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Robin: The Touchstone Trilogy concerns hidden tribes of ‘little people’ (the Various) living in a seemingly impenetrable hill-top forest in rural Somerset. As their history emerges through the three books it seems they were originally travellers from the mysterious Elysse who retreated to the forest as the Gorji, or humans, became increasingly numerous. Ages ago there was a quarrel among the first hill-dwellers, and they divided: the winged tribe—the Ickri—going north in search of greater safety, and the rest staying behind. When the water tribes of the Naiad and the Wisp later sought refuge in the forest, the ones who had stayed behind made a further retreat into the caves, coming to call themselves Troggles and Tinklers, and occupying themselves with mining and smithing. The Naiad then started farming the Great Clearing, while the Wisp continued to venture out at night to fish. When the Ickri came back—generations later—they were intent on returning to the homeland Elysse but, frustrated in that quest, they joined the community as hunters. They also established themselves as leaders over the Naiad and the Wisp, though the cave-dwellers stayed aloof.

It is obvious that changes have occurred over time; memories of Elysse have faded, and whatever magical skills they may once have possessed have become merely old tales, hardly to be believed. The Touchstone, held by the leader of the Ickri, is regarded as a mere symbol, but it is revealed to have power in the right hands, and joined with another artefact, the Orbis, could open the path to Elysse. However, at the time when The Various opens the Orbis has been missing for a long time and is hardly even thought of any more. It is rediscovered in the third book, partly through the agency of a magical creature, the winged horse Pegs, whose birth into the Naiad herd spells the beginning of change for the Various.

The human children who encounter the Various wonder if they are fairies but consider it is too confusing a thought, as they are so unlike story-book fairies, even though some of them are winged. They are just like people, in fact, despite being only “knee-height”. Strange, fascinating, sometimes dangerous, but complex and serious, and completely real. The old country dialect in which the Various speak is very distinctive, and helps to emphasize their separation from the modern world.

The three novels of the trilogy are: The Various, Celandine and Winter Wood.

The Various by Steve Augarde Robin: The Various is the first novel of the Touchstone Trilogy. It opens with a little teaser about the girl Midge meeting the Queen of the Various in the forest, for fear perhaps that you might not persist through the opening chapters otherwise. At least you have something to look forward to while the human business is going on. It starts with the familiar scenario of the city girl not wanting to go to stay with her relative in the country, then finding she quite likes it when she gets there, but it really takes off when she meets the injured tiny winged horse Pegs. The descriptions of how she rescues and looks after Pegs are very detailed and convincing—it is no easy matter and takes a lot of thought.

Meanwhile there is concern in the forest about his non-return. A big meeting of all the tribes is called, where it is revealed that Pegs was sent to investigate a distant wood, as the forest is becoming depleted and starvation looms. The characters—the eager youngster Little-Marten, the dignified general Maglin, the loopy queen Ba-betts and the arrogant archer captain Scurl, for example—are very well depicted and strongly individual. It is decided to send a rescue party of five, one from each tribe, and the adventure of this ill-assorted group out in the Gorji world is one of the best parts of the book.

Pegs’s reasons for introducing Midge to the Various seem weak, but in fact he has a deeper knowledge of the role she is destined to play than he lets on—that will be revealed in the final book, Winter Wood. In the short term it exposes her to danger as Scurl decides independently that it is too dangerous to let her live knowing their secret. His first attack, as Little-Marten leads her back to the entrance to the forest, is frustrated by the mysterious Maven-of-the-Green.

Little-Marten is so terrified by this attack and Scurl’s subsequent threats that he takes refuge with the cave-dwellers. He discovers they have a more interesting life in the caves than any of the Ickri imagine; as he is already half in love with the beautiful Tinkler maiden Henty, this has a profound effect on him. Midge is also deeply shocked, and determines to forget all about the Various, but Scurl later takes his archers to attack the farm, a thrilling episode with unexpected consequences.

The second book of the trilogy is Celandine.

Celandine by Steve Augarde Robin: Celandine is the second novel of the Touchstone Trilogy. It follows The Various, but is actually set before and during the First World War, some 90 years earlier. Like the first novel, it opens with an intriguing episode that does not occur until a good way into the main book.

Celandine, who lives at the farm where Midge later stays, first sees one of the Various at a picnic when she is ten—Fin, a witless young Naiad, who lets his desire for cake overcome his fear of the outside world. She also catches a glimpse of an anxious bearded little man—Fin’s father, as she rightly deduces. She sees none of them again until a few years later when distressed by the death of her horse, she runs off onto the hillside. There she meets Fin again and he, seemingly unaware that she is one of the dreaded Gorji, leads her through a wickerwork tunnel into the heart of the forest, to the consternation of his tribe. Celandine is impressed with the little people: “They were breathtaking. As ordinary as sparrows, yet unimaginably strange”. She realizes she has stumbled into the hidden world so often whispered about, “though it seemed more a world of hardship than of miracles.”

When she returns again and again, the Various try studiously ignoring her, until one of the Tinklers wonders about the book she is reading. She reads to them at first, and finally teaches them to read for themselves, and later to sing also. But only the cave-dwellers benefit, while the Naiad and the Wisp continue to pretend she is not there. After a while, the Tinklers and Troggles come to regard Celandine as a true friend.

And what of the Ickri? The winged hunters who dominate the Various in the first book are in this volume travelling down from the chilly north in search of the Orbis. Their wise king Avlon has a dream: “We shall no longer content ourselves with hiding in the forests like mice… We are heir to powers that shall carry us across the span of ages and return us to the great kingdom of Elysse where we belong. … Then we shall live as our fathers lived, free to journey the paths of the heavens, true travellers once again.” His daughter Una uses the Touchstone to guide them on the long journey to the forest on the hill, but when they reach their goal the Orbis is nowhere to be found.

The story continues many years later in Winter Wood.

Winter Wood by Steve AugardeRobin: Winter Wood, the final novel of the Touchstone Trilogy, is set a few months after The Various. It brings together the stories in the first two books, as the subtle connection between Midge and Celandine, her great-great-aunt, comes into sharper focus.

After the terrible experience of the attack on the farm, Midge and her cousins just want to forget the Various, but Pegs hasn’t finished with Midge yet. The Various are having a hard winter as the forest can no longer sustain them, and after the events of the previous year they also feel vulnerable to the Gorji. It has become imperative that they leave. Pegs and Maven-of-the-Green seem to have an unspoken understanding that it is time for the Touchstone and the Orbis to be brought together at last. Pegs asks Midge to discover the whereabouts of the Orbis, while Maven-of-the-Green persuades the sternly practical Maglin, who now rules the Ickri, to explore the powers of the Stone.

Midge undertakes some detective work to uncover the life-story of her great-great-aunt, but when the Orbis turns up it is apparently by accident—though Pegs knows better: it is all destiny and everything is connected. Pegs is quite mystical at times. This book does not give any final answer as to where the Various came from, or explain anything about Elysse, but sometimes mystery trumps revelation.

Don’t you hate that frequent ending of magical books—the magic is over and everything is back to ‘normal’? Although there is a sad coda where the children look round the desolate forest after the Various have gone, unknown to them two have stayed behind, so it is not quite deserted, and is secret once again.