Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dragon Dust

NOTE: For those of you not following my NaNoWriMo progress over at the Targhee Writers Blog, here's a bit more from "Yershi the Mild." I've shifted gears a bit from the last installment here. Enjoy.

“Tomas,” the Lady said. “Tomas.”

She looked at me, guiltily. “A name. I love names. Tomas. Tomas.”

The Lady looked uneasy when Rell rose from the mat and joined us at the table. “I remember,” Rell said. “You’re Shadow. Though your real name is James. I like James better. Shadows are all dark and all they do is follow you except when you go into dark scary places then they wait outside and won’t ever go in with you.”

“But they will walk with you in the moonlight,” I said to Rell, teasing. The Lady looked slightly more at ease.

“But then they’re always hiding in the trees and they jump out at you and scare you. I don’t like that,” Rell said.

I laughed. “Squirrels should not jump at shadows,” I said. “Squirrels should be asleep in their trees when the moon is out.”

“Rell isn’t my real name,” she said. “I have a name like James. Do you know how I got my name?”

The Lady’s face paled.

I thought instantly of Jans – his old superstition that one should never tell another his name unless they were close friends. “Witches,” he said, “can use your name to cast spells, to harm you from great distances. They will employ many tricks to get you to reveal your name. Have a nickname, Shadow, have a nickname. That is important. With a nickname, the witch is less likely to succeed.”

Agatha. The name too witchy, she’d said.

“How did you get your nickname?” I asked.

“My mother. She said when I was a baby I tried to climb the trees to play with the squirrels. Every morning, I went outside to watch them, and she said I cried when I couldn’t climb the trees. She called me squirrel, but I couldn’t say all that. I said rell. So she called me Rell. My real name,” she whispered, “is Marta.”

I smiled at Rell and tried to look less like a warlock than I have ever tried to assuage the ashen countenance of the Lady.

“Jans called me Shadow because at the mine, when I first got there, I followed him everywhere. He reminded me of my father. Everywhere Jans went, there I was, like a Shadow. And I followed him into the mines. Into the dark scary places where ordinary shadows won’t go,” I said.

Rell smiled. “You’re a brave shadow,” she said.

“And you,” I said, truly can climb like a squirrel. And play the harp like I have never heard. Where did you learn that? From the squirrels?”

“No,” Rell laughed. “I just know how to play. The Lady sings, and I play the notes. It’s easy.”

“She has a gift from God,” the Lady said. She appeared much more composed, relieved that the conversation had shifted from names to music.

Rell picked up the harp and stroked the strings. The Lady began to sing a familiar tune about a creek filled with spring water, flowing over rocks and tree roots, splashing the fish and carrying leaves filled with fairies to the ocean. Rell played and the music tumbled from the cave like falling water.

That is how Yershi found us.

Hollow of eyes, thinner, still a bit weak from the broken fever, Yershi the Mild awoke in our shelter at the river, restless, legs twitching. Still a bit wobbly at first, Yershi found a stick to help him walk. He hobbled to the river for a drink and a splash of water on his face. He found a bit to eat then sat in the shelter a while, feeling his strength slowly return.

Restless still, Yershi walked. Strong enough to leave his stick behind, he walked. He followed my footprints up and down the river bank but saw they were not fresh. The freshest ones led up into the ravine, and he followed. He stopped to rest frequently, panting, wishing he’d brought a bit of water to sip. But as he walked strength poured back into his limbs and he felt ready to walk to Venus.

In the ravine below, he heard Rell play, he heard the Lady sing. And as the final vibrations from the harp faded into the wind, he called “Who is it who sings so beautifully and plays so well, among the rocks in this wild place?”

Rell set the harp gently on the table and raced to the cave entrance.

“Wait, Rell, wait!” the Lady called. Rell, in her rush, did not heed.

“Oh dear,” the Lady said. “Would this be –“

“It is Yershi,” I said. “I know his voice well.”

“Yershi the Mild,” she said.

“Again, the names?”

“I know I have not fooled you,” the Lady said. “But perhaps, for Rell, you can remain in feigned innocence?”

“Innocence of what?”

“We shall soon see, Shadow.”

From the outside, we could hear Rell chattering, and Yershi responding. “Yes, yes, child,” he said. “Surely, I have not smelt lilac as strongly as this in an age.”

They clambered up the rocks. Yershi, though more hale now the fever was gone, was still weak, and Rell went down several times to encourage him in his climb. Finally they entered the cave through the carpet of morning-glory, Rell red-faced and wondering at the chance of two guests on the same day, Yershi puffing, pop-eyed, knees shaking at the sudden burst of work.

His breath caught when he saw the Lady. “Agatha,” he said. “Yet something else I have not seen as strongly as this in an age. You still retain your comeliness.”

Rell looked puzzled, but remained silent as the Lady spoke.

“It has been too long, Yershi the Mild. Too long since the last fare thee well,” she said. She pulled at a strand of her long auburn hair. “But then eight years is not that long, in the eyes of God. But an eternity in the eyes of a child.”

“God watches long,” Yershi said, as if giving a countersign. “But the eyes of a child young eight years past were not yet opened.”

“You talk funny. Just like Shadow,” Rell said to Yershi.

Yershi smiled, glanced at me, unsurprised to find me inside a green grotto with a lady he seemed to know and a young fairy harp player. “I do indeed,” he said. He got down on one knee, lifted up Rell’s chin. “You must be the young harpist,” he said, looking Rell in the eyes. “That is not a young girl’s voice, but that of a siren, that drew me here.”

“All those big words,” Rell said as she pirouetted on her toes. “I know what a siren is. A scary, ugly lady who sings beautifully but eats the people she traps with her song. Yuck. The Lady isn’t ugly. Or scary.”

“Agreed, she is neither,” Yershi said. “Agatha –“

“Perhaps we should go for a walk, Yershi the Mild,” the Lady said. “We can leave Shadow and Rell here. We have much to say to each other that will be boring to young ears.”

Rell rolled her eyes.

“She must be in love with you, Yershi,” she said. Yershi’s eyebrows rose. “She always says it’s boring talk when she wants to talk to a man she likes. I don’t think it’s boring. You can stay. I want to hear. Sometimes the men say funny things about the Lady’s thighs.”

The Lady put her hand to her mouth, stifling a laugh.

Yershi blushed. “A walk,” he said. “A walk. A short one. I am still ill. But perhaps a bit of water before we go.”

“Or a sip of wine,” the Lady said. “Follow me.” She led Yershi toward the other end of the cave, toward another dimpling of greenish light.

“So,” Rell said after they left. “What should we do?”

I looked at the table, my hands, the floor. All my life I had dealt with adults. Even when there were other children at the mine, I did not associate with them, especially the younger ones. I never knew childhood. I did not know what to do.

“I could show you a trick,” I said.

I took a small bag off my belt – a bag of oddments and herbs and stones I always carried for when Yershi wished to test a potential ingredient for his elixir. From it I pulled a bit of brimstone and a few vials. Rell watched as I ground the brimstone in a small mortar and pestle, then piled a tiny pyramid of the yellow dust on an earthenware plate. To the brimstone I added a pinch of bitter salt and another pinch of powdery metal.

“Here be dragon dust,” I said with a flourish of my hands.

Rell watched, silently.

“Dragon dust is the fiery breath of the dragon distilled,” I said. “When the dragon wishes to spout his flame, he breathes out first a pinch of this dust and grinds it in his molars. Like so!” I took a flat rock in my hand and smashed it onto the plate. The dust burst into a quick, snapping flame that sent the odor of brimstone in the air to battle with the lilac.

Rell shrieked and clapped her hands. “Again! Again!”

“But no, milady,” I said dramatically. “Dragon dust is difficult to obtain and has many uses. I cannot use any more here.”

Rell’s eyes were wide and shining. Her nose wrinkled. “It smells like fart,” she said.

I laughed. “No one ever met a fair-smelling dragon.”

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