The unlikely band had only walked a short distance down the darkening road before coming up on a third little hut; this one made of bricks. Like the first two, it seemed rather poorly constructed. Each brick, instead of being laid with care and cemented in place, was haphazardly stacked. Matthew thought it looked rather like a set of building blocks he'd had when he was younger. They'd been a gift from his father. As a boy, he'd spent hours constructing towers and knocking them down. From the looks of it, this hut was probably just as easily toppled over as his old toy.
"Our other brother lives there in that house," supplied the brown-tufted pig as they passed the makeshift drive or scraped earth. "He's the eldest of the three of us."
"S-s-suppose we should stop i-in and t-tell him where we're going?" The runty pig chewed at the end of his hooves.
"If he's safe and sound we shouldn't bother him. He'll only get upset if he knows we're-"
The tremendous sound of the shoddy brick building falling froze them all in their tracks. Gilbert's ears flattened to his skull to shut out the noise until the last brick had rolled to a still. Matthew was looking guilty over the unintended loss of yet another home. The two little pig brothers were horror struck, the youngest looking as if he might fall faint again at any second.
And there in the middle of the rubble stood a third pig, bewilderment showing in his bespectacled eyes.
"Talk about a family resemblance," Gilbert muttered, unsticking his ears and shaking the noise from them. His words shook the others out of their momentary shock, and the two brothers scrambled to help the third out of the shambles of his former home.
"Litany, Latch! What on earth are you doing out after dark? I heard you on the road and when I looked out to check everything came crashing down and-" The third pig looked sadly round at the bricks scattered in the grass. "Now we're all out after dark. We're probably going to die. I'll give us ten minutes at best."
The smallest, apparently called Latch, burst promptly into tears. Litany, the middle brown-tufted one, tried his best to talk sense into the both of them.
"We're not going to die! Pull yourself together, Latch. You're alright. And you, Stoney, stop scaring him so! You know how he gets. Nobody's going to die tonight! We're going to go straight to the magic man so that we're not eaten by the great big she-wolf," Litany announced, gesturing at the two boys who had been watching the spectacle with thinning patience. "And they're going to get us there in one piece."
"If you don't get a move on, I might change my mind about all of that," groused Gilbert. Matthew pursed his lips, but otherwise remained silent. He was still stuck between being angry at Gilbert and being a bit mistrustful of the vague information the pigs were feeding them in regards to this mysterious magic man. Deciding that he could be the both together just fine, he continued on in his self-imposed silence, listening carefully..
The third pig, seemingly called Stoney, straightened up in a rather business-like manner at the information, taking in the appearance of the two strangers. He was overall unphased by the looks of the odd pair, and in fact, seemed to take Gilbert's more frightening aspects for a boon. "Well if that's the case. Chin up, Latch. We are much less likely to die tonight than I assessed. We might last a good fifteen minutes in the dark."
It took another minute of convincing their brother that they were going to remain whole and uneaten for a good deal longer than fifteen minutes, but soon after the three pigs were trotting their way ahead of the two boys, and the whole cursed band of them were on their way to the magician. Matthew was beginning to doubt more than ever the credibility of their story, all things considered. While they very surely were enchanted pigs (they could not be speaking otherwise), he was having a time deciding what part of their story he did not like.
If the magician they were on their way to visit was powerful enough to temporarily transform them into humans, why not do it while they were all together? And for that matter, what of the poorly constructed shelters of each pig? He could see no proper protection in a house of straw, sticks, or stacked bricks that fell over at the first visitor to arrive. Especially not if they were supposed to guard against a pig-hungry wolf. They hadn't even stood against a mildly irritated half-wolf and a well intentioned youth. No, the more he thought and considered the story, it seemed that the pigs perhaps had misplaced their faith in their magic man. That, or (he supposed this thought came of too much time spent with Gilbert), they had a hidden agenda. At the very least, it was possible that there was no magic man at all, and they were just using their company for protection long enough to get to the next house along the way.
Though he did not feel in the least like speaking to Gilbert just yet, he did not want pride to lead them directly into the path of danger, should it come to that.
Quietly, as he knew he would be heard clearly by the other, he voiced his concern. "Don't you think there's something strange with this situation?"
Gilbert snorted, which caused curious glances their way from the pig trio, who had been chatting amiably amongst themselves. A good glare had them looking in the right direction again.
"Sure there is. Don't think I haven't noticed that they're hiding something."
Matthew sighed in relief, but Gilbert fixed his glare on him now.
"But if you think you can talk me out going, you're dead wrong. Any chance I get to be human again. Any chance. I'm going to take it. I've only stuck with you this far since you were looking like my best chance out. But you can fucking forget it if someone offers a better price than the mess you've dragged me into. I'm only in this for me."
"I know," came Matthew's hollow answer. He ought to have known better for starting to feel friendly towards the other boy. They only had a contract of words between them, a promise of help for help, business only. Friendship was not remotely an option. Still, he felt his feelings crumple a bit. "As long as you're aware that it sounds too good to be true. That's all."
Gilbert only grunted in response, leaving them both to stew in their own thoughts as their guides continued on with their aimless chatter.
The magician's house was not made of straw. Nor of sticks. Nor of bricks.
Instead, it cut a rather unimpressive figure with whitewashed walls and a thatch roof. But when compared to the sad state of the three destroyed houses that were said to be of his making, it had an air of confidence about it that seemed to boast 'I won't fall over at a moment's notice!'
"Looks like this guy knows how to save the best for himself," Gilbert appraised. Matthew silently wondered if this applied to magic as well. The pigs shifted uncomfortably.
"Don't be fooled. His heart is usually in the right place..." Litany vouched uncertainly. Stoney and Latch nodded slowly behind him. Matthew shot Gilbert an dubious look, which went ignored.
"So long as the guy's magic is up to snuff, I don't give a shit about his heart." Another uncertain look was passed between the pigs.
"H-he's always managed in the p-pa-past," Latch piped up.
"We've never been eaten while under his magic, at least," added Stoney.
"He's always done fairly well right by us, so no need to doubt. Let's get moving before things move towards us," Litany ushered, trotting ahead to knock on the door. There was a flurry of noisy activity on the other side, and then silence.
The group crowded around the door, allowing Litany to be their spokesman.
"There isn't one."
"Wrong!" shouted the voice on the other side of the door. "There is so a password! I made it this morning."
"Feliks, you know-"
"Don't say my name, Lit! That's what the code is for!"
Litany sighed, casting an apologetic look over his shoulder.
"Okay. Goldilocks, If you know who I am, would you go ahead and just open the door, please?"
They waited a moment as the bolt clicked in the door. It swung slowly in, revealing a blonde young man with a wide forehead and shrewd eyes. Matthew noted that they were as green as a cat's as they darted over the members of the group.
"Please was the password, so I guess I have no choice but to let you in."
The door creaked open enough for the magician to sprinkle the threshold with salt. Only then did he swing it wide enough to admit them in one at a time and snapped shut as the last hairs of Gilbert's tail were inside.
"Good heavens. You're all cursified! Every last one of you," Feliks the magic man exclaimed, looking especially wide-eyed at Gilbert and Matthew in turn. "And much more than just a little salt could fix. The others I know about but you...If this guy has it bad, wolfish and hairy and quite the brute," He ran his fingers in Gilbert's tail, then reached to poke at his ears before he rounded on Matthew, inspecting behind his ears and patting at the crown of his head, "you've got it super bad! How many feet do you have in the grave, kid? I'd wage six or seven if you had more than two." He finished bolting the door and turned off to bustle through herb filled cabinets.
Gilbert watched, looking cautiously guarded. He'd been insulted and poked and prodded without permission, but if that was the only price to pay for regaining his humanity (aside from dragging the three pigs safely here), he could stomach it for now. Feliks turned suddenly back around with fistfuls of what he had been looking for and strode back across the room. Matthew opened his mouth to ask a question, but it turned out to be a great mistake. Without warning, a great handful of sage and lavender exploded in each of their faces, coating them with the mixture of strong smelling herbs.
"That should keep your bad luck contained for a little while," he announced. Then, Feliks turned quickly around, job well done, to address the pigs while Matthew choked and sputtered and Gilbert struggled to clear the herbs from his ears and nose.
"Goldilocks," Litany sighed, trying again. "Our houses are down again. Is there something you can do?"
"What, down? I just rebuilt them last week, you know. Buildifying safe houses isn't all I'm around to do, you know. I have my work cut out for me without having to buildificate and wolf-proof things for the three of you all the time. I'm really pretty important to the king, you know! Don't forget what I've been working on this whole time! And the princess, too! She'll have to hold on for that much longer while I get you three fixed up again!" Feliks threw his hands into the air, little flecks of sage floating down like confetti around him.
"How could we forget, with the code names and the passwords and all the work you're doing," appeased Litany. "We're really grateful, too. We know how hard our friend is working for us." He clasped his hooves around one of the magic man's hands, appealingly. "If there's anything else you want us to do. Help you think up new passwords. Organize your drawers. Cooking or cleaning. We'll help you out in turn for our houses up again. What do you say?"
Feliks's answer was cut short by a fierce clawed grip yanking him round by his shirt. He squawked as he unceremoniously landed on his backside before the seething Gilbert. "Hey, try and watch out! Do you have any idea how long it took to stitch the nice floral patterns into this shirt? Especially with finding any color of charmed thread that would suit my skin palate. And the design itself! You try finding a decent looking protecting pattern." The blonde mage pulled a face at the transformed prince.
"I don't care a flying shit about your shirt. What the hell did you do to us just now?" Green pieces of sage mixed with the purple buds of lavender flecked his hair and shirt, making him look a bit like he'd grown a fresh spring moss. Matthew wasn't faring much better, miserably rinsing his mouth with water from their oilskin. They hadn't collected anything fresh since the murky water from the forest, and his mouth tasted none the better for it.
"Wow. Thanks. Way to show your gratitude after I sealed off the bad luck that was just pouring out of your skin," Feliks sniffed, obviously quite miffed by the behavior. He stood back up, brushing himself off. "Using up some of my precious herbs and magical knowledge on you, and all for nothing. Gotta love the way it's repaid."
"Sorry, sir. He doesn't mean it," Matthew cut in before Gilbert could start off again. He did in fact mean it very much. "It's part of his curse. More or less. We're actually very grateful." It wasn't stretching the truth very much, as Gilbert's bad temper was what had led him to being cursed in the first place. Technically it could be counted as being part of it.
To Matthew's relief, Feliks's expression softened to one of understanding.
"Well, if it's a part of a curse, I guess it can't be helped," He nodded, considering the matter. "Hey, I think I know something for improving manners in chickens...it might translate well to your friend here. Why don't we give it a try!" Matthew started. While he was sure Gilbert could use some improvements in manners, he was not about to offer him up to experimental magic. That was a rather dangerous business, and he'd heard many horror stories about people who had dabbled in things they didn't know about. Many irreversible spells came from inexperienced magicians. Just a look was enough to know Feliks was obviously a novice. Briefly, he wondered if anything would come of their bad luck being "cut off". Inconspicuously, he brushed some of the herbs from his hair.
"No, thank you for offering, but no. I think we'll take our leave here. We only wanted to make sure that these fellows made it to safe shelter for the night." The pigs each gave an appreciating snuffle and Matthew smiled uncertainly, trying to read Gilbert's expression. The prince seemed torn between accepting the mage as a good for nothing novice or attempting to shake an answer to transformation out of his blonde head. The chicken spell had given him some doubts.
Feliks puffed out his chest. "No place safer around here than with the king's own former magician! Especially since I changed most of the high court into wild animals and set them loose in the forest." Litany touched a hoof to his forehead, obviously having hoped his friend wouldn't have divulged that fact so freely. Stoney and Latch both sighed, patting their brother's shoulders in pity. Most of the headache in dealing with 'Goldilocks' fell to him. "Highly experimental magic. It was meant for a surprise at the king's birthday, but...well. He was certainly surprised, you have to give me that. I did get the job done! Getting all of the people back, though. That's been the problem."
"Th-that's why Litany had thought you w-w-wou-would have a chance if you brought us h-here," Latch snuffled nervously. Stoney took over for him. "The magic is still in the experimental stages, but we've been able to return to ourselves while keeping to a strict set of rules." Litany nodded, encouraged by his brothers, and finished while Feliks beamed, "We figure he's close to a breakthrough. You're only half changed into an animal, so it might be easier if he...er...tried a few spells on you. It would mean saving our kingdom. And the princess...well. She would benefit most."
Something clicked in Matthew's head.
"Is it possible that the fierce wolf you've been talking about...She's the princess?" The pigs looked uncomfortably between one another and the smiling magician, and finally nodded.
"You've got to be fucking kidding me."