. Turning, rather angrily to Miss Mulch, Aunt Sarah straightened up. “Miss Mulch, all these years I’ve been wanting to tell you what I think of you and now...well, being a Christian woman, I just can’t say it!”
Then she turned and hurried out after Belle. Miss Mulch turned to Uncle John, who folded his arms and indicated the door. “Well, you can leave the way you came in, Miss Mulch; unless you’d like the take the scenic route through the kitchens?”
Belle hurried along the lane, looking left and right for any flash of cream fur amongst the green of the hedgerows. “Angel?” she called, desperately, worrying now. Angel was a very fast runner and was good at hiding. “Angel!” Belle called again.
Then, to her relief, Angel shot out from under a nearby bush and scampered up to her in delight. Belle breathed out and bent down to scoop her into a hug. “Oh, Angel,” she sighed, glancing around her. “Why do the bad things always seem to happen to us?” She looked around. They were a good long way away from the house, but no doubt Aunt Sarah and Uncle John would come after them, with Miss Mulch too. Belle would not allow anyone to take her dog away from her. It was true when she said that Angel was the only friend she had. Everyone else in their quiet, provincial town thought that she was odd and kept well away from her. Angel was the only one she could really talk to, the only one she really felt understood her and who cared; she was always ready with a loving lick or nuzzle when she felt her mistress needed it.
“We’d better run away, Angel,” she said, finally, having thought it all through. “We can’t go back there; they’ll just take you away. No, we have to find somewhere else to live. Come on.”
She put the dog down and together they both began to run again until they felt they could run no more. By this stage, Belle felt that they had put significant enough distance between themselves and the Benbow Inn to allow themselves a brief rest stop. She leaned against a tree and then allowed her tiredness to drag her down to sit on one of its roots. Angel sat down beside her and lay her head on Belle’s knees, with another soft whine. Belle patted her head. “I should have packed some things first, you’re right,” she mused. “Some food; some supplies. Oh, Angel,” she added with a sigh. “This is all such a mess.”
Even as she was thinking it, the clip-clop sound of horses’ feet approached them. She looked up to see a lovely light brown horse with feet the size of soup plates, pulling a caravan that looked something like a house on wheels. Seeing them, the horse stopped and then from inside the caravan came a sudden banging and clattering that sent a startled Angel barking again.
“Oh, confound it all!” came a rather cross voice from inside the caravan, and then a door at the back opened and a thin man with a shock of white hair and a matching beard stomped down the steps, brushing himself down of dust. “Impudent thing!” Then he noticed Belle and Angel and smiled, politely. “Oh, hello there.”
“Good evening, sir,” Belle replied, getting to her feet. The side of the caravan read “Professor Merlin, acclaimed by the Crowned Heads of Europe. Let him read your Past, Present and Future in his Crystal Ball. (Also Juggling and Sleight of Hand)” She smiled and nodded to the sign. “Is that you?”
“Why, yes it is,” Mr Merlin replied, taking off his glasses to polish them. “And who do Philippe and I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“My name’s Belle Garland,” Belle replied. “And this is my dog, Angel.”
Angel was sniffing at Philippe’s feet. The horse, carelessly, snorted at her and went back to tearing up a clump of grass. “So what are you doing sitting by the side of the road?” asked Mr Merlin. “No, no, don’t tell me. You’re...travelling in disguise. No, that’s not right. You’re... going on a visit? No, that’s not it. You’re...running away?”
Belle laughed. “How did you guess?”
Mr Merlin smiled and pressed the tips of his fingers together. “Mr Merlin doesn’t guess, my child. He knows. But why are you running away? No, no, don’t tell me. Let me see...they don’t understand you at home?”
Belle smiled. “No. No one understands me; apart from Angel. And now our neighbour, Miss Mulch, wants to have her put down just because Angel bit her when she was defending me. And our town’s so...so boring anyway.”
Mr Merlin nodded, understanding. “You want to see other lands; big mountains; vast oceans..?”
Belle nodded. “Just like in one of my books.”
“Like me,” Mr Merlin agreed, patting Philippe. “We’ve been on the road or years now; travelling; doing our acts.”
Belle took a deep breath, a thought suddenly forming in her mind. “Mr Merlin, could we come along with you? We could earn our keep and we wouldn’t be any trouble. Please?”
Mr Merlin looked startled but recovered quickly. “Well, er-”
“Well, you could, of course, but, er, I’ll just have to check my crystal ball first,” Mr Merlin replied, flustered, leading the way into the caravan. Belle followed, with Angel at her heels. Inside the caravan, it was lavishly decorated in bright colours, like stepping back into a medieval castle, Belle thought, as she seated herself in the chair Mr Merlin offered her. He sat opposite her; a table between them held the crystal ball.
“I never do anything without consulting this first,” Mr Merlin explained as Angel leapt up onto Belle’s lap and curled up. Belle watched him place his hands on the crystal and close his eyes, focusing. Presently he opened his eyes and looked into the crystal. “I see...a house,” he said, “no, an inn; just on the outskirts of the sea, with a picture of an admiral on the sign.”
“That’s our inn,” Belle said, leaning forward. “The Benbow.”
“And I see...a woman...with light brown hair and in a red dress and a mob cap...”
“That’s Aunt Sarah. What’s she doing?”
“Hm, well, I can’t quite see. Oh, she’s crying.” Mr Merlin looked up at her. “She’s distressed, I think. I think she’s been looking for something...or someone...and can’t find them.”
“Me?” Belle said, softly.
“Well, yes, someone she loves very much; she and her husband.”
Belle felt a rush of guilt. “What’s she doing now?”
“Well...” Merlin blinked suddenly. “She’s falling onto her knees. She looks like she might be...about to faint...”
Belle sprang to her feet, knocking Angel off her knees. “Why?”
“The crystal’s gone dark,” sighed Mr Merlin.
Belle looked at Angel. “She could be ill, Angel. We’d better get back. I’ll figure out something to do; I’ll hide you somehow from Miss Mulch; but we need to go.”
“What’s this?” Mr Merlin asked, looking surprised. “I thought you were coming along with me?”
“Oh, I can’t! I have to go!” Belle hurried out of the caravan with Angel racing alongside her. “Bye, Mr Merlin, and thanks for everything!”
Philippe began to whiney in agitation as the wind picked up. “Come on, Philippe,” said Mr Merlin, catching his bridle. “We’d better get under shelter. Poor girl; I hope she gets home alright.”
By the time Belle had reached the house, the storm had turned into a twister and no one was in sight. They must be all in the storm shelter, she thought, but when she ran to it, the doors were locked. In a panic she scooped up Angel and thrust her way back into the inn, looking for somewhere they could shelter, perhaps under the bar.
But before she could get to it, an enormous gust of wind ripped the windows open. The edge of one hit her on the side of the head and she staggered and fell to the floor, dazed. Then, Angel’s barking roused her and she scrabbled to her feet and ducked under the bar before collapsing, out cold.
Some time later, she awoke, again to the sound of Angel’s barking, and pulled herself out from under the bar. “Is the storm over?” she asked, rubbing her head. Then, through the open window, she saw that the entire inn was up inside the cyclone.
Heart pounding, she ran to the window, Angel joining her, and looked down into the swirling dust circles. “I don’t believe this,” Belle exclaimed, looking at Angel. “We’ve just been swallowed up by-”
Angel interrupted with a fierce bark and Belle noticed what she had noticed. Riding along on her bicycle just outside their window, still dressed in black, still with her stiff, firm features was-
“Miss Mulch!” Belle cried, backing away from the window, and then the entire house began to topple and tilt. With a cry of fright, Belle snatched up Angel and leapt aside as a table narrowly missed them and hit the opposite wall. She realised then that they must be descending. “Hold on, Angel!” she cried, ducking under the bar again, thought, as she did so, she swore that the image of Miss Mulch seemed to have turned into that of a witch on a broomstick, cackling.
The house tilted and twisted until, suddenly, it hit the ground with a sudden thud and all was still and quiet. Belle drew in her breath, and then, feeling it was safe to come out again, she did so and crossed to the door.
To her enormous surprise, they were no longer in their small, familiar town, but in a strangely bright little village, and little it certainly was for surely the only people who lived there had to be dwarves, given the minute houses and minuscule gardens. Belle looked around, taking in all the colours, and suddenly, unexplainably, she stopped feeling afraid.
“Angel, I have a feeling we’re not in France anymore,” she said.
“You’re telling me. But where are we?”
Belle gasped and Angel did likewise as they stared at one another. “Angel! You’re talking?”
“You can understand me?” Angel blinked at her. Her voice was exactly the way Belle had always pictured it. “Wow! This is weird!”
Belle almost laughed. “You’re telling me!”
“Maybe we’re over the rainbow after all, then,” Angel mused, scratching her ear with her back foot. “A place where animals and humans can communicate.”
Belle nodded, slowly. “Come on, Angel. Let’s see if someone here can tell us where we are.”
"Over the rainbow, somewhere?"
"You're not taking her away!"
"Mr Merlin, could we go along with you?"