“Whoa!” Cried George pulling up, “what can I do for you, are you looking for a ride into Woodside?”
“You’re new around here aren’t you?” said the lady, “I represent the people who live in this forest and we charge people who want to use our road. If you don't want to save three or four hours, you can go back the way you came. Otherwise it’ll cost you! What are you carrying?”
“I’m just taking this basket of carrier pigeons to the village.”
The old lady laughed until she cried, “Carrier pigeons!” she exclaimed, “that’s a new one, they won’t be able to carry very much at a time will they!”
“They’re only meant to carry messages back to my headquarters, I read what the customers have to say then I bring them the goods they want on my next trip.”
The old lady looked into the cart, “Hmm you’re quite right, they are only pigeons, that’ll be half a guinea if you want to carry on along this road.”
“What do you think you’re going to do if I refuse to pay and just go through anyway?”
The old lady threw back her cloak, pointed at a nearby bush and set fire to it with a quick twiddle of her fingers.
George felt in his purse, found a half sovereign and six pennies and gave them to the witch. “Could be worth it at that,” he said, “come along now, walk on.”
The horse pulled away only too willingly, but the cartwheels made so much noise clattering down the road, that George didn’t hear the witch saying quietly to herself, “until the next time deary.”
George handed over his pigeons to the landlord of the local Inn. He’d quickly realised that the best place to do business in any village was at the bar, where most people came at some time during the day and could easily make their requirements known. He told of his adventure in the forest as he sat down with his drink.
“Yes they’re a bit of a nuisance. There’s a whole group of witches live in there I hear tell! Very few people round here can afford to use them if they need help, so they mostly make their money by charging travellers who want to go through the wood instead of the long way round.”
“The toll didn’t seem that excessive,” said George, “it’s probably going to be worth it just to save the time coming round the longer way!”
“I daresay you’ll change your mind if you ever have a valuable cargo to deliver. They search the cart, then base their charge you on what they think it’s worth. Sometimes they charge you more than the value of the whole lot, cart, horse and all! There’s nothing you can do about it, after all they are witches and there’s supposed to be quite a lot of them.”
George stared thoughtfully into his drink. He didn’t want to let down the inhabitants of Woodside. Questions he’d asked on his earlier visit had shown that they wanted all sorts of things. Now he was beginning to realise why nobody had been supplying them in the past.
“There must be a road that comes here from some other direction?”
“Well yes of course, but it’s miles and miles to the next village and carriers only come that way at very long intervals. They’re all frightened of upsetting the witches, even though they live on the other side of us.”
George smiled. “Have you ever heard of Jennifer Jane?” he asked.
“Vaguely, isn’t she the one who threw coal at the dragons to stop them from eating people?”
George just grinned. “Whatever; well she happens to be a friend of mine and I think this sort of problem is just up her street!”