CHAPTER 7: AN UNWELCOME VISITOR

The year turns. The cold chill and dark nights of Winter had given way to an early Spring, and the Spring had found welcome and thus taken delight in staying. Doors and casements were cast wide, that the old and stale of Winter might flee from walls that had become cloying and close. And the huddling of many ‘round bright fires with mulled ale and fine roasts close by had given way to ones and twos who walked to the greener places, mayhap with hamper and cold, clear water. Though Flozzie was ever to be found near an aleskin… and now it might be stream chilled and contain one of Sonea’s newest brewings, YearWake Light.

And the Hall was no different. But then, that was but a part of its nature.

The doors stood open and wide, and the casements also… and each time the TaleSpinner did come there, then the many would gather to hear her speak. And where in Winter she had stood in the Hall surrounded by the dark outside, and seemed lit by some flickering camp fire, now she stood and the evening light sat about her in a pool… and as night fell, the pool turned silver as though a moon full grown did light it, whatsoever the moon’s turning beyond. And why a moon? Why indeed…

And thus they came. The young, the old… mayhap a not-quite-youngling or two sat further back in some more shadowed corner, and those each not alone… but all smiled a little and let them be. And TaleSpinner smiled most of all…

" A tale... a tale.... a tale...."

And the many spoke, and their calling was not wanting of an answer.

"Did ye ever hear tell of Thunder and Lightning? Of the Fool and the Fair?"

Sonea Finder, old and younger
Finds her path again
Birth-price dear, paid by another
Sorrow knows her name

As the sun sought the horizon after a long day riding the sky, the old Helian had ended its entertainment with a delightful nonsense tale about a dwarf, two gnomes and a chicken that it had heard from a lovely little dryad named Fiko. When it was done, Soni trekked down the tunnel to her sleeping place, smiling the entire way. The Helian busied itself for a time and then made ready to settle down for the night.

Suddenly the drake grew still. And then it raised its head and cocked it to one side, as if raising an ear to the sky might help it to better hear a faint sound that was just on the edge of awareness. After a long moment, it puffed out a warm steamy breath, as close to a sigh as a drake might come. In time, a shadow darkened the mouth of the lair.

Sonea had by this time fallen quite asleep and lay dreaming in her nest. Her slumber was disturbed by a whisper, “Sonea…? But before she could wake fully, it was gone, as if it had never been. Soni lay there staring at the pattern of rock forming the wall to her chamber, trying to recall what had wakened her. As the fog of sleep cleared, she heard the Helian’s rumbling voice. It rose and fell and then grew silent as another rumble, higher in pitch, began. A second drake? The Helian had a visitor.

Sonea grew curious. She slipped out of her nest and crept quietly towards the main cavern of the lair. Reaching the opening she cautiously peeked her head around. There was the old Helian speaking with a seeming younger drake. Sonea looked upon the younger, whose snout curled into a sneer, and whose eyes glittered darkly. She could almost feel the cruelty emanating from it. The young one stood proudly, head cocked, as it looked down its nose at the elder.

When the younger one spoke, its words and tone were a harsh admonishment. Sonea cringed as she withdrew a pace, and slid down to a sitting position, and leaned back against the stone wall of the tunnel. She pulled her knees up to her chest as if they might protect her from the vile creature.

Something about the younger drake seemed familiar. Perhaps the voice.. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the tunnel wall. And for a moment she could hear that voice as it twined with another’s, chanting an incantation whilst she lay huddled in a child’s bed. But then the memory was gone and all she could hear was the sneering contempt of the visitor. And since she could still hear, quiet as could be, Sonea sat and listened.

The arrogant young drake began to berate the old one for interfering in one of its experiments. It ranted on about how this was not a good thing as it jeopardized years of preparation and effort, and that already one of the experiment’s subjects had been lost through a most unfortunate accident.

The old one rumbled its response, pointing out that the younger must surely know of its Binding. And then the Helian grew formal and it invoked the younger’s name, “Serilian, do ye command me to cease Sonea's healing?? The younger thought for a moment and then its sneer turned downright wicked. It haughtily informed the Helian that it would not so command it, as the experiment had given all that it would. All that remained now was for the old one to pay the price of its interference. Which, the younger one chuckled evily, would be far more of amusement in any wise.

And then the younger snorted in disdain at the elder, a wisp of sulfurous smoke escaping its snout. And it turned and left. Sonea sat frozen for a time, wondering what manner of payment might be exacted from the Helian. Then willing the quiver in her knees to cease long enough for them to carry her, she finally crept back to her nest. After some time staring at the ceiling, Soni fell into a troubled sleep filled with dreams of the old one leaving her.

The Helian looked fondly towards Soni’s tunnel, and it listened as she made her retreat to her sleeping place. After a time, its face melted into resigned sadness knowing that whatever payment the other had in mind surely boded no good for Sonea. And it followed after her. When morning came and Sonea awoke to greet the day, she had no memory of the night.

As day passed into night, and to each more days, Sonea continued to deposit her gatherings of ore in the entrance to the lair. And of a time the pile of ore would disappear. It would be there when she took to her nest to sleep, but the next morning the area where it had been was swept clean, and not a trace of ore would she see. Now Sonea even in her close to animal state, did seek to know why, and how such a thing could be. For it was faintly disturbing to her now that she could gather, to find the fruit of her labor go missing.

After much ore had fallen to her pick, and in time been eaten by the night, Sonea had a thought. She thought that the ore didn’t disappear every night.. just sometimes. So to find the manner of its disappearance she decided to act. Now every night, before Sonea crawled into her nest she donned her clothes and boots and lay in them. And she did not let sleep take her into its peaceful arms. Instead she lay awake staring at the domed ceiling of her nesting place, into the wee hours of the morning, until finally she would fall into an exhausted slumber.

Then one night as she lay staring, she heard a shuffling sound coming from the main cavern of the lair. As if this were a signal, she quietly rolled out of her nest, and sneaky crept to the opening where her chamber led into the main cavern. And she saw the Khutit that had been mining ore for so many days.

Sonea quietly watched as the Khutit gathered up the ore and cleaned the area where it had been stored. And then the Khutit walked from the cave. So, Sonea followed it, all tricksy-sly. Being mind-mazed, she wondered not why this creature was in the Helian’s cave, nor why it looked so like the Helian who cared for her.

The Khutit lead her on a merry chase down a moonlit mountain trail, until at last they came to a dwarf place. Yes, it was the very place of the Grimbattle clan, where the Helian had been once before and left with a mining pick. And in truth it had come a second time ere this day, and had negotiated with Bori, a payment for the dwarf to ‘not see’ Sonea if she came spying. So the Khutit met Bori outside of his smithy and it made a great show of selling the ore to the dwarf, knowing all along that Sonea had followed. And Sonea, hiding in the bushes, saw what the two did.

Then Bori did take the ore and march over to his smelter. And as the Khutit-Helian watched from the side, Bori stoked up the flame underneath the smelter. And as he worked, Bori did grumble to himself about how it never ceased to amaze him that one so mighty as the drake could be so unfortunate as to be bound to do the will of others.

As Bori mumbled and cursed the oath that bound the Helian, Sonea listened. And she felt a heaviness descend upon her heart. For in her mind-mazed condition, she imagined the Helian to be chained to some awful thing by invisible bindings.

Finally, the temperature was just so, and Bori ceased to grumble. He dumped the ore into the smelting pot. And then he stepped back to wait. After a time a red glow began to emanate from the mouth of the pot, and then finally the glow turned white. For the ore had been heated to the melting point.

Now whilst he waited for the ore to smelt, Bori had arranged a tray of molds that he might form the smelted ore into bars. In the final step of the process Bori donned thick gloves made of leather and stuffed with cotton to protect his hands and arms from the heat. And he grabbed the smelting pot by its handle, swung it over to the molds and poured them full of liquid ore.

From her spot in the bushes, Sonea saw it all, but in her madness she saw not the complexity of it. Sonea simply saw Bori feed the ore to the fire until it became another thing.. metal bars! After a time when the fire had gone cold, and Bori had left the bars that they might cool in the night air whilst he slept, the Khutit-Helian stirred from its spot and began the long hike back up the mountain. Sonea stumbled along behind it, for her mind was not on walking carefully in the darkness. Nay, she was thinking about what she had seen.

In the next days, Sonea gathered ore with her pick that would of a time sing, and in singing lead her to strike where ore might be found. And each night she would gather the ore and return with it to the Helian’s lair. But now instead of placing the ore at the lair’s entrance, Sonea made a short detour ere she arrived. Ye see, Sonea began to hide the ore in a hollow stump that was the last testament of a giant tree that had been struck down by lightning some years ago.

Then one evening as the sun neared the horizon, and Sonea began her trek to the lair, the weather, that had loomed ominous and threatening all day, suddenly took a turn for the worse. The skies grew black and the wind began to howl a wicked song as it forced its way through the trees. Sonea struggled against its passage as she brought her day’s gathering to the hollow stump. Just as she was dropping the ore into the hollow, lightning cracked! And a tree not 30 lengths away from Sonea was split from crown to roots by jagged fire.

As Sonea stood wide-eyed, watching silently, the two flaming halves of the sundered tree slowly began to fall away from each other, gathering speed as they fell, until they landed with a crashing bounce on the forest’s floor. And falling more slowly, leaving smoke trails in their wake, came burning bits and pieces of the surrounding trees’ branches, some landing on the broken corpse of the forest giant, but others coming to rest on the ground.

One such flaming branch landed near Sonea. And she looked long at it whilst it burned.. and she pondered. Then she moved. She scrambled to gather several of the burning branches and she threw them into the hollow stump, on top of her stash of ore. She fed the fire with more burning branches and then started adding unburned ones, until the flame grew so fierce that it shot up out of the stump into the night sky, like a giant torch.

The wind fanned the flame into a crazy dance out of the top of the stump, making the path of the fire unpredictable. And the stump grew so hot that Sonea could no longer get close enough to add her branches. She tried but the flames licked her fingers and where they touched.. she hurt. She retreated from the flame, and sat sucking on her scorched fingers. And Sonea watched the dancing flame waiting for it to turn her ore into metal.

Now here is a thing. The wind had also fanned the flames of the sundered tree and the underbrush had caught fire. And the fire was teased by the storm’s wind ‘til it began to spread. So there Sonea sat whilst the forest began to burn around her, and she knew naught of the encroaching death at her back.

Meanwhile, the Helian had become concerned. For Sonea was quite predictable in her daily routine. When she had begun secreting the ore, the drake had noticed, and had watched, and had learned of the hollow stump hiding place. And so this detour had become a routine part of each day. But on this day that had now turned to night, and a storm brewing no less, there was no Sonea.

But there was lightning, and a fierce wind had invaded the mountain’s slope. And as the Helian watched the path up which Sonea should have come a time ago, it saw in the distance the jagged fire of lightning. And then the Helian heard the crackling bang that comes when lightning strikes. And soon after it saw the red glow of fire, and it knew that some ill had befallen Sonea.

The Helian launched from its perch at the lair’s entrance and greeted the wind with a roar as it struggled to gain purchase in air that had grown unsteady in the pre-storm blow. As soon as it gained a measure of stability, the Helian turned to glide down the mountain path towards the hollow stump, staying as low to the ground as it could, that it might spot Sonea more quickly.

When the Helian neared the area where the stump should have been, it met a growing inferno. As it o’erflew the fire, the drake saw her. Sonea was crouched in front of the stump, hypnotized by the flames.

Now the Helian, who was from the deep mountains of the East, knew a hundred different names for ice and twice as many for snow. And it knew these things better far than those of the fire places. But fire is part of the essential nature of any drake, as is made clear to them during the Rites of Adult and Ancient Passage. And the Helian had no need to feel peril or fear from the forest fire. In fact it could, if it had willed, danced in the very flames as though they were not present.

But Sonea was not made so, and to take her from the flame would have meant flying her closer to it. And the beating of wings as the drake came by, if it flew, would have fanned the near flames and burned her. So.. the Helian could not pull Sonea from the death grip that the fire had on her.

The Helian hovered above, heat warming its scales, and it sought a way to winnow through the flames on the ground. But the fire was thorough and there were no breaks in the circle of death. If the drake had taken foot to get to her, it would take too long to clear a path and the flames would yet have taken her.

The Helian could do naught to save this one. And a great sadness descended upon it as it watched what was surely to be a horribly painful death for Sonea. And then the Helian did the only thing it could think of .. it began humming in its rumbly way, a song of sleep. If it could not save her, the Helian was determined to ease Soni’s journey from the world, such that she would not feel the fire as it consumed her.

Now, here is the part where a miracle occurred.

As the Helian hovered and hummed, and Sonea slumped to the ground, and the fire burned hot and hotter.. the storm, which had threatened and blustered and set the very forest afire with its spark and wind.. finally, with a huge crash of thunder, broke. The rains burst forth from the heavens and attacked the fire as if it had a score to settle! And the Helian, whose eyes had been near closed to protect them from the heat, blinked. The rain washed the cinders and smoke from the tender folds of its eyelids, and it cooled the heat from its scales.

The Helian watched for a moment as the rain dampened the flames around Sonea. But no long waiting did it bear. As soon as it saw the fire diminish, the Helian fell from the sky. And as it neared the hollow stump, the drake extended its front claws. And as one might expect a hawk to, as it stoops and strafes the ground to catch its prey, and then soars off into the air again, the Helian did snatch the sleeping Sonea from the very jaws of the fire and bore her into the air, cradled as gently as it could in claws that were never meant to carry a burden so.

The Helian paused for a moment to watch as the rains continued to snuff the life from the fire. And then it turned and began the flight back up the mountain to its lair, carefully carrying its precious cargo. To this day, Sonea regrets that she missed one of the most awe-inspiring moments of her life that night. Ye see, she was flying.. and she slept right through it!

That long night was spent in healing and resting. The Helian deposited Sonea in her nest and then hummed a healing tune till the hue of her skin was healthy and glowed with life once more. And then it let her sleep the remainder of the night that she might recover from the fiery ordeal.

Sonea woke. Or mayhap she thought she woke... for what little was there of her child-mind was not yet molded and oft she dreamed, though rarely remembered. And she looked about the lair, and the lair was empty. Of the chain-bound drake (for that is how she thought of it now) that slept near, there was no sign.

Then Sonea rose, for it seemed that she must. No calling came, but it seemed the lair was close and binding, though large it was in sooth. And she walked as she slept, and that would have been ill for her were any foe near, for she bore no armor, nor weapon and indeed had no knowing of either’s use. And her feet set soft and silent on the ground as she took herself to the lair’s entrance.

Outside was a night of a million stars. The storm had blown through, leaving the air crisp and chill. Her flesh raised each hair that it might gather some warmth, but Sonea cared not. The moon was full, the sky was clear of each and any cloud, and every star stood forth as a frozen drop of white fire cast upon the air. No sooner had she seen one than another clamored and burned her eye, that it might take her attention.

Lost in their beauty, enwrapt, she sat and then lay back on a large flat rock, that she might see them all. And a phantom thought spun through her mind that she would lay forever, and the night would never end. For it was her task to count each star, and give them names and know their being.

And it was a night of a million stars...

Then of a sudden, all the sky was red and all the stars danced red in the afterglow that burned her eyes. And in the middle of that glow, hung upon the winds as though the sky itself was but a frame for its being, was the old Helian. But not old did it seem to her, nor was it fettered by the invisible chains she had come to think it enwrapped in. For its wings beat strong and each scale caught of the fire it cast from its jaws and all there was of the sky was a dragon that flew.

And it spun on wings that knew no age and the sky was all the love it had, and the dance it flew was all the speaking it could ever make of wind and sky and flame and the joy of the primal flows. And save the last dance it would make, when it fell to death and birth in the waiting rock blood, there was no dance it had in it of greater joy. Nor one that more echoed the drake it could have been had it only not been bound by Oath.

And Sonea watched this dance in wonder. And Sonea looked until her heart ached from the beauty of the drake’s unfettered joy. And Sonea knew that never and never would she forget this thing she saw. And the Sonea who was yet lost in her own being knew that if one bound as she knew the Helian was bound might gather but a moment of freedom such as this, then Sonea also might one day wake and be free. And knowing, Sonea-lost was calmed, and seen by none, she smiled.

At last the sky dance was done. And the drake, as it soared one last time, hung for a moment, wings spread wide across the full moon. And it was enough, and it was done, and Sonea curled on her side and slept. But when she woke, she was in her sleeping place, and the night was but a shadow of a voice, heard lost in a distant room.

As TaleSpinner’s voice spoke the last words, she trailed to silence. And she looked drawn and drained, and her eyes were lost among the timbers of the floor. And none there dared speak, for the sorrow was so strong about her that the very air bore its taste.

And then TaleSpinner looked up. And any who knew her would speak of her wicked grin, of the manner she had of poking fun at others, and that she was true delight to know. But the dragon who stood there was not that drake, but some other. One who had eyes of ice and was set strong as the very hardest adamantine. And she looked, but not at them. And she stood, but not to withstand them. And her wings slowly began to beat. And those watching knew there was a mighty wind coming from those wings, but it bowed them not and not a thing stirred in her passage.

TaleSpinner began to rise on each wing beat, and slowly she rose to the roof of the Hall. And as she rose, the moon pool beneath her began to glow and to brighten… bright and brighter! And it grew so bright that it was clear as day, though by now full night had fallen. As TaleSpinner neared the roof of the Hall, a bolt of brilliance seared from the moon pool, and TaleSpinner’s wings closed with a clap that shook the walls and the places where those watching sat, and for a moment their eyes were blinded, the bolt was so bright.

And when their eyes cleared, TaleSpinner was gone.

And when they looked where she had been, there was a huge and faintly glowing moon marked full across the inner roof of the Hall. And spread across it… wings.