Advice the Autumn Crone Gave Me On Climbing the Wall
By Annette Marie Hyder
(from the Night Fairytales series)
Continued from previous installment.
The first day of the new week, the second week of my travels with Erhaiel, proved to be one of surprises for me. We had only been traveling for a few hours; the sun was still shyly clinging to the eastern horizon. I noticed a bank of snow running alongside us like a low wall and fought the urge to jump on top of the low wall and travel the distance by way of its height. I am always one to want to be balancing on the tightrope of every wall-top-edge. I restrained myself and noticed that not far in the distance the low wall-like snow bank was busy producing what looked like steam. Steam streaming into the wind of the cold morning and lifting away in veils. When I mentioned the steam to the whiskra, he praised me for my keen eyes and told me that if I agreed, we should approach the steaming snowbank.
I pulled my cloak about me and made for the billowing steam with Erhaiel beside me. When we were right on top of the steam it became apparent that the steam was not coming from the snow bank but was issuing forth from beneath it, from the ground itself. Erhaiel waved a paw and said two words that I didn’t recognize and the snow right in front of me rearranged itself to reveal steps. The steps led down to the steam that was coming up. It really looked like one of those unexpected entrances to hell that you hear about, if in addition to the fumes and fogs of sulfur and brimstone there was also an unexpectedly beautiful entryway. The steps were well maintained, sparkled with many colors and looked wide and sure. I could see where they ended, twelve feet below, at what looked like the threshold of an entrance. The steam prevented me from seeing any more.
Erhaiel bowed to me, a sweeping gesture that involved his whiskers actually touching the curling tips of his shoes. Did I mention that he wore the most egregiously fanciful shoes that I kept thinking would slow him down but that seemed instead to give him added purchase on the snow? Yes. He did. And what’s more, they were silver at the heels and progressed as they embraced his feet to arch and toe to grey and then green finally ending in the most vibrant chartreuse at the very tips. The only thing missing from their ostentatiousness was bells. He bowed and then offered me his arm. “Shall we?” he said.
Well, I took his arm and down we went. And if you are wondering, as I was, why he seemed so proprietary and proud — you shall see.
For what seemed to be a distance of no more than twelve feet, the descent took most of the day. And as the day passed I did not feel hunger and I did not feel cold. I didn’t feel tired either as we walked, my hand on his arm, down the sweeping sparkling staircase. The landing seemed always just the same distance away as we promenaded on our way.
Finally, with a slight stumble on my part quickly righted by Erhaiel, I found myself at the bottom of the stairs and in front of a wonderful door. It was a small purple door set in a wall that I thought must be made of snow but that looked to be made of marble, alabaster marble veined through with silver, blue, and purple. Erhaiel took a large key, crystal and wonderfully ornate, from out of, what looked to me to be, thin air. He placed the large key flat against the very center of the small purple door and held it there until it melted into the door and became a crystal handle. He grasped the handle, turned it once to the right, once to the left and then once to the right again and then pushed. And the small purple door opened onto a merry sight indeed.
There was a long low hallway covered, its entire length along both sides and its low ceiling too, with mosaic designs depicting what must surely be a royal family of whiskras. The mosaics showed this noble family in sundry activities: a wedding, the births of children were depicted, celebrations in a tangled grove, whiskras flew improbably through the air, rode what looked like long-necked prickly steeds. And in each depiction the whiskras, each and every one, wore a silver crown. There was one whiskra whose crown looked to be bigger and made of silver and gold. The whiskras made darling subjects and their little eyes flashed with real gems and their crowns were surely inlaid with real silver and the larger crowned one was surely inlaid with real gold too.
In all the sparkling artistry of this hallway there was not one thread of steam to be seen. As soon as we had entered we had left the billowing clouds of steam behind.
I turned to Erhaiel with many questions knocking at the door of my mouth. Before I could ask one thing, he took my hands in his paws and said, “I know you have many questions. Let me just first assure you that the smoke you saw is only visible to those who have associated with a dragon.” I thought of the small dragon I had left behind at the wall, at the beginning of my journey, and felt oddly grateful to him. “This is because,” Erhaiel continued “the steam is the smoke from the nostrils of the sleeping dragon coiled around Undercastle here. He is our family guardian. But not only that, the heat generated from his body heats our home throughout. During the winters yes, but also in times of unexpected cold like the verm-induced snow and cold we have now, he consumes the gold we feed him in his sleep and turns it into warmth. We have lived here for centuries now. But we know when he rises to fly again, our halls will grow cold and we will have to find a new abode.”
“Come Girl, let us refresh ourselves and talk,” Erhaiel said. At the mention of refreshments, I was suddenly ravenous and exhausted at the same time. Erhaiel led me to a room that branched to the right and bade me sit on pillows that served as seating in front of a low table. He left and when he returned he was accompanied by another whiskra carrying a tray from which delicious smells drifted. Erhaiel carried a large samovar and all the accoutrements for tea. He placed these things on the table and his companion likewise set the tray which was loaded with small cakes and mini loaves of bread, figs and pears and strawberries spilled along edges of the tray, on the table.
“Girl,” Erhaiel said, dragging my attention away from the delicious things on the table, “this is my brother.” The whiskra who had accompanied Erhaiel bowed over shoes as equally preposterous as those of his brother and gave me a shy smile. “Brother, this is Girl.” Erhaiel beamed happily as he finished the introductions and his brother excused himself. “I’ll introduce you to everyone, Girl. But you and I must talk and those introductions can wait until we have had our chance to do so. But before talking, may I suggest?” His last word trailed off in a squeak as he saw that I had waited only for the invitation of his gesture towards the food to avail myself of it. He busied himself with the tea and produced a cup of perfection for which I would have paid good story.
We talked then. And then we talked some more.
“I was happy that as we followed the path that the Verm left it was taking us by my ancestral home.” Erhaiel said. “I was happy because it would allow me to offer you hospitality but als
o because I wanted to see if you would be able to see the dragon smoke, Girl.”
“Why is that, Erhaiel?” I wondered if it was some sort of test and if so what I was being tested for.
“Because I have had an idea about how we can save Gnar and that idea involves another idea that I had that you might have had association with a dragon. And if you did have association with a dragon and by some means had come into possession of a dragon scale–freely given–while in association with that dragon, if that were to be the case, and if you were willing to use it for such a purpose, that scale could be used to purchase Gnar’s freedom.” Erhaiel said.
At the mention of the dragon scale I almost choked on my tea.
“What made you think I’d had association with a dragon?” I asked, stalling for time to gather my wits.
“Oh there are certain markers for someone such as myself.” he assured me. “And now of course I don’t have to wonder because you were able to see the dragon smoke from Undercastle. If you were to have come into possession of a dragon scale freely given then you could make things very easy in obtaining Gnar’s freedom.”
All of the sudden I felt exhausted and I felt the strange sleepiness coming over me again. I wanted to do whatever I could to help Gnar. I wanted to save him. I pictured myself doing so in a heroically satisfying manner but if his freedom could be assured by something in my possession then I would give that first and keep my heroic butt-kicking in reserve in case the dragon scale–however it was supposed to gain his freedom–failed. I wanted to tell Erhaiel all of this before the sleepiness overtook me completely again and I did manage to pull the scale free and hold it out to him just as darkness covered my eyes.
So imagine my surprise as the darkness receded and I looked down at my empty hand and then at Erhaiel’s small paw now wrapped around the freely given dragon scale.
“Well done, Girl. Well done indeed.” Erhaiel said. “Now I can tell you why you kept falling asleep.”
“You mean you knew?” I asked.
“I suspected and now I know.” Erhaiel said. “The sleep was not inherently fatal or I would have told you what I suspected right away. But it is better that you gave the dragon scale up without knowing it would benefit you to do so. You gave it up, in fact, to help another and so have strengthened its inherent properties. But you have also, in giving it up, freed yourself of the sleeping enchantment the dragon who gave you this placed upon it and which was specifically spelled to you.”
That dragon! Nibbling on my hair and then slipping me a spell-soaked scale! Never trust a dragon, I had been told. Never trust a dragon, I had read. But faced with the leaf-story nibbling wakefulness thief I lost my head. To think, here I had been carrying his treachery into my dreams with me. Well, there would be a reckoning to come where that two-faced serpent was concerned. A reckoning for sure. In the meantime I would use his ill-intentioned “gift” to secure Gnar’s release.
To be continued.